When I was 15 years old, I fell in love with Rachael Ray’s voice. That velvety voice was the soundtrack to my days at the children’s hospital I hated—with its patterned curtains and cute nurses—but called home.
For weeks I spent my days hopping on morphine, in and out of consciousness, nestled in a snake cell of drip tubes and wires. I was intent on battling this no-name invader, but more devoted to my little TV who was giving me a tutorial on how to beat meringue into submission or throw a “simple but amazing” dinner party (even when one of the guests is vegan).
What I remember most is hunger. I was starving, literally. But I had the Food Network.
Under doctors’ orders, I ate almost nothing—not a drop of ginger ale, a bite of a biscuit or even a snowflake. This was my first foray into a kind of forced asceticism, something my body, ravaged by this as-yet-undiagnosed disease, required so much. The crow was rooted in my bones, a constant tingling.
My intestines were so inflamed, spasmodic, and mad that I could not handle oral feeding, and the team of doctors, with the indifference of those who could go down to the cafeteria for a sandwich, declared that my digestive system needed a “break” and should be “hydrated.” Giving up food by mouth was the way to accomplish this.
My fate was NPO – nothing per os, Latin for “nothing by mouth”. When I ran out of celebrity tabloids to sniff and faithfully complete my duties, I became fluent in medical language, introducing acronyms and obscure medical terms into my vocabulary. I learned that this diet—or lanundete, really—was the first step in bringing my anger system back into balance that seemed so elusive.
I was soon given the unattractive and unflattering diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. It’s one of those things – Chronic, incurable, but manageable – it can debilitate you physically and financially for long periods of time, in events called flares.
Without food, I became half girl, half robot, with anxiety running through me and machines pumping nutrition into my body intravenously in a process called TPN, or Total Parenteral Nutrition. TPN is a common treatment for a severe Crohn’s attack. It bypasses the digestive system, giving the colon an ultimate vacation. How luxurious.
I completely lost the features of Homo sapiens and satiety, reduced to pure desire—skin and bones, ribs visible, thighs no longer touching—and became obsessed with the idea of food preparation and ideas of my favorite meals. roast beef. Butter fries. A burger so big and dripping with juices that you’ll need six napkins. Much more confusing to those around me, I became obsessed with the Food Network.
Instead of food, I devoured clips of Paula Deen slipping pounds of butter into a cake recipe and Sandra Lee concocting something delicious semi-homemade. Emeril Lagasse cries “Bam!” It seemed more reliable through the opioid haze. And watching Rachael Ray make something “delicious” became an erotic experience during those hours of rotting in a hospital bed.
I’ve grown accustomed to the emptiness of days when the familiar signs of meal times didn’t break, and instead became dependent on carefully dispensed painkiller intervals, always wanting more. I felt completely safe in that chemical cocoon and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that what I thought was feeling happy really meant being high.
All the while I was scrolling through the channels to see the lovely friends who were always there for me: Rachel, Emeril, Sandra, Paula.
Sunlight was shining through the hospital windows. Then came the darkness allowing me to see the TV screen more clearly as I wandered into the warm abyss of sleep aids — the “goodies” that sent me drifting into semiconscious territory, devoid of pain, with dreams of lunches and Coca-Cola and a warm, full belly. The Food Network show, with its bright colors and juicy displays of bright, spotted chicken, was and Kelly’s initial unmet need.
She endured the daily drones of doctors and medical residents stabbing and prodding, promising “a few more days without food.” This went on for weeks, with starts and stops along the way. The few days when I was allowed the most delicious of all gastronomic wonders—chicken broth and iced lemonade—were followed by excruciating, excruciating pain, and complications so life-threatening that I would have to go back to square one.
She becomes an animal that gets close to its prey, except that the prey was a cup of vanilla fudge and the messenger was a poor nurse named Liz. If I smelled food, I would turn into a dirty felon, yelling at the visitors I dined with and ordering them out of my room. I resented those who could meet their basic needs so easily.
Psychologists and therapists tried to teach me breathing techniques and other coping mechanisms, which I derided with laughter and eye-rolls that only teenage girls know. Even with some of my muscles atrophying, my middle finger seemed to work just fine. More than ever, I’ve come to rely on trusted TV hosts who grill and bake with such ease. Imagine Ina Garten denying me a meal!
I try to think of when food became good again, when eating became a way of pleasure rather than pure pain. There is no perfect data point. That’s the thing with the disease going: “before” and “after” are irrelevant. Living in a body on fire requires you to tend it like a garden—carefully, meticulously, and most of all, every single day.
I say I have two jobs, my day job at a newspaper and the second as a secretary for myself and my body. Skills include dexterity in wading through the health care system, ability to shout on the phones at middle-management insurance agents, and skill to properly budget for “emergencies.” One wrong move could mean a Crohn’s flare or a huge medical bill.
The time had come, after that initial hospital stay, when food became not an enemy but a kind of benign suitor. After months of tube feedings and stomach pumping, along with the “flight of life” and one helicopter ride, I was starting to feel sick. The medications seem to be working. Doctor visits, while stressful and often marred by procedural nonsense, were beneficial.
I was again able to eat in a “regular” way – small pieces of pizza, greasy chicken nuggets, and crunchy apples smothered in peanut butter, which is my favourite. The saccharine taste of Diet Coke and the taste of cheap black coffee are everyday pleasures. Rachel, Ina, and Emeril are still in the picture, but now when I watch them at home, I can run to the fridge.
Annie Tressler is the director of corporate communications at The New York Times.