For most of high school, nausea was my MO. My days were punctuated by finding silent and creative ways to burp, declining food at friends’ houses, chugging ginger ale before exams and, unfortunately, vomiting on or around anyone who took me on a date.
In college, I resigned to eating frozen meals alone in my room, as I developed a conspiracy theory about how the dining halls were trying to poison me. I spent weeks feeling too nauseous to eat anything other than a plain bagel and a banana, and I once met with an on-campus nutritionist who said “you look fine” while winking a little bit, so I stopped worrying about my diet.
My constantly disappearing appetite was especially confusing, because I’ve always considered myself to be a total lover of food. My favorite hobby is looking up pictures of food online, I love picking out new and exciting places to eat, and I’ve spent many a night declining plans to stay in and watch Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, something that I’m sure has permanently damaged me in some way, but until I bleach my hair and start inexplicably yelling about onion rings like host Guy Fieri, it’s a decision I stand by.
This whole thing climaxed during my senior year of college, when I went three weeks without eating a full meal. One night, a gust of wind knocked me over into a snowbank, and I was so weak that a campus safety officer had to yank me out of it and give me the rest of his Gatorade in order to wake me up. An EMT then wrapped me in a space blanket and told me I had “frost nip,” which is a scary ailment that’s severely undercut by the fact that it sounds like the title of a bad wintertime porno.
After this incident, I resolved to finally fix my stomach issues, and spent spring break doing every test I could: Celiac, an endoscopy, an esophageal and upwards of 50 individual food allergy tests, but they all came back negative. This was unfortunate for me, because I love to supplement personality traits that I lack with obscure ailments I’ve been diagnosed with. I may not know much about politics but, did I mention I’ve had two ovarian cysts? Weird ailments make me feel interesting, so whenever I get diagnosed with something unique, I run with it. I’m considering getting a tattoo that reads, “ask me about the time I had MRSA!” Because I did have MRSA (an infection caused by a type of staph bacteria) and I love talking about it.
In my final consulting session with a gastroenterologist, I read off a new batch of diseases I had found on the internet, going down the list one by one as I waited to see which one he thought I had. I felt like I was five and asking Santa for presents, except this was a doctor and instead of a Barbie Dream House, I was gunning for a full colonic and maybe a biopsy or two if I was extra good.
After a few minutes, my doctor suggested that my stomach issues could simply be a result of anxiety. He added that there’s more serotonin in the belly than in the brain, and asked if I’d consider speaking with a therapist of some kind to see if it made a difference.
The result was a resounding “no” on my end, because anxiety and mental health in general don’t have quick fixes, and they don’t elicit the same sympathy, nor do they feel as legitimate as food allergies. When I thought I was gluten-intolerant, I got to blame all of my issues on a concrete disorder that made people feel bad for me and believe I was following a doctor’s orders when I ate an entire block of cheese for dinner. Similarly, when I decided I was allergic to hard alcohol, it meant that I could excuse myself from parties and crowded rooms and blame it on the beverage selections and not my lack of social skills.
I was especially confused by my doctor’s suggestion, because food was always my go-to solution for anxiety, so how could anxiety be the cause of my fading appetite? I’ve never been a big drinker, and my happiest nights in college were when I ordered pizza with friends, or when we otherwise gorged on junk food. When homework or looming tests made me anxious, mac and cheese was my savior, when I was sad or upset I devoured ice cream by the gallon, and the list goes on.
What I eventually came to terms with is that I have anxiety and I get depressed every once in a while, which means that sometimes, I can’t eat. Even if I’m hungry, even if I have no logical reason to be anything other than perfectly content. I wish I could say I was allergic to crowded bars or “meet the parent” dinners; that I had an intolerance to hearing people humble-brag about their careers or a hypersensitivity to writing cover letters, but, unfortunately, that’s not how we talk about mental health these days. Instead, we use vague terms and phrases that evoke an unsavory mix of sympathy and confusion from those around us, perpetuating the myth that mental health issues are an obscure type of witchcraft like telekinesis or PMS.
Coming to terms with my anxiety has changed my relationship with food in dozens of ways. First and foremost, I’ve stopped blaming the food itself, which means I can revisit a lot of cuisines and restaurants that I’ve previously accused of making me sick. Moreover, when I suddenly lose my appetite, I put less pressure on myself. While it’s embarrassing to order a big meal and then suddenly not be able to consume any of it, my condition is only worsened when I beat myself up about it. I’ve learned that the world won’t end if I ask for a to-go bag and eat it later. I’ve noticed that since I’ve graduated from college and been more open about all of my anxieties, my issues with my appetite have vastly improved. I haven’t had an episode of nausea in months, and in that way, a big meal is not just a caloric indulgence, but also a private victory lap.
I’ve always loved food and food culture and learning about it every way I could, but taking a similarly deep look at myself was scary. I could spend hours watching those first-person, two-minute recipe videos that break down every part of a meal, but if you asked me to similarly break down my own health and how my brain works, I’d run. However, confronting my anxiety has been the best thing possible for my appetite, and though it’s harder to address your own demons than it is to watch some Food Network star eat a 12-layer grilled cheese, the former has gotten me some more mileage. In other words, the meal got way better when I worked to understand the hunger that preceded it.
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Note: PLEASE consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.