The cereal, the milk and the bowl are all on the kitchen counter in a row. It’s 3 a.m. and the hunger has woken me up and pulled me out of bed.
“The brain can’t rest until it’s fed.”
I recall the words of the nutritionist from my intake session that morning as I debate what I am about to do.
“You will bloat, you will feel uncomfortable, but you must remember that you are healing your body.”
I look from the cereal box to the bowl. I look at my reflection in the window, hoping for some sort of approval.
“Make sure you think about what you want to eat and prepare a plate; experience the food, enjoy it.”
I look back down at the counter, I grab and handful of cereal and place it in the bowl. I pause. The rules interrupt.
You’ve had 1600 calories today. There is no way you can still be hungry. You will have to spend 4 hours at the gym. You are getting so big.
I look back up at my reflection and I feel the hunger inside my stomach. All of a sudden, I hear a new voice. It sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place it.
It’s just a damn bowl of cereal. Eat it. Hell, eat two!
And that’s what I do. I eat two.
Session two: Thursday, October 1.
Lesson: I am stronger than my eating disorder.
“I broke two rules.” I’m excited to tell my therapist about my achievement.
I explain to her how I ate because I was hungry; how I didn’t measure the contents of the food, how I didn’t count the calories and how I didn’t feel guilty when I woke up this morning. I tell her how I kept my workout to 60 minutes that day, and that I plan to from here on out. I tell her this with pride, but also with urgency.
Please help me make sure I don’t mess this up again.
She’s impressed, “That is quite a step in such a short time!”
I tell her how it has been a few months in the making. I tell her about a book I read back in March — Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness. I tell her how it was the catalyst for change.
“Honestly if I hadn’t read that book I don’t think I’d be here today. I mean, not saying like I’d be dead, but like..here in your office.”
“Have you read it?” I ask her.
She nods. “Yes, but a while ago.”
“For so long I was under the impression that I was okay living with my eating disorder. I started to see it as an identifier, a part of me. I thought I was incapable of getting better. I have been sick for so long that I didn’t know where it stopped and I began — well, I still don’t really know. But after reading that book…you see… Portia also suffered her whole life, but she recovered. Part of the recovery meant realizing that she wasn’t her eating disorder and that it didn’t define her.”
“She found her voice.”
I nod. “Anyway, when I read it, I thought if she could fight it, so could I. In her recovery she makes a promise to herself. She decides she is not going to deny herself her cravings, anymore. That she will eat what she wants, when she wants to. I wanted to make the same promise to myself but I wasn’t ready.”
“And why was that?”
I tell her that at the height of my anorexia I was eating 500 calories a day. I tell her that in order to introduce food back into my body, my mother set me up with a nutritionist. I tell her how the nutritionist gave me meal plans, and I would sit at my desk for hours, making sure each meal met the requirements at the least amount of calories. I tell her how I started to really enjoy the game, and how the game took over the next 15 years of my life. I tell her how no matter how many times I tried to fight back, to make similar promises to myself, the rules always won, because I didn’t have a strong enough weapon. I tell her that now I finally do.
“In our last session you pointed out my humor. And I told you how I’ve been using it as protection all these years. So I got to thinking…this whole healing process, it’s going to be uncomfortable for me. My body is going to change, I know that, and I’m terrified. I’ve been in so much pain all these years, but my humor has kept me distracted…and then it hit me — my humor is stronger than my eating disorder. It just finally clicked. Humor, that’s my weapon. I can fight back now. I can make myself the same promise. I know what I’m up against.. I mean, I know it’s not going to be a home run…but today I cracked the surface, and I felt invigorated.”
She smiles. “Let me ask you something. Do you know what that voice sounds like — the one that told you to eat?”
“I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Well it’s time to start, because despite these realizations, the healing process is going to be tough. Until you are able to differentiate the voice of the eating disorder from your own, you won’t be able to override it.”
7 p.m., the same day
I am in the car telling my mother about my therapy session. I am excited, full of life. I feel like a little kid talking about her first day of school. My mother is so happy to hear me talk with such joy about food.
“When I’m ready, can we go to The Cheesecake Factory so I can order chicken fingers and fries like I used to?”
When I’m ready. The words fill me with exuberance. I feel a whole new world open up to me; a world where I am not afraid, where I am not restricted–a world where I am rested, energized and free.
A world where I can have my cake and eat it too. And maybe also your cake, if I want it.
12 a.m., that night
I am thinking about the many things that happened that day. I recall the happiness I felt as I talked to my mother. I recall how relieved I was to know I wouldn’t have to go hours without eating. I recall eating too fast at dinner, causing my stomach to feel uncomfortable. I recall thinking how at the same time, it was nice to be full.
And then I start to think about that day’s session.
Let me ask you something. Do you know what that voice sounds like — the one that told you to eat?
I’ve never really thought about it.
I begin to think about it as I trace the years of my life. I think back to college, to high school, to middle school — and I land on the summer before the eighth grade, a time I assume I had to be happy. But what I find surprises me; what I find is that voice was already on its deathbed, and I wasn’t happy at all.
As is family tradition, I am on the plane to Israel the summer after my Bat Mitzvah, about to spend it with my dad’s family. I am excited, I am nervous — but I am also scared. Scared that I will not live up to my own expectations.
My older sister took the same trip three years earlier. When she came back she told such wonderful stories about her time there; how she made so many good friends, how all the girls adored her and how all the boys had crushes on her. My older sister is my best friend and I have always looked up to her. But my older sister is beautiful, outgoing, and thin. I am none of these things.
I have been a tomboy my whole life, with no idea how to manage my short, unkept hair, how to dress myself or how to do my makeup. I am insecure, shy and chubby. I sit on the plane hoping to live up to my sister’s legacy, but terrified I never will.
And as the next two months play out, my fears are confirmed: I am just as much of an outcast in Israel as I am in my hometown. I spend the summer knee-deep in anxiety, afraid I’ll never be good enough — that I’ll never be loved, or even liked by others. I spend the summer in the hell I’ve created for myself.
I don’t want to face the truth when I come back, so I pretend I had the time of my life. I tell exciting stories filled with little white fibs to protect my esteem, but I know the truth.
Nobody liked you, because you are ugly and you are fat.
I then recall the following October, Halloween night. I am 12 years old and telling my mother about the party I just came back from. I had a wonderful night; for the first time since Israel, I felt validated, worthwhile. I made new friends, and they liked me.
But then my mother said three words I’ll never forget.
You’ve gained weight.
And that’s when the voice died, and the rules took over.