The Joy of Eating: How Overcoming Anorexia Taught Me to Love Food Again

Once I trained myself to accept the permission to eat whatever I wanted (eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full), I found once again how physically wonderful the experience of food can be.
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Since moving to Paris a few months ago, I've discovered that it's true what they say -- it is indeed a land of decadent, delicate, obscenity-worthy good food. Cheese. Bread. Wine. Chocolate. The first day of spring was Jour du Macaron, in which several famous and well-regarded pâtisseries all over the city hand out their finest macarons in exchange for a charity donation of any amount. I mapped out my plan of attack the night before, and the next day I hit four pâtisseries in one afternoon. Standing in different corners of the spring sun all over Paris I enjoyed crazy, masterful flavors like Ispahan, a combination of rose, lychee and raspberry with gold flecks on top; citron-in, which tasted like a tiny, chewy Key lime pie; chocolat et foie gras, which combined layers of sweet-salty-sweet in two chewy, swoon-worthy bites; and mandarine mangue, a little yellow creation of orange and mango that was so bright it tasted like the sun itself. When I had the absinthe at Arnaud Lahrer, I looked up and down the empty street around me, desperate to share the ecstasy I was in, and was nearly brought to tears with the happiness of flavor. As I enjoyed the little silver wonder and its pure physical gift, I thought to myself with the relief of avoided regret: What would my life have been like if I'd never recovered from anorexia?

When I was a teenager and learning in aerobics class about eating disorders, I thought to myself, "I could never do that. I love food too much." Yet one year later, that's exactly what I was doing -- avoiding food at all costs. I lost half my body in an attempt for control over something in my perfection-driven life. I was in and out of hospitals and inpatient facilities, was cruelly cold to my friends and family, and would spend hours fantasizing about the food I wouldn't eat the way other teenage girls fantasize about romance or new shoes in a shop window.

I still loved food, somewhere deep inside, yet the demon that had taken possession of my thoughts wouldn't let me touch anything beyond fruit and fat-free yogurt. Even then, the taste of a fresh apple, tart and cold in my mouth, was an event of gratification as I savored every morsel of the fruit I'd cut into tiny pieces for maximum satisfaction. I would watch the Food Network and dream of the dishes I would make, someday, the imaginary day I was waiting for when I would finally have the strength to defeat the devil that was defeating me.

One warm April evening, my moment arrived. I was at a party (a rare social occasion for me), standing in front of a plate of what had once been my favorite cookies. In an elongated moment of epiphany, the world went quiet and all that existed was me and the cookies. I thought to myself, "Fuck this. Fuck you, Jenna, what are you waiting for?" I felt the moment envelop me... I felt it from my knobby, weak knees through the pit of my sighing stomach to the tips of my cold fingers, which reached out to the plate. I took a cookie and I ate it, its pink frosting and sprinkles gathering at the corners of my mouth. It tasted better than anything I'd ever eaten before, and better than anything I've eaten since.

I know this simplifies an extraordinarily complicated matter; perhaps it sounds too easy to be true, that I could "just decide" to start eating again. I know that most sufferers of eating disorders never reach a decisive moment of this kind of clarity. And believe me, it took years to learn how to eat normally again, and to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to eat totally without the thought of damage or personal ruin. But that's essentially how it happened, rarely enough -- one moment of wild, exhausted sadness forced me to choose life again. And in fact, I've spent the last 13 years being grateful for the experience, because I am the rare woman who will never, ever diet again.

Once I trained myself to accept the permission to eat whatever I wanted (eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full), I found once again how physically wonderful the experience of food can be -- the ephemeral pleasure of a perfect steak or the satisfying grease of cold pizza the next day. When I spent a summer in Italy in college I began to open myself up to new foods, from carpaccio to cappuccino. Later, after moving to New York, I became a person who said, "I'll try anything." That openness led to the discovery of sushi that tastes as delicate and lovely as perfume smells, the spicy adventure of a great chana masala and naan, the rich and diverse delight of a charcuterie and cheese plate. Oh cheese. Cheese, cheese -- and that's when I decided to move to Paris.

I do not attach emotion to food -- I'm not a reactive eater or restrictor -- but in the years since I woke up to the world again, I've come to learn, and feel, the true meaning of something my mother tried to explain to me when I was sick. She told me, "Eating is not just eating; it's part of life. It's part of being with each other and learning about a culture and sharing an experience." I remember thinking, narrow-mindedly, that I was perfectly able to do whatever everybody else does, without having to eat -- surely I could go to a birthday party and have fun without having birthday cake. But over the years I've realized that the experience of eating is about so much more than consumption -- food, when it's really good, is one of the finest pleasures of being alive. It is feeling alive, feeling yourself having a body and accepting something that someone else has put their aliveness into.

I look back on all the experiences I've had since I came back alive and I cannot imagine having enjoyed my life without the pleasure of food. It is not just cakes at birthday parties -- it is a deceptively simple, spicy coppa sandwich at a train station in Rome; it is picnics with rosé wine with my best friend in Central Park; it is lasagna made by my mother at home, the smell of it filling the whole house all day, and tasting the generations of love in its bolognese sauce; it is a beautifully sunny day, the first day of spring, and tasting six different flavors of the finest pastries in Paris while little flower blossoms wriggle out of their buds all around me.

One of the greatest joys of my life is trying new things to eat, enjoying the multitude of flavors of the world, and giving myself the open mind and mouth to experience something new. I don't like everything; I am still a picky eater in some respects, but the pickiness is never because I care in the least about how many calories are in the forthcoming bite. Numbers are never on my mind. I am picky because I know, I know I know, that life is too short for food that doesn't fulfill.

For more by Jenna-Marie Warnecke, click here.

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.