After a lifelong struggle with an eating disorder, she has more to fear than coronavirus during self-isolation

Amanda Long

THE WASHINGTON POST – At home I grab an RXBar and a banana. We have more boxes of protein bars somewhere, but I don’t want to know where. Last week, as the self-isolation was starting to take hold, my husband, Robert, asked if he should keep backup supplies out of sight and reach. (I’m short, and we have cabinets to the ceiling.) He told me he trusted me (and I believed him) but didn’t want me to feel overwhelmed by the sight of so much food. Years past, he’d hide the Halloween candy so that I wouldn’t binge on Gobstoppers and Starbursts and skip dinner. This time, it feels like we are in it together – no secrets, just secret stashes.

Later I go to CVS, where I often get groceries when grocery stores are overwhelming, which is often. With a new set of gloves on, I buy one more Lean Cuisine meal, some Fiber One bars, a family pack of chewy Nerds and cleansing wipes. I look at my cart and wonder if it looks like it belongs to someone with an eating disorder. If so, well, that would make sense.

My own eating disorder bloomed at age 17 and thrived as much on constant motion as on secrecy. Home has never been a comfort to me. Home is where cabinets full of snacks and other trigger foods await. Home has toilets to clean to hide the evidence of how I got through each day.

Home alone, I tended to go to the extremes: wake late, call in sick, binge and slog through a punishing long run – or lie in bed all day. Home has been where I hurt myself.

But in the fall of 2017, at age 45, I checked into an inpatient treatment centre. I was in pain, from working out too much, eating too little, lying all the time. I couldn’t keep it up. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to be in my life anymore. My therapist told me, a couple of years earlier, that she didn’t think I would recover without inpatient treatment. I bolted right out of her office then, but I knew she was right. A year and a half later, I walked into a McLean, Virginia, mansion turned inpatient rehab to so many unknowns: scheduled meals, no Internet, weigh-ins, roommates half my age, limited movement, and bathroom doors that had to stay open. The walk-in pantry was a carb cornucopia. Two fridges were loaded with Greek yogurt, almond milk, salad greens, fruits, butter and so much cheese – enough to feed a houseful of finally growing girls.

Author Amanda Long at her home. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
Amanda Long takes some photos with the family dog, Laser
A page from Amanda Long’s journal
ABOVE & BELOW: A painted rock, the end result of a mindfulness exercise/date-night activity for Amanda Long and her husband, Robert; and a heartful snack at home. PHOTOS: AMANDA LONG

Another unknown: just how sick I was. On Day 2, the centre’s doctor told me my dangerously low heart rate almost sent me straight to the hospital. Like so many people living on the edge, I refused to see how close I was to it. Treatment opened my eyes. And in ways I am just realising, it prepared me for what we’re living through now.

Still, I’m stuck here, trying to do my part in flattening the curve of the novel coronavirus outbreak, with no idea for how long. I’m surrounded by food, cut off from my living. I’m a massage therapist in a time of no touching. I crave and thrive on social interaction. I need people to survive. And for a very long time, I needed complete control over my diet and exercise. I have been getting better, but now I’m super-stressed with so many snacks and other trigger foods piling up and no escape from myself.

This all feels like a test of recovery. Can I take care of myself and trust others to take care of me? Did all that crafting, journalling, talking about my feelings, meditating, nutritious meal-prepping and coping-ahead strategies pay off? Will my husband see how broken I still am, or how much I want to be alive?

MONDAY, MARCH 16

No clients to see. A whole unscheduled day in front of me? Yikes.

Robert is at work in the District of Columbia, his last day in the office. I need fresh air and exercise. I go for a run and check the mileage when I tire. I’m happy to see it at half of what I once considered a real run. For so long, I let my watch tell me when to stop running. Today I let my body tell me when I’m done.

Back home I check emails for more closings and scroll through Instagram, where ads for Beachbody, trainer to the stars Tracy Anderson and running shoes remind me that exercise isn’t cancelled.

Maybe I should sign up. I don’t want to overdo the running, spin-bike riding, dancing or other at-home options. I’m still terrified of more injuries from overuse and the depression of then not being able to move – and the anger of having no control that so often accompanied it.

As I furiously Google online workouts, a friend texts me. I tell her I’m about to order a mini trampoline. She says she has one that I can come pick up. Am I already being too obsessed with exercise, or am I wisely adding a lower-impact workout to the high-impact types that usually lead to injury? The trampoline is free, I rationalise, and since she just happened to have one, it must be meant to be. Also, my post-treatment tattoo reads “Boing” so bouncing is very on-brand.

Robert comes home around 6.30pm, and we trade catastrophe notes. We usually don’t eat the same dinner at home, but we try to do it around the same time. He has a significant number of food allergies, and I have a significant lack of food-preparation skills. Recovery takes time. I’m still getting comfortable with eating a variety of foods out in public, and most nights Robert comes home prepared to feed himself, or both of us. He’s picked up dinner; I eat a healthy salad with all the foods that scare me: protein, cheese, dressing. I show him my favourite COVID-19 meme of the day: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.” We sit on the couch and share a roll of Spree candies from the secret stash.

TUESDAY, MARCH 17

I stop my spin-bike workout 10 minutes in because Robert has a conference call. Three years ago, he might have just taken the call elsewhere so as to not upset me, but today I don’t throw a fit. I adapt. I head upstairs for some calisthenics and moves stolen from Zumba class. The song Don’t Slack comes on, and I record myself dancing and post it on social media, like I’m some kind of cheerleader to keep moving. I’m lonely and ache for community, even if it’s just in the comments.

Robert makes a smoothie and offers me one. I planned on another protein bar but allow myself to veer from the plan. I add flaxseed and some organic superfood powder to mine, and immediately start counting the calories. I stop mid-calculation to grab my journal. Writing often silences my eating disorder’s high-pitched commands. It forces me to slow down and see connections. I write five things for which I am grateful.

I don’t weigh myself at home; Robert tossed the scale while I was in treatment. At the doctor’s office I turn away from the scale and ask not to be told. But there’s a scale at a tiny community gym near our house, and every couple of weeks I sneak a weigh-in just to make sure I haven’t gone over a certain number. I know I’m supposed to rely on how I feel or at least on how my clothes fit. In treatment, the therapists and counselors suggested we get rid of pretreatment clothes. I did, but my body has changed a lot in two years, and sometimes it’s overwhelming to accept what I see in the mirror, or to see it kindly.

I attend my first virtual party and talk too much. I find I have a hard time waiting for my turn to talk on Zoom.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18

My first thought is: When can I work out?

Robert comes upstairs from working and assures me I can do a workout later. His voice of reason silences the chattering of my eating disorder and echoes my own healthy rationalisations. We’ve been working on this in outpatient therapy. After telling my therapist that I often wake up afraid – of what hurts, of what’s next – she told me to sit with that and observe it. So that’s what I do.

I stretch and massage our dog, Laser.

I so badly want to go to the gym. I miss Mike, the trainer who has become essential to my recovery, not just because he’s helping me listen to my body and strengthen its weaknesses, but because he makes me feel safe. He saw me disappearing with each pound and exposed rib, and these days he reminds me that I am not that person anymore. I could use that reminder about now.

I call Mom in Indiana to make sure she has enough supplies. The call goes straight to voice mail, so I reach her through Facebook. Turns out she has one phone charger and likely not enough food. I set up a Kroger account and fill her online cart as she guides me over the phone. She wants honey, coffee and Honey Nut Cheerios, also known as sugar, caffeine and carbs. I bark, “Mom, you need real food,” my hypocrisy and concern fighting for top billing. How quickly we slip into old roles of me trying to parent her and her assuring me she is taking care of herself.

I can’t find my footing today and feel vulnerable. I’m tired of texting. I miss my clients. I miss touch.

I visit a neighbour whose brother died this week. All I want to do is hug her. Instead, I take out her trash and move her car to a better parking spot, wiping off everything I touch with Lysol.

My friend Kristen texts. Kristen was there for me during treatment, celebrating my tiniest of victories during frequent visits. She’s binge-eating and doesn’t want to trigger me, but she knows I’ve been there. I call and tell her this is not an uncommon response, especially if you’re not used to having that kind of food at home. That this is comfort food’s time to shine and for her not to beat herself up.

I tell her bingeing builds on its own momentum. It gets harder to stop the longer you go. It’s Netflix’s business model. I have binged since treatment, but more important, I have stopped the binge and recovered from it. I have binged and not restricted the next day. It’s so easy to give into the “might as well just keep going” mentality. That kind of thinking kept me sick for 25 years. That’s what I tell Kristen: You can pull yourself out of a tailspin.

THURSDAY, MARCH 19

Everyone seems on edge, and texts fill my phone. My sister asks if I’m OK, because my “posts seem angsty.” I reply, “I’m fine! I’m dancing and foam rolling and having fun. This is how I cope.” I get caught in a crossfire of colleagues who have different ideas about teamwork in these strange times. I just want to help, but I feel my boundaries are being tested with every text. A close friend calls me codependent for my efforts to pitch in, and that hits the exposed nerve: Of course I’m codependent. We all are now!

I take the dog on a late-afternoon stroll and leave the phone inside. I practise a grounding technique the writer Elizabeth Gilbert shared on Instagram, reminding followers to notice “Five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste.” The first thing I hear is a yappy dog. Laser and I quicken our pace; neither of us needs yapping.

I get a text about President Donald Trump. It feels like no one is in charge. This is what a big chunk of my childhood felt like until my eating disorder took the wheel. Even in treatment it sometimes felt that way. “Why don’t we have enough Greek yogurt or flaxseed?” “Why did the nutritionist undercook the soup on her last day?” Things don’t always go according to plan; I get it. But nothing feels like it’s going according to plan now. I need to talk about my feelings.

I resist the temptation to go to bed without dinner, but I do give in to comfort food: tuna fish salad and Club crackers. I know it’s not the best meal, but I’m too exhausted to do more.

FRIDAY, MARCH 20

I wake up to texts from Kroger, loaded with items unavailable for delivery. I call Mom before I’m out of bed. She’s full of gratitude, assures me what’s coming is enough, but I don’t believe her.

I put on running clothes, and as I take off, I realise how often I run scared – scared of not going far enough, scared of hurting myself. Today I let go of that. It feels good to not be scared in this scary time. I unclench my muscles and exhale, letting my gut fully expand. I say hi to every neighbour I pass. I feel inspired and look forward to getting home.

Mike the trainer appears on video chat to announce, “I can’t believe how much food I can eat in one day. I think I was meant to be fat.”

The phone rings. Another friend has hit his edge: a new puppy in the house, an expanded job description, no friends nearby and his mother out shopping and. He gets another call from another friend coming over to help. My stomach growls, and I think about dinner – not what I should eat, but what I want to eat, what my body, not by brain, wants in it.

SATURDAY, MARCH 21

Saturday is my big run day, even though I’ve cut my miles way down. But didn’t I run yesterday? Now I’m uncertain. I don’t want to count this day as a No Day, a sort of sad snow day when I don’t trust myself to do anything but lie in bed.

I find a high-intensity interval training workout on a trainer’s Instagram page. The lunges and squats and staying still are hard. I’m not used to slowing down, and I feel weak. All I want to do is run. But I stay. It ends with a virtual boxing class. The exhortations of this trainer, shouting encouragements to those of us on the live feed, speak to the me who loved to be in the front row of every step-aerobics class, whooping and hollering like I was some kind of holy-roller.

I call my neighbour Sybil, whose brother died this week. She gushes about the gifts showing up on her porch, thanks to a group text with other neighbours. “Do you want some candy? I have so much,” she says. “No, silly, I gave you that candy,” I tell her. Why are we all trying to give away the sweetness others want for us?

On a walk with Laser, I pick up some rocks to paint. Yes, this is what it’s come to. A few nights ago, I flipped through a book I got in treatment, A Book That Takes Its Time: An Unhurried Adventure in Creative Mindfulness. It has a lesson in rock painting. When I get home I show Robert the rocks, and he orders acrylic pens.

While I was gone, a book I ordered from a local bookstore on Day 2 of self-quarantine – knowing I’d need encouragement from another survivor – arrived. The book is about the author’s struggles with bulimia and how she finally let herself out of the cage of being “a good girl”. I open Untamed by Glennon Doyle to the page she’d signed in advance as part of a book tour that she had to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic. A quote fills the page, “What would you do if you trusted yourself?”

I’m working on it, Glennon. Trust me.