Wednesday, July 28, 2010

annoying eating disorder terminology pt. 1: "food rituals"

Confession: I am a serial muffin dissector.

This is what we refer to as a "food ritual". If you've even been in residential or inpatient treatment for an eating disorder, you will come to hate this terminology, because any person will come to hate anything that they hear SIX THOUSAND TIMES A DAY. To be fair, it is those counselors' jobs to kindly but firmly say things like, "See, what you're doing is a food ritual. In the real world, people don't tap their fork to their plate three times after they eat pizza."

The gist: almost everyone has a few little eating quirks. These are mostly habits they develop as little kids then grow out of: eating food on their plate in a clockwise fashion or eating foods by color (yellow first, then green, then brown. . . ). I don't know, things like that. But, as with pretty much everything in the world, people with eating disorders take this to an unhealthy extreme. They develop these rituals mostly because the anxiety of eating a "normal" amount of food and digesting it like a Real Person is suffocating when you've spent so much of your life doing the opposite of just that. So food rituals aren't just actions; they're systems, and they generally serve as a way to lessen anxiety by exerting familiar control over eating, to take the edge off of an incredibly uncomfortable situation.

They tend to make little sense, but it is extremely anxiety-provoking for the patient when they're stripped away. In treatment, there was a girl, for instance, who had to eat an apple in 20 bites. No more, no less. This was an intelligent girl. She recognized the absurdity of it, but she also fiercely clung to it on a visceral level. A few other people "had" to cut food into laughably infinitesimal pieces.

For me, there is a positive correlation between the amount of social anxiety or insecurity I'm feeling and the number of muffin pieces that wind up strewn across my plate. Muffins are an easy culprit because you eat them with your hands -- it's like God WANTED you to rip them up into countless pieces, right?

Occasionally it extends elsewhere. Once, on a date, I ordered a Nutella and strawberry crêpe. (When I'd realized that we'd be going to a crêpe place, I spent the rest of the afternoon/evening stressing out because I had just eaten a big meal and wasn't intending on eating anything else and oh my god the world is ending, omg.) I cut it. . . and cut it. . . and cut it. Over and over, until it looked like a crêpe massacre had taken place on my plate. I was aware of how stupid it looked, how childish, but I couldn't help it, and it was embarrassing. And on the outside I could see that it looked like a coy oh-look-at-me-eating-like-a-bird-how-precious-and-feminine scenario, but it wasn't. It was actually more of a you-are-evaluating-me-right-now-and-thinking-I'm-probably-inadequate-and-of-course-fat-so-I-need-an-eating-disorder-way-of-handling-this. This kind of behavior existed long before the advent of my eating disorder, too: I remember being pretty damn young, definitely pre-teenaged, and conflating people-hate-me anxieties with my perceived overeating and high weight. (In reality, I was eating a perfectly normal amount and I was really quite thin. I didn't go on to develop an eating disorder for no reason.)

The crêpe affair actually happened when I was like. . . six months out of treatment. So, suffice it to say, there is still headway to be made in this particular arena. The Ziploc baggie in my pantry full of leftover muffin crumbs from breakfast could tell you as much.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

how intelligent people come to believe in absurd things

A while back, I was writing a piece for a fiction class about the children of a mother with schizophrenia. At some point in the story, I was working through a way of describing what schizophrenia must be like, inspired in part by a throwaway comment in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind: "The nightmare of schizophrenia is not knowing what’s true. Imagine if you had suddenly learned that the people, places, and moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse – had never been. What kind of hell would that be?"

Anyway, in the story I was trying to inject some of this truth -- the hell of not knowing, the gap between objective reality and personally experienced "reality". I wound up cutting the scene because it was sub-par (I am a proudly ruthless self-editor), but in writing it I found what remains my working layperson's definition of mental illness and disease:

Believing in untrue things that make your life hellish.

Simplistic? Oh hells yes. Simplistic enough that I've never mentioned this theory to any psychology major or psychotherapist or anything like that. But to me, it tends to encompass a lot of different mental disorders, eating disorders of course included.

For example, something that came up yesterday: I have a specific weight in my mind that I would like to reach -- a number far below what is medically or personally healthy. After a couple of weeks of zero appetite and lessened caloric intake, I am now closer to that weight than I've been in while. (Well, relatively speaking. I'm talking about a rather sizable loss, here. Because I'm nuts.)

Anyway, even now -- even before I reach that number -- it is already inadequate. It is already not enough. I am acutely aware of the pointlessness of losing weight. I know it will not take me anywhere worth going, and I know that it will never satisfy me. I know that it will cause me incredible anguish and isolation and sadness, because it will involve diving back into ED.

At the same time that I know this fact, I also believe its logical contradiction: I will feel better at this weight and I will look better at this weight; ergo, I must reach this weight. I will be able to reach this weight and maintain it without spiraling into an eating disorder frenzy. Once I reach this weight, it will be enough.

Both of these ideas are constantly yapping around in my brain, shrill and shrieking, jockeying for position, and I tell them to shut up because I don't care any more, don't have the energy or will, but the sheer fucking loudness of it all is enough to drive you crazy.

The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keepin' on like a bird that flew, tangled up in blue. Thanks, Bob. You've got my back.


I can't start with a carefully honed history of my eating disorder or a nuanced explanation of the neuropsychological or existential or psychological underpinnings of my eating disorder or any one else's eating disorder. I can't offer a definitive list of What An Eating Disorder Is and What An Eating Disorder Is Not, partially because no such lists exist and partially because I lack the colossal emotional/intellectual energy making such lists would entail.

It's well within the realm of possibility that three people will ever read this, and that's okay. I started this because it's been roughly a year since I've been discharged from residential treatment for bulimia, and though I am doing well, I am also so tired of fighting eating disordered thoughts every single day that I want to scream. So here's an outlet, I suppose. I'm not going for emo ramblings of how ~*hard*~ recovery is. Though it is without a doubt the most difficult thing I've ever attempted, that's besides the point, and it's also boring. I mostly just want to write about this because it dominates my life, because the eating disorder and the ensuing recovery have been the most formative experiences of my life. I write if only because it's impossible not to. Also, I have to say that I find eating disorders sheerly fascinating on an intellectual level, so there's tons of interesting theories waiting to be expounded upon out there in the philosophical ether.

Anyway. The beginning and middle of this poem encapsulates where I'm at right now, and the end is just lovely.

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.

Come with me, then,
And we'll leave it far and far away—
(Only you and I, understand!)

You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and—
Just tired.
So am I.

But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.

Ah, come with me!
I'll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I'll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.

-- e.e. cummings