~trigger warning – eating disorders~
You got up this morning, stretched, and staggered into the kitchen. Depending on your preference, you waited impatiently for coffee or tea before getting started on your morning routine.
You showered, got dressed, and got ready to face the day, at work or at home. Maybe breakfast, maybe not.
Lunchtime rolled around and you were hungry so you grabbed some food. Perhaps you got a meal from a fast-food restaurant, perhaps you made yourself a sandwich. Mid-afternoon, 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 and maybe even a beer.
Once back home after an enjoyable evening, you did a few chores, watched some tv, grabbed another snack, and eventually headed off to bed. As you were brushing your teeth, you realized you didn’t get in any exercise, but shrugged, figuring you’d get to it tomorrow.
You didn’t count calories today: you didn’t give much thought to what you ate at all. You didn’t call yourself foul names for being lazy and skipping a workout, you didn’t drop to the bathroom floor to do pushups and it never once occurred to you to throw up your dinner.
You fell asleep without checking for protruding bones.
I haven’t had a day like that since I was eleven-years-old: that’s a long time to go without touching normal.
I remember the moment my eating disorder took over. I was an insecure and self-conscious young girl. I wanted to fit in and be popular, to not be the oddity I perceived myself as. I desperately needed approval from peers and adults; I needed people to tell me I was okay because I felt anything but. I’ve felt less than, inadequate, inferior, and not enough my whole life. I think it’s baked into my bones.
I found out my problems existed because I was fat near the end of grade five, though I’d already started to suspect. I was sitting in the school field with two friends, let’s call them Sherri and Terri. * I wanted to be best friends with Sherri more than anything; I wanted to be her first choice. I needed it. Being picked first would mean I wasn’t the fundamental failure I suspected. I would belong. I would be okay.
What we were talking about before and after the defining moment is lost to time, but the moment itself remains clear decades on. Sherri told me, apropos of nothing while we were all sitting together in the field after school, that Terri was her best friend and I was only second-best. I can still feel the tight chest of a mortal emotional wound. I looked down at my lap as I sat there trying to disappear and make the pain go away and thought to myself, “Your legs are 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. Then I wouldn’t feel rejected, wouldn’t feel pain. If I was thinner, things would be right.
I wish I’d said, “To hell with you” and stomped off, but bravery in the face of anticipated rejection is a hard thing and I didn’t know that I was enough, as is.
I’ve met many people, who, after learning about my eating disorders, are eager to share their own forays down that dark path. That they travelled only inches doesn’t distract from their self-bestowed expertise.
They talk about how they were bulimic one summer at camp when a group of them decided to throw up dinner for the week but were cured once they returned home. They talk about how they used to be anorexic because they ate only fruit and lost 15 pounds but then they stopped and they’ve been fine ever since.
Many people lay claim to a brief eating disorder in their attempts to commiserate. Implicit in their stories is the accusatory “why”: why can’t I stop when they did it so easily? I would have if I could. Having every moment be an exercise in self-hatred and negative judgment is hard. Unfortunately, I’d travelled rather more than inches before I started trying to change course.
I try to be understanding but conversations like the above end up making me angry. We’re not the same. Riding a horse on a trail ride on the weekend doesn’t make me a cowboy and a few months of aberrant eating doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder. Count yourself lucky you quit before it took.
Until last week, I was eight-months sober in my eating-disorder behaviour. Mostly. I’m eating in a fairly non-eating disordered way with three meals and a couple of snacks. There’s also been no excessive exercising and no vomiting. The “minimal” for chemical purging is why I call it “mostly sober” but my intestines are not yet functioning properly. This is the longest I’ve been abstinent from eating disorder behaviours since I was nineteen.
Eating disorders are hell. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. (It makes me a little proud to state that: that’s probably sad. It’s like being proud that my chronic pain, neuralgia, is one of the worst. Negative attention is not good attention!) I’m still trying to figure out how to describe its hellish and soul-destroying nature without being revoltingly graphic.
Sharing has consequences beyond weirdly-competitive commiseration. Eating disorders are like fight club: the first rule is we don’t talk about fight club. It strikes back if you share. The blowback from opening up can be challenging and dangerous: eating disorder practices, 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 I can share. “Did I tell you about turning orange? Apparently, eating only carrots for a month is a bad idea: I developed vitamin A toxicity.” Hilarious.
Or I share the story about the first time I took an emetic. I misjudged the amount of time it would take to start working and ended up vomiting on myself while driving on the freeway. Nothing says “funny” like a steering wheel and lap covered in puke. What I remember most is my weeping.
An eating disorder isn’t a game. It’s starving yourself until you can’t sleep, think, or do anything but wait for the next small food allotment. It’s driving from fast food restaurant to fast food restaurant and shoving the food down your throat so fast it has no taste, then vomiting in an alley until the blood vessels in your eyes burst. It’s learning to shop at different stores so no one is aware of your reality. 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 four hours straight and hating the flesh on your bones. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars spent on food you throw up, exercise equipment you abuse, and medications that help you purge.
It’s eating for an hour and throwing up for an hour, over and over for days on end until you pass out. It’s vomiting until blood drips from your lacerated esophagus and seeps from the infected sores on your hands caused by your teeth as you force your fingers down your throat. It’s shoplifting laxatives, water pills, emetics, and mouthwash because your habit is expensive and you’ve run out of money but you need. It’s ulcers in your stomach, a devastated bone density, and teeth that rot and fall out. It’s knowing 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.
It isn’t a transitory thing you try on. It isn’t a crash diet. It isn’t a game or a joke. It’s doctors who don’t understand you, nurses who deride you, emergency room personnel who judge you, and ambulance drivers who think you’re wasting their time. It’s a family you’re devastating and friends who beg you to get help because you’re killing yourself slowly. It’s wanting help but being too afraid to accept it because help means “fat” and that would leave you a failure.
I’m back to being sober in my eating after falling off the wagon the last week. Getting closer to sober with the thinking is harder especially since I was nowhere close yet. I’m action, not thought. I still struggle with my body. I struggle to believe I have value beyond the skeletal. I struggle to believe people care about me; that they like me even if I’m not perfect. I struggle with learning to be me. I want to say “to hell with you” to the people out there that judge, and criticize, and detract and I want to mean it.
But for now, I will take today and sober eating and consider myself blessed.
(December 3, 2015, revised September 14, 2018/January 2021)
*Sherri and Terri, The Simpsons.