Anxiety is a snowball rolling down a hill. That’s a cliche, I’m aware. I don’t know how to accurately frame it in the right physiological terms, but I know how it feels, and it feels kind of stupid — like a clumsy cliche. I won’t pull out the $30 workbook a therapist made me buy years ago, but I’ll do my best. It starts with an errant thought — a rickety wheel sliding off a safe train into the imagination’s most dangerous corners, flooding the body with false signs of warning, gaining momentum in thin shards of half-remembered facts and hearty swirls of lunatic fiction. Regardless of the worry’s origins, sometimes, rarely, it’s so bad, you can’t really sleep. You wake up preposterously early, eyes so open they might shoot out of your head. You drink tea and watch the sun rise, but everything feels terribly wrong. A leg won’t stop shaking. There are a million things to do but you can’t start doing any of them. Something is stuck. You’re overwhelmed, consumed, pouring over whatever is troubling you at the expense of every other concern — so focused, in a sense, that you’re distracted.
Sleep is important from a health standpoint, but it’s also a little boring. I don’t mind losing a little bit of it here and there — especially for a good cause. Appetite, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.
I was a senior in college the first time mine was threatened. The catalyst was utterly mundane, the sticky, drawn-out fizzling of a relationship that probably shouldn’t have started in the first place. Suddenly rudder-less, I flipped out, laid low, wore the same jeans for two weeks straight, and stopped eating. After a couple of days, I started again, very gingerly. I subsisted almost entirely — two meals a day, pretty much every day — on packages of Lipton’s noodle soup. I’m not sure why I decided to submerge my strain and sorrow in salty dyed broth and slippery strands, but in retrospect the choice makes sense. Soup suited an emotional invalid in need of rehabilitation. It was also austere, a form of self-doled punishment for my melodramatic pining. I couldn’t eat anything else. I tried to have a veggie burger with fries at an on-campus dining hall. The first bite was unswallowable, dry and mealy. The rest of the sandwich fell apart in my hands. The ketchup was a sickly puddle, like melted make-up. The thumb-sized fries were soggy, unpalatable to begin with. I pushed the plate away and went home for soup. Towards the end of the episode, I began gussying up my steaming bowls with vegetables smuggled from the dining hall salad bars. I’m not sure what actually eventually caused me to calm down. I just woke up one day feeling better.
If dieting, not convalescence, had been my aim, the two weeks of biting nails and sucking soup would have paid off. Somewhere along the way, I had lost ten pounds. Once-tight pants now had a flowing, Hammer-esque cut. I bought new jeans. And I started eating real food again. It was February in Ohio, in a tiny town just ten minutes from Lake Erie. My house-mates and I threw a barbecue on the snow-blanketed hill behind our sprawling white house. The air outside was wet, cold, and invasive, but everyone bundled up. I wore a silly apron and grilled myself a shark steak I’d purchased from the nearby IGA. It was fishy but I relished it on a bun with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and Srirachi sauce. I started drinking again. Cans of beer have never since tasted quite so good. I had one after another, and I thawed out, and saw a little bit of amazing in everything.
These two weeks, I’d later learn, were a preamble, a canape, really. I had a problem, but I didn’t know it yet. I soon graduated, from slipping past traumatizing break-ups to fumbling with larger, more complicated issues that sadly proved much more of a challenge to my increasingly ambitious cooking and eating habits.
I’m not looking to spill a lot of ink on the subject of my own kookiness. This is the first time I’ve written about any of this, and it’s kind of pleasant doing so from a fresh perspective. All the same, I’ll keep it pretty brief. The second time I lost my appetite I was almost 25. I’d been living in San Francisco for a few years and working at my second paralegal job for nearly six months. I had a girlfriend and a big house full of friends deep in the Mission District. I was home for the holidays, back in Kentucky, preparing to fly to New York City to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. I ate a shrimp quesadilla with mango salsa a few hours before I was supposed to head to the airport. Thirty minutes after the last bite, a wave of weird nagging pain crashed through my stomach. I didn’t feel sick, but it hurt. I felt light-headed and frantic. The feeling passed. As my plane circled LaGuardia, I nibbled a few peanuts, and it returned. Two hours later, I was in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at a Polish restaurant with a friend. I contemplated the platter of boiled cheese pierogies, cabbage, and applesauce set before me. I took a bite. Something in my belly bucked. It was as if my innards were caught in the the throes of a coursing electric current. This time, the pain stayed — fluttering in the depths of my gut like a little molten bug — and my whole body couldn’t help but shake — just barely, but almost constantly once I realized the sensation in my stomach wasn’t leaving. I gobbled antacids but they did no good. I didn’t want to eat because food made my stomach hurt more. I wasn’t sick in any other way, but I worried I was dying nonetheless. I ran up a bad, bloated cell phone bill calling and texting my girlfriend back in California. Each day, from the second I awoke, until I flopped down to sleep hours later, my gut was twisted in painful knots. More importantly, my thoughts had gone haywire. Regardless of what brief bug or extended twinge of indigestion had triggered my symptoms in the first place, anxiety had now taken over. I had an ulcer. I had cancer, of the stomach, perhaps the colon as well. I had been infected with a rare form of evil bacteria that was swiftly chewing its way through the lining of my worn-out tum.
At some point, not long after my return to California, the stomach ache faded, but the next year was still a hard one. I’d awakened something. My brain were on high alert, constantly combing my body for symptoms on which I could fixate. Any ache, cough, or unsettling sensation was an excuse to worry, and when I worried — regardless of what I was worrying about — the pain in my stomach returned, accompanied by dreadful premonitions, sweats, and heavy heart palpitations. I fretted about everything, usually medical concerns, like incurable cancers, aneurysms, devastating hemorrhages, and drug-resistant infections, but my fears truly knew no bounds. My doctor wanted to shoot me. I’d bump my head hard and think brain damage was imminent. I’d walk through Union Square and worry about stray bullets, the live-action equivalent of cartoon pianos dropping from the sky in Toontown. I hated driving because all I could think about were hideous mangled car accidents. I jumped from worry to worry, living like a sick person when I was not sick. I missed too much work, staggering around the house, wrapped in a towel, behaving like a consumptive mentally unsound very minor poet stricken with mysterious ailments for which there were no known medical solutions. I needed leeches and balms and wizardry.
My psychological state governed my eating habits. When I sensed no symptoms, I dined out and cooked fancy meals. When I was anxious, eating was unappealing, a tough predicament for a lover of food to face. Above all, I had to find foods that wouldn’t torture a nerve-wracked digestive tract. I ate no Mexican for months and months at a time, which was sad considering my proximity to El Metate, El Farolito, and La Torta Gorda. Nothing spicy or rich agreed with me when I was feeling anxious. I ate turkey sandwiches and, yes, soup. Rice was okay, so long as I didn’t cover it with curry, gumbo, or a lake of hot sauce. I had to stick to the bland and uncomplicated food groups. Even vinegary salads made my weak stomach throb.
One of my most persistent concerns was food poisoning — probably because I’d never to my knowledge suffered from it. I’d known a guy in high school who’d almost died from E. coli in his blood, and I’d read some things online that I, knowing my tendencies, should not have read. One night that year, my girlfriend and I ate squid stuffed with chicken at a Thai restaurant. After a few bites, a slice down the middle in the right light revealed that the filling of one crispy bulb was slightly raw. We met friends at a bar afterwards, but the image of the glistening under-cooked meat, pinkish and pale, studded with nuts and spices, stayed with me. I felt feverish, and headed home early to sweat out my worries.
Obviously, my anxiety about illness wasn’t just about illness; it was largely a reflection of other concerns. By preoccupying myself with symptoms I had to address in the moment, I could avoid thinking about real issues — my relationships, my family, figuring out something to do with my life — and my worrying about imagined problems actually ended up impeding my ability to find solutions to potentially legitimate ones. I was obsessed with dying — from uncommon illness, in a freak accident — because it was a reliable distraction, and the fact I couldn’t consistently eat well made everything worse. Food is wholesome and sustaining, but my relationship with it at the time kept it framed in an unhealthy light. Food was something that had once made me very happy. I was tired of surrendering it to an unpleasant fantasy realm, where my brain waged war against my body, and limited what it could enjoy. That pissed me off as much as anything about my predicament, and I finally decided to do something about it — with some counseling, a gym membership, and plenty of tacos. I wanted to spend my life eating, and in time, maybe make a living doing so.