Picture this – the pressures of work are mounting, the daily grind is bearing down, and just when it gets to be too much… VACATION!!! WOOHOO!!! On July 3rd, I kicked the dust (or should I say mud, because it seems like it’s been raining for a month straight) of Vanillasville from my feet and hit the road with an assortment of Mozart CD’s and one very unhappy cat. Fourteen (FOURTEEN!) hours of driving later, we were in New England. [Cue angel choir!]
For Independence Day, I ventured off to join Alice, my former college roommate, and her extended family at her mother’s house. Her mom and dad just happened to live along the parade route in her hometown. I was so eager to see the joyful, excited expressions on the faces of her children, especially three-year-old Elliot, who loves not only firetrucks but pretty much anything that can transport a human being from one place to another, that I almost didn’t think to plan for the “food situation.” …
One of the factors that is extremely helpful in my recovery is that so many people know about my eating disorder. Don’t mistake me, I still feel hugely terrified of what might happen if the whole world found out, and there’s a reason that this blog is pretty much anonymous for the time being, but just about everyone who was going to be at this little Fourth of July gathering knew all about the BED and the orthorexia. Alice and her mom actually flew to Vanillasville last autumn to check up on me as I rapidly decompensated while awaiting insurance authorization for partial hospitalization treatment. (If that’s not true friendship, then I don’t know what is.)
Another fundamental component of my ED recovery is PLANNING, which I am usually reluctant to do for some reason. Maybe part of me hopes that by avoiding thinking about a “problem” (most people might not consider dinner with friends at a delicious restaurant a problem, but hey, this is the world I live in) it will either magically (a) disappear, or (b) resolve itself. Needless to say, the non-planning (aka avoidance) approach usually plays out a bit rougher than the I’m-mentally/emotionally/physically-ready-so-let’s-try-to-remember-our-skills-and-be-FLEXIBLE-while-sticking-to-the-general-idea-of-a-plan approach.
Remembering how many times my nutritionist stressed the importance of planning for flexibility to me, I packed myself a lunch, tossed some emergency snacks in the car, and set off, using the hour drive from my parents’ house to northern Mass to run through my whole, long list of coping skills, reiterating to myself all the reasons why everything was going to be OK. Then, I congratulated myself for being so phenomenal, prepared, and ready for flexibility. (Notice a theme? My rigidity with food and perfectionism are some of my major stumbling blocks in my recovery.)
When I arrived in MA, it was all bear-hugs and smiles. Though I saw Alice, her husband, and kids a few months earlier, it was the first time I was seeing her dad and brother in about seven years! Of course, the table was spread with food, as I figured it might be. “That’s OK,” I told myself. “I could eat this food if I wanted to, and it would be fine, but I know that I am going to face many food challenges this week, and I am going to pick and choose which to confront, so today I will just eat the sandwich I brought in my lunch bag. Neither choice is good or bad, they are both acceptable options with their own pros and cons, and I am making my conscientious decision.” Woohoo! Go me!
“And after lunch, we are going to have an ICE CREAM SUNDAE BAR!” Alice’s mother exclaimed with delight. “It really can’t be the Fourth of July without ice cream sundaes, especially in Massachusetts. It’s an American tradition!”
So here’s the short version of the long history between me and ice cream. You see, I was raised by a wonderful, loving, well-intentioned but tragically misguided woman who instilled in me such core values as hard work, discipline, and perseverance. I also learned along the course that emotions get in the way of perfection, and that if I or my work are not perfect, the only recourse is to try harder. Phrases such as, “Get over it,” “Just do what you have to do,” and “God helps those who help themselves,” were frequently heard in my house when I was growing up. My father, for his part, suffers from serious depression and what I think is possibly a personality disorder characterized by frequent outbursts of rage. I would like to believe that he means well and does his best, though his best does not include professional help or treatment. Emotions, especially strong negative emotions like the ones I witnessed my father acting out, were NOT tolerable and were to be suppressed by any means possible. I imagined myself as a hardened, steely professional – cold, precise, and successful. Well, as you can imagine, realizing this ideal was pretty darn impossible, because, it turns out, I am not actually a robot! Who knew?! And just to show that there are no hard feelings… or that I’m at least working through my feelings… this next picture is for my dad, a die-hard Trekker. It turns out I’m not a Vulcan, either.
OK, you’re probably thinking, “This is the short version?” Suppressing all emotions turned out to be not-so-easy. Where could I turn when I was “feeling” confused, angry, sad, overwhelmed, overjoyed, stressed, anxious, scared, enraged, rejected, hurt, depressed, bored, excited, or happy? Well, pretty much any food would do, and sometimes things that didn’t even count as food. (Yes, I’ve eaten kitty kibble before. Yeah, it’s gross, I know.) But ICE CREAM was my old friend and standby. My mom always kept at least one or two gallons in the freezer, and I started digging into those when I was pretty young (about 10 years old or so, if I remember correctly). When my binging really spiraled out of control, I was spending a small fortune at the ice cream parlor around the street from my house, where they knew me by name because I stopped by several times a week for an extra large sundae and a couple chocolate bars… to top off the two to three meals and half of a vending machine I’d already eaten that afternoon. I digress.
As I work through my recovery, I am gradually reintroducing many of the foods I was afraid of back into my diet and learning to love them. Peanut butter, bread, snap peas, walnuts, cottage cheese, hot chocolate… I can keep all of those in my kitchen without a second’s hesitation. OK, sometimes the hot chocolate trips me up a little. I even practiced becoming more comfortable eating desserts. After my blood sugar didn’t plummet and I didn’t go running for the cupboards in full-on binging mode when my nutritionist at Walden forced me to eat two Hershey Kisses and ONLY two Hershey Kisses as my mid-morning snack (the trauma!), I started to understand that I don’t need to be afraid of these foods. With a lot of practice, patience, and self-forgiveness, I am learning how to enjoy them responsibly (and now I sound like a liquor commercial). However, I am still basically terrified of ice cream. Like, TERRIFIED. We’re talking, I-don’t-know-what-I-might-do-and-I’m-really-afraid-I’m-going-to-blow-my-whole-recovery-because-I-can’t-control-myself level fear.
The afternoon passed very pleasantly, despite the cool and drizzly weather. It was comfortable and heartening to be with Alice and her family. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do when it came time for sundaes, however. Honestly unsure of how I would respond, I felt confused and conflicted. My sweet tooth was itching to participate in the sundae extravaganza, but I couldn’t distinguish my distorted thoughts from my reasonable and wise thoughts. “It’s all right to eat ice cream,” I told myself. “It’s unrealistic to think that I will never have another ice cream sundae again.” Yet, a single serving of ice cream is only half of a cup, and that is a complete dessert exchange. Adding toppings, whipped cream, and a cherry just seemed so DISORDERED. “If everyone else eats ice cream sundaes, it must be normal,” I tried to reassure myself. “Am I really going to be the only person here who doesn’t have any of the ice cream?”
Elliot was the one who finally spurred us out of our relaxed conversations and toward the dessert table. “Is it ICE CREAM TIME yet?!” he demanded. I felt fear and anxiety swelling inside. My mind still wasn’t settled, and so I hung back, deciding, “Let me watch to see what everyone else does first. Then I will know what is normal.”
As I was peer-pressuring myself into over-eating ice cream, I neglected to consider this pivotal question. What the heck is “normal,” anyway? If “normal” means going along with the majority, that may not be healthy, balanced, well-adjusted, or ideal. Eating issues are rampant in the United States, and the National Institutes of Health estimate that 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer from BED at some point in their lives (Hudson, et al. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry 2007; 61: 348-358). That’s 1 in every 20 people! My ability to brain-dump my common sense in moments of panic is remarkable. Rather than trust my own judgment, I decided that I was the least reliable judge of what was best. It’s not that Alice and her family were piling their bowls sky-high. Actually, I was so preoccupied by the thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings flooding me, that I wasn’t paying very close attention. The point is that I completely discredited my Wise Mind, tumbling headlong into the distortions of my disorder.
Standing before the table, with several gallons of ice cream before me, M&M’s, sprinkles, hot fudge and caramel sauce, strawberries, whipped cream, every delicious topping I could desire, I could feel my chest tightening. My throat began to close, my vision narrowed, and my breathing became fast and shallow. I felt my heart racing, slamming away ineffectively as the blood drained from my face. My periphery started to go dark, and I felt a sweat breaking out. Tears threatened to well behind my eyes. “What do I do? What do I DO? WHAT DO I DO?!!!” were the only words that would come to my stricken brain. “Everyone is going to see that I am freaking out. Everyone is thinking that I’m a basket case and totally pathetic and weak and screwed up.”
Finally, a different voice spoke up and said, “No matter what you choose, you are still OK! No choice that you can make right now is going to be your ruin, and passing out would be worse than any decision you might make, which is what is going to happen in another minute or so…So just do SOMETHING. It’ll be all right.” It sounded as near to my Wise Mind as I was likely to come, and so I reached for the scooper and began to hesitantly, fearfully, uncertainly construct my sundae.
If everything always went perfectly, I would never learn or grow. I learned a lot that afternoon, and a deliciously sweet lesson it was. There was plenty of fodder for discussion with my therapist and nutritionist when I returned from vacation. Perhaps the biggest lesson was to trust myself, without comparisons to others, deciding in my own Wise Mind, according to my values, with the help of the professionals I’ve been working with, what is best for me. Oh, and I really need to keep working on my ice cream issues.