What is it about a crisis – especially a medical crisis – that makes not eating seem like a good idea?

There were some practical reasons why eating was more difficult when Simone was in the hospital. If I wanted more than the snacks I’d brought – bananas and Cliff bars grabbed on the way out of the house, stuffed into my bag with the knitting I thought I might pick up (never did) and the books I thought I might read (didn’t) – it meant a trip to the hospital cafeteria. This involved taking the elevator down to Floor 9, walking along several connected hallways, and then taking another elevator to Floor 3. It also meant being around people I didn’t know, lucky people, who looked as if they had showered recently and who weren’t watching the end of a dear life that had barely begun. It was hard to leave the hospital room and swim through all of that merely for food, which seemed such a trivial pursuit in the face of what Simone was struggling with.

But in addition to food acquisition being inconvenient, I also didn’t eat because – well, I’m not sure. 1) Maybe it was my version of bargaining: If I eat only enough to keep going, maybe Simone will come out of this all right. 2) Maybe survivor’s guilt: How can I eat and enjoy it when she cannot eat or enjoy it? (Joyce Carol Oates wrote about how vulgar it felt to her to take any sort of pleasure in life after her husband passed away suddenly.) 3) Maybe it was simply that the world was turned on its head and this was a ready manifestation of how much life had shifted. No longer was food a potential pleasure but only an easily-overlooked “fuel for the fire.” Whatever the reason, there seemed to be intention behind depriving myself of food.

Soto Zen Buddhists recite a mealtime verse that exhorts one to “eat lest we grow lean and die.” I felt a particular affinity with the position of food implied in this verse. Namely, that food was unimportant when held up next to this tragedy – just as petty grievances and misunderstandings became unimportant – and so eating became something I had to remind myself to do so I would continue to be useful, so I would not become one more thing to worry about.

Experiencing self-inflicted food restriction, I can’t help but think of anorexia nervosa. Those suffering from anorexia often seek to exert some control over their lives in the most basic of ways, by controlling what they eat and don’t eat. I’ve never been in danger of developing this particular disorder, but I now appreciate more deeply why someone might feel driven to act out their helplessness by finding something they can control – like what we choose to put in our bodies.

I feel cliched pointing it out, but when we experience the ultimate helplessness of death, how could we not search – at least for awhile – for something that would yield to our will and help us remember that we do have some power? Perhaps not eating is as simple and as complicated as this, an attempt to feel some small sense of agency; maybe this delusion of personal power is the very thing that helps us continue into the next moment.

  1. tom moss said:

    Interesting thoughts, Katrina. One of the most profound experiences in the nursing home is seeing patients decide to stop eating. Exactly when they will decide this is hard to know, but to me and nursing home is usually quite clear when they do. And it usually is clearly an act of reclaiming some personal power, as you suggest. Love, tm

  2. Tina said:

    And isn’t that something, Katrina and Tom, that this personal power becomes most compelling in the face of being most powerless…

  3. Yes, yes, but, doesn’t the body, and not just the mind, have a say in this
    as well? The digestive juices going toward digesting a huge psyche event
    instead of taking nourishment in its most solid and recognizable form of food. Perhaps
    something else, other more subtle nourishment is being asked for at threshold.


  4. Chris U. said:

    I think Dee packard is on to something.

    I mean it is true that in our normal lives our bodies crave food, conditioned as they were by nature to expect starvation to always be one bit of bad weather or family feud away..but humans don’t actually _need_ food every day, and maybe in the face of true emergency, they remember that?

    Then again assuming a human act is about control/power is almost never a bad assumption. That is a craving that lurks deep with in us, surprisingly strong and basic for something so abstract.

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