Posted by: Chelsea Novak | August 25, 2008

Eating my way out of crazy town

Among the various things I’m in therapy for, my issues with food have proven to be some of the more interesting topics of treatment. Throughout the course of my life, multiple factors have come together to make food and eating a pretty high source of anxiety. So much so, that if tomorrow they were to create a pill that you took once a day and you didn’t have to worry about nutrition, I’d be first in line.

It’s not that I don’t find food satisfying or delicious. Nor is it that I’ve had no exposure to great food. Quite the contrary. Food is amazing and when done right, one of the superlative features of living. Still, it really, really stresses me out.

There are the obvious stressors like what food is good for me and what food will make me fat. These thoughts are what helped me loose all that weight back in 2005 and part of what has inspired periodic bulimia since the age of 15. Positive and negative results. Thoughts that aren’t very unique to me either. They are, however, the tip of an interesting iceberg, or the chocolate sauce on an ice cream sundae of crazy. (I was going to say the chopped nuts, but I’m allergic to peanuts and didn’t want to run the risk of a reaction, even if it’s only in my metaphors).

The next level of anxiety producers are (nice segue) my allergy-based food restrictions. They annoy me and embarrass me. Yes, I have to be careful about peanuts. It’s a dangerous allergy and I have to be constantly vigilant. I also have to be a perpetual downer and pain in the ass for people who want to feed me. I know they don’t want to kill me with their food and they most likely don’t mind accommodating me if they can, but I know that everyone involved would be happier if it just wasn’t an issue.

There are the foods that may kill me and then there are the foods that will hinder me through headaches. Raw onions or some wines to name a few. Too much garlic and my heart races. It’s food I can eat, but I’ll pay for it.

So many boundaries. So many rules. And we’re not even at the best part yet.

You’d think that having food allergies and body image compulsions would be restrictive enough, but I dove head-first into the crazy pool and threw in some more. Here are some of the highlights:

– Super-fast eater: Yes I grew up in a house where we all ate really fast. M eats really fast. In all situations, I am the first one done my meal. And by done my meal, I mean plate cleaned, licked dry if I’m in the right company. I think there are a couple of factors at play. Even though I’ve never had cause to fear for where my next meal is coming from, I eat each meal like it’s my last. Also, spending so much time focused on regimented dieting, I’m usually really, really hungry by the time food is in front of me.

Next, and I think this is the kicker, by eating, it means I don’t have to talk. Dinner conversation? When the food hits the table, I don’t have to stress about thinking of things to say. Just eat and listen. A handy-dandy distraction for the socially anxious.

– Fear of the unknown: There are some parts of my life where I am open to new ideas and experiences. Food is not one of those things. I’m not entirely sure where my notions of what’s tasty and what’s not come from, but when I have them (right or wrong) they are fully cemented in my brain. More often than not, my notions have been confirmed by smelling the new food in question and, in some rare instances, by actual tasting.

I’ve spent some time in therapy addressing this issue in particular. As mental as the other food problems are, this one seems to cause me the most stress. Eating a food I may not like really freaks me out. What if it tastes bad? What if it’s the only food there is to eat? What if I’m wasting food? What if people get upset with me for not liking it and begin to question/judge me?

You may find this comical, but even just writing those four questions set off feelings of anxiety in me.

Because I have so many rules (both rational and irrational) going out for dinner can be a very stressful situation. Friends may note that I just keep going to the same places over and over again. I know that there’s food that I will like there. I will be able to eat the whole meal and I will know that it’s a sure and safe thing. I will be able to enjoy going out for dinner, I will not waste food or money and I won’t have to have the nerve wracking experience of trying to find something I know I will like on a new menu. I’m totally one of those people who can eat the same thing every day and not be bothered by it.

So, so many boundaries. And they’re often tested by a spouse and friends who delight in gastronomical experiences. Many, many times I’ve encountered flavours and foods that have really enriched my life. And by encountered I mean, tried them kicking and screaming all the while.

Therapy so far seems to be all about experiments. Trying things that test my assumptions, usually proving them wrong. This alleviates anxiety. Something I’ve found to be true when applying my experiments to social situations. Now we’re on to food.

One of my experiments is to try a new food each week. Not a big deal for some I’m sure, but for me, not an easy task. It really stresses me out and nothing seems more appealing to me than being my usual belligerent self and sticking to things that are tried and true. But I’m doing it. And no one is happier about this than M is. He’s captain adventure-food and I think with progress in this arena, I’ll be less of a culinary albatross around his neck.

It’s been two weeks since this experiment began and I haven’t as much tried totally new foods as I’ve tried different incarnations of things I know. Preparations I would have previously refused.

So during our recent vacation, I had a seared duck breast, a watermelon salad with feta cheese and balsamic vinegar (three flavours I enjoy independently, but would not ever eat together) and, the biggest deal of all, a burger just the way it was. I only eat burgers with ketchup on them. That’s it. This burger had pancetta bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, a deflamed onion and heirloom tomatoes. I had the burger with all the stuff on it and it was really, really good.

Maybe I’ll be able to stop pinning my hopes on the food pill after all.




  1. For what it’s worth, when I first met you at the Firefox 3 party, you came across as completely put together and in all ways awesome. When I’m in social situations with people I don’t know well, I just come across as awkward and dorky, and I never know what to say. Ever since I was a kid, my biggest fear in most social situations is that I will open my mouth and sound so stupid that my secret will be exposed, and people will realize just how dumb I really am. And so forth.

    How’s that for a random public confession from someone you barely know? 🙂

    Amy (of “Johnathan and”, in case you know more than one!)

  2. Hey, thanks for posting this. I once had a roommate with even more food issues: not just anxiety about food and eating, but an obsession with it as well. Hours in front of the TV watching the food network, reading cookbooks with big glossy pictures…it was sort of like pornography to her.

    Anyway, when we were living together I found it really difficult to relate to what she was going through because she didn’t want to talk about it. Thank you for opening up.

  3. A couple comments:

    First off, way to write. Seriously. Great, real prose, and that’s a hard kind of writing to do without sounding at all whiny or self-pitying. Way to go you.

    Secondly, I know that these kinds of things aren’t really amenable to rational appeals, otherwise they would be “opinions”, not “therapy”, but having said that, if it comes as any kind of relief to hear it: you are phenomenally successful at the illusion.

    Maybe that’s a perverse thing to praise, and I’m sure you’d rather just be free of the whole thing, but if pretending and strategizing is how you get through it, then you should at least know that you pull that off really, really well. As Amy said, the figure you cut is successful, attractive, together, interesting and self-possessed. Nearly intimidating, but certainly not awkward.


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