Content Warning: Disordered Eating
After my therapist and I finished the conversation about scary movies, I changed the topic to food. November 4th marked one year since I relapsed into my eating disorder and I had a calorie tracking chart to show for it. I said,
“So I brought a document with me today.”
“A document? Well, that sounds…formal.”
I laughed and pulled out my folder. I explained that the 4th marked this specific anniversary and outlined the chart for her. The numbers are in different colors: green for “good”, yellow for “caution”, red for “bad”, and blue for “best”. Each day lists the exact number of calories I ate and the font corresponds with the appropriate color. The bottom of each column gives a monthly average and the bottom left corner has an overall average.
It is green.
After I explained all of this to her, I handed it over. She said, “Wow, okay, so this really is a ‘document’?”
I told her that I wasn’t really sure why I brought it in, just that I thought it might facilitate a useful dialogue around food. We struggled for a while to find our footing, but eventually we started making some headway. She asked me more about the numbers and why I track calories.
“It just gives me a visual picture of how well I’m doing. I like that; I like seeing if I am within range or not. It helps keep me on track.”
She asked me how I decided on the numbers. Mostly arbitrarily, to be honest. But they’re numbers that make me feel safe. I explained that I think that as other destructive coping mechanisms have diminished (i.e. cutting, substance abuse, etc), food has become the primary means of managing distress.
“Can you talk more about that?”
“Sure. I mean, it’s just that I can use food to control the feelings. I don’t think I look at food the same way as other people. I could never imagine just sitting down and eating a meal because I’m hungry and it looks good. I think of food in terms of numbers; rewards and punishments. It helps me regulate and feel safe and in control.”
“What about that feels safe to you? How does it help you keep control?”
“It’s a distraction, I guess. I can focus all of my energy on obsessing about food. If I feel really good or really bad, I don’t have to think about that. I can just tell myself those feelings are due to food and then I can change that. So if something stresses me out, I can just knock my calorie intake down and then I feel better. And I don’t even know how I make that decision, sometimes I just can’t eat.”
“What do you mean you can’t eat? You feel guilty? You’re nauseous?…”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure how else to describe it. I don’t really have that internal battle over food: ‘oh that looks good and I’m hungry, but I really shouldn’t eat it’. I don’t experience that internal dialogue myself. I look at the food I’m supposed to eat and I just know whether I can or cannot eat it.”
“Like, tonight, for example. My wife made dinner for me since she’s working late. When I get home, I’ll open the fridge and look at that food. When I do, I’ll instantly know whether tonight is a night and I can eat dinner or not. If not, I’ll make a protein shake instead. But sometimes I’ll look and get a “no”. So I’ll do something else for an hour or so, then when I look back again, I get a “yes”, so I’ll re-heat it and eat dinner.”
“That’s a good strategy, waiting a while and seeing how you feel. Where does that decision come from? Who is saying yes or no?”
“I don’t know? I mean, it’s just there. I just get it.”
“Does it feel like it comes from an internal or external source?”
“Do you know who on the inside would make that decision?”
“So it could be a combination of people?”
She looks over the document again.
“And the red…what does that mean for you when you go over your daily allowance?”
I start to feel my heart race.
“Can you say more? Be more specific? What does that mean…about yourself?”
“It’s much much bigger than that. It’s as big as the world!”
She asks me to walk her through that experience.
“Okay. Well it’s just devastating. It’s the worst of everything. If I look and see I’ve gone over calories, I struggle to function, to breathe. I feel like everything is wrong, I am wrong, the world is bad, I am bad, nothing good will ever happen to me ever again, I’ll never reach any goals or achieve anything, I’ll never be loved, I’ll die alone and fat.”
“Wow. That sounds very intense and scary.”
“It is. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming and painful that I have to just climb under my blankets and scream. I just cry out and whine and roll around because it physically hurts me to know that I ate too much food.”
She asks me to talk more about how counting calories helps counter those feelings.
“It just keeps me calm. It helps me feel okay. The numbers keep me safe, I think. Every day is counted in numbers: calories, fat, carbs, protein, fiber, weight, BMI points…it all revolves around those…and if I can control them, keep them within a range that feels acceptable, I feel like I will be okay. I feel like I’m doing the right thing, which I guess makes sense since my mother started counting my calories when I was a toddler…”
She nearly jumped out of her chair, “A toddler? What?!”
I thought I had told her this story. I had not.
“Ugh. So when I was a toddler, my mom thought I was fat. She took me to the pediatrician and he told her to write down everything I ate and bring it in. So her and my grandma kept track of every single thing I ingested. Mom took it to the doc and it turns out I was actually eating well under my calorie requirements. But, still, I was a chubby kid and it bugged my mom.”
“Toddlers are chubby! That’s kinda their thing!”
I laughed, “I know. She’s an insane person. But…I don’t know…it stayed with me, that list. I didn’t understand it and I certainly couldn’t read it, but I knew that what I ate was somehow important. My parents always tell this story of how they’d take us kids to buffet restaurants and I’d just get a big salad.”
“Why did you get a salad?”
“I don’t know…I liked it, I really did. And I’d tell my parents that. But, also, I knew salad was good. I was supposed to want to eat it. And when I did, they made a big deal out of how I was this weirdo kid who could eat anything but got a salad instead. It was a source of pride…for them and for me.”
“You wanted to be good; to eat the right foods and make them happy.”
“Yes. Eventually they decided I should eat more normally so they told me to eat a salad and then an ice cream cone. So that’s what I always did – I’d eat a nice big salad and then get an ice cream cone for dessert.”
She rolled her eyes.
It sucks, this eating disorder. But when I think about getting through the last year without relapse, I struggle to imagine getting through it. Obsessing over everything I intake and every calorie I burn has been a welcome relief from obsessing over the alternative topics.
When this all started back in last November, I naively thought it would be short-lived. I figured it was a trigger response to Wife losing her job and going to the trauma program, plus Zooey’s bullshit and it would all just even out in a few weeks like it normally does. But somehow along the way it became this thing I love and an integral part of how I function each day.
I don’t want to always live a life in numbers, but I’ll be honest…I also don’t ever want to give it up.