If you were not able to attend my 20th birthday party, you missed a fabulous cake. And if, by chance, you were able to attend my 20th birthday party, you, too, missed a fabulous cake.
In fact, everyone did, save for me.
I can remember carving the first slice, taking the first forkful. The rush of whipped sugar speeding through my bloodstream. It felt like teetering on the ledge on the roof of a skyscraper, exhilarating and terrifying. The split-second decision between balance and oblivion. What I cannot remember, however, is the exact moment I made the decision to eat the whole thing.
Scraping the sides of the mixing bowl, I began to notice just how satiny the fudge batter was. I made swirls and figure eights with my spatula. In transferring heaping spoonfuls of espresso-hued chocolate cream to the cake tins, I reveled in the lightness of texture, the airiness of what I was working with. A scoop in the pan, a scoop in the mouth. I then watched through the oven door as the cakes materialized, rising to fill their nine-inch pans.
Ten minutes into the baking, the air in my apartment was so saturated with the aroma of chocolate that I lost the ability to focus on anything but that cake. Though I had already eaten lunch and cake batter, a new hunger appeared, unexpected and urgent, the kind that forced me to stop whatever I was doing and tend to it. It was the kind I couldn't ignore, the one that wrestled away my power, every hidden weapon of will, and thrust me into the kitchen, where it always seemed I'd run out of milk and self-control.
While the cake cooled, I bided time by making the frosting, following the same rigorous taste-testing protocol as I had with the cake. Once my mixing bowl was full of glossy stiff peaks, I iced both layers. I carved one perfect slice, dragging my index finger along the flat side of the knife to collect any wayward fudgy crumbs, and brought it to my mouth for a thorough licking. I ate the slice of cake with fervor, as if intently pursuing something. I devoured a second slice, and then a third, trailed hastily by another three. I carved one more, reasoning that would just about do it, but, oh -- look at the crooked edge I'd produced with my shoddy knife skills. A sliver more would straighten it. I whittled away at the frosting, and, finally sure that enough was enough, I walked away from the cake and laid my fork and knife in the sink. I turned back to the cake stand and, in one painful glance, saw all that remained. A single slice.
Guilt has a way of resisting digestion. There's nothing natural about its aggressive spread. It stretches out inside me, doubles its size by uncurling its chubby arms and legs. It kicks and groans every slip of the way down. It reminds me, shames me, at every twist, every turn. And when it plops down at last upon the base of my stomach, it stays for days, unwelcome.
When it finally begins to dissolve in a halfhearted effort to leave me, particles of self-hatred remain. And hatred, like acid, erodes the whole of its environment.
What begins as hating the cake for all its multiple layers of luscious temptation spirals quickly into hating myself and all my fat cells. I let myself down. I lament not having more control. I crave comfort and reassurance, but the shame pushes me to choose punishment instead; it's all I deserve. And though crying seems a valid option, tears elude me. Instead, I stay stuck internally, bottled and sealed inside my own skin with the acidity of hatred and guilt and shame.
Today, eight years later, I'm standing again at my kitchen counter, tending to the same fudge cake. I'm gently lowering the top layer onto its frosting pillow. I've baked this cake enough times that I don't even have to take a bite to know the rich velvet of its texture. It has always been decadent, always as intense as a square of high-quality dark chocolate. A forkful makes me know that, were I able to suspend hot fudge in air just long enough to hold it and bite into it, just to taste it during the moments before it oozed, thick on my tongue, it'd be the same as this cake.
And then there's the frosting: a whipped confection with a texture that lies somewhere between the airiness in a cloud of cotton candy and the fluffy marshmallow filling in a 3 Musketeers candy bar.
Swiping a finger through that frosting, I stop. I consider how wildly my feelings about eating this one cake have swung in the last seven years. Since that time, I have lost 135 pounds. The weight has left my body and, with it, the guilt, the shame, and the hatred, too. I think briefly of the days when the very sight of a confection induced a seductive fantasy of eating it all in secret. Maybe it's knowing that I could get away with it, the acknowledgment that I could eat it all without anyone ever seeing me do it, that gives me pause today.
I am a lifetime practitioner of secretive eating, after all. As a kid who entered an empty house after school each day, I felt a desperation to eat. I knew no way other than eating to alleviate the loneliness, to fill in the spaces where comfort and security could have been. Food poured over the millions of cracks in the foundation of my family; it seeped into the fissures; it narrowed the chasms. But even then I knew that the amount of food I was consuming was something to be ashamed of. So I learned to hide it well. I stuffed twin packs of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls deep inside my stomach, tightly tucking them away. I plunged their cellophane wrappers even deeper inside the trash can, where they couldn't be seen without digging.
Until the year of my 20th birthday, I lugged around the heavy shame of my eating. I'd devour a steak-and-cheese sandwich on the way home to eat dinner with my family. I'd find myself two days into a new diet, alone in my car, pulling through the drive-through window of the Burger King two towns over -- the one where I was certain no one would recognize me. I'd griddle three stacks of pancakes in the mornings after Mom had left for work, stab my fork into the thick, cakey center of each one, and then slosh the bite through puddles of maple syrup and melted butter.
But today, eating ceaselessly in private doesn't lure me the way it once did. It doesn't seduce me in the same sexy way. In fact, there were years after having lost one-hundred-plus pounds when the sight of this fudge cake didn't conjure up fantasy, but fear -- a few birthdays when I spent the hours and days leading up to the cake searching my mind desperately for ways to escape eating it. I thought of excuses. I thought of ways to chew the cake in front of friends and family and spit it out in my napkin in the privacy of the next room. Three birthdays came and went without my so much as licking the frosting that touched my fingers while icing the layers.
The thinness I'd achieved came with its own brand of indignity. It was the fear of gaining back each pound, of proving myself a failure, that plagued me. It was the fatness of my shadow that followed me into the dark alley of an eating disorder. And just as I always had, I stuffed the shame so far down that no one could see it but me. For the first time, I appeared healthy on the outside. I wanted badly to conceal the fact that, despite a radical transformation, I remained as screwed up as I had ever been.
I lied about just having eaten to eschew offers of food at the dinner table with my family. I drove in circles in my neighborhood, unsure of how to fill the hours on an empty stomach. I bought snacks I had no intention of eating when I went to the movie theater with friends. I doggie-bagged the leftovers at restaurants, only to plunge them into the trash can the moment I arrived home. Even after rekindling my passion for baking, I restricted myself to the smallest of portions and gave the rest away.
Making this cake now, a few years later, I see how starkly black and white my beliefs had been. I see the tragedy in living an all-or-nothing existence, in teetering on top of that skyscraper and feeling forced to choose between standing paralyzed in fear or hurling myself over the edge in ecstasy. I recognize the pain of white-knuckling my way through life. I recognize the internal chaos of barreling through life in bouts of mania and depression. The alternative, the middle ground, is balance. It's not wishing to stay or to fall; it's remaining upright, respecting the boundary of the rooftop and admiring the exhilaration, the strength, of standing so high.
By now I've changed dramatically. I can, I want to, I choose to eat a full slice of this cake and love deeply all the many bites I take. I linger on the cocoa flavor, the suede texture, and, when one piece has reached its clean-plate end, I don't look for another to replace it. I share this cake. I eat it out in the open, in a loud and proud manner. I take pride in having baked something so rich, so true and divine. I won't eat until I can no longer feel anything but the stretching of my stomach, the growing of my guilt.
Every year since losing all the weight, I've baked this sour cream fudge cake. And every year, I've felt different about the finished product. How has one innocent cake transformed from abusive lover to healthy companion, while I've continued to bake it just the same?
Has the taste changed, or, perhaps, have I?
Reprinted from It Was Me All Along. Copyright © 2015 by Andie Mitchell. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
This story is part of a HuffPost Healing, a Huffington Post series about physical, mental and emotional healing. Have you had an experience with healing? If so, we'd love to hear it. For Andie, it was learning to have a healthy relationship with food. What was it for you? Reach out by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.