Fear, Health, and Cheesecake

Just like every December, my 18th December was too warm. Not just too warm for sweaters or hot chocolate, but too warm for the Christmas party cheesecake recipe. The recipe was a combination of my grandma’s and Chef Mike Ortega’s suggestions. The end result was meant to set perfectly into the plastic shot glasses, so creamy that the fact that it didn’t pour out was damn near miraculous. The batter, still entirely liquid, dripped off the tasting spoon in a thick off-white stream. Its flavour was less sweet than normal cheesecake because it was yet to be mixed with the toppings that were waiting on the back of the counter.

Chef Ortega placed six hundred shot glasses in neat rows on the kitchen island. It was hour six of what felt like a week-long shift preparing for just one of the many Christmas parties we were hired to cater for that winter. Fueled entirely by the smell of sugar, the occasional sip of water, and whatever the tasting spoon allowed, we were close to finishing the desserts. Once we filled every cup with two layers of cheesecake and one of the three different toppings we had prepared the day before, we were at the mercy of my grandmother’s old fridge and were forced to blindly move on to making massive batches of salad dressing for the actual dining courses.

For the next few days I went to school and then directly to my grandmother’s house to continue working. I did not sleep more than the occasional 20 minute nap in the back of a dimly lit classroom. The cheesecakes had set, but as I did with every event, I worried that something would go wrong. As Thursday rolled around, I knew that if something did go wrong, there would be no opportunity to make more desserts for the 300 guests who were slated to attend Friday’s event. I worked on prep until I had to rush to school the next morning. By noon, I left school to begin to set up.

The event ran smoothly. I only left the kitchen for the occasional refill of the dessert table’s many trays. When dinner was over, I picked at leftovers and let myself nod off while standing around. There was little that brought me the kind of pride I felt in moments like this. Knowing I’d be able to sleep well, even though it would be just for part of the night since I had to stay to clean up, with a little extra money in my pocket.

I’d also get to eat, finally, after a week of nearly nothing and being too hopped up on adrenaline to tell that I felt like fainting. I started skipping meals to get more things done in fifth grade. It felt like an incredibly beneficial habit. As the youngest daughter of three, I had picked up on the idea that I had to compete with my older sisters from a very early age. I had to be as accomplished at 10 years old as my 17 and 19 year old competition. My family were also big supporters of whatever fad diet was trending at the time. I was still in elementary when my mom first suggested I start dieting, but it was long before that I’d heard jokes about how I had to lose my baby weight. It was harmless. It was simply for my own health.

I remember distinctly sitting cross legged on a chair at my family’s favourite restaurant (before red meat lost its popularity). Meat sizzled at the center of the table on a cast iron pan that sat on a heat resistant cloth which protected the plastic tablecloth from melting. My father retold his favourite anecdote between bites and laughter. It was a story I heard many times and would hear many times more:

“So, your sister went to study abroad in sixth grade, and every Sunday she would go do groceries for the week. She would pick up seven Philadelphia cream cheese cheesecakes. So that every day she could have one after class.”

He paused for anticipation and I realized I was full.

“When she got back from the year abroad, she got off the plane rolling!”

Like clockwork, this is the part where my family laughed about how fat she had gotten at eleven years old.

By the time I moved out after high school it felt like the list of foods I wasn’t allowed to eat far exceeded the food I could. I couldn’t eat dairy but if I really wanted butter I had to use ghee; I wasn’t allowed eggs unless I personally knew the chicken; no sugar (of course) and zero sweeteners (except dates since honey was too high glycemic); no corn in any form (including chips and corn syrup); no bananas (because they had too much natural sugar) or grapes (for the same reason); no squash or peppers (because they’re too inflammatory). I was also a vegetarian at the time and I had to eat balanced meals (too many carbs, fat OR protein was frowned upon). The mere mention of any dessert, let alone a monstrosity that mixed sugar, eggs, and dairy (like cheesecake) would result in a long conversation about how I was bound to die young and should get tested for diabetes. Once I moved out, my dad would occasionally ask for pictures of my receipts from the grocery store or for me to walk him through my pantry. My biggest fear was coming back after my first year of college fatter than I left.

It was far easier for me not to eat at all than to follow the rules that explained what I could and could not eat. It helped that I wasn’t close to my roommates so I didn’t have anyone to hold me accountable. Plus, my body had gotten used to this rhythm of one meal a day, sometimes a snack too. When I did eat, I ate well and unlike in high school, where I would run five hours at a time whenever, I didn’t go to the gym unless I had at least one solid meal that day. After moving out of my dorm, I spent a summer working in a kitchen again finally. It felt good to be back into the work setting I loved. The thing is, because I couldn’t actually eat any of the food I enjoyed, cooking all these complex meals and desserts allowed me to go through my favourite half of any good meal.

After what felt like a decade of me nailing this whole “disordered eating” thing, that summer made the issue blatant to my coworkers. Without it being brought up to me, the kitchen staff would work together to ensure I would have two meals at work when I had full shifts, and when I didn’t they would ask my girlfriend at the time, who would often sit around the bistro waiting for my shift to end, what meals I had had or what meals she planned to have with me later. As someone who had a history of eating disorders herself, this was very important to her. As the summer ended, skipping meals wasn’t as easy for me both because I was being watched and because my body had grown accustomed to eating (that traitor) so the next few months were hard. By Christmas, I had realized I needed help but still couldn’t manage to eat more than two meals a day, on a good day.

I reached out to my sister a few times the next semester because I felt incredibly sick over quarantine. Eating was hard, but I managed to follow all the rules I was being told to follow. I still felt sick. My sister sent me an even more restrictive diet with a list of foods I could and should eat that fit in a notecard (including spices and cooking oils). By the time summer rolled around, I had nausea on a near daily basis so bad I couldn’t eat. Forced by a friend to go to the ER one morning, the medical staff ran multiple tests on me and determined I had acidosis and my body, unbeknownst to me, had reached an unhealthy level of ketosis. I was asked by social workers if I was in an abusive situation at home. For the first time in my life, I spoke honestly and openly about my struggle with disordered eating. My doctor warned me that if I reached this point again, I’d likely need organ transplants. Put simply, I had starved myself nearly to death. Doctors tried to rehydrate me but my body had become so accustomed to starvation that it was slow in accepting the IV. By nightfall, I was asked to stay overnight. My body was still unresponsive to treatment.

The next day was 71 days ago. I was woken up to a breakfast of eggs, yogurt, potatoes, peppers and a slice of bread. It was like everything I’d ever been forbidden to eat in one meal. I cried as I ate it because of a lack of sleep, because I was scared of how close I got to death, and for ten years of reasons. I cried until I felt numb and then came lunch. All too dry chicken, soggy green beans, and in a little plastic container at the corner of my tray: a single serving cheesecake.

Mexican senior at The King’s College.