To cure myself of anorexia, I needed a diet plan, one that was clear and structured and that I could convince myself was a normal human diet. That was important, because I knew that as soon as I started eating more, my mind would tell me I’d binged and I’d feel horrible about myself. So I had to find a diet that definitely couldn’t count as a binge.
At a bookstore in Helena, I found a copy of Body-for-Life by Bill Phillips. Although it was designed for weight loss, the diet it laid out seemed like a mountain of food to me; I was eating was far less than even one of the six meals it prescribed each day. But I reasoned that because it was a diet made for people to lose weight, it couldn’t possibly be too much food for me, as thin as I was.
The Body-for-Life plan works like this: for six days a week you eat six small meals a day. Each meal comprises a protein portion, a carbohydrate portion, and sometimes a vegetable portion, and each portion is roughly the size of your fist. On the seventh day, Sunday, you can eat whatever you want. There’s also a daily running and weight-lifting component, which I decided was mandatory, because if I just ate all that food without burning it off with exercise, my mind could have easily convinced me that I was bingeing.
I bought a binder and filled it with hand-drawn charts of my meal plans and workout plans. I went shopping for food: dry goods only, because I didn’t have a fridge. And I began what turned into two years of recovery.
I started slow, with three meals a day instead of six for the first week. Two meals in on the first day, I wanted to stop. I was stuffed. But I remembered that Deb had said it would feel horrible, and that that was okay, and I forced myself to continue. Between meals, I curled up in my bed, nursed my swollen stomach, and wrote down anything I could think to reassure myself that I was not eating too much.
Right away, refeeding caused a dramatic shift in my energy level. While starving, I had loads of energy: I joined a Boot Camp at the gym; I founded something called the “Helena Writers’ Underground” and lured 20 people to the first meeting; I tutored a fat boy in math; I wrote manic stories on an electric typewriter and read dozens of books. But when I began forcing myself to eat again, my energy withdrew. I sold all my books (except Body-for-Life), abandoned the writers’ group and the tutoring, and stopped writing. All I did outside of working at the bakery was to lie under my torn theater curtain and eat when my plan said to.
After two weeks of misery, my appetite came back. Eating six meals a day started not to feel so bad. I was happy about it, until my binges also came back. They were still scary and painful, but because they only happened on my free days, they were sanctioned by Body-for-Life, which said you could eat “absolutely whatever you wanted” on your free days. In other words, even if I binged, it was still part of the plan. So the shame was less.
Even so, Sundays were hard. I planned my free-day meals according to my cravings and looked forward to them all week long: sourdough bacon cheeseburgers, chocolate chip pancakes, extra large veggie pizzas. When I fell asleep on Saturday night, I anticipated the next day like Christmas. When it came, my plans usually turned into unplanned binges.
One memorable meal involved a call the week before to Jack-in-the-Box, inquiring about their heaviest-calorie burger (the double sourdough bacon cheeseburger). When Sunday came, I got the burger to go, and added a large fries, a pint of egg nog, and six ice cream sandwiches. I brought it home, ate in front of the TV, and then took refuge under a hot shower.
In addition to bingeing, I became deeply concerned about my portion sizes on the Body-for-Life plan. I threw out and then replaced fractions of spaghetti noodles until I was convinced that my pasta was fist-sized. I obsessed about whether adding fruit to a meal replacement shake was breaking the rules. I spent half hours in the grocery store comparing potatoes to my clenched hands. It was crazy. But it did give me a sense of safety: that if I could just follow exactly this set of rules, I would be okay.
Thanksgiving week, my parents came up to visit. They were charmed by my Montana life: the sweet old bakers I worked with, the quaint house I was by then renting a room in, the awesome ruggedness of the surrounding country. I spoiled their reverie when I served them fist-sized rolls and turkey on Thanksgiving, along with a greeting card explaining that I had anorexia and binge-eating disorder.
They were worried, but I assured them that I was recovering and would be healed at the end of the three-month Body-for-Life program. Unconvinced, they went back to San Diego and read everything they could about eating disorders.
But despite my obsessiveness, I was feeling confident, fortified by the structure and promises of the plan, until one especially difficult Sunday.
I went to the grocery store for my morning free-day meal: a turkey sandwich on sourdough with sprouts, tomato, and avocado, a pint of carrot juice, and a brownie. It was a meal I used to love eating in college, and I wanted to relive it. The sandwich was delicious, but when I microwaved the brownie, it turned black and acrid. I ate it anyway and burned my mouth, which set me on an angry binge. I roamed the aisles until I found the bulk section, pulled the lever on the malted milk balls, and ate them by the handful, until a clerk at the end of the aisle shouted at me and I ran out of the store.
The shame of being yelled at ate at me all day. That night it snowed heavily, and when I felt hungry again, I ordered a large veggie pizza from Domino’s and ate it in the snow. Then I went to sweep and mop the bakery (in addition to mixing dough, I was the bakery’s janitor).
After mopping, I called my Mom on the bakery’s phone. I broke down as I told her what had happened at the supermarket, crying loudly and sobbing apologies. My Mom reassured me I was a “perfect child of God,” but my parents were freaked.
A few days later, they called me and told me to come home. They’d found a three-month eating disorder recovery program in San Diego, and they thought I should do it.
I knew I needed help. So I stayed through Christmas, said goodbye to the Sweetgrass Bakery, to a kind trainer I met at the gym, and to my writer’s group, and then returned the way I’d come, on a Greyhound bus.
(To be continued)