Le Soufflé – Mon Nouvel Ami?

Featured Image:  “Goat Cheese Souffle 3,” © Shaw Girl (own work), Apr 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After a string of rather somber reflections, I thought it was time for a bit of levity on my little blog. I give you:  the soufflé. What could be lighter than this fluffy, puffy, eggy creation? It is infused with air, yet not insubstantial. Soufflé and I are in the process of defining our relationship. Our first encounter was a chance meeting at a French restaurant on the edge of Georgetown after an exhausting day of window-shopping, walking, and reacquainting with old friends and older haunts. Though this neighborhood was my home for four years, and the restaurant in question was, apparently, a longstanding icon on the landscape, its Michelin-rated presence somehow escaped my attention until that July evening.

Even then, wistful dreams of a someday trip to Paris were floating through my mind as I sampled a delicious dinner of duck… or should I say, magret de canard. I was exquisitely observant of my fullness, carefully preserving some room for dessert. How could I not, in such a place, with its delicacies described in such romantic language on its menu de desserts? Mousse au chocolat, gâteaux au chocolat, tarte au pommes à la mode. I knew my own tastes well enough to predict the disappointment I would feel with crème brûlée (I just don’t get the appeal) or a tartelette aux fruits (why eat fruit when there’s cake?) But soufflé? I raised a dubious eyebrow. Could it possibly be as delicious as flourless chocolate cake or a gooey, delicious mess of melted ice cream mingling with hot apple pastry? My friend was the first to order. She was the only one of the pair of us with any actual experience dining on French food in France, and she ordered, you guessed it, le soufflé. I queried the waitress, expressing my doubts, only to receive a raving recommendation in favor of the incredible, edible, whipped, baked, and dessertified egg. I ordered the chocolate variation, bien entendu.

It took some time for the chef to prepare our wiggling, jiggling, towering soufflés. Yet, after patient waiting, we watched them process out triumphantly from the kitchen, steaming and plump in their cute, little ramekins. With the dishes set before us, we each prodded at our respective puffs inquisitively, before scooping up that first, curious bite. Soft, a bit goopy, and still radiating heat, it met my mouth with a surprising solidity for something of such inherent fluff. I was charmed and delighted, and I ate every, last bite.

As far as I was concerned, this experiment with soufflé was no more than a fanciful fling. That was July, though, before credit-card-secured travel arrangements catapulted Paris from the wouldn’t-it-be-nice category of whimsy into the date-is-approaching category of the proximate. With the arrival of winter came tangible planning and Kelly’s progressive dining challenges. I previously mentioned my attachment to breakfast. That meal was precisely where she most pressed me, and while le soufflé might not be a typical sight at le buffet du petit déjeuner authentique, my wandering eye fixed upon it among the breakfast offerings at my neighborhood Panera. There, I discovered the delectable delights of the ham and cheese soufflé. It was not quite as fluffy or airy as the dessert I enjoyed in Georgetown, but I expected as much of a pastry served off of a warming plate at a chain casual food restaurant in middle America. Despite its conventional origins, it was every bit as delicious. Perhaps even more so! The melted cheesiness of the egg mixture and the flaky crispiness of the pastry met perfectly in a harmony of flavor and texture. I couldn’t wait for my next breakfast out so that I might try another!

In the final analysis, chocolate cake is still my favorite dessert, and the apple tart à la mode would win any taste test against after-dinner eggs (even chocolatey ones). I still treasure my morning bowl of oatmeal and that protected, meditative, quiet time that happens when I linger over the day’s first cup of tea. However, when it comes to a savory meal, le soufflé doesn’t lay down on the job. We have some more getting acquainted to do, Soufflé and I. And I’m looking forward to doing it in the city of light… and bistros, and boulangeries, and cafes, and pâtisseries…

Mmmmm… Pâtisseries…

I think I will need some more practice!

souffle all gone
Soufflé all gone,” © Nikki Tysoe (own work), CC BY 2.0. (license)

Breakfasting

Featured Image:  “Night Street,” © Roman Boed (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Morning is my favorite time of day. However, don’t let me fool you. When I declare my love for morning, I do not claim that I am a “morning person.” Though I tend to arise earlier than most, I generally arrive late for my first commitment of the day. I once read that lateness arises from arrogance – the belief that my own time and priorities are more important than those of anyone else. While I see the truth in this statement, my delinquency is also the result of chronically underestimating how long it takes me to complete those basic self-care tasks that are generally non-negotiable parts of my morning routine, such as brushing my teeth and making my bed. If I wake up so early, why do I not simply leave myself more time to choose clothes to wear, apply my makeup, and blow-dry my hair? The answer is straightforward. The more time that I spend on these chores, the less I am able to linger over that which actually makes morning my favorite. It is in the soft, dark, almost mysterious minutes when I sit with my cup of tea (or coffee, but lately, tea), savoring the stillness of the world before daybreak that I truly delight.

The earth is at rest. The streets are quiet and empty. From my bedroom, if the air is very calm as I listen carefully, I can hear an occasional, faint whoosh of a distant truck speeding along the highway where it crosses under the main road a few miles off. It is amazing how the sound carries when the rest of the world is asleep. Usually, I hurry to ready myself before I nip downstairs. Splashing water on my face, rolling on antiperspirant, and fussing with my hair, I can’t get through these onerous bits of my morning ritual quickly enough. It takes ten minutes to boil the water for my tea and prepare my breakfast. While my other meals throughout the day vary according to my mood or taste (or the expiring contents of my refrigerator), my breakfast is rather consistent. I choose between a selection of teas or coffees, and I alternate the type of chopped nut that I add to my piping hot bowl of oatmeal, but the remainder is always the same. With a cup of soy milk and an apple, the meal is complete. I can be flexible when the situation demands it, such as when I am traveling, but that flexibility usually ends at bringing a packet of plain instant oatmeal, some chopped nuts, and an apple with me in my carry-on, then grabbing some hot water and a cup of soy milk on the go.

There is something sublime about the predawn hour. It possesses a subrosa, almost transcendental quality. In my very active imagination, there is a magic here that is reserved for we early risers. It is as if by awaking before the rest of the world, we are in on some mutual secret that we each experience individually and share only with God. The day is a black canvas, awaiting the light and color of the artist’s brush. It might yet become anything at all. It is a stage plunged into opacity, before the blazing spotlights shine upon it and all the myriad supporting actors crowd the scene, bringing the set to life. What will be of this day; who will I be within it? What challenges will I face, and how will I respond to them? In these moments before I exit my apartment into a stream of noise and busyness, I can hope that I will maintain some small amount of mindfulness, live purposefully, and respond to the circumstances I will encounter with actions that are in accordance with my values. I can still hope that I will not react in fear, attempt to control the uncontrollable, lash out at others, or fall into the often-automatic trap of blaming, shaming, and judgment. I can still hope that, by the end of the day, I will be able to reflect on what was with some sense of joy rather than the deflated exhaustion of one who feels like she was dragged behind a truck over an uneven road all day.

Leaning over the steam that arises from my mug, I relish this breakfasting. A small candle flickers in the center of the dining room table. The cat sits on the chair next to me, at first watching me eat, then arching his back for a scratch, then hopping down to nibble from his own bowl, and finally curling up on the chair once more to nap. My journal is spread out before me, and my hand alternates between spoon, mug, and pen. Sometimes, I reflect on recent personal events or conversations with my therapist, at other times, I write about a book that I am reading. Often, I write about the sights and sounds and smells around me, and oh, how much I love the morning!

coffee-winters-morning
Coffee on a Winter’s Morning,” © Stefan Lins (own work), Mar 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“Before you go to Paris, you’re going to have to go out to breakfast,” declared Kelly, my dietician, several weeks ago.

“Psssshhhhh!” was my almost immediate rejoinder. “As if,” I laughed, while simultaneously acknowledging the essentiality of the challenge. My eyes were rolling in my head, and from my tone, she could tell that I knew she was right. “Ugh, this is going to suck, isn’t it?” Even one lost breakfast experience seemed a major blow, so attached was I to my ritual. Making accommodations for a flight or fasting bloodwork or some other necessity was one matter. To voluntarily sacrifice my favorite meal and my favorite moments for no purpose other than to practice eating other breakfasts was something else entirely.

“I didn’t say you had to do it now,” Kelly emphasized. “You have a few months.”

It turned out that I didn’t need a few months. The day of the breakfast challenge arrived last weekend. It came without any fanfare and without much anticipation. On a Friday evening, the thought occurred to me, “I could go out to breakfast tomorrow.” It was an unbidden inkling of an idea, to which I attached no pressure or expectation. “Where would I even go?” I wondered. It was years ago that I last dined out for my first meal of the day. There were two or three restaurants nearby that served breakfast, but when I looked up their hours and menus online, I was a bit flabbergasted. Even the smallest plates were overwhelming. I certainly did not need TWO eggs, AND sausage, AND hash browns, AND two toasts. Couldn’t I simply order one egg and one piece of toast and some fruit? This undertaking was supposed to be preparing me to eat a reasonably portioned meal for everyday of the week while on the road. My objective was not to induce a food coma. Perhaps I was going about my search with the wrong approach. If I was setting off to visit the Louvre or to spend the day touring the Eiffel Tower, I likely wouldn’t sit down at a formal restaurant. “Where would I eat if I was traveling?” I asked myself. A few more clicks took me to the website for the Panera around the corner. Open at 6 am! Well, I would see how I felt in the morning.

When I stirred from my restful slumber at just about 6 am, the thought of a breakfast adventure was still on my mind. I pet the cat, made the bed, fixed my hair and makeup, and pulled on the same comfortable slacks that I frequently wear when flying. After pausing to wash the dishes from the night before, I cast off into the deepness of the dark. The streets were empty, and the world was silent. Inside the café, the light shone brightly upon a half-dozen patrons quietly sipping their coffees and studying their newspapers. A minimal staff took my order with pleasant smiles – to think that other people knew how to prepare oatmeal, too! Sitting in a cushioned booth, angled rays from various lights cast translucent layers of shadow upon my journal page. I bit into my apple. The heat radiating from the mug of coffee brushed against the side of my face. “What a treat this is!” I wrote in my narrow cursive. “To be out to breakfast! My secretive morning! Now, I am sharing it with these people who are all drawn together in this little haven. I was so concerned that my favorite time of day would be ruined. I never considered that, under the proper conditions, it might be enhanced!”

There I sat, writing, savoring, and soaking in all that my senses perceived until the sky was soft blue and a crowd was beginning to materialize. The last words that I wrote? “So here I am, and it is delightful. It is 10 minutes until 8 am, and the magenta stripe on the horizon is melting into a lovely pink. The whole day is ahead of me, but it is off to a decent start.”

cafe-noir
CAFE-NOIR,” © Sam Leighton (own work), Jan 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

2017: The Year of “Oui!”

Featured Image:  “Paris,” © Moyan Brenn (own work), Sep 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Those of you familiar with my blog and my recovery journey may recall me writing about my passion for travel. When I was much younger, I would pour over my mother’s old photo albums for hours as she entertained me with tales from her years of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica. I wanted to know the world the way she did. There she was, standing atop Machu Pichu, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean, wandering the streets of Columbia, gazing at the ocean from the deck of a boat crossing the Atlantic, straddling the Greenwich meridian, and standing at the gates of Auschwitz. In the basement of our single-story ranch in Connecticut, there were boxes of artifacts from her travels – fabrics from Hawaii, reed instruments from Peru, all sorts of strange shells and sea sponges from far away beaches, delicately embroidered handicrafts from a tiny village in South America… Her stories and the wonderful trappings of her journeys ignited my imagination.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I convinced my parents to allow me to fly unaccompanied to Alabama for a week at Space Camp. It was my first airplane flight! I worked hard to raise the money for the trip, and my mom and dad gave me my very first suitcase for my 16th birthday that May. I felt so independent and grown-up as I navigated the complex underground network of the Atlanta airport to make my connecting flight. And so, it began. My first international trip was also a solo journey. I jetted from Boston to Shannon, Ireland when I was 21 to connect with one of my roommates who was studying abroad in Galway. Together, we undertook a 5-day whirlwind tour of the southern part of the country, and I learned two important travel lessons.

  1. Sleep is essential. No sleep? No memories of a marvelous trip!
  2. I will never stay in a hostel again! (Although it’s difficult to recall why…)

Over the ensuing years, I lost track of the number of tickets purchased and miles logged. When my health began to fail and my eating disorder started to emerge, those exciting explorations of new places and cultures took on a more sinister character. During my last trip to Germany in 2014, I was seriously ill, but I was too stubborn to cancel my plans. Weak and exhausted, depressed and barely coping, I spent two miserable weeks during a bleak, cold January immersed in guilt, shame, and my own distorted thinking. I returned home with terrible plantar fasciitis, my depression, self-blame, and hopelessness worsened, and I gave up on the idea of ever venturing abroad again.

Over the next year, I waged a bloody, bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred, fight for my life. By January 2015, I was discharging from a partial hospitalization program and battling my way into an existence I never knew was possible for me. (Reflecting on that time, I am amazed at how intensely courage and terror could coincide.) As I explored and redefined my concepts of health, eating, my personal values, my friendships, my beliefs about my body, my faith, my beliefs about myself, my family connections, my professional goals… virtually every aspect of my reality… I also forged a new relationship with travel. It emerged out of necessity and I would ever venture internationally again. My passport expired, and the renewal application sat collecting dust in a basket on my desk.

Then, something unpredictable and rather remarkable happened. I grew a little bit. And then, something even more unpredictable and remarkable happened. I grew a little bit more. I started to imagine what it might be like to see Paris some day. Every food challenge brought me a teensy bit closer to that ultimate goal. As my plantar fasciitis healed and my rigidity around food lessened, the city of lights began to seem less and less fantastical and more and more realistic. “Well, this is practice for Paris,” I caught myself thinking whenever I encountered an obstacle or when my flexibility was stretched to new limits. “Soon.” The word hung in the air. I would be seeing Paris soon. With every successful navigation of a potential “disaster,” I was that much better prepared for the challenges I would face in France. Soon, I would be ready.

Aware of my aim, my therapist and dietician set small milestones for me. In September, after a bit of planning and strategizing, I ate my first baguette with butter. There was no planning or strategizing required when I discovered the avocados my mom picked up at the grocery store weren’t ripe during my visit home just before Christmas. Without a second’s hesitation (or the use of any measuring spoons), I added butter to my side of bread to meet my fat exchange for dinner. “It’s great preparation for Paris!” I exclaimed to my somewhat stunned mother.

In 2017, there is a new time sensitivity to my need to poise myself for this next leap of faith in my recovery. I will be seeing Paris soon. I will be seeing Paris in 131 days and 23 hours, to be exact. That’s right. The plane tickets are purchased. The hotel is reserved. The guidebook is now adorned with sticky notes and penciled stars. Creased, folded sheets of hand-written notations are stuck in between the pages, waiting to be copied into my Moleskine travel journal. In nearly every daily event, I am hunting for an opportunity to practice for Paris. “What is this situation offering me for the future?” I ask myself whenever a mix of distressing emotions bubbles up inside me.

There are many questions and uncertainties ahead. The year 2017 is going to be one of growth and transition. And transitions, even good ones, have a tendency to, well, sort of suck. For me, the trick is to acknowledge and validate the misery I experience while simultaneously engaging with my positive experiences, including curiosity, excitement, and even pride. After all, c’est la vie! 

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

~ Ernest Hemmingway

paris-2
Paris,” © barnyz (own work), June 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

I See Your Baguette, and I Raise You a Pad of Butter and a Cappuccino

“I need to figure out an alternative vacation strategy,” I told Melanie, my therapist, as I left her office. It was a mere two days following my return from my last trip. My autumn “vacation” was actually just a week spent lazing around my parents’ house and puttering about my hometown. After too long in the same routine, I was exhausted and harried. Like hardening cement, I was becoming increasingly rigid and fixed in my routines. The detrimental effect on my thoughts only further amplified the tension, inflexibility, and negativity that manifested in my speech and behavior. I told myself that removing myself from that environment would be the respite that I needed.

During my break, I practiced at one of my favorite yoga studios, went swimming and biking, caught up with a couple of my close friends from childhood and college, and wiled away hours on some of my favorite activities – reading and writing. My week was not as idyllic as it might sound, however. At home, triggers abounded, worsemed by my parents’ recent retirement in July. My reactions were complicated, but they were mostly averse. Fortunately, my coping skills were sufficient to keep me from any major outbursts or meltdowns, but the hostility that I swallowed and bottled inside me was toxic. I came back to Vanillasville with an intense self-loathing. During my week at home, my hatred for myself and my body reached a level that I last experienced before my partial hospitalization for my eating disorder. I returned with a desire to restrict to the point of losing a substantial amount of weight.

One of the underlying messages that permeated my conscious (and likely my subconscious) thoughts was a consistent monologue of variations on, “I hate myself. I’m a failure.” I told myself that my stay with my parents was worthless, a waste of my vacation days, and a direct manifestation of my fear and laziness. Planning a real vacation would mean confronting some nasty demons in my closet, and I felt helplessly frustrated by my paralysis before that closed door. All because of FEAR.

“That’s a workable problem,” Melanie told me on Tuesday. “We can address that.” I smiled as I pulled my bag over my shoulder and reached for the doorknob. I wasn’t convinced. She didn’t know the whole truth behind my avoidance. After delaying for over a year, I finally renewed my passport last December. I picked a destination and bought a Paris guidebook. As winter gave way to spring and then summer, I found one reason after another to push back my nascent plans. “It just isn’t the right time. I’ll get to it after I adjust to this new project at work. It doesn’t make any sense to start planning before I find someone who will travel with me. It will happen when it happens. I don’t need to be in a hurry.” With nothing more than an idea and a Rick Steves guide, I was stalled.

seine-sunset
Seine sunset eiffel tower back,” © Simone S. Taddei (own work), Oct 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (license).

The day after my conversation with Melanie, I met with Kelly, my nutritionist. Together, we processed the events of my “vacation,” the meals I ate, my obsession with desserts, and my marriage to my meal plan. Once more, she informed me that my weight was stable, and, once more, I told her that she must be lying.

Last month, Kelly showed me a book on mindful eating that she thought would be helpful for me to read, and I replied, “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.” It took a desperate leap of faith for me to trust my first dietician enough to risk my life on my current meal plan. When every other attempt I made to recover from my binge eating disorder failed, I found my rock bottom, which was someplace between insanity and suicide. From that place, there was nothing more to lose, and I finally chanced moving beyond my severely restrictive orthorexia.

“You still won’t you trust yourself with food,” Kelly pointed out… again. She likes to remind me that, despite all the ups and downs I experienced leaving Walden, returning to Vanillasville, resuming work, and coping with the upheavals of a (semi)-engaged life, my last binge was in November 2014. Yet, I return to the fact that I achieved my current stability with the safety-net of my meal plan. Abandoning my measuring cups, countertop scales, and precisely tabulated and proportioned exchanges would mean risking everything I worked so hard to build over the past 22 months.

“I don’t deserve to be trusted!” I wanted to shout. I felt like reaching across the desk between us and shaking her by the shoulders for further emphasis. “I can’t eat mindfully. I CAN’T do it! It will all fall apart. It will be just like it was before – before my eating disorder, when I was heavy, and I ate too much all the time, and I didn’t care, and I just ate whatever because it tasted good, and it was there. And I’ll feel sick all the time like I did, and have no energy, and I WILL GAIN WEIGHT.” I was thinking of middle school, high school, college, and graduate school, when I didn’t eat mindfully, used food for a host of other purposes beyond nurturing my body, and was engaged in some seriously unhealthy habits. Finally, I admitted out loud, “I don’t want to gain weight. I am still obsessed with not gaining weight.”

Amazingly, Kelly didn’t care. “I’d be worried if you were consistently telling me that you thought you needed to lose weight and that you weighed too much, but it’s not an unhealthy thing to want to maintain a healthy weight.” Her unexpected reaction caught me entirely off guard. I was prepared for another conversation about why weight didn’t matter, but instead, she emphasized that maintaining my healthy weight did matter to her just as much as it mattered to me. After experiencing a week of so much invalidation, Kelly left me speechless.

There was more. Kelly continued, “If you really want to go to Paris, then you need to be able to walk into a Panera, order a side baguette, and eat it.” Uncontrollably, I burst into a genuine fit of laughter. The idea was so preposterous that it was outright comical. There was no way I would ever voluntarily eat a giant chunk of white bread, particularly considering that the local Panera café, conveniently located directly along my commute, was previously a major source of binge-food during the darkest periods of my disorder. “Well,” sighed Kelly, “at least don’t avoid any social situations because of the food this week,” she charged me. “Done,” I thought. At this point in my recovery, such an instruction was hardly a challenge.

Here’s the thing. I want to go to Paris. Here’s the other thing. I’m kind of an over-achiever, with a bit of a competitive streak, I’m meticulous about following directions, I’m an insufferable people-pleaser, and I don’t back down from a fight. Those attributes are part of the temperament that predispose to the development of an eating disorder in the first place, but they are also the traits that empower recovery. So, what does a scrappy, rule-following, over-achieving, approval-and-reward-dependent, recovering orthorexic binge-eater do when confronted with an eat-a-baguette challenge?

Last Saturday, I declared a “Challenge Snack Day,” and I decided to eat Kelly’s baguette in what I imagined to be true Parisian fashion. “Kelly,” I said to myself, “I am seeing your baguette, and I am raising you a pad of butter and a cappuccino. So there! You knew I would do it, didn’t you?” It was a rare treat to allow myself butter, and it was only my second cappuccino in the past two years, though I admitted that both were foods that delighted me in small and occasional portions. The mindfulness continued into the afternoon, when I scaled down the size of my lunch by one dairy serving to balance the extra frothy milk and espresso that I sipped slowly with my earlier snack.

Something tells me that sticking your face directly into your mug to loudly slurp your delicious foam is frowned upon by the French. I suppose that in the future, I will need to make some compromises in the interest of polite decorum. There is still a long, long way to go, and I am still unsure and distrustful, but I hope that it won’t be like it was “before.”

baguette-and-cappuccino-after
Savoring my delicious success (September 2016).

Risotto Impromptu

Featured Image:  “Risotto for Dinner,” © julochka (own work), May 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“Well, I still need to take a shower, and I need to wash and blow-dry my hair…” confessed Rachel. I glanced at the clock on the car dash. It was 11am on a Sunday morning, and I was home in Connecticut for a visit. As I wound my way over back roads to the nearby mall to find a Star Wars-themed gift for one of my favorite four-going-on-five year olds, I was also attempting to make plans with my oldest friend. A nearby thrift store was holding a 50% off Labor Day Weekend sale, and she was itching to rummage through its racks. I wanted to scope out the fall selections at one of my favorite clothing shops. In my bag, I was toting a lone granola bar for my mid-morning snack, but that would quickly be eaten. Soon, the lunch hour would be upon us…

“Take whatever time you need!” I cheerfully told her. “We’ll figure something out!” We arranged to meet at a convenient bookstore. Immediately, I ended the call and dialed my sister-in-law. “Quick! What are some restaurant options near Evergreen where they might serve something we would eat?!”

My parents’ community, like most American suburbs, is dotted with fast-food take-out joints, pizza dives, Chinese restaurants, and a plethora of Burger Kings, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Olive Gardens, Red Robbins, and the like. Part of my eating disorder recovery is mindful eating – paying close attention to flavor, texture, and quality of food, determining my actual likes and dislikes, and choosing foods that are appealing to my appetite and senses, rather than limiting myself to foods that I deem “good” or “bad” based on my very narrow and rigidly defined laws about healthiness (or lack thereof). Some people might label me a snob, but I prefer to see myself as someone who is becoming more aware of how delightful it can be to enjoy an entire dining experience, and I admittedly remain a bit inflexible around the issue of compromising.

Unfortunately, after living away for nearly fifteen years, I am not ready with a list of interesting dining options in the event of impromptu meals out. My sis is a great support when it comes to such challenges. She does not have an eating disorder, but we have somewhat similar culinary preferences – we both favor restaurants with kitchens where a chef prepares your dish from fresh ingredients when you order it, and we are keen on menus offering plentiful choices that aren’t too heavy, fried, creamy, dense, or drowning in sauce. I like my food to be savory and simple, with vegetable sides.

man-standing-in-kitchen
Man Standing by Kitchen With Turned on Lights,” accessed from Pexels.com.

Within a few minutes, I was furnished with the names of three places that were close at hand to the shops. A quick flip of my thumb along the screen of my iPhone brought up their menus, and a casual glance reassured me that I was, indeed, safe. I was able to enjoy a worry-free afternoon with Rachel, without the intrusive distraction of ruminative, anxious thoughts about how I was going to satisfy my lunch needs.

When we finally paused to eat, it wasn’t difficult to settle on the place. The weather was balmy and blissful, and we chose the restaurant with the best outdoor seating. We were led to a table straight away, and our server greeted us with a charming and friendly introduction. My eye fell immediately upon the beet salad, one of my favorite sides. Deciding what to pair it with was a bit more difficult. “Don’t worry,” winked our waiter mischievously. “I won’t let you order an unreasonable amount of food.” He sounded unconvincing.

There were some very reassuring options on the menu, which featured a range of selections from a basic turkey sandwich, to a plain steak with sides, to a light piece of chicken with rice or mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Yet, there were many more interesting descriptions that ignited my curiosity. “What is the Mediterranean chicken with risotto like?” I politely inquired. “Is it heavy? Is it a large portion?” He admitted that it was a bit larger, but my tastebuds were watering. Tomatoes, artichokes, and spinach with pesto, chicken, and… risotto… I decided I would try it. With my beet salad to help fill me up, I could plan to take part of it home for another meal, and if it was unappetizing, it wouldn’t be a total disaster.

Risotto. The last time I could remember eating risotto was nearly six years ago, just as my eating disorder was beginning to manifest. I didn’t exactly recall what it was like, but I remembered the dish being pleasant. “It’s like rice,” I thought. “I eat rice. Rice is ok.” In my mind, the word “Mediterranean” meant “lighter, with olive oil.” I wasn’t prepared for the thick cream sauce that stared back at me when the deliciously aromatic plate was set on the table.

Commenting on the creaminess to Rachel, she gave me a, “Well, yeah. It’s risotto!” response, as if to say, “Duh! What did you think you were ordering?” Remarkably, I didn’t feel my tight knot of anxiety twist in my chest. All I felt was the cool breeze and the fresh air of the sunny afternoon. I took a bite of the chicken, and acknowledged that it tasted good. After devouring the rest of my beets, goat cheese, and arugala, I slowly and methodically explored my entrée. It was good. I could distinguish all of the flavors as I carefully nibbled away at the spinach, tomatoes, artichokes, and chicken. I dabbed the meat in the pesto that ringed the plate. I took tiny bites of the risotto, appreciating the texture and the taste. An errant thought about weight gain flitted across my brain, but I paid little attention to it. Another flutter of an idea about needing to exercise to work off this indulgence passed along without causing any significant distress. When I was at just the right fullness, I put my fork down, and I asked for a box.

As I drove home that afternoon, I puzzled over what transpired during lunch. It seemed like a blip or an anomaly. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For an hour or so, I relaxed my rules and my firm grasp of control. It occurred to me that to continue my progress in recovery and to fully live my life, I might need to continue practicing this mindful surrendering.

I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this looseness, this fluidity, this unguardedness. I trust my meal plan. I don’t trust myself. “What if mindful eating makes me fat?” I worry… … … What if it doesn’t?

white-house-daytime
White Concrete House Under Clear Sky during Day Time,” accessed from Pexels.com.

 

Dawning of an Early Light

Featured Image:  “Fireworks over the Mall,” © Tom Bridge (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Monday, the Fourth of July, was Independence Day in the United States. As I reflected on that occasion, I remembered where I was and what I was doing on the very same date last year. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, July 4th, 2015 concluded with me staring down the barrel of a fully-loaded ice-cream-sundae buffet. I nearly succumbed to the pure panic that the accursed dessert provoked in me. Nearly. 

Here’s the scoop… Oh, goodness, I crack myself up! But though I jest, there is nothing amusing about this next bit…

At the end of my road, there is a small ice cream shop, which is part of a local chain. Their homemade ice cream is touted as some of the best in the world, and it even wins national awards. Unfortunately, this shop is also a place where I engaged in some of my worst self-harming binge behaviors. At the climax of my eating disorder, I was dropping in two or three times each week for a double-scoop sundae with all the fixings and an armful of chocolate bars, to-go. From all appearances, it was impossible to tell that I already consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving meal earlier in the afternoon, and I would continue to eat for another several hours once I returned home. My binges only ended when I was laying on the living room carpet, clutching my abdomen in pain, tears streaking my cheeks, unable to even squeeze a sip of water into my distended belly, afraid I would die in the middle of the night from a gastric rupture.

When I returned from partial hospitalization treatment at Walden, I never wanted to relive that agony again. I was almost militant in my avoidance of my most provoking triggers, among them being the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. At first, the mere sight of the building induced such anxiety that I needed to pull out every last one of my coping skills each time I drove past. Slowly, over time, I built new memories and healthy associations with my environment. My diseased, habitually patterned thoughts and activities were overwritten by my new life. The ice cream shop faded into the background.

After my Independence Day sundae buffet confrontation last summer, my straight-talking and amazing nutritionist, Kelly, challenged me to explore my authentic relationship with ice cream. “Do you even like ice cream?” she asked. No! I wanted to exclaim. I hate ice cream! It upsets my stomach! It is repugnant to me! Blech! My reaction was one of self-defense. At Kelly’s insistence, I revisited my favorite ice cream establishment, using my new knowledge of mindful eating to fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoyment of the cold, soft, smooth, melty, sweet, sticky, chocolatey-chippy goodness. Yet, I remained tense. It felt too familiar. Too close to old behaviors. At least, that was what I told myself, in my self-defensive, self-protective way. “What would happen if you actually liked the ice cream?” Kelly prodded. Danger! Danger! Danger! I would want it ALL the time! I would eat it ALL the time! I would get fat! It would RUIN my life!

In the fall, my friend, Amelia, and I began meeting for dinner at a different, local, independent restaurant every couple of weeks. These outings were a fun, social events for us both, and they were also my project from Kelly. Every two or three weeks there was a new chef, a new menu, a new challenge, but the same, supportive Amelia and wonderful conversation. On our very first night out, we came to the understanding that we would always order dessert. As I sampled my way across an assortment of artisanal treats, I discovered something surprising about my tastes. The first new revelation was that I actually had tastes. Real tastes. Rather than obeying the impulsive, anxious, preoccupying urges to eat certain foods, I discovered foods with a taste, texture, and aroma that delighted all of my senses. I came to realize that I actually didn’t like many of the foods that were once the object of my obsessions and the fuel of my binges. Soon, I happened upon a new favorite.  Hot pastry, with just the right consistency, preferably a slice of cake or brownie, but sometimes a bubbling fruit tart, with one scoop of ice cream (just one please), and maybe a dab of chocolate sauce. There’s a moment when the ice cream juuuuust begins to melt and all the flavors swirl together in a way that is both cool and warm at the same time. Mmmmmm…

…… we interrupt this blog for the author to make a quick jaunt down the road for a brownie and a scoop of ice cream with hot fudge…… Did I mention that they make their own whipped cream at the little shop on the corner?!

Yes, the brownie was warm
Yes, the brownie was warm…” © Wade Brooks (own work), Dec 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Ok, I’m back.

Eleven months after I almost hit the pavement on the Fourth of July 2015, I confidently walked the short, ten-minute stroll to that ice cream shop at the corner of my street. I perched on a bench, with my little, plastic dish and spoon in my hands, watching the mint-chocolate-chip dribble down in tiny rivulets and swirl around the thick fudge. Dipping my spoon, I raised that first taste to my mouth… So yummy! That was all. Just, “So yummy.” This thought was not followed by a crisis of conscious. There was no panicked catastrophizing, no racing heart, and no desperate eyes darting around for the exit. I sat on the little outdoor patio, feeling the hot summer sun on my very pale legs, listening to the gentle wooshing of cars rolling by, letting the chocolate chips and nibbles of brownie slide over my teeth and my tongue, and soaking in every bite, every drop of those delicious, mingling flavors.

This Fourth of July, I celebrated freedom in a different way. I celebrated my freedom from fear over food. Or, at least, this one food. Happy Independence Day!

Ice Cream Open
Ice cream open,” © Jeremey Brooks (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Burgers in Wonderland

Featured Image:  “Super Bowl cheeseburgers,” © Stephen Ritchie (own work), Feb 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Shifting from someone concerned about making health-conscious food choices to a person with profoundly limiting orthorexia was subtle. My decompensation slowly progressed over several years, though my caloric restriction and weight loss were fairly dramatic and abrupt. When I first entered treatment for my binge eating disorder, I couldn’t even acknowledge my underlying anorexic and orthorexic tendencies. I freely admitted to my use of disordered overeating and binge behaviors. This history of using food to numb and avoid strong emotions, discomfort, or pain was a maladaptive coping mechanism that traced back into my childhood. However, I refused to allow that my actual eating disorder began as a predominantly restrictive problem. My adamant denial was so powerful that I actually convinced myself that my nutrition was balanced and adequate when I wasn’t actively binging. (FALSE!) Though I was deeply ashamed of the label “binge eater,” it was easier to identify with that diagnosis than to face the truth that my restriction, over-exercise, and weight-loss obsession was dangerous, unhealthy, and unsustainable. The fear of relinquishing control over my food choices and the threat of the weight gain that might result were unbearable.

Withholding information and bending facts in an effort to create reality as I desired it to exist and my attempts to manipulate the outcome of my treatment only resulted in setbacks, frustration, and despair. As I experienced failure after failure, I begrudgingly revealed the full depth of my disorder. I reluctantly pulled at the threads of my story, picking apart one strand at a time.  Finally, eight months after being diagnosed with BED and a month after my discharge from partial hospitalization, my nutritionist was able to weave the complete tapestry together. She was the first to verbalize what I intrinsically knew to be true about my eating. My binging did not exist in isolation. I was also a restrictive eater with underlying orthorexia.

My task is now to unwind the tight tangle of fear, limitation, avoidance, and control. Undoing the knot takes place even more gradually and inconspicuously than the act of snarling it up. Perhaps the subtlety of the process is itself a marker of my improvement. The fact that sampling a “new” food does not always involve a climactic battle against apprehension and anxiety is a victory. This is a pretty stark contrast to last Fourth of July, when staring down a table of make-your-own ice cream sundae fixings filled me with so much panic that I nearly passed out. More recently, I am observing that when I spot a different or novel food, I may just eat it. Whether I am motivated by hunger and a lack of other choices, or by curiosity, or both, the result is the same.

At a Memorial Day cookout with friends back home, both need and intrigue were factors when, rather unceremoniously, I reached for a cheeseburger. Ok, ok. It wasn’t really a cheeseburger. A friend was grilling sliders, those smaller medallions of ground beef, which he topped off with a slice of cheddar folded into quarters. There was no flourish, and hardly anyone noticed when I wandered into the kitchen, observed that these miniature beef patties were my only protein option of the evening, and placed one on my plate (without a bun or condiments). Even I barely registered that this was an unprecedented and unusual action for me. It was only my friend’s half-startled, somewhat awkward, but abundantly considerate and compassionate comment, “There’s more food in the fridge if you need anything else,” which triggered my introspection. Why would I need anything else? I wondered. Why is he concerned? It took a few minutes before it dawned on me… It wasn’t long ago that I DID need my own special meal EVERY time we ate together.

There are still many occasions when I opt for a peanut butter sandwich tucked into my purse instead of lunch at a restaurant when I’m on the go, but I don’t view this as a symptom of my orthorexia. Though my goal is to loosen my restriction, I am still allowed to be health-conscious (and budget-conscious) in my choices. The reality is that I am much more comfortable eating a wider variety of foods when the occasion arises, and my trepidation and self-consciousness about eating in front of others is also improving. Last June, I left the church picnic after 15 minutes, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat a hamburger, and because I was so insecure about not knowing anyone with whom to socialize or talk. A few weeks ago, I attended the same annual picnic, and passed a delightful afternoon, chatting and eating until the cleanup crew began to pack their gear away. I won’t be making hamburgers and cheeseburgers a staple of my regular diet, but I I continue to add experience after experience that reinforces this truth – there is more to food than what I stare at on my plate. This is what nourishes and sustains me – the people I love, in the places close to my heart.

Picnic
These smiling people seem to be onto something. Maybe it’s not about the food. Maybe it’s about the company. “Picnic, circa 1960s,” © Seattle Municipal Archives, ca. 1962. CC BY 2.0. (license)

My Choffy Fix

Featured Image:  “Theobroma cacao at the ENMAX Conservatory at the Calgary Zoo,” © Wendy Cutler (own work), Sep 2012. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Despite the often heavy themes I write about here, I don’t spend all of my waking moments in introspective meditation. Occasionally, I’m known to let loose a bit.

“There’s that word again. ‘Heavy.’ Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

~ Doc Brown, Back to the Future

On that note, moving along to the topic of today’s post… Choffy! Back in 2010, when I was working about a bazillion hours a week (60-100 to be more accurate), my body began to rebel against me. (The ways that stress can manifest physically are truly amazing. Even when we consciously tell ourselves that everything is grand, the body never lies.) Among other symptoms, I developed a pestering case of acid reflux. Rather than the classic heartburn-type symptoms, my GERD presented as a sensation of globus – that feeling of a lump in the throat that just never went away. In fact, it worsened after large meals, if I ate too late at night, or with certain foods. Like coffee. Groan!

How would I survive without my ritual, morning cup of hot, black, deliciousness? For awhile, I continued to bring a cup of it to my desk each day so that I could at least breathe in that strong, characteristic aroma. It was around this time that my friend Helene introduced me to choffy.

Roast cacao beans, grind them down, (in my case, buy them already roasted and ground, in a beautiful, silvery bag), steep them in a French press for five minutes, stir, strain, pour… voilà! The smoothness of what results from this process is unparalleled. Not as strong as coffee, and with only a fraction of the caffeine, choffy also lacks coffee’s acidity, and it carries the delicious flavor and luscious scent of deep, rich chocolate.

When I was immersed in my eating disorder, the thought of the few extra calories that a cup of choffy would “cost” me was paralyzing. The fact that the nutrition label on the bag of grounds was difficult to interpret increased my distress. My brain writhed and flailed as it attempted the calculations in order to determine the precise caloric content of the amount of liquid contained in my mug. Ultimately, after a couple of anxiety-fueled, eating-disorder-triggering attempts, I relegated the choffy to the very back of one of the top-most shelves of an out-of-the-way kitchen cabinet. There, it sat forgotten for years. Until last week.

On a bit of a “spring”-cleaning kick, I was rummaging about for stuff to give to goodwill when I stumbled upon the lovely silver and green bag. “I really could give this another try,” I thought. On a Sunday afternoon, I sat on my back patio, sipping a freshly pressed cup of choffy while overlooking the still, blue-green surface of the pond behind my house, listening to the rustle of tree leaves in the stiff breeze and the distinctive rushing sound of the fountain in the center of the water. The sun danced over the rippling water and threw its light boldly across the soft grass along the little hill leading away from the water’s edge. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my chair, and inhaled deeply. The smell of the choffy mingled with the gentle fragrance of the nearby petunias. “Here I am,” I thought, smiling. “This is good.”

Roasted Cacao Beans
Roasted Cacao Beans,” © James Leone Puno (own work), April 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The Grapes of Recovery

Featured Image: “and more fruits,” © jACK TWO (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license available here)

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?

Ickworth Vineyard
Ickworth Vineyard,” © Dave Catchpole (own work), October 2012. CC BY 2.0.
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.

Untitled - pineapple
Untitled, © James Folley (own work), April 2015. CC BY 2.0.
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.

moules frites
moules frites,” © Merle ja Joonas (own work), September 2014. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license available here)