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For the last three years, I've had what I like to refer to as "the weirdest best job." I am the Head Chef of a sorority at a University of California campus. I prepare and serve two meals a day, five days a week, to anywhere from 50-150 young women. I get a paid summer vacation and complete creative control. Somehow, I managed to turn my cooking hobby into a livelihood, and I am now lucky enough to make a living pursuing my one of my greatest passions: food.
I've also been in recovery from anorexia nervosa for ten years and I've been fighting off a relapse for the last year and a half. If those two things seem bizarrely at odds, that's because they are.
But are they really? It's actually been well-documented that preoccupation or fascination with food and cooking is part and parcel of having an eating disorder. Three of the volunteers of the famed Minnesota Starvation Experiment which was designed to study the effects of famine, but is often noted for its significance with regard to anorexia — went on to become chefs when the experiment was through. One notorious anorexic behavior is cooking elaborately for others; not partaking themselves, but instead deriving vicarious pleasure in others' enjoyment.
It kind of makes no sense. But if you've ever known someone with anorexia, you know that almost everything about it defies logic. I won't attempt to explain here the vastly complex world of someone who is literally addicted to starving (yes, it's often looked at and treated as an addiction). There are plenty of online resources if you want to learn more, and I recommend that you do because I'm often surprised at how misunderstood the disease is. I'm not only anorexic and a chef, but I'm also a former teenage girl, an alumni of a liberal arts college (hello juice cleanses and sprouted everything), and an ex-gymnast and lifelong dancer (which is basically body image hell). For someone like me, food is a never-ending source of ambivalence.
Like most anorexics, my eating disorder doesn't actually have anything to do with a desire to be thin. I've always been on the smaller side, and to be honest I don't like how I look when I'm at a really low weight. But that doesn't stop me from deliberately trying to get to that weight and feeling elated when I do. The most basic explanation of anorexia is that it's about control, and the self-denial and weight loss are just the chosen vehicle. I've probably been asked a hundred million times how I can be a chef and stay so tiny. That question pretty much epitomizes the maze of contradictions that I face every day, and the real answer is so complicated it's almost comical. I usually just laugh, shrug, and change the subject.
I sincerely do love food — I wouldn't be in my line of work if I didn't — but obviously it's more complex than that. When I'm struggling with my weight, feeling hungry doesn't equal a desire to eat. Instead, hunger elicits a sort of reluctant, dread-like response in me because eating feels like a chore. I often long for that basic ability to eat when I'm hungry or to truly enjoy a meal, but those impulses just aren't there.
You might think that being a chef and working with food all day long would be an excellent environment for an anorexic in recovery, but in reality the opposite is true. I'm sometimes so tired of smelling, tasting, and thinking about food by the end of the day that eating feels like work — surely many home cooks have experienced this phenomenon. Additionally, the danger of chronic anorexia is that it quickly becomes physiological as well as psychological; sometimes I start eating but the feeling of food in my stomach makes me physically sick, and things like yogurt and soymilk or water are the only thing I can actually keep down. The less you eat, the less you want to eat. Stomachs shrink and metabolisms adjust. For these reasons and many others, anorexia (like most addictions) is often for life. It is no joke. It's absolutely miserable.
Seeking treatment as an adult has been incredibly frustrating, a road paved with one contradiction after another. When I was 17 and just entering inpatient for the first time, I had absolutely no autonomy. Everything I did was carefully curated by a team of doctors, psychiatrists, and nutritionists within the massive Kaiser Permanente healthcare system. As a minor with zero control over my treatment, I had no choice but to do as I was told. Now, as an adult, I have total control and it's actually way harder this way. Don't feel like going to group therapy today? I don't go. Can't afford a visit to the nutritionist? I opt out. If I'm not so sick as to be involuntarily hospitalized, I can literally take or leave anything offered to me. And as someone who's busy, relatively broke, and can pretty much already recite verbatim what any doctor would tell me, that means mostly going untreated.
Recently I've found acupuncture and Chinese herbs to be far more helpful (and cheaper) than Western medicine has ever been, and I've been using them regularly to help keep myself afloat. But even therein lies a sticky sort of trap for me. One tenet of Chinese medicine dictates dietary guidelines for particular conditions; I've been told to avoid wheat, dairy, fruit, raw veggies, and a number of other things. However, conventional Western wisdom says that a recovering anorexic should NEVER RESTRICT ANYTHING FROM THEIR DIET EVER because it's too slippery a slope. And despite my largely negative experience with the Western medical model while on this journey to recovery, I have to admit that it's a sound piece of advice.
My current battle with relapsing began when I decided to "be more healthy" by drinking more water and incorporating more salads into my diet. Within a few months, water and salad were almost the only things I was eating, and half a year later I had unwittingly lost almost 20 pounds — weight that I didn't need to lose, weight that I didn't set out to lose, weight that's painfully hard me to gain back on multiple levels. Turns out, I don't know how to diet without starving myself.
When I tell this to an acupuncturist, they sort of look at me blankly. Without the dietary guidelines, the treatment they offer just isn't as effective, so getting help is tricky. I have to be incredibly discerning, picking the parts I want from the modalities I've chosen, taking everything with a grain of salt, and generally going it alone.
How strange is it that I've ended up working in a sorority house, spending all my days in a stereotypical breeding ground for eating disorders? Go figure. People tend to look at me funnily when I tell them I work at a sorority — I'm not exactly the "sorority type" — and I never dreamed I would be involved in Greek life in any way. But honestly, I love working here more than I ever could have imagined. The sorority members are an impressive group of smart, driven, passionate young women who inspire me every day with the extent of their accomplishments. They consistently defy all the Legally Blonde stereotypes and are incredibly supportive not only of each other, but of me and the rest of their house staff. Plus. I feel like I'm making a difference by feeding the great minds of tomorrow.
Every spring, I also teach a cooking class to the graduating seniors that I always look forward to — first we sit and talk lecture/Q+A style about anything and everything food related before moving to the kitchen to prepare a meal of their choosing. My favorite part, however, is the talking. Mostly we brainstorm tactical strategies for their post-grad lives: tips for eating healthy on a budget, lunch ideas, kitchen necessities and non-necessities, what nutrition advice is and isn't bullshit in the mainstream media. I talk about my experience being on food stamps in college, trying my best to creatively eat well while hopelessly broke, which is how I got into cooking in the first place. But the conversation inevitably wanders and meanders; we talk about body image, moderation, the wonders of eating full-fat everything, and I absolutely live for this. I love talking about food, and I have a lot to say. Being able to serve as a resource and in some ways a role model for these women is incredibly fulfilling for me.
But this poses something of a quandary when I'm having a hard time with my anorexia. I landed this job when I had been in a relatively good place for awhile, and the "full circle"-esque feeling of feeding young women for a living was (and continues to be) cathartic and healing for me. But since I've been struggling more I sometimes feel embarrassed of my hypocrisy, espousing values that I'm not really adhering to and dispensing advice that I'm not taking myself. I encourage them to go back for seconds and have more dessert, meanwhile I reluctantly pack up a tupperware that I take home and try to force myself to eat, with mixed results. I scoff at any mention of calories or grams of fat, telling the women that none of it matters. Yet a moment later I begin internally bargaining with myself, neurotically obsessing about how many carbs I'm allotted for the day.
The craziest part is that I really truly believe what I'm saying; calories, carbs, grams of fat, none of that matters. I just have a difficult time applying it to my own life. Everything I tell them I sincerely believe. I truly believe that eating should be joyful. Food is about pleasure and socializing as much as it is feeding fuel to your body. Eating "good for your soul" food is just as important as eating "good for your body" food. Calorie counting is stupid and a waste of your life, but my eating disorder has me trapped in this paradox. I do believe in the "fake it till you make it" strategy, but sometimes the extent to which I feel like I'm faking it is a little scary.
By the same token, however, one could argue that someone like me is in fact in the best position to be a role model to these women. When it comes to eating disorders, I've been there. I AM there. I know the warning signs, I know the triggers, I know all too well what a complicated role food plays in the life of a young woman. Although I am often embodying a classic "do as I say, not as I do" modus operandi, it's coming from a genuine place of wanting the best for them and hoping they can have a more straightforward relationship with food than I do, hoping they won't struggle with food as much as I have.
I'd love to wrap this piece up in an uplifting, inspiring way with something like,"love yourself and we're all beautiful and just eat when you're hungry stop when you're full" or whatever. But even though I've seen it all and have been to hell and back on my food journey, I still don't have the answers. And I'm here to tell you nobody really does.
This is hard. What we can do, though, is talk about it. If we can lift some of the shame, stigma and misinformation about what it means to have an eating disorder (and there are a lot of us — one figure estimates 30 million in the US alone), we can help one another navigate the strange labyrinth of eating in the modern world and help support each other wherever we're at in the process. In the end, the biggest danger is silence and isolation. The best medicine is honesty, camaraderie, and acceptance. (And laughter.)