I didn't fall in love with food until I stopped eating it. In high school, I nonchalantly snacked on pretzel nubs and tall glasses of chocolate Ovaltine after school, never glancing at the nutrition facts, stopping when I was full. My thoughts about my body began and ended in eradicating pimples and ironing my uniform skirt's accordion pleats into ruler-straight perfection.
But eating disorders aren't about food; they're about control. In retrospect, my quest for weightlessness has many road signs. A too-tight shirt, one. Offhand comments by well-meaning friends and family, another. Depression and anxiety exacerbated by going to college away from home, still another.
More than anything else, I think I wanted to return to an easier time, before puberty hoisted up soft places where I’d once been angles and planes, before my body was a complicated, sexual object. A time when what I ate was whatever my parents put on the table. I wanted someone to take care of me, because I didn’t feel equipped to do it myself.
And as an ED quickly set about to prove, I wasn’t.
I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment anorexia took over my brain, but memory is only one of thousands of things malnutrition stole from me. What I do remember is how quickly and how completely it became the only thing that mattered. I remember checking out library books like Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted and Aimee Lu’s Gaining, eating disorder recovery memoirs reading like user’s manuals.
I remember writing down everything that passed my lips, from mountains of celery sticks to single slices of Swiss cheese, recording their calorie counts diligently in a running Word document on my computer. My heart raced until I could write down my transgressions, a kind of culinary confession.
I can't tell you what classes I took junior year of college, what I dressed up as for Halloween, the names of my roommates’ boyfriends. I can recount in exquisite detail most of the meals I ate at home, where I fled most weekends that year. My parents made meals that felt like childhood, and for whatever twisted reason, my nutrient-deprived brain allowed those weekly “cheat” meals without the panic that accompanied every other. I was only “allowed” to eat with my loved ones, so ED set to work making sure I was almost always alone.
When in the throes of anorexia, I studied The Joy of Cooking more diligently than any of my textbooks. Reading about food wasn't as satisfying as eating it, but at least it was calorie-free. Walking into the dining hall set panic reverberating through my body, my hands shaking as I collected my safe food: a bowl of Romaine lettuce, cucumber slices and red and green pepper slivers doused in sour balsamic vinegar, and a glass of Diet Pepsi. I and ED sat alone at the same high top table every day and read the food section of the newspaper, blocking out the happy chatter around me as best I could.
For the first few weeks, friends tried to get me to eat with them. ED declined. After awhile, they stopped asking. Citing a new “healthy lifestyle,” I chose the gym over parties, weekly roommate dinners, watching TV. Weekends, I was holed up in my room, my full-length mirror turned toward the wall so I didn’t have to look myself in the eye. By the end of the semester, my friends and I were barely speaking. They’d lost me, just like I’d lost myself.
A semester in Italy coincided conveniently with my ED love affair, where we could be alone together in one of the food capitals of the world. The grocery store, bakeries, markets were an embarrassment of riches for my imagination: Jars of truffles in oil next to cans of sleek sardines, piles of produce so fresh I could smell the earth and pastries that gleamed with melted butter and diamond-sparkling sugar. I paced the aisles like a feral cat, salivating over the food I wouldn't let myself buy, while hunger and ED waged a panic-fueled war between my ears.
Frugality became my excuse to abstain from pizza by the kilo from the corner shop or fresh-made sandwiches of Parma ham and Buffalo mozzarella from the smiling butcher who gave pretty girls a discount.
We didn’t have a TV, so our kitchen became my cooking show. I watched carefully as one roommate concocted elaborate frittatas with fat, cheerful bell peppers and zucchini, filling the house with the scent of sautéed onions and garlic. Although I rarely tasted my roommates' dishes, I filed them away in the recesses of my disordered brain like the recipes I spent dining hall mealtimes memorizing.
An aspiring journalist, I had always been obsessed with research. Reading recipes calmed my always-circling brain almost as much as painstakingly cataloging every noodle I ate, every careful teaspoon of sauce. Day by agonizing day, ED hollowed me out, isolated me from my loved ones and my sense of self and convinced me it was more important than travel, than experience, than life, but precisely measuring every morsel made me feel safe. Indulging the demon that had stolen everything,
Not long after I returned to the states, I collapsed in a Dollar Tree (of all places) and legions of subsequent medical tests, appointments and scrutiny scared me back on the path to wellness. It was a long, hard journey. My most poignant memory from that time is a piece of pumpkin pie in the dining hall, months after I’d begun to recover. I can still taste it: The sugary, buttery crust that stuck to the plate, savory squash filling with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. I can see the gingerbread house someone had erected in the center of the room, sparkling with edible glitter. That piece of pie was the first time I really felt satisfied by a food. The first time it sat in my stomach and the sensation of weight there, in the middle of me, didn’t make me want to die.
There were relapses, of course, but the same crutch that had helped me survive anorexia helped me leave it: My obsession with studying food. Except this time, I made myself taste the dishes I dreamed about. I still pored over recipe books and chef biographies, but instead of spending hours worshipping ideas I'd never try, I channeled my anxious energy into compiling recipe lists, planning menus and scouring grocery shelves for ingredients.
Because eating alone was (and sometimes is) still too much accountability for me to handle, I made elaborate meals for my family and friends. Some days, I lay on my bed after a meal willing the fullness to go away. Others, ED made me walk circles around the house, shaking with the horror of having consumed something. But slowly, over agonizing weeks and months, eating my creations became less scary because I knew exactly what had gone into them.
Learning about food was my way of taking back my autonomy. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, Waiting by Debra Ginsberg and A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena de Blasi replaced those eating disorder memoirs and helped me fall back in love with food as a participant instead of observer. The rich language those writers used to describe meals made me hungry – really, truly hungry – not just for the nourishment in food, but the experience of eating it and finding the words to talk about it afterward.
Under their tutelage, I learned how to write about what I was eating, too. One weekend, I shadowed a food reviewer for an evening, to see how he approached and talked about his meals. Watching him analyze dishes for their components -- as well as their history and cultural context -- helped me understand that food is fuel, but it’s also a way of life, a way of connecting with each other. ED had stolen that from me, and it wasn’t until I began to come back that I realized what I had lost.
As my belly grew rounder, so did my knowledge of the field. Today, I write about food for a local website and newspaper, and occasionally freelance for other food-related websites. Together with my loved ones' support, my job keeps me accountable to my body.
I sometimes still find myself panicking over what to order, my stomach twisting into familiar knots at a smear of cream on the plate. I'd be lying if I said there weren't still times the curve of my hips in the mirror makes me recoil in disgust, or that I never caught myself sweating over too much salad dressing.
But part of recovering is learning self-love, and part of self-love is learning to accept myself as I am. I’m still working on that, and probably always will be. That’s part of being a person with a body. That’s part of being human. But ED doesn’t control me anymore. Every word I write is another nail in his coffin, and I’m proud to keep hammering away.
It wasn’t easy to share this story. Eating disorders thrive on silence, which is why I decided to break mine. If I can help one struggling person realize there’s a way out, it’ll be worth it. It’ll show the demons they don’t own me. They don’t own us.
So if I have a point, this is it: There’s hope. If you’re struggling, don’t let your ED eat your soul, too. You’re worth more than wasting away.