Two-thousand eight is the first year I remember getting nervous about my birthday. And not because I thought I was getting old (I was only turning 18) but because of the traditions associated with a birthday – specifically traditions that involve food.
Birthdays mean cake. And ice cream. And other delectable, indulgent goodies. And because of my battle with food, the celebration a birthday brings has also brought me fear and anxiety for the past 6 years.
During my anorexia, birthdays meant I would have to come up with plausible-sounding excuses to turn down my own birthday cake. It meant I would be online, searching the menus of local restaurants and trying to determine which one had the best salad options for my family birthday dinner.
When I was living in Dallas, co-workers would stop by my desk with cookies and cupcakes and I would politely explain that I would “save it for later,” while I knew in the back of my mind that it would end up in the trash can. I wasn’t trying to be ungrateful or unappreciative; I was seriously so consumed and obsessed with my eating disorder that I could not IMAGINE letting go of my control, even for a day as special as my birthday.
When I was battling my bingeing episodes, birthdays were even more scary, in a way. Instead of feeling “strong” and ready to refuse the cake and ice cream, I worried instead that I would not be able to stop eating them both. Many times – and not just on birthdays – I would refuse cake to appear “in control,” only to sneak down to the kitchen a couple hours later when everyone was asleep and gorge myself, anxiously listening for any steps on the stairway that might mean a discovery of my shameful habits. I stuffed piece after piece in my mouth, sometimes without even bothering to get a fork. Birthdays not only reminded me of these out-of-control bingeing memories, but also threatened a repeat episode.
Last year, in 2012, I vividly remember sitting at Jason’s Deli with my parents on my birthday. Even though I was well into recovery, I was still terrified of most restaurants and only had a few “safe places” where I could eat without much anxiety. Jason’s Deli was one of them. With the huge salad bar option, I could choose exactly what went on my plate and know precisely how much I was eating. Jason’s deli was my security blanket when it came to eating out.
I’m happy and thankful to say that I’ve made a lot of progress since my last birthday. I now eat out at restaurants without anxiety and I never search menus online beforehand for calorie information. Instead of always getting a salad, I explore menus and try other things that sound good to me. I know this might sound petty or trite, but for someone in recovery, this is huge! God has really done so much in my life in the past year and definitely used my counselor in that process.
Fast-forward to this year… as my birthday grew closer, I began to contemplate restaurants for the annual celebratory dinner with my family. I spent some time on Google and searched for fun restaurants I’d never tried before. I did a lot of research – but it wasn’t to find the lowest-calorie meal option or the most extensive salad bar. I wanted to find a restaurant that would feel like a celebration of my progress in recovery. And I settled on Pi. A local company that offers “award-winning deep and thin crust pizza in St. Louis, MO, serving lunch and dinner every day.” I’d never been there before, but had heard tons of positive reviews from friends.
Going to a pizza place on my birthday was somewhat of a way to prove to myself that I truly can enjoy those kinds of foods without guilt. A year ago – even six months ago – I would not have been able to do that. Sunday night, I celebrated with my family: not just the fact that I’m another year older, but the new-found ability to enjoy foods like pizza once again. I’ve eaten pizza a handful of times in the past 6 years, always with tons of guilt and regret. But this time, there was only room at the table for fun and laughter.
As we sat at a corner booth and ordered appetizers, I listened to the guys discuss sports and give predictions on the upcoming World Series. I caught up with my sister and dared my 19 year old brother to finish his entire deep dish pizza (19 year old guys have incredible appetites). I chatted with my parents and my boyfriend and enjoyed each piece of my pizza. Then we went home and ate homemade pumpkin pie, and I enjoyed a nice, big piece along with everyone else. And as if that wasn’t enough fun for one night, we decided to watch the first Men in Black movie (my boyfriend had never seen it before!) and laughed our heads off for a couple hours together.
It was such a fantastic evening, and the most I’ve enjoyed my birthday in a long time. I was relaxed and content and able to focus on connecting with my family. I wasn’t planning a long run for the next morning to work off my pizza, or trying to calculate how many calories were in the pumpkin pie. Instead, I simply enjoyed the moment. With the people I love most. This is something my eating disorder robbed from me for way too long. I didn’t realize how much I missed all of this, until I experienced it again last weekend.
Laughter. Loved ones. Pizza. Jokes. Stories. Memories.
I soaked it all in and enjoyed every last minute of my 23rd birthday .
I’m pretty excited about having this whole birthday thing every year now. Birthdays are no longer something to fear – they’re something to anticipate.