Dealing With Disordered Eating

When I turned five, I lost my appetite.

I don’t mean that I lost it after a particularly nauseating meal only to regain it when confronted with a slice of cake. I don’t mean that I carelessly misplaced it behind a bush somewhere, only to find it again five hours later during a fortuitous game of hide and seek. I mean that one day I went to bed after eating my dinner, and the next morning I woke up without any hint of my appetite. It had simply packed up and left in the night. It hadn’t left a note of explanation, or been prompted by anything that I can think of. It was just… gone.

My issue with the lack of appetite first started with my packed lunches; white bread sandwiches with butter and salami bulging hideously from their cling film wrappers. I would pull each sandwich out of my bag as if it were contaminated, examine it from all angles, and then stuff the indecently solid mass between my bellybutton and the waistband of my tartan kilt, or squeeze it past the wristband of my jumper, giving my forearm an offputtingly lumpy appearance. Then, over lunch, as if I were on a covert mission, I would pass by the large bin poised to catch chocolate wrappers and empty crisp packets from screaming children, and I would dump my sandwich into the black plastic abyss. The moment the sandwich disappeared, I would heave a sigh of relief and run off to play under the sprawling chestnut trees.

It escalated.

If I couldn’t reach the bins – which were often too close to the watchful gaze of our teachers – I would fling the offending sandwiches across the school wall*, or bury them at the foot of a tree.

Slowly, my refusal to eat spread to all meals.

At home, dinnertime became a stubborn standoff. My mother insisted I couldn’t leave the table until I was finished eating everything on my plate, and although I was desperate to get away from the kitchen table, this could take literal hours. It would get dark, the food would get cold, and I would still be sitting at the table kicking my toes against the chair legs, staring glumly at the wall as I chewed.

It escalated further.

Soon it wasn’t just sandwiches but entire lunches that were disappearing. Yogurts. Bananas. Chocolate bars. Cartons of juice. My mother, desperate for some control over my eating, told me I had better eat everything she gave me for lunch, and I, just as desperate, grew sloppy with my sandwich elimination schemes.

My teachers, in particular an eagle-eyed woman called Susan, started to suspect something.

One day, she kept me back and questioned me gently – although it felt like an interrogation at the time – as to whether I just didn’t like what I was getting for lunch. I burst into tears. She must have felt completely out of her depth. Carefully peeling the slices of salami off the buttered bread, she stacked them in a neat pile while suggesting that I ask my mother to make me something else for lunch. I nodded dumbly.

“You have to eat something. I’m afraid I can’t let you out to play until you’ve eaten the buttered bread. See? All the salami is gone.”

I’m sure this was said with kindness and concern, but to me it sounded threatening. I stared at the pale slabs of buttered bread, my eyes boring holes into the indented circles in the butter. I looked up at Susan with a sudden surge of hatred. Didn’t she know that it was too late? That the pungent smell of salami would have infiltrated the butter? That the salami might as well still be there? Just the smell of it turned my stomach. I pulled at the crust, rolling the tiny pieces between my fingers, stalling for time. Then I slowly lifted the bread to my lips and took a tiny, mouse-like bite.

Susan sat opposite me for the entire hour and watched as I tried to eat while choking on tears.

That evening I did as Susan had suggested. It went badly. I continued to get salami sandwiches for lunch. Susan continued to keep me in at lunchtime. One day she sat opposite me as I struggled through another miserable sandwich, scraped of all salami slices. She watched me as I chewed with what must have been an expression of pained disgust. Baffled, she asked, “Did you not talk to your mother about the salami sandwiches?” I nodded dumbly. Speechless, she leaned back and said nothing more for the hour that we sat there together.

She quickly became my greatest enemy. Not only did she keep me in during lunchtime and force me to eat my food, but one day, presumably looking for resolution, she did something unforgivable.

She called my mother.

I won’t go into the ramifications of that call except that from then on my eating became more problematic. No meal or food was manageable. I don’t remember ever feeling a single pang of hunger. I remember sitting chewing with my head resting in my hand, elbow on the table, during my fourth hour of dinner, thinking, “I could be happy if I just didn’t have to eat.”

It was as if my body had decided eating was a revolting, useless exercise that we should have nothing to do with, and my every sense rallied behind this effort. My tastebuds enjoyed nothing. The smell of food made me nauseous. The moment food appeared on a plate in front of me, I shut down. The act of eating was unbearable. No food tempted me. I would chew the same tiny bite of food for fifteen minutes or more. I would chew until I had practically ground it down to a molecular level, and even so, swallowing was a challenge. I would have to take a sip from my glass, creating a truly disgusting watery slop that I would only then be able to choke down.

My mother, panicked by this bizarre behaviour in her five year old, tackled it by trying to terrify me into normal eating habits. She did indeed terrify me, but instead of being scared straight, my behaviour turned more desperate. I turned into a feral squirrel of a child, hiding my food anywhere I thought might give me a few days of peace. As I was only five and my critical reasoning skills were yet to develop (some would argue they still haven’t come in), this led to disastrous decisions on my part.

I became obsessed with getting rid of any food put in front of me. I developed an unusual skill set; every time I walked into a room in which I had to eat, I scanned every corner of it, mentally cataloguing any potential hiding places. Ideally I would hide food in my napkin, excuse myself while hiding it in my hand, and flush it down the toilet. This clean and tidy method worked for a while until some small traitorous green bean emerged from its hiding place in the U-bend at an inopportune moment, ratting me out and bringing the full wrath of my mother down on my head.

From then on, it became a matter of survival. My mother escalated her efforts to force me into eating. I escalated my efforts to wiggle out it.

Mealtimes were battlezones. I would cry silently from beginning to end. In tortured whispers I would beg my father to eat food from my plate when my mothers’ back was turned, and he, distressed by my distress, would wolf down large portions of my dinners in an attempt to defuse the situation.

As a general rule, the adults in my life doubled down on their efforts to get me eating normally again. This consisted of constant supervision; I was no longer allowed to use the bathroom during meals. The intense scrutiny limited my options in terms of disposing of my food, and so now chips, steak, pastries, fish would be crammed into vases, under shelving units, behind washing machines. If I wasn’t sitting at a table I was worrying about the next time I would be sitting at a table. My fear and desperation was all-consuming. I never thought about what would happen when it was discovered, because that was in the future, and I couldn’t afford to worry about the future when I felt strangled with fear and anxiety in the present. I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, then the food needed to disappear. It was as simple as that. I would worry about the rest of it at a later date.

Naturally, the “later date” always came sooner than I would have liked. That’s the thing about food; it rots. When it rots, it smells, and when it smells, people go looking for the root cause. It wasn’t a huge leap to consider me the prime suspect in The Mysterious Case of The Custard In The Cupboard, for example, or even The Scandal of The Sandwich in The Saucepan**. Each discovery brought more misery, both to my parents who were disappointed to find I hadn’t consumed whatever it was they had found, and to me personally when I had to deal with the moment of reckoning.

This continued for four years until I was nine years old.

At some point, for some reason, my appetite returned. It strolled back into my life without a hint of shame or compunction. It flung its coat on my caudate, hung its hat on my hippocampus, and cheerfully announced “I’m BACK! What did I miss?”

I remember even less about this than I remember going off food in the first place.

Happily, my appetite has been robust ever since. To this day I don’t know what provoked what was a long and arduous phase for me and everybody around me. It wasn’t triggered by any single event, it didn’t involve any thoughts about body image… it was just a strange switch in my brain suddenly flicked to ‘OFF’ without warning.

And then, eventually, with just as little fanfare flicked back to ‘ON’.

Years later, parents of friends still recount stories of my sitting with a single plate of food for hours on end, amused and confused by what they think of as childhood feeding foibles. I laugh at all the appropriate moments but inside I squirm uncomfortably, wondering if I ever hid food under their sofa or behind their curtain or between books on the bookshelf.

I make a concerted effort now to listen to my appetite; I satisfy cravings without hesitation. I bake and cook and lick the spoon.

I want my appetite to feel fully appreciated so that it never walks out on me again.

 

*The people who lived next door must have been absolutely baffled by the sudden spray of sandwiches dotting their front garden.

**Seven years later I was still finding mummified slivers of steak in old hiding places.

At Home on Sandymount Strand

 

 

 

 

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I grew up next to the sea, near Sandymount Strand.

Sandymount Strand is a strip of coastline which used to just consist of a tarmac path and jagged  boulders leading down to the beach. A few years ago someone official got serious notions and put in streetlamps for the dog walkers and exercise machines for those who 1.) use the strand as a running track and 2.) have no shame*, which has actually improved the area quite a bit. When the tide comes all the way in, the sand disappears entirely, and the water crashes up against the rocks, flooding the gaps and trapping sea-borne debris. When the tide goes out, the sea is almost in line with the horizon; it retreats so far out that the beach looks like a desert.

It’s a very recognisable stretch of coastline, largely due to the 680ft Poolbeg chimney stacks** on the left, which rise up from behind the Dublin Bay Nature Reserve. Their jaunty red and white rings make them look like they were painted by a rabid Where’s Wally? fanatic, and I’m glad that they’re now protected structures because the skyline wouldn’t be the same without them.

The strand features in ‘Ulysses,’ if you’re ever brave enough to read it, and it’s a nice place to stare out at the edge of the world for a while and gather your thoughts. Although I’ve never been one of those people who pound the sand in brightly-coloured running shoes and would have to be dragged bodily into the water – since willingly setting foot in the sea around Ireland is not something I will ever do again*** (I only willingly venture into the sea when I’m abroad) – I’ve always loved it. I love how the landscape changes so radically with the weather.

I’ve seen a swathe of cloudless blue so bright it would hurt your eyes. I’ve seen rainbows. I’ve seen purple evening skies and clouds slung so low you could touch them if you stretched. I’ve seen flat, sneaking tides and wild waves that crash over the granite sea wall, ignoring the sandbags hurriedly placed to keep them at bay. I’ve sat on the sand, and on the rocks, and on the grass, and on the benches, and on the wall of what remains of the old sea baths. I’ve been caught out by the tide and had to wade shoeless back to land more than once.

Sandymount Strand has always been a part of my life. It’s played a million different roles as I’ve grown, and I’ve felt every possible emotion on that beach. At times it was an escape, and at other times a refuge. I have so many snapshots of memory and feeling that feature the strand, it’s almost an extension of my home. On that strand I shivered with friends while trying to light disposable barbecues. I prodded at dead jellyfish with pieces of driftwood, and picked through mounds of seashells for seaglass. I walked the dog so many times, in so many different kinds of weather, that I’m sure there isn’t a grain of sand she hasn’t sniffed.

I’ve walked down there to pick blackberries with only blank happiness on my mind, and I’ve run down there to cry until I thought my heart would burst. I’ve been kissed in a parked car there, looking out at the stars, drunk on love, and (on a different occasion, thankfully) puked out the passenger side of a car, just plain drunk, in more or less the same spot.

Dublin has a lot of beautiful areas, and honestly, Sandymount Strand probably isn’t on anybody’s Top Ten of things to see in the city. Places like Killiney Hill, the Phoenix Park, St. Stephen’s Green and Temple Bar would be more highly recommended than this capricious bit of coastline. Still, I love it. It has character.

Now that I live away from the strand, I miss it from time to time. I miss the wind whipping my hair into one mad scribble, and I miss coming home from a winter walk by the sea with my nose and cheeks red from the cold. I’ll have to make an effort to get back there more often.

In the meantime, one of my best friends gave me a print of it for our home, where it has pride of place in the living room. It reminds me that homes don’t always have to be houses.

Sometimes they’re simply a strip of shoreline with sand and saltwater spray.

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*I have yet to see a single person use these. I think most locals would rather die than be spotted using them in any kind of unironic manner.

**You can actually see them in the U2 video for In The Name of Love, although the video is black and white so you don’t get to see them in all their loony glory. You do get to see Bono with a mullet though, so that’s something.

***When I was about ten my parents entered me in a Sea Swim. Safe to say the traumatic memories still linger. I thought I was going to pass out and drown from the cold, and I emerged from the water a changed child, blue-tinged and with a thousand-yard gaze.

Memories Are Made of This

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If touch is my drug, then memories are my kryptonite.

I am an overthinker. I have always been an overthinker. As a child, I remember adults telling me, “Don’t think so much!” and wondering how they could ask that of me. I could no more control my thoughts than the weather. They rushed over me in a continuous wave of questions and hypotheticals.

Over the years I learned to stem the tide of thoughts when they got too much for me. I learned to put them away. Today, my mind is a hoarder’s attic, stuffed to the brim with ominously unstable stacks of thoughts and emotions and worries and passions and dreams and experiences and fears and imagination and memories.

I don’t know what other people do with their memories. My brother has somehow managed to purge all of his childhood memories … or lose them. I’m not sure which. My own seem to be (much like my real life belongings) stored in a state of organised chaos. I revisit them often. I turn memories over and over in my mind until the jagged feelings that used to jut from them are worn away, leaving the recollection itself smooth as a pebble. Easy to handle. Almost comforting.

Sometimes I forget memories only to find them years later, untouched, unexamined. When this happens, I’m always surprised to find the feelings that came with them are still there, unblunted, in the corner of my mind. I prick my fingers on the sharp points, and the unexpected sting of it startles me. My mind makes an immediate jump to hyperspace and I start overthinking again.

  • How did I forget this?
  • Is it even real?
  • Do the other people in the memory remember this?
  • Is it important?
  • Why do I only remember this now?
  • How many times have I examined this memory?
  • How many more times will I examine it before the feelings disappear?

Then I worry that when I’m finished turning it over and over, it will become another pebble: a skimmed pebble. It will bounce twice or three times on the surface of my consciousness and then sink to the depths. I’ll forget it for good.

Something about this, something about memories, makes me profoundly sad. It’s not nostalgia. At least I don’t think it is. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as:

“a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of

some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

I don’t long to go back. I don’t wish for a time-machine. It’s not the moment in the past I feel a strange yearning for, it’s the memory itself. I worry about my memories getting lost forever. I worry that I am altering them all the time until I can no longer trust which ones are true. I worry that I’ll smooth away all the edges and be left with flat, polished versions of every memory I’ve ever had. Easier to manage, yes, but also smaller. Diminished. Sanitised. Sterilised. Incapable of making me laugh or cry.

A forgotten memory found its way into my mind yesterday. It caught me so completely by surprise that a tear escaped and made a run for it down my cheek before I even had a chance to realise what I was thinking of. The instant rush of thoughts and feelings gave me a sentimental papercut. I sat, listening to music, pressing against the sharp ends the same way you use your tongue to press against a loose tooth. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t help it. The pain pleased me.

I examined the memory from every angle. I wondered if there was more to it that I had forgotten. I wondered who else remembered it. If they do, does it come tied to an emotion, or has time buffed away any inconvenient feelings?

If I am the only one who has kept it, does that make it more precious, or less?

Madrid Memories

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Madrid is my soul city.

I haven’t been there in about nine months now, and I’m starting to feel that familiar ache that comes over me when I go too long without visiting. Half of my extended family live in the city, and I have been faithfully flying over at a rate of at least twice a year for the past thirty years. Three years ago, my last remaining grandparent – my Yayo – passed away, and I worried that this would change things. I worried I might not feel as welcome in Madrid now that I no longer had somewhere to stay. I worried that the connection I felt with my family and the city might loosen or come undone now that we no longer had La Comida del Domingo (Sunday lunch) to bring us together each week.

I needn’t have worried.

I still have a place to stay. In fact, now I have places, plural. My aunts welcome me with open arms and comfortable rooms. They feed me and fuss over me and keep me up to date on their lives as if nothing has changed. I visit cousins who are more like older siblings, and walk the streets searching for churros just like I’ve done since I was a child.

I miss the apartment I grew up in, though.

The loss of that apartment and the loss of my Yayo are completely enmeshed in my mind. When I think of him, I think of him sitting in his chair by the window, watching the world pass by. I think of him flipping through the leather-bound photo albums I’d taken down by precariously balancing on the armchair next to the bookshelves. I think of him napping in his armchair and then pretending he had actually been watching mass on the TV, even though we both knew it was untrue. I think of him teaching me to make Arroz Con Leche in the kitchen, with military precision and instructions that bordered on orders. I think of sitting on the leather Chesterfield in the study, watching him write poetry about his childhood or my Yaya. I think of him combing back his hair in front of the bathroom mirror before leaving the house. I think of him sitting at the head of the long dining table at Christmas, proudly watching over his family as we laughed and chattered over wine and homemade food.

Somebody else owns the apartment now. A young family bought it and, as far as I can tell, renovated it from end to end. They closed off the balconies and changed the windows. Even when viewed only from the outside, it looks different to the place I once crawled, then toddled, and later walked through during different stages of my life. I am a really sentimental person, and I feel a bone-deep sense of sadness at the reminder that things change, and people die, and we can’t always hold onto the things and people and places that make us happiest.

Then again, they say ‘Good things fall apart so that better things can come together,’ and while I throw that phrase a highly skeptical side-eye, it’s true that without the sale of the apartment, we would have struggled to save up a deposit for our own place. It’s true that at the moment, as I sit at my own dining table, I can reach behind me and touch onyx figurines that used to sit on Yayo’s sideboard, and now sit on my own. I have reminders of him and of that apartment dotted around me; the onyx elephants, the silver Mexican plates, the vintage glass sweet jars and the art deco cutlery set.

Some days, I wish I could sit down and write Yayo a letter like I used to, complete with drawings and addressed to YAYO! (block capitals as standard), telling him about my life and my worries and my thoughts. After he passed away we found all the letters I had sent over the years stacked neatly in the drawer of his desk under lock and key. He had kept my cards, my letters, my childhood drawings of the apartment (complete with a very questionable grasp of perspective), and anything else I had sent tucked neatly between his pages of poetry and his bank account statements.

I’m not sure why I’m in such a melancholy mood today. Perhaps it’s due to the sun having disappeared, or just because I feel exhausted, or because I have a low-level headache happening at the moment that I’m about to bomb out of existence with some industrial strength ibuprofen. Lia is currently snoring away on the floor at my feet, somehow managing not to wake herself despite sounding like a anthropomorphised jet engine with sleep apnea.

Or maybe I just have Madrid withdrawals.

There’s only one remedy I know for Madrid withdrawals…..