(Here's where I issue a trigger warning for talk about eating disorders. My own, in particular. Bonus trigger warning for self-harm.)
It’s been 10 or 15 years now, so a lot of the details are lost. My memory is like that, if I don’t write things down, record them in some fashion I can reference later. What memory I do have is extremely tactile: the rough concrete texture of the bench against my forehead, the damp clamminess of my skin in the misty rain.
It was Halloween Horror Nights, and I was there with a group of friends. We’d run around, in a light but persistent rain for most of the night, a good four or five hours at least. There had been some genuine scares -- I’m jumpy and I don’t like people to touch me unexpectedly; this was even more serious a thing then. There had been some strange moments that felt important -- a confusing kiss from a guy I was not dating but with whom I hung out almost every single night.
But at the end of it all, when it was time for us to leave, it was me and a friend waiting for the rest of our group to find us at the meeting place. And between one moment and the next, my memory blacks out.
Because I passed out. At a theme park. In the middle of the night.
I was not OK. I hadn’t taken anything (I’ve always been way too tightly wound to take drugs), though that was the first thing the scare actor who stopped to help wanted to know. But I wasn’t drunk or high or otherwise effed up for purposes of enjoying the haunted houses more.
I hadn’t eaten for three days.
At that point in time, I was pretty much living off of Coca Cola and the occasional vending machine bag of Cheetos. I’d probably had some Cheetos during that three-day period, so maybe I shouldn’t actually say I hadn’t eaten. I can’t tell if that’s me trying to be accurate or me trying to deflect how serious my disordered eating habits had gotten at the time.
I ate in social situations, when our activities saw us at a Denny’s or something similar. I worked two retail jobs, had an overloaded course schedule, and I was out until all hours as often as I could manage it. I knew that if I slowed down, if I sat down to catch my breath, I’d never get back up again.
That was most of college, actually -- a frantic dash to get away from, well, everything, that started my sophomore year of high school and which continued until I realized, well after (college) graduation, that I didn’t have to run anymore. I was OK.
I’m not OK now.
That’s not an invitation to worry about me or anything. But it seems somehow important, especially now as we head into the holidays, to talk about this, to be honest about disordered eating -- about eating disorders and the ways we live with them in our pockets, the ways we take them out at odd moments and shine them up because we may very well never be entirely rid of them.
Fat acceptance and intuitive eating and mindful eating were, for me, a ladder out of my "food problems" (to be all euphemistically minimizing about it). I never had to try to label anything; I never had to admit the depth of my issues with food. I only had to give myself permission to relearn hunger and satiety cues. I only had to teach myself how to listen to my own body.
That these were the more manageable tasks compared to actually admitting that I had an eating disorder is telling.
I used to talk about my issues with food over on my blog, The Rotund. I even, once I started to eat more on the regs, compared how I felt about food to Kafka's "The Hunger Artist." My English major roots will always shine through. I have a hard time LIKING food, enough so that while individual meals might constitute a pleasure, by and large the requirement for food is a pain in my ass and a drain on my time. Making meals as enjoyable as possible was one way to hold my interest in them long enough for me to actually eat.
But after a while, there were an increasing number of comments from readers of all sizes -- they wanted to know why was I talking about not eating when everyone knows: the only eating disorder fatties have is overeating. Binge eating disorder. Well, maybe fatties are allowed to be bulimic.
I weigh over 300 pounds. A 20-year cycle of dieting led me here. I'm fine with my body because it's my body -- and because realizing that there was an alternative to hating myself literally saved my life. I am, by and large, happy. But none of that actually means I don't still have struggles with food, even when I'm at my best. None of that means I don't still have an eating disorder.
There's no real name for just not eating if you're fat. Yes, there's anorexia. But that also involves being underweight, at least according to the official diagnosis. And there's EDNOS -- eating disorder not otherwise specified. But mostly there is this idea that, if you are fat -- especially if you are as fat as I am -- not eating is precisely what you should be doing. Not eating is your duty as a fat person. Not eating is a healthy lifestyle choice to make because obviously eating is what got you into this mess (this body, this fat body that will not conform to social expectations) in the first place.
There was a doctor, then, the last doctor I saw for around 10 years, who told me that not eating was a good thing, that we all simply ate way too much. A head of broccoli should last me more than a week. He hooked me up to an EKG machine (and I, much younger and uncertain and more vulnerable than I allow myself to be now, simply opened my shirt so he could stick the sensors on my chest) without explanation; he never told me why he wanted the data or what the results indicated. He told me that he often recommended starvation diets -- they were a healthy choice.
I type all of this with the firm conviction that there are commenters who agree with this doctor. Commenters who, should I lay out the habits of my eating over the past months, would tell me I was doing the right thing (for my HEALTH) by consuming as few calories as possible. Calories in, calories out, these commenters will chorus, as though the human body were not a complex and individual system, as though we are all, in all ways, ruled by immutable mathematical equations. Commenters who think that it is right and proper for a fat person to starve themselves, regardless of the consequences because that is what fat people deserve.
It has been near a lifetime of hearing these things from people. I got fat (fattish -- far less fat than dieting would leave me) when I was 7 or 8, body gearing up for puberty and a summer spent under my great-grandmother's roof where she cooked breakfasts and fed me government cheese sticks with grapes for an afternoon snack. That was when I learned about calories and eating as few of them as possible. I never ate in secret because I didn't have to -- during the bulk of the year, I was a latch key kid, home alone after school for hours with food unattended at the house. The most secretive thing I did was sneak a few Twizzlers from my mom's stash of them.
I spent long hours trying to figure it out, trying to understand why my body had changed so drastically and why that was such an awful thing in the first place. I didn't FEEL bad. I had always preferred reading, but I rode my bike no less than before. I am not a fan of the suburbs, but my neighborhood provided ample landscape for me and the kid from across the street to ramble, climb trees and dig holes in the red Georgia clay.
But the only conclusion I could reach was that somehow, I ate too much. I had no context for my own food intake -- could only judge my knowledge of what I ate against the evidence of my fattening body. My body was larger than the bodies of my peers, therefore I ate too much.
And so I ate less.
Lunch was the first thing to go in those days. I kept my lunch money rather than buy lunch every day. Skipping meals was both virtuous -- or so I was given to believe -- and profitable (more money for books, I would always do almost anything for more money for books). Breakfast followed suit -- I just didn't eat it. I read instead, devoured books. In middle school, I took to hurting myself instead of feeling anything. I have never been a cutter, but there are more ways than one to self-harm.
That's how I learned not to listen to my body, how I learned to ignore any sense of hunger.
And though there have been times between now and then when my eating has appeared "normal," it has never been a process that is anything other than scrutinized. If you are fat and you are eating, people are watching. Family, friends, strangers in the mall food court.
It always comes down to that for me, that sense of being examined and found lacking -- not just lacking but befuddling. I must be lying, I have heard from many people, because if I were telling the truth then I would be thin.
That rationale made it easy to ignore my own problems. If I had an eating disorder, surely I'd be thin. That's what everyone told me. That's what I believed. Even when fat acceptance gave me a methodology for rejecting diet culture and finally coming to a sense of peace and satisfaction with my body, I was reluctant to identify myself as eating disordered. No, it was nothing so serious. I didn't need to be hospitalized so it wasn't significant. It was just disordered eating and who doesn't have that?
xoJane is where we come to tell all of our embarrassing secrets, isn't it? And so, despite the certain and sure knowledge of those commenters who will scoff, I come to tell you: I am not OK. I sit down with food because, intellectually, I know that it is a requirement of life. I make myself eat crackers for breakfast because otherwise I will eat nothing. And if I eat nothing for breakfast, that will only encourage me to have nothing for lunch, to continue my streak of empty, simple foodlessness. Hunger cues grow faint and fade into the background noise until a sense of relief at not having to deal with eating and food drowns them out.
And that's what it is -- a relief, a refuge. A respite from constant examination and from the energy that it takes to reject what society thinks I should be in favor of what it is to just be myself.
I've gone through the McDonald's drive through several times since this started, because those hot french fries are sometimes the only thing that sounds appealing. I don't generally crave sweets; I want salt. But now the menu boards are bedecked with calorie counts and my broken, competitive brain insists on doing the math. I use the calculator on my phone to add up everything I have eaten that day (not much) and then I pare down what I have managed to talk myself into ordering. It would be a game if it were any fun. 460 calories in a large fry. If I have a small fry instead, I can keep my count for the entire day under 800.
A few times, I have managed to rebel against myself. I have ordered the fries and a milkshake, a middle finger to my own destructive urges. And I've felt physically better -- more energetic and not so tired. I don't even like fast food but it's easy, it takes no preparation, and it's right there in the instant I can convince myself it's OK to eat something. Those damn calorie counts just keep sabotaging my increasingly desperate efforts to feed myself.
We're heading into the holidays and, oh, does America love to eat during this time of year. There's a conflicting cacophony: eat eat eat with your family and friends but don't gain any weight, don't lose control, don't surrender to the body and all its unruly urges. My body is what it is, already out of control according to those who view it casually. And with every meal I skip, the voices judging me and accusing me grow quieter, because by not eating I remove myself from the conversation entirely.
Don't think I don't know how crazy that sounds. Of course it's crazy. I have an eating disorder, something without a proper name and that most people would simply call being on a diet because I am fat. I will be OK again -- I say this in part because I am an optimist but also because I have been OK in the past; there is no reason I will not be able to find my way there in the future.
But for now, for this holiday season, I am struggling. No, thank you, I would prefer not to eat. I remember the scare actor who wheeled me out of Halloween Horror Nights in a wheelchair; he had shoulder-length blond hair and fake blood smeared all over his clothes. I remember, and I try to eat again.