An Unhappy Birthday

I’ve never really liked birthdays. In fact, I grew up dreading them. My mother almost always forgot the occasion. Relatives I hated swarmed in from out of town. People watching me eat meant I had to eat more. I felt I didn’t deserve any of the presents I received. The passage of time made me anxious about how little I’d accomplished. I frequently spent the day in a hospital of some sort. And then there was the cake.

The cake! Oh god, the cake! The cake was the worst part. I’d spend all year worrying about the cake, planning for the cake, calculating how many calories were in the cake, devising ways to compensate for the cake. A slice of cake had 1000 calories, right? So, if I ate nothing else that day, I could have half a slice and not gain any weight, right? Or I could eat normally and exercise for five hours to burn it off? Or I could purge it? No, that would only get rid of 30% of the calories, providing I did it properly, and I’d still have 666.66 calories in surplus. What if I restricted for two days before? Could I have a whole slice then? Or could I just have a bite? How many calories were in a bite? Or a tiny bit of the frosting? Just a lick! That was my favourite part anyway. But there would be crumbs on the frosting. How would I account for those calories? It wasn’t worth it. I just wouldn’t have any. But I would exercise extra anyway—just in case, to burn off the cake I didn’t eat.

That was my birthday every year, and it was miserable. Like many people, I used birthdays as an opportunity to beat myself up, to get down on myself for all the things I hadn’t done, for everything that I wasn’t. The event emphasised my biggest insecurities—failure and fatness—and I spent the holiday punishing myself for my ‘obesity’ and ‘idiocy’. Needless to say, it was not much of a celebration.

It was my birthday last week, and although my circumstances were not ideal, I tried to make the best of it. I bought myself a book I wanted. I didn’t receive many other gifts, but I’m glad I have this text for my research. I attended two dance classes. They weren’t the challenging jazz ones back home at Pineapple, but they gave me an opportunity to work on my technique. I redeemed my birthday reward for a free drink at Starbucks. Maybe I ordered my hot chocolate with nonfat milk and scraped the whipped cream off in a panic, but at least I challenged my fear of liquid calories. I spent some quality time with my cat Katherine. It was sad not to be in London, but Katherine is so adorable and sweet. I stopped at my favourite bakery. My cake was delicious even though my friends were not there to share it with me. Did I have the best birthday ever? No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I’m lucky to be alive having this birthday at all.

Birthdays can be hard, I know. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to celebrate them. You can treat them like an ordinary day if you want to! Just please, please don’t use them as excuse to hurt yourself–mentally or physically. Acknowledge who you are and where your at. You may not be who or where you want to be, but you are someone, somewhere. I hope you can appreciate that.

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Disclaimer: This cake was from the Saturday before my birthday. I enjoyed a chocolate cake on the day itself, but the icing smudged on the bus trip back to my flat, and consequently I didn’t get any good pictures.

How to Travel with an Eating Disorder

Travelling with an eating disorder is stressful–whether you’re in relapse or recovery. Your normal foods are not available. You can’t eat at your regular times. You’re not able to exercise like you normally do. It’s hard, I get it. I’ve been there many times, and it was horrible. But you know what? I survived.

My advice is simple. Fuck it. Yes, you read that correctly. Fuck it! Obviously make sure you’re eating enough, but other than that, fuck it. Throw all your food rules out the window, and just eat whatever the fuck you want. Sampling the local cuisine is part of experiencing a culture, so try anything and everything. Does your destination have a signature dish? Get it from several places and see how it differs regionally. Are you going to the beach? Lick an ice cream cone as you lay in the sun. Have you heard about any cool restaurants in the area? See if they live up to the hype. Do you walk by a bakery as you leave your hotel? Buy a pastry to snack on while you explore. Is there a coffee shop near a landmark you’re going to? Sit there with some tea and watch people walk by.

Will you gain weight on this trip? Maybe. Will you lose a couple pounds? Possibly. Will your weight stay exactly the same? Perhaps. Who knows, and honestly, who cares? Travel is a opportunity and a privilege. Don’t waste your time and money working out in hotel rooms and scouring the city for the lowest calorie salad. Go experience the place you’re in. Talk to the locals, visit the museums, shop on the high streets, and most importantly, eat the food. Enjoy your vacation! The memories you make matter so much more than the number on the scale.

The Will to Survive

I believe in life after death—just not in the religious way. I don’t believe in God or Heaven, in reincarnation or ghosts. No, I believe in something very different. I believe in recovery, hope, and second chances, in the future and the promise of a better life. I believe in miracles, magic, and medicine. I believe in literature, cake, and fairy dust. Most of all, though, I believe in Shakespeare. Let me explain:

When I was seven, I stole a copy of Hamlet from my second grade teacher’s desk because the cover reminded me of orange sherbet; I took it home and acted it out with pieces of bread. I had no clue what was going on, and I recall having to crack open Polonius (an aptly cast dictionary) every other word. Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted; the words mesmerized me, and I wanted nothing more than to be a part of their world. Thus began my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare.

I devoted the next couple years to reading, seeing, and performing as much of the cannon as possible. I’d devoured the comedies (Romances exempted) by the close of fourth grade, and just prior to sixth I used the prize money from my violin competitions to fly to London to see the Globe replica; the following year I played Hermia in my middle school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which led to further performances in school, local, regional, touring, and festival settings. Performing and sharing Shakespeare became my greatest joy, and I vowed to star in the Royal Shakespeare Company someday.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, however, that I was introduced to academia. Ms. Kimberly Horne was lecturing on King Lear, and for the first time in my life I found myself challenged in an English class. Disoriented but intrigued, I practically lived in her office for the duration of the unit, interrogating her about everything from fundamental prosody to textual variation to the role of milk in Shakespearean tragedy. A gifted teacher as well as a brilliant scholar, Ms. Horne gave hours to my cause, talking me through passages, answering my questions, and acquainting me with relevant theorists/criticism. She exposed me to a whole new side of Shakespeare, the academic side, and I loved it; inspired and amazed, I decided to pursue criticism professionally.

I spent the following summer at Harvard with Ms. Horne’s favorite Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Marjorie Garber. The latter was leading two graduate seminars, and I, fresh out of high school, had managed to worm my way into both. The experience was truly transformative. Dr. Garber, the absolute apotheosis of intelligence, revolutionized my views on Shakespeare, literature, and the world. Under her tutelage I learned to read critically, think analytically, write professionally, and speak eloquently. I went into her class a Shakespeare aficionado, but I left a Shakespeare scholar.

A month later, I started my undergraduate education at King’s College London, my so-called “dream school”. It was, in short, a nightmare; my courses were elementary, my lecturers lackluster, and my peers imbeciles. Wasn’t this supposed to be a world-class institution? Were these acclaimed academics capable of nothing more than meager plot summary? Where were the Baby Blooms and Little Lessings I was so hoping to meet (and why did none of my aforesaid classmates comprehend that fairly mainstream allusion?!)? Bored and betrayed, I relapsed into my eating disorder. Starvation supplanted studying, seminars were shirked in favor of trips to the gym, and before I knew it, I had swapped out my degree for a bed at the local A and E. My ill-conceived endeavor at amusement had suddenly spiralled into a devastating deringolade, and by the end of term I was a 30 kg cardiac patient with no hope of a meaningful future. I had lost Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, and I just wanted to die.

Anorexia nearly killed me. It stopped my heart, ruined my life, and left me for dead, but somehow, somewhere, I found the will to survive. I had the one thing stronger than anorexia’s desire for thinness, and that was my love for Shakespeare. So armed with my Norton Anthology, I decided to fight; I packed up my critical collection, withdrew from university, and returned to America to get the help I so desperately needed. Two years, four cardiac rehabilitation courses, seven doctors, and nineteen kilograms later, I can now say I have recovered from anorexia. I am currently writing two academic articles, preparing a lecture circuit, and compiling a curriculum for an forthcoming symposium. I will also be returning to university this Fall. I have future, a rather bright one at that!

Anorexia is in my past now. It has to be. There are plays to read and books to write. So thank you to University College London for giving me a second chance, Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop for the most amazing cake, and William Shakespeare for saving my life. This year is going to be LIT(erary).

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Obligatory Post-NEDA Week Post

Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I never finished my obligatory “I hate anorexia” post. I had planned on describing my experience with the disease. I was going to tell you how I suffered for eleven years, how I weighed 70 pounds, how I refused to eat more than 200 calories a day, and how I was forced to dropout of school (twice!) to go to treatment. I had intended to throw in some gruesome details about hospital stays, ambulance rides, residual health problems, and diet pill overdoses. I was hoping to include some statistics, too—pie charts featuring mortality rates, bar graphs with instances of relapse, colour-coded information about demographics, etc. I had even picked out some literary-rhetorical devices to enhance the gravitas of my manifesto. I was supposed to convince you that anorexia was the worst thing in the world and that recovering from it is the best thing you could ever do. But I can’t, because that would be a lie.

The truth is I loved being anorexic, and I loved anorexia. It made me happy like nothing else ever had, perhaps like nothing else ever will. I genuinely enjoyed losing weight, and starving myself gave me an irreplaceable sense of self-actualization. I found solace in every pound that I lost. Each new bone that protruded was a badge of honour. Exercising five hours a day became a point of pride. Hunger made me feel elated, and there was no euphoria like resisting it! I delighted in the scared looks from strangers on the street. I greeted each hospitalization with a smug smile, because at least, they meant I was doing something right. Cutting up a protein bar into seven pieces and eating it–and only it–throughout the day was thrilling. And most of all, there truly is no greater joy than stepping on the scale and seeing that you’ve reached your ultimate goal weight.

But Let’s Get Real—that was this year’s theme, after all—there are other things I want to do with my life; I have hopes, I have dreams, I have goals, I have plans. I want to go back to school to earn my PhD in English Literature. I want to be Shakespearean scholar. I want to publish a variety of criticism and lecture at universities across the globe. I want to act in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I want to write a novel. I want to dance. I want to win a Tony. I want to perform in Carnegie Hall. I want to fall in love. I want to get a dog. I want to visit Australia. These are all things I cannot do with an eating disorder, so I have to make a choice. Anorexia is an all-consuming illness. It’s it or everything else. And I choose everything else; I choose a life, I choose the future, I choose recovery. Not because I want to, but because I have to.

National Frozen Yogurt Day

“Food holidays” are a rather contentious topic in the eating disorder recovery community. Some people see these occasions–specific calendar days given over to the celebration (and consequent consumption) of certain food items–as detrimental, arguing that they promote binge eating and/or facilitate restriction. I can certainly see this side of the matter; one could binge on the designated food and/or “carb-load” (restrict carbohydrates to “justify” a future surplus) in preparation for the day. A case could also be made that such events sabotage intuitive eating; they could theoretically create a sense of obligation where a patient feels they have to celebrate–that they have to eat the special food on the special day–or conversely, that they can only eat the special food on the special day. These points are valid, and I completely understand where the dissenters are coming from; this just hasn’t been by experience at all.

I, for one, find these “food days” to be extremely beneficial. In recovery from anorexia, it is very easy to get stuck in an limited diet of “safe foods”, and at the very least, these occasions offer variety. They present the perfect opportunity to conquer a fear food in a structured setting; in fact, they may very well be the push you need to move forward in your recovery in that regard. Additionally, such holidays acquaint you with new food items, which, in addition to providing personal enjoyment, nourish your body with a differing array of micronutrients, contributing thereby to an overall healthier nutritional profile.

By no means am I suggesting that you celebrate every food holiday in existence with a jumbo portion of whatever the occasion calls for. No! In fact, I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just sharing my personal experience and encouraging you to find what works for you. Maybe that’s food holidays, maybe it’s not. Talk it over with your treatment team and decide from there. For now, though, I’m going to celebrate NATIONAL FROZEN YOGURT DAY!

Making Pancakes on a Sunday Morning

You’ll wake up one morning, and you’ll be really, bizarrely hungry. You’ll yawn, rub your eyes, and contemplate going back to sleep. But you won’t; you’ll swing your legs out of bed and slippers half-on you’ll wander into the kitchen. Without a second thought, you’ll start making pancakes, greasing the pan with butter and adding extra chocolate chips. You’ll flip them, and it’ll feel so easy, so fun. They’ll fly through the air, and you’ll laugh as they land on the stove with a plop. You’ll have to put them back in the pan and wait a couple minutes. The edges will turn golden-brown, and you’ll switch off the stove. You’ll finally find that syrup in the back of your cabinet, and you’ll open it for the first time in years. It’ll all spill out, too much, but you won’t really care. You’ll just dip your finger in it, and you’ll realize that this, this is what recovery tastes like.

Ingredients:

  1.  1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  2. 2 eggs
  3.  3/4 cup blueberries
  4. 1 cup milk
  5. 3 tablespoons melted butter OR mildly flavoured (I recommend either vegetable or canola, but coconut can be substituted if necessary) oil, extra for greasing and garnish
  6. 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  7. 1 3/4 tablespoons sugar
  8. 2 teaspoons baking powder
  9. 3/4 teaspoon salt
  10. Maple syrup, optional, to taste

Preparation:

  1. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
  2. In a smaller bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla, and milk. Whisk well.
  3. Combine the contents of the two bowls. Stir until the batter is uniform.
  4. Add blueberries.
  5. Heat a griddle or large frying pan to medium heat. Grease it with butter or oil so that the pancakes do not stick to it.
  6. In approximately 1/4 cup portions, ladle the batter onto said pan.
  7. Let the pancake cook for approximately two minutes or until golden brown on the bottom.
  8. Flip your pancake and cook for another 2 to 2 1/2 minutes.
  9. Repeat steps 6-8 until you run out of batter.
  10. Serve pancakes with butter and syrup.
  11. Enjoy!

A Walk Down Wardour Street on a Late December Evening

Note: I set out to write a cheery Christmas vignette, but this is anything but! The following post, an account of a past Christmas, contains mature themes, disturbing imagery, mentions of suicide, descriptions of eating disorder thoughts, and “sick photos”. If you are easily triggered, please exercise caution when reading. Thank you, and have a very Happy Christmas.

There were lights on lamp-posts. They flickered—on and off, on and off. Were they dying, too? Blurry through the haze. And they were barely visible now, hard to see; hard to keep her eyes open, she could hardly breathe. But really, they were just lights, lights in the darkness, what was there to see? Incandescent and rainbow, festive and free.

And there were pies in the windows—tiny, white, dusted with powdered sugar, filled to the brim with fruit—with apples, with cherries, with blackberries, with pumpkin, with rhubarb, with mince meat—with pecans, with chocolate, with creams… Should she get one? A smile cracked her lips, ripping through her cheeks, shredding like scissors on wrapping paper, and a laugh clogged her throat—a gurgling sound, a gravelly sort of choking. Was she gagging, asphyxiating? And my god, she couldn’t breathe. It was the thought—the thought of it, the sheer ludicrousity of it, the misery; it was just so funny, so funny that it was killing her. But she had to get going now; she really had to keep walking.

The pies could keep leering at her through the bakery windows for all she cared. She really had to get going; she really had to keep walking. She really wanted one, though; yes, she really did want one. But no, it was fine; she was fine. And no, no, she would not be getting one. Besides, she only needed to see them to taste them, smell them to feel them—in her mouth, against her teeth, down her throat, sitting in her stomach, squatting in her skin, boiling in her blood, infiltrating her cells, turning to fat. So no, no, she would not be getting one.

And there was tinsel on the roofs. She could see it despite the darkness. It was hanging, hanging, hung—silver and sparkly, limp but lovely. Oh how she wanted to take a piece! She could wrap it around her neck, drape it like a scarf, pull it tight and feel the warmth, tie it to a hook, hear a crack and feel the pain until—thank god!—she couldn’t breathe. Well, it was dark inside, too, she supposed.

And there was music in the shops. Tambourines tinkled as jingle bells jingled. Shop doors opened, spewing music, spitting warm air into the cold—yes, the cold, the bitter, biting cold; she could feel it in her bones, taste it in her lungs—was that why she couldn’t breathe?—, hear it in her ears—a popping, a pressure, a pain, a pleasure. There was a heaviness to it, to the music, to how it sat in her ears and how it sunk there; it gave her that airplane kind of feeling—the one you get when you take-off or land (when the cabin pressure changes), the one you have to chew gum to get rid of. But gum has calories, you know.

And there was snow on the sidewalk. Legions of boots stamped through it, leaving lesions on the pavement, letting crusty, brown blood ooze from their scars. The wind whipped them over, beating them like frosting for a cake, concealing them from view; the flakes fell down again, and instantly they were cadavers covered in sheets, those hospital corpses that no one had claimed—hidden from view, under a blanket, yet still so very, very there. She wondered vaguely where they went, the footprints in the snow, but it didn’t matter. She just kept walking, her shoes slapping the sludge, sinking a little deeper into the spoils they had made. It was too cold out, and the snow looked too much like powdered sugar. She didn’t want to breathe it in; it might make her hungry.

And there was a girl in the middle of Wardour Street, standing on the edge of the sidewalk, too close to the cars. She was waiting for one of them to hit her, watching with bated breath as they passed her by. Snow fell all around her, and the wind threw her from side to side; she was a puppet on their string, a statuette of sticks, stuck together with the stuff of nightmares. A clock chimed through the darkness, and her heart skipped a beat. It was Christmas time in London, the perfect time to die.