IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Went Vegetarian to Combat My Life-Threatening Choking Phobia

When I was 12, I became petrified of food.
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Publish date:
September 30, 2014
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food, vegetarianism, eating disorder, choking

Consider for a moment, if you will, the concept of the food pill. Such a thing is unlikely to ever exist outside the world of "The Jetsons," and probably wouldn’t replace real food anyway -– after all, who’s gonna shirk a juicy, mouthwatering ribeye for a flavorless, tasteless calorie pill?

Well, me, for one. And not just because I’m one of those meatless marvels. The thing is, I like food, but I hate eating. I’m also not terribly fond of cooking, which usually feels like an exhausting chore. In fact, making and consuming food tends to cause unnatural anxiety for me; but it has nothing to do with fretting over my weight or appearance. Sure, I wouldn’t mind dropping a few pounds, but I’ve never counted a calorie in my life. Hell, I don’t even own a scale. And yet, there it is, sitting right in the middle of my life, like a piece of gum that won’t come unstuck from my favorite pair of sandals: an eating disorder.

Just as the infrequent flier fears crashing, or the arachnophobe dreads any eight-legged encounter, there will always be some part of me, no matter how minuscule, that believes each supper will end up being my unholy last. The crux of my problem is in my throat. Very narrow and hyper-sensitive, I have a hard time swallowing comfortably –- even tiny items, like birth control pills and something as innocuous as water, often present me with a scenario in which I’m gagging and struggling to keep from spewing liquid all over myself (why yes, this gag reflex of mine has negatively impacted my sex life, thank you for asking).

Above almost anything else, it’s choking on food that I really fear. To be specific, choking to death -– slow, excruciating, utterly without dignity -– when I’m eating alone, with nobody with working arms and basic CPR training around to bring me back to life.

One day, in my seventh grade health class, we watched a short video that demonstrated, among other things, life-saving mouth-to-mouth and abdomen punching techniques designed to assist the choking or asphyxiating victim. While this certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the Heimlich maneuver, or even seen the act of choking, 12-year-old me was in an advanced state of emotional vulnerability. Perhaps due to my adolescent hormone influx, a rapidly developing struggle with full-blown depression and anxiety, or an increasingly volatile, deteriorating relationship with my parents, I was an impressionable, sensitive and highly suggestible preteen.

After watching that innocent, instructive video, I walked away feeling profoundly terrified. This, I convinced myself, was going to be my eventual fate: at some point, I was going to find myself eating alone, an obstruction would slip and lodge itself in my delicate throat, and the everlasting blackout would thrust itself upon me before I’d had the chance to go to college or fall in love.

It seems strange to think about that morbid frame of mind now, as a (mostly) functional adult. But that’s exactly what I believed and no amount of statistical evidence on the rarity of death-by-choking could convince me that it was in my best interest to keep eating normally. Immediately following this “revelation” –- death by hot dog: imminent –- I decided the only sensible solution was to, of course, stop eating all together. Eliminate the threat, fix the problem, right?

And so, I went hungry. Day after day and, soon, week after week. My family was aware from the very first missed meal, and weren’t at all sure how to handle the situation; but once it became increasingly apparent that this fatalistic phase was, in fact, more serious than a mere cry for attention, the gloves came off.

Begging me to eat led to ordering, which led to threatening, which finally led to enforced, supervised meals and aggravated screaming matches about what should be done between my parents. Everyone under my roof was so full of fear and despair, I sometimes wondered if we weren’t headed for divorce-land: something I would have felt responsible for.

Around this time, I started seeing a therapist on an almost daily basis; a slew of anti-depressants and OCD medications were administered in a desperate attempt to slap a Band-aid on my bizarre problem. Both of my parents are committed Christians, and I remember my mother asking the priest of our parish to bless my throat. Extending a thumb, pointed upward toward heaven, he gently outlined the sign of the cross over my throat, beseeching the god I thought I believed in to save me from this nightmarish affliction.

But, even in the interest of appeasing my loved ones, I couldn’t eat. The thought of food in any form sickened me. Even Halloween candy was regarded as a sack full of death objects, with or without the addition of razor blades. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got the vast majority of my junior high nutrients from water and Ensure protein shakes (to this day, just seeing the Ensure logo makes my mouth fill up with that repulsive bloody nose taste).

Eventually, patches of my hair started falling out from lack of nutrition and a few of my fingernails shriveled off. One anti-depressant I was taking made me gain 30 pounds in the space of six weeks. Another one caused my eyes to roll up into the back of my head at unpredictable intervals. It was as if my awkward stage had mutated into something evil, well beyond the scope of pimples and unwelcome body hair.

Eventually, through a combination of talk therapy and medication adjustments, I slowly began to eat regular meals again. I even got myself back up to being able to eat in private, without supervision. But as I reclaimed most of my health and routine eating habits, that fear of choking, and the ultra-sensitivity of my throat, refused to remain in the past.

After I moved out on my own and started planning meals for myself, I found it difficult to incorporate crunchy, harder foods into my diet. Needless to say, this eliminates many of the fruits, vegetables, and other must haves for anyone hoping to avoid scurvy in the 21st century.

As a result, my adult eating habits and overall health suffered. Somehow, I thought I could get away with having a whole package of baloney and calling it dinner, just because it was so soft and probably wouldn’t kill me, like an uncooked carrot might.

This rather unorthodox lifestyle choice only helped fuel my lingering depression, and of course did nothing to improve my physical health. Weary and lethargic most of the time, I knew I couldn’t keep abusing my body with the easiest, most repetitive and manufactured meals, not if I didn’t want to make “type 2 diabetes” a regular part of my vocabulary.

Something had to go. Chocolate and cheese were far too precious to me. And so, I decided to give up meat, for good. Simply cutting back or trying to consume meat in moderation would have only resulted in my backsliding into a life of baloney face stuffing. I know myself too well to keep even the barest sliver of temptation on the table. In order to put my life onto a healthy developmental track, I needed to quit meat, permanently. Go cold turkey, if you will.

On April 1, 2010, I swallowed my last can of chicken noodle soup, gave away the rest of the meat items in my fridge to carnivorous friends, and started my culinary livelihood afresh. While going vegetarian isn’t necessarily a radical decision in itself, my reasons for doing so were as individualized as the problems that prompted them in the first place. I knew that if I removed something essential from my diet, something that I relied on with lazy, habitual dependence, I’d be forced to compensate my daily eating habits by adding new and more varied items into my diet.

Four meat-free years later, I’m proud to say that the experiment has been even more successful than I could have imagined. Over time, I’ve learned to overcome my natural aversion to crisp, firm ingredients by exploring cooking methods that work for me and my eating disorder: namely, boiling vegetables into soups and sautéing tougher fare liberally. Plus, I’d like to think I was slightly ahead of the curve on the smoothie/juicing revolution.

Last year, for my birthday, my friend Faina even bought me a Crockpot (“in the interest of keeping you alive,” read the gift card), of which I’ve made ample use. Celery, green beans, tomatoes, onions, asparagus, eggplant, and other edibles previously unfathomable as food now occupy regular places of honor in my fridge. An even bigger point of personal pride is the ever-growing list of healthy recipes I can make -– and eat! -– without a single passing pang of throat-related anxiety.

This hasn’t been easy to write about and it was certainly no picnic to go through, either. It’s such a strange, bizarrely personal and rather embarrassing problem to cop to, but now, almost 20 years after that initial health class trauma, I feel compelled to share my experiences in hopes of helping others who might wrestle with similar struggles.

The popular perception of eating disorders in our culture typically begins and ends with the conjured visual of heroin-skinny anorexics: willowy people who spend three hours on the treadmill after chewing a stick of Trident. But this is far from the only means by which a person can suffer from an eating disorder.

In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men will endure an eating disorder at some point, with a portion experiencing OSFED, or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, as I did (that is to say, an eating disorder that can’t otherwise be categorically lumped in with anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating irregularities).

Having an eating disorder means, quite simply, that you’re doing food wrong. Whether you’re worried about your weight or the prospect of being found purple-faced on your kitchen floor, an eating disorder can disrupt life in ways that, unlike calories and pounds, are impossible to measure. Nobody deserves to live in fear of that which should be nourishing and, beyond the basics of sustenance, pleasurable to the self.

For the most part, I’ve made my peace with my eating struggles and have even learned to enjoy the challenge of crafting a healthy, pliable meal. Until the day arrives that we develop that fantastical food pill, I’ll have to be satisfied in the knowledge that I’ve got the majority of my food problems licked.