Anorexia, so they say, is like cancer or alcoholism. The disease is never cured, according to the experts; it’s only ever in remission. People who have tamped down the urge to drink too much or eat too little are designated as “recovering” alcoholics or anorexics, often for the rest of their lives. The temptation will remain a part of them forever, and all they can do is try to remove themselves from the temptation as well as can be.
The story of my eating disorder is rather a dull one, a period in my life when I acted childish and lived up to the worst characterizations of only children and teenage girls. There were no dramatic peaks or valleys, no moment where I was confronted and told that for the love of God I had to eat something. None of that Lifetime channel stuff. It all happened pretty simply.
The summer before my junior year of high school, my parents became ashamed at how much of a couch potato I’d become, and they put me on the treadmill. They told me I needed to walk, and eventually jog, a few times a week for a mile at a time.
They didn’t put it to me in terms of weight. I was a totally normal-sized teenager, and in fact I never experienced undesired weight gain until my mid-twenties. They just wanted me to do some physical activity, to get myself a little healthier and stop rotting away in my bedroom with my nose in a book. It sounds reasonable now, but at the time I was a teenager and thought this was the stupidest and most unfair thing a parent had ever asked of a child.
Around the same time, I noticed that suffering was making me feel better. The jogging was awful, but cutting was even more awful. (I was always an amateur cutter, because I knew if I did any cutting that could be noticed, all kinds of unpleasant circumstances would ensue.) And most awful of all was restricting my food intake. The pain of an empty stomach started to feel like exactly what I needed. Plus, the thinner I got, the more likely it seemed that they’d cancel their little exercise program for me.
I’ve never met another person with an eating disorder whose problem was not body image. For me, it was not. I was insecure about my body for its pale, untannable legs, for its ponytail that was never as smooth as the other girls’, for its non-California-Girl beauty. I went to school with Disney princesses; I was a Bohemian rhapsody, and that made me feel worse than any extra poundage could have. But there was virtually nothing in my life over which I had control – my parents held every possible card – and so, to make up for this, I controlled the amount of food that I ate. Smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until I ate only a cup of yogurt and a picked-at dinner every day.
Again, not dramatic! There are girls who subsist on four carrot sticks and a leaf of lettuce every day before they get help. But I am a hearty eater, born and bred, and to be down to that was pretty intense for me.
From late fall to late winter I did this. I was cold all the time. I saw my xylophone ribs in the mirror and wondered when my mom and dad would start to notice.
Because as it happened, all the concern with getting me off the couch had evaporated, and now my parents were dealing with the death of my grandfather and the breakup of their marriage. No longer were they concerned with how much exercise I was getting, or how happy or healthy I was. They were wrapped up in their decaying relationship. I told myself then that I didn’t blame them, and over the years this has evolved into being true, but at the time I badly wanted attention. I wanted someone to notice that I was an absurdly unstable young woman.
One day in the early spring I was walking to class (my high school was a campus, with several different buildings) and I nearly passed out. I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch the prior day, and I had about 98 pounds on my 5’4″ frame. I sat down on the steps to the dining hall and waited for the black spots to pass. I realized, all at once, that this was not helping me, nor was it getting Mom and Dad to magically be good parents again. I went in the dining hall and got myself some Twizzlers, which I wolfed, and then headed straight for the nurse’s office and told her everything.
She said that in most cases, she would want to involve my parents in my recovery, but since they had only made things worse and were in the middle of a divorce, she didn’t think they could help me. She set up regular appointments for me with the school counselor and herself, and suddenly, it was over. I wanted to eat again. I was being supported, and the pain in my stomach didn’t feel so good anymore.
I was in recovery for several weeks before I caught my mother looking me up and down one day when I got home. My father had moved out, but generally things were a bit better for me. I’d stopped cutting.
“I’m going to make a doctor’s appointment for you next week,” she said.
At the doctor’s office, after I’d been examined, she danced around the issue of my weight for quite a long time before she said she just thought I was anorexic, “that’s all.” The doctor gave me a mild look while my mother looked at her lap, and then he told her that my weight was low normal for my age and height. I felt no need to unburden myself about what I’d been through over the prior months. Nor have I ever; to tell my mother that she and my father drove me to an eating disorder would not help anyone.
Since then I have been, as they say, a recovering anorexic. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never since felt the urge to fast, to let that feeling in my stomach overwhelm the rest of my problems, but the hypoglycemia which has worsened tenfold in the last five years means that if I don’t eat enough, I can’t concentrate (like, at all, on anything). Plus, I have control over much of my life, which was the real problem in the first place. I don’t have anyone I want to punish with my skeletal appearance.
That was a part of it that I’m pretty ashamed of. A lot of my motivation was a passive-aggressive wish to hurt my parents by making myself too too thin. It’s pathetic that they didn’t even notice, but sad as hell that I didn’t see it was myself I was hurting the most.