Saturday, 30 July 2011

Peace, Love and Sausages

Normally this would be my idea of hell: Someone else’s house, someone else’s choice of meals, someone else’s two-year-old. For days on end. Where there is a lot of talk of food. Where we often don’t eat dinner until north of 9 pm. In a tiny town. And without a gym. In France, for heaven’s sake.

And all of this following two weeks of fairly solid bingeing.

I’ve been in Provence now for nearly two weeks, and although I’ve been working the whole time (and on some stressful stories), this is the most at peace I have ever been. It’s because nowhere in the world and at no other time in my life have I been so calm about food. Not at any spa; nowhere.

I keep trying to isolate what it is; to distill it so I can take it home in a jar, like the lavender honey sold everywhere. Standing in the kitchen hungry at 9 pm, surrounded by food cooking and not having had dinner yet, I pause and think: Why aren’t I panicking? Why don’t I feel the need to have a secret stash of food in my room, so I can nip off and stuff some in my mouth at moments such as this?

Well, it helps that I have spent the week dressed either in pajamas, running clothes, or maxi dresses, aka the daytime nightgown. Not having anywhere much to go = total lack of stress about clothing. Lack of access to any clothes besides those in my suitcase also means I can only get so upset about what does or does not fit, and cannot ruin my day by trying on something too tight. (Well, there are things in my suitcase I’m quite sure don’t fit at the moment after the bingeing, but I’ve either been too cold, sweaty, wet, hungry, tired or busy to start putting on, say, the Courreges I wore to the wedding in London.)

The key thing, though, is that I make few choices about food beyond whether to have more (E or G usually serve me a plate, and one that looks very similar to what they eat) yet never have to worry about whether I will like it, or whether it will be fried or cream sauced to some point that I feel anxious eating it. At the same time, it’s nobody’s idea of diet food: sausage and lentils (it’s been unseasonably cold and rainy), lamb tagine, tuna steaks with caponata, whole wheat pasta with shrimp and eggplant, steak with green beans sautéed in walnut oil. Plus fresh tomatoes and peaches and nectarines and apricots that taste better than almost any I’ve ever had. (Also ice cream. There is a flavor here called café cannelle – coffee and cinnamon – that tastes exactly like spice cake.)

Not once have I tried to estimate the calorie count of what I’m eating. I do have to think when the cheese and bread appear, as they do at almost every meal. Do I need this? (E says cheese is “portion control” in France – people can eat smaller main courses because they know if they’re still hungry the cheese is coming.) I have been eating more cheese than I need, but nothing crazy. And I’m not ever tempted to eat it except when it’s on the table (meaning: I don’t even think about it at other times, including when I open the refrigerator).

I am definitely eating more than I would at home, so only once or twice have I even approached a level of hunger that might ordinarily make me panic. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I can accept being slightly heavier – in other words, that some of this binge weight may not go – in exchange for more peace about and around food. Here I can live with it, but I imagine back in my own world – New York or London – with places to go and people to see, I may wrestle with my until-now everpresent desire to be thinner.

What else? It helps that there is zero judgment of what I’m eating. I don’t feel self-conscious about needing a snack, or going and getting one (often a peach and a square of dark chocolate, or some coconut yogurt and dark chocolate). That, of course, is E’s special gift (and one above all the cooking done, I know, with me in mind) – a calm that diffuses in the air like perfume.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

It's Just Lunch

I could feel it all morning: I was off. I didn’t have the patience for the slightly affected tones in which E. speaks French, or to stand around contemplating food in the crowded market at Apt.

What is wrong with me? I kept thinking. It’s a lovely sunny Saturday in Provence, you’re with a good friend, and this is one of the first weekend you haven’t worked in months and months.

Then I realized: I was anxious because I didn’t know exactly when we were going to eat (E and G were having friends for lunch, but since E and I were buying the food for lunch and it was about noon and we were nowhere near home, let alone a stove…) I didn’t have any snacks on me, and though we were in a food market, what if I became too hungry to choose properly? And then there were all the other anxieties: How is this freelancing thing going to work? What if I never meet anyone? What if I spend my life rarely properly enjoying anything because I’m too worried about the food? And this huge, looming decision to be made by Aug. 1: Should I keep my flat in NYC for another year? (Lease is up Sept. 30, but landlord says I must decide by Aug. 1.) I won’t deny that the pull of this side of the Atlantic is strong when I am here, but at the same time, the thought of moving seems unbearable. The binge-eating counselor I saw in London (my old one; I made an appointment with him while I was there) says he thinks I need to put down roots somewhere, which I agree with – I can’t bounce back and forth. I need routine. And though he has only once ever made an actual pronouncement (about his hatred of BN2), he busted this out: It is my gut feeling you should move back to London. (And no, he is not that badly in need of clients!)

But back to yesterday.

We got back about 1 pm and the guests hadn’t even arrived yet. Deep breath. I popped out for my diet Coke; still no guests. Then I realized I ought to clean up the room I’m staying in, since guests will need to walk through it to get to the bathroom. When they finally arrived, about 2 pm, I asked E. when we’d be eating -- whether we’d be sitting around the garden with aperitifs for a while. We would be, so I had a second peach (I’d had one earlier, at the market). After the success of French Women Don’t Get Fat it’s impossible not to want to watch how French people eat, so I watched our French guests (G’s friend J and her new-ish boyfriend) attack the saucisson and olives, but I didn’t partake.

J, for the record, is lovely, though not scarily chic. She was wearing a white shoulder-baring dress with a bra with clear bra straps, a look I cannot stand. Somehow it made her likeable, though. Well, until I complimented her on her dress, commented I couldn’t wear a dropped waist, and she responded: “Oh, you could. You have a tummy like me and this hides everything.”

It is embarrassing to admit that sitting in a sun-splashed garden in Provence eating lamb and sausages grilled on an open fire with string beans and heirloom tomatoes I could find life remotely tough, but I did. Though I speak other languages, French is not one of them. I can understand some of it if I concentrate hard, but if I dip out for even a second it takes me a while to pick up the thread again. And so instead of being in the moment, I often was in my own head, worrying about everything above – and of course, whether I might be eating too much and whether I’ll ever get any of this weight off and exactly how large I am.

I felt grateful for sunglasses so no one could tell exactly how engaged I was or wasn’t.

When the cheese course came out all I wanted to do was binge. I just wanted to let go of everything, from considering just how hungry I am to where I’m going to live. Plus I felt slightly full already, and I have yet to isolate what it is in me that wants to binge the minute I feel full. (I know, WTF?) I had some cheese and bread – probably more than I needed – and then we stack up the plates as we clear the table. I eyed the leftovers: the lamb fat and the bits of cheese. Disgusting as it is, I would eat that; that’s exactly how a binge would start.

We scrape it all onto a plate and J’s boyfriend volunteers to take it in to the kitchen. I feel disappointed, but also relieved, like someone out there is looking out for me. Then suddenly I’m alone in the kitchen with all of it thinking: I could have some. I could. But hastily I scrape it into the trash and go back to the garden.

There is ice cream – a delicious cinnamon and coffee that tastes like spice cake – and chocolate sorbet and fresh apricots and candied fruit, the last of which is specialty of the region. I have some of all of it, thinking all the while about a wise friend’s diktat that when we want to binge, we should think: What is it I’m afraid of? I also thought about something I read a while ago: Eat for how you want to feel right now. And I wondered why, why, why fullness for me is binge-triggering, and yet again, why I can’t just be in the moment.

We went for a little walk around town after lunch; a very slow walk, because that’s how things go with a two-year-old. I was teased for managing to find shoes to buy (espadrilles – J bought some, though I did not). And then we headed to E. and G.’s bit of the village garden.

“Oooh, there’s some ripe tomatoes,” G. said. “What can I use to carry them?”

And so this is how I put my Burberry Prorsum cardigan in service of something worthwhile, turning it into a sack. Given that I am already being teased for being the only woman to turn up to a medieval village in Cereste with two pairs of Christian Louboutins (hey, I came from London), this seemed impossibly hilarious.

G. snapped a picture. I snapped back into the moment.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Letter from Provence

“It’s like Canyon Ranch,” my friend E. joked Wednesday, after telling me lunch – chicken, a chickpea and bulgur salad, and heirloom tomatoes -- would be ready in about 10 minutes.

“Better,” I said. “At Canyon Ranch I still have to make a lot of decisions about what to eat. You know I don’t do well with choice.”

I’m with E. and her husband and their 2-year-old son in a small town in the hills of Provence. It is exactly as idyllic as it sounds. (Well, except for my staying up two nights in a row to meet a deadline.)

I am teasing them that they should run a writers retreat, because I literally roll out of bed and to my computer and at regular intervals during the day am asked things like: “Are you ready for lunch?” and “You eat fish, right?” Then – because I asked her to; because she is that good of a friend and understands – I get served a plate. I try not to think too hard about the calories or what’s in it and try instead to adopt E’s view, which is that it’s all good, wholesome food, so what could be bad about it?

In not quite three days here, I’ve only become truly anxious about food twice: Yesterday, when I was handed the cheese plate after lunch and had to decide how much to have and wondered if I’d had too much. And this morning, when I had oatmeal for breakfast for the first time in nearly a year and was promptly starving about 20 minutes later, I think from lack of protein and fat with it. (I do occasionally open the refrigerator here and stare at the peach jam and think about eating it plain, something I only do when bingeing, but the thinking is more idle than any actual plan.)

The lack of anxiety about food would be notable even in the best of circumstances. But we are far from the best of circumstances: before I arrived here I binged for four days straight; horrible binges that swept through like tornadoes. Vintage binges: sneaking off to supermarkets, eating my way through airports; reckless binges where I nearly miss deadlines and planes just to get more more more. Binges because my clothes don’t fit and I’m afraid of getting dressed and maybe I’ll just eat more and then deal with it.

The four days of bingeing came after a binge at the wedding, and then, five days later, another three-day binge, followed by a few days of eating haphazardly, procrastinating madly, and generally being furious with myself for not getting work done but also not properly enjoying my time in London because I was worried about getting work done.

It is amazing how months of control can be undone literally in days. It makes me think of all the things I didn’t eat in New York; whether I’d be better off now if I’d eaten some of them. I honestly don’t know. A very wise friend says that I need to get to the point where no food-type situation is so vastly different than any other food situation: In other words, that I am not overly frightened, anxious, puzzled, or, yes, delighted to any binge-inducing extent.

Of course, for me food is just the gas doused on the spark. I don’t binge out of hunger; I binge to forget, to shut my mind down, to blot out fear and anxiety, to avoid doing things and handling situations I don’t think I can. It is classic for me to feel trapped by a particular situation and binge essentially to remove myself from it. Or to not want to do something and to binge so as to render myself incapacitated. Wouldn’t it be easier just to say no, or to say what I am feeling in the first place? Ah, hindsight.


I have written before about binging and the fear that I’ll never be able to stop. I felt it this time, too: fear and despair. I tried to remind myself that I’ve felt this way before and that I do eventually stop, but these binges, like these days, like this period in my life, are so unlike any I’ve ever had before that it was hard to trust. And I’ve never been good at trusting anyone, least of all myself, even at the best of times.

In London, I’d just gotten through three days without bingeing. I was eating a bit more than usual: Ben’s Cookies for snacks; bigger dinners, extra chocolate. But definitely not binges. On the Thursday night, I bought a couple of things for breakfast/lunch – disgustingly, I love carbs in their most naked form, and occasionally allow myself things like Scotch pancakes and crumpets. It’s a texture thing: I love the doughy-ness, and I can (and have) just crammed in one right after the other, feeling them expanding in my stomach.

Anyway, I had to be up at the crack of dawn for a flight, and I ended up staying up half the night doing all manner of procrastination. Partly it was work I’d been procrastinating about for two weeks, and partly it was that the friend I was going to see in Amsterdam wasn’t quite sure when she’d arrive because she was abroad for work and her flight had been cancelled. I got up on Friday after about an hour and a half’s sleep and just thought: I could murder those. And after a few minutes of wrestling with myself, I did. A package of Scotch pancakes. A package of crumpets. Whatever other snacks I had sitting in my bag. It kicked off a massive binge at the airport, which carried on to another massive binge in Frankfurt Airport. Flight break. Arrival at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport followed by more bingeing.

I can’t ever remember a day like that. I can’t remember ever waking up and bingeing almost from the moment I opened my eyes, and bingeing repeatedly in the same day.

I had hours to kill before I could get into my friend’s, and somehow I managed to stop myself from further bingeing, though that night I drank wine, ate a huge plate of fries with mayonnaise plus a (disappointing) rice pudding (this was more semolina; I wasn’t mad on the texture) with whipped cream.

The next morning I couldn’t find anything to wear. Not only were my jeans crazily tight, but my tops are mostly fitted and my stomach was poking out from all of them. It was pouring rain and far too cold for the maxi dress and cardigan combo I’d been slobbing about in in London. I borrowed a t-shirt from my friend and squeezed into my coat.

It’s hard to be calm when with every move you can feel your jeans, like a distress signal. But I tried – and succeeded – to eat exactly as my friend ate all day. Then it was nearly 6 pm and I was starving and we weren’t meeting for dinner until 8:30 pm.

She suggested a cheese sandwich.

I said I was going to buy some diet Coke and that I’d pick up the cheese.

And even though we were going to eat shortly, and even though I hadn’t exactly plotted for this binge (I can recall other binges where I spent hours or at least minutes waiting for my moment to slip off), and even though I knew I’d feel crummy later and even though even though I went down the street and bought a corn muffin and two small hamentashen. Then I went to the supermarket, literally shaking with fear of what I might eat and how miserable I would feel and what I would possibly be able to wear. I debated a package of apple cakes and various other things. What I really wanted was more muffins, but even I was too embarrassed to go back to the bakery. Then I stopped, thought about how miserable I’d feel all evening if I got too full now, and bought a huge chocolate bar with hazelnuts instead. (The calorie savings were negligible, I’m sure, but a chocolate bar certainly isn’t as filling – and exhausting – as a lot of cake.)

I went back to my friend’s and ate the cheese sandwich with butter she made me. If I could have, I probably would have eaten six. Not out of hunger, but out of avoidance: The last thing I felt like doing was trying to get dressed for a night out, especially when all I had access to was the fairly meager (and far too tight) contents of my suitcase – and my friend is an alum of the luxury fashion business.

I had a very summery navy dress with me I didn’t think I could wear because it was too cold and I couldn’t imagine what sort of tights I’d wear with it. But the friend is British and I forget that almost anything in England can be accessorized with black tights. So I ended up wearing the navy dress, black tights, and nude patent wedge espadrilles, not a combination I’d probably ever have left the house in on my own. But I went out and – even though my face was broken out, and even though I was feeling massive, and even though a million things – ended up going home with the only guy in our group, a rather adorable Brit. (But that’s a whole other story.)

The next morning, Sunday, I had the best of intentions, and it started out OK. I had a bowl of cereal and some yogurt, which was a little messy only because I had no idea how much I was eating and I can eat an awful lot of cereal. After a couple of hours the friend had another bowl of cereal, and so I decided to do the same. It got messier: cereal and milk is the sort of thing I binged on as a child. I served myself a bowl and wasn’t sure if it was too much so I took some bites in the kitchen, added a bit more, took some more bites and finally carried it out. That secret eating is always, always messy – once the idea that I can’t have more is in my head (which it is once I think I need to hide how much I really want to eat), things always go downhill.

My friend went back to sleep for a while and later, wanted feta to put on the salad she planned to make. I volunteered to go out and buy the cheese and – you guessed it – binged. A quick and dirty binge, almost a preventative binge; the I-might-be-hungry-later binge mixed with the I-might-want-to-binge-later-but-almost-certainly-cannot binge, and leavened with the desperation of too-tight jeans, no clothing choices, too many days of bingeing, and the fear and anxiety that I will never be able to stop, that really, yes really this is the time I put all the weight back on, and in about two weeks flat. Nor did it help that I needed a trip to the hairdresser, my face was (and is) still recovering from breaking out in hives, I had a story due the next day I still hadn’t started yet, I was afraid of riding a bike in Amsterdam (which she wanted to do), and even more afraid that my jeans would split while I did so – yes, bingeing is about everything and nothing, isn’t it?

That afternoon we rode bikes, ate apple pie, and then I got stuck down the end of the bar at an impossibly trendy restaurant, feeling both incredibly fat and ugly and also trapped. I was seated next to a particularly boy-crazy friend of my friend’s who only wanted to analyze every man in the room. I spent much of the time ruing that I wasn’t working on my story but that I wasn’t having fun either, and the other bit just wishing I could go off and binge. We had cocktails and bar food and later, more junk.

And on it went. Monday I woke up late (I was and am still sleeping haphazardly) and anxious about getting my bike back to the shop and getting back in time to get to the airport. Also, yes, whether my jeans would fit, whether I’d split them on the bike, and whether I’d split them en route to Provence. I proceeded to binge my way through Schiphol, eat airplane food (which I never do, but I must say Lufthansa served this surprisingly delicious cherry cake), and binge more in Frankfurt, nearly missing my connecting flight to buy a pretzel. I arrived in sunny Marseilles wearing jeans and a big jacket to hide the fact that every time I moved my tummy was poking out. (I actually managed not to freak out that my luggage didn’t arrive – almost the perfect excuse to sit around in pajamas for a day. Wheee!)

“Are you cold?” said E., looking concerned. I almost always am, so it was a fair question.

“No,” I said. “I’ve just eaten so much I need to hide.”
I didn’t want to lie, but I hated telling the truth. The past bunch of times I’ve been with E. have all happened to be when I am post-binge fragile. And she is so considerate I want to hug her and beg to stay here for days, and at the same time so blissfully unaware of all the mental ways I contort myself around food that I want to protect her from it. I don’t want her to know, because I love that these things never ever occur to her. And at the same time the fact that these things never occur to her makes me feel a little crazy.

An example: E. cleaned out the refrigerator before I arrived. Even before she knew I’d been bingeing, she wanted me to open it and only see lovely, healthy things to eat: peaches and nectarines (white and yellow), figs, heirloom tomatoes, yogurt, fish, cheese. But one of the first times I opened the refrigerator what leaped out at me was a half-used jar of Bonne Maman peach jam. It’s her mother-in-law’s, she later told me; E. herself doesn’t think it’s great and started rhapsodizing about some homemade peach jam she wants to open. But to me it was a binge food: If there is nothing else to binge on I have been known to binge on, yes, jam – good or bad. Eating jam for me is like when I start picking at the sugar cubes in a restaurant: It means there will be a binge, and it is going to get ugly.

* * *
I last binged Monday afternoon. It’s now late afternoon Friday. I don’t know how or why, but I just got up on Tuesday and put one foot in front of the other. I told E. on Monday night not to let me go to the shops on my own, and I knew just by saying it aloud that I wouldn’t even try. On Tuesday I worked out for the first time since Thursday: a half hour run in the hills that was so unbelievably difficult because I just felt so heavy; my stomach so hugely distended. Wednesday was a little bit easier: I managed 45 minutes. I was pressed for time yesterday and just did 40. I’m managing not to give myself a hard time for the fact that I’m not doing my usual 60, even though my instinct would be that I must must must because of all the bingeing and the fact that I’m not controlling my food the way I normally would.

I’ve had buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes and tuna steak and couscous and green beans and coconut yogurt and peaches and nectarines and figs and strawberries and apricots and a bit of bread. I’ve also had all manner of French cheese and dark chocolate and some seriously delicious Turron ice cream. Occasionally I panic about the portions and whether I’ve eaten too much and the amount of oil and how much more this probably is than what I usually eat. Sometimes I panic slightly because I think I’m hungry and didn’t I eat more than enough for X meal? And then I have a peach or a nectarine and a square of dark chocolate and go back to my work, and my friend, and my life.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Two weeks ago, I walked out of my office in New York for the last time. As usual, I was there much later than my co-workers, and only a couple of people bothered to come by and say goodbye.

Less than 48 hours later, I was on a plane to London. If it’s any indication of where my head was (and is), consider:

--I accidentally put the wrong personal email address for myself on my final work out-of-office message (and my company, which was not very helpful about so many things over the brief period I worked for them, refused to allow me to change it)

--See photo above. Those are two mismatched sneakers I brought with me to London. (I consider myself lucky that I at least have one for each foot.)

I’d like to write something graceful, lyrical and thoughtful about my time in this job and my escape. But unfortunately, I don’t think my writing is graceful, lyrical and thoughtful at the best of times, and certainly not now, after two months of almost no sleep. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. For the month before I gave notice I was waking up just about every hour or not sleeping at all, and during the last month I fared almost as poorly.)

Here is all I can say: The last eight months feel like a bad dream from which I haven’t yet fully woken up. The funny thing is that it already feels like a terribly long time ago – not a way that’s good or bad, necessarily, just a very long time ago. It’s very strange.

I think the whole experience is going to take me a while to work through. I wish it were just a rotten spot, a bruised bit of peach I could carve away with a knife, but it’s made me question everything I know and want and thought I knew and wanted. I feel terribly old, not just because I haven’t had time to do anything about the gray in my hair, but because there are vines of sadness around my eyes that weren’t there before. And my face bears the scars of hives: I started breaking out from the stress and anxiety about two months ago, and the flare-ups continue, probably not helped by my efforts to hide it with makeup.

Yes, I’m a very pretty, happy girl these days.

Er, not so much.

Before you wonder if I’m about to have a Heath Ledger moment, as a dear friend of mine put it delicately, I am not. (I nearly did the weekend of the triplets’ birthday, but that is another story altogether.)

I was going to end with a cheerful list of goals, but honestly, I haven’t got any at the moment other than not to binge (something I have not been successful with thus far on this trip) and – if I am going to procrastinate – at least to use it to do something I enjoy instead of sitting around freaking out about what I’m not doing.

I hope to be more lucid – and more upbeat – in the future, but for the moment, I’m just checking in to say: Whew, I’m glad that’s over, and thanks for sticking by me.