I was preparing for the eighth grade dance, when a school secretary casually said, “Yeah, I’ve lost so much weight that my husband says I’m starting to look anorexic.” The other secretaries laughed hysterically as if anorexia was an appropriate topic to joke about in front of a group of thirteen-year-olds. I am twenty now, and thinking about this moment still churns my stomach.
At thirteen, I hated my body. I remember sizing up all the other girls in the cafeteria and thinking, “I want to be skinnier than her.” “Skinny” became my life’s purpose. I was an overachiever–a good student, a member of the National Junior Honor Society, a member of the track team, a disabled athlete, a writer for the literary magazine, and I was awarded Student of the Month. I had a handful of friends, but none of this was enough. I had to be thin. Surely weight loss would complete my life. I realize now that my feelings of “incompleteness” were a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), but at the time, I genuinely thought if I was skinnier, I would feel better.
My unhealthy relationship with food and my body remained, but it did not escalate into an eating disorder until my sophomore year of high school. With losing friends, the pressure of my first AP class, and severe depression, starving and exercising seemed like my only outlets. Around December was when I became underweight, and that was also when I entered my first relationship. My boyfriend was a senior at the time, and I attended his prom. I remember caring more about how prominent my collarbones looked and planning how I could avoid eating dinner than I cared about enjoying prom. I was fortunate that my boyfriend cared about me, and although our relationship ended, he has continued to be a great friend and supporter in my recovery.
Through the years, I gained back some “healthy” weight because my family insisted I eat. To cope with the weight gain, I began abusing laxatives and exercising even more. The people around me became less concerned; it was as if gaining weight meant I did not have a problem. They were mistaken.
My freshman year of college brought new challenges, as I was on my own in a strange city for the first time. Skipping meals and spending hours at the gym became easy. I had no one to answer to, and I quickly spiraled out of control. For the first time in my life, I realized I could not stop, even if I wanted to. The illness had taken control. I realized this was not a diet or a lifestyle; I was sick.
Due to the state of my mental and physical health, I had to take a semester off. I agreed to go to treatment for my eating disorder, and I spent four weeks in Mather Hospital’s partial hospitalization eating disorder program. Without the care and support of the social workers, dietician, psychiatrist, and nurse, I might not be here today. They taught me I was capable of recovery, and more importantly, that I was worth recovery.
At twenty, I still battle obsessive thoughts about my body and “needing” to lose weight. That’s what most people don’t understand–an eating disorder is not a phase or a lifestyle; it is a serious illness that kills. I have been underweight, and still was miserable as well as a “healthy” weight, but my eating disorder does not shut up when my bones are more prominent; it tells me to lose more weight. I have learned coping skills to replace eating disorder behaviors.
I would not wish an eating disorder on anyone. I am sick of hearing people claim they have “tried anorexia” or wish they had my “self-control.” I did not feel cool when I passed out and got stitches above my eye. I do not feel cool when it is hard to maintain healthy relationships because my self-esteem is so low. I do not feel cool when I bail on plans because I am terrified that food will be involved. This is not something I want, but it is something I have.
Anorexia is not funny. Bulimia is not funny. They are not glamorous, romantic, cute, or edgy. Eating disorders are not “diets gone wrong” or “taken too far;” they are complex mental illnesses. Anorexia is not something people can “try” or “fail” at. Starving, bingeing, and purging are addictions. My illness is not a new diet fad or trend. Eating disorders are not “teenage girl problems;” they can and do affect every ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability. Eating disorders kill more than any psychiatric disorder.
I am thankful for recovery, but that does not mean that I am “in the clear.” As I have stated in a few of my previous posts, last semester, I relapsed.
Recovery is hell. Recovery is eating even when I feel huge. Recovery is constant bloating. Recovery is eating even when everyone else is dieting. Recovery is being told “Wow, you gained weight. You look so healthy!” but hearing, “You look fat now!” Recovery is letting go of perfectionistic tendencies, even when they are socially acceptable (I used to be praised for being dedicated to running and academics, but now, I am learning that it was not healthy). So no, “looking anorexic” or “trying anorexia” is not something to be proud of or joke about.
The writing major and perfectionist in me is screaming that this piece is too verbose and all of the examples are overkill, but I cannot explain the severity of eating disorders without showing their extent. My eating disorder is all-encompassing. It does not just affect me during meals–it is in my head 24 hours a day. Perhaps I will never be able to convey the complexity of my illness– this piece does not even begin to scratch the surface, and I know that people will still claim they’ve “tried anorexia” or they “went through an anorexic phase.” But for now, this is all I can do.