Life After An Eating Disorder: No, You Can't Have A Bite!
"Ooh, that looks good! Can I have a few bites?" These words sparked the one and only time in my marriage I nearly punched my husband out. I wish I were exaggerating but it was in the depths of my eating disorder and I'd spent all day being "good" and counting every calorie and this dish was my reward. I'd portioned it perfectly and already entered the numbers into my (insane) food tracking spreadsheet. I'd been looking forward to eating it all day.
(True story: when you're starving, all you think about is food. I was obsessed with cooking shows, recipe websites, cookbooks and magazines, always planning the gourmet meal I was going to eat when I was finally "good enough.")
And of course I was so so hungry.
Photo by Memories Keepers. (Flickr)
So when he leaned over and casually took a few bites, I went atomic. Realizing that I couldn't articulate all the crazy thoughts in my head without sounding, well, crazy, I burst into tears and stomped into the other room yelling at him that he might as well just eat the whole thing now. As I sobbed in a corner, all I could think was "How could my beloved husband steal food right out of my starving mouth? Couldn't he see how much this food meant to me right now? Especially since he could eat as much of anything in the whole house that he wanted and all I had was this. And now this was two bites less. How was I supposed to calculate the calories now? And if can't count it then I can't eat it." I went to bed hungry. And furious.
I also wish I could say this was the only time I got territorial about my food but this weird instinct has been one of the harder aspects of my disordered eating to kick. It's only been in the last year or so that I haven't felt that hot flush of anger and fear whenever anyone tried to eat my food or offered to split a dish with me at a restaurant. This was especially tricky since kids are notorious food sharers.
One of Jelly Bean's favorite pastimes to this day is running over whenever she sees me chewing and prying open my jaws to get a good look at whatever I'm masticating. If she's interested she'll even try and take some. (A practice I discourage -- I'm not Alicia Silverstone.) I can remember more than one occasion where giving my kids half my granola bar felt like a bigger sacrifice than donating a kidney to them. I was not a good sharer.
So when a reader e-mailed me about her "weird" food issue, my first response was to write her back and say "No, you're not weird! You're not alone in this!" and then to sigh and smile to myself No, you're not weird! You're not alone in this!
She writes, "I have a problem sharing food which I'm pretty sure is down to my [eating disordered] past. I think it's the concept of having a "whole" meal. A combination of the anorexia's wanting to be able to keep track of how much and a touch of OCD. Even though sharing means less food, I still have trouble when a friend or family member asks for "just a bite." I can't afford to talk to anyone about it and usually I either grudgingly give whoever it is the smallest amount possible while still being polite, or say something along the lines of 'it's really spicy.' I feel guilty about it, but my overwhelming desire to have a "whole" meal is too strong. Do you have any thoughts?"
Yes, yes, I do. My first thought is to tell you that this too will pass. Like I said earlier, this was one of the last "voices" to go for me but just the other day I was eating a piece of (excellent) cake at a party and when Jelly Bean climbed up on my lap and demanded to "waste wookie" (taste cookie -- her word for dessert) I let her finish my piece. And then I got up and got myself another one. No angst at all. It can be done and you will get there! So here are my un-expert tips about getting from there to here:
Protect your food
It sounds counterintuitve but to convince my mind that I was really going to let it eat now, until my body was satiated, I had to let it know that I was going to protect its food. For a while I did actually just tell people no. I didn't give them excuses or explain it -- I just said "I'm sorry, no" and moved my plate away. It sounds mean but the ED destroyed any trust your brain had in your body. For years it would send you hunger signals only to be ignored. You are now working on rebuilding that trust.
Allow yourself to eat what you want
This is what Intuitive Eating taught me. If you know that you can eat exactly what you want when you need it then the scarcity issue disappears. This isn't your "last meal" because you will give your body delicious food when it needs it. This is scary at first. Really scary. And I recommend Geneen Roth's books to help you understand and get through this part. (Note: this is not binge eating. It's the opposite of binge eating -- it's being very conscious of what you're eating, why you're eating it, how it tastes, how it feels etc.)
Practice sharing food you don't care about
Again, sounds nuts I know, but it totally helped me. I'd pick a food that I didn't have any emotional attachment to and then offer bites to people. Sometimes I'd reserve a serving for myself back in the kitchen or my car so that I knew there would be some for me if I wanted it too.
Don't deprive yourself
The second you start putting food rules back on what you "can" and "can't" eat or labeling foods "good" or "bad" then the sharing issues come back in full force. I was able to share my cake with Jelly Bean because I already was assured that if I wanted more cake I could have it.
Part of my problem was that my body was truly starving and when you're that hungry of course you're going to get upset when someone takes your food! But even now that I'm not starving anymore, sometimes getting overly hungry can trigger that same response. It's about finding that sweet spot where you can feel your hunger (it's just as bad to never feel hungry as it is to always feel hungry) and yet are not overcome by it.
It's okay to not like sharing your food
Whether it's the germ factor or some other reason, some people just don't like sharing food. And that's all right! There's a difference between being ruled by your ED and hoarding your food and being in tune with yourself and realizing that you just don't like sharing food. If you've tried the five previous things and it still makes you uncomfortable then don't share food. I recommend coming up with a humorous answer rather than slapping people's hands away, though. Something like "Whoops, I already licked the whole thing" or "I failed preschool, I can't share"?
Anyone else get territorial about their food? How do you feel about taking "just a bite" of someone's food? What's your advice for this reader?
Charlotte Hilton Andersen writes at The Great Fitness Experiment, where this post first appeared. If you enjoyed it, please check out her book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of her crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!