Or Three Weeks Inside My Broken Brain
I HAVE A SECRET NOBODY KNOWS. Sometimes I don’t let it out of its box in my mind. For months, even years at a time. Sometimes its whispers grow so silent I’m sure I’ve starved it of oxygen and gotten rid of it for good. But it’s not–it’s always there. This is the secret: I want to be as light as a bird, all limbs and angles and like I could drift away and tumble about on the breeze. It’s commonplace to say I think I will be beautiful then. In any case, I know I will be thin.
Our bodies are fragilely made things. 206 bones. 78 organs. 11 organ systems. All of that to keep one heart pumping, two lungs rising–all of that to keep us alive. And yet, at any moment the slightest thing could trip the wires, set off alarms, bring the entire castle to dust about us. A blow to the chest, or something far less dramatic. Perhaps just a voice in our head.
This morning I checked my e-mail. I ran my eyes over a message about the plus-size fashion column I want to feature, then referred to my schedule for a time to slot in a visit to the food market, the mercato, for a recipe article I’m planning.
After that, I thought about eating. Thought about it for some time. My brain announced, “64 calories in a piece of whole wheat bread. 55 calories in 100 ml of orange juice. 90 calories in that biscuit you’re currently eyeing.” I know each of these numbers have nefarious intentions, each of these numbers hides fat and inches and fear. I looked at my thighs. Can these thighs take that biscuit? I mused. I didn’t eat the biscuit. In fact, I didn’t eat anything at all. And that’s been going on for awhile.
I said our bodies are fragile, didn’t I? Right now, right as I type the “w” and press comma and type on, my hands are trembling, crashing the keys together. I feel like I’m slurring on page. As part of my daily routine I take lithium, among other medications. And apparently, losing approximately 7.7 pounds (7 percent of my current body weight) in rapid succession can lead to lithium toxicity. Who’da thunk? Am I right? Well, everybody’da thunk, but I don’t think about that.
This is not an eating disorder. Not yet, not by the medical establishment’s definition, not by my definition, not by my body. These are the first flutters of a mind that is frightened to the core. Of being rejected, of putting on a single pound, of being fat and therefore unworthy. It’s all mixed up in there: psychological impetus, body image from hell and some serious history. My mind is everyone’s friend but mine. It is a mind that fights for respect and non-judgment, for self-love, for the right to take up space and as much space as you want; yet lashes out over a handful of pasta, four stalks of asparagus, a glass of soy milk when really, Liz, you should be drinking water. Water is good. Water has no calories at all.
I was a fat adolescent. Fat by my standards, fat by my family’s standards, though the honest truth is I never weighed more than 136 pounds even at my heaviest. I wasn’t short either. Walking around in that body, receiving the “gentle jibes” from family- “You’ve put on some weight, haven’t you?”, “Why don’t you try to eat smaller portions?” and my favorite, from my grandmother, “You’re fat.” That sort of shame sticks to you, clogging your vision. I don’t think they meant to be hurtful; many Chinese people are these things: blunt, ‘tough love’ practicing and thin. But all the same, I came to dread weighing day at school–buying uniforms, ballet class– anything that would remind me that I was just that bit larger, just that bit more ungainly. And then I lost it, as most children do at some point. From 17 the pounds gradually started dropping off for no particular reason and this continued for a few years. Now I experienced the converse effect: I was the butterfly shedding my chrysalis and everyone seemed wonderfully approving of this me. When I got my first, “are you sure you’re not too thin?” I swear my heart might have sang a little.
Is it any wonder then, germinated as I was in this environment of shame and praise, that I don’t have the most objective understanding of bodies? Or to be specific, since I seem to have no problems with any bodies but my own- is it any wonder why my body is an endless source of pain and difficulty? I am crystal clear on what is good and what isn’t, how my body should look and how it must not. When you’re a fat child, these are things your mind never lets you forget. When you were a fat child, it doesn’t matter how you actually look –you’ll always be fat inside and you’ll always be worried about gaining it all again. I am worried, ironically enough, that I will disappear as I take up more space in the world.
Through the years, I’ve experienced standard-issue dieting on and off, like most women and girls who experience the body pressures that this society presses upon us. Perhaps I attempted the cayenne pepper cleanse once or twice, but honestly speaking, I always gave up in about a day and I’ve never done anything else that can be called drastic. Even with the voice and the thought in my box, I’ve never felt an urgent compulsion. This time is different. This time every little “victory” is jealously guarded. Every time I go through the day keeping that burning gurgle of hunger in my belly sends a thrill, a shiver of pride at my discipline. And every night when my love shovels food into my bowl, sits and watches me eat is bittersweet. I want to do it for him — he is so earnest when he “talks doctor;” when he asks over and over for my hands to check the trembling; when he alludes, his eyes half-joking, to being able to call the police on me if I continue to not listen. Trattamento sanitario obbligatorio, it is called. Mandatory medical treatment. Then he tells me he won’t call the police. He’ll call my mother.
“I’m going to eat for you, okay?” I tell him once.
His smile is radiant. I would do anything for that smile.
“Yes, okay, that’s fine. Eat for me.”
I don’t want to get sick either. I don’t have the time. And neither does he. I fade in and out of acknowledgment.
I suppose this is what I must term my intervention. I am sitting at a desk in a small doctor’s office on the corner of a piazza where tourists stroll, oblivious to the personal drama happening above their heads. My doctor, who I see fortnightly, is before me and my boyfriend beside. She shows me pictures of skeletal women and that famous photo of the emaciated girl who looks into a mirror and sees a fat girl staring back at her. I am unconvinced. It would take me three years and a suction pump to look like that. “Three months,” my boyfriend interjects. Oh joy. I had to go and fall in love with a doctor, I think, now they’re double-teaming me.
Perhaps they sense my lack of agreement, because my boyfriend whips out a pen and my doctor a pad, and they start scribbling equations or coefficients or things I have no particular understanding or appreciation for. I started writing this ten days ago and I am 2 pounds heavier now; I weigh 112 pounds and am 5’5 and apparently, this is not ideal. At 18.6, I am teetering on the very edge of BMI acceptability. I try to explain my theories about “Asian BMI” but they’re not buying it. Then, stupidly, I tell them I’d like to weigh 103 pounds and now faces are starting to turn fairly puce. We are at an impasse. They’re probably just waiting for my non-confrontational self to give in. No one in the world knows me better than these two people, no one else knows all my sins and secrets. If anyone could crack me, it’d be them.
Then someone says something interesting. Your basal metabolic rate is the bare minimum number of calories your body needs to keep you breathing and your brain, heart and lungs working. Mine is 1348. I keep saying we are fragilely made things- perhaps I should listen to myself once in a while. Everyone keeps throwing about the “die” word today. Die this, die that. You’d think the word was on offer. Then again, I’m not stupid, I know it’s true. Eating disorders? That abyss from which so few return? It can happen in an instant. You can develop disordered eating seemingly from no particular trigger, and if you let it run its merry course, it can ruin your health, wreck your body and kill you. I know this, intellectually.
I’m unsure now. I want to be thin. I want to look okay. I definitely want to be perfect when I visit Singapore in 18 days. But I don’t want to die.
I want to have children one day. And I won’t be able to if I wreck my body now.
So I nod, completely convinced I’d never succeed. 1350 calories is 21 slices of bread. It is 101 250 grains of rice. 14.21 medium apples. It is overwhelming. I think I will hate myself if I eat that much. Or be loving myself. In any case we leave the office, one of us relieved, the other confused. We pick up a card on the way out. “Nutritionist or dietitian?” the boyfriend asks.
“Dietitian.” I like the word diet. I’m certain the nutritionist will want me at my “ideal” weight- to me an enormous number; a dietitian would surely be more friendly. I am ridiculous and pedantic because this is how my mind works. I am cold — I am burning calories. I am exhausted and the lift is broken — I am burning calories. I am sick, I am nauseated, I am in bed all day– good, I need fewer calories. All the bits of me, we are in concert: an army against the terrible enemy that is my being fat, my weakness, my impotence and inability to just keep one bloody thing in check in a world that spins and howls like a mad cyclone around me.
What doesn’t confuse me, however, is chocolate. And sweets. And strawberry tarts. And how much I’ve missed them all this time. They stare at me from the window of a wondrous shop we pass by, and I figure … 1350 calories? I haven’t eaten today? I’ll eat the whole damn number in strawberry tarts. So I do. They wrap it up in elaborate layers — translucent sheets under fabric smooth and papery under my fingers. Ribbons, stickers. It is as much a confection as the prize inside. I rip it open the moment I get home. Suddenly I am ravenous. How could I have forgotten this hunger?
Cream exploding freshness in my mouth, the tart sweetness of the strawberry, the crust shattering like buttery crumbs from heaven. I don’t think, I don’t worry, I just eat and eat and eat until I am replete.
I’ve been good these 12 days since. Not one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, but I’m eating. Today was a little … strange. I don’t know how to duplicate the emotions on paper; every configuration of words looks odd, as if the rightness of the memory has escaped me because how I feel seems now silly, insensate.
Basically, I couldn’t eat because I couldn’t think what to eat.
I call my boyfriend in a panic, but he doesn’t answer the phone. Somehow, I cobble together a slice of wholewheat bread garnished with a sliver of Edamer cheese and organic jam. In my boyfriend’s hands, this would be a three-bite snack. I make it last; I savor the glistening dollops of sweet jam, the mildest tang of the cheese, the soft nutty bread. Perhaps this will work after all, I think, very pleased with myself, perhaps my love of food will save me. Later, I am informed this is a meal for a three-year-old and I should have had three slices, at the very minimum. Three slices seems like a horrifically large number, but maybe I used to eat that much? I cannot remember, everything seems so far away and normal is upside down. From the vantage point of this bubble, all I see is nothing. When did this happen? It’s been just a moment. It’s been a second. Three weeks, a month at the most. Long term memory is a joke- that’s important for you to know, if you haven’t been eating either. Tomorrow, your body won’t remember how to eat anymore.
For now though, there is lentil soup on the stove and it smells like cumin and fresh herbs and salty earthiness. I’m going to eat tonight. Who can resist this smell and the call of red lentils smushed up against carrots and asparagus and all the delicious bits and bobs I’ve uncovered from the fridge and tossed in? So my stomach is still working after all. Today, anyway. And I still have those 1348 calories to chase after.
As for tomorrow, I don’t know yet. I suppose I’ll just have to let you know.
If you have been practicing restricted eating, I urge you to go to your doctor and talk to them about it. They’ll be able to advise you if you need any follow-up care with a specialist or a therapist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you look the part or if you only started recently and don’t think you have a problem. There is no such thing as a bad time for learning about nutrition and how to have a healthy physical and emotional relationship with food. Take care of yourselves. I’m trying to as well.
For information on eating disorders and referrals (within the US and international), call 1-858-481-1515 for the National Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center or 1-800-931-2237 for the National Eating Disorders Association.
Images by Elizabeth Liew