In my mid-twenties, I had a spectacular case of food poisoning. I was coming home late from work one night and picked up a salad at Wendy’s for dinner. In the midst of an otherwise delicious meal, I bit into an absolutely foul cherry tomato. I spent the next ten minutes spitting and rinsing my mouth of the rancid juice, with a glimmer of a thought about how I might get sick.
The next day was a nightmare. By 10 am, I was curled into the fetal position on the bathroom floor at work, crying, and vomiting nonstop. It continued into the next morning, when I was finally able to stomach some crackers without getting violently ill. I can’t remember another time I was quite so sick—and both my body and my brain decided to remember it too.
From that episode of food poisoning emerged a vast and severe anxiety of being sick after I eat. In my efforts to avoid it, I’ve become paranoid about every piece of food I see. I examine berries one by one to make sure they aren’t soft or dented. If they are, they’re thrown away. Bananas with brown spots will rot on the shelf because I’m afraid to eat them. If something tastes weird from a new ingredient, I instantly assume something in the dish was spoiled and I’m going to be sick.
I sometimes even trick myself into feeling ill the next day. I even count the hours between when I ate and when I feel like I’ll be alright—because I know it was 15 hours between that tomato and that illness. So if I make it past those 15, I should be good to go. I refuse to eat leftovers older than 48 hours. I’ve become so obsessed that it’s even cost me jobs. Once, I called in sick so often—because I thought I was about to be ill from food—that my employers decided I had a condition and let me go.
I didn’t realize it was an issue. I thought I was just doing right by myself, aiming to stay on the good side of healthy consumption. My husband was the first to help me realize I might have an actual problem. We got closer when we started living together, and in his continual efforts to support me, he pointed out a few things: I’ve been throwing a lot away. I’m convinced I’m sick after every meal. I’m irrationally controlling over when leftovers get eaten.
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Before this, I never thought about it much. I assumed it was normal behavior—the type I’d seen growing up with a dad who is often paranoid about food safety. It’s never been uncommon to hear, “Put that away or it’ll grow bacteria!” after just an hour of food being on the counter.
“There is a clear correlation of increased diagnoses of anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders in children if a parent is showing symptoms,” says Edie Stark, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in treating eating disorders. “The environment we grow up [in?] absolutely has an effect on how we cope.”
This is not to say my dad caused the problem—even if I had a bit of a head start from childhood. Things didn’t escalate to their current level until I’d moved out on my own, and they exploded into a full-blown phobia after that bout with the rotten cherry tomato.
Six months ago, I began therapy for my food issues, and I have an official diagnosis: control-based anxiety and borderline OCD specific to food quality. And I’m now working on how to navigate this. I’ve since learned that OCD tendencies can be inherited through genetics, which my own therapist says is likely the case with me, compounded by a few bad experiences that interacted with my anxiety about being unable to control when exactly food will spoil. We’re working on retraining my brain to be concerned at a rational level rather than assuming anything and everything is spoiled and will turn my life into the bathroom scene from Bridesmaids.
In one way, that means eating food that looks a bit off to me by consuming it in a different way, like throwing soft blueberries into a smoothie instead of discarding them. It also means pushing my personal boundaries of how long leftovers can last—I’m slowly moving from two days maximum to up to five days. And if I feel nauseous after eating, I need to sit and think about the actual reason I’m feeling sick instead of pinning it on food poisoning right away. Maybe I ate too much? Maybe the combination of foods just didn’t go well together? Maybe I didn’t eat enough? It’s a lot of introspection and a healthy dose of going outside my comfort zone, and it appears to be working so far. It’s also an anxiety-producing nightmare; I have to force myself to do these things because my body physically tries to resist. But last week I ate something turned a funny orange color by an unusual spice, and I was totally fine. Before, I wouldn’t have eaten at all.“The treatment is exposure plus response prevention,” says Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a clinical assistant professor focusing on eating disorders in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who agrees with my therapist’s course of action. She teaches relaxation and coping and then creates “a hierarchy of feared situations” that typically involve stopping compulsive behaviors to reduce your fears.
“So if you have to wash your hands and your utensils before eating and have to eat off of a certain plate with only meals that came from McDonalds, we would start by stopping you from washing your hands right before eating,” she says. “Maybe we’d start with you washing them three minutes before eating. Or five. Or ten. Once fears subside, we’d move up the hierarchy to something else scary.” She adds that while it may sound terrifying, and it is anxiety provoking, it’s controlled to prevent anxiety from spiraling out of control. “We’d never actually poison you...and you should be afraid of people who would be willing to poison you. The goal is to relegate the fear to normal proportions.”
But even though I know my diagnosis now, and I’m undergoing treatment, the guilt I feel at the hands of this problem is nearly insurmountable. So many people in the world are starving and here I am, throwing out an ugly strawberry because I feel like it looked at me wrong. It’s the definition of privilege. I spend more than I should on groceries because it’s okay for me to just toss away something with a dent. Every ounce of me is screaming, “JUST EAT IT. People are broke. People are hungry. You aren’t. What’s your problem?!” But my brain tells me to throw everything out. It makes me so angry with myself.
Fitzpatrick notes that even though I’m feeling this guilt, it’s important to remind myself that a mental illness is causing my suffering—it’s not me being fussy or spoiled. “This isn’t simply, ‘Oooh, that looks like a wonky mushroom, I’ll push it to the side,’” she says, “or ‘I’ll throw out the milk since it smells a little off,’ but is really like a five alarm fire going off under what are really everyday, necessary situations.”
I do try to mitigate the guilt and self-hate in a few different ways. It starts at home; if I know my husband or someone in my family will eat whatever I don’t want, I pass it on to them. With my husband and brothers, it’s easiest. I just tell them I won’t eat something and to take it if they want it. With my parents, it’s a bit more complicated. I haven’t figured out why it’s harder for me to share my diagnosis or stress with them. But it seems like our homes are a never-ending revolving door of Tupperware. I bring food over and quietly leave it in their fridge in hopes that someone will eat it. If they do, I get the washed container back the next time I’m there. Nothing said when I drop it off, nothing asked when I get the Tupperware back.
Outside my family, I try to compensate for my problems with food-focused charity work. If I’m checking out at a store and am prompted to donate a buck or two to starving children (or even pets), I always say yes. I feel like it’s the least I can do, since in my mind, I’m part of the problem.
But, inevitably, I’m always left with the same inner conflict. I’m helping these charities out of a feeling of both disgust for myself and an attempt to make myself feel better. Does it still count as altruistic if it’s self-serving? And that brings on the guilt all over again.
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