When eating is the hardest thing to do
In recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we’ll be running personal essays from our readers throughout the week about their real-life struggles of disordered eating.
Chicken with mashed potatoes, roast beef with mixed vegetables, or lasagna. Circle one, instructed the little menu on the tray table parallel to the bed.
When was the last time I had mashed potatoes?
The buttery potatoes whipped under my father’s expert hand, making the simple side dish as he always has, adding just the right amount of whole milk and achiote to give it the slightest golden color.
“No me gusta que sea tan blanco,” he says. At my house, our mashed potatoes are never white.
Or should I choose lasagna?
As part of a high school project for French class, I had attempted to make creole-style lasagna. I scoured the Internet for the perfect recipes, straight from francophone Louisiana, to concoct for my family. I’d never made lasagna before, but seriously, I thought, could making it be any more difficult than making the fresh croissants I’d just recently baked? I thought not. The sauce was hearty, with chunks of tomatoes still visible. I added Andouille sausage for a spicy kick. The flat sheets of lasagna noodles came in a box that promised they wouldn’t have to be cooked before layering them in my dish.
“Segura?” my mom asked me; she is always my sous chef.
“Yes,” I said pointing at the print on the box, “I’m sure. No cook noodles.”
The lasagna came out well, with the exception of the crunchy, not completely cooked lasagna noodles that made me question my faith in promises on boxes.
Roast beef was out of the question.
In fact, all three options were out of the question. I didn’t want a single morsel to touch my lips if I didn’t know the calories, the serving size, and if oil or butter were used in the making of these meals.
I put down the menu and hold my cold hands on my lap. On my wrist is the blue hospital admittance bracelet with my name and date of birth, and no weight or height information. I know how tall I am, but I haven’t weighed myself since I started seeing a therapist. Each week, I strip down to my underwear, slip into a patterned hospital gown, walk down the hall of the medical clinic, step backwards onto the scale, trying my hardest to decipher the look on my therapist’s face and interpret her hmm’s and good job’s. Does hmm mean I’m losing weight again? Does good job mean I’ve gained weight, which means I’ll turn into a giant whale?
Buried behind the thick and oppressive wall that anorexia raised in my mind, the real me is pounding, scrapping her fists in the process, in a desperate attempt to break free. The real me would say, “Circle one! You can do this; you are a strong, intelligent woman. Don’t give up!” I look out the window at the dreary January sky. Maybe I’m not that strong after all.
“Hello?” A knock at the door. A nurse pops her head in. “Hi, I’m Natalie. This is Andrea,” she turns to look as Andrea walks in. She waves.
“Hi,” I say.
“We are here to get some IV going on you and to take some blood for testing. Do you mind if I have Andrea completes the process? She’s a student.”
Oh gosh. One, I hate getting needles stuck into me, especially if they are going to be there for an extended period of time. Two, students might poke and prick and be unsuccessful in getting a vein. Then I’ll get a nasty bruise in the crook of my elbow. Just the thought of it makes my empty stomach turn.
“Ok. That’s ok,” I answer, too polite to say no.
The whole point of being admitted to the hospital is to get nutrients in my body, stat. I have no choice in the matter. Maybe I lost more weight, or I looked particularly tired that morning. Not surprising, since I juggle full-time school, full-time work, and life. Michelle, my therapist, did my weekly weigh-in as usual, adjusting the scale, standing back and scrunching her nose slightly.
“We’re going to do a little test,” she said.
She led me into a room in the clinic and instructed me to lie down on a bed lined with crinkly paper while she went to get my primary care doctor. I was still trying to crack the code of her nose scrunching when they both came back into the room. The doctor wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm then removed it. He called a nurse to bring him a child-sized cuff. He got a reading and wrote it down on a pad.
“Please stand,” he said. Again, he measured my blood pressure. I sat back down on the bed when I was done. “Elizabeth, the heart’s job is to pump blood to all parts of your body, as you know. When you stand, your heart works a little harder to make sure you’re still pumping blood from your toes to the tips of your fingers to the top of your head. Your heart. . . well, it isn’t doing that. Your blood pressure went down after I asked you to stand instead of going up slightly, or even remaining the same. Do you know what that means?” I shook my head. “It means your heart could give out. It means I’m going to need to admit you into the hospital to keep an eye on you and make sure you get a good meal. We’ll call the hospital to make sure they have a room and call an ambulance to take you, ok?”
I looked silently from the doctor to Michelle. I had to work that afternoon. I had to complete a project for my science class. I had my car parked outside, surely I couldn’t abandon it here. What would my parents say?
“I can’t go to the hospital.” My voice sounded shaky.
“This is scary stuff, Elizabeth,” said Michelle. “You’re in the danger zone. We’re here to help. In your condition, you could very well go to sleep at night and your heart could give out.”
I could picture myself, huddled underneath my thick winter blankets, my fuzzy socks on, and my eyes slowly closing as I lay down for sleep. I could imagine hearing my heartbeat as if my heart were laid by my ear, and then silence. It would be a lovely way to go, I thought. No pain, no fear, no knowledge.
“You don’t want that, do you?” asked Michelle. The doctor looked at me, eyebrows furrowed, lips in a thin line. “Do you need us to call your parents?”
What do I want? What do you want, Elizabeth? It would be easier to just stop now, throw in the towel. I don’t want to live with pains in my stomach day and night, with fears of fat and food, not being loved, being a failure, and being alone. I was scared. I was scared of my hopelessness.
“I’ll call my mom,” I said, the tears on the rim of my eyes finally fell free and trailed down my cheeks. Soon thereafter, I was in my car, my dad behind the wheel and my mom in the front passenger seat. I felt that I was shrinking, going back to childhood. I was small, insignificant and scared. We drove to the sound of my car’s motor, no music and no conversation. I felt so ashamed. My dad, always pushing me to be the best, and here I was, losing at life.
“Ok, we are going to wrap this band around her arm” says Natalie, adding an extra chirp to her voice. Andrea wraps a giant, blue rubber-band like material around my arm, above the crook of my elbow. I see rivers of blue veins beneath my paler-than-usual skin. I turn away.
“Can we please turn on the TV?” I ask. “I don’t like getting poked by needles. I get dizzy and nauseous.” Natalie turns on the TV and turns up the volume. It’s a soap opera.
“Is this ok?” she asks me. I nod.
“Ok, I’m going to get the needle ready,” says Andrea. The room smells of alcohol as they rub a cool wet wipe to sanitize my skin.
I feel a pressure, gentle and urgent, on my temples. My mouth starts salivating and tasting salty. Breathe, think of something else. Breathe. I look up at the TV.
“What do you mean, Diego? I threw away every opportunity for you!” says a red-haired girl on TV. Diego stands in front of her, looking at her as if she suddenly grew a beard, right before his eyes. He opens and closes his mouth.
“Ok, ready? This will sting a little,” says Andrea. I close my eyes. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale.
“Is it over?” I ask. The sound of the TV seems distant, all I can hear is a ringing in my ear and the sound of my heart beating rapidly.
“Just a second,” says Natalie. I want this to be over. Please be over. Please be a bad dream. I want to go home.
“All done!” says Natalie, triumphantly. “Wait, Andrea! You need to take the band out! We don’t want her blood gushing all over the place,” she says, laughing.
Andrea removes the band and quickly gets the IV set up. I open my eyes in time to watch Diego try to quiet the redhead by smothering her with a hug. She punches his chest. I want to laugh but I don’t, a nauseous feeling still lingers in my throat.
“Great job, Elizabeth. Thank you for your patience with me,” says Andrea, slightly flushed from the procedure. I give her what I hope looks like a smile.
“We’ll be back in a bit to get your lunch choice. Let us know if you need anything.”
Lunch. How can I possibly make a choice now? I look at my arm, a needle stuck in there, delivering liquid nutrients straight into my body. Ugh. My arms have goose bumps, the room is cold. I punch a little button on the control to call a nurse and a few minutes later he comes in.
“Can I get another blanket, please?” I ask, crossing my arms across my chest. I’ve never been in a room with a man-stranger without wearing a bra.
“Sure.” He brings a warm blanket, tucking it around my legs gently. “What’ll it be?”
I look at him, unsure of what he’s talking about. He points at the menu. It’s become slightly crumbled by my fingers bending the edges.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Let’s see what the options are today,” he takes the menu from me. “Hmm. Well, I’d place my bets on the chicken, if I were you. The mashed potatoes are actually potatoes. None of that flaky fake stuff.” He extends the menu to me, smiling. I nod and stare at the piece of paper as if the right answer to all my problems were there. As if it would tell me that one day I would be able to enjoy eating without feeling that every bite was a failure to be beautiful and graceful and lovely. As if it could grant my wish of looking in the mirror someday and see the life shining from within me again. The words blur. I take the menu.
“You’ve still got a chance, you know. To get better.” He walks towards the door. “You don’t want to be living years from now wishing you’d been kinder to your body instead of suffering the consequences of your actions. I’ve seen it too many times.” He opens the door, saying “Choose the chicken.” before leaving.
Choose the chicken. I feel like crying because I can’t possibly choose the chicken, but I can’t not choose the chicken. My bucket list isn’t even a quarter of the way checked off. I want to go to Guatemala, I want to own a food truck. I want to be a published writer. I want to be happy. I want to have a place of my own and someday start a family. I want to inspire others. I want to love myself, just the way I am.
Sitting at my kitchen table, I refuse to eat a plate of spaghetti. Those long, thin carb-loaded noodles were slick with tomato sauce and topped with glistening, round meatballs. My throat closes off. Surely, all this food is enough to feed three of me. The food is cold, having been placed in front of me an hour before my mom sits at the opposite end of the table. We remain silent.
“Do you want to die?” she asks. The honesty of her question catches me off guard.
“Well, that’s exactly what you are doing. You are killing yourself. Soon, there will be nothing left of you.” She looks down at the table as her voice cracks.
My dad comes in and stands behind my mom, squeezing her shoulder gently.
“We all feel your pain,” he tells me. “It’s infected our family.”
Lifting up my fork to pierce the meatball, I gingerly take a bite as the tears roll down my cheeks, a salty drop entering my mouth. What choice do I have?
My brother and sister, praise me from the couch they sit on.
“Good job,” they say. I blush with embarrassment.
The beige phone at my bedside table rings, making me jump.
“Hi.” My mom’s voice gently comes into my ear. I wish she was here with me so I wouldn’t be so alone in this hospital room, and I’m also glad she’s not here to see me like this, weak, in a thin horrifically patterned hospital gown, and hooked up to IV.
“Hi. How are things at home?”
“Fine, fine. We’ll go back to see you tomorrow after Kalvin and Kristen go to school. We’re all worried about you. ”
“When I got the call that you were going to the hospital…”
“I’m sorry, Mami.” She clears her throat.
“Have they given you anything to eat?”
“Not yet. Soon, I think.”
“Please, please eat everything.”
“I don’t know. . .”
“You can do this. Please.”
I can’t do this. I’m in this situation because I can’t do this.
“I promise,” I say.
Squeaky wheels are coming down the hallway, stopping at the room next door, the rattle of silverware and a mumbled conversation. I push a button on the remote that moves the bed in an upright position. A knock at the door.
“Hi!” It’s Andrea.
She positions the table on the side of the bed so that it’s over my lap, gently placing a tray in front of me and lifting the lid of the dish with a flourish, as if I’m a distinguished food critic at a gourmet restaurant. Steam rises off the plate, fogging my glasses momentarily.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” I look in the general direction that she’s in. My vision is still slightly impaired.
“I’m good, thank you.”
“Ok, let us know if you need anything.”
In the middle of the tray is the main course: a chicken breast, glistening with its juices, accompanied by a small mountain of fluffy mashed potatoes with a little crater of gravy on its peak, as well as some green beans. In a separate little dish on the upper left hand corner is a golden dinner roll, radiating warmth as if fresh out of the oven, a small dab of butter wrapped in gold paper at its side. A carton of apple juice sits by a cup of water to the upper right hand corner. Right above the main dish is a small bowl with a generous slice of lemon meringue pie, its stiff little peaks kissed tan. The earthy smell of the bread swirls with the smell of the chicken, wafting in the air.
My stomach rumbles, my mouth waters, and my heart leaps. I have nowhere to go, no place to hide. The food in front of me is warm and tantalizing. I promise, I said to my mom. But who was I making promises to if not to myself?
Beside the eating utensils is a beautiful lavender rose. I hold its stem in my fingers, smiling in awe of this perfect flower in my favorite color. I set it down and pick up the fork, the tines digging into the mashed potatoes and gravy, causing the gravy to spill down the sides of the mountain. The savory gravy and creamy potatoes melts on my tongue. I stick the fork into the chicken and cut off a piece, it’s moist and delicately seasoned. I grab the roll in between my hands and tear it in two uneven halves, eating a chunk in two bites before remembering to butter the other half. My spoon scoops the whipped meringue and lemony curd; it has just the right amount of tartness and sweetness. The apple juice is refreshing and crisp.
I put down my fork when there isn’t a crumb left. My stomach is a slight bump underneath my hospital gown. Leaning back, I close my eyes, fighting the little voice whispering in my head. You ate all that?!? That’s all going to go straight to your belly pouch! Fatty! But then I hear a strong No, and I realize I said it aloud.
“No.” Years of this anorexia torture has to end, now.
I am hungry. Chicken, mashed potatoes, love, popcorn, confidence, acceptance, and ice cream: I’m hungry for it all. I want to take a bite out of life. Slowly, warmth rises in my cheeks, painting them pink. My fingers radiate heat. I imagine the food I ate going to the places in my body that need repair, little workers tinkering away to make me better again. Making me whole.
In one of my favorite books, Eat Pray Love, a medicine man tells the author Elizabeth Gilbert to smile, even with her liver!
Well, Elizabeth Moscoso, you must smile, even with your stomach, even with your heart!
Smile, for you are strong. You can do this.
Smile, for you are alive.
Elizabeth Moscoso is an English literature student at Marylhurst University. You can usually find her with her nose in a book, whipping up a new recipe or dreaming about her next adventure.
To learn more about the symptoms of eating disorders and how to get help, visit the NEDA website.