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)

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.

 

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)

Going to the Mattresses

Featured Image:  “The gloves are off,” © Chris Bird (own work), Aug 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

This is a message of warning to mediocre desserts everywhere. Don’t cross me. An Italian chef may drizzle you with a triple-chocolate reduction, sprinkle you with organic cocoa, and poise a perfectly rounded scoop of house-made gelato beside you, but it doesn’t change the fact that bread pudding remains, in essence, cubes of soggy bread. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… well… let’s just say that things will get real.

As I explore novel foods and cultivate a new relationship with eating, nutrition, health, and my body, I am learning to embrace the peculiarities of my individual tastes. I don’t like gummy worms, lollipops, or potato chips. I don’t understand the allure of popsicles, and if it can be described as Cajun, it likely will not appeal to me. It’s easy to dislike food that I consider “unhealthy.” It is exceedingly more challenging to accept that I probably possess more than one sweet tooth and that some of those “bad” foods are actually really yummy. Like, really yummy. I am beginning to acknowledge that when I go out to eat, I am going to need to leave room for dessert. Is it progress that I don’t necessarily need the permission of the others at the table when the waiter hovers at the end of the meal, awaiting the answer to the awkward question, “Can I show you our dessert menu?” That particular moment always seems to prompt an uncomfortable shifting of eyes and inarticulate mumbling. Instead of remaining silent and then releasing a sigh of disappointed relief after a friend answers, “I think we’re all set,” I am increasingly more likely to declare that, yes, I absolutely want something sweet and preferably chocolatey. Half the reason I look forward to dining out is the fancy dessert at the end, which I don’t allow myself when I’m preparing a usual weekday meal in my solitary apartment.

The path to accepting my love of dessert was paved with potholes. When I binged, it was mainly chocolate, ice cream, and simple carbohydrates that I craved. These were dangerous and evil foods. Especially ice cream. “Do you even like the taste of ice cream?” Kelly asked me once, after I nearly passed out while standing in front of the dessert table at Alice’s house last Fourth of July. It turned out that the answer was yes, but only certain flavors, and certain types, in small amounts (so as to not irritate my lactose intolerance), and under specific conditions. After battling my weakness for dessert for most of the past year, Amelia made the choice much simpler. The first time that we went out together, she revealed that she never passed up an opportunity for dessert. Though she always let me pick out the restaurant, and she never put me in a situation that was beyond the ability of my coping skills, we ordered dessert on each of our every-other-week outings. There was never an uneasy pause when the waiter or waitress circled back with his or her inevitable query. At first, I continued to berate myself on those nights when I felt “too full,” or when I finished every last lick or crumb… especially if the taste, like that of the bread pudding, was sort-of mediocre. “Can’t you just accept that when you go out, you’re going to order dessert?” Kelly finally asked me. “Is it really so bad? Is it really so awful to know that when you eat at a restaurant, you’re going to need to save room during the main course, because you will want to order dessert?”

…Hmmmmmmm…

So, I began to embrace this sweet-loving side of me. I gave the little demon a name, put on a record, and coaxed it out of the closet for a dance. Or at least a shuffle. Maybe a wiggle. A wiggling shuffle. At the same time, I continued to discover new insights into my likes and dislikes. Bread pudding? No. A nice, gloopy rice pudding? Well, now that is a different creature all together! Cupcakes from a boxed mix? Definitely pass. Store-bought or packaged chocolate chip cookies? ICK! Homemade carrot cake? Sign me up!

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dessert platter,” © Pearl Pirie (own work), Sep 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The week before Easter, a box arrived in our office from Germany. It was a care package from Inga, one of my co-workers who was abroad on business. When I arrived at 8 am, it was already spilling its plethora of brightly colored plastic wrappers and shiny foils onto the table in the break room. She sent a case of Kinder Hippos, a bucket of Haribo chews, rolls of licorice string, hazelnut cream-filled cookies, and milk chocolate-covered toffee Easter eggs. Grand. Knowledge of the presence of this surfeit of sugar mere paces from my door did not distract me from my work all morning. Progress! Before treatment, the anxiety, impulsivity, urgency, and distress would, without fail, overwhelm me within an hour and precipitate an all-day binge. My ability to walk away from the food and the thoughts did not escape my attention. Hooray! *Back-pat.* Recovery works. However, when it came to my usual snack time, my mind returned to those hippos and toffees. They were not treats that I would ever choose for myself, but they were readily available, and they were “special” because they came all the way from Deutschland and bore labels that I couldn’t interpret. I decided to mindfully and purposefully try one of each chocolate variety, of which there were three. At the end of my taste-test, I concluded that the hippo was the most delicious – not too sweet, with a truly delightful cream center – even if it was shaped like a children’s toy. The two toffee flavors, on the other hand… well, the hippo was definitely better. My co-workers seemed to agree with me, because by the end of the day, the hippos were gone, and the bags of toffee still remained.

Two days later, I found myself preparing my lunch and staring at that same, stupid bag of chocolate toffee. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. After I finished my lunch, I tried it again. Maybe I needed to give it a second chance. It wasn’t any yummier the second time around, though. Then, last week, after a particularly emotional day and a difficult meeting with my therapist, I found myself bee-lining straight to the office kitchen. Where are those chocolates? I knew that I was seeking sweets to soothe my emotions, and I wasn’t pleased about it, but I also wasn’t binging, and I wasn’t in any anxiety or distress about one isolated incident of eating a piece of candy because I was emotional. It happened. Big deal. However, when there were still three flipping pieces of that substandard toffee left several days later, I was about to lose my mind. Clearly, nobody in the office was all that interested in it, because it was still laying around. I snatched them up. Enough was enough. It was time for my counteroffensive. The chocolate in the break room was starting to become a problem. Or, at least, I was starting to have a problem with the chocolate in the break room. One of those last three pieces I gave away. I wrapped the remaining two in a paper towel, I delicately placed them on the floor, and then I jumped and stomped on them until there was nothing left but a mash of chocolate toffee dust. What does that mean? Is this some sign that my ED is worsening? part of me wondered. Another part of me didn’t care. I felt relieved and liberated. I made a different choice.

Life is pretty uncertain for me these days, and I am in a very vulnerable place. I recognize that I am coping with many changes, and to say that it is difficult is a massive understatement. Even working with my therapist and my nutritionist, it is hard for me to put the pieces together, identify my thoughts and emotions, and address them. In this place of vulnerability, I know that I am at risk of using my old coping behaviors, but I realize that seeking comfort in food is not a solution. It will not bring me the relief that I seek. For better or worse, here I am, with all of my dark marks and blemishes. All I can do is the best I can and pray that it is enough. I’m not the person I was before. So… mediocre-tasting desserts. I will not eat you just because I am feeling lousy. Don’t test me.

Untitled - boxing
Untitled,” ©Paola Kizette Cimente (own work), Apr 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 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)

The Menu Obscura

Featured Image: “Dictionary” © Dave Worley, Mar 2009. CC BY 2.0.

Bolognese. Demi-glace. Poblana crema. Lardons. Pappardelle. Puttanesca. I guessed that airline chicken breast was not something that would be served at a cabin pressure of 8,000 feet and that tomato ragù was not the same non-descript red sauce I could find sitting in a glass jar on any supermarket shelf. My head was swimming, my heart was racing, and I could feel myself becoming dizzy as I scrolled through the bistro’s online menu. I ate there before, on more than one occasion, but by “before,” I mean… BEFORE… When I suggested to Amelia that she pick the restaurant because I was running out of ideas, I was without expectations. Quickly, I dialed Kelly, my nutritionist. “What should I do? Nothing is SAFE,” I lamented.

“Would it be all right to ask that you go to a different restaurant?” she inquired. That wasn’t the response I was anticipating from Kelly, who usually uses humor to cajole me into push my boundaries and shakes her head in mock dismay when I attempt to retreat into my cave of safety. I didn’t want to back down. Instead, I did what any right-minded, hyper-analytical, recovering orthorexic would do. I turned to Wikipedia.

It was a daunting task. Every menu option contained at least one if not five unknown (and therefore inherently dangerous, potentially lethal, might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack-in-the-restaurant) elements. I started at the top. Fortunately, I discovered that I didn’t need to work my way through the entire list. All I needed was to unravel enough of the mystery that the menu didn’t scare me anymore. As I methodically searched term after term, my breath abated, my racing heart slowed, and the panic left me. “I just need to find one thing,” I muttered to myself. “Just one entre I would enjoy eating. Or tolerate.” Substitutions allowed.

Unfortunately, most cream sauces, cheese-based dishes, and any food in the noodle or pasta family remains in the might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack unsafe zone. I am inching closer and closer to trying pasta again, but a touch of lactose intolerance means that I am not highly motivated to stretch my boundaries when it comes to heavily creamed or cheesed meals. Most of the dinner entrées at this particular bistro feature some combination of pasta, cream sauce, or “augratins.” The other descriptions include ingredients like chili, chili broth, chili coriander spice, chili honey, and green chili dirty rice. It turns out that poblanos and anchos are peppers. It turns out that I’m not much of a spicy, peppery kind of girl.

I think it’s to my credit that I remained open-minded about the menu. Once I settled my initial startle reflex, of course. The herb crusted airline chicken breast looked like the most comfortable choice, but I wasn’t opposed to trying something a bit more challenging. It was winter restaurant week in Vanillasville, and I anticipated that the place would be bustling, but as our hostess escorted us to a small table against a far wall, I felt my expectations for the evening peel away like the splitting of a flower’s calyx to reveal the whorl of colorful petals within. The joy of being out with Amelia for the first time in three weeks swept away any anxiety about the linguine and tortellini. It was quiet, almost subdued and there was more than one empty table. A book club was meeting in the large event room behind our wall, but despite the placidity, even our cheerful waiter, Danny, seemed to join in our exuberance. I sighed; I smiled; I blossomed.

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” Danny asked. I was undecided between the airline breast and the tuna ahi puttanesca. According to Wikipedia, the word was an adjective to describe pasta “in the style of a prostitute,” which was just a bit ambiguous. His face brightened and his hands waved as he described the diced tomatoes, capers, and olives that comprised the sauce. It sounded delicious… but I stuttered and stalled at the spaghetti upon which it was served. Maybe next time.

“I’ll have the herb crusted chicken and tomato polenta,” I requested. The concept that tomato polenta sounded appealing to me was earth-shattering enough, and I was not disappointed. I lost track of the number of times I exclaimed, “I can’t believe how GOOD this is!” I closed my eyes and delighted in the flavor, the texture, the consistency, of each of the different ingredients, and the way the garnish of carmelized carrot shavings melted ephemerally into my tongue. When the dishes were cleared, the conversation continued. Amelia is one of the few people in Vanillasville with whom I can be entirely, wholly, authentically, messily, unabashedly myself. We share a history and a trust that doesn’t just happen. “I can’t believe I almost missed this,” I thought. “I can’t believe that we might not have come here because I was scared.” My heart was over-brimming.

When I returned to my apartment, I slept more soundly than any night in at least the previous two weeks. Snug in the warmth of fleece blankets and soft pillows, I was nestled in the comfort of friendship. Knowledge is power. It gave me the courage to nudge myself forward. But…

Connection changes everything.

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Purple hydrangea,” © tanakawho, Feb 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Perennial Party Problem

Featured Image: “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption,” © Söring, May 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0.

As I begin to type, I’m sitting in my office, back arched away from my desk chair, shoulders pulled angrily up to my ears, forehead creased, mouth taught and frowning. There are five minutes until I need to walk across the hall for the daily 9am meeting, but my fingers are slamming the keys. If I can just put a few words on the page, maybe the hostility that’s seething inside of me won’t continue to consume me like a pyroclastic cloud, burning me up from the inside-out.

WHY am I so upset? What exactly is it that is compelling me to both lash out and to self-destruct. I can feel the forces of my anger directed simultaneously outward and inward. I want to scream at my co-workers, then grasp the mug that sits between me and the keyboard, in which steeps my steaming green tea, usually such a tranquil focal point, and fling it at the wall. I imagine the ceramic shattering into huge chunks and bits of powder with a satisfying jolt and crash followed by a tinkling rain. I want to punish myself. What’s going on? I realize that this reaction, now probably temporary, is the state that I once lived in nearly every day. Today, just under the surface, if I peel back a hastily applied, too-shiny shellac that barely obscures all my thoughts and feelings, there is a running list of my mistakes. Screw the Powerball. I will put my money on the underlying message that is playing on the tape reel in my head. Consciously, I’m deaf to it right now, but if I stop long enough to listen, I bet I will discover it repeating some version of, “I suck,” right now.

Ok. Meeting time. Good vent.

Narrow Passage
Narrow Passage,” © Marc Soller, Feb 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There’s something about the combination of sitting in a quiet meeting room, meditating on my breath and the tone of the voices filling the air, a blank page, and Yo-Yo Ma that is intensely therapeutic. Here it goes… Time to scrape at the layers.

Before I begin to write, I want to take a moment to be grateful. I’m grateful for a private office, where I can close my door, pump up the volume of Ma’s sweet sounding cello, and pause. I am grateful that I work in a place where this moment of introspection is possible. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not, if I need a bit of time for reflection, I can find the space. I know that I will be much more effective (and much more pleasant) if I can process whatever is going on between my heart and my head in this moment. If I continue to press on, then I am at risk of acting out. I’m grateful for this insight.

Getting down to the matter at hand, here is how I’m feeling. Defensive. Angry. Vulnerable. Not in control.

Exposed. Imprisoned. Captive. Trapped. Like a caged animal, I am ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who comes near me or chew off my own arm to get away.

There is an obstacle in my immediate future that I cannot escape. Two obstacles, actually. Two work parties. On Thursday, some of my co-workers are throwing a “diaper party,” which is apparently an alternative to a baby shower, except all the gifts are diapers of various types and sizes, for one of our officemates. His wife is expecting their first child later this month, and I get it. A baby shower for a close colleague is one of those events like a birthday or Christmas, and while I’m not excited about navigating the food situation at work, I am supportive of the occasion and am excited for my friend. I’m not burning up over the diaper party.

But I am reeling about the barbecue banquet that is being planned for the following week. As a reward for winning the inter-office holiday decorating competition, our department chair is throwing us a celebratory lunch. The group-wide email soliciting input about date and type of food to serve is currently circulating through the “reply-all” channels.

Why are we so uncreative as a society that we continue to use food as both reward and punishment? Why can’t we be rewarded with a few hours off to go bowling as a team (there’s an alley close to our office), or brainstorm some other fun activity that we might all enjoy? I am not eager to attend another office lunch where my colleagues can demonstrate their individualized disordered eating patterns (either binging or restricting), while seeking external validation in the form of baiting others with comments about the new diet they plan on starting, their juice cleanse, new work-out routine, or, worse, observations about what other people are eating, how others look, or how much others exercise. I am often the object of many of these “others” comments. So… yeah. I tend to loathe forced socialization with my co-workers, and I especially abhor mandatory fun with food. Outside of these events and these conversations, my colleagues are wonderful, amazing, astounding people. They are kind, generous, well-meaning, funny, intelligent… I can go on and on. I even enjoy getting together with them outside of the office from time to time. Oblige me to sit in a windowless conference room with them and eat, though, and they are the enemy.

The seething is already starting to recede. I realize that I have a choice – continue along this path of AVERSION and WILLFULNESS, or search for an alternative way. What is the alternative? Is there more than one other choice?

Step one – Recognize that I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Identify when I am triggered.

Check. Definitely, definitely check.

Step two – Explore.

Well… isn’t that what I’m essentially doing right now? Here I am, sharing my explorations with the world, if the world cares to read them. It feels like groping through a bucket of opaque bile, searching for a nugget of gold.

Step three – Choose differently.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake,” © Andy Spearing, Aug 2008. CC BY 2.0.

Ugh. This is the hard part. My co-workers are good people. They are not malicious. They are caring, thoughtful, loving, and compassionate. From the number of emails flooding my inbox, I can tell that they are very excited for this celebratory barbecue lunch. They are almost more excited to join together for a few hours of fast-food pulled pork than they were for their festive “Star Wars Christmas” scheme, which was, believe me, quite elaborate. They deserve this win. This party isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my eating disorder. It isn’t personal. I still take issue with the “food as reward” approach, but my perspective and background on that matter is unique.

What am I going to do? Well, I am going to need to be OK with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or how I will react on the actual day of the lunch.

In the meantime, I dug deep (as Brené Brown might say), and instead of lashing out in bitterness and resentment, I called upon humor. Gratefully, it was accessible in my hour of need. My supervisor and I were joking about the terrible road conditions on the drive into work this morning (it was snowing pretty heavily during the AM commute), and I noticed that our banter was actually discharging some of my pent-up aggression. I felt the tension in my body slackening. Interesting, I thought. John knows about my history of an eating disorder, so without too much planning, I dove in. “Hey,” I started jovially, “I conscientiously object to using food as a reward. I vote that you guys throw your party on Tuesday so that I won’t be here and I won’t have to go.” Tuesday was one of the days initially proposed, and it also happened to be the afternoon of my weekly, standing appointment with my therapist. My words were light and my face was laughing, but my meaning was serious.

He smiled thoughtfully, gazing up and to the right in that honest, innocent way that people do when they are contemplating. “Oh yeah, I guess it is using food as a reward,” reflected the father of five. “Ok!” he agreed with a grin.

From the email traffic, it seems that everyone else is onboard with the plan for Tuesday, and some of my distress is alleviated. I am taking a (tiny) stand on an issue that is important to my values, without making too much of a fuss, and I am confident that I will navigate next Tuesday skillfully. In the meantime, I will keep trying to explore as I keep trying to cultivate ACCEPTANCE, WILLINGNESS, and COMPASSION, for myself and others.

Crater Lake OR
Crater Lake, OR” © Jonathan Miske, Aug 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.