In my household of three generations, there is no shortage of food. I am lucky enough to never have to worry about my next meal. It seems almost selfish, then, to develop an eating disorder despite this security and abundance—but it happened anyway.
I was diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) at the start of high school. ARFID is considered an eating disturbance in which one is extremely selective about the food they consume, thus making it harder for the body to accomplish nutritional needs. Due to my preoccupation with weight loss, I was also warned that I might be on the cusp of atypical anorexia nervosa.
Initially, I tried to reject the diagnosis; I thought that if I didn’t refer to it, then I would be able to will it away. My family subscribed to this coping mechanism, only ever expressing displeasure whenever I refused to try certain food or skipped meals. Around friends, I told everyone I was simply a picky eater. And that was that for almost four years.
When I look back on the photographs from that time of my life, I never know what to feel. The part of me obsessed with toxic ‘thinspiration’ culture always feels a flash of envy—the girl in the photos was almost 15 kg thinner, after all. The part of me who has gone through recovery, though, knows better. Back then, side effects of my disorder included menstrual irregularities, difficulty concentrating, and fainting spells. I was thinner, but not at all healthy.
Nonetheless, progress isn’t linear. To claim that I am completely over my disorders would be a lie. I don’t want to divulge specifics for the same reason that I’ve refused to publicly write or talk about my diagnoses up until now: In too many instances, I learned my practices through articles that hoped to promote the exact opposite. I don’t want this to be read that way by a teenager scouring the Internet in hopes of finding an easy way to lose weight. How do you talk about an eating disorder without making it sound like a how-to?
So, instead, here is the thing that saved me: In my household of three generations, there is also no shortage of home recipes. My grandmother can cook all kinds of Filipino dishes—from leche flan, a creme caramel custard, to sinigang, a savoury tamarind soup. My father knows how to make a perfect steak, no matter what cut of meat you give him. My mother passed on to me a love for pasta and bread, and a chicken empanada recipe with handmade pastry dough.
It was in twelfth grade—the year of intermittent water diets and nightly sit-ups—that my mother forced me to bring breakfast to school. It was her idea that we cook it together. We would make dishes that I liked: plain butter pasta, sandwiches with no condiments, fresh fruits cut into shapes.
In the beginning, I only took one or two small bites before passing the rest of the meal to my friends. It became a thing of mine, then, to share whatever I had every morning. I started cooking breakfasts in larger servings to make sure that everyone would get a bite or two, and, because they would pressure me, I found myself eating and loving the food as well.
I found myself in a similar situation a few years later, this time in college. Miserable and frustrated with my own ‘freshman fifteen’, I teetered on the edge of a relapse. Constant backhand comments regarding my roundness and internal comparisons with those around me only fuelled my drive to go back to my old habits.
Then, out of nowhere, some good friends moved into a condominium with a kitchen and I decided to cook again. I asked nothing of them but to endure my countless experiments. I annotated recipes and followed them on Wednesday nights to serve dinner. On weekends that I couldn’t go home, I’d cook them breakfast and lunch.
What I reasoned was simply a tactic to save money on food was actually the anchor that ensured I eat something. Anything.
Some may think this makes me incredibly dependent on the people around me, but I like to think it’s a stepping stone to recovery. Case in point: Now that we’re quarantined, I’ve come to face the mortifying fear that there’s no one for whom to cook. The occasional baked good for the rest of the household hasn’t been enough to keep me sane or full; at the brink of another relapse, I’ve decided to pick up the pan and spatula one more time.
I’ve learned to cook for myself now.
Though there are still days that I skip meals, there are more days that I drag myself out of bed to make a late lunch. I’m training myself to not calculate the calories in each bite, to not compute how many minutes of exercise I’ll have to struggle through to burn it off. Because I have learned to grant myself the same grace I give others, I am finally at a point where I can say I am not guilty to listen to my body when it is hungry.
In my household of three generations, this is still not something we manage to talk about, and yet we navigate it the best we can. My grandmother knows that I will not always wake up to eat lunch with her, but she makes sure to leave out my plate. My father has taught me how to grill steak, and he entertains my countless questions on seasoning times. And my mother buys me all the ingredients I need whenever she goes grocery shopping—bread and noodles and all kinds of good food that are meant to keep me alive. I am lucky, and I am not selfish. In my household, there is food—and above all, there is healing.
By Andrea Llanes
Image by Alexandra Gavillet