Those who know me know I have many issues with food, or more rightly, the ritual and circumstances surrounding the consumption of food. I would not say that I have a diagnosable eating disorder– and I have seen a psychiatrist and had been told that much (her exact words being, “Just get over it and eat beyond fullness”)- but I do have many issues about food stemming from a failure to adapt to new environments, adrenaline issues inhibiting appetite because of lifestyle changes, phobias about being force-fed against my will (whether by physical force or indirectly through pressure: having all eyes on your every bite can be very intimidating) and lastly, fears about having my body go out of control– the last issue being the natural consequence of having neglected the body and perhaps the easiest to get over although scariest of the bunch.
To understand the complexity and roots of my issues, I have to go towards the middle of my life, to my early 20s. I have a history of having been malnourished and although this was unintentional, it has taken about two years for my body to forget the trauma of it. I was in a living situation that limited my intake to three meals a day (in the beginning, I also had 2 snacks but this was gradually eliminated) in an effort to get my digestive system working regularly because of chronic IBS symptoms, which were in turn triggered by my move to Canada (that move also made me exhibit other ED-like symptoms such as food avoidance, pickiness and excessive exercise/hyperactivity). This was a noble gesture on my host family’s part, only I was not consuming nearly enough and I felt I was not able to consume enough for fear of being judged for eating ‘more than my share’. I was also a measly 80-ish pounds at that time (I wasn’t weighing myself but I think it was about that) and it would take more than a regular diet to get me to be healthy again. At this state, I was a pit of eternal hunger (ironically, I got over a lot of my life-long ‘pickiness’ during this period because I would just eat anything that was high-fat and high-calorie: my body craved it). As a result, I resulted to grotesque habits of rummaging through the garbage and eating leftovers from the family I was living with. My eating life became a thing of disgust to myself, and I lived a lot in secrecy. I was an animal at that state, needing to find every morsel of food that could be found. You could say I had the opposite of anorexia, but my constant state of anxiety inhibited any ability to put on weight.
(Later, I would realize these were all natural symptoms of starvation and malnutrition. Calorie restriction can also trigger eating disorders. See: Minnesota Starvation Experiment.)
When I moved out, I had no issues with regaining the weight I needed to regain my period, a process which involved the consumption of obscene amounts of food and many jars of nut butter daily to gain a measly pound a week: something my dietician also observed in awe. I had to confront the fact my hyper-metabolism meant I needed more energy than those about me and with the support of many friends, I was able to do it. At this time, I loved the idea of the body in excess of itself, wanting to consume the world into it in order to become whole. This central idea encouraged me to feed my body’s endless appetites and to feel empowered by my own hunger: I was a being of earth and flesh; I was alive. I started talking to my body again during this period, and it mostly slurred insults and admonitions my way.
At times of stress, however, the weight would just visibly fall away. The result of 3 months of re-feeding would disappear and I would have to go through the same painful process of regaining and going through extreme hunger again. This happened perhaps once more in Japan, shortly after my first recovery from malnutrition. My body was still fresh from having had enough energy to rebuild organs and restore my period, and it was not keen on having to deal with such deprivation. Fast forward with 2 years of regular eating (more-or-less), and I maintain about the same weight hovering around 95-100 pounds, a reasonable amount for my slight frame (being all my life underweight). Although events such as family visits or travel resulted in the disappearance of five pounds here and there which would take 6 months to regain, even though objectively I was eating ‘normally’, ‘like everyone else’. Adrenaline, anxiety and stress were the culprit here, and at such times my body overcompensates and consumes itself, and if I don’t eat enough to make up for my increased caloric need, I shrink.
Many of these issues I have solved by trying to converse regularly with my body, a practice I have admittedly fallen out of habit with. I used to use yoga as a way to talk to my body, and it would give me useful feedback, moans and groans or cries of frustration, depending on the day. We had an uneasy relationship, but at least we were talking. Yoga-time was ‘hello body, hello physicality!’ time, a time in which Body and I could have a therapy session and it could tell me how I was or was not taking care of it. I’ve fallen out of habit with my daily yogic practice, which may be one cause of my current state of physical distress.
In general, I have a tendency to disassociate, to disembody from myself. I often forget my physical body is there; I go about life as a slip of consciousness interacting with an intangible reality. Often times, I ‘zone out’ and physical reality dissolves like water about me. I have this seemingly uncanny ability to ‘space out’ in the literal sense. In such a state, a purple dinosaur could be shouting on the street calling my name, and I would not see it (and many things of this like has happened before). As a teenager, I used to wonder why eating immediately tethered me to the ground when my mind was floating disembodied outside my body. Meals were like a magical act of transmutation for me. As a child, too, I moved about like a ghost, observing reality as if it was another dimension hovering just beyond my consciousness. Food was some kind of strange elixir that bound me to world, and I consumed it not really for taste but more for texture and the idea-of-it.
Of course, this spaciness has many benefits. If I want to channel other states of being, or to tune into different consciousnesses, it is easy for me to tune out of my own mind and into another station. However, this also has the consequence of being a bit un-grounding when practiced daily. Hence my obsession with finding practical ways to ground myself consistently and my lack of interest in anything of a more ‘woo-woo’ nature. Activities like eating, breathing, sleeping: these tangible activities connect us with the earth realm. Food is a vehicle in which we partake physically of the world and also henceforth expel it (see: Bakhtin’s Grotesque body). It could be seen as a medium between body and world both in a metaphorical and biological sense, and a means of communication, a metaphor for the interconnectedness of life and earth. In other words, food is a substance that binds us to world, by reminding us we are also dirt, earth, having come from world; by partaking of it, we also join the cycles of life/ death/ rebirth that all life is based upon.
Which brings me to today. I am once again experiencing another ‘relapse’ of sorts, having lost another five pounds and I’m down to a measly ninety again. It scares the jibbers out of me that I am five pounds away from the time I was a malnourished hunger-monster-of-a-skeleton, yet I am not feeling any of the extreme hunger, the obsessive food-thoughts, because I have been eating regularly and consistently (although arguably not enough?). But eating when I do not have hormonal fluctuations (PMS) that result in massive hunger-binges is now not only a chore, and also a tragic drama filled with gas, gastric orchestras and indigestion. I feel like even though physically I am full of energy and ‘balanced’ (also, my periods are clockwork), I also do not look it. In addition, my skin breaks out in rashes at the slightest stress-trigger. It is like my body is in a heightened state of tension all the time, and the cushion between world and me is fibre-thin. The world enters me, and I am absorbed into it, and being banged around by my own demons is not so fun.
Yesterday, my husband drew three cards asking me to ask anything before leaving for work. I asked about my health and my husband’s role in it (he told me he had asked the same thing). This is what I got:
9 of swords here is hardly a surprise: my past with food being one mostly of mental anguish and self-conjured monsters of the cerebral sort. At times, I feel my fear of relapsing causes more anxiety and problems, stopping me from just eating the food I need to eat to get me where I need. Strength as a present card is interesting. I laughed a little at how the woman here is trying to force the lion’s mouth open. It feels like me trying to tame my own body, the physical vehicle in which I communicate with world (and you can see a landscape in the background here embodying the earthy realm). Sometimes, I feel an enormous obstacle when food is presented in front of me and I feel nauseous with each bite. The only way I have gotten over this is by nibbling throughout the day and having one sit-down meal, which hasn’t been so great for my digestive system. The Emperor as a future card suggests what I need is stability and routine in order to ‘be healthy’ again. Meaning, structured mealtimes and no negotiation about how/why I am eating. I need some masculine-style structure to my very reckless eating patterns, and I suppose I will get there.
I wrote this long post initially because I wanted to untangle the web of my crazy history with my body. We’ve always had a conflicted relationship since I was young, because I was always hovering between being a mind in a body sac to being fully body without mind, to a fuzzy area in-between. At the moment, I am having to alchemize the elements within my body in a way that optimizes mental and physical processes, an effort I feel unduly hard. I have gone through all extremes: malnourished, all-hunger, IBS-riddled, picky-eater, etc. Now, I’m in a sort of limbo state between here-and-neither. I’ve sort of fallen back into my childhood picky-eating habits, because I feel physically fine and my body is not in a state of malnourishment. However, I also feel the barrier between world and I is too thin, and I am not grounded enough. Any slightest change of food that’s not familiar makes my digestive system act up or my mind interfere. It’s again like relearning how and what to eat. I do feel like the only way is to take baby steps, to take each small food obstacle as it comes along. With the help of my husband and some self-encouragement, I suppose I can get to a place where I can stop being in a state of conflict about food and eating.
Part ii is here.