Embodiment

Eating disorders are about bodies. Duh. They’re about fat and losing weight and body image and skinny models and photoshop. Wait, what? That’s not right. Eating disorders are about the experience of being in a body, the limitations and lack of control that being embodied necessitates. Much better. I’ve been wanting to write about this article at Science of EDs on embodiment for quite some time, but I haven’t known exactly what to contribute beyond “yeah, that!” The article looks at a study of embodiment in which participants rated how much they experienced their body externally, through the feedback and sight of others, through objective measures, or through physical ways of controlling their bodies. Unsurprisingly, high scores on these measures were correlated with eating disorders.

When I read this, I felt a resonance with these experiences and questions: yes, what drove my eating disorder was a feeling of discomfort with having a body, an inability to imagine how my “self” fit into that body, a confusion about how my body actually fit into people’s conceptions of me, and a kind of certainty that the only time I really was in my body was when I was doing something to it or with it. But embodiment has always meant more than that to me. Having a body means you will die. That’s a pretty basic fact at this point in time (although there is the potential that through technology we will change it). Having a body also comes with a variety of limitations: you can only be doing one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, you are bounded by temporality and space. Even if you’re a highly capable person who can probably accomplish nearly anything they try, your embodied nature says that you can only try a limited number of things.

Bodies, and particularly bodily functions (like eating) are a constant reminder of these facts. For much of my life, I have not been able to stand being present in my own body (aware of my senses, my location, my body) because it was so limited. Some people are able to accept these limitations without struggle. Some people don’t find that being in a body is a constant reminder of their miniscule nature in the entirety of reality. But many of the people that I have met who also have eating disorders are the kinds of people who have been told their whole lives that they can do whatever they put their mind to, that they can do so at a high level of accomplishment, and that they can change the world. The perfectionism that this breeds hates limits, even ones that are utterly reasonable (like not being able to live forever).

Some people have certainly wondered why those with a high drive for control and perfection choose their bodies as the realm on which to enact their personal battles. The experience of embodiment as mortality and limitation gives a good window into this connection. It might seem that the whole world is not within our control, but the most basic level at which we have no control is the fact that we are embodied, our bodies do things we don’t want them to, we can get sick and die, and having a physical presence inherently limits the ways that we can affect the world.

It’s quite possible that few other people with eating disorders are consciously aware of hating their body because it represents the fact that they cannot do everything they’ve been told they could; I cannot cure cancer and reconstruct Proto Indo-European and become a bestselling author and be a feminist/atheist activist and play taiko for a living and learn neuroscience and solve the problem of consciousness and star in an amazing TV show. I have to pick and choose, and knowing that I am giving up on some potential opportunity is painful. But even if others don’t consciously recognize that the reason they can’t do all this is because they are physical beings, on some level I suspect they feel it: it comes out in the guttural anger at the body and at the failings of the body, it comes out in the unrealistic expectations of perfection in every way, it comes out in the unnaturally high achievements and the insistence that slack is for other people.

Embodiment might be at the heart of all eating disorders, but not because of bad body image or a struggle to reconcile self-image with the perception of others. Somewhere in there, all of us want to be little gods, capable of anything. Bodies will always remind us that we never can be.

 

Food As An Emotional Modifier

Some people eat when they’re in a bad mood. Most people, actually. Comfort food is a well known concept and we all have foods that are associated with home, safety, and good feelings. Some people don’t eat anything at all when they’re in a bad mood. Oftentimes depression can come with loss of appetite, and restrictive eating disorders are the extreme of “I feel bad I won’t eat”. Human beings use food to adjust and react to their moods.
For the most part this is considered unhealthy. Emotional eating is often at the heart of eating disorders, and many dieticians find that working with their clients to come to a healthy place with their emotions leads to a stabilization of diet. (FIND LINK) When we call someone an emotional eater, we don’t mean it as a compliment. Our thoughts/feelings are supposed to be radically separate from our bodies, and it’s unhealthy to seek out a physical solution to an emotional problem.
Except for the times when it’s not. Recently, I’ve started to try to regulate my emotions using food. “EATING DISORDER!” I hear you cry (or so I assume, I always cry out in distress when reading blogs). Well, not exactly. I’ve been trying to regulate my emotions using food by eating on a regular schedule, listening to what my body is craving, and eating until I am full. In addition to regular mealtimes, I’ve also been trying to notice when I’m getting cranky, anxious, sad, or otherwise unstable in some fashion and whether it has any correlation to how long it’s been since I’ve eaten. Guess what? It often does. I’m low energy and low happiness first thing in the morning, and I hit a low in the afternoon before dinner. Guess what these two time periods have in common? It’s been a while since I’ve eaten anything and I’m probably low on calories. Not having enough calories will make anyone more emotionally vulnerable.
Secret knowledge dropping time: our emotions are highly dependent on our bodies. Being tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, or sick will affect how you process what’s going on around you and what your reaction to the world is. Not all of these are things we can adjust immediately. If I’m having a bad day at work I can’t simply take a nap and feel more rested and thus stable. But I can go grab a snack or put on an extra sweater. I can use my body in a positive manner to influence how I’m feeling.
More often than not, things that are unhealthy for us are that way because they are extreme in some fashion. This doesn’t apply to anything (please do not go take moderate doses of arsenic), but for many things, we can use them positively if we understand how they actually interact with our bodies and minds. Exercise is another great example of this: too much or too little can throw us out of whack, but a moderate amount of exercise on a regular basis, and strategically applied exercise during times of stress can do wonders.
I don’t necessarily promote the view of the body that sees it as a machine (I think we’re far more integrated into our bodies than we will ever be with machines), but it can be a helpful metaphor when thinking of how to modulate your emotions. What kinds of things might this machine need to function better? Have I been getting too much or too little of any of the necessities? How can I make a small change right now to bring things back into balance. It’s not magic, but it is certainly a helpful framework for in the moment actions.

The Shame of Sweetness: Food As Code

This morning as I was making my coffee (four creamers and four packets of sugar, thanks very much), I realized that I was mildly uncomfortable. There was another person in the kitchen with me, and I was shielding my coffee from her with my body, vaguely ashamed that I fill my delicious morning beverage with sweet, sugary goodness.

I’ve noticed this before. People talk about drinking black coffee like a badge of pride. They ridicule mochas and frappuccinos and people who put cream and sugar into their coffee as if it was a sin to want something that tastes yummy. And it’s not just with coffee drinks: think of the ridicule that people who drink appletinis face. Sure it’s not really a big deal. No one will beat you for drinking a pink cocktail of some sort, but there’s an undercurrent in which things that are sweet are consistently seen as “covering up” what you’re actually consuming, and thus as bad.

But why does it matter? Why do we care if people quietly (or not so quietly) judge our food choices?

For some insight, let’s think about the adjective that people use when they ridicule these drinks: girly. Girly drinks. With a little umbrella in them. For the ladies who can’t handle “real” booze or “real” coffee.

Sweetness is code for feminine. It’s code for not being able to handle “reality” and having to cover it up. Because people really need to read that much into a desire to eat or drink something that tastes good/actually listen to your palette when it says that you do or don’t like something.

There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.

Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world (eating disorders are a good example of this, but many people choose their food to signify what kind of a person they are). We don’t often look to food consciously as a way to reveal our prejudices or assumptions, but it’s woven into every day of our lives (even when we’re not eating it).

As someone who has spent nearly five years spending the majority of their time thinking about food, I have found that it says a lot more about what we think that we might at first believe. Which means that this phenomenon of saying that sweet things are girly and because they’re girly we shouldn’t drink them or we should be horribly ashamed to drink them probably says more about American culture than what it appears at face value.

It says that acting “sweet” is covering things up, but it’s also feminine. It says that no one should want to be like that because it’s weak and it’s fake, but I guess if you’re cute and girly enough you can get away with it (but probably only if you have a big, beer drinking man with you). But it also says that if you’re sweet and pink and drink things with an umbrella, then you’re not to be taken seriously. You can go sit on the porch while the big kids talk.

I’ve seen this happen in an internalized misogyny kind of way too: women who refuse to drink anything but straight bourbon because they’re convinced it makes them look more “serious”. Women who feel like they  need to learn how to drink beer because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously when they go out with coworkers or go to networking events. Because we have to signal with what we put into our bodies that we are not weak: we can tolerate discomfort or bitterness. We can like it. We can be “one of the boys”.

And yet no one seems to question it. No one seems to feel any need to mention the fact that pushing people to consume things that they actually find horribly disgusting is a fairly harmful norm to be teaching (yes, do that thing you hate because it will show that you’re one of the guys!), and that it all stems from sexist notions that things which are pleasant are feminine and thus to be derided.

Fuck that noise. It is strong to know what I like and to listen to my likes and dislikes. There is nothing weak about doing things that feel nice. There’s nothing weak about things coded feminine. And guess what? Even men should be allowed to do things that they like and which are utterly frivolous. It might seem silly to start with food. That might seem like it’s unimportant, or not really making a change. But we eat every day and the ways we behave around food can easily translate into other, larger actions. I will make no apologies about what I like, and I encourage others to do the same. I feel no need to force myself to drink beer in order to learn to like it, and if men can’t respect me because I prefer a hard cider that’s their own damn sexist fault.

Now excuse me, I have a mocha to buy. Maybe I’ll stick a tiny umbrella in it.

Why I Spend Money on Eating Out

For some unknown reason, many people enjoy judging how others spend their money. Particularly when the person spending money is poor, others like to make comments. “Why would you have a smartphone if you can barely pay rent?” “How can you spend money on organic veggies if you’re using food stamps?” “If you can afford x then you can definitely afford y”.

What’s fascinating to me about this is that there are often complex reasons that people choose to spend their money the way they do. People have different priorities, purchases can mean different things to different people, and often something that looks frivolous may serve an important role to the person who buys it. It seems to me to be yet another example of individuals assuming that everyone else views the world and interacts with the world in the same way that they do, and then becoming upset when others act differently from them.

Unfortunately however, this kind of judgment does actually have negative consequences. It leads to campaigns to take away food stamps and support programs, verbal harassment, and serious anxiety and emotional tolls on those who do spend their money in different ways due to the necessity of constantly defending their choices. Those who live in poverty already have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their money, but putting their choices constantly under the scrutiny of all of society is generally a horrible way to ensure that they can make decisions which will positively impact their lives. Most studies have found that shame is a bad motivator, and because individuals require different things (unheard of, right?), expecting all people with lower incomes to follow the same set of societally enforced guidelines is deeply unhelpful.

Let’s not even get into the fact that oftentimes large purchases were made before someone fell into poverty, or were a gift.

Now I’m sure some people out there are shaking their heads and thinking “Yeah, but everyone needs food and shelter, so shouldn’t those things always come first? Shouldn’t you always make sure your money goes to those things and then prioritize other stuff?” Yes, it’s true that everyone needs food and shelter, but not everyone is privileged enough that these are their only basic needs. Some people have chronic illnesses, disabilities, children, or other extenuating circumstances that could put their safety at risk if they are not attended to. Additionally, life is not just about surviving, and when those who live in poverty manage to have the money to do something that helps them thrive, we should not disdain them for it.

As per usual, I will use myself as an example because I like to talk about me (and because I am the most readily available subject). I currently am living in poverty. I make a ridiculously low wage ($11,000/yr) and don’t get benefits. I am lucky in that I have a fair amount of savings, but I do have student loans as well and at this point in my life I’m fully independent. However I go out to eat on a regular basis. Sometimes really nice restaurants. I spend probably half of my money on food.

I very often have this pointed out to me as a way that I could cut costs and live in a more stable fashion. I’ve gotten the side eye from family members who think I’m being stupid or irresponsible. People tell me all the time “why don’t you just cook at home? It’s cheaper and better for you!” To that I laugh. One of the symptoms of my eating disorder is that I really hate cooking and having food in my home. It sends my anxiety through the roof, particularly when I have perishables around. If I have to spend more than about 15 minutes on cooking, I just won’t do it and when I try I often end up a crying mess, purging, cutting, or all three.

Because of this, the only foods that I feel comfortable having in my home (e.g. which I don’t feel leave me vulnerable to hurting myself) are those which are quick to prepare and will keep for a long time. Essentially this is ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and soup. When I eat at home, that is the extent of my diet and when I have attempted to change it, very bad things have happened. Eating this diet is not healthy. It’s not really safe for me to eat this day in and day out, especially considering my history of restriction. Going out to eat is the only reprieve I have from this. It’s not a get out of jail free card from my eating disorder, but it makes things easier. It gives me access to more variety, to balanced meals, to some joy in my food.

Spending money on eating out is for me spending money on my own health. I cannot simply choose to eat and cook at home and be healthy. So when others look at me and act as if I am being frivolous with my money by eating out, what they miss is that the money I spend is spent on something truly important. It could even be a matter of life and death (yes, eating disorders do kill and frequently). What they miss is that they have no comprehension of the complicated balancing act of pros and cons that go into my purchasing decisions.

Everyone has an entire life that goes into every action that they make. You don’t see everything they’re weighing when you see the final outcome that is the decision to spend money. So unless you have a great deal of knowledge about the life of whoever you feel the need to “help”, leave it alone.

 

Food: I Love It

The following blog post is a personal challenge for me inspired by the following quote: ‘‘I love to cook so much . . . food represents to me something truly positive, fun and liberated, and sensual and loving . . . it feels to me like being in control, not in the . . .bad and neutralizing sense, but in the sense that I do not let external forces control me and tell me that I cannot eat.’’ In the spirit of this quote, I want to tell you what I love about food, and why I view eating as a radical feminist act.

 

Food is comforting. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but when you get home from a long day, all you want is something warm to put in your mouth. The sensation of chewing something with a good texture, of letting the flavors sink into your tongue, of feeling yourself heat up from the inside, is reaffirming: I am here. I am alive. I deserve this good thing. I can feel myself regaining strength when I eat food. I can feel my mood brightening. Food gives me life. It affirms to me that I should be in this world, not in a far-off intellectual space with no body. When I eat I feel solid.

And food. Food tastes AMAZING. A piece of really good chocolate, fruit, or ice cream? I could eat them all day, letting them melt on my tongue and sink into my consciousness, sweetening up my day. Or the deep, delicious savoriness of a pizza, which you can’t quite replicate anywhere else. Or simply the taste of MEAT. I’m sorry, but as a recovering anorexic, I cannot explain to you how perfect a hamburger is. And salt. Salt and vinegar potato chips, hash browns, FRIED FOOD. These things are delicious. I love the experience of eating them, of tasting them, of gobbling them down. And textures are stellar too. I had some pasta last week that was the perfect kind of chewy, and I just wanted to keep eating it forever so that I could have that texture in my mouth indefinitely. It makes my teeth almost hurt just thinking about it. Or ice cream on a sore throat. Food makes you feel good.

Food can completely change your experience of a day or a temperature. A hot drink on a cold day leaves you shivering as you feel the warmth reach out into your belly. Cold ice cream on a hot day makes everything suddenly ok. Food can define experiences.

Food is a mental game. You wait for it. You get excited while you cook. You see it and smell it before you can taste it and taste it before it’s really yours and in your belly. You can savor every little bit of it. You can build it up and appreciate the excitement of it all day. Cooking is an art and baking is a science and you can create and play and explore the world around you by changing it into something it wasn’t a few hours ago. It’s fairly amazing, and it reminds you how powerful we are. We can change our world in order to make it taste better. It’s a powerful form of creating culture by changing the natural materials we’re given. It makes us more human.

Food is an experience that is hard to replicate. Each meal is the coalescence of a place and people and culture and history, all come together to create what is now. Your food means different things at different times and in different places. It comes together through your culture, mediated by cultural symbols. Your food represents where you are coming from, but by definition it is where you are going because it is the sheer fuel that allows you to go there. Food is time, because what else is growth and maturation and ripeness and cooking and every other process by which our food becomes appropriate for us to eat? Food is all these connections. Perhaps the most beautiful of them is the community. Sitting down to a good meal with a pile of friends is one of the best experiences in life. Everything becomes a bit warmer, everyone a bit more vivacious, more talkative. We move closer to share, to ask about each other’s food. Sharing food is a sign of trust, of care, of closeness.

And food tells us what we deserve. It is something we take for ourselves, something we should never question whether we deserve or not because it is the most basic thing that everyone deserves. It tells us that we have the right to take up physical space, to interact with things and people, to speak, to be in space. Food is our right to a body, and tells us we have the right to exist in the same space as others.

Perhaps my favorite part of food is the memories that it creates. Whenever I want to imagine my childhood and the things that made me happy about it, I imagine eating spaghetti. When I think of my current relationship, I see it in the story of meals that we’ve eaten together. Certain people I remember in the scent of food. Certain foods can reduce me to tears or laughter with their memories. I love how human food is for this reason. I love remembering.

I love food for these reasons. It is hard for me to say that I love food, but I love the experiences of food. Food is not something you’re supposed to love. You’re supposed to eat it for sustenance and health, but not for your soul. Well I call bullshit on that. Food is intimate: it is one of so very few things we put into our bodies, and we are certainly discriminatory about our sexual partners: why shouldn’t we give the same care and attention to our food? I love my food because it represents so much of the beauty of being human, so many of the deeper experiences, because there is so much to question, explore, and learn about how we come to have the food that we do.

I tell myself this over and over because women who love food are Bad. They are out of control. They are self-centered. I tell myself this because I have made myself an imperative. Taking care of myself against the messages that I have gotten that others are more important, that work is more important, that accomplishing is more important, that I can rest when I’m dead, that my happiness is secondary to what I create and accomplish has become my revolution. I am my oppressed minority, and eating is our protests, eating is our bombs, eating is our artwork and songs and stories and essays. “Eating is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of radical “ Audre Lorde. This quote is our mantra. Every beautiful thing I recognize about food as I put it in my mouth is another blow to every message that says “be less”. When men tell women that they exist as objects, I choose to eat something and TAKE ANOTHER BEING into myself. Objectify that. When people call me crazy and say that psychos are just making it all up, I eat my dinner and reflect again on how impossible that was a year ago and know I am stronger than anyone who has never thought twice about their dinner.

My very existence as someone who is mentally ill and female is a struggle to claim as my own. My food is the last symbol that I can choose what to do with my life and my body. When I stop choosing purposively to eat, how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat, I give up the most basic level of control and self-assertion I have. Food is my revolution when I allow myself to take up space, when I refuse to give up on my potential, when I connect myself to my family, to my memories, to my stories, when I write my own narratives, when I deeply experience the world. Food makes me more human. It forces me to recognize my humanity, on par with anyone else’s, no better and no worse. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the power of food to connect people to each other. I believe in how fantastic food is.

Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.

Fiction Round Up

It’s been a while since I’ve graced you all with anything other than essays (I sound so full of myself don’t I? Don’t worry, it’s all an act to hide the insecurities I feel about my writing), and so I figured that today would be a good day to put up the bits and pieces I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. Some are drabbles, some are poems, some are…God knows what, but here they are for your amusement.

 

Solstice

Midsummer in the North is surreal. I watch the sky like I’d eye a Dali painting, wondering if something will melt under the impossible sun. I came here to escape. I came here for dark and silence, for the endless cold stretching out before me as if I could see it. I came here because at night I forget. But today there is no night, only days and days contained in 24 hours. It is incomprehensible, this solstice of the pole. It is maddening. I look up at the heavens and yell curses at the sun that refuses to set.

 

 

Pain

They asked her how bad the pain was on a scale of 1-10. She replied that it was an 8. Physical pain or emotional pain they wanted to know. They seemed very serious, as if the answer would change everything.

Without warning, she burst out laughing, and they looked at each other to silently say “72 hour hold”. There was no mind left to this one.

When she caught her breath there were small tears seeping from the edges of her eyes. Her face caught some of their seriousness and they looked at her expectantly.

“You think there’s a difference?”

 

There’s a loneliness to it that you can’t understand until you’ve stood before someone

Claiming they love you

And asking you to climb Everest on a broken leg.

There’s a distance placed between you

That is uncrossable until you’ve gotten the passport stamp of depression.

I try to yell across to you

And give you the details of the landscape

But all you get are echoed words, bits and pieces of a painting

That will never be whole.

The space distorts words.

There may be others with me, but we have no time for each other

Each too busy yelling across the void to someone or other

Wishing they could go home.

Someday I will make a camp here

And forget the other side.

Inviting each new person inside to warm themselves at my fire

And we’ll be together

Alone.

 

The following is a set of drabbles entitled “Food”:

First Day of Treatment

The bowl of pasta was large. It seemed to grow as she looked at it, drowning in alfredo sauce. Reluctantly, she picked up her fork and began to twirl the strands around it. It was a painstakingly slow process. Fork to bowl. Turn. Pick up noodles. Mouth. Chew. Swallow. By the time she was halfway through it was cold, the sauce congealed. How would she finish? She felt eyes heavy on her as she took yet another bite, her stomach already churning. But she couldn’t stop: they were watching. But she knew how to fix it: fingers down the throat.

Love

When he speaks about food, he is intense. She rarely sees him like this otherwise, leaning forward, eyes sparkling, hands gesturing madly. She understands his passion; food can turn her into a different person too, but it’s the love affair with it that makes no sense. It excites her though. She finds herself making up excuses to eat with him, to spend money she doesn’t have on beautiful dinners. She listens with unblinking eyes when he talks, trying to capture the essence of his speech. But every night after they eat together, she goes home to pinch at imagined fat.

Binging

She’s hungry. So often she forgets to feel hungry, or convinces herself it’s something else, but today she feels empty and it is undeniable. There is a gnawing, pulling, dark sensation at the very bottom of her, telling her that nothing will satisfy. She searches for the cure: meat and potatoes, ice cream, comfort food, fascinating flavors, good company. No matter what goes in she remains hungry, until the desperation and calories blend into a shocking kind of nausea, but always an emptiness. Nothing will fill her, so she picks up her phone, hoping his voice will do the trick.

Life

He tells her stories of food. Aztec is his favorite. He tells her how bodies became food and food became bodies and the earth regrew itself out of the gods. Food and memory and existence wrapped together. Her favorite is when he teaches her words. Poutine. Macerate. Cassoulet. Her world expands. Some days he shows her how he likes to cook, dousing everything liberally with truffle salt. When they go to restaurants, he waxes rhapsodic about the foods he loves: oysters, pate, and wine. She tastes his words and his food and begins to eat life for the first time.

Empty Plate

Rule: never eat in the morning. It was 10:30 AM. They ordered a waffle to share. She took a few moments to try to observe it. There was fruit topping it, fresh and plump, but her eyes were drawn immediately to the sizeable heaping of whipped cream. The smell was forceful and immediate, sweet and full, almost golden. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes to take in only the scent. It smelled good. She reminded herself that it would taste good, she liked waffles. Five minutes later, there wasn’t a bite left. It was more than an hour before noon.

Victory

He pushes the plate towards me. I feel a flutter of uncertainty. Rabbit. I’ve never eaten rabbit before. He’s taken a bite of it, and his face tells me that he just ate a bit of rabbit-flavored heaven. Something in me snaps and I grin, pulling the plate closer. A deep desire to be here in this moment, tasting the food before me, sharing the conversation around me, has left no space for anxiety. The rabbit looks juicy and tender, covered in some deliciously unknown sauce. One bite tells me it’s complex, balanced, intriguing. A smile flutters across my face.

 

 

I’m sitting and waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I hope that someone will tell me soon. I don’t like to wait. My muscles clench and unclench. My jaw grinds away at itself. My eyes fall out of focus.

But boredom is the kiss of death. My mind has nowhere to go. It runs and grabs and discards ideas at spitfire speed. I begin a thought and it falls away as it’s devoured by something new. What where how do I think? My mind eats itself, a dog chasing its tail, Ouroboros.

I am no phoenix to grow again when I’ve fallen, and I wait. I rip open my fingers, biting at the skin. I chew on my lips. I crack my knuckles. Nothing ends and so nothing may begin.

Where is the exit?

My legs will not stand because I know the rules and someone will tell me what I’m waiting for.

I will not look away. I am eternal and eternally incomplete.

I am a constant reminder of loss.

Why is there no exit?