Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Only Living Figs in New York

I ended this year's Thanksgiving dinner upright (though just barely), and still wearing the clothes I'd worn at the start of the meal (though stomach straining against the tight-to-begin-with waistband). I went to sleep just past midnight, uncomfortably full.

I consider this progress. Maybe even major progress.

Last year, for example, I ate and drank so much that I could not eat any dessert, not even with the Thanksgiving-mandated several-hour break. And that, my friends, is saying something, considering the vast quantities of food I am capable of consuming during a binge. I was beyond full and sweaty and could not sleep that night. My back hurt, always the sure sign of a horrible binge – my theory is that my stomach is so distended that it pulls at my back.

In previous years I have nearly passed out from the amount of food I've consumed, and woken up in the middle of the night, hating myself and wondering how much of my insane behavior other people noticed.

But this year I felt like I overate like something approaching a normal person, whatever that is. I ate a lot, that is for sure. And then there was this messy behavior: While the rest of the family went on a post-prandial stroll (I was too cold and so stayed home with my sister's sister-in-law, who was too full to move), I attacked the cheese plate I'd ignored before dinner. And I had a few handfuls of chocolate chips, a few chocolate mints, and some dried figs. And a spoonful of peanut butter. And a couple of toddler-friendly vanilla cookies. Don't ask.

Still, though. It could have been much, much worse. When they returned and we had dessert, I left over part of what I liked the least (my sister's homemade Boston cream pie). I didn't feel at all well, but I didn't think I was going to have to lie down on the floor and pray silently to be put out of my misery.

The next day I woke up feeling, well, not great. But I could put my jeans on (there have been years where this has not been easy). I didn't feel hungry, exactly, but nor did I have either the I'm-stuffed-from-the-night-before feeling or the post-binge stomach-stretched ravenousness. And I did not go to the gym, something I also consider progress. Not only do I not need to work out every day (and I had done so in the few days pre-feast, and on the day itself), but I do not need to contort myself into crazy sleep-deprived overscheduled insanity to work in a workout (something of which I have been and still occasionally am guilty).

I don't know why I didn't expect, though, that the day after Thanksgiving would be at least as hard if not more so than the day itself. I struggled not to binge on what felt like a second-by-second basis.

I wanted my snack right after breakfast -- something that happens a lot, frankly, but this was with unusual intensity. Then we went to the Newseum – given that it's about the news business, not my first choice of museum, but never mind – and all I could think about was sneaking off to the cafe to binge.

Later on, when I realized I had enough time to skip the subway and walk across town, almost every step was excruciating. Although it was a beautiful sunny day – so warm even always-cold me didn't need a coat – it was a tour of binges past and, please please not, I hoped as I walked, present.

Almost every shop and restaurant set off a binge memory – buying food, needing food, wanting food. Even the White House itself wasn't exempt: I flashed back to a New Year's Eve at least a decade ago, where I'd lost some weight but had begun bingeing again. I took a brisk run to the White House before slipping into my dress for the evening, hoping desperately the exercise might (a) help my dress fit and (b) hit some sort of reset button and stem the disastrous tide of overindulgence. (The dress fit, but barely, and I binged that night.)

I passed 2000 Penn, a little shopping center where I used to sneak to binge sometimes from work. That's if I made it that far: there were three Au Bon Pains within a block of my office, plus a Borders with a cafe that sold crumb cake with inch-thick sugary streusel topping.

And when I reached Foggy Bottom, I eyed the Whole Foods bakery warily. I thought both about how much damage to myself I could have done at the place years ago -- and how much I could still do at that moment.


Just before 5 pm on Thanksgiving eve, I received an email from my sister requesting black mission figs.

I do not do well around food – well, food when combined with family – unless I am eating it, so I had timed my arrival to avoid a lot of the food prep. (If this sounds ridiculously selfish, please consider that my brother-in-law loves to cook, my sister loves to bake, and their kitchen barely has space for two of them. Plus everyone else was also turning up on Thanksgiving in time to eat.)

I also particularly struggle with grocery shopping for unfamiliar items – the hunt through shops forces me to consider all sorts of items I would usually bypass, and often, just considering them makes me crave them. You can only imagine what sorts of things there were to look at in shops on the night before Thanksgiving – and how intense the crowds were.

I rolled my eyes at my sister the martyr – since when did our Thanksgiving dinner ever include black mission figs with goat cheese crostini, and frankly, wasn't there going to be enough food anyway?

Once upon a time I might have made a quick check of a shop or two and told her I couldn't find them. (Or maybe I would have used the hunt as a binge excuse, and so not made it all that far? That's possible, too.) But I genuinely wanted to be helpful, and so went out in the pouring rain to at least six specialty shops. I knew it was useless to try the phone at that point – all the lines would be engaged.

(Note: The questions I received when enquiring about figs were ridiculous. I particularly enjoyed: "Why didn't you look earlier in the week?" My response: "Why didn't you stock more figs?")

As I trekked around Lower Manhattan I mentally sang "The Only Living Figs in New York" to the Simon & Garfunkel tune, and almost enjoyed the hunt.
I finally found 10 figs (my sister had requested 20), and packed them in an egg carton so they wouldn't bruise during transport.

The morning of Thanksgiving, as I schlepped to Penn Station with my bags while babying the figs, I watched people carefully carrying all manner of food. Sometimes, we smiled knowingly at each other. I filled up on the feeling of being a part of something, at least for a few minutes.


Thanksgiving launches five of the toughest weeks of the year for me – and it only seems to get worse as the years pass.

My grandfather died on Thanksgiving eve – the table already was set for the feast – when I was five. My grandmother died on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year. My mother died the week before Christmas 2003 -- and her birthday is the first week in December.

My father's birthday is December 13, and although he's very much here, it serves as a reminder of a relationship with which I struggle – and about which I feel immensely guilty and sad. Chanukah usually does little more than breed a bit more resentment: My father does not acknowledge the holiday for his daughters (he doesn't always acknowledge birthdays either, though I must note he has observed both of these for girlfriends). And I think of the cards – and the familiar, distinctive handwriting – that always used to arrive from my mother and grandmother.

I could go on, but I won't.

A friend calls this season the Bermuda Triangle. Here's hoping I don't disappear into my head – or the food.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Five Years

Five years ago, I got as fat as I've ever been and then proceeded to get fatter: bingeing at my sister's wedding, gorging myself on lobster spaghetti and arroncini at Tom and Katie's wedding, and finally, eating so much chocolate and drinking so much wine at Thanksgiving dinner in Rome that I could not crawl out of bed for hours the next day.

I arrived back in London on the Sunday in time to meet a friend in from the US for lunch at Ottolenghi, where I may in fact have not eaten a thing. I remember that even though it was a Sunday and I may well have binged at breakfast or at least, eaten poorly, I started my diet as soon as I landed back in London.

That was five years ago today.

Since then I lost a job and a grandmother and survived both an abusive relationship with a very damaged man and having so little money there were days I could not afford even to take the bus. I left a city I loved and a life that felt like it finally was falling into place for a job I ended up hating more than anything else I've ever done and a city in my home country, that, although packed with more people per square inch than almost any, can make you feel curiously alone and apart.

I left the horrible job and fled back across the Atlantic for a few weeks, where I proceeded to binge without stopping, huge scary embarrassing binges of the kind that make you fear you will not – simply cannot – ever stop. The kind where things that fit at the beginning of the day don't fit at the end, and where all you can think about it getting more and yet what you're going to do if you can't stop and getting more and how awful it is that you can't stop and more please more. And you're exhausted and ready to jump out of your own skin and ready to do anything tells you to do just to stop – but oh first let me just have another Ben's Cookie. Or three.

And life shrinks as you get bigger. Mine does, anyway. As I have said before, no physical exercise exhausts me as much as constant bingeing, and that lethargy from being too full. And then feeling like I need to hide because I have stacked on so much weight.

And somehow I string together a couple of days of not bingeing and I think maybe maybe I'm going to be OK and then I fall headlong again, like one of those nightmares where I'm falling – a huge, long fall and there's nothing to grab on the way down to stop myself.

But somehow I do. And I string together enough days of eating and something approaching sanity that if they were pearls, I'd have enough for a necklace.

Or, um, something like that. Maybe I should say something, um, less crazy-sounding than that.

And life is tiny and I feel like a bath bomb of resentment exploding and fizzing everywhere. Why can't I just eat this? Why can't I just eat that? Why can't I just be normal already?

And the feeling passes.

And I do a lot of spinning and running and very occasionally, some yoga. And I eat a lot of Kashi Go Lean and Fage Greek yogurt and whole wheat tortillas stuffed with veggie omelets and cheese, and also blintzes and squares of dark chocolate and very occasionally, biscuits of the American variety.

And slowly I can wear things that are not the one maxidress I survived most of the summer in.

I don't know what I weigh right now – I don't weigh myself at the moment – but I can wear most of my clothes.

And I cannot believe it's been five years since I weighed nearly 250 lbs.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Zen and the Art of Cleaning Baby Puke

Have you ever wanted to rip a pizza slice out of the hands of a passerby or break the glass on the toppings bar at the ice cream shop so you could scoop up huge handfuls of chocolate chips and cram them in your mouth?

I thought not.

And for the record, I've eaten very well this weekend. Some days, I guess, are just like this.

A couple of weekends ago, I found happiness while holding my breath, cleaning baby puke out of the crevices of the stroller.

I went down to Washington DC to visit my 16-month-old triplet nephews, whom I have dubbed the trifecta of cuteness. One of the 'phews – Ethan, I'm looking at you – threw up while at a Halloween event at the zoo. (And none of them even eat candy yet, so just think about the, erm, treats future Halloweens may have in store for my poor sister. Or would that be tricks?)

When we got home, my sister and her husband were exhausted and decided they'd leave the stroller outside and clean it properly in the morning. I, too, was tired, and it was dark and freezing outside. But I marched out there with paper towels and disinfectant and proceeded to spend 20 minutes doing a proper job cleaning it. As the Girl-Most-Likely-to-Be-Carsick, I know very well that if puke is not cleaned up promptly, the smell can linger for months. Plus it would be 10 times as hard to clean in the morning.

As I carefully wiped down each little buckle and checked for stray, erm, chunks (sorry), I felt this huge rush of joy. I realized that as recently as a few months ago, I would have done a cursory job, wanting to be helpful (or realizing I should be) yet unable – or unwilling – to follow through.

What does this have to do with food and bingeing, you ask? When I was at my sister's I had not binged for nearly seven weeks, and there is a subtle pink glow – OK, sometimes very, very subtle -- even to crummy days and crummy situations. Which is to say: I feel happier and lighter, and that makes me want people I love to feel the same way. And I am not too fogged out by food – or grumpy-hungry from starving myself – to stand outside and do something useful.

And I genuinely wanted to do it – not just get credit for it. Part of that is because for the first time in about three years, I did not arrive at my sister's super-fragile or otherwise on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I realized as I sat in my sister's kitchen that every time I have been there since the beginning of 2009, I've either been in that horrible relationship with BN2, struggling to recover from that (plus huge financial worries), and then struggling in New York. I also realized that although my sister has never been my biggest or most supportive fan – and although we have a fractious relationship – she has never made me feel like I was too much to deal with, or that my presence was in any way an imposition. (And I'm sure at some points it was.)

I came back inside and put the disinfectant away. About 20 minutes later my sister came downstairs and wearily said to her husband: "I'll deal with the stroller tomorrow."

"Beth did it," he said. (Was that surprise I detected in his voice?) "She spent like 20 minutes out there."

"Thanks," my sister said. Then the next morning she showed her gratitude by, erm, reading the text messages on my phone and yet denying it when I caught her red-handed. Some things never change, I guess.


As of today it's been 68 days without a binge, and the past couple of weeks have had their share of challenges: the visit to my sister's, a trip to Chicago, a visit from Friend-Bearing-Chocolate and more. I wish I could post more regularly, and more promptly, but at the moment my work-life balance is still way, way, way out of whack. More on all that soon. Cannot believe Oct. 28 was a year in New York...