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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Review: Black Velvet Birthday Cake from Sprinkles Cupcakes

I’ve decided to start doing food reviews, and I thought I’d kick things off with an unpopular opinion. I don’t like Sprinkles. Their cakes are bland and dry, their frosting sparse and crusty. The cupcakes come in an odd square shape, which, in addition to being incredibly unattractive, minimises product surface area. You are paying a lot of money for very little dessert. It’s a rip-off! Also, what is the thing on top? Is it a dragée? Is it candy? Is it someone’s lone, pathetic attempt at a sprinkle? I don’t know, but it’s whatever it is, it’s disconcertingly flavourless, bizarrely crunchy, and otherwise inedible. That goes for their merchandise as a whole.

That being said, I found myself in line at a Sprinkles today. I caught a typographical error on their website, and they gave me a coupon for a free cupcake. I am not one to turn down free food, so I took this opportunity to try their new limited edition offering, a black velvet cupcake with chocolate cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles inside. It wasn’t horrible.

The sponge was unpleasantly grainy, but there was much more of a chocolate flavour than I’ve gotten from them in the past; it wasn’t just “brown vanilla”. The frosting was also better than I remembered; it was by no means smooth or creamy, but at least it didn’t flake off like before. I wish the cake were moister and the chocolate flavour stronger, but this would’ve been a fine cupcake—if it weren’t for the nonpareil filling. The sprinkles themselves are the demise of this Sprinkles creation. Obviously, signaturely cheap, they were like eating pebbles, not to mention a potential choking hazard. Nutella, peanut butter, marshmallow cream, or really anything would’ve been preferable. They could’ve left it empty, for all I care; even that would’ve been an improvement.

All in all, I did not like this cupcake, and I (still) do not like Sprinkles. This is a 5/10 offering from a 5/10 place. Go elsewhere to meet your cupcake needs, but if you insist on visiting Sprinkles, opt for red velvet, gingerbread, or salted caramel. They’re less reprehensible.

The Black Velvet cupcake (depicted below/described above) is available through Sunday at all Sprinkles locations. Get yours (or don’t), and let me know what you think. Any questions? Requests for products you want reviewed? Offers of free stuff? General tidings? Comment below.

“Am I Dying?” and Other Hunger-Related Questions

Hunger is a tricky thing for people with eating disorders. We’ve disregarded it for so long that we forget what it feels like. I, for one, ignored my hunger until it became a perpetual part of my reality. I started experiencing it again in recovery, and I was honestly so confused; I kept asking my dietician “what’s happening to me? what am I feeling? what is this? am I dying?” Today’s post answers these questions and more. Read on to learn about hunger:

Question: What is hunger?

Answer: Hunger is the physical sensation generated by the body when needs more nutrients. It is caused by hypothalamic processing of the hormone ghrelin (lenomorelin), which is secreted by gastrointestinal tract in response to blow blood glucose levels and/or an empty stomach.

Q: How do you know if you’re hungry?

A: We all know about the obvious stomach growling, but hunger can manifest in many other ways, too. Symptoms include a churning, hollowness, or tightness in the stomach, lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting, headaches, muscle cramps, shakiness/jitters, rapid heartrate, exhaustion and fatigue, irritability/agitation, lack of concentration, and even nausea.

Q: What should you do if you feel hungry?

A: Generally, if you’re hungry, you should eat. Exceptions include if you are fasting for a surgical procedure, on a meal plan that dictates your intake times, or have been otherwise advised by a medical professional not to do so.

Q: Why are you hungrier on some days than on others?

A: Hormone, activity, and stress levels can all influence your hunger. For instance, women tend to require extra nutrition prior to their menstrual periods (on account of increased calorie expenditure), and cardiovascular exercise has been shown to stimulate appetite. Growing children will also consume more calories than average, and studies have shown that lack of sleep leads to inversely proportional food consumption.

Q: What if your hunger can’t keep up with your metabolism or vice versa?

A: A healthy individual’s hunger and fullness cues will be accordance with their body’s nutritional needs, and they will eat enough to maintain a healthy weight at a reasonable activity level. Of course, this is not the case for all people; a number of factors including metabolic syndromes, chronic dieting, eating disorders, autoimmune diseases, certain medications, and economic factors can disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, resulting in skewed conditions on either side. In such cases, dietetic services are required to prevent and treat the effects of malnutrition.

Q: How does hydration affect your hunger?

A: Apparently, 37% of people confuse thirst with hunger. This is primarily due to the lack of stomach volume presented by each.

Q: How do you know whether you hungry or thirsty and what should you do about it?

A: At times, hunger and thirst present with similar indicators, notably dizziness, fatigue/exhaustion, headache, nausea, muscle cramps, tachyarrhythmias, and stomach churning/emptiness. Thirst is often accompanied by the following differentials–dark urine, dry mouth, and perspiration. If you are thirsty, you should rehydrate with fluids or eat foods with a high water content (like melon). In the past, dieticians have advised patients to drink water fifteen to twenty minutes before a meal to make sure they are actually hungry, but due to frequent disordered manipulation of this guidance, doing so is no longer a common practice; instead, nutritional professionals recommend you hydrate throughout the day and honour your hunger signals.

Q: What is emotional hunger and why wasn’t it mentioned above?

A: Emotional hunger is a psychological craving for a certain food. It was not included in the above designation, as it is a separate biochemical process. Emotional hunger is a psychological phenomenon while physical hunger is physiological.

Q: How can you tell if your hunger is emotional or physical?

A: While both physical and emotional hunger can make you crave certain foods, they are very different in nature. If your body is craving something, it is because it needs a specific nutrient contained therein; any food containing that nutrient will satisfy it, and your craving will subside. In instances of emotional hunger a food is desired on account of its associations; that food and only that food will do. Emotional hunger also tends to be accompanied by a (typically negative) emotion; it comes on suddenly and does not respond to physical hunger/fullness cues (the processing and secretion of the hormones ghrelin and leptin respectively), leading to an over- or under eating of the specified food.

Q: What should you do if you experience emotional hunger?

A: A little emotional eating won’t hurt you. It’s perfectly normal to celebrate your promotion with a slice of cake or to pick up pizza from your favourite restaurant after a bad day. Just don’t make it a habit. Food can facilitate celebration and comfort, but it is not (and never should be) a substitute for actually dealing with your feelings.

Is there anything else YOU want to know about hunger? Drop your questions in the comments below, and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can. Have a delicious day, everyone, and Happy Spring! xo

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.

Our Unhealthy Bodies Can’t: The Problem with Project Heal’s New Campaign

“My Healthy Body Can” is the title of Project Heal’s new campaign. In conjunction with Straight Curve Film, the organization is encouraging participants celebrate their recovered bodies by posting pictures of themselves engaging in various (presumably physical) activities that they are now healthy enough to enjoy. The endeavour and its endeavourees are admirable, but there are some very obvious issues here.

This is a remarkably ableist, exclusive, and offensive campaign. With its tagline, “My Healthy Body Can” this movement neglects and excludes a huge portion of the recovery community–the chronically ill, the disabled, individuals who settled at unconventional body weights, and those with irreparable damage done by their eating disorder. What about them? Their unhealthy bodies can’t. Does that somehow disqualify them from celebration? Does that deprive them of support? Does that discredit their achievements? Does that discount their recoveries?

It shouldn’t. They have had to fight even harder for recovery. Treatment resources are harder to come by, care is more expensive, certain problems are taken less seriously, and every day is a struggle to balance the mental and physical components of their recovery. Some of of them will never recover from their eating disorders; some of them literally can’t.

I am one of those people–one of the unhealthy, one of the excluded, one of the perpetually sick. I will never recover from my eating disorder. I have incurable cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, and metabolic damage from ten years of severe anorexia. I suffered a heart attack that has led to irreversible myocardial tissue death and dangerous tachyarrhythmias, which will only get worse; I do not get periods, have a less than optimal body fat percentage, and can never bear children; I eat a specialized diet of 4000 calories a day, catered to my numerous acquired food tolerances and permanently low electrolytes, to barely maintain a below minimum BMI; I see doctors weekly, exercise daily, and take medications (nearly) hourly to keep my liver running, my kidneys working, and my heart beating, but, despite all that, I will someday need transplants anyway. My body is not and never will be healthy, and because of that, there are many things I cannot do. Maybe you can ride your horses and do your yoga (thank you, Amalie Lee for that gem!), but I’ll be here in a hospital, hooked up to a heart monitor, trying not die.

So, Project Heal, I’ll ask you once again. What about us? I see you’ve replied to your dissenters with a copy-and-pasted link to a tokenistic (phrase borrowed from the wonderful Michelle Elman) blog post, but I think I speak for everyone when I say, that isn’t good enough. Please apologize, please revise your campaign slogan, and better yet, please help us. We want and need, deserve and demand change. Increased support and resources for the minority members of the eating disorder recovery community–for those of us who don’t have the perfect, conventional recovery–are essential. Our unhealthy bodies can’t, but we matter, too; we deserve help, too; and most importantly, we can recover, too.