October 1995, Naples, Florida.
"Look to the right of you," the therapist said. "Now, look to the left. Now look at the person across from you."
We stood in our circle, looking to the right, then to the left, then across. Careful glances and self-conscious smiles were exchanged as we waited for the therapist's big reveal. What the hell was she talking about?
"Of the people you see directly around you," the therapist went on, "the majority of you will relapse, about 75-85%." Our smiles faded as we took in this news.
"Only about one in four or five of you will continue clean eating for more than a year. Some of you will not even make it to that." Somberly now, we again considered the people around us.
Well, it's not going to be me, I thought. I'm not relapsing. I'm going to make it. But my friend Laura was to my left - did this mean she would be one of the ones to fail? Can't both of us make it?
Not everyone is going to make it, I realized. In fact, most will not.
You have to take care of yourself.
"Eating disorders are tough to recover from," the therapist continued. "The relapse rate is high. When recovering from alcohol or drug abuse, you can abstain from the drug you are abusing, avoid it completely if you choose. With food, it's not like that. You have to face it every day - you have to eat." Her voice was earnest. "This is why relapse is so pervasive."
June 2015, Pasadena, CA.
It is twenty years later, 11 o'clock at night. I stand in my kitchen, staring into a bowl of cookie dough. It is homemade, with macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips. I dig out some of the chocolate chips with my finger. They are delicious.
I had decided to make two kinds of cookies for my kids' playdates the following afternoon, celebrating their last day of school before summer. I had been making cookies since 8:30PM. I was nearly through, but couldn't stop scooping tastes of the macadamia nut and white chocolate chips into my mouth.
What the hell had I been thinking, that I should be making cookies in my kitchen late at night?? I was in no place mentally or spiritually to be messing with this. I reached for another chocolate chip, then held up my hand, palm facing the bowl, as if to say, stop.
No more, I thought, raising my eyebrows at myself to show myself I was serious. No more.
Why was this so serious? Because for someone with a history of highly persistent eating disorders, it was no simple thing to be whipping up batches of cookies in the kitchen late at night. I had been doing better with the whole eating disorder thing recently, and that brief success had sucked me in. Now I found myself on the one hand wanting to inhale the entire bowl of cookie dough in one sitting, and on the other, wanting to run into the bathroom to vomit.
Don't make yourself vomit, I thought. It had been quite some time now. Don't let it happen again. Please, don't let that happen again.
I realized I had the power to walk away, to stop myself at any time. I stood there calmly and felt that power. I was not caught up in anything I couldn't stop and walk away from. I was just sometimes too short-sighted to see it.
My eating disorders stayed with me following that trip to rehab in 1995. I had stayed clean for several years after completing the one-month program, had diligently kept at it, doing everything I was supposed to be doing. But insidiously and insipidly, day after day and night after night, the disorder had crept back in.
Twenty years later I stand in my kitchen.
I no longer have my therapy group and support system to my right side and to my left. I wonder what has become of them. My dear associates and compadres, who were fat and thin, anorexic and bulimic, over-eaters and under-eaters, rumpled and grumpy and funny and kind and so, so, disordered - what has become of them?
Some of them had probably died. More were probably like me, looking like anyone else and going about life, blending in but still struggling.
I look in the bowl, at the white chocolate chips and cookie dough. There is no-one in the kitchen but myself.
I put down the bowl, start cleaning up. It is time to go to bed.