In the depths of my angsty teen-hood, I once wrote a post on a tumblr-blog titled “How I sold my soul to the number 1200 and a bowl of lettuce (a very long rant).” When I first started writing the post you’re currently reading, I considered just copying and pasting the contents of that old post here. You’re being spared that post only because upon a scrutinizing re-reading of my old writing, I couldn’t stomach the poor sentence structure and surplus of adverbs. Nevertheless, there are parts of it I’m confident that no amount of English class or maturation will ever allow me to articulate better, or at least not more genuinely, so I offer you this excerpt:
Last night as I ate a bowl of lettuce for dinner, a friend enviously remarked “I wish I were as healthy as you are,” staring down at her taco with remorse. I receive this praise all the time – and I love it. But sitting alone this morning, drinking a full liter of green tea to trick my stomach into feeling full, and contemplating what my body will feel like at its “goal weight,” I don’t feel happy that I had a small banana instead of a large one for breakfast and I’ve never felt more unhealthy in my life. I’m not proud I didn’t go to dinner with what could have been new friends last night, and I’m not satisfied about sitting on my floor instead, pinching at my legs. I’m two pounds heavier than I was two weeks ago, deeply depressed because of it, and more aware of my eating disorder than ever. I don’t want to be this weight or any weight, and I don’t even want to be alive.
I’m the envy of all my friends who hope to lose weight, I’m “admirably healthy,” and “so skinny.” But the ninety calories in the watermelon I plan to eat at dinner tonight have more control over my life, my happiness, and my personal relationships than I do. There will never be anything healthy about that. Once again, this eating disorder is holding the rest of my life hostage, and I just want it back.
Eating disorders are a hellish matter and talking about them can be even more hellish. There’s no easy way to tell someone that you throw up after you eat or that your hair is falling out because you’re on the “ABC” (anorexia boot camp) diet. Having an eating disorder can feel almost like living a double life: the one in which you act happy and engage normally with other people, and the one in which you chew your food but spit it out, stand in front of the mirror for hours, and commit to memory nutritional facts about foods you may be forced to encounter.
I developed my double life when I was young, and at the time, I didn’t realize it was happening. It would take years of a cycling through mixed phases of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating before I realized that something was wrong. Between the seventh grade and my high school graduation I lost, gained, lost again, gained again, and then finally cumulatively lost over sixty pounds if you account for all of the losing I’d done. At my heaviest I weighed almost 140 pounds and at my lightest just barely 110. I created my first profile on a calorie tracking website when I was thirteen years old, and Saturday will mark the end of my 274th week of actively using it. I’ve documented down every single piece of food, stick of gum, and sip of liquid that’s entered my body for the past 1,918 days. One thousand nine hundred and eighteen days of counting calories. Sometimes thinking about all of this is still mind-blowing for even me.
But it’s been six years since the first time I ever skipped a meal, and despite the constant and difficult battle I fight each day to view food not as a number of calories, a chunk of my daily food allowance, or an enemy, I am at a healthy weight living a mostly healthy lifestyle. I gained thirty pounds in my first year of college, got my menstrual cycle back, and stopped hiding from friends and family. Exercising is no longer a punishment, but a hobby I enjoy, and eating is constantly becoming less of a challenge. Eating disorders are not easily beat. But beating them is not impossible.
There’s a lot I wish I could say, to my family, my friends, and to everyone about what I’ve learned from having an eating disorder and about what the experience is like. I have and could talk for hours and hours about which foods hurt the least when you throw them back up or what it feels like to have an anxiety attack because someone invited you to lunch. I have full novels worth of thoughts to share about which “recovery strategies” work and which ones don’t, and tons of platitudes and slogans I’ve learned to tell myself in the mirror. But to spare you the details and the rants, all I hope to impress upon anyone reading this is these two things:
One. Eating disorders are not taboo, they are not a sign of weakness, and they are not a character flaw. Eating disorders are illnesses, serious ones, that have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder or syndrome. It can be difficult to recognize or talk about when you or someone you know has an eating disorder, but it is something more people need to do. Like most mental disorders, eating disorders are surrounded by overwhelming amounts of stigma and misinformation. Eating disorders are not voluntary, they are not glamorous, they are not just a problem when they are life threatening, and they do not just occur in women. The more people begin to engage in open dialogue about eating disorders – what they’re like, how we identify them, and how we prevent (not just treat) them – the more people will be able to come forward to get treatment. I wish someone could have told me it was okay that something was wrong and that it was possible to get better before I had lost so much weight that I had become depressed, infertile, and detached from my life and aspirations.
Tons of people, especially young people, are trying to get through the day while hiding a secret lifestyle, and the stigma surrounding eating disorders is putting those peoples’ lives and wellbeing at risk. Nobody deserves to be afraid of food, and no one should have to feel ashamed or demonized on account of their suffering. It is important that victims and others promote informed and open-hearted dialogue about eating disorders so that more people can be helped. An eating disorder is never a punishment for being a bad person, and it is never something someone should have to keep secret. Whether it’s telling a personal story or sharing advice on how to recognize eating disorders, please, let’s all start talking.
Two. It can get better. If you are reading this and struggling with an eating disorder or if you know someone who is, know that it gets better: that with proper treatment, support, and a healthy dose of self-love, people who have been on the brink of death from starvation have recovered to live purposeful and happy lives. There was a time in my life, and sometimes there still are, when a cup of vegetables and a daily calorie goal had more control of my life and my future than I did. But you are worth so much more than 1200 calories a day and you are undefinable by any numerical metric. Your waist size, your pant size, and your serving sizes can’t define you. Neither can your thigh gap, your hip bridge, or anything you ever see in the mirror. You are a person full of goals to achieve and love to give; someday when others reflect on the life you lived, they will reflect on those things, not the self-control you demonstrated when confronted with bottomless bread baskets. No matter how much you may be hurting or struggling, things can get better. Never feel afraid to reach out or speak up, and never feel like you’re not worth fighting for. You are. I believe you are. I hope you can too.
Happy eating disorder awareness week, and more than ever, thank you so much for reading.
For more information on eating disorders visit