The ABCs of (Not) Eating
B is for “black box.” I sit on my therapist’s couch the summer after my freshman year of college, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt even though it’s July. We haven’t started talking about food yet. She says that first we need to talk about me. We can’t understand the problem until we understand what’s going on with me. I tell her that my thoughts are different now, so I don’t even understand myself. She looks up at me with her poufy hair, big green eyes, and wrinkly face and asks, how so? I tell her about the thing I call the “black box.” Inside my head, I don’t picture there being a brain anymore. Instead, there is a clear cube. Inside this cube are my thoughts. Each thought looks like a swirling black ghost, similar to the ones in the underworld of the Disney movie, Hercules. The thoughts are all about food, and they whirl around in a tornado, sometimes slow and sometimes fast. Even though the cube is clear, I tell my therapist, I can’t see anything beyond the dark, swimming thoughts. She takes a lot of notes that day.
C is for cough drops. I can’t sleep. Sometimes I have dreams about eating a Milky Way bar. It was never my favorite candy, but I wake up sweaty and terrified that I actually ate one. I throw my covers off and frantically search for wrappers, chocolate crumbs, or blobs of caramel—only to feel relieved and then afraid when I don’t find them. I can’t go back to sleep, so instead of a Milky Way, I allow myself one lemon cough drop. It’s close enough.
C is for comments. People say things because they don’t know what to say when they see me. “You can have my jeans, they’re too small for me now.” “I’m self conscious in my tight dress… do you want it?” “You’re so lucky… everything fits you.”
We’re all at a sushi restaurant for a friend’s birthday. I’ve thought about what I will order; I’ve even dreamed about it: 2 vegetable rolls—low in calories, but enough food that no one will question me. One girl isn’t hungry, so she just gets a cup of soup. “Are you on some kind of extreme diet?” another girl jokes.
“Oh yeah, didn’t I tell you guys? I’m trying this new thing called anorexia.” She laughs. They all laugh, because it’s a joke.
Why can’t I just order the soup?
D is for diet. Dad sits across the table from me. We’re the only ones home.
“So, Mom says you’re on some kind of diet.” Whenever he doesn’t know how to talk about something, he blames Mom.
“It’s not a diet.” I look at the floor.
“Well, then what is it?” I can’t tell if he is interested or if Mom really did force him.
“I don’t know.”
“You know, I’ve been on lots of diets, so I know a thing or two—”
“Dad, it’s not a diet.” I leave the table.
E is for escape. The family isn’t the same, and I knew it never would be. We used to escape to Wyoming every summer to spend time together and to keep our own sanity. The family ranch made us unique; it shaped our values. But Wyoming is gone now, and Mom and Dad are fighting. My therapist says we all need escapes. Now, my sister escapes with friends—a new party almost every weekend. And my younger brothers keep the pattern with video games. Sometimes, when people see me, they say, “I see you’ve escaped the freshman fifteen.”
E is for “ever.” Don’t ever binge. Always workout. Do you want to feel attractive? These are the voices in my head now. Do you want to feel fit and healthy? Must be at most 125 pounds, then 120, then see what you think. Only eat when you’re hungry. Don’t ever eat desserts. Be mindful about how many drinks you have—those have calories too. Don’t you want to feel fantastic? The voices are dark, and they slither their way into my thoughts in the black box inside my head.
B is for binge. Reasons not to binge: It makes me feel gross. I hate myself when I binge. It makes me gain weight. Hurts my fitness. Headache. Stomachache. Throat hurts. It makes me sad. It makes me feel alienated from others.
Reasons to be healthy: feel in control.
B is also for bath. If you’re hungry and you feel like bingeing, shut up and take a hot bath. The warm water will curb your appetite and make you sleepy. You can nap until dinner.
Sometimes, the voices in my head are mean.
B is also for bradycardia. Bradycardia is very common in anorexia nervosa, especially in patients who are less than 80% of their ideal body weight. Bradycardia is when the heart beats slower in order to conserve energy. A side effect is hypotension where the heart muscle shrinks due to starvation. In cases of severe bradycardia (less than 40 beats per minute), the patient is at serious risk for heart attack.
B is also for beats. October 12, 2016. 116 pounds. 41 heart beats per minute.
F is for fight. It was Thanksgiving my freshman year of college when Mom and Dad told us that the Wyoming ranch sold. I had been fasting all day, trying not to ruin my appetite before the big dinner. I didn’t have an unhealthy relationship with food back then; I didn’t have the black box, I didn’t need to binge, and I wasn’t on any sort of “diet.”
Just as I was about to break the Thanksgiving tradition and get a snack, Mom and Dad called us into the family room for a talk. Dad was quiet and Mom was crying. I thought they were about to tell us they were getting a divorce. Instead, they told us that Dad found fraud in the family ranch business, that he confronted Mom’s cousins about it and they denied it, that the fight got out of control and the family ranch sold, that we won’t see our cousins anymore. And that we will never go back to Wyoming again.
We were silent. I think my siblings were looking for me to show them what to do. But I didn’t know what to do, so I cried and yelled. How could you let this happen? We talked in circles, and when there was nothing left to say, we all went to our own rooms.
I sat on my bed crying, and soon, it was dinnertime—Thanksgiving dinnertime. But I wasn’t hungry anymore. I felt the pain of the ranch, and I felt out of control. There was no way to save Wyoming and no way to help my family.
Manage the pain; control your hunger… this would be my new escape.
I often look back on this moment. And every time I do, I wish I could remember what it was like to live and eat and think and act the way I used to… before making that decision.
F is also for Frozen. I lie sideways on the hospital cot with my gown open in the front. I’m 19, but I don’t look or feel like a woman anymore.
“Okay, just lie on your side,” the nurse says, as he walks over. “I’m going to put some jelly on your chest and then run the ultrasound on your heart. It takes about an hour, so get comfortable, but try not to fall asleep.” He must have thought I looked scared or young or both. “Here,” he swivels his chair around toward the out-of-date DVD player. “I do this for my other patients all the time… Have you ever seen Frozen?” I shake my head. “Great! You’ll love it.” He clicks on the T.V. and I watch cartoon princesses dance across the fuzzy hospital screen. I had been wanting to see Frozen… maybe with my siblings or little cousins.
F is also for far. I track my weight on my phone. Sometimes I even add notes.
February 3, 2014: 123.5 pounds- gained a pound, you need to do better.
March 23, 2014: 119 pounds- great job! Still not enough though. Goal for summer is 115 pounds.
May 21, 2014: 113.5 pounds- you took this too far.
July 24, 2014: 103 pounds.
I wish I had put a comment next to the last one, because I don’t know what I could have possibly been thinking.
G is for my sister, Gretta. It’s summer, and we’re sitting on lawn chairs in the backyard sipping on protein smoothies that Mom made for me. She asks me what my first year of college was like, but I change the subject because I know what I need to say. I look at the ground when I finally get the courage to tell Gretta that I’m too skinny, and I can’t control it, and I’m getting help. Gretta cries, and I cry too. We hug, she says some comforting words, but she’s younger than me and she’s scared. She walks back into the house for a tissue. I chug both of our smoothies. Younger sisters shouldn’t have to take care of older sisters.
H is for hike. I beg the doctors to let me hike, and they finally say yes—as long as I’m careful. It’s risky, they say, to hike in high altitude with a bad heart. I say I don’t think I’m the type of person who will have a heart attack at 19, and they say I’m wrong.
I love hiking, but I’m tired. I’m slow and cold, even though everyone else is sweating. I can’t catch my breath, and I get more nervous as we go deeper into the woods.
“I need to sit down,” I say even though I know it will scare Mom. She stays with me and makes everyone go ahead.
“Are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital? What’s your heart rate?” She strokes my back, and I don’t answer. We sit for a while, and finally we walk very slowly down the mountain. We reach the road, and there’s a diner. The car is a few miles down the road, and I need to conserve calories, so Mom walks to get it and I wait in the diner. She says we’ll drive to the hospital just to be safe. I order pancakes, and I actually eat them because I’m scared to see what will happen if I don’t.
H is also for hungry. I don’t get hungry anymore. I used to aspire to never feel hunger again, but now it scares me. I feel empty.
H is also for help. “Hey… I know we just saw each other, but I just wanted to um, well, to see if you’re okay. You seemed off this weekend,” my friend tells me on the phone.
“What do you mean? Yeah I’m fine. I think I was just stressed this weekend. Totally fine now though,” I say, as I pace around my room. I change the subject, we talk a little more, and then hang up.
I cry in my therapist’s office, and the next day, I tell all of my friends. My voice shakes when I tell them. Will they be surprised? Scared? Confused? They support me and tell me they’ll help in any way they can. I wonder if anyone can actually help me.
R is for recovery. “When you recover, you need to get as many calories as possible… But you also need to get the right calories. Because you are vitamin and nutrient deficient, you need to eat all types of food to reintroduce balance into your diet,” my nutritionist says. I sit on the yellow couch in her office and look around the room wondering what will happen if I actually recover. Does she even know what it feels like? She’s pretty skinny… why is she allowed to be thin?
Why I should trust her instead of the voices in my own mind? Is recovering worth surrendering control?
I is for infertile. “The longer you keep this up, the higher risk you have for being infertile,” the doctor says, looking at me. “Your body is conserving all of its energy to survive; it can’t afford to produce hormones.” People never know the right thing to say to me; sometimes they use positive motivation and sometimes they use fear. “Don’t you want to be able to have kids?”
“I don’t care,” I shiver in my hospital gown. Of course I want kids.
J is for “just eat more.” “I don’t get it!” Mom is frustrated because I’m too full to finish dinner. “If you can control your thoughts enough to starve yourself, why can’t you just change your mind?”
“It’s not like that.” I swallow the lump in my throat and try to feel if my stomach really is full or if I’m tricking myself again.
“It hurts me to watch you waste away… Why can’t you just eat more?” She’s crying a little, and I wish that I could help.
R is for recovery. When I try to “eat more,” I eat fruit and vegetables, but my nutritionist says I should eat cheese. Cheese is needed in recovery. The fat helps my heart; the protein helps my muscles, and the dairy gives me vitamins. I haven’t eaten cheese in a year and a half. It’s past midnight, and I can’t sleep, so I tiptoe upstairs. I open the fridge and eat an entire block of Parmesan with crackers. I go back to my bed, but I can’t lie down. My stomach lurches. I try to walk around to help digestion, but nothing helps. I fall asleep crouching on the bathroom floor, praying that I won’t throw up and lose my progress.
K is for kick. “Wow… sometimes I just can’t believe it,” the boy I’m with says. It’s my junior year now, and we’re lying in his bed, and I’m wearing his pajamas for the first time. They’re soft and worn in, but I try not to show how excited I am to be wearing them.
“Believe what?” I try to make my voice sound flirty, turning over to face him. He kisses the back of my hand.
“I mean… how do you even kick a soccer ball? You’re so thin. Look at this,” he holds up my leg. “How does it even work?” I thought I looked good. I don’t know what to say to him or how to change the subject. We kiss instead, and that seems to work.
K is for kiss. In grade school, nobody wants hormones. But when your body stops producing them at 21 years old, you feel like an empty shell of a human being. I wish I could feel butterflies when I kiss him, but instead I feel nothing. I hate this, but I’m too self-conscious to ask my therapist about it.
L is for lies. “Yes, I actually feel great today.” I smile to seem genuine. “Well, not great, but you know.” Can’t be too fake. “I’m eating more, and I actually understand what I need to do to feel better. Like just the other day, I added an apple with peanut butter to my snacks and chocolate milk, too.” Give details to seem less suspicious. “It was hard to do, though, because I really didn’t want a snack.” Reveal some honesty to boost credibility. “But I really thought about what you said… how those foods will help me think clearer and make me feel better in the end. I know that’s what I want.” Suck up a little.
“That’s great,” my therapist says.
I get away with this for too long.
L is also for leg. When I was little, I got a cut from falling off a dirt bike. It started as a small scab on my leg, but I picked at it every day, hoping it would become a scar. I wanted to show people that I was cool enough to ride a dirt bike and that I was brave enough to fall off one. When you’re anorexic, you have pain, but you don’t have scars. I want to recover, but sometimes I like staying thin to remind myself of the challenge and my strength.
According to Mom, this is “incredibly stupid.”
M is for “My Fitness Pal.” It’s an app I use to track my food and make sure I get enough calories. “Careful, though,” my therapist says. “You don’t want to become too reliant on the app… then you’ll just be replacing one obsession with another.”
M is for mushrooms. 4 calories per 1 medium mushroom, .1 gram of fat, .6 grams of protein. I don’t have this one memorized when I go out to dinner with Mom, so I push all the mushrooms to the side of my plate and look up their nutrition value when I get home.
M is for maple syrup. 52 calories per one tablespoon, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein, 14 grams sugar. Mom says things like maple syrup are good for recovery. I can add it to food because it adds calories but won’t fill me up. I convince myself I hate maple syrup.
M is for mangoes. 201 calories per one fruit, about 1 gram of fat, 2 grams of protein, 46 grams of sugar. Too much sugar; too little protein. Not worth eating.
M is for memory. I don’t need “My Fitness Pal” anymore, because I memorize every food I eat.
N is for nothing. “Wow, you’ve really done a good job this week,” the nurse at school says, as I hop off the scale. “Three pounds up… that’s great! What did you do differently?”
“Nothing,” I say because it’s true. I wasn’t trying to gain this week. I like controlling which weeks I gain. I worry that I did something wrong or that my recovery isn’t going as I planned.
“Well, whatever it is, keep doing it!” I eat salads the rest of the week and skip desserts to get back on track.
R is for recovery. But it’s also for relapse.
O is for olive oil. I tell Mom I will eat chicken for dinner, only if I can watch her cook it. She pours olive oil into the pan, and I start to cry. I know olive oil is healthy. It has good fats that will feed my brain and help heal my heart. But one tablespoon is 120 calories.
I wish I weren’t crying.
P is for pretend. Hair needs nutrients to grow. I don’t have nutrients, so I lose hair. It’s not sudden or dramatic, just a few handfuls here and there. I pretend I’m like everyone else—that my hair is thinner because it’s winter and the air is dry. I know I’m lying, but it’s nice not to feel alone.
P is for “the perfect amount.” “You’re walking the line… It means that you exist right exactly between healthy and unhealthy. You’re 21 and you can make your own decisions, but we don’t advise this. It means that you have to be extremely careful. Yes, you’re healthy now, but if you get sick or stressed and you don’t eat the perfect amount of food, then you’ll be ill again.” The doctor frowns at me.
“Right,” I say. I like walking the line. It’s risky.
Q is for question. Will I ever get better?
Q is also for quit. We’re skiing in Montana for winter vacation during my junior year of college. But I can’t ski. I’m tired, cold, thin. I stay in the hotel and watch movies while my family goes out for the day. I pretend I’m okay. When they get back from skiing, I play card games with my siblings and talk to Dad about the best runs. But Mom doesn’t talk to me anymore. She doesn’t even look at me.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask her one day when we’re alone. She’s silent, and I watch the snowflakes float outside the frosty window.
“It hurts me to be around you,” she says, as tears fill her eyes. “If you want to look like that, then I don’t know what else to do. I thought you were trying to get better.”
“I was… I am… it’s just, it’s just hard.”
“I feel like I failed you as a mother… we’ve done everything, and I still can’t help you,” she pauses to cry. I look in the mirror behind her. I see the back of Mom’s head. Her shoulders are hunched and quivering. I see the reflection of the window and the gently falling snow. And I see myself. I look at the dark circles under my eyes, my brittle hair, my colorless face, my bony chest, my skeletal legs, and then I can’t see anything because I start to cry. And for the first time, I admit to myself that I don’t want to do this anymore.
R is for recovery. When I recover, I’m supposed to eat 4,500-5,000 calories a day. This is what 5,000 calories looks like: Breakfast: 2 pieces of toast, 3 tablespoons peanut butter, scrambled eggs, fruit smoothie (lots of yogurt, not a lot of fruit). Morning snack: half a pint of ice cream (Haagen-Dazs has the most calories per cup) with whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and a scoop of peanut butter. Lunch: chicken quesadillas and French fries. Afternoon snack: cheese and Ritz crackers (more calories than Wheat Thins). Dinner: 5 cups of pasta with 1 tablespoon of butter (I’m just getting used to butter) and 6 meatballs. Dessert: Betty Crocker microwaveable personal apple pie (who eats these?) with whipped cream, and the rest of the pint of ice cream (Haagen-Dazs again). Late night snack: 3 pieces of toast, 3 tablespoons peanut butter (with honey if I need 64 extra calories).
I feel out of control. My nutritionist tells me that it’s a good thing—that I need to let go of control in order to recovery. It’s absolutely terrifying.
S is for sprints. At the end of soccer practice in the summer, we do sprints. I’m not supposed to sprint. It burns too many calories, and it raises my heart rate too quickly. But my coach isn’t a doctor, and he doesn’t know what to say, so I do them anyway.
“Everyone get on the line!” he yells. My team lines up, but I stop this time and take off my cleats. As the team runs, my coach comes over. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispers.
T is for toast. I used to occasionally let myself eat cereal—but never bread. Cereal is small, it seemed lightweight and like it was easier to digest. Bread used to seem thick, heavy, gross. I used to imagine bread as a weight in my stomach, giving me cramps when I ran and making me bloated when I sat. My nutritionist told me this is called a “food aversion;” it’s nonsensical because bread and cereal have the same number of calories and nutrients. My mom called it a “food fear.”
But now I eat bread—toasted and with peanut butter. Peanut butter has 200 calories per two tablespoons, and with two pieces of toast, I can get up to 500 calories. I eat this every night, sometimes twice a day. So I guess I’m getting a little less afraid.
U is for “u r worth it.” “Why do you think someone like your mom or sister can eat a muffin but you can’t?” my nutritionist asks. Her eyes are big, her voice feels strained, and her words are heavy. I shrug. “Don’t you know that you’re worth it?” My eyes fill with tears, but I try not to reach for her tissues. “You are worth it. You can eat a muffin too. You deserve it.”
When I get home, I write ‘u r worth it’ on a piece of paper and tape it to the door of my room. I want to read it every day, because otherwise I’m scared I might forget.
V is for vegetables. No vegetables are allowed in recovery. Too much fiber, too few calories; I can’t fit them in my new routine. I wonder when I can eat them again.
W is for wonder and Wyoming. I see other girls, now, who look like I looked, act like I acted, eat what I ate. People watch them and talk about them—we all know they’re sick. I wonder about them. Do they Feel what I felt? What are the Dark Thoughts that swirl inside their heads? Are they Recovering? Relapsing? Do they Lie to their therapists? Do they have Therapists? Do they want Help? Do they Need it?
I’ve talked to some of these girls. And told them about my experience and how I really hope they don’t do what I did. Sometimes it makes me feel less lonely. But they usually tell me they’re fine. I feel for them, almost too much. At the same time, I don’t understand them. That scares me though, because then I’m afraid that no one ever understood me, or worse, that I never understood myself.
W is also for Wyoming because that’s what started this disease. My once Western identity replaced with one of thinness, obsession, and control.
X, Y, and Z go here. But only because that’s the order of the alphabet. They mean nothing.
Nora Mabie recently graduated from college and now writes in Chicago. People do not typically view her as a "bad pony" or as any sort of rebel, so she is thrilled to see her work published here.