Monday, May 12, 2014

Insatiable

By Lisabet Sarai

I dream of heavy-laden banquet tables. Crisp-skinned, savory roast chickens, their walnut-and-raisin-studded stuffing leaking out onto artfully garnished platters. Barbecued lamb skewers arrayed on beds of saffron-scented pilaf. Broiled salmon brushed with tamari and garlic. Brick-colored candied yams piled into gleaming, sticky pyramids. Sweet corn glistening with melted butter. As I wander from room to room in this endless, deserted mansion, I spy a dozen kinds of cheese, two dozen varieties of olives. Dainty pastel-iced pastries tempt me. Massive apple and pumpkin pies tickle my nose with cinnamon and nutmeg. A fountain dispenses an endless stream of vanilla soft ice cream.

The mingled aromas of my favorite foods assault me. Saliva gathers in my mouth. My stomach growls. I want to eat it all. Confronted by such bounty, I don't know where to start.

Then I remember. I can't. I mustn't. Hunger tugs me toward the lusciously-arrayed buffets, but I must resist. Already I feel the flesh ballooning on my thighs and belly, from the mere thought of such indulgence. I run through the corridors, pursued by the scent of spices, roasted meat, caramelized sugar. There's no exit. I'm trapped.

I wake into a full-blown anxiety attack, my heart racing, sweat drenching my skinny, naked body. Calm, I must be calm. It's only a dream. I capture my bony wrist, encircling it with the thumb and forefinger of my other hand to reassure myself. I'm still thin enough. I'm still in control of that terrible hunger. I won't give in to it, ever.

I promise myself that I'll skip the slice of cantaloupe I usually eat for breakfast. Just in case. The gluttonous desires of my dream may have polluted me. Black coffee with artificial sweetener will be enough for today.

This is the nightmare of anorexia.

From the outside, anorexia looks trivial, capricious, especially compared to other forms of psychological illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. “Oh,” people think. “She thinks she's fat. She doesn't like her body. She wants to lose weight. Nothing wrong with that, she's just taken it a bit too far. If she'd only start eating a little more, she'd be fine.”

The fact that our culture equates thinness with beauty makes anorexia seem almost rational. I can assure you from personal experience, though, that an anorexic is as crazy as someone who thinks she's Queen Victoria or who raves about being possessed by aliens. Anorexics suffer from equally disturbing delusions. We see ourselves as eternally fat and feel constantly threatened by our own bodies. When I was anorexic, I was possessed too, by a voracious demon whose hunger could never be appeased.


What the heck? you may be thinking. Hungry? When you're choosing to starve yourself? So if you're so hungry, then eat.

If only it were that simple.

I've come to understand that anorexia is not really about food at all. It's about control, or more precisely the fear of losing control. It's no accident that most cases afflict women in their teens, struggling to deal with all the changes of puberty and the pressures of emerging sexuality. Girls who have a perfectionist attitude tend to be more susceptible – you know, the ones who despair when they receive a grade of 98 instead of 100 or who spend hours every day practicing so that they'll make the varsity gymnastics team or the cheerleading squad or the All-State orchestra. That was me, the grind, the egghead, top of the class in every subject. We want to be good – the very best. And then we realize our bodies, our hormones, our desires are totally haywire. What we really want – oh, but it's unspeakable.

We can't control our carnal needs – indeed, consciously we might not even be aware of them – but food is something concrete, something we can manipulate and ration. We can apply the same discipline we exert in our studies, our athletics or our cultural pursuits, to cut down on the things that will make us “fat”. By depriving ourselves, we can prove how strong and pure we are. As our bodies shed the pounds, they become bright beacons advertising our virtue and self-control.

When I looked like a concentration camp victim, I thought I was beautiful.

Of course food is symbolic of other things as well. Like many mothers, mine equated food with nurturing, comfort and caring. When I rejected the (quite delicious) meals she cooked for me, I was rejecting her love. At least was the way she saw things. Meanwhile, I saw her as the enemy, trying to undermine my resolve to get my appetite under control – trying to “make me fat”.

The superficially rational aspects of anorexia and the hostility that often develops between the sufferer and those who are closest to her make the disease very difficult to treat. If the disease is about control, what is the remedy?

I can't speak for others, but my recovery started when I learned to trust someone else enough to give up control. My therapist, whom I saw for more than four years, somehow convinced me that he could keep me safe, even if I started to eat again. He was the total opposite of the Freudian stereotype, a short, chubby, jolly Latin who had no qualms about giving me a hug. I guess I fell in love with him (Freud's transference, perhaps, or maybe something more genuine). He told me once that I could do anything I wanted, and he would never judge me. “If you decided to go to the moon,” he said, “I'd be here when you got back, applauding.”

It took nearly a decade for me to learn how to trust myself with food and eat “normally”. It was during that recovery period that I was first exposed to dominance and submission. I realized recently that surrendering to my master had much in common with trusting my therapist. Like Dr. R, my master didn't judge me. He embraced and celebrated my deviant desires. When I gave him control, the fear went away, to be replaced with a special peace.

To explore this connection, I recently wrote a short story about BDSM and anorexia. “Sundae, Bloody Sundae” was published in the Goldie-nominated charity collection Coming Together: Girl on Girl. Here's a snippet that captures the horror of being an anorexic who's forced to eat, even by her lover.

****

Ponticelli's was at least as good as I'd remembered. I ordered baked stuffed lobster for both of us, with a Caesar salad and a delightful bottle of fumé blanc. Jana was even livelier than usual, talking with her hands in the way she does when she's really excited. I ache to capture her birdlike wrists in my bonds and force her to stillness.

I must have been a bit drunk. Certainly I was hungry. In no time, I'd transformed my lobster into a pile of polished shell. Leaning back in my chair, satisfied and content, I noticed that Jana was not nearly so far along.

Girl, you're not doing justice to this fine crustacean,” I laughed. “Come here.” I grabbed one of the claws from her plate, extracted a succulent chunk of meat and dunked it in melted butter. I held the dripping morsel to her lips. “Open wide,” I ordered.

If I'd consumed a bit less wine, I'd probably have been able to label her expression. Recalling that instant now, I realize that what I saw on her face was pure terror. At the time, I thought that she was simply being stubborn, refusing to part her rosebud lips.

Jana? Come on now, eat it.”

She shook her head. “Please, I'm not hungry, Mel.”

It's delicious. Have a bite.”

No, really...”

Do I need to pull you onto my lap, flip up your skirt and wallop your skinny ass right here in front of everyone?” A spark of lust mingled with the dread in her eyes, hardening my resolve. “Do as you're told.”

I smeared some of the butter over her lips. She shrank back in her chair, away from the laden fork. “Jana,” I warned, struggling to keep my temper in check. “You're disappointing me. I want you to eat the lobster.”

She knew me well enough by then to recognize that I was not going to back down. Like a slow motion film, she opened her mouth and allowed me to place the butter-drenched meat on her tongue. I watched her chew and swallow, then presented her with another piece.

No...”

Jana...”

Reluctantly, she accepted the tidbit.

That's my girl.” She favored me with a weak smile. “Again, now...” I stopped feeding her after another few bites. She looked so uncomfortable that I thought she might not be well. I wasn't terribly surprised when she excused herself to go to the ladies' room.

When more than fifteen minutes had passed without her returning to the table, though, I started to worry. I paid our check, grabbed my shoulder bag, and headed after her.

I pushed open the restroom door. “Jana? Are you all right?” After the tasteful dimness of the dining room, the glaring fluorescent lights made me blink. It took me a few seconds to locate my lover.

She huddled on the tiled floor, back to the wall, knees drawn up, arms hugging her chest. Her cheeks were chalk white. Her eyes were closed, her lips pressed into a thin line. Her green hem had ridden up, exposing her lean, pale thighs. She looked forlorn and frail, like an abandoned child. A faint whiff of sickness hung in the air.

Comprehension smashed into me like a speeding truck. I crouched next to her and smoothed the fine wheat-blond hair off her clammy forehead. “Why didn't you tell me, baby?”

Jana's face showed far more pain than it ever did when I flogged her. “I – I was ashamed. I thought that if you knew, if you saw the real me, you wouldn't want me anymore... I'm foul, disgusting, an ugly, jiggling lump of blubber...”
****

I believe I'm past the point where I'm terrified by my own hunger. Now I feel tremendous sympathy for the girls and their families still trapped in that nightmare. I'd like to tell them that there is a way out – that I escaped from that haunted mansion to live happy and healthy into my sixties. Perhaps that's a message they need to hear.

Note: the images accompanying this post are drawings I did in art therapy, during the three months I was a resident in a state psychiatric hospital.


20 comments:

  1. Lisabet, this post gives me shivers. Thank you for both the post itself and the very moving excerpt, and I'm stunned also by the pictures (particularly the second one, which so eloquently expresses the feelings you describe in the text).

    You wrote: "The fact that our culture equates thinness with beauty makes anorexia seem almost rational." That's the sort of thing that I want everyone to resist, and that I am trying to resist myself. One of the most chilling things I've read was a short memoir by a recovering anorexic who said that, even on the day she collapsed and was taken to the hospital, strangers were telling her she was beautiful.

    I'm also really interested by the relationship of the questions of control you describe here to the practice of BDSM. I love what you said about surrender and the loss of fear.

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  2. I only recently connected the dots, Annabeth. What I find thrilling about BDSM is not the physical stuff - it's the experience of letting go and being willing to fall, believing I'll be safe. Nothing like it in the world.

    I hope lots of people read this post, because I think there are many misconceptions about eating disorders.

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  3. Hi Lisabet,
    This is a wonderful, truly heart wrenching blog. I had no idea how people suffering anorexia viewed food, dream of it even. I was drooling over the goodies you were describing. I haven't go anorexia thank goodness, I think greed and over eating is my nemesis.

    Regards

    Margaret

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Margaret.

      Anorexia truly is a sort of insanity. From the outside, though, it looks mostly physical.

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  4. If you hadn't included "Sundae, Bloody Sundae," Lisabet, I was going to. The story blew me away when I reviewed Coming Togeher, Girl on Girl" for the Erotica Revealed web site. Brilliant and beautiful. (I'm more the type of person who would look at that list of food and pick out the ones like the salmon that might not be all that fattening, or at least not unhealthy. And then I'd probably eat too much.)

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    1. I really appreciated your calling out my story in your review. It's a bit of a weird thing to have in an erotica anthology!

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  5. Beautiful post Lisabet - I admire your strength of mind and body. Seems like many young girls would benefit from reading of your experience.

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    1. If you know of any - send them my way.

      Of course, maybe they shouldn't be reading an over-18 blog. But sometimes I wonder if there's anything I can do to help those young women who are suffering so.

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  6. I admire your strength, Lisabet, in confessing this in the open. Sometimes sharing the insane thoughts that pass through the mind can be the scariest thing in the world, even if the worst of it is in the past.

    I'm a fellow control freak, and although anorexia has never been my brand of unhealthy self-control (mine is OCD, avoidance, and paranoia), I recognize too often how our society encourages it, both in the food and exercise arena. I recognize the same thought processes wriggling into my brain like ear worms, and nothing horrifies me more than realizing that this is a mental parasite the world around me is creating, not destroying.

    I think being conscious of these messages and actively trying to keep them out of my brain while in the process of losing weight is some of the hardest mental juggling I've had to do because I know how easy it is to slip out of the rational and into the rationalized irrational. One could say I've substituted the illusion of self-control from anorexia with the effort to control keeping anorexia out. Time will tell whether that is just as illusory.

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    1. Hello, Aurelia,

      The external form these obsessions take can shift and morph. I'm grateful that as I've gotten older, I've learned to relax some of that need for control. (It has helped in my relationships, too LOL)

      I'd never want to go back to being twenty. Way too difficult and painful.

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  7. I worked with anorexics for my first Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology.
    It was chilling how tightly they clung to their skin-and-bone thinness.
    I was with a girl, just seventeen, holding her hand, as she took her last
    breath, dying of anorexia. It is a terrible, terrible disease. I am so so happy
    you found your way out of its clutches.

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    1. Hello, Mary,

      I realize that I was lucky to survive with no permanent deficits other than some memory loss. (I read constantly during the time I was hospitalized. I don't remember any of it.) I have also known women who literally starved themselves to death.

      The good news is that I think clinicians understand the disease much better now than they did when I was a sufferer. Back then, anorexia wasn't very common. (Guess I was ahead of my time.)

      I'm also fortunate I never got into the vomiting thing. (I've always HATED throwing up.) And I never stopped eating completely.

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  8. Thanks for sharing this. I have a niece who seems to be walking the same path her mother has been struggling with for many years. Her mother is a dear friend (we went through a pregnancy together) who once told me that she isn't "cured"...she'll never be cured. Every day when she wakes up she has to remind herself, "Today I'm going to eat enough to be healthy". I can't imagine how exhausting that fight must be, and how much the person with the disease must wish for a way out, like in your top drawing.

    My parents were both underweight smokers who sniffed in derision at fat people because obviously they have no self-control. My first pregnancy changed my body shape, so I worked out like mad to lose all of my weight. Then I got pregnant again...then again...then once more before I got fixed. I told my husband I'd get skinny again after the last baby. She's turning 21 this year and he's still waiting. Sigh. But I don't want to be like my parents, who denied themselves the pleasure of food, then smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day to stay at a "healthy" weight.

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    1. The equation of skinniness with healthiness is truly dangerous. Recent studies suggest that you'll have far more resistance to many health problems if you're a bit overweight, as opposed to underweight.

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  9. Perhaps those who don't experience disorders like this (or schizophrenia, depression, bipolar) can't put their mind into that headspace. Misunderstood, yes, but in a way, it's a good thing they can't. Better we experience it through eloquent assessments like this.

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  10. And to Lisabet's reply to Fiona's comment: It's also good to carry a few extra pounds to keep in reserve if we get ill.

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  11. A very moving post, Lisabet. Years go, I read a book on eating disorders that made the point that in the Middle Ages, just as in our own time, eating *too much* was associated with sinful self-indulgence, so under-eating or actual starvation was considered virtuous, especially in pious young girls. (I havent looked at medieval art the same way since.) the more things change . . .

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    1. I woke up this morning thinking about the way that eating sometimes takes on an inappropriate moral dimension. While I understand people who feel they need to express morality by, say, choosing not to eat animals, the idea that too much eating is immoral puzzles me. Of course, it's one thing if you're taking food from someone else in order to eat too much, but other than the theft angle, I have trouble figuring out why gluttony in itself is supposed to be a sin (to use Middle Ages terminology rather than modern terminology—though I hear the same concepts in ideas about needing to go to the gym to atone for pizza or what have you). I guess the answer is sort of in the phrase you wrote, "sinful self-indulgence." Someone needs to explain to me why self-indulgence is supposed to be so sinful.

      Yes, this is the sort of thing I wake up thinking about...

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    2. I personnally hate the idea of killing and eating other living things that want so badly to live as I do. We live at a time in human history when large carnivores are no longer hunting us down to kill us and turn us into cat food.

      But I remind myself that this is the way the world we live in is structured. The reason evolution works and the way life has survived thorugh so many catastropes is because of this complex mechanism of sex and death, in which animals and plants are constantly remixed, killed by each other and relaced with fresh forms. And that is the only thing you know for sure about your future, is that some day you will surely die.

      Garce

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    3. To be clear, I think the sort of thing you're talking about, Garce, is the appropriate way to consider food morally. Where I don't think morality should enter is in consideration of people's quantity of food consumed or enjoyment thereof.

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