I'm Mending My Broken Relationship With Food
After a lifetime struggling with disordered eating, I’m still figuring out how to have a healthy relationship with my body and what I feed it.
It's a late night in winter, and I am standing over my gas stove heating a metal spoon. I hold the handle gently in my fingers, carefully rotating the bowl over the tips of the indigo flames as the pale yellow pat of Smart Balance butter inside begins to liquefy. The sleeves of my oversized sweatshirt graze the middle of my palms and I step on the hem of my baggy sweatpants as, slowly, I pull the spoon away. A tiny drop of hot liquid falls on my toes as I tip its contents over the edge of a plain white bowl filled with sugar. I add flour, some milk, a few drops of vanilla, and a handful of chocolate chips. I stir. I taste.
I take the bowl to the couch, balance it precariously on the edge, and lie down on my side, my fingers the only utensil, pinching stray sugary flecks off the velvet dark gray fabric as The Real Housewives of New Jersey blares on the TV. It's been nearly three years since a therapist told me I'm a disordered eater. Yet, after one personal trainer, over two years of therapy, three juice cleanses, four gym memberships, 20 pounds lost, 30 pounds gained back, and thousands of dollars spent on healthy groceries and high-end cookware, I am 24 years old and spending another night, like so many nights before, eating a bowl of last-minute, mediocre cookie dough alone in my apartment at 11 p.m. And I hate myself for it.
I've been overweight — or bordering on it — nearly my entire life, at least since my family moved to the U.S. when I was 4. When I was a child, a routine fight between my Hungarian mother and me was over how much I ate for dinner. Propping my elbows on our scratched dining table, I'd watch her petite, pale hands hovering above me, ladling spoon upon spoon of rice on my father's plate. "NO FAIR, DAD GOT THE BIGGER ONE," I'd cry out when my own would finally land, unable to grasp why a 5-foot-10-inch, 200-plus-pound Nigerian man would need to eat more than I did. Seconds, for me, were a must. Thirds weren't unusual.
Growing up in a white, affluent neighborhood in Lubbock, Texas, I was the only Anita in a sea of Amandas, Brittanys, and Tiffanys. I was biracial, brown and round, with a puffy ball of hair that sat squarely banded in the middle in my head. The boys called it a "burnt marshmallow" and "tumor." Isolated and othered, I began using food as a coping mechanism around middle school, when my parents began letting me walk home (across the street) alone. I'd spend the two hours until my mom got off work by myself. My best friends had "boyfriends" in the way suburban preteens can — notes, stuffed animals, dates at the roller rink on school skate night. I had a gallon of Edy's chocolate chip waiting in the freezer for me each day.
Eventually, my mom realized I was sneaking food and she started hiding sweets in the kitchen in hopes of curbing my steady weight gain. Instead, I became an expert at climbing on countertops, calculating how much I could eat of something before she would notice, and burying wrappers in the trash. Often, I'd throw away the balanced, nutritious lunches she'd pack me — whole wheat wraps and sandwiches, fruits, veggies, hard-boiled eggs — in favor of pizza and curly fries. "You ate your lunch today, right?" she'd ask cautiously, waiting for the "yes" we both knew was a lie. She was careful not to tie my weight to my worth, but rather reminded me constantly that what I was doing wasn't healthy. Looking back, I can't blame her, but at the time I felt betrayed. Though I couldn't articulate it then, taking those foods away from me was taking away the one thing that made me feel like I wasn't alone. I was already the chubby black girl; I didn't want to be the chubby black girl on a diet.
As I grew older, I prided myself on being good. I volunteered. I got straight A's. I didn't drink, smoke, have sex, or do drugs. But I ate.
What had begun as a way of burying my insecurities morphed into a way of self-medicating full-blown depression and anxiety. Food was my salve and my secret. By the time I was a high schooler in Arkansas, where we had moved when I was 14, I was regularly driving through the local Chinese restaurant, eating crab rangoon alone in my car in the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall. Overwhelmed by a laundry list of extracurriculars that I hoped would get me into the "right college" — student council, cheerleading, theatre, National Honor Society, Key Club, jazz, tap, ballet — I ate until I was too full to worry. When I was cast in my senior musical, I ran to my car after last bell and sped up the highway to Sonic to buy Cinnasnacks (think mini-cinnamon rolls, but more gross) and a cherry limeade in the half hour before first rehearsal. I realized what was happening wasn't normal when I thought more about what I'd eat when I got to my friends' houses than the time I'd spend with them.
At the time, I tried to figure out what was wrong with me the same way I tried to find solutions to all of my problems as a teen: magazines. Yet, in article upon article, all I saw were stock images of thin white girls with whom I seemed to have nothing in common. I was obviously not anorexic. I never could throw up after eating, though god knows I tried, so bulimia was out. And while my habits were definitely in line with bingeing, which wasn't recognized as its own disorder until 2013, I never felt like I ate quite enough to qualify. I had a tendency to buy a lot of things on impulse, take a few bites, then throw them away. I once read somewhere that Lindsay Lohan poured water on her food after she was full so she'd stop eating; I'd subsequently watched many half-eaten tubs of ice cream swirl down the drain.
I hoped going to my dream college would somehow absolve me of my lack of self-worth and, with that, my eating habits. Instead, I spent much of my freshman and sophomore years at Brown feeling like a fraud and making full use of my unlimited meal plan by stuffing to-go containers and eating alone in my dorm room.
Eventually, I began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed me with dysthymia — a low-grade, chronic form of depression — and generalized anxiety disorder. I also began seeing a personal trainer. By senior year, my body finally felt like it fit my 5-foot-2-inch frame. I spoke in class like what I had to say actually mattered. Instead of ruminating alone and in doubt, I opened up to friends and socialized. I went on spring break in Florida and took pictures in a bikini for the first time ever. I felt more in control of my life than I ever thought I could. I was finally, finally, happy.
But, despite my progress, there was one hurdle for which I couldn't shake my anxiety: finding a job. An aspiring journalist, I had carefully checked off all the necessary boxes — writing courses, writing and editing for campus publications, three internships — but was terrified of rejection. So instead, I joined Teach for America after graduating in 2012, rationalizing it as a necessary experience to one day write about social justice issues. After a few months teaching third grade at a charter school north of Providence, I was miserable. Inexperienced and ill-equipped to handle the needs of my students, I began yo-yoing between jars of baby food that I'd eat as meals and cartons of Chinese food and quickly gained back half the weight I'd previously lost.
So, I finally sought out a second therapist who specialized in weight and body issues.
"The only reason you felt happy your senior year is because you were thin," she told me during one of our first sessions. It was then when I learned the name for what I'd been struggling with my entire life: disordered eating, in my case chronic enough that it was periodically a full-blown, though unspecified, eating disorder (the distinction between the two is the frequency and severity of patterns). My therapist coaxed me to recognize how my entire identity and self-esteem seemed dependent on what was on my plate at any given moment. She pointed out that even when I had felt my best, I was undercounting calories, considering a couple dozen spears of asparagus or a couple of eggs to be adequate dinners, despite running regular 5Ks at the time. Instead of becoming healthier during college, I had swung from one extreme to the other. Now I was bouncing back and forth between the two.
Yet, as thankful as I was to have a more concrete understanding of what was going on with me, I rejected her theory. After all, I thought, much more had changed that year than just my weight and diet. The real problem was my job. The real problem was Rhode Island. So, I quit and I left. And, like a bad movie on loop, within a few months in New York I was juice cleansing and takeout bingeing, with a job at a fashion magazine where I was thankful for a cubicle so that that no one could see me inhale the finest Midtown's hot buffet delis had to offer. Then, for a host of reasons, I quit that job after half a year and spent my "funemployment" obsessively looking for another one, watching all of Breaking Bad, and ordering Seamless at midnight.
Pause. Play. Rewind. Repeat.
I'm now nearing the end of my second year in New York, and by and large my life has begun to stabilize. I've moved out of a claustrophobic apartment I shared with roommates when I first got to the city into one of my own, and have both a job and a boyfriend I love. I cook more and, overall, eat much better, often Instagramming the meals I'm most proud to have made.
And yet — two weekends ago, I visited my parents in Arkansas, and it went badly: My boyfriend and I were fighting, the flights were changed because of bad weather. Exhausted, I spent much of my airport layover on the way back to NYC agonizing over what to eat, wanting nothing more than to drown myself in a combo plate at the King Wah Express, yet ultimately settling on a sensible salad from the glaringly obvious sensible salad place ("green to greens…" "earth fresh…"). The canned salmon was too pale, the dressing too much like something out of a Kraft bottle, and I was too aware of being the overweight woman eating a salad. I pushed it over to the side and grabbed my wallet. After another lap around the food court, I was back in front of King Wah Express.
"How much is just a side of lo mein?" I asked the woman behind the counter.
It wasn't a lot, but I was frustrated that I'd already spent $13 on something that was going in the trash. I changed course.
"I'll take two crab rangoon, please."
I sat back down and ate them my usual way: crispy corners first, then soft, squishy middle full of filling. As I dribbled duck sauce out of individual packets and wiped grease off my fingers, I wondered, like so many times before, if my eating habits will — can — ever really sustainably change. I pulled up the waistband of my leggings, aware of the strings already unraveling at the seams in the thigh and that I'd just bought them a little over a month ago. Packing for this trip was easy; I am at the heaviest I've ever been and most of my clothes didn't fit anyway.
The last time I ate crab rangoon, it was 2013 and I was still living in Rhode Island. After failing to go to the YMCA that was across the street from my apartment, I had purchased a membership at a discount gym in a small town 10 minutes away because, somehow, that seemed like a better motivator than a building I could literally stare at out of my bedroom window. I can count the number of times I went to that gym on two hands and have few memories of it, but I do remember the Chinese buffet that was in the shopping center next door. I went to it twice: one time to eat inside, in a pleather booth near a couple and their annoying kids, the other to eat takeout, in a red plastic Ikea chair in my kitchen.
I can't believe I am fucking here. Again. I thought, as I thumbed crumbs off the airport table.
But that was two weeks ago.
I've come to realize I eat the same way I hit my snooze button every morning: just a little bit more. Tired when I should feel energized, so empty despite being so full. Food is still the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. I still spend much of my time trying to hide just how much I eat it. After nine months in my own place, I've yet to buy my own microwave, hoping the lack of ease with which I can heat things will keep me from eating myself out of control. I've also yet to find a therapist in the city, an endeavor I've embarked on most weeks since I moved here and feel wholly overwhelmed by. However, I'm slowly, finally, acknowledging that my disordered eating — though inextricably intertwined with other issues — is also its own source of unhappiness, rather than a symptom of it.
And now I'm trying a new routine. Today was my fourth day starting my morning curled on my couch, sipping a cup of tea before I reach for the handle of the fridge. Before I leave my apartment, I pack lunch — a proper serving of "pad thai" made with spaghetti squash and shrimp, which I relished making earlier in the week, plus blueberries — in a plastic teal bento box with dorky handles. I feel equal parts embarrassed and ecstatic about carrying it on the subway and into my office, mindful of what my co-workers might think of such a marked departure from the spread of constant, countless snacks I've carted to my desk, but knowing after I've finished what's inside, I'll feel better somehow. This time, I won't throw it away.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, here are some organizations that have trained support staff available by phone:
Binge Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-855-855-BEDA
National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237