A lot of people who don't know better are dismissive of eating disorders. In particular in the case of restrictive disorders, the reaction is often along these lines: "why don't you just eat a cheeseburger / pizza / sandwich?". You can insert several different foods here, but it's often a high calorie density food, and likely one of the foods most likely to scare the size-0 pants off of a disordered eater.
On the one hand, this is a comment which often comes from well-meaning but under-educated individuals. To the disordered eater, it can be offensive, dismissive, and just not appropriate.
On the other hand, they have a point. Why not just eat a freaking sandwich?
I've chosen to go with sandwich here because sandwiches were (and still are) a big fear food for me.
When I used to work at a stationery company in Seattle, there was a locally famous sandwich place nearby. Every now and again we'd have an outing there. This place made great big hulking greasy sandwiches. Everyone loved them.
I loved and craved sandwiches. But I feared them.
An outing to this sandwich place would, for me, be planned out days in advance. I would suggest to my co-workers that we go for lunch on, oh, wednesday, and hey, why don't we go for sandwiches? On the day of, I would eat only an apple and coffee for breakfast. I would be so wound up from my preparations for this sandwich that I would be antsy while I waited for my order.
That first bite made it all worth it, though. It was like biting into pure joy.
Unfortunately, none of the succeeding bites ever seemed to satisfy. It was like the experience was already over just as it had begun. It reminds me of a quote from Winnie the Pooh:
“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.”
It was like it was all about the anticipation: the reality always seemed to ultimately disappoint.
I always told myself I'd only eat half of the sandwich. I always ate the whole thing. Usually not all at once; I'd eat half, wrap the rest, and say was for tomorrow. Fast forward 20 minutes, and I was eating it in a bathroom stall at work, where I could hide and be alone. I'd chastise myself about how many calories sandwiches have. Then I would eat a carrot and a spoonful of peanut butter for dinner, and would wake up starving the next day.
This turned the "treat" of the sandwich into a big extended punishment. I was punishing myself even while I ate the sandwich.
My intent here is to show you that for an anorexic, it is possible to eat a sandwich. But it's a far more loaded experience than you might think.
But the way I was eating sandwiches was not "just eating". It was an elaborately executed eating experience. For someone with an eating disorder, they can't "just eat". Or if they can, then well, I want to know their recovery plan so I can follow it to the letter.
When I entered recovery, I generally avoided trigger foods like sandwiches because I considered them more trouble than they were worth. For me, this included sandwiches, pizza, pasta, burritos, French fries, and chips. And for a long time, they were more trouble than they were worth.
However, now that I am in a more advanced stage of recovery, I have been revisiting the concept of "why don't you just eat a sandwich?".
Because at this point, I am at a normal weight. I am not quite eating intuitively, but for the first time since the onset of my eating disorder that really feels possible.
Now, I am beginning to take a look again at my fear foods, and to challenge them. I don't mean that I am going on a binge and only eating those foods to get over my fear of them. Because quite honestly that would make me fear them more.
But I am looking at the fear.
What would be the worst thing that could happen if I ate a sandwich?
- I would get fat.
- I would feel bloated.
- I would feel the need to starve myself for the rest of the day.
- I just wouldn't feel "right" all day.
And once I've declared these fears, it's time to evaluate them and do a cost-profit analysis. How might I benefit from eating a sandwich?
- I would enjoy the taste.
- I would be eating in the way a normal person eats. Normal people eat sandwiches, right?
- I would be eating something hearty that would give me energy to do things.
The point is not to force these foods back into my life. Maybe they really are more trouble-making than pleasure-making. But I want it to be a choice to not eat these foods because they don't make me feel good, not because I feel I can't.
So while I am still not eating sandwiches all the time, I have created a plan of ways to make them less scary to me. Here they are:
How to feel "safe" with my trigger food
1. Eat it for breakfast. I tend to eat more in the morning, so that is a good time to eat a heartier meal. Plus, I like egg sandwiches, and breakfast sandwiches are often (not always) smaller than lunch sandwiches.
2. Eat half, but have something else. Half a sandwich is never enough, but the whole thing makes me feel guilty. The solution? Have half of the sandwich but pair it with something else substantial. A side salad, an apple and slice of cheese, etc. Because I know that half thing will drive me nuts.
3. Deconstruct it. A sandwich is scary, but when I pull it apart, there's not evil in it. Actually it's just turkey and cheese and pesto or something like that. If I had this as a salad with bread on the side it's not so scary.
4. Eat it on a day where I have food freedom--that is to say, I am responsible for my food decisions on that day and don't have situations such as a party I'm going to etc where I don't know what the food options will be.
These are some of the ways I have been dealing with my fear food. For me, they have been very effective. For one thing, it has garnered more self-awareness about situations where I do and do not feel safe, and it allows me to reach out and try something a little scary while still feeling like I have a safety net.
Sandwiches are really not the issue, in case you haven't gotten that yet. Yes, they have become an issue, but the real question is not "what's the worst thing that could happen if you ate a sandwich"--in truth, it's this: