"It felt like that little voice in my head, the one that told me that food was the enemy, had found a megaphone."
Seven years after I should have asked for help, I sat across from an eating disorder specialist, sobbing. During our first session, after asking about my career as a food writer and editor, she handed me a study to read for our next session and gently guided me to the bathroom, where I could wipe off mascara from my chin, cheeks, and nose.
The study, conducted during WWII and aptly known as either the "Minnesota Starvation Experiment" or simply the "Starvation Study," tested the effects of starvation on men who were conscientious objectors of war and who had volunteered to participate in the study. The researchers hoped to gather data for relief workers treating starved populations and refugees in war-torn parts of Europe. Kept in dorms and fed a restrictive diet designed to slash their starting body weight by 25%, several of the men apparently developed a passionate interest in cookbooks, spending hours poring over the pages. The study authors called it a preoccupation with food.
"Don't you think," my therapist asked me in my next session, "that your interest in food and this job could simply be a byproduct of your disorder?" Livid, I hid my shaking hands until the hour was up. I shredded the printout of the study, requested a change in psychologists at the front desk, and walked down the street to Financier Patisserie to buy myself a cassis macaron.
After three years had passed, I was a little wiser and I wondered if my therapist had a point. There isn't a doubt in my mind that my love of food predates my eating disorder, diagnosed as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which means I don't fit into the neat definitions of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. But what I think she might have been asking me—subtly, way too subtly for me to understand at the time—was, "Can your passion for food and your health coexist?" And I'm not convinced that they can.
Raised on triple-cream Brie and marzipan, and a jet-black coffee drinker from the age of 15, I never stood a chance. The foodie life chose me. (Cue your eye roll here.) It found me in college and convinced me that the best way to deal with stress was to bake my roommate a three-layer chocolate cake with handmade caramel-and-chocolate ganache. It followed me all the way to my Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, where I helped my host mom make pyrizhky and discovered that nothing is more divine than a simple piece of bread slathered in butter and topped with a couple red pearls of Russian caviar.
But if food characterizes my nurture, the values my parents had instilled in me, then starvation sits at the core of my nature. It's the little voice in the back of my head, and I'm only now starting to learn to tune it out.
Unfortunately, I'm hard-wired for disordered eating; the roots of anxiety and depression run deep in my family. My mom lived subject to extreme calorie counts for at least a year in college, and was haunted by dreams of being chained to a pole in a pastry shop—just out of reach of the sugar-dusted confections. Simultaneous urges to feast and fast rage in both of us.
I fatefully followed in her footsteps, enrolling at the same university, and falling into the same restrictive habits. As much as I wanted to join the Peace Corps when I graduated, it was also a desperate attempt to flee my eating disorder and the destructive ripples it sent through every part of my life. While I felt called to learn to create apple butter and vodka pickles near the border of Poland, I was also told that I, a stocky American among the bird-boned Ukrainian nymphs, was in desperate need of a diet. After my 27 months of service were over, it felt like that little voice in my head, the one that told me that food was the enemy, had found a megaphone.
Coming back to the States and all the foods I had been missing felt like a vicious game of tug-of-war. On one hand, what is life without peanut butter? On the other, a spoonful would send me spiraling into mathematical equations about calorie counts and daily calorie budgets and my basal metabolic rate. Was that first spoonful—which never fails to make me pause and savor the way it melts on my tongue, as if the whole world has stopped for a split second—worth all the mental anguish? [For the full story, head over to Refinery29!]