Thursday, March 31, 2011

I'm not hungry -- I'm starving

Un ejemplo de anorexia

   I have recently felt myself to be in danger of slipping back under the incredibly seductive spell  of anorexia. The secretive thrill of seeing how well you can starve yourself has my heart pounding almost constantly.
    By coincidence, there was an article in the New York Times Tuesday about the epidemic among older women of eating disorders, which have generally been associated with girls in their teens and early twenties. For some in the 60-plus crowd, it is a new phenomenon. For others, it is the resurgence of an obsession with food from their younger years.
   I've had it under fairly good control for the past 30 years, and finally -- for the past nine months or so -- I've felt that I had a truly normal relationship with food, one that I hadn't enjoyed since college.
   By normal, I mean that I eat when I am hungry, and I stop when I am not. I don't think obsessively about food or my weight. I don't eat for emotional reasons. I neither stuff myself nor starve myself. This sounds so easy, but almost all of my adult life, every one of these statements has been untrue for me.
    The past nine months has been amazing and liberating to me. Food is just food -- delicious, but I haven't been "living to eat."
   But a medication I was taking earlier this year caused me so much stomach pain that all I ate for weeks was mangoes, berries, bananas, melons, kiwis, pineapple and tomatoes. It was a beautiful diet regimen, but very low in calories and deficient in several important nutrients.
    Thanks to all my exercising, I was already slender, but when I noticed that I was getting more and more skinny on my fruit diet, the old thrill came roaring back.
    It is a secret thrill that begins with a flutter and then suffuses you with a sense of power and possibility. I wondered how far I could take it. My pants were falling down already -- a conquest, a milestone. My chest was starting to cave in -- a concentration-camp look that I find oddly compelling, as long as no real concentration camps are involved.
   Anorexia is incredibly addictive. As has been described so many times before, it gives one a sense of mastery that is exhilarating. Once you get tangled up in the ethic of emptiness, it is excruciatingly hard to embrace food again.
Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan seemed like goddesses.
    Even during all these years, while I was coping very well with my food obsession and my weight obsession, I continued to be drawn to the models and starlets who were emaciated. I regarded their frailty as beautiful and moral, and I admired their self-discipline. People who conquer their appetites appeal to me. They seem like higher beings, infused with a spiritual asceticism, who sip black coffee while everyone else is cramming pizza and sweet rolls down their gullets. 
   I know intellectually that this is absurd, of course, but it is my visceral response: They are superior, otherworldly goddesses, freed from base impulses by their strength of will. Being empty from top to bottom is pure. Ingestion is pollution. Eating is an obscene bodily function that should be undertaken in private, shamefully,  if at all.
   My normal relationship with food ended when I was 21 years old. I had recently been the victim of a very traumatic crime. Instead of seeking help, I moved to New York City in an attempt to "start fresh." I realize now that I was shattered, and that leaving my home and my parents at that time was unwise.
   Within hours of landing at JFK Airport, I began experiencing a hunger I had never known before. Even then, I could tell that it wasn't an ordinary physical hunger. It was a desperate hunger that caused my heart to pound and my hands to shake. And it was a hunger that wasn't satisfied by food.
   I ate anyway. Every morning, I had several slices of whole-grain bread with peanut butter and bananas before I went to work. As I walked from the Canal Street subway stop to my office, I picked up three French crullers and a large coffee with sugar and cream. When the food cart came past at mid-morning, I got a heavily buttered poppy-seed roll or a bagel with cream cheese and more coffee. At lunchtime, someone took me either to Chinatown or Little Italy almost every day.
   But it was after work, when I went home, that the real appetite took over, and there were so many facets to this appetite that I never completely sorted it out. Actually I was way too busy eating mindlessly to sort anything out. I made a huge pot of food each night, and I ate all of it. I ate far beyond any need for nourishment. I ate far beyond being full. I ate until I was truly afraid I might suffocate. 
    Every night, within a couple of hours after I'd gotten home, I looked seven or eight months pregnant. I was massive, I was grotesque, but I was anesthetized, and I needed that. I was a beached whale in a whale of a stupor.
    I know now -- having been diagnosed as bipolar many years later -- that my move to New York triggered my first manic phase. I was using food to help me "come down" after having been stimulated all day by that magnificent city and its people and by my very exciting job (which involved some thrilling but anxiety-producing undercover work). I was so hyper, having taken all of that in, that I needed to be knocked out by something in order to relax and get some sleep.
   Food knocked me out.
   I have also realized that, in a sad sort of  way, I was attempting to mother myself. Like most mothers, mine had provided me great comfort and pleasure with her food. I guess I still needed her.
   I find it hard to believe now, but at the time, it never occurred to me to be concerned about my weight. My mind was already overloaded, and weight had never been an issue for me.
   Then, the first article I had written since college was published in a prestigious national magazine. The editor invited me to join him and some of his staff for drinks at his West 86th street apartment.
    I hadn't seen myself in a full-length mirror since leaving Salt Lake City six months ago.
   But there I was, facing myself in his entryway mirror, a very fleshy and flabby looking young woman in a lavender cowl-necked wool dress and fashionable boots. I stood there appalled, frozen to the spot. I must have gained about fifteen pounds.
   "In here, honey, don't be shy," Bob called out from the living room. I wouldn't have been shy if it weren't for the mirror.
    And that was the day I stopped eating.
    Before long, I was also binging. Bulimia and alcohol took over.