In Quarantine, Confronting The Eating Disorder That Almost Killed Me

Photo: Dave Ahdoot.
When America first heard about lockdowns, things got weird with food. It was a sudden explosion of grocery store lines, a famine of familiar pantry staples, the end of gym facilities, and Amazon Prime delivery windows became mere memories. Our kitchens spilled over with those food items we could stockpile, and yet, not knowing when they would replenish, we had to ration eating. Ryan Heffington was still just a small business owner in Silverlake, and the physical stillness incarcerated us. It sucked for everyone, no matter what your situation. While many people have now found some sense of normalcy in their access to food and movement, that first panic, the contradiction of food scarcity and food glut, struck terror into no one more than the person with an eating disorder (ED). I know, because I’ve got all of them.
Although they defy simple categorization, an ED is typically an obsessive-compulsive addiction to food, eating behaviors, and body image, as a way of managing what feels unmanageable. ED sufferers disassociate from the overwhelming problems at hand with something that works quickly: excess food, excessive exercise, obsessive weight loss. Entering lockdown, EDs found themselves trapped with their drug of choice, in teeming refrigerators and beckoning cupboards that wouldn’t replenish in their customary fashion. Imagine an alcoholic trapped in a bar, who must drink three to five times a day, in rations, without knowing if she will get more. As recently detailed in The New York Times, addiction specialists declared COVID-19 to be a grave relapse trigger.
And, like a lot of people, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands recently to consider all the colorful addictive possibilities.
I spent my first 28 years eating everything that wasn’t pinned down while trying to weigh as little as a postage stamp. I was devoted to solving the impossible paradox of believing thinness to be the secret to life’s great rewards, but only ever finding peace in sheet cake. I’ve now been in recovery from every kind of ED for six years, with predictable lapses back into madness around free samples or any time spent in an airport. But nothing put my recovery’s rubber to the road like COVID-19. It’s testing normal people’s relationships to food too — thus the (now rote) Quarantine 15 meme. In lockdown, food or controlling it are the fastest ways to feel momentarily alive again.
My history with food has been somewhat more death-ish.


I’m a garden variety ED, but my first love was compulsive overeating.  When I say first, I mean instantly. My mom says I breastfed for so long a Netflix pop-up would’ve probably asked, “are you... still eating?” As a child I made forts, but mine were not shelters so much as towels I sat under while gorging boxes of chocolate. In middle school, pounds of Halloween candy lasted me barely until later on the same evening. And just for example, a typical day in high school looked like this: 
7am: Wake up.  Eat two heaping mountains of cereal with milk.  Go to school and grab four hot rolls with butter from the cafeteria before class.
First period: “borrow” some candy from Emma’s pencil case.
Mid-morning snack: 6 sugar cookies, scan the room for someone else eating candy I could forcibly borrow.
Noon: Sprint down the staircase to lunch, oh my god it’s Munster bagel day!!!!, fill several trays with plates of food — tuna salad, carrots for healthy?, granola with chocolate milk, some of that penne with marinara to switch it up. Frozen yogurt machine, more frozen yogurt, frozen yogurt with Cap’n Crunch.
1pm: Learn about white people. Simone has peanut chews!
3pm: Sleeve of oatmeal raisin cookies.
3:15pm: Rehearse the musical Grease.
5pm: Three granola bars before dinner.
6pm: Two dinners while watching Friends. Dessert(s).
8pm: Three more desserts while instant messaging boys I had a crush on from camp.
10pm: Eat my family, listen to sad love songs in bed, and fondle the rolls of my body.
Various versions of this went on through college and into my twenties, with bouts of Adderall addiction and compulsive exercise to balance out the damage. Didn't work.
Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Angelson.
Not until I was 25, in the middle of my graduate acting program, with escalating (wildly incorrect) fear of gross-body-induced-unemployment, did I finally find the conviction to restrict food without bingeing. I learned how to count calories and became a faithful apostle to the church of an extreme weight-loss diet. My voice teacher pulled me aside in a hallway one day, applauded my weight loss and told me to keep going, so I did. I lost thirty five pounds by the time I graduated. I lost thirty five more in the next year, and what once were compliments became fearful gossip about my scary corpse-like body.
In the spring of 2013, I found myself standing on a Broadway stage in front of a thousand people, publicly dying. I was unable to walk up the stairs to my dressing room because I had no breath, but continued to do push-ups in the wings before I would walk on stage. The director had to add a sweater to my costume to hide my bones, FKA arms, with veins bulging. 
I knew I was in trouble, but I couldn’t stop the compulsive cycle; once a captive in my fleshy body, I was now a slave to erasing it. I went to double exercise classes even on two-show days, and watched my organs eat themselves alive. When I looked in the mirror and saw a cadaver, I felt betrayal. I’d devoted myself to a system that promised being skinny would mean eradicating pain, living on a beach, watching men kill each other to be my boyfriend, and instead the system eradicated all life other than pain. But if contentment hadn’t found me back when I still received compliments about weight loss, or when I finally hit my 100-pound goal weight, or when the scale dipped even ten pounds lighter than that, then where was it — the big life I’d been chasing through sheet cakes and HIIT training?
I’ll tell you where — in exploding fire hydrant bulimia. One day, amid the inevitable bingeing that follows long periods of starvation, I figured out how to throw up.  And I thought to myself, “Holy shit I’ve made it. This is the paradise every woman dreams of where she can eat all day and never gain weight.”
At its most tropical, paradise looked like this: living above a bakery that tossed Hefty bags of unsold baked goods (read: NYC street garbage) to the corner each day, dragging those bags up to my apartment, and in between pummeling my face with fistfuls of muffins mixed with dumped coffee grounds, I would eat towers of whoopie pies. Then I would try desperately to expunge the Hefty contents through my mouthhole until 5 a.m. I lay on my bed, acutely aware that I had inflicted brain damage, and, too tired to move, threw the empty garbage bags out my window down to the street, potentially murdering early commuters. 
My poor mom came to visit me in L.A. where I continued to struggle deeply, and even though she spoke the words daily, “you are my darling child and I will do anything to support you,” still I snuck past her bed in the middle of the night to buy ten pints of Chocolate Peanut Butter Haagen Dazs at Ralph’s. It took me a year of bulimia and thousands of dollars wasted on pre-toilet food before I crawled into a rehab. (And made only one jailbreak — I called an Uber and booked a room at the Hilton Garden Inn & Suites in Miramar, Florida, so I could binge and purge on the entire inventory of the adjoining Dunkin’ Donuts. Because I’m fun!)
Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Angelson.
That was six years ago. In the intervening six years, recovering looked imperfectly like this:
- adopting a dog named Jack Lemmon
- many months of sleeping on my sainted parents’ pull-out couch because I didn’t trust myself alone
- romantic relationships with men I used as nurses
- prescription medicine, plant medicine, therapy, an Adderall relapse but just for fun and I swear I’m done now, 12 steps, 10,000 steps, etc.
I no longer binge, purge, starve, overexercise, chew gum, own a scale, choose food over my wonderful boyfriend or eat actual garbage. And I’ve also come to question if I was ever an “overeater” at all. If perhaps, wanting food — the way I want love every day of this lockdown — was something I saddled with shame from day one. Now, in direct opposition to my former life’s work and the work of most ordinary Americans, my current phase of recovery is intentional weight gain. With professional help, I am correcting lasting hormonal imbalance resulting from years of illness, years of believing that eating devalued my worth. My old goals revolved around eliminating even the fat that was essential to my vital organ function. My new goal is to have a regular goddamn period no matter what I look like and to stand in a body with a gravitas that matches my heart’s.


Thanks to all the gods in the pantheon, in this lockdown I am on my knees in gratitude because I am not kneeling in front of a toilet. To be clear, like everyone else, I have my moments. Yesterday I ate an entire box of crackers in one breath. Why? Because it was delicious and I was momentarily not so fucking lonely. But I’m an active member of a diverse support community including people seriously struggling with EDs who have been generous enough to share their current experiences. For those who cannot imagine the disordered thoughts of someone with food addiction even on a good day, here is the horror it could look like in isolation:
Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Angelson.
In quarantine, binge eating means putting nothing in the cupboard, then inevitably breaking down while the city sleeps, bingeing on stale baking supplies like bread crumbs mixed with corn syrup — a saucy one night stand I had once. The bulimic at the grocery store waits for her turn at the register, but can’t control herself in COVID-long lines. Addicted to immediacy, she starts eating in the store, licking salt off her fingers, touching shopping carts and door handles. She tears through two extra large bags of Hint of Lime Tostitos before paying, steals one, pumps hand sanitizer at the cashier while lying, “I had to open these in line, I’m stress-eating!” crumbs on face and drool on jacket. 
The quarantined anorexic holds herself in plank pose, obsessing over whether she should bulk-buy her safe foods before besieged supermarkets run out — doing so would risk a midnight snack if she got hungry, but if she didn’t secure them, would she have to eat the yogurt brand with ten extra calories? She knows (arms and abs now shuddering in plank) going to the grocery store daily increases her risk of getting the virus, but maybe she WANTS the virus so she can lose her sense of taste and smell? She weighs this perk with the sacrifice of losing the strength to exercise, as her mind spins to the inevitability that someone she knows will die from COVID, before jumping to another absurd, shameful tangent: at least if someone dies, she won’t have to go to their funeral and eat in public. Horrible.
This is what isolation mostly looks like for me now: I pray to Dieu every single day that she removes my urges to control my body and food. I wake up with anxiety. I’ve made barely any money in nine months and I don’t know if I ever will again. I torture my cellmate (ie: boyfriend) for the crime of loving me, sometimes before my first wee. I masochistically ruminate over my mom dying twice as often as I vacuum, which is constantly. A few weeks ago a great actor I love in New York died from the virus. I spent four hours in child’s pose, crying, putting my hands on my heart, and taking deep breaths. That’s the difference between living and dying for me: feeling this instead of using my body to disassociate from it, wrapping my arms around my torso instead of forcing it to subsist on a diet of its own organs or cramming it with crunchy Skippy. I have absolutely no idea what the future of my industry is, but I don’t do three work-out videos to release that fear — instead I release primal screams in my parking lot that yesterday prompted the neighbors to tell me to “shut the fuck up forever.” I have no idea when I’m going to be able to see my family again, but I don’t vomit up the contents of my fridge to sedate myself — I inhale gratitude that I don’t have a three year old who needs parenting so that I can do things like write long essays about myself.
Having been shut in now for what feels like twenty-nine-zillion months, I’m made constantly aware of my unhealthy compulsions because, although I don’t act on them, the impulses remain, short circuiting my brain every time I get anxious or walk my dog six feet from a dumpster that smells suspiciously like scones.  Each urge that passes without incident, I am reminded that I could have died in this pandemic without my recovery, or even worse, killed someone else.  Food addicts are germ factories, licking and touching shit uncontrollably, or starving to the point of failed immune systems that make them disease magnets. But not on purpose. EDs are dying from a disease while trying to protect themselves from a virus.


So here I am in quarantine, gaining weight on purpose because my body needs more fat to restore healthy hormone function. The pursuit offers me spiritual sovereignty over this physical confinement (and I highly recommend it for any woman currently punishing her body in an attempt to control the pangs of this pandemic). I’ve seen what life looks like when I bend it around creating the body I think I need, and I’ve had quite enough of that. I want whatever size body supports a big spontaneous stupid life, and in light of this international crisis, health (hormonal or otherwise) has never felt like such a precious gift. A few weeks ago, I had a Facetime with my mom, who is no doubt sick of my bullshit. Having only ever known me to want skinniness, she asked me what I was going to do when gaining weight got hard, when my clothes stopped fitting and I didn’t like the way I looked, when I wanted to reverse course. I said, a small body was never the real goal. A big life was.
Photo: Dave Ahdoot.
Most of our lives have never felt less big than at this moment, and it’s triggering. At best we are all forced to sit without ourselves inside, if not forced to sit with viruses, screaming children, looming divorce, or a completely empty bank account. Powerless over the pandemic, its triggers compel me to reach for any kind of control I can. As I got off my most recent Zoom call with my family, and missed them so much, and feared I may never see my 70-year-old parents who live in New York City again, I wanted to act out. I wanted to go outside and break protocol, both our national guidelines and the specific recommendations for someone increasing her body fat. I wanted to walk the entire length of Los Angeles, burn off every calorie I’d ever eaten, then buy every head of iceberg lettuce grown in the great state of California, so I could binge all night afterwards on mustard-doused nothingness.
There was a crazy wind storm sweeping early summer air through Los Angeles under a new moon in Taurus. I sat on my front steps, I looked up at her and I said, "just take this. Take it all away. Take away my blocks to love.  Blow away this belief that only if I’m in the body of a child will the world love me like a mother. And when I get out of here, please, please, let me love this world back, love so much harder and better."
I walked inside and caught my reflection, slightly softer since quarantine, a face that looked a little more like I did when I was younger and eating.  "Good to see you, kid," I said. I closed the door, sheltered in my own place.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741. 

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