~trigger warning – eating disorders~
You got up this morning, stretched, and staggered into the kitchen. Depending on your preference, you waited impatiently for your coffee or tea. You then set about completing your morning routine. Maybe you’re a breakfast eater, maybe not. You probably showered, got dressed, and got ready to face the day, either at work or at home depending on where you are in your life. Lunchtime rolled around, and you were hungry, so you grabbed some food. Perhaps you got an all-in-one meal from a fast food restaurant, perhaps you made yourself a sandwich. You were hungry mid-afternoon, so you had some chips and a pop. You were going to make something for dinner, but friends called, so you headed out to the pub for some appetizers and dinner, maybe even a beer. Back home after an enjoyable few hours out, you did a few chores, watched some tv, grabbed another snack and once you were tired, headed off to bed. As you were brushing your teeth, you realized you didn’t get in any exercise, but figured you’d get to it tomorrow, no big deal. You didn’t count calories, you didn’t give much thought to what you ate, you didn’t beat yourself up and call yourself foul names for being lazy, and it never once occurred to you to throw up your dinner. You lived your day and it included food and friends because that’s how you do life.
I haven’t had a day like that since i was 11 years old; that’s a long time to go without touching normal.
I remember the moment my eating disorder took over vividly. I was insecure and self-conscious about myself even as a very young girl. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be popular, to be beautiful, and to be confident. To be “normal”. I desperately needed approval from my peers and from adults; i needed someone to tell me that i was okay because inside, for as long as i can remember, i have felt anything but. I have always felt less than, inadequate, inferior, and not enough.
It was near the end of grade 5 that i learned that all my pain and misery was because I was fat. I was sitting in the school field with two friends, let’s call them Kerry and Sherry. I wanted to be best friends with Kerry more than anything; i wanted to be her first choice. What we were talking about prior to the defining moment, that I can’t recall, and what happened after is also lost in memory, but that one moment stands out clearly even after so much time. Kerry told me, apropos of nothing while we were sitting together in a field at the school, that Sherry was her best friend and I was only second-best. I can still feel the tightness you get in your chest when an emotional wound is mortal. I averted my eyes and looked down at my lap as I sat there with them and I thought to myself, “Your legs are so fat”. I knew then that my thighs were the source of my problem. If they were thinner, if I was thinner, I would have been the best friend. I wouldn’t have felt rejected, i wouldn’t have felt so much pain. If i was thinner, everything would be perfect. If I was thinner, things would be okay. In retrospect, I wished I’d said, “to hell with you” and stomped off, but bravery in the face of anticipated rejection is a hard thing.
I have met people over the course of my life who, once they learn I have an eating disorder, are eager to share the story of their own forays down that dark path. They talk about how they were bulimic one summer at camp when a group of them decided to throw up their dinner every day for a week, but once they got home, they were cured. The talk about how they used to be anorexic because once, for a month, they ate only fruit and lost 15 pounds but then they stopped, and they’ve been fine ever since.
I’ve encountered many people who, in an effort to commiserate, lay claim to a brief eating disorder. Implicit in their stories is the question why; why can’t I stop if they did? Believe me, if i could’ve stopped, i would have. If I could have changed my thought patterns so not every moment was an exercise in self-hatred and negative judgment, I would have.
Those conversations enrage me though I try to be understanding. The thing is, trying on some bad eating behaviours for a period and then abandoning them is not the same as having an eating disorder. When I broke up with my first love, I rebounded into alcohol and reckless behaviour. However, after a couple of months of getting drunk every weekend, of hangovers, an empty wallet, and a spotty memory, I’d had enough. I stopped. Drinking with reckless enthusiasm for a couple of months is not the same as having a serious problem with alcohol. Similarly, a few months of aberrant eating does not mean you have an eating disorder. For that, count yourself lucky.
Up until last week, I was 8 months sober. That means, for the last 8 months I have eaten relatively normally; three meals and a couple of snacks every day, no excessive exercising, minimal chemical purging, and no vomiting. This is the longest I have been abstinent in my active eating disorder behaviours since i was 19.
An eating disorder is hell. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But learning how to convey how soul destroying the disorder can be without alienating your audience by sharing the behaviours is a conundrum. Sharing has another problem as well. Eating disorders are like fight club and we don’t talk about fight club. It likes to strike back if you share. The blowback from opening up can be challenging and dangerous; the practices you engage in, while repulsive, strange, and obscene to those on the outside, are dire and deadly for those of us living here.
Sometimes I try to turn my experiences into funny anecdotes so I can share them. “Did I tell you about that time in college when I had to go to emergency because I’d turned orange? Apparently, it was because I’d been eating only carrots for a month. Turns out I’d developed vitamin A toxicity.” Sometimes I share the story about the first time i took an emetic, a chemical that makes you vomit. I misjudged the amount of time it would take to start working and ended up throwing up on myself repeatedly while driving down the freeway. Black humour and whistling in the dark.
An eating disorder is not a game. It’s starving yourself until you can’t sleep, until you can’t think, until you can’t do anything but wait for the next small allotment of food. It’s driving around in your car from fast food restaurant to fast food restaurant, spending $20 at a time and shoving the food down your throat so fast it has no taste, then vomiting until the blood vessels in your eyes burst. It is lying to everyone about your eating patterns, weight loss, and weight gain. It’s learning to shop at a variety of different food stores, so no one is aware of how much you’re buying. It’s lying to cashiers about this or that upcoming party, so they don’t question the cakes and ice cream. It’s exercising for 4 hours straight and still hating yourself for the flesh on your bones. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars spent on food you throw up, exercise equipment you abuse, and products to hide the evidence – air fresheners, breath mints, and garbage bags to secrete the evidence for later disposal when you throw up in your room.
It’s eating for an hour and throwing up for an hour, over and over for days on end until you pass out. It is vomiting ‘til there is blood coming up from your lacerated esophagus and seeping from the infected sores on your hands that are caused by your teeth as you force your fingers down your throat. It’s shoplifting laxatives, water pills, emetics, and mouthwash so that no one knows how much of them you use. It’s ulcers in your stomach, a devastated bone density, and teeth rotting and falling out. It’s knowing that you’re killing yourself and being desperate to stop but continuing the behaviour anyhow. It’s starving yourself for a month and then binging for three days straight. It’s suicidal thoughts and attempts. It’s praying for death because you can’t live in the hell your life has become.
What isn’t it? It isn’t a transitory thing you try on. It isn’t a crash diet. It’s doctors who don’t understand you, nurses who deride you, emergency room personnel who judge you, and ambulance drivers who think you are wasting their time. It’s a family you’re devastating and friends who beg you to get help because everyone is watching you kill yourself slowly and you want help, you do, but to accept it would mean you’d get fat, and that would make you just as much a failure as you already are.
It is hell.
But I’m back to being sober in my eating after falling off the wagon. The other side, all the underlying crap that drives the behaviour, that’s harder. I struggle every day with my body. I struggle to believe I have value if i’m not skeletal. I struggle to believe that people care about me; that they will like me even if i’m not perfect. I struggle with my voice, the one thing i want to learn to share. I want to be authentic; i want to say “to hell with you” to the people out there that judge, and criticize, and detract. I want to grow a thick skin. I want to be able to say I love myself, I’m happy with myself, I am an okay person, and believe it. But for now, I will take today and consider myself blessed.
(i wrote this for an online journal a few years back and recently re-encountered it, so i edited it some and am reposting it)