Thursday, July 21, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 6 (Possible TW)

Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors

Chapter 6 – Tricks of the Trade

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” – Voltaire

Almost everyone has little food quirks that make eating more enjoyable. My friend used to eat the chocolate off her Butterfinger candy bar first instead of biting directly into it, savoring the peanut-butter-flavored inside like some edible treasure she had just unburied. Another friend of mine uses this chocolate removal process on ice cream bars. It has become a tradition to either open up an Oreo cookie and lick away, or use the teeth to scrape out, the creamy filling, or dunk the cookie in milk.

These little habits we form are all quite normal and do make eating a fun experience. An anorexic, on the other hand, takes this food-play to an abnormal extreme, and any ritual around food moves away from fun or playful into unpleasant territory. These kinds of obsessive actions have a different flavor than the enjoyment of, say, stacking several Pringles potato chips together before chomping down. For example, one of my friends who suffered from anorexia cut up a turkey sandwich into small cubes. Over the course of three days, she'd slowly consume nothing but these tiny cubes, one at a sitting. One girl I knew ate chewable vitamins for dessert. The most extreme game I encountered didn’t actually involve food but rather extreme deprivation. A friend of mine, whom I met in the hospital, grew increasingly afraid to swallow her own saliva. She refused any solid food and all liquids, and spit into a cup that she carried around with her. It did not take long for her to be rushed to the medical unit when she passed out from dehydration.

The term anorexia was essentially unheard of among my friends when I was 13. However, anorexia was documented and described as far back as the 1700s, and there is evidence suggesting that anorexia may have existed far earlier than this. Many famous women, including the long-suffering English writer Virginia Woolf, may have been anorexic, but didn’t openly admit their secret battles with food. Unfortunately, anorexia today seems to be not only more visible in the general public, but virtually celebrated in the world of models and celebrities. The pithy homily “you can never be too rich or too thin” ignores that fact that many people can, in fact, be too thin, with lethal consequences for some of them.

My initial decision to go on a diet was part of an entire transformation into a new being. Although it was no religious revelation, it had similar characteristics in that I wanted to be pure. I was on a mission to purge myself of the guilt of merely existing, a burden I experienced on a daily basis. As part of this process, I gave up drugs, drinking and smoking, partaking in any of these vices only extremely rarely as opposed to every weekend.

At first, during the summer before 9th grade, I decided to just improve my eating habits a little bit. I became a salad-bar hound, and tuna fish was a new diet staple. I wanted to be more normal, noting that there were plenty of people in the world who ate three meals a day who were skinny, so it made sense that I could do the same. For me, three meals a day meant absolutely no snacks, no matter how hungry I was. I soon found that I liked the challenge of being hungry, so over the next few weeks, I gave myself harder and harder challenges around food deprivation and quickly tossed out any traditional dieting regimes. Eventually, I settled into a month-long diet of peanut butter, bagels and milk. Twice a day, I would split open a large bagel, toast the two halves, scoop a few heaping tablespoons of peanut butter topped with large mounds of my mom’s homemade strawberry jam onto each, and sit down to eat with a large glass of milk. After a month of this, I was visibly thinner, and hungry for bigger challenges. One day I ate a very large bowl of popcorn very, very slowly. This and a glass of orange juice were all I consumed for the day. Another day I sucked on a small bag of frozen grapes for breakfast and ate a small dinner and an ice cream cone for dessert.

It became overly obvious that this dieting was more about control than looking good or feeling healthy when my mom, frantic at the sight of her little girl wasting away, forced me to sit and eat a soft boiled egg. She screamed at me to eat the goddamned egg until I was sobbing at the table. She wouldn’t allow me to leave until I had finished the egg, so I choked it down and promptly threw up in the bathroom. She may have won the battle, but I was determined to win the war, no matter what the sacrifice. Because my mom knew I had puked up the egg, she didn’t fight me on eating again. She knew I was sick, but she wasn't able to act in a way that would curtail my self-destructive behavior. I suppose she felt it better that I keep the little bit I did eat down than risk me throwing up everything she forced me to eat. I did eat ice cream regularly, so she filled the freezer for me in an attempt to keep me alive. Because I was becoming so thin, foods that were once off-limits became acceptable for me. This was my ice cream, and all hell would break loose if anyone else ate it.

In addition to my over-the-top dieting, I designed my own little exercise program. Several times a week I would half-walk and half-jog a 1.5-mile hilly loop that started and ended at my house. I also rode my bike to the park with a book in my backpack to read, so I could keep my mind occupied and off the hunger pangs until my next small meal. Often I would read for what seemed like an eternity only to look at my watch and find that only a few short minutes had passed. For a while, I continued horseback riding, but used it as a new form of calorie burning. I no longer had the desire to show or improve as a rider. Often I tried to increase the times I could ride around the arena without stirrups at a posting trot, just to burn ever more calories. After one last horse show that summer, my sister and I found ourselves with less and less time to ride. Both of us were too busy with other activities and preparing for school, so shortly after we started classes, we made the painful decision to sell Michelob.

Both of us quit riding all together once our formerly treasured horse was gone. Much later, after my sister moved away, got married and had children, she took it up again. It’s one sport that I still miss. I rode briefly again many years later when I was about 35 years old, attempting to learn dressage like my sister, but I wasn't able to keep up the lessons with my schedule. Being able to ride a stubborn but cute little Fjord Pony after years of being away from this activity brought me great joy. I was sad when I had to face the fact that riding no longer fit into my lifestyle.

I entered ninth grade a full 30 pounds lighter than when I’d left school the previous spring. Some of the other students thought I was a new student at first, because they didn’t recognize my new, extremely thin body. I had gone back to a very strict routine of three meals a day and dessert after dinner with no snacks in between in an attempt to be more normal, at least in outward behavior. My new game was to see how small I could make my meals. At 95 lbs, my weight was still dropping as I left a longer and longer trail of sandwich pieces for the birds that I hoped my friends wouldn’t notice as we walked back to school from the deli at lunchtime. I tried to hide the fact that I was so thin and had these weird eating habits, but at 95 lbs on a 5’3” frame didn’t look healthy. People began to talk.

In a sense, I was a new person. The year before, I had qualified for the varsity basketball team. I was a fierce guard with a strong talent for interceptions and stealing the ball. I was also accepted into Madrigals, a small, unaccompanied singing group. However, the next year, my senior year in junior high, I was frail and weak. In my first basketball game, my teammate nearly knocked me over with a hard pass. The ball felt overly heavy in my arms. I spent most of the season on the bench. In Madrigals, I was timid and my voice not nearly as powerful as the year before. Oddly, even though I felt weaker in these events, I felt more confident overall.

I was convinced I looked good, despite the horror of knowing that my hair was thinning at an alarming rate and I could see my ribs. On some level, I knew I was thin, but I couldn’t see exactly how thin. I assumed I looked fairly normal. Just before I hit 90 pounds, my schoolmate Danielle invited me to go running with her on our lunch break. She was a cross-country skier training for the upcoming ski season. I immediately jumped at the thought of a great new way to burn more calories. I had run track the year before but was slow and only managed a painfully executed 8-minute mile.

Danielle and I met every day and ran two miles. I wore basketball shoes and baggy sweat pants. Even when the weather was terrible – rainy, or cold and snowing – the two of us would find ourselves enduring the elements, proud of what dedicated athletes we were. With not getting the proper nutrition and my low body fat, I was cold all the time and on days we took on the snow, I often couldn’t work my frozen hands after the run. Several times I had to get help from one of the other girls in the locker room undressing and dressing, so that I could get to my next class in time.

Ultimately and without knowing it, Danielle may have offered me a new direction in life, because instead of a goal of how many more pounds I could lose, my new goal became how fast I could run. No one could know at the time what that would unleash, both good and bad.

Danielle reminded me that food was fuel. We indulged ourselves in ice cream every night, convincing ourselves that we deserved it after all the hard training we had done. When we went to the movies, we would sneak in an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s to eat during the previews. I still had all the compulsive eating habits of a nutty anorexic, like absolutely no snacks and limiting my intake, but I managed to gain a few pounds and settled at around 95-98 pounds for the remainder of the year. I weighed myself at least once a day to make sure that my weight never got over the 100-pound mark. There were episodes during the most agonizing periods of my illness where I would compulsively weigh myself multiple times a day. The most important thing that happened at the time I was in junior high, though, was finding a new sport.

Running in jr. high school.

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment