Food as enemy

The anatomy of an eating disorder
By CAROLINE KNAPP  |  August 8, 2010

This story was originally published in the February 17, 1989, issue of the Boston Phoenix.

From the summer of 1982 to the winter of 1985, I ate the same thing every day: a plain sesame bagel for breakfast, a Dannon coffee-flavored yogurt for lunch. an apple and a one-inch cube of cheddar cheese for dinner. Nothing more.

Once in a while — with long, painful deliberation — I varied the diet. I'd substitute 10 Wheat Thins for half the apple at night, or I'd have a vanilla yogurt for lunch instead of a coffee one. On even rarer occasions, I had a bad day: those happened if I became overwhelmed by longing, or if I found myself in social situations where I really couldn't avoid eating, or if I absolutely couldn't stand it anymore. And then I would give in and eat, and eat, and eat — until I felt sick or crazy or both. But that didn't happen very often. For the most part, I had good days: a plain sesame bagel for breakfast (80 calories), A Dannon coffee-flavored yogurt for lunch (200 calories), an apple and a one-inch cube of cheddar cheese for dinner (150 calories). And nothing else.

Nothing else mattered — just food and my weight — and the effort to control them superseded everything. I lost friends because of it. I lied about it. Feelings — of love, sexuality, passion, rage, whatever — became no more than alien concepts, things that other people felt. Starving was my only goal.

The technical term for this affliction is anorexia nervosa. But in everyday language, it's an addiction — as powerful as alcoholism and in some cases as lethal. Conservative estimates are that one out of every 100 young women are case-book anorexics. Scores more, however, fall into anorexic behavior on a regular basis.

* * *

At the time, I was working for a Providence paper, my first journalism job. I was young, shy, scared, lonely and, probably most of all, angry. I didn't know what else to do, so I starved myself.

Like any addiction, starving is a coping mechanism. It is self-protective. When I was starving, all I could think about was food: what I'd eat next, when I'd eat it, how I'd eat it, and whether it would be too much or not enough. And because all I could think about was food, I didn't have room to think about anything else: not the past, not the future, not men or friends or world events, and certainly not things like the fact that I was young, shy, scared, lonely, and angry.

Starving also gave me a sense of power. On good days — days I stuck to my regimen — I used to test my will by walking home from work down a street full of food stores and restaurants. I passed a restaurant where I could see trays of pastries through a glass window. I passed a gourmet-food shop, a Dunkin' Donuts, a candy store, an outdoor café, a bakery. I could smell the honey glaze on doughnuts. I could smell French fries, teriyaki chicken wings, and homemade oatmeal bread. It gave me a tremendous sense of control. There I was in the midst of all that food and I could resist the craving to eat, no matter how hungry I was. I was strong, different.

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