Sheila Himmel is a food writer. She loves French fries, raspberry meringues and warm brioche, reveling in food’s texture, taste and tantalizing appeal. She was the restaurant critic for the San Jose Mercury News. She's a James Beard award-winning writer who is curating a cookbook exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library.
In her household, her daughter, Lisa, was starving herself — and keeping diaries of every calorie she consumed. During high school, Lisa became anorexic and, later, bulimic. Sheila learned of her daughter’s illness in the winter of her senior year of high school, during a doctor’s visit to find out why Lisa had stopped menstruating.
Sheila says of the incongruous situation: “I like irony better when it happens to other people. I would like to live irony-free from now on.”
Together, they’ve written "Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia" (August 2009, Berkley Books, $15).
"Hungry" is a memoir of a family’s journey and a closer look at how food can be so loved and yet so loathed within the same household. The book addresses eating-disorder triggers, treatment facilities and revelations the pair had along the way. They tell their story side by side as a mother-daughter team, thus giving the reader both a parent’s perspective and that of a recovering anorexic at once.
Sheila and Lisa talked about their memoir and how their lives have changed:
Sheila, the irony of this situation was never lost on you. As a mother, what was your first reaction when you found out this was happening?
Sheila: My first reaction was horror. I was pretty side-swiped by this. It wasn’t anything I would have expected. Not only am I a food writer, but my husband was, and is, seriously into food. I felt like I was knocked over.And Lisa, where are you now? Have you relapsed? Do you consider yourself healed?
Lisa: Right now and for some months, I’ve been doing pretty good — not having eating disorder behaviors. I wouldn’t say I’m healed though; that will take a lifetime. I know I’m in a place where I can rely on alternative methods for dealing with stress instead of relying on eating disorders.
What do you think triggered you to start starving yourself?
Lisa: First, it started as a choice to get in shape. I just wanted to exercise and lose some weight. But then it got addictive. You think: ‘Well, I got to this weight, how much further can I go?’ It’s like you just have to keep going. And I think that happens to a lot of people.Did you use pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) sites online?Lisa:
I did look at them — more so during my high school days, because they were more popular then. But I never really used them as advice. I personally don’t like photos of super-starving girls. I was looking at one site, and I just got so mad, and my dad brought home pizza and I ate two pieces because I was mad. It really is sort of a cult.Tell me your reaction to treatment facilities. Do you think they work?
Lisa: Well, no. I’m really a stubborn person. I think eating disorders do that — make you very stubborn. The idea of being in a hospital-type setting, I didn’t like. I was looking for something less 12-step-based. I wanted something more based on feelings and to go through it slowly.
[Describing one treatment facility and their efforts to force feed:] Sometimes I was really full, and they’d say: ’You’re not really full, that’s just your eating disorder talking.’
You have to be really careful with treatment facilities because they are expensive. But the right one can be the key.
How were you affected romantically? You describe your relationship with your college boyfriend, Scott, in the book. Do you feel attractive now?Lisa:
It did affect the relationship. I think that is the reason he broke up with me — because I was so withdrawn.
There was a period where I did not feel attractive. But I actually have a boyfriend now that I’ve been with for over a year. I’m still at a point where I don’t see myself as others see me. I was out with friends recently and they said: "You’re glowing and you have this great smile." And I actually believed them for once.Sheila, do any other women in your family have this issue?
Sheila: No, there wasn’t in my family at all. Ned’s family sort of has body image issues, but not eating disorders.Was this whole situation for you some sort of hazard to your occupation? Do you view food differently now?
Sheila: When I was still with the [San Jose Mercury News] and I was still going out every night eating, it was hard to face food when your child is seriously ill.
But it has caused me to appreciate food more — for community, for family. It ties us together. It has made me appreciate good food that much more.
Lisa’s illness has made me more aware. You can’t avoid food in our culture; it’s in our face all the time. If that’s what your issue is, you can’t escape.
Lisa didn’t choose to have eating disorders, no one would. They are horrible. I think it was a combination of genetics, image issues and American culture — worship thinness, but fetishize food — that got her.
Do you think what you did for a living shaped or affected Lisa’s eating disorder in any way?Sheila:
I know that Lisa feels my job was problematic, so it was. I can see how listening to constant talk about restaurants and food would be grating, at best, for someone with serious food issues.
Did you feel what your mom did for a living affected your disorder?Lisa:
For the first five or so years of her job, I joined along willingly and with much enthusiasm. I had always had a fairly advanced appreciation for ethnic cuisine and fancier fare for my age. But when I got into the anorexia, I found her job to be more of a hassle and a barrier than fun. As my mind became so consumed with thoughts of food -- what would be okay to eat, what would not -- I found it difficult to distract myself from those thoughts, even in what should be the comfort of my own home, as my mom and dad constantly talked about food. The restaurant she just went to, which dish they liked the best, what would taste good with bacon grease.
Her job did not directly begin my disorder, but it was definitely a factor.
What’s your advice to other parents who are going through this?
Sheila: I think parents worry too much about doing the wrong thing. Jump on it. Do something and don’t worry about using the exact right words. Your concern comes through. You’re the parent. Just get in there and try something. Keep going until you find something that works.
What’s your advice to other girls who might be considering doing this to themselves?
Lisa: It’s hard to have one set solution because it gets ingrained in someone’s head once they start. It isn’t fun and doesn’t make anyone any happier. The bottom line is: It’s not worth it. I think the best everyone can do is live a healthy and balanced life. Surround yourself with positive people too.Do you have any long-term health effects from the eating disorders?
Lisa: I have a lot of digestive issues still. Growing up, I had no allergies, but now I am sensitive to dairy, spices and soy. It’s frustrating. Because of bulimia, the body naturally wants to get rid of food. I have a lot of trouble with vegetables. My hair is a lot thinner than it used to be. So far, my cell count and blood work is good, but now I’m more sensitive to potassium deficiencies. I get dizzy really easily.Was it difficult to write this book?
Sheila: It’s difficult to even read it again. Even now when I read certain chapters I just cry.
-- Lori Kozlowski
Photo: Berkley Books