I started "practice" fasting as a teenager when I would give up snacks between meals. Nobody made me do that; it was just part of the rad trad lifestyle. It was what we did when other people's teenagers were getting up at five on Saturdays to train for the football team or whatever it is that athletes do. When I turned twenty, I fasted "for real" during the Advent before my 21st birthday. Meat only at the main meal, no snacks, two smaller meals which, combined, were less than the main meal. By the end of the year, I didn't realize I weighed 92 pounds, but when I went shopping for a Christmas outfit I couldn't figure out why the size 0 was too big. I had been a 4 before that and honestly believed that they were making clothes bigger. A lot bigger. It never once occurred to me that I was smaller. The New Year came and went, I got my wisdom teeth taken out, I got the flu, I plunged into the single most stressful time of my life. Most days I ate half a piece of toast for breakfast and for lunch had a bagel with cream cheese, a cheese danish, and a gigantic cracklatte, and then didn't eat again until dinner, when I had one helping of whatever. I thought I had a really healthy diet, or would have if I had had time to think about it or even to breathe, which I didn't.
Lent rolled around and I couldn't figure out how to fast because I was kind of already fasting. My memories from the time are fuzzy, but at some point I talked to a priest and must have asked him if I could be "dispensed" from the Lenten fast because I had very low energy and high stress, and he said no. He said I should still try to eat less than what I normally ate. I asked him again when I told him I was barely able to function and he said do what you can. Then he said just try to eat more at meals. He made it sound like it would be this terrible thing if I stopped fasting, like the entire structure of my spiritual life was propped up by not having a few extra bites of food here and there.
My life fell apart after that. Or I suppose I could say that it changed direction and no matter how hard I tried I could never get it to bend back in the direction it had been going. My doctor had me come in for weekly appointments so she could monitor my glacially slow weight gain. "No more fasting," she said, and I'm sure wanted to say a lot more but didn't, because she was a soft-spoken protestant lady. I had signed up for a summer class and she gave me a note with an anorexia diagnosis that would allow me to drop the class without having to pay the fees or take an incomplete. To this day I don't know if I'm actually anorexic, but she was vague like that, and anyway at that point in my life most things stopped having a clear meaning and starting becoming horrifyingly slippery and infirm. My main focus at that point was not letting my brain break any worse than it was already broken. My body continued to be irrelevant except in the sense that everyone was nagging me about it even more although all it had ever done was just exist. It didn't even take up that much room and now I was in trouble because there wasn't enough of it. What a drag it all was.
I thought I would be better by the end of the summer but I never really did get better. I gained a little weight, but never returned to being a size 4 or even a 2. I took fewer classes in the fall of my junior year and failed one of them. Then I took the following year off completely, which would have been my senior year. I considered dropping out since I obviously wasn't cut out for that kind of life, and my trad boyfriend agreed. I couldn't face the idea of returning, of not returning, of getting married, of waiting to get married, of anything. Nothing seemed worth the price that had to be paid for it.
So I just went back and finished my degree, anyway. My trad boyfriend resented me or the universe on some subliminal level and the relationship ended. I stood at my graduation believing that I had given up my health, my future, my ambitions, happiness, true love, and my whole sense of self for an academic degree that meant very little to me. Now I realize that many of those sacrifices were made of me by other people for other things, but perspective takes a long time to get and food seems like a luxury when you're in panic mode and the edifice is slipping away. I was only holding on to the necessities, and food wasn't one of them.
For several years, I endured friends and family telling me that "I would still be pretty" if I gained a few pounds, and when they gave up on that idea, they started telling me that "I would look so much better" if I gained weight. One woman told me I wouldn't get hired anywhere because no employer would want to pay for my health insurance after looking at me. The last time I went to confession to that same priest, who had always seemed so kind and reasonable, he asked me if I was struggling with the sin of vanity at all. I told him I wasn't.
I still only weigh about 95 pounds. I have no idea if that's normal or not. Nobody seems able to tell me: not nutritionists, psychologists, endocrinologists, homeopaths, general care practitioners, nobody. Considering how many tests I was given with no negative results I think I must be the healthiest person I know. Chinese medicine and acupuncture were next on the list but I put a stop to it and then I left the country for a place where they deep fry pizza and if someone makes a crack about your appearance you can't understand them anyway.
These days, I'm at loss when it comes to Lent. When I hear my new-traddy and cradle-traddy friends talking about fasting it seems like some weird drug that keeps them going but which I had a terrible reaction to one time. So this year I gave up TV and reading Slate. Well, I can still watch Netflix documentaries. Why? I don't know. I just can. Because if I stress out too much about anything I stop eating. That's why. It's like my own built-in anti-fanaticism device.
And because I don't think God really cares if I watch a documentary or not. I like to think that maybe He's even a bit concerned about the whole weight loss thing. I don't want to fall into the trap of looking for a tidy meaning in everything but sometimes the message is "Please stop this lunacy," which I wouldn't have, if there had been any physical way of continuing, because pursuing something selfish can be a strong force but when you're pursuing something unselfish that you believe is right even if it isn't, that force can be unstoppable.
There's a point where mortifying the body and elevating the spirit intersect. There's also a point where sin and harm towards the body intersect. Where these two points are in relation to each other is not always easy to see. Maybe that's why the Church has gotten rid of so many of the old rules about fasting; who knows? Fanaticism has a very strong draw for a lot of people.