Twenty-eight

With birthdays come the talk of wishes, and there’s one wish I’ve had pretty much every year for the last decade of my life.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d also love to get my blue belt in jiu-jitsu, find a renewed sense of professional purpose, have this book come out, and generally see my life take some shape and direction (upward in lieu of seeming plateau).

Still, all these things and many others are secondary to this one wish, which, if fulfilled, would give me unheard of level of peace: to get on a sustainable course of recovery from a serious eating disorder.

Even if I can’t fulfill that wish, at least there’s some relief in not keeping it a secret anymore.

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If you’re reading this and are surprised, you’re not alone. This is the card I play closest to my chest and a problem that no more than five people (including my mom and therapist) were aware of until the last year, when I shared this information with a marginally larger audience. There’s a reason for this: it’s a shameful thing for me, eating in this dysfunctional way, having this kind of problem, admitting this kind of powerlessness over anything, especially something as commonplace and omnipresent as food.

While I have my share of emotional triggers that compel a binge cycle, this is not an emotional eating problem or a “no shame in treating yourself — you’ve had a tough few [day(s), week(s) month(s)]” problem. This is an “eating to cope with life” problem, an “addicted to feeling full” problem, an “if you saw how much I could eat and wanted to eat, it would probably shock and disgust you” problem.

You wouldn’t think I was struggling with this until you pay attention to slightly-abnormal or “hiding in plain sight” things I do with food: chewing stick after stick of gum until my jaw practically breaks (just to prevent myself from putting solid food in my mouth); going for furtive seconds and thirds at parties (even if for something ostensibly healthy) and hoping no one will say anything about it; eating a normal amount when in public and then going off to be alone to really eat.

People may simply write off any eccentric consumption behavior to my having celiac disease and therefore having limited safe dining options when out to eat or otherwise in the presence of food. It’s true that getting diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago changed my relationship with food and made me have to think about it even more than I already was thinking about it. But make no bones about it: I was already screwed up when it came to food. Food has been my crutch, anchor, vice, savior, angel, and devil for as long as I can remember, and long before I had to quit gluten for life.

As I learned when writing my #metoo post, confessional, raw, emotional writing has its relieving catharsis, but it also comes with consequences. So in writing this, I’m preparing to accept — or rather, accepting — the terms and conditions of all that follows in my social and writing life for having shared this piece of my gut.

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I don’t like saying “I have an eating disorder.” It sounds too sterile. Telling people, “I have problems with food” is too vague, and most people would assume I’m referring to being celiac. “I am a binge eater,” is almost too watered-down in a culture where binge consumption is everywhere you turn, whether it’s Netflix binge-watching or Halo Top’s label encouraging you to eat the whole pint and “Don’t stop until you hit the bottom.” The term “food addict” ends up sounding a little ridiculous when I’ve tried using it to describe myself. “Compulsive overwater” is the most accurate term, but as a words person, I wanted a phrase I could call my own.

So I call it 50 — 50. 50 — 50 is a position in jiu-jitsu that tends to happen in a moment of stalling between two competitors. All other factors in the match being equal, the person who wins 50 — 50 doesn’t win on real points — just on advantage. It can go in either direction, and it’s a loathsome position you never really want to get into.

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When I was a kid, my dad used to drink like a sailor, smoke like a chimney, and eat like a garbage disposal. His lifestyle of indulgence led to him developing gout from all the kinds of food he used to eat — and I didn’t realize anyone had gout in this century. His favorites: veal saltimbocca or parmesan with a side of spaghetti bolognese; Jewish deli sandwiches, piled high with pastrami on rye; medium-rare steak and iceberg wedge salads with bacon and bleu cheese, creamed spinach on the side, washed down with a minimum of two vodka martinis, straight up with a twist. He, Haagen-Dazs, and chocolate chip cookies had a regular rendezvous after midnight. Until his heart surgery this year, he rarely exercised and all the rich foods and drinks he enjoyed were stored in a solid, basketball-shaped stomach that gave meaning to the term “food baby” when my nephew, when younger, asked if he was pregnant.

My mom, in contrast, is just about 5'3'’ and hasn’t weighed over 100 pounds in over a decade. She’s approaching her mid-sixties, but she works out every day without fail, and she clocks in over 10,000 steps before most people wake up in the morning. On one hand, my mother is motivating, inspiring, and something to look up to — she’s in great health, in killer shape for her age, and consistently upholds a positive mindset. She regularly does all the things you’re “supposed to do”: daily meditation and stretching, moderate and healthy eating, and regular, strenuous exercise. On the other hand, my mother’s physical appearance has completely skewed what “normal” looks like for me. She’s so bony and vascular that she looks like she could stand in for a musculoskeletal system figure in a high school biology class. She looks like she doesn’t eat, even though she does — I swear. I don’t want to look like my mother, but she’s still the standard to which I am subconsciously comparing myself, and it feels worse because she’s not some woman in a magazine or some random Instagram fitness model influencer — she’s my mother.

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There’s a whole lot from my childhood that I could write about with regard to my relationship with food and my body: the noise and distraction of the dinner table that encouraged every behavior except focusing on what I was eating; the multiple nutritionists I saw in feeble attempts to control my weight as a kid even though no one ever called me or thought of me as “fat” (no one I’m aware of, at least. The worst I ever heard was “Erica has fat arms,” and these days I don’t think anyone would call my arms fat if they knew how readily those arms could punch, choke, or arm bar someone); training for and running a half-marathon in hopes of losing weight but gaining weight instead (inconveniently around the time of senior prom).

It didn’t help that any pains I took to lose weight when I was younger were undermined by the fact that I used food to cope with everything going on in my school life and home life. The piles of homework I plowed through nightly were preceded by some sort of after-school snack, punctuated by dinner, and concluded with a late-night cup of tea and some cereal. The fears of not getting into an elite college after defining my entire life and identity by my scholastic performance could easily be sucked down with a Frappuccino. The anger I felt toward my father’s mood swings and my mother’s rapid accommodation of them (often at my expense) could be chewed and swallowed away for a little while. Even though food was a comfort, I’d eat meals at home as quickly as possible in part to get back to my homework and away from any family drama.

As I became more aware of my body as a teenager, eating became an act that was one of hiding in plain sight while feeling shame about what and how much I consumed: both when eating with my family and with friends, I figured if I ate things quickly, maybe no one would realize how much I had eaten or judge me for going onto seconds when they were still on their firsts. I was bingeing openly in front of people, whether or not they noticed, and I was simultaneously (and paradoxically) becoming more secretive about my overeating: for example, when my mom went to work out in the morning, I would use that as my time to sneak-eat ice cream or another bowl of cereal. I never kept the secret from her for long, though. The worst was when she’d catch me, mid-bite into something I “shouldn’t” have been eating if she finished working out a little earlier than usual. Whether she caught me or I outed myself, the result was the same: I’d cry to her about not losing weight, knowing exactly why things weren’t going my way, feeling embarrassed about it, but ultimately admitting to my mom what I had been doing and how I had been sabotaging myself.

It was hopeless. Even if my mom tried to help me by doing things like telling me to pack up half the entree when out to dinner or encouraging me to go work out with her, to go or have me work out with her, she’d still catch me in the act.

Honesty about my behavior was all well and good, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to do it on and off, again and again. I couldn’t stop, no matter how painful it was, and no matter how much I wanted to.

And I haven’t fully stopped.

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The behaviors above haven’t changed much in the last fifteen-ish years — instead of my mom catching me in the act of eating something of which I’m ashamed, it’s been boyfriends. In addition to eating quickly in front of family and friends, it’s now rushing meals with classmates and coworkers and strangers at weddings or bachelorette parties.

What has changed is the burden of shame associated with the eating. It’s gotten worse. The older I get, the more stress I take on, the more reasons I give people to believe that I have my shit together, and the more ways I use food to cope.

I use food as a way to control how I feel — to cheer myself up, to calm myself down, to comfort myself, or numb myself. Unfortunately, the thing I wish to control the most is how I feel about food (downright obsessive), and food isn’t the solution to this problem. Food isn’t the solution to any problem, really, except for hunger, and yet I continue to turn to it. I have people who love and support me that I can call at any time. I have music I can listen to, books I can read, manicures I can get, workouts I can do, and money to spend to deal with problems in my life in some better way than “eating until I hate myself for it.” But it’s still the first thing I reach for when life isn’t going according to plan or I’m in a place where I’d rather consume an emotion than sit with it and wait for it to pass.

There is more I have to say and write about this: how things got so much worse when I moved to Boston and got diagnosed with celiac disease, how I quit my food business because it didn’t feel safe for me to operate a food business while trying to break free of the vicious cycle with food, how jiu-jitsu is the only thing I’ve done that has had any success of keeping this eating disorder at bay (but also how the stress associated with making weight for competitions drove the disorder back into overdrive).

But because there’s no way for me to put it all in this blog and because it’s going to be in the book, what you should know is this:

Every time you comment on how healthy whatever I am eating is or how well I look, I am thinking I am a complete fraud. While I’m not at the weight number I’d like to be for competition’s sake, I am close to being in the best shape of my life right now, and I still feel like my so-called “healthiness” is a total facade. I have mastered the art of “appearing healthy,” both physically and mentally, in front of everyone except for the few people who know how pervasive the pain of this eating disorder is and how much I’m suffering from it inside my head and body. It doesn’t help that being gluten-free makes people think I’m healthy from the get-go, even though it’s really easy to be extremely unhealthy on a gluten-free diet. If you see me with some perfectly-portioned breakfast or veggie-packed lunch that looks meticulously prepared like something out of Pinterest, it’s because I’ve spent hours on the weekends carefully weighing, measuring, and macro-counting every thing that I’ll be eating from Monday through Friday. Creating this kind of order and structure around food is the only line of defense I have against the chaos of interminable meals. It is easy for me to go off the rails, and when going out to eat or drink, it becomes dangerously easy.

Every time you ask me to go out for food or drinks, I genuinely want to hang out with you, enjoy the meal, and be present for the moment, but more likely than not, I’m crippled with anxiety and quietly wishing we were bonding in any other circumstance other than eating. Any situation that puts me in a position to eat in front of other people is a source of stress these days. The grip that this eating disorder has on me has its periods of being exceptionally strong, and I’m in one of those periods right now. I wouldn’t be able to go out to eat with you without quiet, insane analysis of the following factors, among others: what you’re eating, what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, how healthy it is, how I’m eating it, how my body looks, how much I weighed this morning, and how good or bad I’m going to feel about myself when the plates are cleared and glasses emptied.

If you make food that’s safe for me to eat, I am heartwarmed by the effort and sincerely appreciate it — but it sends me into a silent tailspin. It means a lot to me that you took the time to cater to my dietary restrictions and love me enough to take that initiative. But if I’m in a headspace where I can’t even trust myself to leave a grocery store to buy basic staples without being at risk for a binge, the last thing I want you to do is make me food. I’ll find it practically impossible to say no to you, because you took all that care and time. In the end, I’ll eat what you made and wish I hadn’t, even though it came from a generous place and even if it was delicious. I’m not okay around food. There will be days when I am, but today is not one of them. If I do find the courage to say “no” to you about the food, I mean “no,” and any persistent attempt to make me eat or drink something I don’t want is quietly lighting the fuse of my internal dynamite.

Lastly, I don’t expect you to do anything or help me with anything from reading this. I’m down to talk about it, answer questions, provide more detail, and so on. I hope you won’t feel guilty about anything you said or did with me or to me that involved food or my body. You didn’t know any better and I didn’t tell you at the time because I didn’t have the words, or I was just choking them down with whatever food was in sight.

All I wanted from this post was this: to be honest with myself and to let anyone who cares about me know that I’m done keeping this a secret, that I continue to struggle with this on a day-to-day basis, but that I’m not giving up.

I hope that at twenty nine, there will be something better and brighter I’ll be wishing for instead.