Content warning: This entry contains mentions of eating disorders and discussions of self-harm
Eating disorders are fairly misunderstood. By that, I do not mean there is not enough literature on them, or that they are completely removed from the mainstream. On the contrary, almost every day there seems to be someone famous speculated to be suffering from an eating disorder, or admitting that they suffer(ed) from one. What is seldom discussed is the actual experience. The question that follows when a person admits to have suffered from an eating disorder is usually, “why?”: why did you do this to yourself, why would you destroy your body like this, is somewhat abstract. We can speculate the reasons from clinical research, but those who suffer from an eating disorder are often ashamed, afraid, or simply cannot describe their experience in words – at least that is what it was like for me. People saw my body becoming frail and sick. What they did not see was my mind ravaging my being long before. Now I will confess, five years after my descent into a self-made hell.
My environment very much influenced my plummet into the abyss of anorexia. If you remember yourself at fourteen, you will most likely agree that it was a very tumultuous age. During that time, I was exiting a state of innocence while also battling familial instability and personal insecurity. I had little control over my life. I thought that I was ready to be independent, but five years later, I realize just how naïve I was. Anxiety and depression have, for many generations, affected the women on my mother’s side of the family. That, along with the unusually high levels of stress created from familial turmoil, combined perfectly into an eating disorder.
From summer to fall of my freshman year of high school, I felt happy. I started running. I had a group of supportive friends. My courses were intellectually challenging. Despite this, there were always two voices in my head: hatred and reason. I did not simply hate my appearance. My appearance was my worth. Looking in the mirror became an uncontrollable attack on my senses, a common symptom of anxiety, depression, and mental illness. After the homecoming dance, I remember going to the bathroom in a 24-hour Denny’s where the underage kids hung out, and crying at the sight of my face and body in a full size mirror. This was in October.
It is difficult to describe anxiety’s despotism. My mind constantly spewed horrifically damaging thoughts, making me feel constantly irritated with people, yet simultaneously in need of a human connection. I wanted the changes in my body to be noticed, while also wanting it to be my own secret. I would internally comment on the flaws I saw in girls’ bodies, feeling superior to them as human beings, all the while criticizing myself. The frustratingly contradictory thoughts were mentally exhausting. The more weight shed, the stronger my ambitions became; the harsher I treated myself, the more I embraced isolation; the further entrenched and truly addicted I became, the closer I was to achieving perfection.
The physical manifestation of anorexia came later. I experienced a type of exhaustion that made my eyes numb and limbs limp. After school, I would fall into bed and sleep until the middle of the night because I had such little sources of energy entering my body. I could not focus. I would experience periods of high energy then crash completely. I had trouble standing up from a sitting position because of drastic muscle loss. My hair fell out until it was unrecognizably thin. My nails became brittle. My facial appearance changed not only due to weight loss, but because my eyes and cheeks had sunk into my face, a common symptom of malnourishment. My arms became thin enough to reach your fingers around. The gap between my thighs was multiple inches wide. I was so cold. I shook constantly because I could not physically warm myself, even in the summer months. I remember sitting in class watching the hairs on my arms rise and fall with my goosebumps. Losing hunger’s sensation completely, I felt, was an accomplishment. I clearly remember a conversation with my father while during summer vacation where he told me we needed to make dinner. After I said that I was fine, that I was not really hungry, – insert any excuse to get out of the situation here – his eyes widened and he told me, “We haven’t eaten in nine hours.”
The more weight shed, the stronger my ambitions became; the harsher I treated myself, the more I embraced isolation; the further entrenched and truly addicted I became, the closer I was to achieving perfection.
A part of my experience with an eating disorder that I have not disclosed with anyone is the aspect of guilt and punishment. I would go to extremes to avoid hunger and rid my body of any sustenance that may have infiltrated its barriers with diet pills, painkillers, and laxatives. Despite all this, I would still ‘give in’ to the desire for food. Once the damage was done, I would denounce myself, my character, my worth as a human being and would hide in the secrecy of the shower to sit under scalding hot water for as long as I determined was appropriate. The outcome was often blistered and discolored skin.
I was forced into recovery by my parents about nine months after my eating disorder had significantly accelerated. I was what they called a “Level 4” patient. Level 5 was hospitalization, which entailed constant supervision and a feeding tube. At Level 4, my parents had complete control over a strict meal plan. It took me hours to eat extremely small meals because my stomach had shrunk to a point where even amounts of food people considered ‘snack sized’ pained me and made me feel sick. I went to the recovery clinic three times per week to get weighed, have my vitals checked, and check in with the doctor and therapists. At the clinic I would have to strip down and wear only a hospital gown, so as not to hide any weights or scars from the doctor. There were no numbers on the scale. The medical information showed up on a screen hidden inside a cabinet that if opened would set off an alarm. I would scream, cry, and argue to get out of visiting the clinic. They were mean there, I would say. They think I’m a bad person. They don’t care about me. I can take care of myself. Nothing is wrong with me.
I was in recovery for three years. The doctors called me the ‘rubber band’ because every time I would come in with a good report, the next appointment I had lost even more weight. I was still in school during this time. I was actively engaged in extra-curriculars like Model U.N.. I spent a summer abroad, two years after my recovery started. I applied for university. I met the man who would become my fiancé. All of this while visiting an eating disorder recovery center and battling mental illness.
I still struggle with blaming myself for my descent into the illness, but I know that the woman I have become is not defined, but only scarred, by this sickness. I experience residual anorexia-induced thoughts every single day. There have been a few occasions where seeing people sick with anorexia has caused re-traumatization. When the pain reemerges I have very little defense against it. Despite all of this, I have learned many valuable lessons. I used to think that I could be the best advocate for anorexia survivors, that I could save everyone. I learned that just because I have experience with something does not mean I am equipped to help others. I do not have the resources, nor am I the person needed to help anyone suffering from the illness.
I have also learned about coping, kindness, and understanding. Opening your world to people you can trust and leaning on them for support is currently one of the most important features of my life, as well as being a safe place to which others can reach out. I am better able to articulate my emotions and admit when I need to make changes to improve my life. Every day presents its own challenges and is a learning experience. Sometimes I do well in balancing my health, work, social life, and sleep, but when I do not, I try to be kind to myself and try again the next day. Whether or not I am successful is by my own design. Developing an eating disorder has not stopped me and many others. I’ve learned that my experiences do not determine my future – only I have that power.