À La Carte: Two Apples a Day, Keeps the Pounds Away

[creative nonfiction]

When I was seventeen, my daily food consumption consisted of two apples per day, nothing more and nothing less.

Every single calorie that I ate was tracked, measured, and promptly exterminated like a nasty virus through rigorous exercise. Every aspect of my life revolved around numbers: calories in, calories out, how many minutes on the treadmill, the numeric size of my jeans, and how many days until I could eat “bad” foods once again. A typical apple has anywhere from seventy to one hundred calories, depending on the size. Based on this information, I would need to burn off at least two hundred and fifty calories to ensure my weight on the scale would be lower for my daily next morning weigh in. A routine that consisted of immediately waking up, pissing out every ounce of fluid I could, then removing all of my clothes before stepping on my electronic scale. Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.

The kind of apples I ate differed each time, but I mainly stuck to red or Fuji apples. The green apples were too sweet, which told the rigorous calorie tracker inside my head to place this type of apple on the “banned foods list,” since it contained more sugar which would make me gain weight. I stuck to my reliable apple diet for about six months until I passed out cold while walking on the treadmill which, sadly, was stationed in my living room for “convenience.” That particular evening, I had been walking on an incline up the treadmill, grinding along to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” when everything stopped. The lights went out, internally, as my body went on strike. The little men inside my digestive track were all out of coal to shovel into the fires of my metabolism oven. With this immediate shutdown, my body slumped to the ground beside the treadmill. Though I did not know it then, this uninvited collapse and fall would kick start my literal freefall from anorexia.

I opened my eyes to find that I was laying on my back, facing the direct blast of the whooshing ceiling fan, suddenly thankful for its cool gusts. Before I had a moment to get up and brush the dog hair off my butt, my mom screamed “Bethany!”

It wasn’t the usual scream that accompanies a burst of anger; this was a scream that was animalistic in its concern. Something I hadn’t heard in my mom’s voice since I was child and fell off the monkey bars, landing on my right arm, fracturing it. She reached for me, before she lifted me up to a wobbly standing position. Her soft hand brushed the beads of sweat off my flushed skin, like a warm soothing washcloth wiping away the remnants of a long day. She cupped my face in her hands, looking into my eyes for any sign of proper motor functioning. “That’s enough,” she said. Before I could answer, Gwen Stefani answered for me with the poetic verse of “this shit is bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S…” For the first time in what seemed like years, I agreed. That’s enough and yes, this shit is Bananas.

My face became bright red, the same color of my daily apples as I began to hold in my breath, trying to keep my rage from bursting forth from my chest, like a scene out of Alien. I wasn’t angry at her, but at myself, for not being strong enough to complete my workout and burn off the calories. What kind of wimp passes out from walking on a treadmill? Those two hundred calories would take at least thirty minutes of speed walking to destroy and now I was forced to stop. I, for once in a very long time, had to wave the white flag and admit defeat to my body. My inner voice began to scream at me, you’re going to gain weight tonight. My breathing quickened and I felt like my heart was pounding loudly outside of my chest. My mom led me to the couch as I willingly collapsed onto its cushions like a trust fall. The weight that I had worked so hard to get rid of those past six months would consume me like an infectious skin eating disease. Still a desperate virgin and never having been in a relationship, I blamed my body size on this failure. No boy would ever love me, I thought. I would never be small enough for a guy to pick me up and carry me over his shoulder, never be able to wear a string bikini at the beach, and never pose for pictures with other girls and feel confident knowing that I too was a “sexy girl.” My entire existence relied on losing weight and obtaining a better figure. I wanted that power that came with having a desirable body. I wanted to keep that confidence I had rightfully earned.

 

Watching those numbers flash while calculating would determine my worth that day, worthy if I lost at least one pound and unworthy if I gained even an ounce. At least, this is what my anorexia told me every day, as a mantra for my weakening willpower.

Looking back now, with a clear mind and realistic eyes, I feel such empathy for that naive teenage girl. But, I understand why I felt such self-loathing. Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.” No matter how little I ate, I always had a belly. It stuck out like a pregnant woman, especially after a large meal. I remember my eighth birthday party, sitting in front of a large white sheet cake and surrounded at my kitchen table by all my family and friends. What should have been a happy moment had become overshadowed by how miserable I felt. Ten minutes before it was time to cut my cake, as I was exiting the pool to dry off as per my mom’s orders, my cousin Jacob pointed at me in front of everyone and shouted, “Wow! You’re so fat.” No one laughed or said anything, but I felt their eyes staring into the layers of fat that encircled my round belly and jiggly thighs. I pulled at my swimsuit so that it wouldn’t cling to my body as I rushed past Jacob, and past the stares of my family. Everyone in the Scott family has what we affectionately call a “beer belly.” It’s my physical curse that I carry everywhere. It would take six months of starvation to realize that no matter how hard I pushed, cried, and walked, this curse could never be broken. But, my spirit and mental health could be.

It the summer of 2005 when I said enough, it’s time to try and lose some weight! I was about to enter my junior year of high school and I was extremely overweight at two hundred and forty pounds. I was a size eighteen in pants and wore XXL shirts, which was always a challenge to buy since most of the young adult clothing only went up to a petite XL. I was tired of having to wear Granny-style shirts, lovingly bought for me by my mother at Bealls. She would never say the words aloud, but I know she felt disappointed at my size. At family parties, I couldn’t help but feel a disconnection from my family as I compared my size to everyone. I was, at that moment, roughly the same weight as my large six foot-something uncles. Two of my cousins, both around the same age, were not overweight. More importantly, they were not quiet or self-conscious about their appearance. I was extremely shy and quiet, mostly because I felt I had to be that way. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, at least not to my weight. You become the literal elephant in the room. I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember coming home from a summer party at my Nana’s house and telling my mom cautiously that “I want to start losing weight. I think I need to, don’t you?” She closed her eyes and nodded yes. My body had become a problem, and it desperately needed to be solved. So, I did. But like all problems, sometimes we don’t know how to draw a line in the sand of acceptance.

In the July-October months of 2005, I did what most people did to lose weight: counted calories. My weight loss journey began by cutting out half of what I would’ve normally eaten. Then, I cut out all carbs. Soda was the first item placed on the “banned foods” list in my notebook, with candy and all forms of carbohydrates added by September. By Halloween, I was down forty pounds and did I feel fantastic! I had so much more energy. My clothes were now loose instead of tight. I went down to a size fourteen and threw out all of my “fat” clothes. I was a weight loss addict, who got high by watching the number go down every day on the scale.

More! More I say!

I came to the conclusion by November that all the food I was eating, like Lean Cuisines or a Slim Fast, were not natural and therefore going to stall my weight loss. So I placed those on the banned list and stuck to only fruits, particularly apples. I had always loved the smell of apples, with their crisp sweet aroma. It always made my mouth water just thinking about biting into a big juicy red apple and hearing a nice snap! as my teeth gnawed through its core. Fruit was natural and healthy for you, so why not only eat apples? Around the end of November, I found that the scale would no longer budge as much as I wanted daily. I decided to only eat one apple for lunch, one for dinner, and then fast all night and morning with only bottled water to drink. I told myself that water would fill my stomach up, so the hunger pains would stop. Maybe it was all psychological or maybe it was a lie I told myself, but I truly never felt hunger pains. My stomach growled, but there was no real pain. If there was, it was pushed aside for the euphoric sensations that came with my weight loss. As the scale went down a pound each day, I felt so alive and enthusiastic about my life for once. I became more social at school, more confident when talking to boys, and I felt that I could compete with others my age. I was no longer on the lower end of the social totem pole. Yet, that nagging voice in my head was always there to make me question my self-worth and to tell me false stories about what others thought of me, really. I was my own worst enemy.

When you focus all of your energy and thoughts into weight loss, life begins to swirl around you like a tornado loaded with cows that “MOO” at you as you are contemplating cheating on your diet with a delicious gooey cinnamon roll. Hell, a piece of stale dried up cheese appeals to your now desperate taste buds. Without the worry of where and when to eat, you have an awful lot of free time on your hands to examine your life and it’s inadequacies. You question your entire being and wonder how much weight you’d have to lose to make others like you. How much weight would it take for me to finally feel confident enough to stand in front of a group of people without feeling like a freak? For me, at the hopeless virginal stage of my late teens, I wondered how much weight I would have to lose in order to make any hot guy want to have sex with me. When every aspect of my acceptance revolved around my body, it’s no wonder why I developed a terrible eating habit that would cause permanent psychological damage, which has stuck with me like that annoying shirt tag that sharply scratches your back, even after cutting it out. You shrug your shoulders, but it still occasionally irritates you. Anorexia comes with incessant thoughts about the one thing you want but can’t have, no matter how hard your mom tries to persuade you with a sliver of pizza or a bottle of crisp apple juice instead of that small apple. After a while of denying your body food, all kinds of tasty meals begin to occupy your every thought. When I look back at my journal during my period of anorexia, all I see are lists upon lists of different foods I would eat once I reached my goal weight. Pumpkin pie, pancakes, cheeseburger, fries with copious amounts of ketchup, and even olives made the most wanted list. After that fateful day when I passed out on my treadmill, I caved and allowed myself to have one cheat day in six months. I told myself, one meal won’t hurt, right? But, as I learned, once I gave in to my temptations, I could never hop back onto my winning streak of anorexia. Within two months of that cheat day, I had regained twenty pounds. I started a new diet: which was to have days of binging on all those yummy foods in my banned foods list, then days of complete starvation to counteract the weight gain. I once ate a Cheeseburger from McDonald’s, and then punished myself by not eating for three days.

 

The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.”

By February, I was about 160 lbs. Do you want to know the most shocking part of this whole ordeal? The lowest weight I was ever able to get down to was 128 pounds—with starvation. If you had taken one look at me, you would have never guessed that deep inside was this nagging monster that thrived on self-hatred and physical punishment. You probably would have said I was a chubby girl, even at my lowest weight, which was the one title I so desperately tried to erase from my resume. By March, I stopped every diet plan. Although I wanted to fit into those size eight jeans that hung up in my closet like a trophy on display, it just wasn’t worth the daily struggle of resisting any food I craved. That award wasn’t worth winning anymore. I wanted to be free from all restrictions and expectations. Stopping my eating disorder was the hardest and yet most freeing moment of my life. I began a new journey, one of self-love and acceptance of myself, rolls and all.

One of the main issues I’ve always struggled with when coming to terms with my eating disorder is telling others about that period of time. It’s not that I’m shy or feel uneasy sharing such personal information. No, it’s because every time I have told anyone that I was once anorexic they take one look at my obviously not so thin figure and literally laugh or mentally “pfff sure” me. I can’t say I exactly blame them, because I would do the same if I had never experienced an eating disorder. When I was in college, I was over at my boyfriend Chris’s house when somehow those six months of my anorexia popped into our conversation. I told an entire table full of his family, including his mom, all about my apples and the aftermath of my fall. His mom, who had been listening from her patio chair, would later tell Chris that I was completely full of shit. As they cleaned up the after party mess around their house, she recalled my story about my anorexia while laughing; pointing out that my current weight at that time was definitely an indicator of my lies. She said, “How could someone like her have been anorexic?”

The worst part was that though he didn’t say the words, I knew he agreed with her. Looking now at my size fourteen body, with all the jiggles and rolls that shake like Jell-O as I walk, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a daunt, skeletal figure. The irony of it all is that they are right, I never was bone thin. That image is what the dramatic movies showcase. That image is what comes to mind when you hear the words “anorexia” and “bulimia.” What I wish more people understood is that the image where one’s skin is stretched tightly over protruding bones happens when the disorder becomes life-threatening. It’s when your body has depleted every ounce of fat and is now eating away at your muscles, desperate for something to make fuel out of. Nothing about my eating disorder or figure was stereotypical, thankfully. But sometimes, especially when I reopen that scar that once was a gaping hole, I wonder if people’s reactions would be different if I was a smaller size naturally. By allowing myself to share my story, I become vulnerable, like a weakened animal. I crave, more than anything now, a sign of empathy. But, I rarely receive it. After twelve years of searching, I’ve given up on telling my story. Instead, I store it in my “teenage years” section of my memory closet. But, with this essay, it’s time to release my story into the world in hopes that someone else, boy or girl, will read it and know that your negative thoughts about your body are not real. Your body image can be distorted, regardless of your age or weight. Thin, fat, tall, short, wide, petite, and everything in between can experience shame from within.

Eating disorders are portrayed using conventional images of rail-thin young girls, with pencil-like legs and hollowed out eyes. These girls are so thin that just looking at them makes your stomach drop and your heartache for their well-being. The truth is that not everyone who has or had an eating disorder looked like this, no matter how hard they tried. Some of us, myself included, have bodies that regardless of how much we lose weight still appear to the casual passerby as being “normal” or “healthy.” Some of us can deplete every ounce of body fat and still have “weight” on them. Not everyone, boy or girl, can completely change their body type to that of someone who “looks anorexic.” I’ve found, from talking to many other women who had an eating disorder in their teenage years, most were like me. And like me, their stories remain hidden due to the fear of having one more person doubt the most emotionally painful experience of their life.

Something that also comes with having the label of “former anorexic” is the question of how you stopped. “Didn’t they send you to a rehab or something?” is the most asked question, and to their surprise, my answer is always, “No, I just stopped.” If you already didn’t believe my tale of woe with anorexia, this statement guarantees a “yeah, sure” look. Not everyone who once had an eating disorder was given the luxury of attending an expensive rehab vacation to work out the fat-shaming demons from your head. I’ve always looked at my recovery as being like a smoker who finally reached their limit and quit cold turkey. You reach a point where the starving, the longing for food, hair loss, feeling cold in ninety-degree Florida weather, and lack of self-love becomes too much to bear. You reach your tolerance level and decide to never go back. To put it simply, you’re just tired of all the bullshit.

The reality is you’re never really cured from an eating disorder. It lays dormant in your head, constantly reminding you of the power you once had over your body, and how wonderful it would feel again. It’s like a drug, in that it brings comfort and chaos. It patronizes you when you eat a bag of chips, cookies, or even drink a small glass of ice cold Coke. It’s constantly reminding you of all the opportunities you’re missing out on because of your weight. You tell yourself lies in order to get through your current state of shame, like “I’m fat right now, but if I lose ten pounds by the end of July, I can finally show off my thighs in that cute sundress!” You tell yourself that your confidence would be boosted, your energy levels will be through the roof, and most importantly, just how much people would like you if you only lost enough weight to fit in with all the other “normal” women. But here’s the thing, your mind is full of shit and lies to you all the time. It’s hard to see it, because you literally live inside your head, but your mind can be a frenemy when given the opportunity. It preys on your weaknesses like a shark smelling blood, ready to pounce when its victim is already sensing an unknown danger lurking below the water’s depth.

 

Starting with my childhood, I always was given the title of “big girl.”

It’s hard to truly love yourself when your mind plays Devil’s advocate every day. You try and decide what to eat for lunch, which sends you on a rollercoaster of ups and downs. You tell yourself that you should eat a big and savory Cobb salad, along with a bottle of unsweetened iced tea, sweetened only with stevia. Sounds okay, right? Especially since you’re trying to eat better, but the reality is you’re so hungry and want something more filling, more satisfying to bite into. This is when you get hit with an “Oh! What about a cheeseburger from Five Guys?” Then your mind and desires begin to battle back and forth until eventually you decide what’s going to make you feel better right now? If you go with the salad, you’ve proven to yourself that you do indeed have strong willpower. If you go with the cheeseburger, you feel great while eating it and your savor every single bite. But, within a few minutes, you feel shame. You’ve lost the battle today and you feel like such a complete failure. You tell yourself that this is why you’re failing in various aspects of your life. If you can’t even resist one cheeseburger, how in the hell are you ever going to write that book? Or, find a hot guy to hit on you? Why, Bethany, are you like this? You make promises to yourself about how you’re going to change, how next week we will diet. But, every single time, you fail. So this vicious cycle of shame continues onward, as it has now for me since 2006, post-anorexia.

I’ve been searching for any sort of validation that I’m not batshit insane since my literal fall from my eating disorder. I’ve gone these past twelve years with an unshakable feeling of shame regarding my eating habits and, of course, weight. No matter how many of my friends, family, or strangers compliment me on my appearance, I still have that voice in my head that pipes up and says Uh, yeah, let’s not get too confident there, girl. You know that the mirror doesn’t lie, bitch. You’d think that because of this voice, I’d avoid mirrors, but it’s quite the opposite. I love looking at myself in the mirror. Some days, I can look in the mirror and just focus on the good parts of my physical beauty. I think I have a pretty face. I like my dark Italian features, like my wonderfully thick hair (eyebrows included). I love how my eyes are both green and brown, which is like a beautiful swirling of my Irish and Italian features.

But, I can never look at apples, especially the ones in my mom’s fake plastic fruit basket that sits upon our kitchen table, with the same innocent eyes. All I see is that desperate girl, who doesn’t know that only time can bring her the kind of acceptance she so badly craves.

 

Bethany Bruno is a born and raised Florida Writer. She attended Flagler College, in St. Augustine, FL, where she earned her B.A in English.  She later attended the University of North Florida for her M.A. Before becoming a Library Specialist, she was an English Teacher and a Park Ranger with the National Park Service. Her work has been previously published in The Flagler Review, Lunch Ticket, Paragon Press, Underwood Press, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Ripples in Space. She’s currently working on her debut novel, “From the Passenger Seat.” She lives in Port Saint Lucie, FL.