Fueling up

Lately, I have been thinking of food in a very elemental way; perhaps in the most elemental of ways -- as fuel. I recently joined an amateur cycling club here in New York, and I am now spending a few mornings a week riding my bike with other enthusiasts in Central Park and further afield. These rides aren't your ordinary commuter trips; this morning, for example, I rode 21 miles starting at 7am, and was back at home, showered, and out the door by 8:45. On Saturday I plan to ride 50 miles, and that's just the first of this year's longer rides. Eventually I'll work my way up to a Century -- that's 100 miles! I am putting in some serious miles on my bike, and my appetite can feel the difference. Today, for instance, I ate two breakfasts: a quick meal of toast with pecan butter and a banana before the ride, and a second breakfast afterwards, of granola and blueberries (above). Even with those two meals, I was still hungry before lunchtime, and have had to remind myself all day that it's OK for me to eat a little more.

The first time I went on a long bike ride, early last spring, something happened to me that happens to most cyclists at least once: I "bonked," meaning that I ran out of energy (for us, that means calories!) before the end of the ride. The cause was simple: I didn't eat enough as I rode. For a three-hour ride, I need to eat at least 150/200 calories per hour simply to keep going on my bike. And that's assuming that I'll have a big meal afterwards to make up for rest of the calories lost during the ride. I still forget sometimes that I really do need an awful lot of food to keep my body and my bike going, but I have been a quick study where this is concerned, because the signs of bonking are so obvious. Without my energy drink and my sports bar, and a constant flow of water, my legs turn mushy, my vision blurs, and my breathing becomes ragged. While I can make a shorter ride without any re-fueling, for a longer ride such snacks are indispensable.

Eating to ride, and not exercising to eat, is a new mode of operation for me. It's amazing to me that I can eat, after a long ride, in a way that is almost instinctual, so far from the over-thought appetites of my eating disorder. I eat because I am hungry. I eat because my legs are tired. I eat to ride again. I eat and eat and eat and eat -- and don't worry about it! I just eat because my body is telling me to eat. And what could be simpler, and further from disorder, than that?



Tonight we are preparing a real feast for friends, so lunch was simple: red lentil soup and carrot and raisin slaw.

The soup was Madhur Jaffrey's invention, but carrot slaws have become my winter lunch staple, and the recipe is all mine:

Carrot and raisin slaw

  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 2 shallots, diced, or 1/4 of a sweet onion, also diced
  • 1/4 c. yellow raisin
  • 1/4 - 1/2 c. pecans or pumpkin seeds
  • salt to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 T. honey
  • 2 T. mayonnaise
  • 1 T. white wine vinegar (or other light-colored vinegar)
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
Mix the first six ingredients in a serving bowl. For the dressing, combine the honey, mayonnaise, vinegar, and oil and mix until smooth. Dress the salad 10 to 30 minutes before serving.


Slow quick quick slow

Several years ago, when I was riding strong in my recovery from an eating disorder, changes seemed to happen so quickly in my life. I felt myself opening up in new and wonderful ways: my relationships with my parents improved; I met the man who is now my husband; I stopped following goals that were set by others; I found a new spiritual path; and I no longer turned to food and exercise as the exclusive sources of comfort in my life.

Around that time, in December of 2004, I got my first tattoo, of a blue heron. There are many herons on the lakes of Minnesota, where I grew up, and I at once associated the bird with my faraway home and with the changes that I had recently undergone. In some cultures, the heron, like the phoenix, is a symbol of resurrection and transformation. In Egypt, for example, the heron-like Bennu bird called the world into creation at the beginning of time. For these reasons, the heron seemed like an appropriate animal to carry with me always, to mark on my body as a reminder of what I had gone through, and of the new life that I was embarking on after my eating disorder.

Sometimes, I look back on those early days of recovery with a feeling of nostalgia. Sure, I was still binging, still exercising off the calories in ridiculously long runs -- but change was brewing. I could feel it. Later, even my body changed, losing the ability to digest the foods that I had once craved and consumed in abundance. There were clear markers to let me know that things were different, and I felt, in many ways, reborn.

The struggle of recovery now, four years down the line, is that it doesn't always feel so extraordinary. In fact, I rarely have the blissful, life-rocking moments of insight that seemed so frequent as I learned new ways to pattern my relationships and new ways of being with my body. Now, those skills are a part of me, no longer new and shiny and revelatory. Life doesn't seem nearly as overwhelming and tragic as it did during my eating disorder, but nor does it often reach the heights of emotion that I felt during my recovery. I know that I haven't stopped growing, haven't stopped learning from my day-to-day life, but the changes are more subtle, less frequently noticed by others or myself.
This is what life after an eating disorder and after recovery from an eating disorder feels like to me: pretty ordinary. While I still have problems (who doesn't?), more and more they resemble the normal concerns that everyone has, like how to get along with others and find my own path in life. My sorrows don't feel like tragedies anymore, my joys are deeper, and the emotional fireworks are fewer. These days, it is just me and my ordinary mind.


Permissions, continued

I am glad that I gave myself permissions last week, because some of them certainly came in handy.

Take #1, "Buy warm cycling clothes." Last Saturday I planned a long bike ride outside of NYC and, like any outdoorswoman, dutifully checked the weather forecast ahead of time. It said that the day would be in the 40's, so I happily set off at 8:30am expecting a great day. Not so -- the temperature never got above freezing, there was a blustery head wind the whole way out, and by the time I got to my turn-around point, in Piermont, New York, it was all I could do to not spend the rest of the day in a coffee-shop and find a bus back to Manhattan. Instead, I found the nearest bike shop and explained my situation: unless I found some warmer clothing, I would never make it home! Could they help me? Did I have my credit card on my person? Yes to both. To make a long story short, I spent much too much money on biking clothing for my paltry income, but happily I did make it home that day, and I have new booties, gloves, and polypropylene to show for it.

Perhaps most significantly, the third item on that list, "I give myself permission to not like my job," has also been useful this week, as I have been going back and forth over whether to stay in this particular research lab next year. Admitting to myself that I don't like it there was a first step to realizing that I need to leave. Moreover, I learned this week that they won't have any "funding" (i.e. salary) for me next year, giving me even less of a reason to stay, but if I liked it even a smidgen I just might consider staying there anyway, because the research topic is interesting. As it stands, I have been treated coldly by some of my colleagues and unjustly by others, and the work itself is not engaging enough to make up for the lack of personal connection there, so I'm outie. Just taking the step last week of admitting to myself how much I do not like my job, has made it so much easier to say "No, thank you" to another year of the same.

As for #18, permission to "Disagree with my husband about Joni Mitchell's music," yesterday I went to the New York Library for the Performing Arts and picked up another of her albums, Songs of a Prairie Girl, along with all of the Bach cantatas that I could carry home. So I will keep listening to her regardless of my husband's opinion!


Rubbing stone

Let me admit to you that sometimes, I find people (and I am also talking about a certain person, in particular) difficult to deal with.

A part of me just wants everybody to like me – wouldn’t that be so much easier? – and so I work to make that the case. I try to be pleasant, acquiescent, perky, and attentive. But inevitably these efforts will fail to work on someone: I will feel dejected, and look for ways that I can do better. Couldn’t I just smile a little more, remember another detail about that person, do her one more favor? I run through my repertoire with difficult people, but what makes them difficult is that none of these tricks work with them. I just can’t crack them with my charm, my compassion, or my competence. And this I find so, so frustrating, coming against a place where I cannot move, where there is nothing left but resignation and acceptance.

There is a person at work that is playing out this routine with me. I smile at her, she frowns at me. I do her a favor, she criticizes my work. I come in early, she asks me to stay late. I cannot seem to win. I have come to dread going to work, and all because of this one person! More than anything, I want her to like me, to accept me, to treat me like a friend or colleague. Instead, I get blank stares and sarcastic comments from her. She hurts me, and I can’t seem to do anything about it. All of my active striving to improve the relationship hasn’t helped, and I am at a loss for what to do next.

My Buddhist teacher would probably say that this is what Zen practice is for – through meditation, we learn to stick with the discomfort just a second longer than we are used to doing; we allow ourselves to acknowledged the icky-ness, the feelings of rejection and longing, and by noticing them, they become less powerful in our imaginations. Eventually, visiting them day after day, we wear them down, like a rubbing stone. They cease to “catch” us in their grip, and become like any other problem that we have relinquished: just a part of life, not good or bad.

I suspect that this process of wearing down and letting go of our problems is especially difficult for people with eating disorders, because first we have to admit that there is a problem, and next we have to avoid turning away from it. Eating disorders (and other addictions) help us cover up those feelings of anguish and rejection and anger and fear that we cannot stand, the feelings that we have never learned to face, for whatever reasons.

These days I feel raw and vulnerable again, like I did in the early days of my recovery, when I realized that I didn’t have the shield of food or hunger to hide behind anymore. Life felt brighter around the edges, but my problems should out in sharper focus, too, and threatened to overwhelm me at times. I am still making up for the years of subterfuge that my eating disorder allowed me. Now, or never, I have to learn to take in all of the feelings that frighten me, acknowledge them, and carry them in such a way that they do not shatter this fragile sense of self.



Since I'm feeling the stuffy oppression of the "oughts" and "shoulds" and "musts" lately, I thought I'd try to following exercise.

I give myself permission to:
  1. Buy warm cycling clothes.
  2. Love my body.
  3. Not like my job.
  4. Like my job sometimes, too.
  5. Spend time with friends.
  6. Eat dessert.
  7. Not eat dessert.
  8. Go to bed early.
  9. Wake up late.
  10. Be mean.
  11. Write for pleasure instead of for school.
  12. Put aside my worry for a night or two.
  13. Make spontaneous weekend plans.
  14. Buy books that aren't on my syllabus.
  15. Watch movies.
  16. Forget about my sorrows once in a while.
  17. Write to old friends even though I feel guilty about staying out of touch.
  18. Disagree with my husband about Joni Mitchell's music.
  19. Splurge for a manicure.
  20. Leave some food on my plate.
So that's twenty to begin with. And here's to the slackening of standards!


Tummy troubles

This may not be an appetizing post, but I don't feel much like talking about food at the moment.

You see, I've spent the better part of the evening hunched over with the cramps that are part and parcel of "irritable bowel syndrome," that nebulous disorder that can't seem to be pinned down. Yes, I know that I am under stress (but stress doesn't cause this disorder, the Mayo Clinic says -- it merely aggravates it); I know that I had coffee this morning for the first time in a week; I know that I slept poorly last night and have been working much too hard in every area of my life. But why must my innards always suffer?

The gut knows, the gut knows...

I spent almost every evening of the summer of 2005 in much the same position, clenching a hot water bottle to my stomach in the hopes of staving off the cramping and shaking, to little use. Over the course of that summer, after I had spent the previous three years ignoring my belly's signals, I was forced to pay close, painful attention to every motion that my gut made. I became intensely aware -- almost too aware -- of its whimsies and downfalls, and over time noticed that some things made it better, other worse. On the winning side: hot water bottles, herbal tea, and yoga. On the losing side: wheat, oats, raw vegetables, peanuts and almonds.

I understand how chronic illness can play with your brain, how the possibility that "just this one thing" will bring about a miraculous cure. If only I avoid wheat, I thought, I'll never have a stomachache again. This was more or less the case, but the problems still came back from time to time, and I could never be entirely certain that it was the absence of wheat and peanuts, and not some external factor, that was behind the disappearance of my symptoms.

As a scientist, it is frustrating to belong to a sample size of 1. We live our lives as case studies, as exercises in uniqueness. If there were a thousand other people with the same history of an eating disorder, all presenting with the same nightly battle in their bellies, then we might be able to draw some conclusions about it. But here I am the scientist and the subject, and I'm witnessing my own body give way to distress even as I plot new "studies" of my own. A course of acupuncture, an herbal tonic, a return to the no-wheat diet, an elimination of caffeine, an extra hour of sleep, a deep back massage -- what other methods do I have but trial and error? I can use these, one by one, and hope that I'll see a return to normal functioning over time. But I will probably have little idea of why things have gotten any better or any worse, just as right now I don't have a clear explanation for why these cramps have struck me now, when any other week this school year has been just as stressful.

At this point, the scientist in me becomes frustrated, and the mystic wants to take over. Symptoms are signs, she whispers. Listen to what the gut is telling you. Easy to say, hard to follow. My gut rarely speak -- it rumbles and roars! It makes be pay attention after so many years of neglect. Even as I turn my attention towards books and intellectual pursuits, it demands an audience, and won't take no for an answer.

So, for now, I am going to attend to these needs, and go change the hot water bottle.

One last question: has anything similar happened to you? What connection do you see between your digestion and your eating disorder?