As I write this, I am coating my palms and fingertips in hand sanitizer.
I wouldn’t need to if I wasn’t going to have breakfast in several hours. Unfortunately, I’m terrified of the germs covering my keyboard and desk. I’ll have to swab them with a disinfecting wipe before I bring food anywhere near them.
The rules are different if I’m forced to eat outside my apartment. I don’t like doing this, because going out usually introduces other people, the things that they have touched, and the inevitable handling of cash. These things have a compound-interest effect on my anxiety levels.
If I have hand sanitizer nearby, at least it gives me some insurance against germs. It gives me peace of mind. Of course, I pay the price in blood from my cracked, red hands.
I’m not afraid of getting sick. No, that would be far too rational. I just don’t want germs near my food. And yes, I know there are “good bacteria”; but my neuroses don’t care what’s good for me. They just want the germs gone, just as they’ve wanted my fat cells gone for several years.
They had that in common with my anorexia; I can understand why the two of them bonded.
I haven’t been able to determine what came first: the aversion to germs or the aversion to food. When I look back at elementary school, I remember the glue dried on my hands, the unsavory smells, and the occasional skipped lunch. I remember my revulsion at my surroundings. Maybe a fly was hovering too close, or one of the kids had smeared mustard on the corner of his mouth. Maybe the lunch lady was too flawed and hideous.
Either way, I couldn’t bite into food without tasting a mental picture of whatever elicited my disgust.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding my three-year tryst with anorexia. I’m not going to give its predatory ego the attention it craves. It’s simply a tool I’ve used to keep my body and mind under strict control.
In the beginning, it only permitted me to consume pieces of fruit and water. Later, the particulars of what I was “allowed” to eat changed, but the penalty for deviating from them remained the same.
If I bit into a “fear food,” or had a normal serving size of anything, my mind would taste disgusting images of myself: unsuccessful, unattractive, dependent, worthless, mediocre … “fat.”
Most of all, I feared being like the people around me. I spent a lot of time in front of mirrors, watching in sadistic fascination as the body I hated shrink into something unreal. As long as I stayed unreal, I wouldn’t be bloated or filthy or flawed. I would be perfect.
Thus, I made perfection my obsession; and rituals of self-control became compulsions.
Eventually I went inpatient for anorexia -– for my family’s sake, not mine. A doctor on staff diagnosed me as obsessive-compulsive. They treated it subsequently, however, as if it had simply come about as a result of prolonged food deprivation.
They assumed that as I overcame the anorexia and exercise addiction, the obsessive-compulsive tendencies would likewise disappear. Instead, the opposite happened; the more I turned away from the eating disorder, the deeper my obsessions sank their teeth into me.
The rituals became debilitating in the summer of 2011. I’d sunk to my lowest weight and into my worst depression. I couldn’t eat until I’d cleaned my whole apartment, sometimes several times a day.
Before each meal, I would use Wet Ones to disinfect my arms up to my elbows, and my legs from the knees down. Similar cleanliness rituals in public places made keeping a job impossible.
At the same time, my straight-up anorexia threatened me with physical and emotional distress if I swallowed more than a few bites of “safe” food and sips of water. As my weight continued to drop, I knew I was dying; I didn’t care. If this was the life I had to look forward to, then I didn’t want to live anymore.
That fall, my dad insisted that I go to an inpatient eating disorders treatment center for the third time. My dad told me he’d found a program in Arizona called Remuda Ranch.
I only agreed because winter was coming, and my low body weight made the cold unbearable. If anything, the desert seemed like a clean and perfect place to die. I checked into Remuda Ranch at the beginning of October.
Long story short, something out there awakened a desire to live that I’d never had before, at any age, weight or state of mind. Maybe I’d found God for the first time, or maybe I realized it was time to grow up. Either way, this time in treatment was different.
Letting go of an eating disorder I’d fought so hard to keep was not easy, but the real challenge was finding my way back to health when the OCD had put so many obstacles in the way.
For instance, it had a “rule” that I couldn’t drink water at least an hour before consuming a meal, which I won’t even try to rationally explain. I didn’t care that self-imposed dehydration probably wasn’t a good idea in the desert. It only became a problem when I had to take my medications before meals with everyone else. At first, I was helpless but to give into the compulsion; eventually, I negotiated it down to half an hour.
Now, I can drink water at any time I choose. And I don’t miss the constant dehydration at all.
In other ways, the OCD was not so lenient. I still exercised in the pre-dawn hours after tube-feeding and before breakfast –- which is not allowed at Remuda or any other program that I know of. Whenever the nurses caught me, they would put me on tighter surveillance. Still, I found ways to do it without their noticing.Even though my motivation wasn’t to burn calories, the compulsion still filled an emotional need.
As of now, I’m over my fear of most foods, but not the microbes breeding and festering in them. Here, the OCD makes almost no concessions. If I touch any kind of surface before or during a meal, I must disinfect my hands with sanitizer.
Outside of meal times, the rituals still govern how I handle food products. When I go to the grocery store, for example, I use at least three cart wipes; one to clean my hands, one to scrub down the handle of the shopping basket, and another to grab things off the shelves while simultaneously decontaminating them.
When I bring my purchases home, then the real fun begins. I can’t open the refrigerator without using either a clean dish cloth or several layers of paper towel. (And yes, I have separate cloths for touching things and actually drying dishes.) Then, I put the perishables (and even some of the non-perishables) in the fridge, and the frozen items in the freezer.
Once these items are placed in their respective units, they are “safe” for me to touch with my bare hands -– assuming I’ve washed my hands thoroughly.
The bathroom also has its own code of ethics, as this is a sensitive area for anyone with germ phobias. I won’t go into detail about how I spend those 20-or-so minutes in there. Just assume I’m doing whatever people with severe OCD do in the bathroom.
But I will explain the hand-washing rituals: using warm water, I have to wash my palms, my wrists, and my palms again. Then, I turn off the sink with another cloth designated for this purpose. Obviously, I can’t turn off the faucet with my clean hands because I’ve already touched it with dirty hands. I then use the same washcloth to open the door.
If I’m in a public restroom, I usually flush the toilet with the bottom of my shoe. I leave my coat and handbag in the stall, because I can’t touch them until I’ve washed my hands. If someone goes into the stall I just vacated, I have to awkwardly apologize for my coat being in there.
Once I fulfill the requirements of cleanliness, I can follow my daily meal plan without clawing at my mind like a harpy. Still the threat of retribution is never far off; if my fingertips accidentally brush the refrigerator door outside of the cloth, I must wash my hands again.
If something edible falls on the floor, even if it’s wrapped in plastic, I can never, ever touch it again; instead, I pick it up with my toes and place it in the garbage. Then I bring my meals to my room, where I consume them in the company of a television episode, with the door locked. Yes, I use specific napkins for opening and locking the door behind me.
And if I touch anything in the course of pausing or un-pausing the DVD, I must sanitize my hands before I even touch the eating utensils. Shockingly enough, I rarely touch food with my bare hands.
I still often question why I eat at all. Negative fallout from anorexia still brings on waves of self-loathing from time to time. I don’t particularly enjoy food, and the rituals seem like a full-time job that pays nothing.
There is, of course, the blatant reality that if I stopped eating, I would die in a matter of time. Two years ago, that didn’t deter me. Now, if only by the grace of God, it does. This would suggest I’ve made progress, whatever the fuck that means.
As of now, I’m at a crossroads. Part of me still thinks I need the obsessive-compulsive behaviors, as if they are my only protection against… whatever I’m afraid of. A different part of me knows that I felt the same way toward anorexia less than two years ago, when I could barely swallow food.
And yet, here I am, swallowing food.
Whether or not you choose to believe in God -– and I’m not trying to sway anyone either way -– I know the strength to overcome the eating disorder came from somewhere. It can’t be exhausted, and there’s no limit to what it can do. I know that I can and will find the strength to lift myself out of the trenches, just as I did in the last war. And I know it’s going to be one hell of a fight.