Here are a list of things you can eat that will fill up your stomach but not your conscience.
The last one does not fill up your stomach, it fills up your lungs but for all intents and purposes, it can remain on the list. The Diet Coke can give you a headache so be weary of that, but you can chew trident all day.
I am not nearly as mean as I was a decade ago but these habits emerge like a well trained reflex. Some girls are really good at being hungry and I am really good at underlining my stomach with a thin growl of pride.
I hide my choices frequently.
For example, you don't notice that I suck on my steak instead of chew it, that I add water to the whiskey, that lollipops last a strangely long time in my mouth.
When I think to tell this story I am hesitant because I know I am wrong. I know the correct way to eat steak is to chew, not suck, but I am not concerned with the correct way of eating steak. I am concerned with slowing down. Pulling the meat strand by strand, watching the calories fall apart in my mouth. Do you see? This is the diet. The slow-slow choices of the mind.
That is why I hate Americans. There is no choice at all, just their blind fingers, reaching for the next fat cell. I far prefer the French. Filling my glass a quarter of the way and returning only if I decide I want more and I hardly ever want more.
But this story is not about the French or the Americans. It’s about me. And the porcelain stomach I have trained to sit, heal, play dead.
The last time I made myself throw up was also the week my brother in law died. It was after we returned from the funeral, a thing, nearly impossible to return from, the kitchen walls bending at the seams, and the sunlight, spilling onto our faces like a damp headache. All at once you hate the drapes.
God I hate those drapes, you think, while your body guides you up the stairs. Then you are in your little brother’s bedroom because yours is crowded with three older sisters. And you wander into his bathroom because it’s tucked into the south corner of the home and no one looks for you here. No one has ever looked for you here. And like clockwork you switch the lock and the little girl from high school is there, with threads from Ross and a face as round as a pumpkin, and you turn the shower on and climb gently to your knees and the inconsistency makes you sick because why would you be so kind to your knees when you’re about to be so mean to your throat? And feeling like a hypocrite, you crouch there, rocking and foaming at the mouth until it is finished. There is a little trigger at the back of your tongue. Once you find it, you find it for life.
The vomit is colorful, pretty even. And for a moment you stare at the combination of shapes, drifting apart like an orange setting sun.
My sister found me here once, hammering on the doorway, "Brenda!" She was shouting, "Brenda what are you doing??" I emerged from the bathroom, clean mouthed and brave.
"What were you doing in there?"
"Throwing up." I answered, before walking out of the room.
It wasn't until later that I made the connection, charted my grief like a mad scientist, said "ah ha" at the vomit, the ups and downs. It is pretty simple. I notice my body a lot more when I am sad.
I still muse over my discoveries, but that does not stop the vomit, that does not stop the counting, the early morning rise to suckle the muscle to one spot.
I keep lists of most things I eat.
I could walk into a grocery store, select an item at random, and tell you about how many calories I think it contains. Nine times out of ten I am accurate.
I did not mean to achieve such accuracy but perhaps that is why it has gotten this far. I did not mean to know that a charms blow pop is 60 calories, that Tillamook cheese is observed in measurements of eighths, what a tablespoon feels like in my hand, how a palm cradles 90 calories of almonds, how far I can expect to curl my fingers over the mound, how ¼ cup of jelly beans is 28 jelly beans, is 130 calories. I would do this more often if people weren’t watching. I would keep tiny little measuring cups in my purse.
There are little tricks you pick up along the way.
For example, if you have one candy in your mouth, do not hold the other in your hand, set it on a table, place it in a drawer. Do you see what I’m saying? Try and forget. Distract yourself from the organism that is.
If you want to be small you must first learn to be hungry and hunger is harmless. You learn to shake its hands, place its teeth along your spine, watch the sting grow dull in the light, until hunger has accompanied you into every room of the house.
When my stomach growls I don’t always give it food. I think of it as an alert, the sound of goals being reached. On some days I think my stomach has coiled, evolved, seized into something entirely different, hard and unmoving like the cauterized feelings after a lovers’ fight. She hardly ever gets hungry anymore, hardly ever makes a peep.
There’s an art to this kind of self deception.
My body believes that we are on the same team. My body is kind to me, tells me every day that it needs food. And every day, I do not feed it. It’s for the greater good, I think, I know what’s best for us.
If I really sat back and thought about it, I would guess that it began somewhere in the winter of my twelfth year. I can remember, if vaguely, waking up in the blue black dawn, running three miles each morning before middle school, and watching myself in the mirror. “She’s quiet.” Paulo Mota once told my mother, “She’s gotten so quiet.” And I remember him saying that. I remember because even I had not noticed the silence, even I had not noticed the slow leak in my voice.
There are other memories that surface too, spending my lunch break at the YMCA, or my mother’s voice inside my head, “There are non-fat ice cream bars in the outside fridge.”
I once told a friend that our mother encouraged weight loss, that she suggested diets and other exercise tips. “Why would your mother teach you such terrible things?” He asked. And I felt a twinge of resentment rise within me. Why wouldn’t a mother teach a daughter what she knows? When I think of my disorder I am angry at a lot of things but I am never angry at my mother.
Now that I’m older, I’ve mellowed out in more ways than one. I’ve grown into my features and watched the baby fat slide from my hip bones but it is difficult to shake these habits in the same way that it is difficult to teach a hand to unhold.
These days, when my stomach growls, I give it some food, or I say, “I’m sorry you’re hungry.” On my worst days I still say, “too bad.”
It has been four years since my last self-induced vomit and in that way it is much like sobriety although unlike sobriety, I must have a relationship with food every day. I do not get to choose the moments, the conversations, in which appetites arrive. Hunger comes upon me and I have no choice but to acknowledge its presence, to acknowledge that food is the sustenance of my being, and simultaneously the source of my pain. And while I would very much like to believe that my stomach has evolved into a steel vault, I do not actually get to defy Science. I do not get to ignore food. I do not get to transform beyond. I must maintain this delicate balance and in doing so I am forced to confront my disorder on a daily basis. To choose which way I will sway, though some days it does not feel like much of a choice at all.
I am not sure if this will ever really go away. I am not sure if I can shake the habits.
The truth is, I act as though I don’t know how or why this disorder developed. But I know. I know what happened. Pain does what pain does and sometimes you have no choice but to follow in its wreckage, picking through the pieces and putting yourself back together the only way you know how.
I could explain my vice if I wanted to. We could all explain our vices if we wanted to. If we held still long enough, placed them in a jar, poked at them with a stick, but we won’t. I won’t. I far prefer to fumble through the dark, making band-aids out of boyfriends, counting calories, and smoking cigarettes. I far prefer to hold my cards close. I’ll do anything to keep from holding still.
(Why, hello there. Did you enjoy reading this story? If so, please consider donating below. Brenda is a self-supported artist and every penny counts.)
Only eat until you’re 80 percent full
Never drink your calories
1% milk or lower
If you can’t taste it, don’t eat it
Chew gum not food
Hard candies last longer than soft candies
Nap if you must
If you still want it in an hour, you can have it
Hot sauce makes nothing taste like something
If you really really must eat, ¼ cup of black beans is acceptable
Do not eat while you are driving, writing, talking, or doing anything that can serve as a distraction.
Do not wait too long to eat.
Stay on the verge of always a little hungry but never starving.
Consider each bite.
That’s the sound of you getting skinnier.
Say no in other areas of your life, just to get in the practice of saying no to yourself.
You can eat again tomorrow.
Water down all juice.
Do not drink beer
Do not drink light beer
Do not drink brown liquor
You may drink clear liquor, starting with Tequila, if there is no Tequila you may have vodka, if there is no vodka, you may have gin, on the rocks, no more than three shots, no chasers. Absolutely no beer.
Cigarettes are bad but not as bad as the other things you could put in your mouth.
Feel around for your hip bones, diet accordingly.
Eat half of every thing you’re given.
Go with the salad.
Coffee is your friend.
That’s the sound of you getting skinnier.