Looking back on the past couple years of my life, I am incredibly happy and proud to be in the place I am today, as well as the person that I have become. Since my high school years, I have faced some major ups and downs that have seriously affected my life. It took me a really long time to get here, but I'm here.
It is around this time four years ago that my life suddenly took a turn for the worse. For those of you who don't know, towards the end of my freshman year in high school I became anorexic. Many people have asked me the question "what made you decide to do that", or "why did you become sick?". I never really know how to answer this question, because truth is, there is not one simple reason for why this ever happened. It was not like one day I just woke and decided to exercise excessively and not eat, in fact at first I did not even realize what I was doing. From what I can remember, I joined the track team, and the next thing I knew I lost 20 pounds and was sitting with my doctor, crying my eyes out as she examined the lanugo hair on my arms and diagnosed me with an eating disorder. As Marya Hornbacher writes in her book "Wasted",
"There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn't one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect. And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way."For the next two years of my life, my world revolved around losing weight. Actually, my world wasn't just revolving around my anorexia, it WAS anorexia. It was like I didn't know of anything else, so this was the way I had to live. During the summer I repeated the same routine every single day; I set my alarm for 8 am, ran four miles, came home, measured out a half cup of blueberries for breakfast, then spent the next few hours dreading lunch when I consumed a sixty-calorie yogurt, after which I immediately ran four more miles, for dinner I allowed myself 120 calories, and lastly before heading to bed early, I would spend time watching food network while laying on the couch with my aching body.
"You begin to forget what it means to live. You forget things. You forget that you used to feel all right. You forget what it means to feel all right because you feel like shit all the time, and you can't remember what it was like before. People take the feeling of full for granted. They take for granted the feeling of steadiness, of hands that do not shake, heads that do not ache, throats not raw with bile and small rips of fingernails forced to haste to the gag spot. Stomachs that do not begin to wake up in the night, calves and thighs knotting in muscles that are beginning to eat away at themselves. they may or may not be awakened at night by their own inexplicable sobs."
By the end of the summer, my 110 pound body that I had in April shriveled down to about 85 pounds, and I had no intention of stopping any time soon. Clearly by this point my parents had me seeing a therapist and nutritionist on an almost daily basis, but the thing about people with eating disorders is, in order to recover, they have to want it. It does not matter how many people are there to support you, or what pills your doctor prescribes; when a person is suffering from an eating disorder, no one can save them but themselves.
“That paradox would begin to ruin my life: to know what you are doing is hurting you, maybe killing you, and to be afraid of that fact- but to cling to the idea that this will save you, it will, in the end, make things okay."
One thing I remember clear as day though, is the first time I met Liz, the nutritionist I still see to this day. It was one day during the summer when my mother dragged me to Monmouth Psychological in hopes of landing me on the road to recovery. During our appointment, Liz instructed me to stop running completely, which was in fact a relief to me since my hip was becoming seriously messed up from running 8-10 miles everyday for the past two months. Only her words made it okay for me to stop though, not those of myself or my mom. I also remember after she hooked me up to some machine, her telling me how the average woman could lay on a couch all day, consume 1,200 calories, and not gain any weight. This was like music to my ears, it was almost unbelievable. Only at that time I did not understand how in my condition that was not necessarily true for me, since by not eating I had seriously slowed down my metabolism. I left that day with a list of foods Liz wrote for me to buy. My mom and I headed directly to Whole Foods, where I swear it was like I was stepping in a grocery store for the first time. I was floored by how much, and how many kinds of food there was. It was like that part of my past, prior to my anorexia, was just simply deleted from my mind.
"It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength."
Upon returning to school for my sophomore year, after disappearing for the summer, naturally all eyes were on me. Of course I did not know this though, because to me I was normal, and everyone who looked at me or said something, they were the crazy ones if they could not see the excess of fat and flesh that I believed to be on my body. Another thing that often accompanies anorexia is obsessive compulsive disorder. Every morning when I would wake up for school I did a certain amount of crunches and push ups before stripping off my pajamas and stepping on the scale. Stepping on the scale was the biggest part of my day; it had the power to make or break me. If from day to day the number on the scale did not decrease or just remained the same, I was miserable and spent my day doing things that would lower my number for tomorrow. And I'm not just talking about pounds here, every ounce counted. I still find it amazing how an increase or decrease of two ounces to my body weight had such an affect on my daily life.
"I began to measure things in absence instead of presence."
But in reality, I was only fooling myself because in my mind, for each pound I lost, my chances of becoming happy came closer within my reach, when in fact, it was doing the complete opposite. Eventually, despite the grief of my parents, the talks from the people who used to be my friends, and endless amounts of doctors' appointments, I hit rock bottom. The average 15 year old female weighs between 120-140 pounds; I weighed 75 pounds. From that point on there was a string of events that were extremely hard for me, but nonetheless forced me to get better.
"Never, never underestimate the power of desire. If you want to live badly enough, you can live. The great question, at least for me, was: How do I decide I want to live?"
One day in school, my entire health class was called down to the nurse's office for a height and weight check. For everyone else this was no big deal, but for me it was like walking a plank. When it was my turn, I refused to be weighed. The nurse told me I had no choice, it was a state law, and proceeded to make a fuss of the situation. Needless to say, I started crying in front of my entire class. That's when the head nurse dragged me into her office, and told me one of my friends came to her worried I was going to die. I hated that nurse, not only because she was big and fat and couldn't possibly understand, but because she felt the need to embarrass me in front of everyone. But for the record, I was never weighed. I told her if she really wanted to know she could call Liz at Monmouth Psychological.
"Something had been confirmed: I was worth giving a shit about; I was getting to be a successful sick person. Sick is when they say something. Of course, I had been sick for five years. But now, now maybe I was really sick. Maybe I was getting good at this, good enough to scare people. Maybe I would almost die, and balance just there, at the edge of the cliff, wavering while they gasped and clutched one another's arms, and win acclaim for my death-defying stunts. "
That was the first event that lead to my recovery, but there were two, way more dramatic events that included the police, me landing in the hospital, and almost being sent to a group home(twice) that made me realize how far I had fallen. Even after I realized I was seriously hurting myself and everyone who cared about me, it was still hard for me to even fathom the thought of recovery. Although, it was not long after when I went to Monmouth Psychological to see my therapist about everything that had happened, when I gained my motivation. It wasn't even during my therapist session when I became driven to get better, but rather it simply occurred as I sat in the waiting room.
"It is not a sudden leap from sick to well. It is a slow, strange meander from sick to mostly well. The misconception that eating disorders are a medical disease in the traditional sense is not helpful here. There is no 'cure'. A pill will not fix it, though it may help. Ditto therapy, ditto food, ditto endless support from family and friends. You fix it yourself. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done, and I found myself stronger for doing it. Much stronger."
When waiting in the lobby at Monmouth Psychological it is common to see other young anorexic or bulimic girls in the waiting room, and after a while it doesn't even phase you anymore since you are just like them. Any other normal, healthy person that would come into that waiting room would most likely feel uncomfortable and shocked by the appearance of the other patients, but to us patients it wasn't anything out of the ordinary, to us it was normal. But that day I saw a patient that I have never seen before, only she was different. Sitting with me in the waiting room that day was a woman who seemed to be in her mid-forties and her body was completely emaciated. Mind you, I have only ever seen girls around my age in that waiting room, never an adult. When I saw this woman it was like something hit me in the chest. Looking at this woman was like looking at my future. I later learned that she lived in her mother's basement, was single, had been sick for the majority of her life, and it was a miracle she was even still alive. Never before I had thought about my future, and this woman was a living example of where I was headed. That's when I really began to consider recovering. That and the fact I was also given the choice that day to either attempt to eat normally or be committed to a hospital.
"This is the weird aftermath, when it is not exactly over, and yet you have given it up. You go back and forth in your head, often, about giving it up. It’s hard to understand, when you are sitting there in your chair, having breakfast or whatever, that giving it up is stronger than holding on, that “letting yourself go” could mean you have succeeded rather than failed. You eat your goddamn Cheerios and bicker with the bitch in your head that keeps telling you you’re fat and weak: Shut up, you say, I’m busy, leave me alone. When she leaves you alone, there’s a silence and a solitude that will take some getting used to. You will miss her sometimes...There is, in the end, the letting go."
Unsurprisingly, recovering from anorexia is extremely difficult, in fact it's the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. My nutritionist raised my daily intake of 500 calories to 900 calories. I know that seems like nothing but those extra 300 calories was an insane amount to me, and I know 900 calories is still below the average intake of a normal person, but I had slowed my metabolism down so much by this point, that this was enough for me to gain weight.
"This is the very boring part of eating disorders, the aftermath. When you eat and hate that you eat. And yet of course you must eat. You don’t really entertain the notion of going back. You, with some startling new level of clarity, realize that going back would be far worse than simply being as you are. This is obvious to anyone without an eating disorder. This is not always obvious to you."
A common belief people usually have about eating disorders is that the person suffering has an incredible amount of control. WRONG. When I began to eat more normally (3 small meals a day), I began to remember how amazing food can be, but I hated myself for feeling that way. After beginning the process of recovery there were many times when, after eating, I became so anxious or giddy I couldn't stop myself. A common side affect of the early stages of recovery is pure bitchiness. I remember one time I ate an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies all in one sitting. When things like that happened, or when I hated myself for enjoying a granola bar, or taking a sip of someone else's drink, I would take my anger out on everyone else. Between the mental (anxiety, fear, the letting go) and physical (aching body, bloated belly, displaced hip, deteriorating gums and teeth, scars, weak organs, weak everything) I became even more miserable; but still, everyday I forced myself to measure out an extra tablespoon of peanut-butter or peel the lid off a boost, because I knew it was either that or a food tube being shoved up my nose.
"It does not hit you until later. The fact you were essentially dead does not register until you begin to come alive. Frostbite does not hurt until it starts to thaw. First it is numb. Then a shock of pain rips through the body."
After a while, with a better understanding of what was happening to my body and endless support from my friends, family, nutritionist, therapist, and group girls I learned to just deal. I accepted the fact there was no way to half ass this, so eventually I broke down and went to the gyno for birth control in order to get my period (which I had not had for over a year at this point), and took the many medications my psychiatrist prescribed. By the beginning of April of my sophomore year, I finally reached my "goal weight"- 90 pounds. By then I had finally realized that things in fact do get better in time, that maybe this wasn't so bad, and I, still despite my fear of gaining more weight, was even slightly proud. I began to remember what it was like to feel okay again as I slowly entered my way back into the real world of being a teenager.
"And I am all right. We will not deal here with words such as well, recovered, or fine. It took a long time to get all right, and I like all right quite a bit. It's an interesting balancing act, the state of being all right. It's a glass half-empty-or-half-full sort of place, I could tip either way. It's a place where one can either hope or despair; Hope that this will keep getting easier, as it has over the past couple years, or despair at the infuriating concentration balance requires, despair at the fact that I will die young, despair that I cannot be "normal", wallow in the bummerish aspects of my life."
It was a bittersweet feeling when I tried to live a normal life again; I wasn't very good at it. There were times I found myself lacking the ability to differentiate between normal and eating disordered behaviors, thus making some situations such as getting back into traveling soccer or just hanging out with my friends, rather uncomfortable. But like I said, as time went on things got easier and I became happier. It took a long time, but eventually I was able to rekindle lost friendships and do my best at making up for lost time.
"There is an incredible loss. There is a profound grief. And there is, in the end, after a long time and more work than you ever thought possible, a time when it gets easier."
So I would like to say that's where my story ends, but it's not. It does not matter if you are happy and healthy or officially considered "recovered"; your eating disorder never goes away. And this is not something I am complaining about, because now that it is 3 years later there are still times when my ED voice will erratically reappear and ruin my day, but overall looking back I am more grateful than anything. Grateful for my friends, my family, my strength, my hope & my faith, my health, but most of all I am grateful just to be alive. Recovering from anorexia has made me a stronger person, and because of it I have developed life-long friendships with a few girls from group, and now see the world through a different perspective.
"You never come back, not all the way. Always there is an odd distance between you and the people you love and the people you meet, a barrier thin as the glass of a mirror, you never come all the way out of the mirror; you stand, for the rest of your life, with one foot in this world and no one in another, where everything is upside down and backward and sad."
I have learned more about myself and who I am as a person over the past three years than I have over the course of my entire life. With each year that passes since my anorexia, my happiness and well being improves. With each year my memories of being sick lessen as do certain ED tendencies that have stuck. Even now there are times my eating disorder still affects me. Obviously not to the extent that it did, but occasionally I will catch myself thinking twice about certain foods, or calculating my daily intake of calories in my head. Also, I don't think I will ever eat soup again. You see when a person has or had an eating disorder, certain foods can have a deeper meaning than just "food". When I first began losing weight I ate nothing but soup, and therefore I have no desire to eat it because it reminds me of that time. But the important thing is though, I am now able to recognize these behaviors and deal with them.
"But to a certain extent- the extent that keeps me alive, and eating, and going about my days- I have learned to understand the emptiness rather than fear it and fight it and continue the futile attempt to fill it up. It's there when I wake in the morning and there when I go to bed at night. Sometimes it's bigger than at other times, sometimes I forget it's even there. I have days, now, when I don't think much about my weight. I have days, at least, when I see properly, when I look in the mirror and see myself as I am- a woman- instead of as a piece of unwanted flesh, forever verging on excess."
I have not weighed myself in two years, nor will I ever again. In fact, this is my number one piece of advice to anyone who has even remotely just brushed the fringes of an eating disorder- do not weigh yourself! Nonetheless, I also can't go a day without chocolate or peanut-butter. It took me a long time to this point, but I did; I no longer let food or my body get in the way of my day, I'm no longer afraid to be care free and crazy, and I am finally able to embrace life with open arms. So to look back on where I've been, everything I've gone through, the friendships I developed, the things I learned- I can't help but smile. I smile because of the happy things that came from such a terrible situation, and I smile because of how far I have come. It took me a long time to get here, but I'm here.