My Lifelong Problem With Food

Anorexia is an acute inability to love and accept oneself, and although I'm in recovery, it's a struggle every day

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I learned how to enjoy a big meal with my family pretty early on. Our favorite place was Mario's, on Horace Harding Blvd. in Queens. We started with a pizza, then had an appetizer of baked clams oreganata, THEN had individual entrees. Jesus, that was a lot of food!

We loved to eat and, as is the case with a lot of families, eating was our purest expression of love. So, not surprisingly, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It's cozy and fun, to say nothing of how much I love the traditional dishes. But, in 1977, I couldn't eat Thanksgiving dinner. I went upstairs to my bedroom instead. My sister, Leslie, found me, crying.

"What's wrong?" she asked me.

"I'm scared of the food," I said. "I'm afraid I'll eat too much and I'll get fat."

I was 22 years old, 5' 4", and I weighed about 85 pounds.

I was truly and honestly terrified of the food. How does everyone else do it, I wondered? How do they fill up a plate with food and eat it and not hate themselves afterward?

You see, I loved perfection. That must be why I've always loved math. It's perfect. There's only one answer to a math problem. I know when I'm right. There's no gray area. But when it comes to food, I don't know the right answer. I'm a recovering anorexic. Sure, the food plays a big part in it, but it's always been more than that.

I soon fell out of love with food and fell in love with being skinny. My perfectionism went awry. After unhappy years at home, particularly in high school, when I started to gain some weight, I went away to college. There, I finally found myself and my people. I was having a great time. My best friend was Lauren, a very pretty, confident girl. We met during freshman year and were pretty much inseparable.

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Although I was mostly happy, I still weighed too much for my liking, so I went to a quack diet doctor that a lot of girls on campus were going to see and got a prescription. I used the pills judiciously, not every day, and gradually began to lose some weight.

Then something happened that set off a switch in me. Lauren and I were unhappy with our roommate situation and were trying to decide whether we should move out of our apartment or not. Lauren decided to stay and told me that whatever I decided would be OK.

After a lot of hand-wringing, I decided it was best for me to move out. Lauren became hostile and mean and then just stopped talking to me altogether. I didn't understand what I had done to deserve this treatment and felt utterly abandoned. I had been so sure about her. How could I have been so wrong? Where was my judgment? Was this really my fault? I was so confused and didn't know who to trust—and that included myself.

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I decided to get myself together, so I left school and moved back home. Instead, what I did was lose more weight. I wanted to be the skinniest person in the room. Then I'd be lovable and desirable and special. No one would ever ignore me again.

I went from weighing 127 pounds to 120 to 115. Still too fat. I kept going. Down, down, down. Nope, not thin enough.

Which isn't to say I wasn't hungry. Oh, man, I was hungry! But I couldn't eat, I wouldn't eat; I had to keep losing weight. Yes, everyone thought I looked thin, but I knew the truth. Everyone else just didn't get it. At the time, I remember feeling superior and more powerful. Look at those poor people who have to eat, I thought, they have to give in to their hunger. I don't. I'm strong.

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I was anything but. Over a period of about three years, I went from 127 to 84 1/2 pounds. That's how I weighed myself: in fractions of a pound. I had lost a third of my body weight.

I thought this would make me happy, being the skinniest person in the room, yet I was miserable. I still thought I weighed too much.

I didn't feel powerful anymore. The thing that I thought I could do better than anyone else—controlling my weight—was now in control of me. The tables had turned and I was sick. I was anorexic at a time when people were only just learning about the disorder.

My family and I entered therapy together and, as a result of that and years of my own therapy, I've been in recovery for more than 30 years. I've put on weight and no longer starve myself.

However ... I still love perfection and I still think I weigh too much, at about 110. At 62, my body is changing. It's falling, dammit! My waist is making its way down to my hips. Where the hell are my hips supposed to go? I don't like it one bit and there isn't anything I can do about it. None of us can control time.

And, honestly, do I really want my legacy to be a flat stomach? When I'm gone, do I want people to say, "Boy, Cathy really had a great six pack"? Is that the be all and end all?

Actually, you know, that sounds pretty good. Hey, I told you I still struggle. Of course, I don't want that to be my raison d'être. The bottom line with anorexia is an acute inability to love and accept oneself. I've worked hard to change that for most of my adult life. It's a job that starts in the morning, ends at night and starts all over again the next day.

In recovery, I'm now part of the human race, no better or worse than anyone else. We're all in this struggle together. And it's a beautiful, joy-filled struggle.

I'll always love the perfection of math, but life is not a math problem, and that's what's so great about it.