Eating Gives Me Anxiety and Not Eating Gives Me Anxiety
Lately, I feel that the way I've lived for years—in hyperconscious, hypervigilant awareness of everything I put in my mouth—no longer serves to quell my depression and anxiety. It actually exacerbates it.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Which came first, the anxiety and depression or the food issues? The truth is, I'm not sure. As far back as I can remember, my depression and anxiety have always danced with eating disorders, and each have taken turns leading.
At fourteen, on a beach vacation with my family, I didn't know that what I felt was depression. Adolescence sucked, and it sucked worse surrounded by beautiful teen girls, their tiny bikini bodies a totally different species from my chunky carcass. I wanted to cut the flesh out of me: calves, thighs, and belly. But more than anything I wanted to cut the me out of me. I decided then that I deserved to starve, but an hour later, I found myself midway through a football-size baguette sandwich: ham, turkey, brie, and, somehow, also butter. As though eating in a blackout, I didn't know how the sandwich happened, only that as it went down I took leave of my hideous body and entered a state of euphoria.
But when the sandwich ended, I was spat back out into reality, and reality meant that the food that had once comforted me now propelled me into a state of self-hatred. I felt like I was dissolving, disintegrating—that I was nothing. And unlike the transcendent nothingness I entered when I disappeared into the sandwich, this form of vanishing was full of shame.
For years I'd been using food to control my depression. I took refuge in regimens of toasted burritos, Twizzlers, bagels with melted cheese, General Tso's chicken and lo mein, pizza, subs slathered in mayonnaise, brownies, soft-batch chocolate chip cookies. But now the shame of consumption eclipsed its palliative pleasure. I began to see food as a cause of my anxieties rather than a cure. Now it seemed like a more effective way to control those feelings was to limit my food intake, rather than indulge.
In my later teens, I used extreme dieting as an attempt to medicate my anxiety. What better place to put free-floating fear of the infinite unknown but into the tangible math of counting calories. It was a gradual subtraction, wherein I continually cut calories each week. I developed strange behaviors like stealing food and throwing turkey slices out of car windows when they exceeded my allotted portion. When the calories started counting me, I was no longer dieting. I was anorexic.
For the next few years, I danced between restricting and bingeing. I "healed" both my anorexia and anxiety with alcohol and weed. One of the first times I ever got really drunk, I binged at a midnight pancake buffet and told everyone that I was Jim Morrison. I frequently hit up the university vending machines. Later, I could be found sprawled in the hallway with empty bags of Cheetos, Doritos, and Milky Way wrappers strewn around me like flowers. I felt really free! Then I went through a breakup, entered a depression, and the binges got deeper and darker. I lost myself in an abyss of fake cheese, one-pound bags of gummies and chocolates, and laxatives. A few people asked if I was pregnant. Something had to be done.
So I "healed" my weight gain and depression with copious MDMA, as well as speed that I procured in the form of diet pills. I looked fucking hot. Unfortunately, I was an addict.
When I got sober 11 years ago, my food habits seemed to level out for a while. But old habits die hard, and I find myself today—in 2016—struggling once again with food restriction. I would say that my eating is disordered, but I don't have an "eating disorder" (though those close to me might disagree). Sure, my food is still fucked up, but I'm not anorexic. I get my period. I no longer grow fur on my arms to stay warm.
I've been pretty unapologetic about my disordered eating. My feeling has been that it's not killing me and it's not for others to decide. My odd food rituals—the pint of Arctic Zero diet ice cream mixed with five packets of Splenda that I eat every night—are mine. No one can touch them. In times of depression, they've given me something sweet to look forward to at the end of the day. In the throes of anxiety, they seemed to tether me to the planet and make me feel safe. As I wrote in the essay I Want To Be a Whole Person But Really Thin, disordered eating seems to work for me—or, perhaps, it has not yet caused me enough pain to want to give it up.
But lately, I feel that the way I've lived for years—in hyperconscious, hypervigilant awareness of everything I put in my mouth—no longer serves to quell my depression and anxiety. It actually exacerbates it. I've begun to notice that when I restrict my food intake and postpone meals, my blood sugar drops and primes me for a panic attack. I doubt that I would feel so lethargic—one symptom of my depression—if I were better nourished. It's as though my coping mechanisms have come into conflict with the exact states of being they once soothed.
Recently I was walking alone in Big Sur on the narrow road of Highway 1. I chose to walk roadside, rather than hike up into the mountains, because I wanted to time myself on a flat road. I needed to know I had walked for exactly 87 minutes—the amount of time remaining in my self-required exercise per week, so that I could tell myself I wouldn't gain weight. The walk was dangerous, but emotionally I felt safer this way.
Nature poured off every point of the highway: massive emerald-green cliffs and the turquoise ocean below, the yellow California poppies, craggy pines, cattails moving in perfect rhythm. I sort of felt one with nature. But I also sort of felt like my chest was strapped in with a leather belt.
"Why do I always have trouble breathing?" I asked aloud. "Is it from lack of nourishment?"
The wind stopped for a moment. The mountains were silent. If there was a spirit of nature, it knew that I knew: I am the cause of my own suffering. And I am suffering over food more than is necessary.
I don't know what my next move is going to be. How much suffering is enough suffering? Will I continue to just do nothing? I wish I had more willingness. I wish that I could say, for all those who suffer from their own food issues, that I have found the way out—the forever cure—and this is it. The question of how to live is not easy. Often the answers we come up with are conflicting, or we cling to that which hurts us, because it's scary to imagine letting go. Maybe tomorrow I will begin to make peace with food, my body, and the spirit of nature itself. I can't say that I am there yet.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association.