Atypical Anorexia and My Obsession with Food

Someone who is immersed in the world of food and the restaurant industry could not possibly be starving himself, right?
May 29, 2016, 4:00pm
Photo via Flickr user csb13

Here we go again. I landed my "dream gig," at Le Vin Papillon in Montreal. It's working the front-of-house as a busser, much easier and less stressful than slaving away in the kitchen. I tried that route at Buca and Honest Weight in Toronto, as well as a local farm in Port Perry, Ontario. All proved too much for my jaded mind.

But here I am, in a new city, with a fresh start, a new job—and I'm about to give it all up again. For years I have told myself that I love the restaurant industry. I was trained as a cook and have gotten the opportunity to experience some of the best restaurants in both Toronto and Montreal. I have made many amazing connections throughout both cities, connecting with chefs, local producers, writers, and all the people who make these restaurants come to life. But I'm admitting defeat. I need to leave the hospitality industry for the time being.

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I suffer from atypical anorexia and have been tricking myself into believing that I loved the hospitality aspect of the food industry for years now. What I now am discovering is that it is not hospitality I adore. It's food. I am in a miserable place at the moment. This will now be my third job within a year that I have "fully committed to," only to leave within a month. I have burned so many bridges and let so many people down, but this is the last straw. It needs to end.

What I had thought was general depression and anxiety turned out to be a much more deeply rooted issue. But how could that be? Someone who is immersed in the world of food and the restaurant industry could not possibly be starving himself and walking around as a shackle of bones. This is where the "atypical," diagnosis plays its role. The diagnosis of atypical anorexia is given to individuals who meet all the criteria of anorexia without the significant weight loss; they maintain a "normal" weight based on their age, height, gender, etc.

Atypical anorexia poisons the mind, a fact about the condition that I am still learning to accept. It changes your perception of everything. In my case, these poisoned thoughts accumulated over the years, creating a militaristic monster. I overexercised and did not supplement with more food. It was the opposite—I would work out harder and eat less while my mind muscled through. I followed a strict food regime, and veering away from "my foods" would induce terrible regret and anxiety. I am currently in the process of reversing that mindset and have been feeling the positive effects. I have even had to retrain myself to sit down and relax. This has opened the door for creativity on the page rather than in the kitchen.

Writing about food gives me a euphoric high. Expressing my own ideas and talking with those in the industry about their passion has been my greatest form of therapy. Writing about food allows me to have a lot more control than, say, being a cook or serving. I can express my ideas at my own pace and do not have to fear putting anything in my body that I do not want to.

Imagine being terrified when you walk by the kitchen at Le Vin Papillon and your favourite cook offers you his stunning house-made romesco laid over a grilled leak and served with a fried duck egg. Do I want to eat that? What else have I eaten today? Is there any gluten in it? Does he add any sugar? These are all thoughts that race through my mind. Now, with the progress I have made through treatment at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, I am able to eat that romesco. But at 2 AM, when I am absolutely drained and hungry, I cannot fathom putting a staff meal of ricotta tart, radish green biscuit, egg, sauce, and cheese ("poutine Le Vin Pap," as it was coined) in my mouth. Just looking at this epic staff meal creates a terrifying internal conflict. I go home and eat vegan protein powder instead. (I'm not vegan.)

The anxiety and depression has also led to my motor skills becoming impaired. Any basic movement comes with a conscious thought. Simply putting one foot in front of the other does not come naturally. A fork that a customer accidentally drops becomes ten times more stressful than it should be, because I know I have to get my body over there to scoop it up. The tricks my mind plays on me are cruel and just so unusual.

Which leads me to where I stand (crookedly, I think) right now. I am ready to make a very difficult and stressful choice. I need to leave the hospitality industry for now; I cannot have a job focused on making others happy while I am not. It should have been done a long time ago. I had used the crutch of overeating to get me through Buca until I was let go due to slow business. I crumbled fast at Honest Weight and the farm. I am now also flaming out early at Le Vin Papillon. I need to step back and focus on what it is I can do for now, and that is express my passion in written word. Food will always be an obsession of mine and this strange relationship will continue, but it will not be on the front lines of the hospitality industry.