Friday, April 1, 2011

A Morose Little Vehicle, Running on Emptiness

continued from yesterday's post

Fat women - high heels - Pistonheads

    What stands out most in my mind is that I was always starving -- and on the vibrant, poignant streets of New York City, the fragrance of food was everywhere. I was in a near-swoon most of the time. I wanted so much to eat -- to eat everything! -- but I wanted not to eat even more. Out of nowhere, I had developed a humongous fear of being fat. (This was ironic, because the two best female friends I'd ever had were obese. They were beautiful and sexy. They were fresh and clean. They were smart and compassionate. Their love enveloped everyone around them.  So what was my problem?)
    Food had become my adversary. My hunger could not be managed except by stomping it down.

   Friends would say, "Just have a tiny piece of cheesecake."
   My response was, "No thanks, I'm not hungry." I had an image to maintain, and it was an image of rationality and composure.
   The honest response would have been, "If I have a tiny piece, I will eat the whole thing. And then I'll walk up to Broadway and buy a German chocolate cake, some ice cream and a pound of yogurt-covered almonds, and when I'm through with that, I'll still be hungry."
   It was agonizing not to eat. But it had become impossible to eat moderately. I was afraid even to lick the knife that had cut the cheesecake for fear of losing all control. 
   As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this obsession -- with food, with stuffing myself, with oblivion -- was new to me. Part of it, I think, was a result of post-traumatic stress. The other part was having left the security of home -- and of being mothered -- too soon.
    After a couple of weeks on carrot juice and mineral water, I chose a middle path: to eat raw fruits and vegetables, as much as I wanted. I could stuff myself just as full as I had with "real food," and wind up in the stupor I required, all the while losing weight. 
   I would run up to the corner drugstore, sometimes as often as three times a day, to put a nickel in a big antique scale and weigh myself. I carried large bags of sliced apples and carrots to work with me, and at night I filled a massive salad bowl with cabbage, spinach, carrots, raw grated beets, broccoli and green peppers. I drenched it with red-wine vinegar and sat there shoving it down, which took about an hour. It wiped me out. That was all I asked of it. If I wasn't quite blottoed enough, I consumed a can of collard greens, smeared with grainy mustard.
   In between my infusions of "The Grapes (and other things) of Wrath," I chewed gum -- several packs a day. My mouth had become an engine that had to keep running, or my brain would collapse into disarray. My entire oral apparatus had apparently evolved into a separate being, with irrational and incomprehensible demands. I may well have had more of an oral fixation than I did a food fixation. But I couldn't do anything -- from vacuuming the floor to drafting a subpoena or writing a consent decree on behalf of The City of New York -- unless I had the comfort of my "chaw." 
   When I was taken out to dinner, I didn't even look at the menu. I simply said, "I would like a very large salad, please, dressing on the side." Many years later, on "Seinfeld," Elaine chose the same coping mechanism. When I got home, I made myself an even bigger salad, and I bet she did too.
Pike Place Market Produce
   It's hard to remember how, despite this ongoing ache inside of me, I could derive so much pleasure from New York, and from my growing, diverse circle of friends, and from my work Every day was magical, despite the backdrop of famishment and a growing sense of underlying depression. The moment I walked out of my apartment building, I was surrounded by beauty, heartbreak, wit, diligence, pride, decay and struggle. I had never been so unhappy and on such shaky ground psychologically, but I had never even come close to loving humanity this much.
   Every few weeks, I decided quite spontaneously to take a vacation from my raw-produce diet and to devote an entire day to eating everything I had been yearning for. As soon as this binging scenario landed in my brain, I could feel the adrenaline pouring through me. The excitement was overwhelming. I felt a rush of happiness and energy.
   First, I went to two or (usually) three coffee shops, all run by delightful Greek people, and had the 89 cent breakfast special. That was my appetizer, with free lessons in conversational Greek thrown in. Then I went into all those shops along Broadway that had been tormenting me with their aromas and window displays (bread pudding, chocolate donuts, marzipan cake, felafel, tortellini and ravioli, halvah, bean pie -- from the Black Muslims -- along with nuts, bread, olives and cheese).
   I ate all the way home, and then I made a pot of coffee and sat down to live for a short time in the oh-so-special Heaven of chewing and swallowing.

   It was sad and sickening, of course, and a secret from all of those who saw me as a devoted, aggressive and competent defender of the rights of others.
   After an hour or so, I usually had to lie down for awhile before resuming my party of ingestion.
   Only once did I give the bulimia technique a try, which in the early 1970s was not (and neither was anorexia) in the popular lexicon. I thought I had made up the idea of starving oneself, and I also thought that stuffing yourself and then throwing it all up was original to me. I felt quite clever. All the pleasure, none of the consequences. 
   (I should make clear that I only purged one time, and my "anorexia" -- which I think is more accurately described as an eating disorder, was mild compared to what we see in the media. My weight got as low as 102 pounds and as high as 127 pounds, but I never became terribly emaciated or in any danger of organ failure or death.)
   I don't recommend purging. I ate about 6,000 calories worth of food. Then I drank some Syrup Ipecac, which is administered to induce vomiting in someone who has ingested poison. It normally produces a convulsive emptying of the stomach within minutes.
   I knelt beside the toilet, waiting for all that food to come roaring out of me. Time was passing quite uncomfortably. I must be absorbing quite a few calories -- that wasn't the plan. Nausea and rumbling kicked in, but there was no upheaval, so to speak.
bulimia Bulimia Nervosa
    Quite belatedly, I pictured what it would actually be like to vomit all the food I had just eaten. I could easily strangle. There was a whole lot of stuff in there. Panic and dread set in.  I kind of prayed -- kind of, because I don't believe in God -- and I promised that if I lived through this I would never do the bulimia thing again. I have tricked the Good Lord in this way several times, but this time I was serious.
   I never did puke. I lay down by the toilet and went to sleep. (I was the young woman who glided through the office being compared to Grace Kelly and to a Botticelli maiden. If only they could see me now.) I guess the Ipecac was no match for the heap of food in my stomach.
   I went back to the fresh-produce regimen, along with the occasional binge. Whether I was eating lots of apples or lots of eclairs, my hunger hovered over me, humiliating and insatiable.
   Something was happening, though, that would change everything.
   Alcohol discovered me. I can't really take the credit for doing the discovering; I was just having a drink now and then in a restaurant, impatiently awaiting the arrival of my giant salad. I wanted to chew and swallow -- not sip!
   But it wasn't very long before I felt a switch come on. Booze had found yet another receptive customer (ultimately a slave). Alcohol, I realized, was very excellent medicine. My depression dissipated. My back pain went away. My cheeks were pink and my eyes were shining. My brain fog cleared. Everything seemed fascinating, including myself. Waves of well-being swept over me. I felt energized, whereas before I was exhausted by sadness and malnutrition. Alcohol became the love of my life. It kept me going for years before turning on me.

    Once the alcohol had taken hold, it seemed that all of my major problems were resolved. Although I still longed to eat, I resisted more easily, because that would interfere with the sweepingly majestic high that whiskey thoughtfully released into my every cell. Alcohol made me feel healthy, physically and mentally. I was more able to focus on my work, because the knowledge that in just a few hours I would be flying high soothed me. My pleasure in my extraordinary social life increased as the alcohol loosened me up.I felt open and adventurous.  I loved to leave parties alone, quite smashed after hours of drinking, and to walk home at night during New York's most crime-ridden decade. I was enraptured by the night sky, the cool breeze, the gorgeous skyscrapers all lit up. Sometimes, I skipped home. I put in many, many miles, fueled by booze. It was a fuel that seemed like a magical elixir, which filled me with radiance.
   At fancy gatherings, society matrons would often ask, "What is your secret for that glow of yours?"
The Cocktail Party
painted by John Koch, 1956

   My response was, "A quart of whiskey a day and a pound of carrots a day. An apple upon rising and another before bed."
   That was the truth -- at least I thought so at the time. Now I realize that it was probably just my youth that enabled me to remain presentable, despite the abuse I was inflicting on my body.
   My eating obsession remained, and I still ate lots of fruits and vegetables, but the relief that alcohol gave me each night (and ultimately each day as well) overshadowed my craving for substantial food. 
   This went on for years, through my move to be a magazine editor in Denver and back to Salt Lake City to work for the newspaper.
   The most effective strategy I ever tried to deal with my eating disorder was to adopt an exercise regimen. I had to do quite a bit of drinking before I could tolerate jogging. Jogging drunk was ecstatic, just as washing windows drunk was ecstatic. Before long, I was able to do it without alcohol, as long as I had some good music to propel me along.
    Not surprisingly, I became as obsessive about exercise as I had been about food.If I couldn't exercise for one reason or another, I panicked. I crashed.  But I was burning off so many calories that I was able to eat lots of great food and remain slender. I overate -- but it was brown rice and beans, home-made whole-grain bread. peanuts,  and Grape Nuts with soymilk that I gorged upon -- so it seemed like a workable compromise, even though I was abusing my body by forcing it to process such large quantities of food.
   I finally stopped drinking with very little effort. After many years of heavy use, it was beginning to affect my liver, my relationships and my career. My doctor -- the brilliant, gorgeous, devoted, tender-hearted Frederick Reimherr, who runs the Mood Disorders Clinic at the University Hospital  -- put me on a combination of amitriptyline and lithium, which must have turned on some receptors or turned some off, who knows?
   (I'm sure there are thousands of people who would agree that there should be a monument erected to Fred, or a neuropsychiatric center, or better yet, a river, because he loves fly fishing and just being out in that serene yet dynamic beauty. The River Reimherr never ends. It keeps rippling along, patiently bringing peace and consolation and hope wherever it is needed. Fred isn't one of those peacocky doctors, brusque and distant. He behaves as if it is his privilege and duty to provide comfort -- like he is our humble servant. He is adorable. I love him).
   Anyway, within a couple of months, I quit drinking without really deciding to. It took more than 20 years before I stopped missing it, and the clink of ice in a glass of whiskey filled me with nostalgia. 
   For years, I exercised excessively so that I could eat excessively. It was neurotic, but it worked quite well -- I was skinny -- but I was constantly tormented by a lust for food. 
   Then of course there were the cigarettes and the abuse of prescription drugs, but lets not get into that.
   Brain chemistry is a fascinating thing. I'm not hungry anymore. After all these years, I can take it or leave it, although when I take it, I thoroughly enjoy it -- and I take pleasure in how well I nourish myself.
   But I have come to expect dramatic, dispiriting reversals of fortune. What will my brain decide to throw at me next? All I can do is wait, blogging a bit in the meantime.