The sound of my beating heart continued to thump in my ears as I climbed the steps of a shiny gray building on Monkland Avenue, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce’s most gentrified main vessel. The neighborhood still managed to retain certain bones bearing old-world charm, making the group therapy appointment Marjorie suggested feel a lot less threatening.
It was a street I frequented almost every day, so while the Febreze-scented building felt familiar, I was about to come face-to-face with yet another set of strangers. Strangers I couldn’t hide from behind a keyboard and a screen name. Strangers who would see in plain sight that I’m a fraud, and that I don’t have a real eating disorder because I don’t look like Mary-Kate Olsen circa 2004.
“Welcome to the group,” said Hadassah with a sweet, closed-mouth smile. She was far less distant than previous therapists I had. I almost wanted to ask her how her weekend was, what she did with her family, or what her plans were for the Jewish holidays. Unlike Hadassah, Marjorie would never entertain that kind of line of questioning. As part of my outpatient “team,” the plan was for both Marjorie and Hadassah to share information about my progress—or lack thereof. So I abstained from getting too friendly because I didn’t want to give Hadassah any reason to tell Marjorie that I’m a lonely freak who tries too hard to befriend therapists.
It was nearly impossible to abstain from comparing myself to the other women in the group. I couldn’t stop thinking, not about where I was in my own progress, but how I stacked up to them. On the one hand, I wanted to be the one closest to recovery because I’d be that much closer to feeling what it’s like to eat a sandwich without politicizing it; On the other, I wanted to be the sickest one in the room to prove I had a right to be there.
Food stole my focus on family vacations.
“You have to wish me luck, guys,” I said to my eating disorder group one evening in early December 2019. I was days away from my yearly trip with my family. This time it would be a week at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, my ninety-one-year-old bubby included. My mom wanted to include her in our plans in the off—but very real—chance this would be our last opportunity for us to be the five of us together in one place—like time had stopped in 1994 when my best friend of a baby sister was born, and we had a whole lifetime’s worth of memories to make. One of these memories just happened to be a trip to a popular spring break destination. I love an open bar as much as the next guy, but if it meant gaining weight, I would have rather stayed home with my cats.
“What’s your game plan?” my dad nudged me as we lugged our tired bodies into the Italian buffet an hour after landing in Cancún. A nice Russian family lit the Chanukah candles at a table behind us, so I felt at home already. The familiarity of it all made the food seem less scary than if they were to have not been there.
“I’ll probably just have the salad bar so that way I’m too full to order off the menu,” I said. I knew exactly what he meant by ‘game plan.’
As a food and nutrition writer for health publication (oh, the irony), I know the brighter the produce, the more antioxidants it tends to contain. But I also know that my dad lost 20 pounds that year by eating a diet of mainly fruits, vegetables, ancient grains, and plant-based proteins—and weight loss is far more immediate, tangible, and sexy of a benefit I can enjoy than, say, reducing my risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammation.
I piled my plate with so many vivid colors you wouldn’t even need to drop acid to trip out looking at the bounty. My eyes shifted back and forth toward my dad’s plate to see if our meals looked similar. If they did, surely I was doing something right.
How my ED kept its grip on me.
I chewed on my salad, telling myself lies like, It’ll help prevent traveler’s constipation! It’ll boost my energy so I feel like making it to morning Aqua Fitness! But none of those things happened. Instead, I went for seconds, grabbed a calzone from the buffet (I use the term “salad bar” loosely here), and shoveled it into my mouth before I could talk myself out of it. It was gone in two bites.
“We’re here to support you,” my mom said, placing a hand on mine at the table. She could sense the distress in my puppy dog eyes, the worry and guilt. “All from a slice of calzone?” she half said-half asked. But to me it was so much more than a calzone. The calzone represented my weakness, my inability to do the right thing like my well-to-do accountant father who lights up a room like the shamash on a Chanukiah.
“Tell us how you want us to support you,” she continued after my strained silence. The ‘us’ was the Royal We, which included my sister Michelle, my bubby, and oddly, my father. I told her I couldn’t tell her how I wanted them to support me: that would be like asking someone to throw you a surprise party complete with your preferred color theme and playlist, instead of having them figure out what you like themselves. I wanted the support to feel genuine and authentic, as raw as her maternal instinct would allow.
There had to be a sort of clinical response to her question. Half-committed to my treatment, the only support I really wanted was the kind that would tell me the calzone wasn’t so bad after all because I did three hours of spinning the day before. It didn’t matter what the support looked like—maybe just knowing support was available to me was enough.