the shared meal elevates eating…from mere animal biology to an act of culture

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yesterday i ate a meal in public for this first time this year. a little under two months without eating in a restaurant or coffee shop or pub probably isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things – i’m aware that plenty of people eat out far less than that and are perfectly happy with it – but it feels like a lifetime to me.

my psychiatrist asked me last week to make a list of the things that anorexia has given me and the things that it has taken away from me. the latter list is, of course, so much longer and i still have enough insight to appreciate that even the things that i think anorexia has given me (a sense of control, better regulation of my emotions, reduction in ptsd symptoms etc) are all an illusion really.

my eating disorder has taken, and is taking, so much away from me. the first and foremost is obviously starting ivf but, beyond that, it has insidiously seeped into every aspect of my day-to-day life, even if i don’t always realise it. one of the most sobering things that my psychiatrist said to me this week was actually something said in passing – that he’d have to swap rooms for my appointment with him next week because his usual room is right at the top of a tall victorian building just off harley street without a lift and he didn’t want me walking up that many stairs. someone telling me that i’m too ill to climb up four flights of stairs? that hit home like nothing else has. (even if i do think it’s a complete overreaction, not least as i live in a third floor flat and still always take the stairs.)

clearly, anorexia is also having a huge impact on my social life and all of my relationships. i’ve had to come up with an increasingly elaborate series of excuses as to why i can’t go somewhere or, if i do, why i have to leave early and/or not eat or drink. it’s exhausting. so much of what i use to enjoy resolved around eating and drinking with my husband or family or friends and that part of my life just feels so alien to me right now. eating solo is all well and good but very little can beat that magic of sharing a meal with people that i love.

and so, when my mother suggested that we meet up on saturday morning for a spot of shopping and some lunch, my initial reaction was to decline and cite some mythical prior commitment. but i need to start challenging myself and pushing myself and gaining weight otherwise everything else is pointless. so i booked a table at one of my favourite places to eat, studied the menu online for far longer than is normal and decided that i was going to fight for it. and i did.

i got there early and ordered a blood orange tea (i’m not really a tea drinker but i was bloody freezing). when my mum arrived, we ordered our food and i allowed the conversation to distract me enough to eat most of the delicious shakshuka that i ordered. and nothing bad happened. my parents don’t actually know about the anorexia diagnosis although clearly they can see that i’ve lost a lot of weight. my mother twice made reference to anorexia in different contexts (once in relation to a friend of hers, once in relation to bone density…we really know how to have interesting brunch conversations) and part of me wonders if she was trying to give me an opening to admit it to her. if she was, i didn’t take it. i don’t know if i’ll ever be ready to tell her.

what we did discuss openly though was our plans for ivf (i made a couple of excuses as to why we haven’t started yet) and she, very generously, said that she and my dad would like to contribute to the costs once we get there. this was so overwhelmingly kind of them and i don’t think i’ll ever be able to thank them enough for easing the financial burden of treatment. what it does mean though is that i really do need to get better. the only thing standing in the way of our dreams now is my anorexia and i can’t have that any longer.

{title quotation from in defense of food: an eater’s manifesto by michael pollan}

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we’ll be counting stars

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i like numbers. i’ve always liked numbers. i liked maths at school and, although i didn’t end up studying it at university, i chose a subject with a similar set of rules. you either get numbers or you don’t. there’s no judgement either way as far as i’m concerned but i’ve always considered myself lucky to be firmly in the numerical camp.

i like baking because i like numbers. again, i know this isn’t the same for everyone. but i love the precision and the rules (there they are again) and the magic that can be created from some simple ratios. the most traditional, of course, is the old favourite of the 4-4-4-2 sponge which i don’t think can ever really be beaten for pure magic. but there are hundreds of other ratios that i use every time that i bake and a little too much one way or the other will normally result in catastrophe (or, at least, a slightly flat cake which, depending on how dramatic i’m feeling, might well be a catastrophe).

my anorexia (i’m still trying to get used to calling it that) is dominated by numbers too.

  1. how much do i weigh?
  2. how many times have i weighed myself that day?
  3. how much weight have i gained or lost since the day before?
  4. since the week before?
  5. since the month before?
  6. how much does each ingredient of my dinner weight?
  7. how many calories have i consumed in total?
  8. how many calories have i burnt through exercise?
  9. how many glasses of water have i drunk?
  10. how often have i been to the loo?

there are many, many more numbers that i track on a daily basis, even if just subconsciously. in order to recover, some of these need to go up and some of these need to go down.

letting go of the numbers is going to be one of the hardest parts for me i think.

i tried to explain to my therapist this morning that my issues around needing to control my weight are far more about having control of that number than about my size or how i look. the latter two concepts are so fluid and nebulous. my weight is piece of hard evidence that i can use to demonstrate that i’m in charge of my life. i don’t think he really got it.

on the way home, i spent a long time wondering around waitrose, trying to decide what to have for lunch and was uninspired. i’ve never really been very good at working out what to cook when it’s just me at home. for that very reason, i’d bought signe johansen’s book ‘solo: the joy of cooking for one‘ on a whim the other day.  before anorexia, i would default to a bowl of pasta. these days, i’m lucky if it’s anything. the first recipe that i’ve tried isn’t technically a recipe for one i guess but it’s one that i hope will form the basis of many more solo meals to come; a simple seeded multigrain soda bread. it couldn’t really be easier – a mix of spelt, wholewheat flour, oats and seeds all squished together with buttermilk and a little treacle. cocoa powder gives it a beautiful brown colour and trusty bicarbonate of soda gives it a rise. i threw in double the amount of salt required and a handful of chopped rosemary from our just-about-surviving plant. i topped my first slice with some roasted cherry tomatoes, a few crumbles of goat’s cheese and a sprinkling of fresh basil. utterly delicious.

my doctor says i need to be eating at least 500 calories a day (although, it goes without saying that the more the better at the moment). i’m hoping today i’ll get there.

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and that sweet city with her dreaming spires

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i went to oxford this week. although i’ve been there a few times (and, come to think of it, worked on a project there for a couple of months), it’s not a city i know well at all. i went to the other place and, when i was choosing universities, i never really considered oxford. i don’t know why. it’s not like my heart was set on cambridge at all.

i had a pretty miserable time at university. i didn’t mind the work and wish i’d spent more time taking advantage of the academic opportunities but i wasn’t really happy. part of that was down to what, with the benefit of hindsight, i know see was a very emotionally abusive relationship. part of it was down to the claustrophobic nature of cambridge itself. part of it was that i just missed feeling at home somewhere. i never felt at home in cambridge and i’ve realised, particularly over the last few months, how much i need that feeling of security and safety.

it was also the place where i first suffered from anorexia even if i didn’t know or acknowledge it at the time. to me, it was all just part of the madness of those years. disordered eating habits had been part of my life for longer – since my early teens really – but university was really the time when this pattern of trying to control the uncontrollable really kicked in.

so, it was weird being in oxford this week. so many of the buildings look so familiar to those in cambridge that it felt like i was back there and the world had just tilted a little. i was in oxford to take part in an academic study on how women with and without eating disorders perceive bodies (both their own and other people’s). it involved several computer based tests which would be almost impossible to describe and i deliberately didn’t think too hard about what the tests were trying to show so that i didn’t mess up the study at all. it also involved an interview with a psychiatrist and going through the eating disorder examination questionnaire. i’ve never officially done this before (my old psychiatrist didn’t seem fussed by my eating disorder; my new one prefers just to discuss things rather than fill in questionnaires).

whilst i am partial to an online test and have probably done thousands of ‘do you have an eating disorder?’ tests in the past, even i was surprised at my responses and how strongly i scored on the anorexia scale. i answered ‘every day’ or ‘markedly’ to every question whether it was how often i restricted my food and how frequently thinking about food meant that i couldn’t concentrate or whether it was how guilty i felt about eating or how i judged myself on my weight.

i said to my psychiatrist this week that i don’t think i’ve grasped yet that i have a problem. i think i’m beginning to do so.

{title quotation from thyrsis by matthew arnold}

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the beginning is always today

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i’ve just eaten lunch.

i can count on one hand the number of times i’ve eaten lunch in the last six months. the last time i ate lunch was on 1 january when we went to visit some friends and i couldn’t really think of an excuse not to go (not least as i’ve been so self involved recently that i’ve been a terrible friend).

a lot has happened this week. on tuesday, i agreed with my therapist that the advice from the nutritionist i saw was both unhelpful and dangerous. he also was happy for me to not go back to the psychiatrist i’ve been seeing since september so long as i found an alternative and, preferably, one that had a slightly more than basic understanding of eating disorders. i emailed both the nutritionist and psychiatrist later that day. my psychiatrist’s pa confirmed that my next appointment had been cancelled and that’s the only follow up i’ve had from either of them. i’m slightly staggered that, given the psychiatrist claimed to be very concerned about me a few weeks ago, she hasn’t bothered to get in touch. at least it allows me to draw a line under both of them and move forward.

by thursday, i’d found a new psychiatrist and had an initial appointment. he changed some of the aspsects of my diagnosis (it’s now formally anorexia nervosa rather than the hodge podge it was before), tweaked some of my medications and, before my session had even finished, emailed me a ‘day 1’ plan.

yesterday was day 1.

day 1 involved eating breakfast which i haven’t done for a very long time. it was a struggle but i managed to eat some plain yoghurt. it also involved telling my husband the truth about my diagnosis which i somehow managed to do. and there, in black and white, is my acklowledgement that ivf and having a baby is more important to me than having an eating disorder. i’m still trying to make myself believe that this is true.

day 1 also involved telling my boss at work what was going on. i thought it would be a shock to him. unfortunately, it wasn’t and before i even said anything about eating disorders, he told me that a number of people had expressed concerns to him about my weight loss.

having it out there in the open does feel better. the more people that know, the more people there are to let down and the more i have to recover.  having a definitive plan with targets and all the support i could want to get there feels better. my psychiatrist has said he will be in daily contact with me for the moment while we get through this ‘crisis’ (ie that i’m steadily losing weight). at the end of every day, i have to email him with my weight, what i’ve eaten and how i’ve felt throughout the day. it’s so far removed from the ‘help’ i’ve had previously (“go and see this quack nutritionist and then we’ll consider if you need to go to a residential clinic thousands of miles away which will pay me a nice referral bonus”).

it’s so unbelievably hard though and i really don’t think i can do it.

i left my session on thursday feeling really positive and strong but that’s waning, minute by minute. last night, i saw my dad who commented on my weight loss and ‘how well i was looking’. he doesn’t know about the eating disorder (still can’t bring myself to call it anorexia; i feel such a fraud having that diagnosis when i’m still so fat) and i’m sure he wouldn’t have said anything if he did. but all i can think about is how i have to keep losing weight and how great it felt this morning when i saw a more than acceptable drop on the scales from yesterday. and now i feel so full and bloated because i’ve already eaten twice today even though it amounts to <250 calories and was nothing more than yoghurt, a piece of sourdough bread and some fruit/veggies. the actual eating was less of a struggle than i anticipated. but just knowing how much i’ve eaten and seeing it written down and feeling it just sitting in my stomach is so much worse. the anxiety and panic is slowly rising up and threatening to consume me.

i bought this bracelet a few days ago. the rings represent my husband, me and the reason that i’m doing this. i need to focus on that with all my strength if the beginning really is going to be today.

{title quotation attributed to mary shelley}

every meal would be like saying grace

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this week, i saw a nutritionist. i was wary and i was right to be.

i paid £150 to be told, firstly, that i was eating all the right things and that my diet was very healthy. i don’t disagree with this per se but i was 100% honest in my food diary and it didn’t amount to more than a couple of hundred calories a day. nothing was said about this. that seems irresponsible to me.

secondly, instead of practical suggestions of how to eat more, i was left with a two page document filled with a mix of trendy wellness crazes and bad science. it told me to eat more turmeric (“why not try a delicious turmeric latte?”), have a shot of apple cider vinegar before eating and stick to ‘alkalinising’ foods. when someone has an eating disorder which, by its very nature, results in all sorts of arbitrary rules, i feel like the aim should be to try and encourage a more relaxed and healthy relationship with food rather than introducing yet more restrictions.

the second half of the ‘lifestyle’ plan was a list of different (and very expensive) supplements that i should take with a referral link to buy them and which, i presume, will result in a hefty commission payment to her.

a lot of what she said, i fundamentally disagree with being, as may be obvious from the title quotation, a true believer in the doctrine of michael pollan. (another, longer, quotation that i feel is relevant here is from in defence of food: an eater’s manifesto – if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. why? because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat). i know that i don’t eat enough and i want (i think) to eat more but i don’t want to get there by artificial shakes (which she tried to sell me on), faddy trends and stuff that isn’t actually food. i like food. i love food. i like the colours and flavours and textures. that’s what i desperately want to be able to eat. i have bigger problems than not having enough turmeric in my life (plus, i cook with turmeric all the time so i’m probably okay on that front. it’s just, you know, everything else).

i’m supposed to follow the ‘plan’ for the next 6 weeks and see if i feel better (how? i feel absolutely fine now). i’m not going to. i’ve forwarded her advice to my therapist, who i’m seeing on tuesday, and will discuss it with him then. fundamentally, i think her suggestions are wrong, not just for me but for anyone with an eating disorder. i think it’s actually quite dangerous. she is chasing me to make a follow up appointment. i won’t be. given that i was referred to this nutritionist by my psychiatrist, i’ve also got serious concerns around whether i need to get rid of her and find myself someone who can actually help. another thing to discuss with my therapist on tuesday (i get the sense he might agree with me; i don’t think there is much love lost between them…). i don’t know what the fall out will be of telling the nutritionist that i’m not going to see her again – i will take my therapist’s advice as to whether i am honest about the reasons why – and/or telling my psychiatrist that i’m not going to see either of them again but i’ll deal with it. more than anything, i need the right people around me now.

{title quotation from the omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals by michael pollan}

the solid foundation on which i rebuilt my life

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last night, as we were getting ready for bed, my husband said in passing that we needed to work out our schedule for the year. this was partly prompted by a discussion we’d had earlier that day with my parents about a potential trip to new york in may but he wasn’t really talking about holidays or work or our boring plans to remortgage. he was talking about ivf.

we’ve been trying to conceive for over two years now, starting almost as soon as we got married. we have nothing to show for it; not even a hint of a positive test in that time. we’ve had all the tests and everything looks fine. all they can tell us is that we have ‘unexplained’ infertility.

i know for some people, infertility is incredibly hard. i have an amazing group of friends who are all at various stages of their infertility journeys and the physical, mental and emotional impact cannot be understated. my husband and i are fairly pragmatic about it on the whole. clearly, i’d rather be running around after a toddler right now rather than anticipating having a whole lot of medical equipment shoved in places where i’d prefer it not to go but it is what it is.

we first started talking about ivf this time last year after a year of trying unsuccessfully. we decided not to rush into anything as there was nothing wrong and my results were all very positive (it looks like i’ll be having periods for years and years. great). and then i developed ptsd and couldn’t even contemplate the idea of ivf. a few months ago – on our wedding anniversary actually – we decided that we were now in a position to start the process in january this year. and then, as the ptsd got better, i stopped eating.

now, i don’t meet the bmi criteria for ivf (although my husband doesn’t know this) and it’s a bit hit and miss as to whether i’ll actually have a normal cycle anytime soon. more than that though, i’m not eating enough to sustain myself and it would be idiotic (and a huge waste of money) to try ivf at the moment.

this afternoon i created a spreadsheet (of course) to work out various milestones if we started ivf in march. the estimated due date (if it were to work which is so far from a certainty that i didn’t even want to work this out at first) would be 12 january 2019. so i have to recover because i really want that baby.

but i’m so worried that it’s going to be too hard and i’m not up to the fight.

{title quotation from very good lives: the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination by j.k. rowling}

you don’t reconcile the poles; you just recognise them

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this morning, i emailed my pre-appointment questionnaire back to the nutritionist that i have been referred to. i am sceptical about this whole nutrionist thing for many reasons.

firstly, i’m not sure that this nutritionist actually has any proper qualifications or, from the testimonials on her website, any experience with eating disorders. secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she posts pictures on instagram of green smoothies and hashtags them #feelingblessed. no thanks.

really though, i don’t know what she’s going to tell me that i don’t already know. i understand what makes a healthy and balanced diet (as much as anyone can these days with the plethora of mixed messages we get). i’ve experimented with various ways of eating over the years so know what does and doesn’t work for me. i also know that i don’t eat enough and there are a number of things which should be part of my diet that i ‘won’t’ eat.

i also think, despite everything, that the core of our diet (i say ‘our’ because i do all the cooking not because my husband has any kind of eating disorder) is pretty good. although this in turn helps me rationalise my restriction (i’m eating vegetables; how can i be unhealthy? i eat dinner every night; how can i possibly have an eating disorder?). that aside though, our meals are generally based on vegetables with some lean protein and a handful of carbs, generally wholegrain (and way more for my husband than me in case anyone thinks i’m starving him). over the last few nights we’ve had, for example, risotto with leeks, peas and spinach; roasted vegetable enchiladas; roasted pork tenderloin with chickpeas, red pepper, kale and spinach (a recipe from the new jamie oliver book which i think we’ll have again).

even now, i can’t see how that (which also made up the food diary i had to submit this morning) can possibly equal an eating disorder.

but i met up with friends yesterday for brunch and sat there, nursing a mug of (black) tea, watching them all eat variations of avocado on toast and not eating anything myself. after that, i went to the food market on the southbank and bought a brownie for my husband but couldn’t buy anything for myself. i’m supposed to be seeing some other friends today for afternoon tea but i have bailed, blaming work (which is partly true) but really because it’s almost impossible to hide the fact that you’re not eating at an afternoon tea.

i am simultaneously worried that the nutritionist is going to read my form and refuse to see me, not least as my bmi has slipped into the underweight category in the last couple of day, that she’ll think i’m eating far too much and/or that she’ll look at me and think i’m lying because i’m surely too fat for what i claim to eat. i realise that all of these thoughts are totally contradictory and that is one of the things that i find hardest to deal with about having an eating disorder. or, at least, the way in which i live with my eating disorder.

how can reconcile the part of me which pours over cookbooks to find new recipes to try with the part of me which once weighed a chocolate button so i could accurately calculate (and log) how many calories it had?

the part of me which spends hours saving images of food on pinterest with the part of me which knows how much each pair of my pyjamas weighs so i can account for any differences when i hope on the scales in the morning?

the part of me which loves standing over the stove stirring a risotto or filling the kitchen with the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies with the part of me that can’t even contemplate eating a slice of avocado toast with some friends on a lazy weekend morning?

none of this makes any fucking sense.

{title quotation from orson welles}

an act of violence against the self // mini oatmeal muffins

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it always seems so unfair when black moods descend at the weekend; a bit like getting ill as soon as you go on holiday. it was probably my own fault though. a pinterest-induced  spiral that started with my inability to do any more advanced yoga poses than a downward dog (i mean, just how? i don’t think my body will ever co-operate with that), passing through the fact that no matter how many pairs of ankle boots i buy, my calves still look ginormous and finally, inevitably, settling on my weight. the number that had seemed that morning, when i was feeling okay, like an acceptable bmi, now suddenly loomed in front of me, taunting me. this was further compounded by 1) the fact that i ate lunch yesterday and 2) my weight went up this morning by 1lb (i know, i know, it’s just water weight but still).

the competitive elements of eating disorders are well known. it’s a constant comparison game both to everyone around you (do they weigh less than me? do they eat more than me?) and often to yourself (am i more bloated than yesterday? did i do as many steps last week as the week before?). clearly, this appeals to me. there are days when i think i’ve got pretty good at it (and i like being good at things) but most of the time, i’m on a losing streak. and that adds more fuel to the fire. and so it goes on.

i have tried to muddle through today rather than either hide, always my number one choice, or engage in some (other) self-destructive behaviours, generally a close second, so it’s meant more time on the yoga mat, some jobs around the flat that i was tempted to leave for another day and some muffins. the latter were primarily for my husband (obviously) to fuel his long and snowy run but i managed to eat 1/4 of one. baby steps and all that.

{title quotation from iyanla vanzant. the full quote is ‘comparison is an act of violence against the self’ which seemed very fitting}

~

perhaps i should say a few words about recipes (and i will talk about this more at some point)? whatever phase i’m going through, i’ve never really stopped loving cooking and baking. it may seem weird to have recipes on an eating disorder blog and some people, will no doubt, find it too weird to cope with. but i’ll never stop wanting to make (and eat) delicious food, generally from scratch. admittedly, part of it is a control thing. or maybe most of it is a control thing. who knows? while i know the nutritionally breakdown and calorie count of everything i cook, i’m certainly not going to add that here. i also don’t tend to use ‘healthy’ substitutions or try to cut calories/fat/sugar/whatever particularly. when i eat, i want it to taste good.

anyway, i’ll try to remember to put recipes behind a cut so you don’t need to read them if you don’t want to.

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