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How to Win at Anorexia

Or, I may not be anorexic at all, but definitely have issues. Here’s what it’s like.

It’s been a very stressful year. 2014 has been challenging. But so was 2013. And 2012 was solidly frustrating, though not as bad as 2010. I could go farther back, but we don’t have all night.

Underlying all the vagaries above, is the fact that I don’t shy away from taking risks — or, as I like to call it, “gambling with myself.” Outcomes are mixed. As one of my nearest and dearest friends recently noted, I excel at putting myself in places of uncertainty, but sure do suck at dealing with it.

Enter: coping mechanisms.

I’m not an addict, at least not in the traditional sense. Booze, drugs, cigarettes… they’ve never held much power over me. Except there’s this one nagging habit I’ve had since I was a kid: when I get stressed I, uh, pretty much stop eating.

Mira Gonzalez nailed this logic when she wrote, “I have always gotten a certain satisfaction out of not eating. It makes me feel a sense of power over my own life, which I rarely feel otherwise. Hunger is a solvable problem that stays at the forefront of my mind, while simultaneously being something that I can easily fix. So, by choosing to not eat, I am able to feel like the main problem in my life (hunger) is completely manageable, and hence I am in control.”

Spare me. I know it’s nuts; but it also is.

The way such an “option” entered my young world need not be gone into here, as it changes nothing about the present. However, this is something I’ve dealt with since late elementary school when I stopped eating breakfast, which was just the tip of the iceberg. Thinking back to high school, I’m still impressed I managed to never pass out on the soccer field. Junior year of college I figured eating a cheeseburger every couple days was pretty solid. The last nine years aren’t so tidly referenced.

As an issue in my life, it ebbs and flows. Always has.

Conservative math tells us that for the last 21 years I’ve considered consuming two meals per day to be downright praiseworthy. Half of me, the rational part, is saying, “You dumbass. That’s a third less than the rest of everybody deems necessary” while my faux-rational brain is simultaneously going, “Yeah, but you clearly don’t need three meals a day, otherwise it would’ve been a problem a long time ago.” So, when I begin dealing life poorly and really stop eating, I’m beginning at a deficit.

In short: I have no idea how normal people eat — none — which means I have no idea where my behavior lands on the spectrum of fucked-up eating issues.

This is where the “winning” part of this unmotivational talk comes in. Allow me to lay it out for you. When the coping mechanism kicks in, I consistently, progressively, limit how much food I consume without fully realizing it. Unless! you hack me in any of the following ways:

  • Someone is feeding me. Think: Granma is cooking or rattling off the contents of her fridge where it’s harder for me but easier for the situation to just say “Okay, if it’ll make my favorite person on earth happy to cook me four hot dogs for lunch when I really only asked for one, I’ll try to eat them!” I just can’t bear being impolite or difficult in these matters.
  • I’m in charge of others. Say Dad comes to visit, and all of a sudden I’m providing mealtime direction for people who can’t just find something more interesting to do until their hunger passes. This situation is hugely stressful, mind you, but I tough it out and eat like a normal.
  • Someone is watching. I’m acutely aware that it’s way weirder to go out to dinner and not dine than it is to choke down as much of a dish as I can manage and shuffle the rest of it around on my plate. I’m good that when I have to be. Actually, having friends who insist that we meet out at a restaurant/bar is one of my saving graces. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult for my bank account to sustain for long. The other side of this coin is when I’m staying with my parents, where living under someone else’s roof makes it hard to forego eating. Basically: Pressure to not be caught acting like a freak trumps my penchant for control.
  • People have begun to comment on my appearance. No, the shit I’m pulling has very little to do with body image. Instead, what I mean is best illustrated by a couple anecdotes… 1) Recently, when paying a visit to an elderly family friend, I hadn’t made it across his threshold before he said, “My, you’re slim. Is that a good thing?” I shrugged, attempting to play it cool and said, “I dunno. It is what it is.” But, to my surprise, he didn’t drop the issue. “Let me be more pointed,” he said. “Are you vomiting your food two times a day?” My brain-jaw hit the floor. My response — “No. I digest all of my food. I promise.” — both honestly answered his question and just barely dodged his accusations. I hate lying, and that was too close for comfort. 2) My grandfather, who’s wasting away himself, burst out with “You’ve gotten skinny!” the minute I arrived at his house, suitcase still in hand. While both of these incidents lodged in my brain, I can also easily swat them away like gnats; a pair of ninety-year-old men who comment on my body, after seeing me annually at most, are completely dismissible. But I take these comments and, in a lighthearted tone, tell people I do hold close about them… and observe their reactions carefully. It’s like a baited hook to let friends bring up their concerns (knowing that I’ve never had any perspective on the whole thing to begin with), and I listen to what they say. Sometimes, they’ll tell me to go eat a sandwich. Then I’ll dutifully do so, and text them a photo of the sandwich I ate. More often, they laugh with me and I’ll continue my (shitty) ways. When the balance shifts and fewer of my confidantes fall into the latter category, I reel it in.
  • Eating even small amounts gets to be a problem. When I find myself so stuffed after a handful of fries that I feel ill, it prevents me from pulling off social eating well enough when I have to, and therefore shows me I’m definitely not eating enough when no one’s looking. Most importantly, this is a warning sign that I’m about to get busted, which is something that cannot happen in my world. So I start upping my intake before I’m called on it.

Please, hack me in any of the above ways. Consider this your personal invitation.

Why am I bothering to outline this all now, for the first time, after more than two decades of said-bullshit? The other day, as I was lying wide awake at 5am and feeling my hipbones protrude in the most sickly powerful way, it occurred to me that I’m the best-worst anorexic of all. I’ve toed this line so long, so well, that I’ve managed to make it invisible to those around me.

  • Unlike other people I know who deal with this more seriously, I’ve never gotten so scary skinny that it’s been a topic of conversation (to my knowledge). As someone who loathes attention, this is ideal for me. Point: Sarah.
  • I once told a therapist about my under-eating. I lobbed it out there to see if she’d notice, only to have her misfile it as a financial issue rather than mental. I believe her direct quote was, “You’re Irish. Don’t the Irish love oatmeal? Instant packets of that are cheap and fast.” No joke. It also never came up again. Point: Sarah. (admittedly earned by error on behalf of the counselor, whom I stopped seeing shortly thereafter)
  • My rules are firm, and there’s nowhere left to go without breaking them. The aforementioned neurotic kill switches (letting down loved ones, being publicly called out on acting like a freak, reaching the point of no return) have been honed to perfection.

In a game that’s all about disappearing and misdirection, I think this means I’ve won?

Regardless, it’s time to find a new game. This is unacceptable forever.

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