On just about any Saturday morning when I’m in town and not traveling, you can predict my routine with fair reliability. I wake up early and start the laundry. I head downstairs and prepare breakfast for two (Pangur Ban, the cat, and me). With either smooth jazz tunes or ‘90s French pop music playing in the background, I swish awkwardly around my kitchen. Pangur Ban doesn’t seem to mind that I can’t dance. Or sing. In fairness, he can’t dance or sing either, and I don’t hold it against him. After breakfast, I generally rush out the door, and in under ten minutes I am in the yoga studio rolling out my mat as the rest of the class begins the first flow of practice. A snack consistently follows yoga (always a Kind bar), and the morning concludes with a trip to the nearby grocery. There, I peruse the plethora of produce with child-like curiosity, marveling at rutabagas, star fruits, colorful chard with stems of pink, yellow, and orange, a half dozen varieties of pears and potatoes… and I proceed to place the exact same items in my cart every week. Cucumbers? Check. Red and yellow bell peppers? Check. Arugula? Check. Apples? Double check. Carrots? Hmmmm…. nah. I don’t eat those up very quickly. Snow peas? Ok. Parsnips? I love the flavor of roasted parsnips… but maybe next time. Roasting vegetables is still a bit too intimidating. Grapes? … … … … someday?
Well, it turned out that “someday” was February 6th. It seemed as if I was taking inventory of my standard produce haul and making tracks toward the case of soy milk and Greek yogurt when, in the turn of an instant, I was suddenly plucking a big bunch of grapes up by their twiggy stem. The cooler of grapes sat directly beside the path of my cart as I aimed for the dairy, but that never stopped me from breezing by it before without more than a microsecond’s hesitation.
There’s something going on here that reaches beyond buying a cluster of purple fruit. If you read some of my past blog entries (“Um, Excuse Me, But I ATE A POTATO!” or “A Moment in a Pear”), you know that introducing variety into my eating routine is not easy for me. My list of safe foods is much longer now than the approximately ten items it encompassed when I entered partial, but the number of things I won’t eat far exceeds what I will. So, I find myself wondering… what gives?
A few weeks after I left Walden, I bought a box of rice to serve with a recipe that I was attempting for a Super Bowl party to which I happened to be invited. The easy solution to my lack of control over the food served would be to not attend, but isolating was what I did when I was engaged in my eating disorder. Instead, I was preparing a vegetable curry. It was a recipe given to me by my nutritionist, and I knew the exact exchanges in a single serving. At least there would be one safe side for me. When I bought the box of rice, I knew that I would never finish the remainder of it. Then, one day, I was just plain bored of the same old starch I nearly always paired with dinner, and I reached into the pantry for the rice. I wouldn’t claim to be entirely comfortable eating it on a regular basis, but as a change-up now or then, it turned out to be not so bad. It wasn’t that the taste ever dissuaded me. I was paralyzed by the fear of the food itself lacking any significant nutritive qualities and consisting of “empty calories,” which would just “make me fat.” Well, I didn’t gain weight when I introduced occasional rice into my diet. As for the nutritional content, I remained dubious, but I trusted my nutritionist, Kelly, who reached over-the-moon enthusiasm with each new food I risked. She constantly reminded me that by varying my consumption, I was obtaining copious nutrients that were lacking when I was deep into my orthorexia, and she celebrated my healthiness.
The berry family presented another big hurdle. Beginning with cherries in July, Kelly spent about ten minutes of each appointment reviewing what would be ripening next and encouraging (i.e., humorously cajoling) me to push my boundaries. As summer transitioned to autumn and the string of holidays approached, I slid back into my habitual patterns. Kelly began bemoaning, “the same things again,” as she read out of my food journal every two weeks. At the time, I was a bit frustrated with her. Didn’t she see that I ate a Nutrigrain bar instead of a Kind bar on Tuesday? Didn’t she see that I ate steak when I went out for dinner last Saturday night? However, I could also acknowledge that I wasn’t trying new foods at the same pace that I was when a variety of fresh fruits and veggies were available to me in abundance. We both accepted that, in many ways, I was gritting it out through November, December, and January.
Several weeks ago, there was a beautiful display of pineapples by the entrance to the supermarket. It was unavoidable, and it was captivating. The prickly skin and sweet, tropical smell teased me with promises of warm, summer sun. I circled the table, daydreaming of beaches and sidewalk cafés. Picking up a pineapple, I ran my fingers cautiously over its rough skin. Squeezing it gently, I shook it a bit. I don’t even know how to tell if it’s ripe, I realized. Smiling to myself, I carefully chose a smaller one with a healthy-looking stem and gingerly settled it into my cart as if it was some fragile, precious artifact. Once in my apartment, though, it sat untouched on my kitchen counter for three days. Each time I glanced at it, I felt the pressure to DO something with it followed by an underlying dread. Eating pineapple was one thing. Getting TO the pineapple was an entirely separate issue. Finally, I decided that if I didn’t cut it up, it was destined for the dumpster, and I couldn’t bring myself to treat my beautiful pineapple so callously. With a determination that aborted my over-analysis, I plopped it on a bamboo board and sliced into it with my largest kitchen knife. Strip by strip, the prickles and spikes gave way to reveal juicy, yellow flesh. I was convinced that the success of the result was that much sweeter for the effort.
Before I could leave Walden, my treatment team set a hurdle before me. Eat an actual meal in an actual restaurant, while following my meal plan, without binging. I couldn’t remember if I was ever, in my entire life, able to dine out without either starving or over-stuffing myself, and it was ages since I did so without a full-on binge. The anxiety, apprehension, and distress that I experienced as I planned my approach and confronted that obstacle resembled one prolonged panic attack. For a while, eating out was something that I did mainly under Kelly’s coercion and out of my desperation for social interaction. Many, many restaurant meals later, I found myself a bit more comfortable. It wasn’t necessarily a transition that was obvious to me, but it didn’t go unnoticed by my friend, Amelia. “I can see the changes,” she told me, and I believed her, because she was attentive enough to detail to call me out when I tried to order the same dish I tried three months earlier. No repeats. Then, I made a statement to my therapist that only struck me as funny and weird in retrospect. “It’s great!” I grinned as I described the every-other-week-or-so pattern of eating out that Amelia and I found ourselves falling into. “We are discovering all these little, independently owned places with seasonal menus and fresh, local ingredients. I’m such a terrible cook. It’s the one time that I get to try new foods that are really well prepared!” It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me what a shift in perspective this thinking represented.
Not long ago, I described one of those dinners in a post about the apprehension provoked by a challenging menu. The fanciful language and disproportionate number of pasta offerings unwound me. The meal and the evening ended up becoming one of my favorite nights out in recent memory, but I was a little disappointed in myself for shirking the noodles. I was so close to that leap of faith, I could feel myself dangling my toes over the ledge… and four days ago I took the plunge. Even with my lack of kitchen skills, I managed to prepare the whole wheat rotini while allowing the water to boil over the sides of the pot only once. What surprised me the most was how very little a half cup of pasta actually appeared on my plate after I measured it out. One little handful of slippery starch. That was what I was so worried about for all those years? Tossed with a hint of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and some sautéed shrimp (which I also cooked myself!), it was delectable! It would be another matter to order pasta in a restaurant, where I might be more likely to receive a mound of spaghetti heaped onto the plate. But, just like the rice last year, it was a start.
The list of foods I am willing to try and the spontaneity with which I will try them continues to grow. Sausage, lamb, and beef tenderloin. Macadamia nuts. Kefir. What I really want is to be comfortable enough with food to travel abroad again. Kelly tells me that if I want to go to Paris, I need to eat baguettes. And butter. And maybe a croissant. Um, yeah. Yet, who knows? There is a small, chef-owned French restaurant two towns over that I hear serves amazing moules et pommes frites.
Another weekend will be here in the blink of an eye, and I’ll be off to the grocery store once more. I wonder what I will return home with this time.