Let’s just preface this by saying that again, definitively, I do not want to write. On the other hand, I have been looking forward to this since I stopped writing last week. So, I have a conflicted relationship with writing. It is my favorite outlet for my thoughts, even more so than running, which I usually use to escape the chattering mind. Still, it is so hard to confront these thoughts, the stupid imaginings, worries, memories, that I often push writing to the very last possible minute. I do not want to open that box, even though I know it will help, as it has all those times before, during the twenty-odd years I have been writing my feelings into solutions. In any event, I am here today to continue my story about eating.
By the time I reached high school, restriction was the norm. I was becoming familiar with and comfortable in hunger. I did not necessarily like being hungry, but it was the norm and accepted as such. That summer after middle school I looked forward to the heavy-legged exhaustion I felt post-run; this total lack of energy meant I was working hard, building strength, and readying myself for the rigors of varsity racing. Adding food into the mix gave me energy and eliminated this reminder of my exertion; food, therefore, was avoided as much as possible. I wasn’t interested in totally starving (part of my mind knew I couldn’t run and starve at the same time) and so I ate what I deemed minimal for survival, and minimal for parental acceptance.
That I was a runner made my skinny frame easier to rationalize. Successful runners are thin by nature and by sport. Every time I was praised for my “runner’s legs” or “runner’s frame” my resolve to maintain this new physique solidified. (Until I began running long distances, no one had ever, to my memory, told me I looked like a runner, or athletic in any sense. I did not believe my parents and their friends when they told me my frame was natural, but was sure it was the result of hard work through exercise and restriction.)
In high school, adult supervision of my meals disappeared. I went to a boarding school in New England, thousands of miles from family and friends in Los Angeles. I want to emphasize that the boarding school did not create my disordered eating. It was already well engrained in my mind before I packed my bags and attempted this new, far-away life. To my knowledge, none of my close friends from this time developed eating disorders (although, of course, as in any high school they did exist). I was also, again to my knowledge, the only member of the girl’s cross-country team during my four years to struggle with food. I was surrounded by supportive people (peers and adults); I simply was not ready to accept their help nor their theory that I needed to eat if I wanted to thrive.
The first day of cross-country pre-season, after my mom had unpacked my boxes and made my bed and kissed me goodbye and headed back to California, I realized there was a salad bar in the dining hall. I could eat vegetables upon vegetables and nothing else, if I so chose, and nobody would notice! The elation I felt at this epiphany remains vivid: control, my most sought-after state, was now possible at every meal. The presence of the salad bar meant, to me, that eating salads alone was socially sanctioned: they (the intelligent and omnipotent powers of the school) would not have included a salad bar if they did not believe salads were valid meals, right?
It did not occur to me that my teammates might notice my veg-heavy meal. I was absolutely astounded when a new friend asked if that -pointing at my bowl of greens -was the entirety of my meal. (In fairness, the salad probably contained tofu and/or beans of some sort and so was not at nutritionally unbalanced as it might have been, but still I was fooling no one, especially not myself, with my claims to health.) I did not have a good reason to defend my meal, and in all likelihood stammered my way into embarrassment.
Even in my flustered state, however, I felt a sense of pride. I had more control than my friends. I could survive on less. I did not need food to run well. I am strong because I am not dependent on food. These were my beliefs and even as I felt myself falling into more destructive patterns of restriction (skipping meals, especially on weekends when I had more time alone), I clung to their words as my reinforcing mantra. What had started out as justifications changed to rules, unable to be broken. Restriction changed from a choice, a neat way to control a tiny space of my life, to a compulsion.
Friends pleaded with me to eat more than a salad, to eat more than half a sandwich, more than an orange. I wanted to listen but I couldn’t. The more I restricted the more I had to restrict to feel like myself.
The times when I gave in, when I had the cookie, the cake, the pizza, the cheese and crackers at the holiday dinner -I panicked. I would pay penance by eating nothing either before or after the binge (basically anything more than my safe foods of fruit, vegetables, maybe a bit of yogurt or cereal was considered a binge and even these could be labeled as such if I felt too full after eating). I never went whole days without food, but I was generally eating below my caloric and nutritional needs. My body was trying to sustain the massive growth of puberty along with a rigorous running schedule and I refused to give credence to either.
I don’t like to regret, but I often wonder how much I could have achieved if I had fed myself and loved myself during these years. I certainly would have been happier. But I was stubborn and refused to believe I was worthy, no matter what my friends, family members, or teachers said. I was not even swayed much by awards or leadership positions, although they did lessen my need for control for short periods of time.
And so I passed through high school without much confidence in my ability to do much more than study and run (and I even faltered in those pursuits more than once, especially when my need for control usurped my desire to perform).
Again, this post will be continued. I have never written this much about my relationship with food and it is just as difficult as I expected. Thank you, as always, for reading.