When I was three, I refused to eat anything but crackers, apple juice, and, if I was feeling festive, yogurt. That year didn’t turn out to be an anomaly or a phase. By the time I started kindergarten, I only agreed to consume about 12 different food items, while my siblings ate everything that couldn’t outrun them. My parents were understandably concerned and took me to a doctor to discuss my eating habits. I remember being too shy to tell him the truth: that I felt as though I would literally die if I had to eat a hamburger. Instead, I told him that I was just picky, and he reassured my parents that this was something I would grow out of.
Except I didn’t. Food has always given me anxiety. Like, actual, legitimate anxiety. Somewhere between sprouting my first tooth and mastering potty training, I developed a rigid system maintaining that some foods were definitively BAD and that I could not, under any circumstances, engage with them. The concept of biting into an apple makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Canned food? Hell, no. A shiver still runs down my spine whenever I think about the time I saw my mom pour out a can of cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving three years ago. Cottage cheese is a big one. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it, but the thought of eating it makes my lungs feel like they’re burning, even though I’m aware that I have no valid or substantial reason for this.
This anxiety makes every meal feel like an episode of Fear Factor. When a family friend threw me a surprise party for my seventh birthday, I was elated — until I saw that the cake that they’d given me was covered in whipped cream. I didn’t want to seem disrespectful, so I ate as much of my tiny piece as I could before dry heaving in the bathroom 20 minutes later.
I can’t always avoid eating in public, so over the years I have often found myself in situations where I’ve had to either craftily find a way to dodge eating a certain food, or pray that my poker face is strong enough to effectively choke down a meal without raising any suspicions. Salads are much easier to consume when you avoid the salad dressing and don’t look down at your plate when you’re eating. Chewing your food until there’s no conceivably chance that you could choke on it is time-consuming, but it also helps dilute an unpleasant flavor.
Of course, people still noticed. I was mostly met with the “There are starving kids in Africa who would love to eat everything you won’t!” response, which made me very ashamed of my anxiety. I was in the seventh grade the first time I heard someone speculate about whether I had an eating disorder. “You’re skinny and you don’t eat as much as everyone else” was the basis of my classmate’s argument. She wasn’t wrong — I was notably thinner than the rest of the girls in my grade, and it took me longer to finish each meal, making it seem like I ate less than my peers. But I wasn’t purposefully starving myself, and I didn’t fixate on my weight.
The most embarrassing part of what feels like a complete first-world problem is my inability to control it. I know that it’s illogical that eating a blueberry sends me spiraling into a state of depression. I know that I should be grateful to have the luxury of being able to have a highly selective diet without dying of starvation. Why won’t my brain let me eat a piece of toast without a doomsday scenario playing out in my mind?
I eventually turned to the internet — not for a diagnosis, but to find out if there were other people out there who felt the way that I did. There wasn’t a specific incident that piqued my curiosity; I’d already made peace with my eating habits and was trying to work around them. I just wanted to find reassurance in knowing that others were having experiences similar to mine. And I did find them — on eating disorder awareness websites. I watched from the sidelines of forums on the sites as people acknowledged that, yes, they were picky eaters, but they felt as though there was something more serious at play than that. Picky eating, in a sense, is a conscious decision. These people weren’t choosing the reactions that they had.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (or Selective Eating Disorder) occurs when people present an unhealthy relationship with food but aren’t trying to lose weight. It’s essentially an “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” For instance, someone who avoids certain textures or colors of food or refuses to eat a certain food out of fear of choking could receive an ARFID diagnosis. It’s also common among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or those who are on the Autism spectrum. ARFID isn’t necessarily lethal (nutritional supplements are key, though), which may be why it is less talked about than anorexia or bulimia. Despite being relatively unheard-of, it’s the second most common eating disorder in children under 12 and also encompases up to 14 percent of the diagnoses at eating disorder treatment centers.
Meeting the qualifications outlined in an online article isn’t a diagnosis, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Did I have an eating disorder? Despite being constantly underweight, I had developed normally, and doctors had never seen any reason to speculate about my eating habits. I considered bringing it up to a doctor based on this new realization, but didn’t — and still haven’t. I’m not sure if the shame often associated with eating disorders has held me back. Maybe it’s self-doubt or pure laziness. I don’t know, but I also understand that my health is my responsibility, and that this problem is one I have to work out on my own.
I still have a weird relationship with food. The doomsday scenarios have somewhat subsided, but the discomfort that coincides with eating still exists. I know that I will still go into crisis mode whenever I see the inside of a raw sliced tomato, for example, but I also now know that food cannot actually hurt me. I still ask my friends, “Would I like that?” when they’re trying to convince me to try new things. But once the initial anxiety subsides, I’ve found that I actually like trying new things. I’m 22 and I still tell my mom “Guess what I ate!” whenever I see her. I’m proud of the progress that I’ve made since age four. Although I still never intend to eat yogurt again.
Especially with Thanksgiving coming up, I know my progress will be challenged. There is currently an 87 percent chance that I will have to encounter at least three foods that I unabashedly hate. Someone will most likely heckle me when I stay away from the stuffing. I will not fill my 16-ounce glass above 12 ounces, because then I won’t drink it.
But, at the same time, if someone asks me to try something, I’ll at least consider it. The ultimate answer might still be a no, but it’s a work in progress.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorders Association for information and resources.
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