fighting with food

It was probably September. We always baked cookies as soon as the leaves started falling off the maple trees outside our house on Mulberry Street in Northwest Portland. Mom was teaching Jonah how to roll dough into tiny balls while I licked the scraps off the beaters and the inside of the bowl, devouring the sticky clumps of buttery goodness with thoughtless abandon. Well, almost thoughtless. As soon as the bowl was clean, and after checking to make sure Mom and Jonah were preoccupied enough that they wouldn’t notice I was gone, I climbed off the stool, tiptoed to the closet where Mom kept her sewing tools, pulled out the tape measure she used for sizing dresses, and wrapped it around my waist, making a mental note of the circumference. “No bigger,” I remember thinking as I smoothed the creases of my red dress down my front. I was six years old at the time.

Page through my notebooks from the past decade and you’ll find tiny math calculations in the corner of almost every page. The additon hardly ever amounts to more than 1200, and the subtractions are aggressive and occasionally accomanied by angry, incomprehensible notes. Calorie intake, energy expenditure. Little reminders that I’d eaten too much, or not exercised quite enough. It started subtly. Asking Jonah if he wanted a spoonful of peanut butter as if his affirmation were permission that I could have some too. But then I’d go to the kitchen, scoop up two mounds, and give him the bigger one. Always. While helping serve dinner, I’d volunteer to take the plates to the table, making sure my portion was the smallest. As long as everyone was eating more than me, eating was ok.

Predictably enough, things took a turn for the worse the summer I went away to study ballet in Philadelphia. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment. Offering my roommate an Oreo cookie from the bag my parents had sent me with, the waifish blond responded, “I don’t eat high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils.” What are those?? I remember thinking. And from that day on, I read the food lables on everything, cutting out things I didn’t recognize, until my grocery list had been paired down to rice, tortillas, vegetables (mostly sweet potatoes) and fruit. I started reading about food, and the state of the US food industry, and began to feel as if I’d been betrayed by the single thing my body needed in order to survive. I came up with a list of rules. If I didn’t make it, I wouldn’t eat it. If it wasn’t organic, I wouldn’t buy it. A few years later, this kind of thinking would become not just trendy, but practical, except that while my attitudes towards food were largely healthy in the practical sense, the obsession wasn’t. I’d lost faith in food, and it would be years before I’d regain the ability to eat outside the boundaries I’d set.

Fast forward to my sophomore year at Middlebury College. I’m lying on a table in a child’s hospital gown, an EKG monitor hooked up to my heart and a panicked expression on my pale face. The nurse says she can’t feel my pulse. She tries again. I half expect her to tell me I’m already dead. Weight today: 87 lbs. A million thoughts are running through my head as she steps outside to talk to the doctor. What have I done to my body? Will I ever be able to have kids? I knew exactly what had happened. During a winter spent interning for a women’s fashion magazine in New York City, I’d tried to save every dollar I could and paired down my diet to a scant 800 calories while working 15 hours days, most of those running errands around a frozen city. My energy levels were so low by the time I got back to school that a walk across campus felt like an ultramarathon. I knew I was too skinny. For weeks, I’d been waking up in the middle of the night without any feeling in my hands and forearms, and after one particularly scary night spent crouched on my dorm room floor, gasping for air, I decided it was time to get some help.

“Why are you here,” the nurse on duty at the college health center had asked, though I could tell she already knew. “I think I need to gain some weight,” I’d said. “… I think I’ve forgotten how to eat.” Three hours later, I’d been wrapped in a hospital gown, interrogated with questions about my eating history, and poked with a needle at least a half dozen times. When she finally put me on a scale, I registered the shock in her face immediately. “Honey, do you know how much you weigh?” She asked. I didn’t, but the number she wrote on my chart still haunts me. I’d hovered around 97 lbs since I was 16 years old. To have dropped ten pounds below that seemed impossible.

After a quick discussion with the doctor, the nurse comes back to tell me they want to send me home for the rest of the semester, but I plead with her, telling her I’ll meet whatever weight goal she sets for me if she’ll just let me stay. I want to get better, and leaving school would destroy me. I don’t know if she took pity on me, or simply put enough faith in my determination, but she agreed, and booked me an appointment with a red haired nutritionist who would ultimately change my entire perspective on food.

In the intervening years, my relationship with food has proven to be an academically perplexing study, mostly because, despite the obsessive tendencies, the patterns of behavior seem to fall outside the typical psychological explanations for anorexia. Or maybe they’re right on par with what every anorexic has dealt with at some point, and no one is actually exploring the brain chemistry behind the disorder. I don’t know. All I know is that, looking back on things now, what I find most interesting about it all, is the fact that no one every told me cookies were full of fat, or that fat could be bad, or even what fat was. We didn’t have a television growing up, we never had a scale in the house, I don’t have weight obsessed parents, and I didn’t start studying ballet seriously until I was almost 13, so outside influences weren’t a factor. But I always knew. The same way a child knows to suck their thumb, or seek comfort from a parent. Even at six years old, I knew that I needed to worry about food. Was I born with an eating disorder? Or was a just born with the tendencies and the right triggers simply set me off on a spiral towards self-destruction.

For the most part these days, I’ve learned to keep things under control. After spending my sophomore spring eating everything I could get my hands on and learning that food could actually be used as a performance tool, I started to see eating as means of self-improvement. A competitive advantage when used correctly. By the time I returned home that summer, I was strong enough to start running, and later, to start running ultramarathons, and a few years later, to start winning those ultras. It hasn’t always been great. Three days before my 24th birthday I was diagnosed with four micro fractures in my pelvis and hips, the result of years of calcium deficiency and an absent menstrual cycle, and subsequent repetitive pounding on old dancer’s bones. But those injuries healed, and for the most part, ultrarunning (as well as a lot of retrospective self-analysis) helps keep me in check, allowing me to devote my obsessive tendencies to other things. The nagging need for balance never really goes away, but I’ve learned to master the fear and turn it into something new. Batman style. Discipline and singular focus can occasionally be harnessed as tools for good.