July 8, 2014

What it Means to Eat, from Someone Who was Once Starving.


I was suffering from an unidentified auto immune disease.

What that meant for me was that I couldn’t eat anything without pain. I could call it IBS, or IBD, but those really aren’t diagnoses, they’re descriptions. The real explanation of what was happening to me and why, remained elusive.

Sure, I could eat. It was physically possible. I could chew and swallow. I could drink my calories. But pretty much anything that entered my mouth would cause pain once it got in my digestive tract. And not only did it cause all the classic digestive issues, like nausea, diarrhea, cramping, vomiting, constipation etc, etc., I also eventually developed an inflammatory reaction in my joints.

I had no idea what it was about eating that made me feel this way. Was it lactose? Was it gluten? Was it soy? Was it fat? Meat? Corn? Eggs? Was I just allergic to every damn food in the world?

Well, the tests all said no. And after nearly every diagnostic test and procedure in the medical world’s repertoire, I was no closer to knowing.

As I think most people in that situation would, I became extremely phobic around food.

It was something I needed. Something I wanted so badly. But something that hurt me every time. As if the physical struggle wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with a profound lack of understanding from others. I knew my friends and family cared about me, it wasn’t an intentional thing on their part. But no one understands what it is like to starve in the middle of the land of plenty, unless they are starving too.

Literally, I was starving. I lost probably about 30 lbs in three months, and after that it slowed down but for the nearly two years that it took to even begin to figure out what was happening to me, I continued to lose about one pound a week.

I became frail, and nervous, and phobic, and deeply angry at life, the world and my situation.

But this is not a rant, not really. Nor is this the inspirational story of my recovery (perhaps I will share that another time… perhaps). What I want to talk about now, in this blog, is what I learned about eating when I couldn’t eat, what I came to understand about the role of food in life, in family, in friendships and in culture.

People who have not starved do not know these things. And, you don’t really have to go through what I went through to find out. I hope you never do. But without experiencing your life in the absence of food, you might never appreciate it fully. People who have fasted before might get what I mean, whether they fasted for Ramadan or for other reasons. Anorexics may understand too, for that matter.

Food is community. Food is your connection to others. As long as we’re alive, we have to eat. It’s a fundamental and equalizing aspect of humanity. This is the thing that was so hard to explain to my friends and relatives when I was going through this. They wanted me to join them at all kinds of social gatherings. And what is involved in a social gathering? Food. Almost always, food. And to the people who can eat, they don’t even think that is important. The food is often forgotten. My sister would often say, “Why don’t you want to come? You can hang out, you don’t have to eat anything to hang out with us.” But…that’s not really true.

I could be there, but I couldn’t participate. I couldn’t connect in the same way. I felt this instinctively. It was torture, sitting there, watching people eat and take for granted something that was so confusing, so tempting and so powerful over me.

The thing is, I knew if I went, I would eat. And then, I would regret it. I was weak. I had no power over food. It had power over me.

Food has power.

Eating is what keeps us alive and what connects us to other living things. Yet, for so many people, especially in a land of super-abundance like the United States, it is something utterly taken for granted. It is treated carelessly. People eat without thinking.

They eat things they don’t enjoy, because it’s a mindless task to them. They don’t enjoy their food fully, even when it’s delicious, because they’re multitasking, distracted. Food itself has become a side dish to other things. But food is central, fundamental. It should be treated mindfully, loved, adored and relished.

I am able to do that now. I was finally able to solve the riddle of my food intolerance, and now I am no longer afraid, no longer lonely, no longer starving. In the simple act of eating, I can feel connected and engaged with my world and the ones I love.

I’m not advocating gluttony. That’s a mistake of another kind. Another way of not appreciating food.

For those of you who have never starved for food, never had your brain rattle with anxiety at its mention, I hope you can hear my words and realize the miracle you’ve taken for granted.

Love your food. Love every morsel of it. And know that when you’re eating you’re alive, and you’re connected to every other living thing.

That’s the only way you will ever feel full.

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Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens / Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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