Discover more from The Things We Don't Talk About
Do we all have a 'food thing?'
Reflecting on an eating disorder.
We want to hear from more voices and broaden our own perspectives, so we recently asked members of the Diem community to pitch their own stories for this newsletter. Our next guest essay is by Jamie Cattanach, a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in HuffPost, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Fodor's and many other outlets. She's currently workshopping her first book, which examines her experience of atypical anorexia.
Want to write for us? If you want to pitch a guest essay idea for the newsletter, read this guide and email our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TW: Disordered eating and anorexia.
I remember the first time I stood on a doctor’s office scale without cringing. Instead, pride coursed through me as the nurse slid the counterweight to 150—and then dropped it back to 100 before moving to the smaller-increment slider. For the first time in my life, I was in the “normal” BMI category—though still at the high end for my 5’3” height. When I mentioned the massive weight loss it had taken for me to get there, my doctor literally patted me on the back.
“You’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables, right?”
I said I was and it wasn’t entirely untrue. My lunch every day was a giant salad in a mixing bowl, mostly spinach and red wine vinegar. My go-to snack was baby carrots dipped in low-fat, yogurt-based dressing. I usually passed up fruit—and a significant selection of vegetables—in an effort to avoid even minute amounts of sugar. I failed to mention the nights I woke up at midnight and found myself, as if in a fugue state, eating raw, unsalted almond butter by the spoonful from the jar.
Having started out fat, my weight loss could only be seen—medically—as a good thing, no matter how small it made my life. I had every classic symptom of anorexia except the skeletal figure. Each day I pulled a substantial clump of hair from my shower drain. In 70-degree rooms, my fingers went numb. My two-hour-every-day workout schedule—which I stuck to even when traveling, even when I had strep throat—led to shin splints and stress fractures. My blood pressure dropped to 90/45, which I dismissed (and flaunted) as a feat of athleticism.
My whole world became calorie calculus. I tracked every single thing I put into my mouth down to a single stick of gum. I kept my expensive, low-carb protein bars—the last sweet thing I allowed myself to eat—in the trunk of my car to stop myself from eating them. In the single-digit Santa Fe winters, I regularly wound up trudging down my driveway in the snow to retrieve one (or five) of them. They were frozen solid. I’d crouch to watch as their plasticine coatings slowly softened in the oven.
My social life was nonexistent. I was terrified to eat in front of others, and the threat of putting on any of the weight I had lost loomed over me. I avoided any event that revolved around food or drink (read: all of them). I started keeping strange hours, rising at 4:30 a.m. to get to the gym early and falling into fitful sleep by 9 p.m. most nights. I’d always imagined a raucous social life for myself once I was finally thin—the life I’d watched others enjoy in high school and college. I pictured bartop dancing and a new fluency at house parties; I imagined perching myself carefully on a barstool and waiting for men who once ignored me to throw themselves my way.
Once or twice, these fantasies materialized, but most often I spent evenings curled in my reading chair, exhausted and alone. I stared through the open walkway into my kitchen and felt the weight of what little food I kept pressing down on me. What a waste, I thought: I’d worked so hard to earn this beauty—the unimpeachable, culturally condoned kind that has thinness as a prerequisite. But like a too-big, too-expensive house, the work it took to maintain that beauty left me no time or energy to enjoy it.
Clearly, my “healthy lifestyle” was anything but. But even when my period dried up for three years, my doctors didn’t broach the subject of potential malnutrition, disordered eating, or of course, anorexia. I was so strong-looking, so well-muscled, so healthy. Instead, my doctor prescribed me progesterone to wrench out a period once every few months (I was 27 with postmenopausal hormone levels). I was congratulated once again for my weight loss.
I fully believed that I was finally doing fitness and nutrition right, regardless of how wrong some parts of it felt. It wasn’t until I was six months in recovery that I realized that I was anorexic.
I eventually acknowledged that my “lifestyle” was completely unsustainable. It took work and therapy and lots of tears to move on from the diet mentality. It went against everything I’d been taught about my body since I was a chubby first-grader, when I first learned to count calories alongside basic arithmetic. I learned that to be my best self—my healthiest self—I had to be heavier. And it turned out that simply eating normally was the not-so-secret key that helped everything else fall into place—including my relationship with food.
At first, recovery looked like a luxurious (but terrifying) binge as my body sought out the highest-value foods to restore itself. For six months, I fed myself granola and whole milk and pretzels dipped into delicious, not-raw, crunchy salted peanut butter. By that time, I’d gained back half the weight I’d lost and suddenly found myself in stasis. Food lost its pornographic appeal and became a simple life pleasure. My diet naturally gravitated toward balance. Once I knew I could have ice cream whenever I wanted, I stopped wanting it all the time. And whether I ate pasta or cauliflower rice, whether I climbed Mount Saint Helens or took a rest week, so long as I followed my hunger cues, my weight stayed where it was.
Even more importantly, I felt a new verve I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. It was like breathing fresh air after spending the first half of your life in an underground fallout shelter. All the love I thought fat disqualified me from and all the joy I thought I’d earn by being thin was actually waiting for me the whole time, regardless of my body size. Oh, and my period was suddenly clockwork-regular—a lifetime first.
As women today, it’s almost impossible not to have some kind of “food thing.” But if you’re thinking about food all the time or if you feel like you need to “earn” your calories by working out, if you can glance at any food object and give an encyclopedia-like blurb listing all its macros—consider that it might not be a devotion to your health. In fact, it might be the opposite.
And as scary as it is, it’s worth it to trust your body—really. Our bodies were built to literally keep us alive and show us the world so we can enjoy it, carbs and all.
This Week’s Diem Commentary
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