This guest post was written by a friend of mine from my undergraduate days. Due to the sensitive and personal nature of the story, the author has requested to remain anonymous, which I respect and I hope you will too. I have known this person for seven or eight years now, and this story still came as a surprise to me. However, I think it’s important to bring such issues to light – to some extent everyone knows what it’s like to have one’s diet reflect one’s mood. For some the experience is more extreme, even more dangerous, than it is for others. For some it’s nervously munching on pretzels while writing a paper or forgetting to eat during finals. For others it can result in hospitalization or long-term conditions. I think it’s very brave of the author to be willing to post this.
On my first night in rural Virginia, I saw a meth addict at the Harris Teeter. I’d seen enough Breaking Bad to know the telltale signs—the rotting mouth, the scabs, the skin flapping from his skeletal face like sails in the wind.
“Mon semblable, mon frère!” I thought, examining my own face in the mirrored supermarket wall. I looked haggard and desiccated. I didn’t know why I’d come, in an existential sense. Ostensibly to teach seventeen-year-olds to love Shakespeare and Shaw as much as a seventeen-year-old can. That day alone, I’d seen three pairs of truck nuts and a dozen “Choose Life” bumper stickers.
“And so many inbred-looking children,” I wailed to my friend Kenneth. “So many.”
“You sound depressed. Have you eaten?” he asked. “Text me a picture of your food. Then text me a picture of your half-eaten food.”
In fact, I had not eaten in at least 48 hours. This is a problem I’ve had for some time, and for lack of a better term (and a medical degree) I’ve taken to calling it “relapsing-remitting stress-induced anorexia.” It’s fleeting and mild and it’s never caused me any serious health problems. At its worst, in my last year of grad school, it made me trip while walking up the steps to my front porch because I was tired and dizzy. I gashed my shin pretty badly and had to go to the ER for stitches. “Holy moly!” said the intake nurse who weighed me. “You are like just barely on this side of the line.” Then I went home and ate some ravioli.
The last apartment I lived in was a converted Civil War-era house with original floors and probably original plumbing. It was beautiful, but because it had been converted from a single-family home into four autonomous units it had some funky problems. Seven closets, one of them walk-in? Check. (“Girls love closets!” proclaimed my landlord when he showed me the place. Also, “I wish I only had to work nine months of the year!” and, later, when I complained of the smell of cigarette smoke in the building, “Just put a towel under the door.”) Two bathrooms, one with a claw foot tub? Also check. Oven and fridge? Not check. During my first month of teaching, partly out of convenience and partly out of self-loathing, I ate only Cheerios. “Only cardboard-tasting things until you stop sucking!” I screamed at myself, watching my sad eyes in the mirror.
In January, I graduated to Chipotle three times a week. Sometimes, the flirtation with the nineteen-year-old cashier was the only thing that got me through the day. Sometimes, I needed to push my feelings down and cover them with globs of cheese and sour cream.
This is the other side of the coin: stress-induced bingeing. It’s kind of a crapshoot as to which is going to manifest during any particular period of stress. Tomorrow I have to go back to Virginia, so today I ate half a cake. Some of it, I ate with my hands.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” wrote Virginia Woolf. I think dining well means enjoying food for food’s sake, not for the emotional baggage we attach to it. It’s like any addiction; a friend once told me (and I’m sure it’s been repeated many times) that if you need a drink, you probably shouldn’t have one. But using food as an emotional mediator is not uncommon. I’m working on finding ways to avoid doing this. In the meantime, I can be grateful that I am not that meth addict in Harris Teeter, mostly because I need all my teeth. So I can eat.