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Navigating life in a foodie city when you love and loathe food

Hunger Pangs

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I'm afraid of pasta. I'm afraid of bread. I'm afraid of duck fat fries and charcuterie boards and steaming bowls of pho and loaded nachos and green chile corn pudding. I love food, I love food so much I daydream about all of the above and more. I fantasize about laying in bed, eating bagels and hashbrowns dripping with cheesy onions. I eat all of that food, now, after exhausting mental aerobics: "you've got it, it's OK, I promise." But I didn't used to.

In Charleston, there's a food and drink related event every day of the week. My inbox is flooded with press releases "wine and cheese tasting, new keg tapped, Mediterranean pop-up." I don't have to go to all of these events, or any of them, and I'm so grateful to be invited to a handful. But I also start planning, calculating, the minute I RSVP "attending." The pressure, both real and imagined, to be a person who is able to enjoy themselves, makes me want to lay, face down, screaming into a stack of pillows. I've struggled for years with the shame of not being able to take advantage of my good fortune, "You should be happy, you should be having fun, because the situation could not be better." But, sometimes, the truth is, I'm not having any fun at all.

I think I was 16 when I first realized that my crazy youth-fueled metabolism and visits to McDonald's every day after track practice weren't going to last. I started cutting calories. A couple of granola bars during the day, an apple here and there. A small serving at dinner. Water, so much water. Food was not to be enjoyed — it was to be eaten meticulously, methodically, a sadistic, unsastisfying ritual. When I lost enough weight to forever change how I looked in the mirror, I grabbed at where a stomach would be, smiling joyously at my reflection as my skirts and shorts hung loose. It was my new addiction.

My first semester of college I was nearly catatonic, gripped with fear. The more I ate, even if it was just a sandwich for lunch, the less I became the person I had so carefully constructed. My hair started falling out. I went to the gym twice a day to counteract all of the Natty Light I was chugging. I stared into the full length mirror in my dorm room whenever my roommate was out, poking, prodding. I binged on cereal and lay in bed for hours, too ashamed and "heavy" to even lift my head.

For the next three years, my mind was a bit of a wreck. The worst it got was binging and purging, a dangerous secret I reveled in until I collapsed; I didn't want to feel that way. With the help of therapy and antidepressants and good people, I got to most of my classes and I had best friends and I got good grades. Always, always, though, beneath the general stress of being a kid and having a million papers to write and trying to flirt and function and save money, beneath that was the real demon. The way my stomach ever so slightly touched my jeans or running shorts or leggings ... no matter what was going on outside of myself, that desperate "please be thin, please be thin" never went away.

When I moved to Charleston, I immediately mapped out a running route. I don't run. I hate it. But I had to have a plan in mind, something to hold onto as I navigated my new food destination city. I was a server in a restaurant for two years, busy enough during the day, walking to work and all over the restaurant, that dipping into the chef's leftover fried brussels and mac and cheese felt OK. I stayed up late, drank an ungodly amount, did anything to keep an energetic, frenzied buzz throughout service. I started to collapse again.

I breathed deeper, got a 9 to 5, worked on my decade-long project of quieting the "you're not enough, it's not enough." It's a daily endeavor, and, when your mind is a vast and endlessly noisy chamber, its never a straight line. Focusing fastidiously on what I put into my body was, and is, sometimes the best way to dull the noise.

A few days ago I went to Wild Olive for an anniversary dinner with my boyfriend. He's my opposite: he's all action, while I'm all rumination. He doesn't understand my food phobias, or why I sometimes curl into the fetal position, unsure of myself or my body. But he supports all of it, quietly, steadfastly. I ordered ravioli, he ordered lasagna. We split two bottles of wine and two baskets of bread and bourbon gelato. We went home, I got into my pajamas. I fought the urge to run my hand over my stomach, filled with food I usually don't indulge in. I laid down, counted to 10, breathed slowly, like I've learned to do in yoga. In, one two three four five, out one two three four five, certain, quiet. I reminded myself, as I do daily, multiple times a day, "It's ok to eat what you want."

The next morning, ordering my usual cold brew, I stared with envy at a perfect, chocolate studded scone. I walked quickly out of the shop, my face turning red, my hands twitching. No straight lines. I sat in the driver's seat, AC blasting, reminding myself of the rest of my mantra "there's no shame in your fear, it's OK." I counted to 10, slowly, steadily.

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