What do you do when you are physically incapable of eating? When food becomes a burden, rather than a photographable luxury; when it doesn't look pretty and neither do you, how do you relate -- re-relate -- to food?
About five years ago, I was diagnosed with an rare condition called idiopathic condylar resorption. Essentially, at age 17, I was told that my jaw joints had completely disintegrated. This, aside from causing constant, intense pain, had caused my chin to recede down and back into my face, leaving me with a completely "open" bite in which none of my teeth touched except my molars, as well as a distorted facial appearance. The solution to my diagnosis, which had only come after about two years of searching, was a complete reconstructive maxillofacial surgical procedure. The eight and a half hour ordeal would entail upper and lower jaw repositioning, double jaw joint replacement with prosthetics, and fat grafts from my stomach to my face to prevent unwanted bone growth.
It was as harrowing as it sounds. The worst part, however, came in the weeks which followed. The "healing" process.
Although my mouth was never wired shut, I had a complete set of surgical braces which connected top to bottom teeth with intricately woven rubber bands, as well as a large metal wafer behind my top front teeth. As if this wasn't incentive enough not to open my mouth, I was given the express instructions: do not chew your food for four months.
For most foodies -- for anyone, really -- this task would require a Herculean effort. It does seem, in retrospect, a punishment worthy of Greek Mythology, akin to, perhaps, Tantalus. Although, unlike Tantalus, who could never actually get the food or water into his mouth, I was able to get that far. Only then was I stopped dead in my tracks. Don't chew.
I was unfazed by the unavoidable damage this would reap not only on my diet, but on my overall person. Post-surgery, I was so filled with drugs that the thought of food was entirely uninteresting, even off-putting. For the first two weeks following my surgery, I barely ate at all.
Week three and my unintentional fast needed to be broken. I was feeling horrible; the only way I would really start to recover, my surgeon informed me, was by eating. The thought was abysmal. Eating, up until that point in my life, had been a joyous, fulfilling (literally) event. As most healthy people do, I ate with friends and family, in restaurants or around a kitchen table. I loved the sensations of eating, of crunching on vegetables and tearing into crusty breads. I ate because I was hungry; I ate because I loved food.
That was no longer an option. I wasn't hungry. I couldn't eat with friends or family because I didn't have the strength, neither physical, nor emotional, for it. I could no longer eat the way I wanted to. I was greatly restricted in what I could eat, and juices, soups, and yogurts became the staples of my diet. My relationship to food was completely altered in that the control -- in everything from when I wanted to eat, what I wanted to eat, and how I wanted to eat -- was no longer in my hands.
For those who suffer eating disorders, for those who must diet, or otherwise restrict or consume for the sake of their health, or for those for whom food is strictly necessity rather than luxury, I'm sure my experience is all too familiar. This physical/emotional trauma of losing ones control over the experience of food is profound, and left me frail and deeply depressed. Instagram wasn't a thing back in 2010, but, had it been, I can only imagine what my pictures would have shown: a large syringe filled with narcotic-laced chocolate protein shake, (this was the way I had to take pills, as my mouth didn't open wide enough for me to fit substantial food or drug items inside) a bowl of dark green just-pureed vegetables, to which my mother, in her haste to get me to eat, hadn't thought to add any flavoring to make it desirable, let alone edible, and a slice of clumsily home made, over-frosted Duncan Hines cake (strangely enough, this was the only type of "food" I craved, as I imagined the cake would melt in my mouth.) Not a pretty sight for any future Food-stagramer.
I would eat the cake, relishing its artificial sweetness and taste, relishing the fact that I was eating it because I wanted to eat it, relishing the reminder of what food was like before the operation. If I had had my way, I would have subsisted solely on cake. When my mother refused me any more until I ate the vegetables, I wept like a child. In many ways, I was a child again, with my mother controlling the foods I ate and withholding sweets. I had just finished my senior year of high school and was about to start college in the fall. Asserting my independence was, at that time, more important than it had ever been. And never had I felt more dependent or helpless. The loss of control food led to a more complex loss of control over my life. The dependency I learned during those weeks took me years to overcome. If there is anything my surgery taught me, it is that food is not just relevant, but absolutely necessary to all aspects of mental, physical and emotional well-being.
So where am I now? I have healed. My jaw works, I can chew, and the pain is gone. Food has, once again, become a source of happiness, entertainment, and togetherness in my life. But I will never forget those early post-op weeks. I Instagram my food, nowadays, with what serves for me as a deeper purpose, a reminder. Yes, this chocolate almond croissant is gorgeously photogenic. But what's more, I can eat it. And for that, I will celebrate it. Follow my celebration of food on Instagram at @a_polkes.