When I arrived home, I did my longest fast yet: a seven-day fruit juice fast. My Mom, ever kind and obliging, bought me a bulk pack of Odwalla smoothies. But I was angry and distant, and when my fast ended, I waited until everyone fell asleep and emptied the pantry with binges. Deeply ashamed, I searched again for escape. I thought if I could control my environment by restricting my access to food, I could control my binges. Escape came in the form of a newspaper I saw on our coffee table, whose headline read, “Fires in Helena, Montana.” Later that day, I absentmindedly picked up an old western from the bookshelf and flipped to any page. The first word I saw was the name, “Helena.”
I went on Craigslist and found a job posting in Helena for lumberjacks. In my confused state, I thought that if I had a hard physical job like that, it would kickstart my body into eating normally. It felt like an answer. I bought a Greyhound bus ticket and told my parents I was going to Helena. They were worried, but I must have made a good case. My Mom loaned me $600 from my grandma’s social security and my Dad drove me to the bus station.
My first weeks in Helena, my access to food was mostly restricted, so the binges softened. I applied in person for the lumberjack job but was told that operating the heavy timber saws would be dangerous for someone so skinny. I slept on the floor of a friendly veteran’s government-provided apartment, and ran out when his German roommate pulled out a butcher knife and started swearing at the TV. I rented a room in a military man’s house and got a job as a telemarketer for a pro-life foundation. The binges began to return, bit by bit.
After two weeks, I lost the telemarketing job because I was too nice. I got another job mixing bread dough at the Sweetgrass Bakery and moved into the Iron Front Hotel across the street. It was getting cold, and the thin, scratchy blanket on my bed seemed to be cut from an old theater curtain. During my days off from the bakery I would binge, either on pastries from the bakery or boxes of Special K berries.
I wasn’t reading Gandhi anymore, but my disordered eating had taken on a life of its own. I still didn’t know what was happening to me, or how to stop it. I was still deeply ashamed and afraid of my uncontrollable eating, and of the long, painful hours after a binge when I waited to feel hungry again.
In October, my parents paid for me to fly to Kentucky over a long weekend to attend my cousin’s wedding. I vowed that I would keep careful watch over what I ate. But although I was in the company of my family, I felt distant and lonely, and my discipline waned.
My binge began late in the reception, while everyone was dancing and I sat alone at my table with several slices of cake. It continued with candied almonds in the hotel room. It stopped for a time at midnight when I failed to make myself throw up in the hotel stairwell, and resumed the next morning when I took several platefuls of pancakes and bacon from the breakfast buffet. My aunt remarked on how much I could eat, which put a humiliating cap on my longest, saddest binge ever.
It wasn’t until the next day’s brunch, a full day later, that I felt hungry again. I ate half of a French dip sandwich with my family and the other half on the plane. I remember the feeling after I ate the second half, like the satiety switch in my brain had finally been turned on. I felt pleasantly full and had no wish to keep eating, a sensation I’d forgotten was possible. Mysteriously and without effort, my binges stopped.
Back in Helena, my reasonable eating continued. I ate, got full, and stopped, like a normal person. I did not eat loads of food in secret. I did not eat one enormous meal every couple days. I wondered if my luck would hold, and it did.
But the threat of uncontrollable eating, and of the shame that came with it, made me hyperconscious of how much I ate. I worried that even getting slightly stuffed might kick off a binge. Over the next six weeks, my aversion to even the slightest sign of fullness snowballed until all it took was half an apple or a handful of trail mix a day to satisfy me. But I felt pretty good: I wasn’t bingeing, so I was proud of myself. I wasn’t ashamed, and that was all that mattered.
My first sign of trouble was when I got cold. The weather in Montana was dropping to zero and below, and it made my bones hurt. Once or twice, I got worried that I wouldn’t make it home, that the intensity of the cold would somehow break my body. But I recovered every night under a hot shower at the Iron Front, sitting on the drain with my head on my knees.
Another sign came one morning when I saw my shirtless torso in the mirror next to my bed. I looked at myself with curiosity. My skin stretched so taut across my ribs that I looked skeletal, and my arms were muscleless sticks. It didn’t worry me, but I knew something wasn’t right. It couldn’t be good to look this thin.
Reprising my lumberjack plan, I decided that the problem was my lack of exercise. If I exercised hard, my body would naturally crave food, and it would be easier to eat more without feeling like I’d binged. So I signed up for a day-long Boot Camp at the local gym. It was a lot of lifting and running and jumping. At one point, a trainer climbed on my back and told me to run up the stairs. I have no idea how I managed to do that.
But the exercising didn’t work. I still couldn’t eat more than a handful of food without feeling a painful stretching in my stomach and an ugly, sinking shame.
On my next day off from the bakery, I went to the library to find books about what was happening to me. It was a revelation when I discovered that I had all the symptoms of an eating disorder. I called the local college, which had an eating disorder support group. It was only open to students, but the group leader gave me the phone number for an in-patient eating disorder recovery program in Minneapolis called the Renfrew Center.
On a pay phone in the Iron Front Hotel, I called the Renfrew Center and spoke to a nurse named Deb. When I told her my symptoms, she told me about a six-month study on starvation done with conscientious objectors during World War II. No matter how diverse their personalities before the study, when their caloric intake was halved, they all became the same obsessive, irritable, always-cold, food-obsessed person. I recognized myself. Maybe I didn’t have some mysterious eating disorder after all—I was just starving! What a strange relief, to find that out. But still, I didn’t know how to proceed. I couldn’t just eat, because eating made me feel awful and ashamed.
So Deb laid out my options. I could come to the Center, but it wasn’t cheap and it was in Minneapolis. Or I could try to recover on my own, by finding a normal diet plan and forcing myself to eat it. She told me it would feel horrible, and that that was okay. And if it didn’t work, I could come to the Center. She wished me luck and told me to call again and tell her how it went.
I felt empowered by our conversation, and decided I’d try to beat this on my own.
(To be continued…)