Earlier today, we were piled in the car on our way to the supermarket and the kids were in the backseat arguing, not over the usual crap—whose hand was touching whose, who should shut up, who should stop singing “Farmer in the Dell” for the one hundredth time, but over, of all things, arithmetic. Addition to be more precise. My son, who is four and stubborn, kept insisting that his big sister’s sums were wrong.
“1 +1 = 2,” she said with a blasé confidence.
“No, it doesn’t. Three,” he said.
“2 + 2 = 4,” she said.
“4 + 1 = 5,” she said, insistent now.
“Six,” he screamed.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does. You don’t know how to add.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“KNOCK IT OFF,” I yelled, from the front seat.
I was never any good at math; numbers are too abstract, too confusing. Both finite and infinite? Signs and co-signs? Now, such terminology reads like cosmological theory: numbers do explain my universe. At least, in the alternate universe of an Eating Disorder, concrete numbers offer tectonic proof, an architecture that shapes your days and decisions: add, subtract, multiply, divide. Less leads to less, never more, nevermore.
What do I mean by this? There is, as you might surmise, the nonstop counting of calories and ounces and quarter cups and teaspoons. Every bite is calculated, translated into Too Much. For instance, 195 calorie breakfast = ½ cup of nonfat yogurt (80 calories), ¼ cup of low-fat granola (100 calories), and ¼ cup of blueberries (15 calories. Yes, sadly even blueberries don‘t get a Free Pass in this rigid system). Repeat the exact same meal for lunch. The monotony ensures safety. And by this I mean that I am secure in the numerical tabulations of those two meals so don’t feel compelled (compulsed, you might say) to throw it all up in the toilet.
Then there’s Obscenely Bad Math. Not the innocuous 4 + 1 = 6, but the kind that kills. A word problem: we all have a Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR (not to be mistaken for BMI, Body Mass Index), which is the rate at which you burn calories in order to sustain life functions at rest at a normal room temperature. That is, the human body needs a minimum number of calories a day to perform necessary, vital functions to keep the brain working, to continue on with the business of life. For a long time, my anorexic brain maintained that my BMR was somewhere in the 500 calories-a-day range. This allowed for the desperate, plummeting subtraction: Less = Less of me, less space that I would occupy, less of the noisy, awkward, lumbering me. My messed-up math? 500 calories - 195 calories = 305, - another 195 calories = 110 calories left for dinner. Better? The days when I skipped meals, all three, and happily (delusionally) became a negative integer (a -500).
Of course, this anorexically invented BMR was crazy. No possible way to sustain life.
And yet, I followed more of IT’s unbending computations:
(8 laps = 1 mile = 100 calories) x 6= 600 erased calories.
Eat ½ of what’s on the plate, then ¼, only 1 bite, now nothing (0).
The scale subtracts pound after pound; any positive increase = 1 more mile, 1 less bite.
All exercise must end on even numbers (i.e., 6 miles, not five; 300 sit-ups not 297).
Clothing sizes minus and minus and minus themselves away until nothing (0) fits, so sweats and potato sacks are the way to go.
Sleep, too, follows this diminishing chain: 6 hours, 5 hours, 3 hours, 1 hour which = absolute, bat shit crazy.
All of this counting and computing was exhausting and claimed all available psychic space. How could there be time for giggles and fingerpaints and cupcake-making? How could there be time to pay attention to anything else besides sneaking in extra sets of sit-ups, counting the number of Frosted Mini-Wheat squares in the bowl, running up 20 steps and down 20 steps and running up and down the steps 50 times a day?
At my first intake evaluation for an Eating Disorders hospital, the scale said I was +5 pounds over admission criteria. “In percentages,” the intake coordinator explained, “you’re only 14% below Ideal Body Weight, 1% shy of hospitalization.” IT decided I had to step things up because obviously, I was still too fat, taking up too much room, was excessive. IT decided that to attempt recovery, drinking smoothies and eating little plates of food and being nice, nice, nice to myself was the easy way out. The only way I was going to “get out” of anorexia was the hard way, crawling on hands and knees, bleeding and starved, without anything and anyone. No easy way out, no relenting, no easing up. Try to back off? Try to soften things up? IT’s attack got more vicious. So nothing – nothing – nothing might = enough
One day, my daughter, all gleeful exuberance, threw her arms around me in an all-out hug. I hugged back, and immediately she let go. “You hurt, Momma,” she said. “I can feel all your bones.”
I do not want to be Skeletal Momma. I do not want to be merely foot bone connected to shin bone connected to thigh bone. I do not want my hugs to hurt. So I eat. Reluctantly. By agreement with my dietician, I am now on a meal plan that has an appropriate BMR and each day, I find myself having to inch my way to that caloric goal--which I can’t yet call my goal, because IT is convinced that More than Less = unhinged gluttony, and eating More rather than Less = the systematic dismantling of all of IT’s scaffolds, joists, and crossbeams that mimic support, order, and control.
IT doesn’t go down without a fight, but these days, I know I’m winning: just this evening I ate dinner by myself (25 points), didn’t purge (at least 25 points), and didn’t even think about counting calories (25 points) = 75 points of health and well-being, of telling IT to fuck off. There's a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie waiting to claim those last 25 points. And when I give my daughter a hug tonight? We’ll both squeeze hard, and the only things I'll be counting are the beats of our hearts which are beating wildly for each other.