I have spent the last week or so contemplating the subject of my first blog entry. I have decided that sharing the intimacies of my struggle with anorexia would be the best way to begin.
My eating disorder is really an issue of the past. I fought a very short-lived, but intense, bout with anorexia for a duration of about six to seven months while I was between twelve and thirteen years old. Yes, I was very young.
I must admit that the process of delving back into that time of my life to decide what I should share with you was difficult. It was difficult because it required that I return to such a dishonest, unhappy time in my life. It was also difficult because subsequent to my abrupt realization of the damage I had done to myself and my rapid recovery, I chose to lock away that segment of my life. It enabled me to move forward. I needed to concentrate on assuring my physical health – on returning to a healthy weight – on re-developing positive sentiments towards food. Fixating on a label, on the fact that I had grappled with a “ mental illness ”, a condition which still has so much unwarranted stigma attached to it – was in no way going to help me get better. I am fully aware that most people’s recovery involves the opposite – confronting, head on, the emotional roots of their eating disorder by means such as therapy, which have proven to be extremely efficacious in terms of convalescence. My road to recovery was an aberration from the norm, but it certainly worked for me.
For at least two years I refused to acknowledge that I ever even had an eating disorder. It was something I was embarrassed of. I would say that I had “body image” issues, or “ food ” issues. I would claim that I “ nearly ” fell prey to the claws of the eating disorder vulture – but never did. What a lie. At twelve years old, I was drowning in deprivation, deceit and delusion. My life revolved entirely around the avoidance of food, and my biggest fear was to gain weight. There was no way I could deny that I had an eating disorder. So what allowed me to eventually accept it? Definitely time. Definitely a newly acquired understanding that a mental illness is tantamount to a physical illness and should therefore never be a source of shame. But also, a recognition of my responsibility to help others by recounting what I call my “ emotional self-harm ” of the past. This required that I be honest with myself and admit that I was, at one stage, anorexic.
So here I am, ready to tell my story again.
I went on my first diet at the end of the sixth grade. This was in no way one of those extremely restrictive fad diets. I was making healthy lifestyle choices – simply substituting ice-cream for an orange, and pizza for a chicken breast. Never did I step on the scale, nor was I taking any sort of measurements. I felt good about the changes I was making: more fruits and vegetables, regular exercise. My physical health had definitely improved. In another realm though, in the realm of mental health, something very unhealthy had happened, I had caught the “dieting” bug. Combine this bug with precarious social situations, and we have the perfect recipe for an eating disorder.
I entered high school as an extremely confident girl – lots of friends, elementary school valedictorian, grade six basketball team captain. I developed a silly pre-teen crush on a boy in my class. Being the confident person I was, I had no qualms with making this public knowledge. Perhaps something good would come of it, perhaps the feelings would be reciprocated. I had nothing to lose. Boy was I wrong. I had my self-esteem, my sentiments of self-worth, to lose.
One of my compeers asked my crush what he thought of me, having learned of my attraction towards him. My crush responded that I was “ chubby ”. This news was reported back to me, an act that was arguably just as insensitive as the actual judgment made.
Wow, the power of words.
Sure I was heartbroken for a couple of days. That was normal. Never would I have guessed though, that this one word would have precipitated an eating disorder. But it did. Never would I have imagined that one unthinking pre-pubescent boy could completely shatter my self-confidence. But he did.
So here we have it…
The recipe for an eating disorder:
1. The diet bug (check)
2. A precarious social situation: being called “chubby” by your first crush (check)
Shortly thereafter I started dieting again.
It was nothing excessive to begin with: increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, decreased consumption of fats and carbohydrates. I lost weight at a moderate pace, about one pound every two weeks. After I had lost between five and six pounds, I was happy with myself. I liked my body. Regardless, I was overcome by an irrational fear of re-gaining the weight I had lost – of returning to “ chubby ”. I did not wish to be any thinner. But it was the fear of putting weight back on that caused me to keep depriving myself, and to lose weight at an even faster rate. I lost control. My body got used to functioning on lesser and lesser food. I never felt hungry. My daily caloric intake was extremely low, likely in the range of what is considered starvation.
I would look in the mirror and see myself for just how emaciated I had become. Eating disorder awareness advertisements very often feature a really thin girl staring at a reflection three times her size in the mirror. That was not me. I knew I was very skinny. I think we need to be more careful with how we portray eating disorders, with the sweeping generalizations we make. Each eating disorder is unique and affects its victim differently. Not every eating disorder is characterized by a warped sense of physicality, or can be attributed to a need for control. In fact, those two elements were completely absent from my experience.
I remember everyone searching for an explanation for my eating disorder that transcended a body image issue. Some of my parents’ friends and extended family theorized that it was my attempt at establishing control over an aspect of my life in the wake of my parents’ divorce. Total bogus. My eating disorder began about three months before I discovered any sort of marital issue between my parents. It was very strange how all of a sudden, when I began exhibiting noticeable signs of an eating disorder, businessmen, lawyers and housewives, who had associated with my family but had never taken any interest in me before, became psychologists with strong convictions about the reasons for my behavior and master-plans for my recovery. They were wrong. My eating disorder was not a cry for help to rectify some other perturbed part of my life. I had entangled myself in the cult of thinness, and I just could not break free. It was purely body-image related.
I was always cold when I was anorexic. The excessive weight I lost caused my body temperature to lower. To keep warm, I would hold my mom’s hand. This was incredibly disconcerting for my family. Why? Because I have never been a touchy-feely person. As a baby, I did not want to be picked up or cuddled. As a child, I dreaded family functions, which involved a kiss on each cheek for every family member upon arrival and departure. So you can imagine the extent of my mother’s concern when her thirteen-year-old daughter, who had always loathed physical contact, was constantly reaching to hold her hand in public. I was just sucking the warmth from her.
As I mentioned, I was the subject of innumerable conversations amongst family friends. My eating disorder was something scandalous it seemed. Everyone was talking ABOUT me, and never TO me. In a way they made my experience with anorexia worse – they made me feel more alienated, alone, diseased, and misunderstood – sentiments you are already struggling with when you have an eating disorder. My supposed friends fabricated ridiculous rumors about me. One of them said that the reason I was wearing my hair in a bun was because I was balding from malnutrition. In reality, I began pulling my hair into a tight bun because it accentuated the thinness of my face that was formerly very round. My hair was still as thick as a horse’s mane. In another way, everyone’s gossip, whether it consisted of feigned or veritable concern, was a positive thing for me. It forced me to recognize that I had a problem. If I was the subject of concern for so many people, maybe there really was something wrong with me.
This introspection was pivotal to my ability to overcome anorexia. Piecemeal, I began to detect abnormalities in my behavior, to recognize that an innocent diet had metamorphosed into a real monster that was threatening my life.
My English teacher was clearly aware of my weight loss. One day she organized that our class go visit the grade elevens’ ethics projects. Their projects were on eating disorders. There was no doubt, the reason we were there was because of me. It was a discreet way of arming me with the information I needed to identify a problem in myself. I toured the different stations in the classroom, extremely intrigued by the content.
I read the signs of anorexia from the poster, self-diagnosing simultaneously.
Ceasing to take part in social activities involving food. (Check)
Measuring food (check)
Weight loss (check)
Lowered body temperature (check)
The list went on…
Perhaps I really was fighting something a lot more menacing than a protracted diet. I am forever grateful for my teacher’s sensitive, delicate intervention. Thank you Ms.Lakoff.
I also remember an afternoon where I secretly watched a movie about an anorexic ballerina. I locked myself in a bedroom, and watched it alone. Why the absolute fascination with the film? Probably because I was trying to understand what anorexia was. The term had been tossed around so frequently in relation to me, yet I had no comprehension of what the condition entailed. It was something that the school curriculum completely neglected. By watching the film, I was trying to establish whether there was any veracity in everyone’s claim that I was ill. I was always clumsy and uncoordinated – definitely not a ballerina – but it felt like I was watching my life unfold before me on the television screen. Constant bickering between mother and daughter over weight loss and food. Feeling solitary, frustrated, and sad. An absolute preoccupation with the quantity of food she was consuming. It was totally my situation.
Though I was slowly recognizing an issue, I was certainly not getting any better.
My mother and I would fight at every meal. I would shuffle the food around on my plate as she implored me to eat more.
When I was at my worst, I would grind salt crystals into my hand and lick them to experience the salty snack sensation that a normal person would obtain from a handful of potato chips. You might be thinking: at this stage, how could you still be in denial that something was wrong? That’s the extent of the disease.
One day, on vacation in Australia, my family and I went shopping. At thirteen years old, I needed to purchase a child’s size 8 – meaning for eight year olds – from the Roxy store. That was one of those “ what have I done to myself ” moments.
Though I was unaware of it, my weight loss persisted. My mother kept on reminding me of this. In my mind I was maintaining my weight, not losing weight. I did not have access to a scale in Australia so it was easy to deceive myself in this way. The term “eating disorder” had recurred in many conversations of which I was subject, but not part of, on vacation. I decided that when I got home I would weigh myself. When I did weigh myself, the scale read a number that was dangerously low. The number rung in my head. I was in the process of starving myself to death. Something clicked in that moment. I recognized that I had completely compromised my health and that things had spun entirely out of control. But it was over.
I went downstairs and told my mother how much I weighed. I told her that I was ready to put back on the weight. Had I not come to this resolution myself, my parents would have sought professional help. That day, and everyday henceforth for the next month or so, I ate at least five to seven times the quantity I had been eating when I was fighting anorexia. My energy and happiness levels were sky-high by comparison. I was back to a healthy weight in no time.
I am very lucky not to have fallen back into that dark chasm since.
Although I can attribute a large part of my recovery to the unwavering support of my family, the real key was an almost revelational attitude change in myself.
We are results of our past. An eating disorder was a part of my past. It is an inherent part of who I am today, though it no longer has control over me. It has influenced what I want to do when I am older. It has allowed me to recognize and accept my weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Like the phoenix, humans have the unfortunate tendency to self-immolate. Perhaps we cannot change the self-destructive nature of humankind, but we are certainly capable of unearthing a resiliency from the ashes and rising again.