All You Can Eat

By Sheila Himmel, "All You Can Eat," May/June 2010

An essay on raising a daughter with eating disorders by author Sheila Himmel.

“What do you want to eat?” my husband, Ned, asks our daughter, Lisa. We are seated at the table of Vung Tau, a Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, staring at a menu that goes on for pages.

Just being able to ask this question of our daughter is a thrill.

Lisa used to love Vietnamese food. When she and her brother, Jacob, were little, we started a tradition of letting them pick a restaurant for their birthday dinner. Many years in a row, Lisa chose Golden Chopsticks, home of the “hot rock.” The slightly dangerous tabletop drama involved flinging pieces of meat, fish and vegetables onto a 500-degree stone the size of a fat textbook.

Then, in high school, Lisa started crossing foods off her list. First, red meat. Then, anything fried. Then, no carbohydrates after 6:00 p.m., on into no carbs at all. She began reading labels and got very interested in nutrition, which seemed healthy—up to the point when she started measuring every gram and calorie and keeping charts of intake and exercise. She lost weight and gained compliments on her new figure. Soon she was refusing to go to restaurants. If forced to go with the family (which my work as a restaurant critic often required), she would order steamed broccoli. Anyone who intervened got slapped with the look, if not the words, “Leave me alone!”

Ned and I didn’t know what to do. And everything we did do seemed to be wrong. Lisa overexercised, became anorexic, bulimic, anorexic again. She dropped to a size double-zero, but still she felt fat. And then it got worse. At 22, Lisa spent six horrific weeks in the hospital trying to recover. She left severely depressed and thinner than when she went in.

Now, a year and a half later, Lisa is in recovery. She has found the right professional, someone she connects with and trusts. It’s a process, she says, that is up and down. Until tonight it has not involved a restaurant.

She and her boyfriend, Michael, have been living in Jacksonville, Florida, where he thinks of dinner as creamed and fried. It’s her first visit home to California in three months. As a family, we have not enjoyed a meal together since… I don’t remember.

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