Although I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 16, I can’t ever remember being comfortable in my skin. Take the second grade play, for instance. All I can remember is comparing my arms to the girls next to me and feeling like the largest one in the room. Someday, I thought. Someday I will be as small as they are. It was all I wanted.
That day came when I was a sophomore in high school. I was never overweight, but had enjoyed my fair share of Twix bars and vending machine delicacies upon entering high school, and I could feel it in my body. When I went to the doctor for a physical, I was told to get on the scale, and I refused. “If you don’t get on the scale,” he said, chuckling, “I’m going to write down that you weigh 140 on this chart!” Well, lo and behold, I stepped on the scale, and those digitized numbers staring back at me reflected his words. At 5’7”, I was far from being overweight. But as someone who had always been on the low end, this number terrified me.
I can’t describe it, but it was like a switch in my brain flipped. Diet and exercise became everything that I lived for; they were a part of me. It only took three months, and I had lost a significant amount of weight; enough weight to completely lose my period, which I wouldn’t get back for four years, and enough weight for my family, friends, and teachers at school to become increasingly worried. While I strived for balance and health in the beginning, my food choices became limited. Granola became too fattening. Tuna became too protein-filled, and because protein is related to muscle enhancement, I became scared of that, too. Apples were good, but due to their high fiber content they left me bloated and feeling large, so they had to go. Breakfasts became eliminated, lunches involved iceberg lettuce (and pretzels, if it was a good day), and dinners consisted of pushing my mom’s cooked meals around my plate to make it look like I had eaten. With my purse sitting beside me at every meal, I would slip food into napkins and place it in my purse so I could throw it out later.
This life made me miserable, but I found a way to rationalize every hardship. Oh, you can’t fall asleep because your stomach is ravenous? That’s okay. Look at the self-control you have! Everyone else doesn’t have the willpower to abstain like you do; you’re so strong. And look at this body you’re getting! Keep it up.
My parents sat me down one day and told me this couldn’t go on any longer. Despite my rationale for every disordered item they mentioned, they wouldn’t budge: I was going to the doctor. I knew I had a problem, but I wasn’t expecting to be diagnosed with anorexia. Maybe I was in denial, but when the doctor said that word, I nearly choked. Me? Don’t they see how big I am? I’m just trying to be healthy. No one understands: they just want me to be fat. Everyone is just jealous that they don’t have the self-control that I do. It’s ridiculous, really.
The doctor suggested weight gain and therapy, although therapy never happened. My parents pushed for it, but while clearly sick and struggling, I was the master manipulator, and I made sure to meet the minimum weight gain my doctor had set for me. Through this, I gained enough trust back from my family to avoid therapy and attend college that fall.
Everything started falling apart the second that my parents left me at school. The disorder wiped away any sort of healthy mind that I possessed and stripped me of all control. The perfectionist in me still managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA, but other than that, I can’t remember any joys of my freshman year. I picked up a job and worked late nights to busy myself so I wouldn’t want to eat. Eating in general became difficult, as I would not allow myself to eat anything that wasn’t prepackaged with the exact calorie label on it. I had joined a sorority and was talked about: Do you see how thin she is? Why doesn’t she ever want to come to the dining hall with us, or hang out at all? I had completely isolated myself, spending nights locked away in my dorm room, studying in hopes of lessening the demanding food-related thoughts that were so conflicting."Eat, you are so hungry," was combated with "You don’t need to eat; you had a serving of carrots this morning and probably snuck in extra, so you actually should cut back. You don’t want to get fat." I knew I had lost more weight, but when I visited home and was forced to step on the scale, I discovered that I weighed barely 100 pounds. My concerned parents told me that I would not be able to return to school if I didn’t start getting my act together.
Two months into my sophomore year, my older sister called me one night and told me she wanted to have a sisters’ weekend: a getaway for us to veg out and spend time together. She came down on a Friday, and we spent the weekend together. But when I went to say goodbye to her that following Sunday, my parents walked in the door. My concerned sorority house mom had contacted the school, and an administrator called my parents and told them I was not medically fit to be enrolled in classes. My parents packed up my things after staging an intervention and drove me six hours home, checking me straight into the hospital and eventually into an eating disorder treatment facility.
I can’t even put words to the overwhelming emotions that were running through me. I wanted to cry, yell, scream, fight, do anything I possibly could to avoid what was in my future. But at the same time, there was an underlying part of myself that felt this incredible weight being lifted off of my shoulders. I was living a sad and miserable life, but actively asking for help required fighting against the power of my eating disorder, which, at the time, I didn’t feel strong enough to do. Having my ability to choose completely taken away meant that I didn’t have to fight against the voice in my head telling me to stay sick, so it made the initial process easier on myself but harder on my family due to the anger I pushed towards them.
The day I entered treatment changed my life forever. I knew things had gotten bad, but seeing the number on the scale that day and realizing that my heart was beating 33 beats per minute sucked the air right out of my lungs. I was in shock. Yet, still, I fought. I exercised in my room, hid food at meal times, did everything I could possibly think of to fight the help people were trying to give me. With time, however, I realized that I wasn’t necessarily fighting treatment, but that the disorder was fighting with the healthy part of my brain that was trying to breathe life into me. Many months, buckets of tears, and 35 pounds later, I was discharged. I entered my life again: a life in which I promised myself to choose recovery every single day—a promise I am still keeping now, an entire year later.
Recovery is not easy. I wish I could sit here and say that I’m healed, fixed, cured. But it’s not that simple. The negative thoughts lessen with each passing day, but they still exist to some degree in the corners of my mind. Recovery isn’t something you cross off a pretty list and move on to the next task; it’s the most time-intensive and hardest thing that you will ever have to choose, but you must choose it. It is something I have to actively pursue every second of every day. Recovery is the greatest gift I have ever given myself. I have gone back to college and, due to the intense course load I took on while ill, I will graduate in the standard four-year time period. I have been able to go on dinner dates and be engaged in conversation, to order midnight pizza with girlfriends, to drink a glass of wine—all things I never could have even imagined being part of my life before. I have finally remembered what it’s like to be me.
Treatment is scary, but do you want to know what’s even scarier? Asking for help. Reaching out goes against everything that the disorder stands for: that part of your brain that longs for you to call it your best friend, longs for you to stay sick. But people CAN recover, and can give themselves the life that they deserve. Whether it’s you, your sister, your friend, or your cousin, eating disorders affect us all. Strip away its power; strip away its control. Choose recovery; choose you.
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