Breaking Out of My Shell

Featured Image: “Pink Cherry Blossoms,” © Metta3001, Aug 2012. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

How do you say “eating disorder” in Arabic? I know, only because I looked it up. اضطرابات الطعام. Now if only I could pronounce that. The thing is, my eating disorder is far from secret. I’ve practically been blaring the news with a bullhorn since I was diagnosed. But I haven’t had to blare it in Arabic, yet. Although I haven’t always had an eating disorder, let’s just say that I’ve always had eating “issues.” I’m a wonderful testament to the combined destructive forces of nature and nurture, and had my life taken a few alternate twists, I might have turned out okay. As it is, I have binge eating disorder with restrictive behaviors and an extreme fear of weight gain. If you believe that orthorexia is a real diagnosis, and my nutritionist does, than I have that as well. In any case, I can’t even describe how liberating it was to have a reason for why I was the way I was, why I thought what I thought, felt what I felt, did what I did. Maybe one day I’ll write it all down. It was a process, but I finally allowed my therapist to code 307.5 on my chart – Eating Disorder – rather than referring to the poltergeist in the room as “my food thing.” The next step was the referral to a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and dialectical behavioral therapy. Thinking back, it’s incredible to me just how resistant I was to facing the truth about myself. I was like a scared cat, under a bed, pinned in a dark corner, being dragged out by the scruff of my neck as I hissed, swatted, spat, and rent the carpet with my vain attempts to root myself in place. Finally, it all came to a crashing climax worthy of a Winona Ryder movie, complete with a screaming, sobbing, cursing meltdown in my psychiatrist’s office and very real thoughts of suicide. My memory sort of jumbles events together after that, and I was rather quickly shunted eight hundred and sixty miles away to a partial hospitalization treatment center in Boston. (That all sounds very exciting and dramatic, but the main reason that I traveled so far for treatment was because that was where my family was, and it was one of the very best programs available. I knew I would need to travel for treatment because there were no local programs where I was living, so my psychiatrist and I decided that I might as well go home.) It was there, at Walden, that my life actually began, at the age of 30 years, six months, and some odd number of days. Although it was a slow birth, it was not nearly as painful as my prolonged death.

Which leads me to now… actually it leads me to about three months ago, which is when this story unfolded. So there I was, relatively fresh out of “the program,” back to my isolated corner of the eastern Midwest, once more plugging away at an unfulfilling job that at least allowed me the flexibility to continue exploring my recovery and discovering a healthier me. One of the challenges that I faced was my social isolation. In Boston, I was nestled among my closest friends and family. I lived with one of my best friends while I was undergoing treatment, and my college friends and roommates, aunts, uncles, cousins, brother, sister, and parents were all nearby. The surroundings were familiar and comfortable, the food, the grocery stores, and the restaurants were safe, and I could always find something fun with which to keep myself interested. In Vanillaville, USA, I struggled against the urge to withdraw. In the five years I lived here, I made two close friends, both of whom shortly moved away. My eating disorder and insane job kept me very isolated for most of that time. When I wasn’t working, I was too afraid or anxious to socialize because food or a meal might be involved. I also was unfortunate in that I spent a year very, very ill from an unrelated but contagious disease, and life and people sort of passed me by during that time. So… I challenged myself to find ways to confront my anxiety! After all that hard work toward recovery, I was determined to keep moving forward. I signed up for a painting class and a learn-to-crochet class. I called up acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to in ages and made plans. (And, yes, we went out to eat! And, yes, it was OK! Here I am three months later, still going out to eat on occasion and still doing OK!)

First Daffodils of Spring
Snow Covered Spring Daffodil Flowers,” © ForestWander Nature Photography, Dec 2010. CC-BY-SA 3.0 US.

Then, one day, I saw these potted daffodils at the grocery store. After a bitterly cold winter (and I’m talking my pipes froze THREE times it was so cold) it was March, and I was ready for spring! However, spring was not quite ready for Vanillaville. The skies remained gray every day, nothing was budding or blooming, and it stayed rather chilly out. I thought, “Daffodils are just what I need! What a great way to take engage in a little self-care!” Then I thought, “Maybe I will buy one for the nice, retired man who lives two doors down. It will help me to make a social connection.” (Yes, that’s really how I talk to myself in my head.)

Well, this story is already winding on a bit, so I’ll jump ahead to two days later. My retired neighbor was still away, and I was worried the daffodils would start to fade before I could share them with someone. I decided I would bring them to another neighbor, except this idea terrified me, because I didn’t actually know any of my other neighbors. Returning from the gym one evening after work, I grabbed the daffodils, and before I could talk myself out of it, I knocked on the door next to mine. The Saudi Arabian wife answered promptly, saw me standing there with the little pot of flowers, grabbed my wrist, and before I knew what was happening, I was being pulled inside, dragged to the sofa, forced to sit, and offered Arabic coffee in very broken English. “Wow!” I thought, “I’m so great! She must have been very lonely. I’m such a good person!” And then… she brought out the food.

How do you say, “I’m sorry, but I have an eating disorder,” in Arabic? I have a feeling that phrase does not appear in any translation handbooks. As an orthorexic, I struggle with some foods more than others, and there are only a few members of the carbohydrate family that I am comfortable eating under very controlled conditions. A giant plate of an unknown noodle concoction served to me at a time other than one of my usual meals or snacks falls well outside of my comfort zone. There I sat for an hour, desperately trying to make small talk with this lovely woman and her husband, while paralyzed with fear, pushing cold noodles around my plate and lifting my fork to my mouth without actually swallowing much of anything, hoping that they would not take offense or think I was horrifically rude. Even at the time, it seemed comical to me. “One day, I’m going to figure this out,” I thought. “It’s just not going to be today…” The good news is, we’re still neighbors, and we’re still on friendly terms, so I suppose that despite my discomfort and doubt, I was successful in strengthening my connections. A few days later, they invited me to a party, and when we pass each other on the sidewalk, we smile and chat. So it seems that these days, I’m figuring things out…