Wednesday, May 09, 2007

the most radical thing

I've written before about Anne LaMott, one of my favorite writers. I've treasured her words in the essay "My Secret Body" since I first came across them, but always with a kind of sadness because I knew I could never do what she did. I would read this essay over and over, always thinking lucky Anne, she's living in God's grace." I never thought I'd be able to say "me too." But you know what? Me too.

This is the story of how, at the age of 33, I learned to feed myself.

To begin with, here's what I did until then: I ate, starved, binged, purged, grew fat, grew thin, grew fat, grew thin, binged, purged, dieted, was good, was bad, grew fat, grew thin, grew thinner...

I had lots of secrets about me and my food and my body. It was very scary and obsessive, the way it must feel for someone secretly and entirely illiterate. . . In July 1977, when I was 23, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and one week later, I discovered bulimia. I felt like I'd discovered the secret life, and I learned how to do it more effectively by reading articles in women's magazines on how to stop doing it. I barfed, but preferred laxatives. It was heaven. I lost weight....

I would try to be good, in the Puritanical sense, which meant denying my appetites. Resisting temptation meant I was good -- strong, counter-animal. But the jungle drums would start beating again....

Luckily I was still drinking at the time. Then all of a sudden I wasn't. I quit in 1986. I had all these sober people helping me, and I told them almost every crime and secret I had, because I believed what they said, that we are as sick as our secrets. But I couldn't tell anyone that I couldn't stop binging and purging, being on a diet, being good, getting thin, being bad, getting fat....

Finally, one day in l987, I called a woman named Rita Groszmann, who was listed in the Yellow Pages as a specialist in eating disorders. I told her what was going on, and that I had no money, and she said to come in anyway, because she was afraid I was going to die. So I went in the next day, and have not been bulimic since. That's not the miracle, though. The miracle is that I haven't dieted, either....

But she said that I had some choices. They were ridiculous choices. She proposed some, and I thought, this is the angriest person I've ever met. I'll give you a couple of examples. If I was feeling lonely and overwhelmed and about to binge, I could call someone up and ask them if they wanted to meet me for a movie. "Yeah," I said, "right." Or here's another good one: If I was feeling very other, very sad and scared and overwhelmed, I could invite someone over for a more or less regular meal, and then see if he or she felt like going for a walk. It is only because I was raised to be Politeness Person that I did not laugh at her. It was like someone detoxing off heroin, itching to shoot up, being told to take up macramé. Something to do with those nervous fingers!...

To make a long story ever so slightly shorter, she finally asked me what it felt like when I was hungry, and I could not answer. I asked her to explain what it felt like when she was hungry, and she described a sensation in her stomach of emptiness, an awareness of appetite. So for the next week, my assignment was to notice what it felt like when I was hungry. It was so strange. I was once again the world's oldest toddler....

So I'd feel the scratchy emptiness in my belly, and I'd mention to myself that I seemed hungry. And then I'd ask myself, in a deeply maternal way, what I felt like eating. "Well, actually, I feel like some Cheetos," I might say. So I'd go and buy some Cheetos, and put some in a bowl, and eat them. God! It was so amazing. Then I'd check in with myself: "Do you want some more?" I'd ask. "No," I'd say. "But don't throw them out."...

I had been throwing food out, and wetting it in the sink, since I was 14; since I'd been on a diet. Every time I broke down and ate forbidden foods, I threw out and wet what was uneaten, because of course each time I was about to start over and be good again. "I'm hungry," I'd say to myself. "I'd like some frosting." "OK." "And some Cheetos." So I'd have some frosting and some Cheetos, for breakfast. I'd eat for a while. Then I'd check in with myself, kindly: "More?" "Not now," I'd say. "But don't wet them. I might want more later."

I ate frosting and Cheetos for weeks. Also, cookies that a local bakery made with M&M's instead of chocolate chips. I'd buy half a dozen and keep them on the kitchen counter. It was terrifying. It was like knowing there were snakes in my kitchen. I'd eat a little, stop when I was no longer hungry. "Want one more cookie?" I'd ask. "No, thanks," I'd say. "But I might want one later. Don't wet them."

I never wet another bag of cookies. One day I woke up and discovered that I also felt like having some oranges, then rice, then sautéed bell peppers. Maybe also some days the random pound of M&M's. But from then on I was always able to at least keep whatever I ate down -- or, rather, in my case, up. I went from feeling like a Diane Arbus character, seen through that lens of her self-contempt, to someone filmed by a friendly cousin, someone who gently noted the concentration on my face as I washed a colander of tiny new potatoes; each potato holy, each action tender.

Over these years, my body has not gotten firmer. Just the opposite in fact. But when I feel fattest and flabbiest and most repulsive, I try to remember that gravity speaks; also, that no one needs that plastic body perfection from women of age and substance. Also, that I do not live in my thighs or in my droopy butt. I live in joy and motion and cover-ups.

I live in the nourishment of food and the sun and the warmth of the people who love me. I tell you, it feels like a small miracle, to have learned to eat, to taste and love what slips down my throat, padding me, filling me up, and it is the most radical thing I've ever done."


Anne LaMott's entire beautiful essay on getting better is here, at Salon.com.

4 Comments:

Blogger lisalgreer said...

Yeah, I love this essay, but non-dieting didn't work for me. I think my depression and other things were too far along to just eat whatever whenever I was hungry. Anyhoo, it is good to feel free and sane again however you reach that! :)

May 09, 2007 10:38 AM  
Blogger Junk Thief said...

I came to Ms. LaMott a bit late, but I've really enjoyed her. My favorite description of her is that she is a Christian who doesn't think you'll go to hell because you let your kids watch PG-13 movies.

May 09, 2007 2:13 PM  
Blogger LSL said...

Wow, another Anne fan!

May 09, 2007 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Ms. Place said...

Anne Lamott can do no wrong in my book. Reading her is a revelation. Thank you.

May 10, 2007 7:14 AM  

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