Starving At 35,000 Feet

I’d been put on a plane in San Antonio en route to Los Angeles, via Houston (ascend x 2 and descend x 2…no direct flight).  I don’t like to fly, and had taken a Benadryl to get me past the jitters. I’d flown many times with no problems, aside from that time coming back from Hawaii when the plane dropped a few thousand feet and blew out windows in buildings below- but I was 9 years old, and clueless. Otherwise, I’d never had any mayhem with flights other than delays. I was already in bad shape physically, and every time the pressure changed in the plane, it felt like the plane was nosediving. Nice. Just great.  I was already ambivalent about going to eating disorder treatment, and now the plane was going to crash.  It had been a great day all around. Oy… someone just shoot me now, but please pick out a slenderizing casket.

While I knew I needed help, I was scared to death.  Looking back at the photo taken on admission to the treatment center, I looked like I’d already died, but hadn’t had the sense to go lie down.  I was very pale, and my eyes were barely open (though I remember I’d tried to look perky. Fail. ).  Now I was on a plane, alone, and thinking I’d made a huge mistake. I’d been given an ultimatum at a formal intervention: no help means no job.  Maybe I should just figure out a way to get back home, and get a different job. I was a registered nurse; it took about 12 minutes to get a job on a bad day where I lived.  But, maybe I should get some help. I knew I was falling apart.  I’d been diagnosed with anorexia in my late teens ( the criteria used at the time based it on many things including a percentage of weight lost from original weight- which I prefer, as waiting until someone is skeletal delays help for a lot of people who are still clinically very ill, but not skinny ‘enough’; they die anyway).  I was still overweight, but had lost around one hundred pounds in about a year and a half; fifty of that in the previous three months.  I was confused. But I knew deep down that I was in trouble.  I was still scared.

In between the episodes of thinking the plane was going down, I tried to keep calm.  Since I was half dead anyway, that wasn’t really that hard, but I was still in a minor panic.  I knew that any eating disorder treatment included eating…big bummer.  I was 32 years old.  I’d been in some sort of eating disorder treatment on and off for 14 years.  I’d had some sort of eating abnormalities from the time I was six years old, and had food restricted unnecessarily. That led to hoarding food in my room that I’d get with babysitting money, because I was hungry.  I wasn’t a fat kid. I was told I needed to lose weight by my mom all the time. Looking back at old photos, there was nothing wrong with my weight.

I knew how this treatment stuff worked, and while strapped to that doomed airplane seat, I decided I had to eat in order to get home if I didn’t die in a fireball when the plane crashed. That’s how it works.  Once I got home, I could do what I wanted to do, but in the meantime, I had no way to get home (no cash for another ticket). I knew that the plan wasn’t for me to do a round trip in one day, and not get help.  I was stuck.

The ‘nosediving’ feeling happened about every 20 minutes or so, from what I recall.  It was often enough to be disturbing.  Nobody around me seemed to be writing out their last wills and testaments, sooooo….. it must be me. That helped a little bit. My blood pressure was probably sub-viable, so that didn’t help, and the Benadryl would have made that worse, but there was no way I was getting on a plane to have my life turned upside-down without something to chill me out.  I was a mess.  I’d also come off of working a 16-hour double shift with only about 3 hours of sleep since the morning before.  I was exhausted, mentally and physically.

But, I knew that when I got to that treatment center (where I’d sent a patient from the facility I worked at just 24 hours earlier- great, I’d be seeing one of my patients…. more joy…) I’d have to eat. When the perky flight attendant started handing out box lunches, I panicked (per usual), and then looked into the box.  There was a sandwich (OK- maybe I could pick that apart), some chips (not a snowball’s chance in a volcano for those), and a mini Snicker’s bar (I wanted that SO badly…but that was a really ‘bad’ food).  *sigh*  I had to make an effort.

The sandwich seemed the least horrifying. It didn’t have any sloppy dressings or spreads on it, and it was easy enough to peel off the cheese. That little packet of mayonnaise could go spread itself; no way I was eating that.  But I didn’t want to appear totally deranged to the complete strangers I’d never see again, so I left the thing intact. I figured out the calorie and fat content, and figured that in the past 36 hours, I’d had little more than that, so may survive it.  And, I told myself just to try acting normal for one stupid sandwich…pretty soon, I’d have someone setting a tray of stuff in front of me, and I’d be expected to finish it. Gotta get my teeth wet, and just do it.  So, I took a bite.  That was already kinda gross, since I didn’t like food touching my lips- it felt weird, and I preferred to extract things with my teeth from a fork. No utensils in sight, so I had to buck up and just get on with it.

Now, ‘normal’ people will think this is all completely nuts. (So did my co-workers, and that’s why I was fighting with a sandwich 5+ miles above the earth’s surface).  To someone with an eating disorder, I was making huge steps even before I  had to !  Nobody on that plane cared if I ate the sandwich, chips, or even the box (well, OK- maybe gnawing on thin cardboard would have drawn some stares).  It was just me and the sandwich.  And, the beginning of getting better.

My brain had been living on fumes for months, and it showed to those around me. In hindsight, I can see where I was really bonkers when it came to food.  I could still do my job, and pay the bills, but in regards to food, I was more than a little goofy.  ‘Fumes’ don’t make someone all that insightful. ‘Fumes’ make nutty stuff sound reasonable.  ‘Fumes’ keep the disordered thinking going strong, and any glimpses of reality really hard to grasp.  I knew I’d have to eat.  In some way, I think I felt some sense of control in taking those first few bites of ‘random’ food on my own with nobody breathing down my neck, or checking to see what I’d eaten.  I needed to get my head in the game of getting better.  At least I still had that much clicking in my noggin.

It probably took about 45 minutes to eat that 4 inch sandwich (on some sort of sub-roll). Bite-chew-gag-swallow-repeat.   It wasn’t anything I would have picked out by a long shot, but I got through it and it didn’t kill me. It was the first ‘whole’ anything I’d eaten for weeks, especially without my trusty laxatives to zip it on through my guts.

The plane also didn’t go down in flames.  Life went on.  I ate the little Snickers…

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