Food as enemy

By CAROLINE KNAPP  |  August 8, 2010

Early in the summer of 1982, the boyfriend who had moved to LA came back to visit. He had planned to spend the summer with me, but something came up and he ended up going to Europe with a friend instead. I didn't really feel it, but I guess I was furious. The day he left, I walked him to the train, then went back to my office. As I was walking along, I knew somewhere inside that I was going to starve myself until he came home. It wasn't so much a conscious decision as a response: he has done this thing to me and this is how I am going to react. By the time he got back from Europe, I had lost 15 pounds.

* * *

At some point in any addiction, a behavior stops being something you use to control your feelings and turns into something that controls you instead. I probably crossed that line that summer. Whatever I was trying to starve away — loneliness, uncertainty, anger — gradually became less important than the starving itself. It started to become less important than the starving itself. It started to influence the decisions I made and the ways I spent my time: I started refusing invitations to go to dinner with friends because that would mean eating. I started calculating calories, and then eating fewer and fewer and fewer in order to protect myself against times I did eat — a weird sort of "just to be on the safe side" mentality. I started eating privately, and eating only specific things, and then I started looking forward to those times, and then I started building elaborate rituals around them to make them more important.

And at some point, I crossed way over that line and there was no turning back. Normal eating came to mean guilt, failure. It ceased to be an option. So I clamped down, stopped eating altogether, or tried to.

And in the process, I stopped having people in my life — and the risks associate with them — too. Trying to keep food at a distance was a metaphor for trying to keep other things at a distance: people, feelings, vulnerability.

* * *

This is how a typical good day started: I would get up at six o'clock and buy my sesame bagel, a cup of coffee, and a Providence Journal-Bulletin on the way to work. I always got there by seven, a full hour and a half before anyone else came in. I would set the bagel on a little plastid plate that I kept in my desk as if it were a gem. Then I would read through the front section of the newspaper, every word. And then I would eat the bagel, with the deliberation and the intensity of someone performing surgery. Actually, that hour and a half was my favorite, most reliable time of day. The solitude was consistent, the ritual perfect and precise. I would tear off tiny bites of the bagel, each timed to a different section of the newspaper. A bite for each editorial on the Op/Ed page, a bite for the comic page and so on, until it was gone. Then I would press the sesame seeds that had fallen off the bagel and onto the plate into my index finger and I would eat those. This became such a familiar pattern, and the familiarity was so comforting, that I wondered if I'd ever be able to give it up. Or want to.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Mental Health, food, Eating Disorders,  More more >
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