It started when I was a thirteen year old high school freshman. I remember the exact day, in fact. I was in health class, taught by Mr. Carr, who was also the soccer coach and, apropos, a weird health nut. He was always extolling the virtues of wheat germ. He thought fruit was a *snack*.
Coach Carr was a skinny guy with a big mustache and what I can now recognize as a great attitude, but he seemed to lack the ability to really connect with students. He talked to us like we were equals and we just weren’t ready for it. He took it upon himself to give us some sex ed – it was off the curriculum and as far as I know, no parents or teachers knew or cared what was covered in that class. So thanks to Mr. Carr I knew what a condom looked like both in and out of the wrapper, and I knew how it was supposed to go on a banana, if not a penis. Coach Carr also brought us guest speakers – once, memorably, a teenaged mom.
I didn’t need reminding of the consequences of sex – I thought about those all the time, even though I was a virgin. I thought about them because my parents were fond of reminding me that girls who had sex were sluts and would come to a bad end, every last one of them. I also didn’t need reminding because I was exquisitely clear on my parents’ worldview, which was that all girl were in danger of being, becoming or being thought of as sluts (this latter was worst of all, somehow), and the only way they could become un-sluts was to get married to a man they hadn’t had sex with yet.
(aside: once my sister and I complained about how we’d be out walking and hear a car horn honk and look to see who it was – assuming of course we knew the honker – and it was always the same, some guy with a total pervy pedophile smile. My dad’s contribution to this conversation was typical: Nice girls don’t look. I couldn’t figure out why someone as obviously powerless as me could be responsible for the behavior of the people (men) who claimed the right to be in charge of (judge) me)
What I found memorable and remarkable about the teen mom was the fact that she still lived in her own home town after having a baby out of wedlock– I always figured that if I got pregnant, I’d run away to Hollywood and be a hooker. I knew it could be done because I saw it in a movie starring Linda Purl, and I remember thinking “Well, if I ever do get raped and pregnant at least I won’t have to kill myself.” This was my safety net, my backup plan – something I needed, because my parents were quite clear on the consequences of pregnancy: they would disown me, if I survived the beating I was sure to get. The relief of that movie! I knew exactly where to go to – someplace called Sunset Strip.
I did not feel an ounce of self pity about any of this. It was just the way it was. I had girl friends, but none very close – certainly none close enough to come over to my house and witness my parents, at any rate. Boys I dated of course had to meet my dad, and that was bad enough. They’d all said the same thing: your dad doesn’t seem so bad. (A few brought me home late and found out they were right – my dad wasn’t so bad; my dad was really bad (as in, terrifying), and none of them ever came around me again, not even in the relative safety of school) When the most popular boy in my class, informed me he’d asked me out because he wanted to see if the rumors about my dad were true, I finally just stopped dating.
Years later I conferred with my sister and found out she too had a plan to run away and become a drug addicted teenaged hooker rather than face the consequence of evidence she’d had premarital sex (she saw the same Linda Purl movie as me) We made a pact: if one of us got pregnant, we’d run away and figure out how to take care of one another. My sis and I are close.
So back to the momentous day in health class. It was late spring, school nearly out. I was wearing a pink strappy ‘baby doll’ top and a pair of white shorts. I remember looking down into my lap during the class and thinking, how is it that I haven’t noticed before how fat I am? The evidence was right there, in my (relatively new) breasts pushing at the thin fabric of my pink top, my tanned thighs on the desk seat. I suddenly felt very naked and exposed – and entirely gross. I was 5’3” and weighed 114 lbs.
I set to work fiercely, with all the considerable power of my self disgust. Breakfast became an orange that I peeled and sectioned, eating maybe 2 slices and putting the rest in a baggie for the next day. I could make an orange last a week that way. My parents didn’t notice, but my sister did. “You’re being so weird!” she’d exclaim. “Mom, she’s only eating an orange!” “She better not be,” my mom remarked, but she had her own sorrows to wrestle with, and somehow I managed to evade scrutiny, always making sure to be appearing to take a bite when someone looked at me, then pocketing the food to be disposed of later.
Lunch was skipped, though sometimes I’d buy a pack of Starbursts and eat one or two. If I didn’t have a softball game, track meet or cross country race, I’d have to eat dinner – but if I did have some after school activity, my dinner would be waiting in the oven and more often than not, no one was around to see me scrape it into the garbage.
My weight dropped quickly to about 90 lbs and stayed there for the rest of my high school career.
No one ever said anything negative to me about my weight – probably because, if you looked at my grades and performance on the track and trail and softball diamond, there didn’t seem to be a problem. My grades were mostly As – I was an Illinois State Scholar. You’d think I’d be too weak from all the starving to do well in sports but the mind is a much more powerful muscle than the appetite: I set a PR in the 400 meter my sophomore year; I was co-captain of the cross-country team by junior year; I pitched a no-hitter and set the strike-out record for my conference in softball.
Like most anorexics, anything I did, I did well; more, I crushed the competition. In the case of my anorexia, the competition was, in a way, my body. It didn’t stand a chance.
It’s a sad thing to me, even now, how much approval I got for being so thin. Even at the time, I didn’t care for the compliments , as much as I craved them. Many of them were the “I wish *I* could be anorexic for just a week” variety. Those comments made me angry – I’d want to shout back in their face “It’s HARD to be like this! I have to think about it every single fucking minute of every single fucking day! It’s not a life!” I felt like those compliments further trapped me in the prison I’d built for myself. I felt panic at the thought of having to live my entire life like that — because if people approved of me that way, it meant that I couldn’t or shouldn’t change. No one would like me if I did and nothing could convince me otherwise – after all, I had the proof in their compliments.
I gained a few pounds as a college freshman, reaching the terrible weight of 112 lbs. I discovered this when the softball team had the annual player physicals – including a weigh in – just prior to sophomore year. I was flabbergasted. How could I have let myself go like that? I set out with a grim determination to not just eliminate the weight but destroy it. This time I got my weight down to less than 90, and I stayed there through my undergrad years. During my master’s, my weight dropped for about 9 months into the sub-85 zone. I was briefly hospitalized for an irregular heart beat and nonspecific hepatitis (common among anorexics), but got my weight back up to the low 90s in time to head to Indiana to begin my Ph.D. program when I was 22. I had now been anorexic for 8 years – one third of my life spent thinking obsessively about not eating more than, not weighing more than, not wanting more than. Not being more than.
That’s the what and the when. But what most people want to know about is the how, and the why.
The how was simple. I was not a bulimic – someone who binges and purges. I thought they were gross, lacked control (like many girls in the grip of an eating disorder, I was short on empathy for myself and fellow sufferers) I fancied myself a purist, someone who could exist without food. I ate like a consumptive sparrow and I exercised like a crazed hamster and on the few occasions when I broke down and ate something with more than 500 calories in one sitting, I immediately vomited it up, an act I hated and wasn’t very good at. Luckily, there was the University Counseling Center, where I attended a weekly group for girls with eating disorders. There, I learned many of the finer points of how to purge. There were all kinds of tricks to make it easier, for example drinking lots of liquids, especially warm ones, before and after eating.
I also learned to use foreign objects when my finger was no longer adequate to start the gag reflex. After hearing the tale of a girl whose mom found a butter knife under her mattress, I decided to try that trick. But I used a long serrated bread knife, not anticipating that the violent gag reflex would sharply thrust the knife into the back of my throat. At first I tried to hide it what I’d done to myself, but the blood sluicing down my throat frightened me. When I finally vomited it was a spontaneous rather than forced action, and looked like someone had dumped a bucket of blood in the bathroom. When I screamed for help, my voice echoing crazily in the nighttime dorm bathroom, my voice gargled like I was drowning. Which in a way, I was. I was 18.
After the knife episode, I taught myself to vomit by pressing into my stomach at the same time I depressed the back of my tongue – I’d heard of the trick from another girl in a therapy session, and though she annoyed me and struck me as dumb, it worked like a charm. When the back of my hand started scarring, I turned my batting glove inside out and put it on to protect the skin of my knuckles from my teeth. I didn’t share this trick with her, the better to be superior to her as she sat with her thin scarred hands knotted together during group session, fruitlessly denying she’d relapsed.
I went through a lot of terrible but completely predictable physical changes. My hair thinned, became lank and unlustrous, strands breaking off in my brush. The bottoms of my feet often hurt, having lost their padding. But though I was, literally, wasting away, the changes seemed to be only skin deep. Somehow I managed to continue performing at a level that allowed me to keep my academic and athletic scholarships. Looking back, my life was mostly notable not because of anything I did, but in what I didn’t do – which was, be a kid, be independent, be young. I never thought of life as something to be enjoyed and so I didn’t. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized I didn’t really know how to be happy. I knew how to be content, and I took great pleasure in contributing to other people’s happiness. My own was never expected and therefore wholly expendable. The thing is, I didn’t mind. I didn’t even know.
When I dropped below 90 lbs during grad school, my parents were forced to acknowledge something was happening to me. When he observed the bluish cast of my lips and fingers, my father bought me a new winter coat – an engineer’s approach to denial, I guess.
My mother, who was not in denial at all, hissed “What will people think when they find out?” She also briefly adopted the practice of purging – I know because my sister caught her in the act. “What are you doing, mom? “ she asked my mom through the door when she heard the gagging sounds. She knew mom wasn’t sick or anything – she’d just been chatting with her in the kitchen a few minutes prior. “Um, nothing,” mom told her, and continued for a few months, managing to lose, finally, some of the weight she always found so hard to live with, so difficult to shed, so impossible not to talk about in her self-punishing way. I look back on that time and think what poor lost souls we were – my parents wanting to help me but not knowing how, needing so much help themselves.
My brother called me from school and asked me to get better. I started to tear up until he said “Mom and dad weren’t that bad – you know it could have been a lot worse.” My rage at that statement should have been a clue, I guess, but at the time I just hung up the phone and continued my campaign to stay brutally, accusingly, monastically thin.
So why? Why did I choose to be anorexic?
I think the simple answer is, because denying myself food when I was hungry, and exercising when I didn’t feel like it – these things felt like punishment, and I’d grown up believing that I deserved to be punished – for anything and everything. I did not inherit my dad’s affection for alcohol, but maybe I did inherit a tendency towards addictive behaviors – and anorexia is definitely an addictive behavior. Even I knew that, at some point, I’d simply become accustomed to living that way.
Many years after my recovery, I read the book Leaving Las Vegas, in which the main characters, both bent on self destruction, have this unforgettable conversation:
Sera: I just want to know, Why are you killing yourself?
Ben: I don’t remember. I just know that I want to.
Sera: Is your drinking a way to kill yourself?
Ben: Or killing myself is a way to drink.
At some point with the anorexia it was the same thing – I didn’t remember why I wanted to starve myself, I just knew that I did. “You’re killing yourself!” my boyfriend Rick said to me, at which I scoffed. Such a dramatic turn of phrase. Oh brother, I told him, rolling my eyes. No one is going die around here. Something I stubbornly insisted on even as some of the girls in my therapy group did, in fact, die.
Not relevant, I airily told the boyfriend. I refused to consider that I was killing myself or even hurting myself. I knew I was *limiting* myself in some ways, of course – you can’t think about being thin 24×7 and not know this – but the health consequences of my behaviors just never seemed real to me. A funny observation from a girl with such low body fat her fingernails were bluish, but there you go. Is that why?
I came by my obsession with food and weight honestly. My mother was overweight for most of my life, and hated herself and everyone else (or at least, seemed to) for it. She went through a severe depression while the rest of us pretended that she didn’t – too scared to acknowledge it, I guess. Once, mom told me why dad was so hard on me for me ‘moodiness’ as he called it – his own mom had bipolar disease, and considerable chaos surrounded her behavior and demands. Dad lived most of his adult life unable to help her or please her, and the sight of me acting in a way that reminded him of her filled him with fear, which easily alchemized to rage. I realized ee couldn’t help it, but that wasn’t much comfort to me.
When I think of those years, it’s always the same image: the matted shag carpeting still holding the faint scent of old cigarettes, the small kitchen with its unforgiving fluorescent light, my mom in her faded, creased old clothes – always black or blue, like a bruise. The smell of her unwashed hair. The hunched look of her shoulders, as if bowed by some mysterious weight, Was it Sadness? Anger ? Disappointment? I was the only one kid she didn’t get along with, though I never knew why. I was the one that looked most like my dad – is that why? The nature of the divide between us eluded me, but it was undoubtedly there. “I have to love you because I’m your mom, but I don’t like you very much,” she sometimes said to me. Is that why?
I’d been taught at home and school and church to not be vain or full of myself, to not have opinions or thoughts that weren’t like my parents’ (or the Church), that nothing I said or thought was worth anything, that I must of all things guard against “getting above myself”. My dad had a precarious grip on his role as provider; his anxiety and fear, and the scars of his own childhood physical abuse and emotional deprivation, made for a combustible combination and turned our house into a war zone. My mom suffered most of all, but this was small comfort to me when it was my turn for his attentions. And it felt like a double betrayal when she turned on me too, with her justifications for failing to protect me.
I wish I’d never come home, I sobbed one Christmas (the last one I’d go home for, as it turns out). I’d been home all of three hours and dad had fired his opening salvos. Why does he get to be as horrible as he wants? We don’t have to take it, we’re not his dogs, I fumed. Mom’s response: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t come home. It’s more peaceful without you.” Is that why?
My anorexia was in part a response to my home life, but not in the way most people assume. I wasn’t devastated by this treatment from my parents. I knew they were well meaning, though wrong. I was a good girl – from what I could see of the behavior of my peers and friends, better than most (but oh how that doubt lingers; how guilty I feel, laying claim to goodness, as if I were never good, and knowingly lying here).
Mostly I could just see for myself that my mom and dad had issues that went way beyond me. My mom and dad were flawed, but they loved me, I knew that. I bitterly resented and lamented their mistakes but I didn’t believe that I was the cause of them. I wanted them to approve of me but I knew it wasn’t my fault that they didn’t.
But for some reason, even as I ran away from them and their message, I carried their message with me. Maybe anorexia was a way to keep myself small and inconsequential in the world, the place my father feared and my mother hid from.
Like many addicts I was a sly creature – a double agent. Even as I lashed myself with deprivation and rigid expectations of titanic accomplishment, I took a secret, gloating pleasure in the pathos of my appearance. I liked imagining that when I returned home for the holidays and attended church with my family, that people were noting my weight and looking with disapproval at my parents. My starved body was testimony to the fact that something was wrong, and I didn’t have to say a word. I liked the way my appearance belied our happy family picture – a picture we were all too-well trained not to project.
You can scream with your mouth and nobody hears, I learned; I also learned that you can scream with your body, and people can hear with their eyes.
Which leads me to conclude that my anorexia was probably a lot more about rage than anything else. Rage at being made to feel worthless – by my church, by my school, by my ever-angry father. But when I moved away from home I found that abuse and rage were all I knew – they were the only tools I had for handling pressure. Anorexia was a way to continue the campaign of abuse and rage that I’d endured under my parent’s roof, only this time there was no escaping because I was the abuser as well as the abused; I was the hater as well as the hated, I was the one enraged, and I turned all that rage on myself. I kept more pressure on myself to perform than my parents ever could have – I had three majors (and graduated with three degrees) four minors, a full time athletic scholarship, two academic scholarships, two loans, a work-study job for 20 hours per week, a job at a Donut Shop (that was actually the name) for 20 hours per week and a job at McDonald’s for 39 hours per week. I also went a couple times a month with my friend who volunteered a house for wayward deaf boys. And I did this all in four years.
I started to stop when I met the man who would become my first husband. It was the strangest thing, but when I first saw him I decided, instantly, on the spot, that I wanted to be with him. Something in his face – a calm, confident intelligence, a place where rage could not take root and grow – drew me to him. Turned out I was a good snap judge of character, because in our 18 years of marriage we had exactly one fight, and he never ever raised his voice to me. “Wow, you’re really smart,” he said when he looked at my bookcase. “Not really,” I said, not because I believed it but because I didn’t want to get above myself. He gave me a look. “Well, you know best,” he said neutrally, and I flushed darkly. My methods were backfiring.
It was summer and we had only two months of dating before we returned to our respective universities – he at the University of Illinois for his senior year, me at Indiana University for my doctoral program. There was no miracle or anything – I just spent time with someone who was openly admiring of me and who notably didn’t approve of my too-thin body; gradually being anorexic began to seem like a burden, like something I was awkwardly carrying around rather than something I *was*.
And by the time I arrived at my apartment in Bloomington that fall, I realized I was tired of it. Monumentally tired of it. I didn’t want to be defined, or define myself, as the thin girl any more. I didn’t want to remind myself to be unhappy any more. I was beginning to forget why I was so unhappy, and why starving myself proved it. I was appalled to realize how much time I’d spent slowly killing myself, and how close I’d come. I couldn’t remember what hurt so much I thought I needed to die over it – I only remembered that I wanted to, and now I didn’t.
I’d like to say, And I lived happily ever after! but that is an oversimplification. I did live, and I am happy – but I struggled with the mental side of my eating disorder off and on until, in my 40s, I sought out a therapist for some self-destructive behavior that, deep down, I knew was not unrelated to my eating disorder years. A couple of years of intense talk therapy, and a deep desire to find new, healthy ways to respond to stress in my life has led me to a place of happiness and balance, and this has brought unexpected rewards, including not least of these, an ability to accept love as one who believes she is and has always been worthy of it. My relationship with my family members is better than it has ever been. For anyone reading this who has struggled with an eating disorder, or sat helplessly by not knowing how to help your loved one struggling, know that recovery is possible – with it, a whole new life, and world await. Stay in the fight, reach out for help if you need it. It’s worth it.