Eating For Two
TW: eating disorder, suicidal ideation.
In the last week of my sophomore year of college, I sat in a guidance counselor’s office staring out the window at a girl on a bench eating a bag of chips. Somewhere in the hazy fog at the periphery of my focus, the counselor sternly explained that I had two options: attend mandatory therapy with an eating disorder specialist during the coming summer, or fail out of school.
I watched the girl’s hand move from the bag to her lips, her lips to the bag, the bag to her lips. Laser-focused. I had no idea who she was, but I hated her. My mouth watered so hard that my jaw locked and my eyes stung.
“Katie,” the counselor said. Her voice seemed to come from beneath a pond. “What’ll it be?”
I couldn’t conjure energy, back then, for anything unrelated to my hunger. I simply shrugged and let her make the decision.
During my first months as a college freshman, I struggled to adjust. To being many states away from home, to having more autonomy than ever, to the confusing attention from the opposite sex. To the food on campus. There were scant options for a vegetarian—I lived off cheese and lettuce sandwiches. My pants became loose; I safety-pinned them up. When I returned home for Thanksgiving, family and friends expressed awe that, instead of gaining the usual “freshman fifteen,” I’d lost it.
Encouraged, I walked the expansive campus each night after classes. I’d rub my hands along my ribs, my waist, my hips as I went. Charting. The sharper I became, the happier I was. I’d been invisible in high school, a straight-A student who never stepped out of line, but here I drank and chain-smoked, cultivated a wide group of friends. I shrunk in size instead of social stature.
Once the winter weather made outdoor treks treacherous, I upgraded my exercise to the gym and downgraded my ingestion to a massive jar of peanut butter stored on my bookshelf. I’d power through the day on the fumes of an apple, work out for three or four hours, then reward myself with a large spoonful of peanut butter before bed.
On paper, I did all the things naïve freshmen do—socialized on the boys’ floors, partied most nights, and posed for embarrassing photos. But as the months wore on, every image captured reflected a growing tightness behind my eyes. The people surrounding me in the pictures gave me a wider berth. My life had become unpalatable, and so was I.
The world was a deeply dangerous place when I was in starvation mode. I avoided the campus garbage cans on my walks, lest I spot a half-eaten piece of food inside one and lose control. When dorm mates brought meals home, I’d angrily drop whatever I was doing and relocate myself to a janitor’s closet so I wouldn’t have to see or smell what they ate. I regularly did battle with the gym’s staff, who threatened to ban me each time I fainted on a machine.
Class cut into my workouts, so I stopped going. I barely functioned over the roaring pain in my stomach, so I drank and smoked more to numb it. I remember so little from that time, just control. The obsession with having it, the fear of losing it.
It wasn’t about weight. It was about all the other things in my life that were bubbling to the surface after the seismic shift that was leaving home. The childhood traumas and codependencies, the inability to process my emotions. The weight was my scapegoat. I fucking hated the weight because I was incapable of understanding why. If someone attempted to force-feed me or take away my gym access, I threatened to kill myself. I thought about it all the time: death, the benevolent benefactor crouched on the sidelines, poised to rescue me from a hell of my own making.
In the end, the increasing risk of being hospitalized against my will struck enough fear into me that I started to pull myself back a bit. Inch by inch, I loosened—but never quite released—my hold. By senior year, I was still severely underweight, but I was thriving in my journalism concentration. The push into passion helped me leave much of my obsessive routine behind; I graduated at the top of my class and entered my twenties practicing comparatively average eating habits.
But healing isn’t a linear journey. For many years, that self-destructive girl inside me reared forth when I was confronted with any kind of trauma; she’d rail against the pain, only quieting when I made myself small enough to slip past it. My hard-won weight sloughed off during my father’s terminal illness, while I entered a revolving door of abusive relationships, and when I suffered from severe depression and suicidal ideation.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop bracing for the old coping mechanisms to kick back in, though—thanks to my wonderful therapist and a no-exceptions focus on self-care—I feel more capable than ever of handling hardships in a constructive way.
Two decades later, I still feel the torment and shame of those lost years like the phantom ache of a pulled tooth. I want so badly to divorce myself from that girl I was, but I know I’ll always carry her with me. The idea, these days, is to consider her less an albatross than a benchmark.
Like when I sit in a cemetery enjoying a pastry guilt-free. It feels like a miracle to be feeding us both so joyously. To let the warm feeling of a full belly spread through us with satisfaction instead of revulsion.
In place of that insatiable girl, I listen to ghosts. Last year, they led me to a graveyard where I began a beloved Sunday tradition tied to food. Lately, whenever I have a hard day, I find myself ordering takeout and eating it among headstones.
I often describe my meals to the dead. The flaky butteriness of a croissant, the sharp sweetness of chocolate, the salty crunch of a french fry. Their rapturous responses encourage me to truly enjoy the act of eating, the textures and flavors, the sun on my face and the wind in my hair as I chew. To touch and taste and see all the tangible gifts bestowed in my fleeting moments on earth.
The bodies beneath my feet remind me that I am no longer in battle with my own. That I can nurture it, let it take up space—that to do so is my birthright. And so I return to them, again and again, eating my fill, my soft figure curving covetously over their final resting places, savoring.
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There's a beautiful, soft kindness to yourself coexisting right next to your unflinching honesty in this piece that really resonated with me. Thank you for sharing.
Beautifully written, Katie. This makes Sunday pastries with the dead even more poignant. I'll hold a little pride in my heart for you with each delicious Sunday post while I enjoy learning about the residents you're sharing with us.