Features | Walking the thin line

A student shares her struggle with anorexia, and elucidates the grim realities of this mental illness

“I’m just going to call down to the kitchen to make sure you get a lunch.”

Panic. I thought, but didn’t say, “No really, that’s okay.… You don’t have to. I don’t mind missing lunch!” As much as I wanted to decline the meal, there was still a part of me, however small, that remained tethered to reality: I realized that saying something like that would betray how nuts I was.

For some reason, I thought I’d get to miss lunch – that eating, the therapy, the treatment, wouldn’t begin so soon.

Until that point in my admission to the inpatient eating disorder treatment centre, I was not so much terrified as I was numb. It was as if I was living in a bubble, a weird alternate universe where everything seemed to be happening outside of me, and I was just a passive observer.

But then, suddenly, there was the voice telling me that I would get a lunch. Panic: what the hell would be for lunch? Would I be lucky – would it be safe? My thoughts raced: Oh god, I hope it’s something somewhat safe. Oh god, how soon is it going to get here?

Rewind.

Eating lunch is a seemingly innocuous and even (gasp) potentially pleasant, normative experience for those without eating disorders. Like all other meals, and food itself, it’s something that is often taken entirely for granted. Sure, people generally have an awareness of calories and fat, and understand that chips and fast food aren’t good for them, whereas spinach and whole-wheat bread are. But those of us with eating disorders take it to a whole other level.

People with eating disorders set rigid and seemingly illogical rules about what foods are permissible and what behaviours we routinely engage in. Starvation and self-injury go against human nature, but the body is surprisingly adaptable, even to unhealthy behaviours. It is scary how quickly an eating disorder takes control.

Exercise, purging, fasting, counting; the grocery stores, the scales, the doctor’s appointments – these become the components of our lives. It is sad, pathetic, mundane, and no way to live. But at a certain point these elements become all-encompassing.

Gone are the fun times with friends: drinking, boyfriends, movies, shopping. Going out with friends involves eating. Drinking means calories. I don’t enjoy movies because my concentration is shot. What boyfriend? I haven’t met anyone because I isolate myself all the time, and besides, my libido is non-existent. Shopping? Yeah right. I won’t let myself buy anything until I’m a certain size, and until then, seeing myself in the store mirrors and windows is just upsetting.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

But if you’re reading this and you have an eating disorder, unfortunately it’s all too familiar.

Here is my story in a nutshell, because it is far too difficult to even begin to summarize what I have done, thought, and felt in the past six years. I am 5’8”, and my weight has ranged from a high of 128 lbs. to a low of 96 lbs. I have spent hours at the gym, and gone entire days without eating. I have rigid rules about the foods I can eat, but sometimes I dispense hundreds of dollars per day (no exaggeration) to buy “binge food”: food that I do not allow myself to digest. “Anything goes” when I know I will be able to throw up.

I have stooped so low as to steal food. I have gone years without a period, my hair is permanently damaged, and in general, I have looked like shit. I have dropped out of university multiple times to seek residential or inpatient treatment at a hospital. I am not your average, healthy, young woman. I do not see my doctor once a year, I see my doctor every month, and when I’m not doing well I go the doctor every week. I have felt so weak that I have taken the only chair left in the waiting room while my 90-year-old grandmother remained standing. I have permanent damage to my teeth from throwing up. I can only hope that I will be able to have kids one day, because I do not get my period unless I take oral contraceptives.

On two separate occasions, I have gone to my routine doctor’s appointment only to have my doctor admit me, against my will, to the emergency room.

At first, I lied, cheated, and faked my weight to get out of the hospital. I was a cheeky teenager, succumbing to the stereotypical, manipulative characteristics of anorexia: I thought I was smart, I thought I was fooling my doctor. As if. What I can only realize now, with the hindsight that comes naturally with maturity, is that I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was then, as I am now, mentally ill. This illness isn’t about food or weight. Those are merely symptoms.

I never thought I would still be fighting this horrible illness in my twenties, after repeated attempts at treatment.

In the hospitals, I have met the brightest, most charismatic, kindest women. These women are wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. They are artists, doctors, lawyers, and Ivy League graduates. They are all suffering, and they are all destroying themselves. I have heard and seen the horrible suffering these women have faced as a result of their eating disorders: suicide attempts, emaciation, isolation, poverty, addiction, divorce.

Eating disorders are not glamorous. Eating disorders are not adequately represented by pictures of Mary-Kate Olsen or Victoria Beckham on the runway.

Instead, eating disorders are ugly. They are the toilets clogged with vomit, bank accounts depleted on binge food, stress fractures from overexercise, infertility, and colostomy bags due to laxative abuse.

Eating disorders are emergency room admissions.

Eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating.

Eating disorders do not discriminate: they affect women who come in all shapes and sizes, and they affect boys and men, who face the added shame of feeling like they have “a teenage girl’s disease.”

Eating disorders result in heart attacks and suicide.

Eating disorders are fatal.

Anorectics (the “official” noun used to describe those suffering from anorexia nervosa), like myself, do not “just not eat.” We eat safe foods, foods that do not send our minds into a tailspin of anxiety, fearing that we will gain weight from them. Like myself, someone with anorexia can also throw up or binge-eat. Specifically, an anorectic can be diagnosed as “restricting type” or “binge/purge type,” depending on if s/he only limits his/her food intake or also engages in binge/purge or purging behaviour. Bulimics, like anorexics, also restrict their intake and eat only certain things without throwing up.

There are more similarities than there are differences between different eating disorders. We may engage in different behaviours (e.g. restriction of intake, purging, overeating, exercise), but people with eating disorders have this in common: a disordered relationship with food, and an underlying pattern of self-destructive thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

My aim is not to merely present a descriptive list for pure shock value. Instead, my main incentive is to increase awareness about eating disorders. I firmly believe that awareness comes only with an accurate understanding, and I feel that there is an unhealthy lack of understanding around eating disorders. This is unhealthy because eating disorders thrive on secrecy – something I know all too well. In a competitive, intense environment like McGill or any other prestigious university, I am sure that many students have their own variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Yet few talk about this – friends, family, and relative strangers continue to have their own misconceptions, and the sufferers continue to suffer. In silence.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we are a long way from eradicating eating disorders from our society. But if we’re ever going to get there, we first need to break through the cloak of shame that envelops disordered eating and mental illness in general.

Most importantly, eating disorders are mental illnesses. This is why they are not cured by eating or gaining weight, and why eating disorder sufferers are so frustrated with the ignorant reaction of, “Just eat a cheeseburger!”

Editor’s note: the author of this article has requested to remain anonymous.


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