This piece is part of our Darkest Day series, a collection of stories from people who’ve made it through the worst of their illness and now light the way for others.
It’s 7am and I’ve already burned 1,000 calories on the elliptical. I’m packing up my food for the day. Breakfast is 113 calories for 3 egg whites and 1 cup of grapes. Lunch will be 131 calories for turkey, mustard, lettuce, and baby carrots. I’ve also packed 1 pack of Parliament Lights, 4 Diet Cokes, 1 gallon of water, and 1 brand new pack of bubblemint gum. I’ll have dance class in the afternoon, which takes care of another 300 or so calories. Dinner is always a wild card –– it depends on who’s around and how carefully I’m being watched. I have food saved in my room for later just in case. I am 16 years old and 70 pounds; I am a human calorie counter and numbers genius who, ironically, is also struggling in Pre-Calculus.
Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint a clear start for all of this. Unlike an alcoholic who can often describe their first drink, there was no concrete “first.” My eating disorder was a physical manifestation of a longtime underlying condition. It was some combination of perfectionism, extreme sensitivity, fear, and ironically enough a hunger — a hunger for love, acceptance, validation. A hunger for everything. That hunger felt unmanageable so instead of learning how to experience it, I taught myself how to stop it, to cut it off, to starve it out. If you don’t want anything, you can never get hurt, right?
Aside from a cracked internal landscape, there were plenty of external circumstances that fed my food obsession. I lived on the westside of Los Angeles — a part of town that’s known for lavish living, celebrities, plastic surgery, and an impossible standard of beauty. It’s a town that’s flanked with billboards about freezing off your fat, entire stores dedicated to “diet” food, hypnotists ready to convince you that you will no longer be hungry by the time you reopen your eyes, and people jumping to tell you how amazing you look the skinnier you are (while secretly hating you). That can dent the psyche of even the strongest mental warrior, but when you’re a teenager and confused about everything and desperately looking for anything that makes sense LA is not your friend, it’s a toxic playground.
My days were marked by careful planning, rigid scheduling, and predictable manufactured moments. Anything beyond “the plan” threw me for a loop and I couldn’t deal. I’d weigh myself, decide whether it was a good or bad day based on what the scale said, plan my food, go to school, see a doctor or a nutritionist, lie to said doctor or nutritionist, go home, lie about what I ate all day, give some story about how the doctor said I was “making progress,” concoct a way out of dinner then disappear into my room. It was a sad, small existence, but it was how I managed.
Lots of anorexics experience trauma earlier in life that leads them to a place of craving this level of control. I didn’t have that. I was just a deeply sensitive person who felt a lot and didn’t know what to do with those feelings. I carried on in this way for years. My parents were freaked out and had no idea what to do with me. My mom would often tell me that I looked like an AIDS patient and wondered if it was drugs that were doing this.
With my rolodex of doctors and specialists increasing by the week, my main psychiatrist was pushing for inpatient treatment. I, of course, had a million reasons why that was unnecessary and in true anorexic fashion, was always able to manipulate my parents to agree with me. The question of college came up. I had gotten into a top east coast university. My doctors strongly recommended that I stay back and take a gap year to get my health in order. By this time, my physical state was at its worst. It was getting harder for me to physically do simple tasks. Once the body burns through fat, it feeds on muscles…like the heart. For the first time I agreed with my doctors, but I was too frightened to speak up. So when my parents said maybe a change of scenery would make all of this better, I believed them.
On Tuesdays I meet with Mary, the Beverly Hills nutritionist who has me writing down everything I eat. I quickly fill in my food logs, lying as I add in handfuls of almonds and tablespoons of peanut butter (two things that will thrill her). I promised everyone I would focus on getting my weight up before I take off for school. I weigh myself before the appointment. I’ve lost 3 more pounds. The sick part of the mind is overjoyed, but the rational side panics and I get an instant stomach ache. I am so screwed. I quickly run downstairs where my mom stores all of our exercise equipment and grab a few small weights. I stash them in my bag as I head off to the appointment. I always wear a hospital gown during my weigh ins so they can get an “accurate” read which makes it easy to hide the weights under my arms. Mary is so kind and I can tell she genuinely wants to help, but she’s a little oblivious and doesn’t think to check for anything that could tip the scale. I step on, and breathe a quick sigh of relief as she congratulates me on the weight gain. I know it’s a lie, so why am I so upset to see the number increase?
One day, I walked in the front the door and my mom was waiting for me in the kitchen. I’ll never forget the look of horror that was flashing across her face. She told me that Jackie, my high school guidance counselor had called to tell my mom that I had been hiding weights under my arms. Jackie was one of the few people I trusted during this time. She would pull me out of classes to hang out in her office and talk and sometimes she would let me smoke cigarettes out in the alley. I told her most of my secrets but instantly regretted sharing this one. The discovery of this lie was the final straw. I had officially frayed everyone’s last nerve.
Fall rolled around and I took off for the east coast. I was committed to changing my ways and starting fresh in a new city. For the first few days, things did seem to get a little better. I had been going to the dining hall (which for anorexics is kind of like swimming with sharks) and was actually eating! But then something switched — I had been flying high, without any structure, but finally got a little too close to the sun. I started to lose control and started bingeing. It was almost as though the years of starvation had finally caught up. I wasn’t just hungry –– I was absolutely insatiable.
I went on a three week long binge. I don’t remember much of it, just a few flashes of floating in and out of restaurants and cafes, ordering and eating, and then heading to the next spot. I remember a few failed attempts at trying to tell my mom and therapist what was going on, but I was paralyzed by fear. Then one day I finally found some inkling of courage to send the text, “Mom, I’m not okay. I need to come home.”
That night, I landed in the hospital. I don’t remember anything from those few days other than the sound of my mom’s shoes walking quickly down the hospital hallway. Needless to say, I got my wish. I went home.
For the next year I was in an intensive treatment program where I got serious about my recovery. I went to individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy where we held stones that had words like “hope” and “love” etched on them, nutrition class, group meals, individual meals, group outings –– it was all about learning basic living skills. It was learning how to cope, how to feel, how to be okay amidst the inevitable chaos of life. It was learning how to love myself and how to show up for others.
Recovery is life-long. There is no magic moment where you’re suddenly better. Relapse is extremely common in eating disorders and I was no exception. But through continued therapy, self care, meditation, and mindfulness, I am able to stay the course and live in a way that’s authentic and healthy. I have bad days where I feel the pull towards that path of self-destruction. But today I also have choices.
If I had to share a message with anyone who’s suffering, I would tell them to surrender their control and take a leap into the unknown. I would tell them that what’s waiting on the other side of their fear is a life that’s beyond their wildest dreams. Life can be beautiful and rich and exciting and scary and wild and passionate and uncomfortable and messy and it is all so worth it. All you have to do it live one day at time and you’ll be amazed by the strength you can muster when you get out of your own way.