I’ve come to think of my books, confined to plastic bins in a storage unit, as prisoners whom on rare occasions I’m able to free after petitioning the state. Re-united with some of their other brothers and sisters in freedom they still inhabit a cramped space, but with a greater ability to breathe. Yesterday I was able to free a whole cell block of prisoners under the guise of needing all of them for my conference paper (how could I possibly need all 30+ books?).
It’s a mystery to me those people who never return to books they’ve read. Many of these books are intellectual (those may make more sense to revisit) but there are also some pieces of literature. I don’t fully reread books that often but I return to scenes and chapters when I need the guidance of an old friend or simply the pleasure of their company. Or when I feel that an introduction is necessary.
Today, after reading Garance’s post Weight Watcher (about a New York woman who has put her 7 year old daughter on a diet, and in which Garance critiques America’s relationship with food) I need to introduce you to Anne Lamott. Mostly, I need to introduce you to “Hunger” which opened my eyes to my own eating disorder. Which I credit for my budding health, even though I didn’t begin significantly losing weight until years after I’d first read Traveling Mercies (and even though this will always be a struggle for me).
To some extent, all it took was that opening line: “This is the story of how, at the age of thirty-three, I learned to feed myself.” And this conversation with the doctor she went to about her bulimia, Rita.
During one of our sessions, Rita asked me what I’d had for breakfast. “Cereal,” I said.
“And were you hungry when you ate?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, did you experience hunger, and then make breakfast?”
“I don’t really understand what you’re asking,” I said.
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “Why did you have breakfast?”
“Oh! I see,” I said. “I had breakfast because it was breakfast time.”
“But were you hungry?”
I stared at her a moment. “Is this a trick question?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I just want to know how you know it’s time to eat.”
“I know it’s time to eat because it’s mealtime,” I said. “It’s morning, so I eat breakfast, or it’s midday, so I eat lunch. And so on.”
To make a long story ever so slightly shorter, she finally asked me what it felt like when I was hungry, and I could not answer. I asked her to explain what it felt like when she was hungry, and she described a sensation in her stomach of emptiness, an awareness of appetite.
So the next week, my assignment was to notice what it felt like when I was hungry. It was so strange. I was once again the world’s oldest toddler. I walked around peering down as if to look inside my stomach, as if it was one of those old-fashioned front-loading machines with a window through which you could see the soapy water swirling over your clothes. And I paid attention until I was able to isolate this feeling in my stomach, a gritchy kind of emptiness, like a rat was scratching at the door, wanting to be let in.
“Wonderful,” Rita said, and then gave me my next assignment: first, to notice when I was hungry, and then—this blew my mind—to feed myself.
This section blew my mind, because during that conversation Lamott could have been me.
Up to that point I hadn’t really related with the rest of her story. I was never thin as a child and I was never obsessed with my weight. Sure, Christa and I talked about how exciting it would be if I was skinny, how pretty I would be. But then I looked at the preppy, “pretty” girls in my grade, so shallow and self-conscious, and I was unmoved to attempt to join their ranks. I took pride in not caring. Not that I totally didn’t care what I looked like. I liked dressing up, wearing makeup, wearing clothes that at least somewhat expressed my style (though I had a very limited selection to choose from). Still, as long as I was the only one seeing me naked, I was comfortable with my body as it was.
But none of this touches on my relationship with food itself. Much like Lamott, eating was a compulsion I didn’t know how to resist. It wasn’t always bad food. Even as a child I loved fruit and vegetables as much as sweets. We didn’t even have much “junk food” in the house. The problem was not so much what I ate (though, of course, there is a lot to critique about the heavy carbs and heavily processed food of the Midwest) but how much. How often. I was never hungry. I don’t even know if I remember what it felt like.
I didn’t go out and talk to my own shrink after reading that chapter. I didn’t join Weight Watchers. I simply started a dialogue with my body. I took Rita up on her challenge. I also started recording what I was eating, comparing it to the food pyramid (which I’d kind of fallen in love with that same semester in a Health & Wellness class, during which time I had been called into the nurses office to be informed I was overweight. As if I was unaware of this fact).
That summer, after my freshman year of college, as I listened to my body was the first time since seventh grade that the number on the scale dipped below 240lbs for me.
Since I’m just about to reach the 1,000 word tipping point, I’ll end here today. I’ll leave the story of why I gained back that weight (and didn’t begin to lose weight again until my senior year of college) along with what I’ve learned since for another day.
Feature image by Nick Hillier.