I’m in Week 9 of treatment and hard doesn’t begin to capture it. While physiological ailments are medicated, muted, soothed, anti-bodied, cut out – fighting this illness is like bending steel with bare hands. Only the metal is my mind, and I am stumbling in the dark, searching for an exit.
Today was brutal. On Mondays, patients are expected to hang out in the kitchen to help prepare lunch. Normalizing the handling, washing and cooking food is a critical aspect of ED recovery. This is because some food phobias penetrate beyond consumption, so that even the sight, smell or mere mention of a food can arouse extreme anxiety.
A food phobia is what happens when a patient’s emotional associations with a food become so extreme she avoids it – a rational reaction that produces the irrational result of increasing the phobia due to habit.
For example, when I was a kid I hated the taste of butter. In my teens, I perceived that this dislike was jealously regarded (and often approved of) by people as a dishonest weight-loss strategy.
As a skinny tomboy, this bothered me. I considered dieting to be vain, disempowering, and ultimately reflective of deep gender issues in society. Every time someone made some snide comment about my “no butter please” request, I felt increasingly self-conscious and angry.
As I got older and explored new foods, I continued to avoid butter, perhaps out of sheer spite. Dislike turned into identity, and preference grew into phobia. I managed to avoid eating any butter on anything until my first time through treatment, where I eventually discovered I did like a little butter, especially whipped with baguette.
Anyways, back to today.
Around 11 AM the in-house dietician asked us to please volunteer to bake cookies for dessert. My gut said “eff that,” but I looked around I realized that in my ninth week of treatment, I was in fact one of the more “senior” girls at the table. So I said what the hell and volunteered.
I hadn’t baked cookies in years.
Incidentally, earlier this morning I decided to write down a list of all my phobic foods. The list was overwhelmingly huge. Mouth agape, I stared at the page, trying to make sense of it all. How on earth have I been avoiding these foods for so long? What do I even eat? Sprouted grain bread, fish, fruits and vegetables, boiled potatoes, plain yogourt, certain nuts, some local meats, eggs, almond milk and cheddar cheese. And booze. C’est tout.
Commonalities between the foods I avoid include refined sugar, processed fat, wheat flour, non-local meat, and chemical ingredients. Sound familiar? Oh – that’s right! Every health magazine, self-proclaimed nutritionist and green-washed ad out there is preaching my current diet. Only it’s not a diet, it’s an eating disorder, and it’s ruining my life.
With this fresh in mind, I set forth to bake a simple recipe of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
Somewhere between mixing a big bowl of brown and white sugar with a fork, smelling hot melted margerine, and pressing grease-covered chocolate chips into soft balls of dough with my fingers, my emotional thermostat shattered.
Hollow as a robot, blank and numb, I sat down to a chicken stirfry lunch, and watched myself eat, each forkful a shovel of sludge down my throat. Halfway through, I shaped my food into a yang symbol, and not for the first time considered leaving clinic and never coming back.
But I finished my meal, and will be back tomorrow morning for breakfast.
This shit is fucked.