I first learned about anorexia when I was eight. I was sitting in my first “proper” health class in the school library, and as always, I was fidgeting like crazy. Starving yourself to death? I thought, as the nurse explained the symptoms, How horrible. Who would ever do that? But despite that initial revulsion, a part of me kept whispering, It’s going to be you. It’s going to be you. It’s going to be you. I swung my legs back and forth and chewed my cuticles to bits as anxiety rushed over me. But even after my index finger had started to bleed, the voice wouldn’t shut up. You just know that it’s going to be you.
Eight-year-old me was right about a lot of unfortunate things, and sadly, this turned out to be one of them. By the time I was twelve, being “fat” had become an obsession. In gym class, we were told that if we could “pinch an inch” of skin on our hipbone, then we were overweight. I would grab my skin over and over, pulling on it, and holding a ruler up to it to check if it was over an inch. It always was. I know now that the test was completely bogus, but when a teacher tells you something, and the fifty kids in the room follow suit, it is hard to believe that it isn’t as certain as gravity or the First Law of Thermodynamics.
Starting in the winter of seventh grade, we had to make “fitness profiles” on an aging computer in the corner of the gym. As I balanced on an old scale, peering down to try to read the numbers, I thought, If I am over 90 pounds, there are going to be serious problems. Well, I was over 90 pounds, but I was also five-foot-two. But that didn’t matter to me. I just panicked. When we ran the mile, I pushed myself to go faster and faster. If I couldn’t do it in under eight minutes, then I would have to do extra sit-ups later and skip my dessert. It was minor, really, but the numbers were real and frightening.
Everyday, when I would walk down to lunch, trailing along in a line of excited students, I would feel the overwhelming urge to dump all of my food into the trash the moment that I sat down. It was scary, but deliciously so. It was like play with matches outdoors at camp: you’re on the precipice of creating something that you can’t control, flirting with it, but always stamping them out just in time. Only I didn’t like fire, I just hated food. But I stuck it out and laughed with friends as I ate my yogurt and cereal. At home, I would eat a little bowl of ice cream every afternoon while lounging in the sun and reading, and I despised myself for it. The fear of getting fat was becoming all-consuming.
As my time wore on, my insecurities grew, and I started to stand in front of the mirror and judge my body. I’d hold my clothing taught around my torso and look at my stomach, sucking it in all the way and wishing that I could look like that all the time. My stomach was too big. I was too fat. I was too ugly.
I turned thirteen, and the anxiety got worse. Finally, I began to complain to my mother about it, pulling up my shirt to show her that I could “pinch an inch.” Ever logical and comforting, she would say, “No, you’re not fat. You’re just where you need to be.” But I couldn’t believe her.
On Saturdays, I’d shyly drag my mother into my therapy session to tell the psychologist how I felt. Saying it myself felt too scary, and I was petrified that she would think that I was shallow for being focused my body image. Talking about it in therapy never helped, though. We were too focused on my “bigger problems.”
Eighth grade passed, and it was more of the same. To a certain extent, being uncomfortable in your body is especially typical of a middle schooler, but my fears went beyond the norm. I started giving bits of my lunch away. Here, have my cookie. Here, have my drink. By the time graduation rolled around, I was convinced that I was a flat chest-ed butterball, when in actuality I was just around 95 pounds.
In high school, most of people start to shed their former insecurities. Girls emerged from sweatshirts, and boys began to wash their hair more frequently. My clothing choices improved, and I lost my boring haircut, but my weight concerns intensified. At lunch, I’d hand over my yogurt to a friend and only eat my carrots. I cried quietly in my room when I outgrew old clothing. I spent more time staring in the mirror.
Sophomore year, it got a little better. School was going well. I was involved in a million clubs. I had straight A’s. I had a monstrous crush on a guy. I spent hours doing fun things with friends. It felt like people really liked me, and I started to forget about being fat. By the end of the year, I was five-foot-four and 113 pounds. And that’s when things really started to go downhill.
Stepping back from the scale and hearing the school nurse announce my weight to anyone in the general vicinity was a slap across the face, a reminder of all of the worries that had been plaguing me for years, and it stung. It stung with the force of a hundred angry, angry bees. That summer I started to play what I called “my little game.” Everyday, I would see how long I could go without eating. Liquid was allowed. Making it to three o’clock was an okay day. Five was optimal. When I finally couldn’t wait any longer, I’d go outside and eat a yogurt, savoring it and making it last for half an hour. Sometimes, I’d eat an Italian ice, but only if I had done some exercise.
I felt so powerful, skipping meals. Once you restricted for a few days, the pangs of hunger entirely disappear, and it became easy. If I could rebel against my body’s need for food, I could do anything. August became September, and school started. I took three AP classes, stayed up to all hours to balance homework and extra circulars, and used the privacy of school to hide food from my parents. Once tight pants were now baggy, shirts hung on me weirdly, and my bras became too big, and I had to resort to wearing ones from middle school. I took pictures of myself each week, as my ribs began to stick out, and my collarbone made sharp angles on my chest. At night, I’d flip through the photographs, intoxicated with my “progress.” It was wonderful. But it didn’t last long. These things never do.
I left school and went to a treatment center for other emotional problems, and spent all of my time sleeping or freaking out. I hardly ate. In desperation, my parents tried feeding me three pieces of bacon and a bagel for breakfast everyday. Mostly, I balled it up in tissues and put in the trash. I don’t know how much I weighed then, and I really don’t want to know. It was probably in the nineties.
But my restriction wasn’t as secretive as I thought, and soon enough I was sitting in a doctor’s office and hearing the words, “anorexia nervosa.” In my head, I heard echoes of eight-year-old me whispering, it’s going to be you, and it was me, and I knew it. It reverberated all through my body, and if I had been alone, I would have laughed. I quickly got evaluated for an eating disorder treatment program, but other problems overshadowed the anorexia, and I stayed in another rehab facility. In February, I went the hospital. I was exactly a hundred pounds, a marked improvement.
But things got better. The world is never entirely cruel. My friends and family rallied behind me, pushing me down the path to recovery even when I was kicking and screaming. I began to work with a nutritionist. My goal was 2400 calories a day, and I had to will myself to eat, because eating was good, no matter what I thought. I started to see a new psychologist to begin Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which supposedly is the best type of therapy for someone trying to recover from an eating disorder. And supposedly became really, and I gained weight. I wrote a pamphlet about anorexia for health class, and smiled as I did it, because I felt like I was coming out on the other side. By the summer, I was 110 pounds. Amazing.
The end of the summer was hard, and I dropped seven pounds. But just like before, I pulled it back up in a few months. I had my head above the water, and though I was swimming for dear life, I wasn’t drowning anymore. I’ve been mostly stable since then. Of course, the obsession with being thin hasn’t disappeared, but it’s waned. I know now that skeletal is just as unattractive as obese.
Living with an eating disorder is difficult. Incredibly difficult. I can tell you the amount of protein and the number of calories in a disturbingly large number of foods. I can explain to you in detail how many infections I got as the result of malnutrition. I can show you pictures from when my feet and hands were perpetually red and purple. But I can also tell you this story. The story of my descent into the valley and how I’m climbing back up again. It’s a good story. One full of promise and hope and a somewhat happy ending.