… I don’t know. And maybe, that’s okay.
Hear me out:
Calorie counting. If you struggle with it, you relate to Lily Collins in Netflix’s “To The Bone” scene when her sister refers to her calorie counting as ‘calories aspergers’, and if you don’t – I can only beg that you never attempt to. ((Also, I originally entitled this post Calorie Asperger’s in light of this scene – but it is insensitive to co-opt the two, so I changed it.))
Coming off a weekend in Texas. Ate a lot – drank some wine. Went to my 10-year high school reunion and visited family. Feeling uncomfortably full as I write this – sipping a vanilla latte; ordered it and forgot to ask for nonfat milk, which made me laugh a little because I immediately thought to myself “Wonder how many calories that adds on?”
Some things never change.
You know that scene in Good Will Hunting? The 1997 movie about Matt Damon as this poverty-stricken Boston math genius. Beautifully written (RIP Robin Williams). But, there’s that scene where Matt Damon is told he has this ‘ability’ to solve math equations faster than anyone ever. He’s the best in the world – has a unique brain that rattles off numbers.
There’s a parallelism that resonates here with calorie counting for me, which leads me to this post.
I started counting calories at 16 years old.
It was 2006 and my best friend was still alive; he and my German foreign exchange boyfriend sitting in the seats of his 2005 white Montero in my driveway.
They came over one night – a Tuesday, I believe.
Hungry – they raided the cabinets. “Your family eats like rabbits,” Bradley, my best friend, complained. “With all your nuts and your carrots.”
We went to the grocery store.
I have this vivid image – the two boys throwing produce back and forth in a Tom Thumb. Pineapples. Acting as teenagers do.
Bradley punted a pineapple – Manny missed. It smashed onto the ground and in turn we had to buy it; the juice leaving a puddle on the floor.
Remember little things about that night – feelings towards Manny. Bradley rolling his eyes as we perused aisles. “I hate you both,” he sighed when we made out by Oreos.
We smiled; love-drunk the way young people are. I still think, sometimes, the best parts of love are at their peak when you’re young and invincible.
We came back to my house; lined the plastic bags of food next to one another on my parents granite.
Bananas, strawberries, blueberries, granola. Light N’ Fit yogurt because I’d noticed it was ”healthier” than my Trix kids yogurt.
The boys bought hot pockets – frozen taquitos. I scolded them lightly. Mostly to remind them that I had chosen healthier options. (I think I ultimately thought Manny would find me more attractive and ‘mature’ for eating well.)
We made parfaits. Bradley joking “I’ll take a small one. Don’t want too much of your healthy crap.”
Remember Manny walking up as I cut bananas. “Lemme show you how to slice them,” he whispered. “You get more bang for your buck if you slice vertically and then horizontally.”
I later wrote a short story entitled that: “Thanks for teaching me how to slice bananas.”
First loves forever cut deep.
They left later – peeling out, the two of them, stuffed to the brim on hot pockets, taquitos and yogurt. We were young and life was simple. I don’t know why I sat at my desk that night – full from the yogurt; uncomfortable – and made the choice that I did. But, that’s life I suppose.
The anxiety churning. That cycle “you can get rid of it. You shouldn’t. You could. You might. You failed. You’re huge. It’s sticking to your insides.”
At that time, anorexia had already flared its nasty head months prior, but I was young and I suppose “new” to the eating disorder life.
I wrote the calories down ‘just to see’. Marked in a diary. Adding it up. It felt I was in control again – that momentary forgiveness for ‘doing something about it.’
I looked at the back of the granola bag; bug-eyed.
THERE’S THAT MUCH SUGAR AND CALORIES IN LITTLE BITTY GRANOLA?! I thought, envisioning how much 2/3 a cup was and if I had had that. I THOUGHT I WAS BEING HEALTHY. WHAT ELSE HAVE “THEY” (America) INJECTED THIS MUCH SUGAR IN?!
I jumped on Google – or whatever was Google then – and pondered food I regularly ate that I had conveniently ‘ignored’ the calories on.
Sonic Grilled Cheese?
Bean and cheese nachos at Taco Bueno?
HOW AM I NOT BIGGER?! THANK GOD I CAUGHT THIS EARLY. I was manifesting.
If I could take back any moment in my eating disorder, it’s that realization.
That real, definitive moment of calorie counting. Reading articles that night laced with fear tactics about sodium and fat and carbs and this or that.
It changed everything – forever.
Without proper education, we grow fear. We harbor it because we don’t have the logic to counter it.
And if you read headlines on food articles, it almost always comes with a hint of marketing anxiety purposely trickled into the words.
“5 WAYS TO BURN STOMACH FAT” “WHY YOUR MIDSECTION STORES FAT” “THIS IS WHY AMERICANS ARE FAT”
The message screams to be cognizant and conscious of what you’re putting in your mouth, and from that night onward I wrote calories in the back of a dirty, ripped spiral I hauled around like the Bible to each of my high school classes.
Did I know it was extreme? Sure. I don’t believe that there’s a soul out there who can’t look inward and know that what they’re doing is taking away from the joy in their life.
However, I had a rigid belief that if I stopped – if I put that pen down – there’d be a consequence of not knowing. A mortal sin of being ‘unaware’ of my body or my calorie intake.
I believed I was diligent. Smarter. It made me feel smug.
It went on this way for a year. You repeat something enough – it fastens into habit. And there was something about the counting, the methodology behind it – that gave me instantaneous comfort.
I graduated, went to college – hauled around my insecurity like a blanket from party to party. Escaping it momentarily on an elliptical or bent over a toilet – perhaps distraction through a box of cereal. (Special K, of course, cause #healthy)
Life was good – it should’ve been good. I was adjusting, making friends. I was on my own. On the cusp of the world:
And then my best friend died one month into my freshman year – my beautiful Bradley. As I’ve written before – and will again, innocence ended that September morning with 76 missed calls. I don’t write that for pity, only reality.
Some pains are too unbearable to stop talking about, as though if you did – you’d release the tourniquet around your heart, and bleed out onto the pavement.
One day he was there – in a moment he wasn’t; lifeless on a stretcher in a white button down, Wrangler jeans. Dirty clothes in a dorm room.
He died in the middle of a sentence. A whole life.
Do you ever, truly, come to terms with it? I don’t know.
Anorexia was my answer. I counted calories to distract pain. It gave me something to do in the sea of grief. Like a pool raft to clutch onto as I drowned.
Feel pain? Block it out. Count. Count again. Count fucking again. Did you add it up correctly? DID I INCLUDE THE PIECE OF ORBIT GUM? THE 3 ALMONDS?
Nope. START OVER. Count again.
Use a calculator. Add.
How many pieces am I allowed? How many have I already? What is my goal? How much exercise will it take to get rid of it?
How do I make that number 0. How can I shrink?
How can I show you I’m hurting.
I’m hurting. My best friend is dead and I am lonely. In bed at night shivering – alone.
Society has this way of telling you to not make anyone uncomfortable.
How are you doing? People asked.
Fine, I’d say. Fine. Thank you for asking. His family is doing well. We are all well. He was a good boy.
We’re all well as we suffocate into our pillows at night.
Yes yes, all well, I’d smile.
You shouldn’t have climbed that tree, Bradley.
You had my letter in your backpack. You read it – you fool.
A sentence: “You’ll die,” it says somewhere. “And if you die, my beautiful friend – I’ll neva’ forgive you.”
You died anyway.
I hated you and I loved you – all in a way I never got the chance to say.
And so the grief cycle goes.
I was 18 and didn’t have coping skills, hadn’t needed them. So I created.
It makes sense when you connect the dots.
You do something long enough, it becomes habit. So, I sat in a psychology 101 at 18 years old and in spiral notebooks, I wrote calories in a line; a grocery list.
Apple – xx
7 bites of cookies – xx+- 10 calories
Years go by, and it stuck, like memorizing a monologue. I’d walk through grocery stores looking at labels on prepackaged food. Googling this. Googling that.
The calories in a macaroni n’ cheese serving; a cup of cereal. An orange. A Granny Smith apple vs a Gala.
It dictates everything – this little habit. It becomes part of your thought process – as ingrained as brushing your teeth in the morning. You stop looking at food as food – and only in numbers.
Eat this, not that, we’re told. The sodium content – the fat grams. The carbs.
Don’t eat too much fat – added sugar is ‘bad.’ Carbs will stick to your ass.
On it goes.
Calorie counting should be a skillset we include on a resume.
Hard to unlearn even when you want to.
We are human and like Pavlov’s dogs, we train ourselves to do something enough, it becomes ingrained.
Calorie counting is instinct. It’s intrinsic to who I am – was.
Woven into my veins, in a sense, the way we’re born writing (typically) with our left or right hand.
You can’t unlearn habits in an instant. You break them – and then fall prey to them. Over and over again.
3 years in recovery, I still see a box of crackers and a number flashes across the inside of my brain.
It’s muddled these days. Fuzzy. A 20/10 vision where I often find that I envision the number, see the serving size, and I am unsure how correct it is anymore.
I don’t check – mostly, at least. That is progress.
Grab a box – throw it in my grocery cart. “Imagine it’s probably 5 crackers at XX calories,” I’ll think haphazardly as I stroll.
It ends there.
That, to me, is progress.
Man there is a lot of sugar in a coke, my dad said this past weekend.
XX, I said – without thinking. Or perhaps, wanting to still show off my calorie counting abilities because it is still a lingering point of ED pride.
Close, he said. XX.
Shit, I laughed. Used to know that like the back of my hand.
In rehab, it was excruciating in the beginning. The calorie counting so unyielding I couldn’t stop adding if I tried.
Forced to eat everything on our plates, I knew without wanting to know. I knew because I truly couldn’t stop my brain from doing it.
However, the interesting part about that ultimately came in knowing the calories, regardless if I wanted to.
Once my weight stabilized, I noticed that even with what felt like an astronomical amount of calories consumed on a daily basis, my weight didn’t change.
You’re eating balanced meals, my dietician said – grinning as I expressed a mix of shock and confusion. Calories can fluctuate, she said. As long as you’re getting what you need.
Whatta concept, I joked. So, can I ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ this calorie shit?
Unfortunately, I don’t think so, she said.
The first year into recovery — I worked at a PR firm in New York. My work husband and I meandered the halls to get a snack every day, on cue, at 4pm.
We had a game.
How many in this? He’d ask – tossing me a bag of Cheez Its and grabbing one for himself.
XX, I’d say, looking at the bag’s size. XX grams of carbs. Maybe XX of fat?
He’d look at the back. Man, you’re crazy.
This? He’d ask – pointing to a drink in the vending machine.
Don’t recognize the label, I’d say. But, if it’s anything like XX brand, I’d go with XX calories and at least XX grams of sugar.
He’d buy it, we’d peer in the window, watch as the bottle fell from its place. Look at the back.
YOU’RE WRONG! He’d say, triumphantly. Close on the sugar though.
I’d grin. We’d walk out.
I’m working to unlearn.
The foods you eat often, once memorized, are hard to forget completely.
Restaurants put calories on their menu items now, which is a whole separate hardship to escape. Doubt I’ve ever ordered anything that has over a certain calorie count once I see it.
But, hey, that’s where I’m at.
I imagine, truthfully, I’ll always recall the cereal calories in a cup. The sugar.
I assume I’ll always remember calories in a medium sized banana or calories in 2 tablespoons of hummus.
I’ve accepted that, and I’m forgetting other things — slowly.
Growing rusty, unused in my brain center. Kinda like when you cram in a bunch of information the night before a test, take it, and walk out sighing. “I’ll never remember all that but I think I got an A.”
A meal is put in front of me, I often recognize that I have no idea what that number could be.
Do I guess a bit? Sure. But, I have no idea. And it’s okay.
There’s no more days of perusing ‘Eat This Not That’ articles. No ‘Top 10 Highest Calories Foods.’ I’ve forgotten, aside from Cheesecake Factory, which restaurants are ranked the “worst” in terms of health in America.
Over the last year in particular, I go days without a clue as to how many calories have been consumed. Will eat a KIND bar in the morning and recognize the XX calories, but that’ll be it. I’ll have meals that same day with no clue as to what they add onto the full count.
If you stop playing an instrument, you can still pick it up again. But, you’ll miss a beat. Forget the pieces you memorized. Maybe be able to play from memory for a few stanzas or chords. But, you won’t play perfectly anymore.
Your brain absorbs other things; life.
This is recovery in a nutshell. Allowing life to sweep into the rigidity of your eating disorder.
Allowing the messiness of existing to replace habits.
We will always carry around our eating disorders like backpacks you see kids drag along by the strap on a dusty road.
Inside, they carry a wealth of crumpled anorexia homework and binge book reports that we got A’s on for years.
But, ultimately, it’s just homework and we can decide whether or not we save that info, or discard it.
We can clean out the backpack. One crumpled sheet at a time.
Recycle paper, we tell people.
Recycle your experience for someone else so we can all talk about this shit and know we’re not alone.
Lighten the load – one paper at a time.