Her Story: Feeding My Disorder

The following piece was written in honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness week. For more information on Eating Disorder awareness and how to get involved, visit NEDA.

I am trying to remember how I got here in the first place. It seems as if my life could have run off in many directions, but now, looking back, there were corners, different turning points, almost too many— I cannot see where I started. I need perspective, a way to zoom out and find myself at the finish line of this maze. Then I can trace my little finger across my tentative drawn-in life, that line that wanders back to the “begin here” sign.

I would not say that my only reason for looking back on the progression of my eating disorder is my mother, but, as usual, she knew that this was something that I needed to do for myself, and prompted me to do it. So now I must reach back into my pool of memories, and draw out one of my first, most likely dripping with inconsistencies in my recall.

I was perhaps four of five years old, and I was playing on the wood floor of my mother’s room as she got ready. I remember watching her tuck her collared button down into her slacks, securing a belt into place. I lifted up my own yellow cotton shirt and stared down at my tummy’s flat surface.

“Mommy, how do you know if you’re fat?”

It was a silly, mundane question, but looking down I could not see a single sign, no flashing lights, no indicator. There was not even, as my imagination ran wild, a little pie chart showing the percent of how “typical” you were. All we had were stomachs: flat or round, saggy or toned, full or empty, heaving and tender, or warm and happy. But why, at such a young age, do I recall ruminating about it?

Another memory comes to mind. I was sixteen, a junior in high school. Before gym class, all the girls would have to change in the same locker room.  My friend and I had chosen the same locker section, and as close as we were, I would sometimes pretend to need to pee, changing in a toilet stall out of embarrassment. Or, I would slowly maneuver my sweater off while simultaneously slipping on my nike tee. As stealthy as I was, it was not until the second half of the year, after February break, that I finally changed completely in front of anyone. I had lost at least six or seven pounds at this point, and on this particular afternoon I had already avoided the smells of breakfast food and trashed most of my carrot and hummus dip lunch. When I reached my locker, without even thinking, I stripped off my tank and cardigan, rolled off my jeans and stood there, leaning into my locker for a couple seconds to find my gym socks. With only my light pink bra and tiny panties, I was startled when a little air from a fellow peer airing out her gym shirt reached my bare skin. I shivered, realizing how exposed I was. Flushed, I practically jumped into my shorts and tee, but I will never forget the fact that for a few fleeting moments, I was unconsciously, completely in love and confident with my figure.

My body, to me, is a sacred vessel now. It holds the home of my feelings, and it will bring me forward in lif—to meet new people, learn novel things, travel, experience, love, taste, and maybe even house another vessel or two. But I did not always view myself in this way. I was uncomfortable with nakedness and unnerved by obesity. The words of my school friends pelleted my mind until I let them in, because I was an adolescent, vulnerable to the ideas of others. I let them in when I wish I had the courage to lock the door and bury my mind in comforting blankets of self acceptance, pillows of self love.

They would say things like:

“You’re eating a bagel? That’s like eating four slices of bread.”

“I need to lose ten pounds for prom.”

“I haven’t had time to eat yet today.”

“I only had a yogurt this morning.”

“I’m going to skip lunch.”

And when I joined the crazy bandwagon, cut back on my desserts, threw away my breakfast costco muffins, counted my spoonfuls of spaghetti at dinner, I began to receive positive feedback.

They would say things like:

“You’re so skinny, I could snap you!”

“I wish I just couldn’t get hungry, like you.”

“You must be a size zero— wait no, double zero. Am I right?”

“God, how much do you weigh? Ninety pounds?”

“I can feel your hip bones!”

And, my favorite, because of its god awful irony and hypocrisy, “You are so healthy, Shannon! Let me eat like you for a day!”

Well let’s see what that would have looked like.

By the end of my junior year of high school, I would wait so long to get out of bed that I would be able to skip breakfast, take a slice of bread on the road that I could throw out, or I would just have to down a cup of vitamin-infused chocolate milk. For lunch, I would sip on a small cafeteria cappuccino, or nosh on four multigrain wheat thins dipped in hummus. In the afternoon, if my stomach begged for mercy, I would satiate myself with a 100 calorie granola bar. At the end of the school day, I would fill my time with meetings and clubs, keeping my resume strong with extracurriculars, and my time consumed to the point that I would not make it home until dinner time: a great way to avoid more snacks provided by my mother.

My parents began to notice and assess how to approach my eating disorder in August of 2011, six months after I had begun to restrict. I had already lost around sixteen pounds, dropping from a lean 115 pound teenager at 5’ 6”, to an emaciated 99 pound girl. I would get tired, trying to hide my naps at the end of the school day, or even avoiding the naps with a hot afternoon shower, the latter of which my mother found suspicious and odd. I would sit at my desk in my room, attempting to do homework as my stomach rumbled. I used the noises to feed my disease. I told myself that every time it hurt, my body was just burning fat, that I must have never needed this fat if my body could burn it so easily. I would look down and roll my shirt up, as I did when I was younger, looking at my tummy, seeing how flat it was getting, how my hips poked out a bit on either side, how even when I pushed out my stomach, I was still thin. I would stand in front of the mirror, to the side, placing my hands on my hips and then sliding them out into the air, seeing just how much space was in between. I would hop on the scale in my parent’s room when they were not home, making sure the number went down each time, and if it didn’t, which was rare, I would just restrict even more. No soda, only orange juice and water. Then no juice, just water. No desserts, just fiber one brownies. Then no brownies, just apples.

My bras no longer fit, I would pin them on and feel my breasts touching only the bottom half of the fabric, the rest of the cup filled with air. I was nervous to ask for new bras, to draw attention to myself. I was nervous that someone would lean into me by accident in the hallway and feel a cup deflate on impact. I convinced myself that it was a whole lot better to be thin with no boobs, then to bulge at my stomach, have my thighs chafe together, all for these cups to be filled to the brim, for my tank tops to finally reveal cleavage.

“Who was cleavage for anyway?” I thought.

That is not to say that I ever despised or judged others who had larger torsos than my own. On the contrary, I admired them. These were people who could take a bite of pizza and not spit it back into their napkin quietly while pretending to cough. These other girls, my friends, could talk about diets, but none of them seemed to take it to my disordered extreme, and that made them strong to me, not weak. It made them intelligent, thoughtful, healthy. While I was torturing my body—taste buds to digestive tract, brittle bones to poor circulation and low blood pressure.

I lost my period for the first time the August before my Senior year of high school. That was the month my parents intervened. I started weekly out-patient intervention, meeting with multiple therapists, nutritionists, and adolescent medicine doctors. I had become a patient due to my own victimization. I had bullied myself into having an eating disorder.

The other day my mother asked why all this is so hard for me. I could not answer without looking back at where I started, what my habits were, and how I began thinking. I could not begin to form an answer about why it is so difficult for me to turn every corner in my maze, because I could not see my maze from a bird’s eye view. Back then, I thought I was in control of my life, with every meal I decided to eat or not; I felt in charge of my body. On the day that my parents intervened, they dragged me by the wrists to get into the car to go to the doctor’s office. Tears ran in striking lines down my strained face, and I wailed, frightening my dog. I was so distressed in realizing that I was no longer in control, that I frightened an animal.

It’s been over four years, and I have gained back all the weight, and then some for good measure (and to compensate for the fact that I am now almost a twenty-one year old adult, not a sixteen year old lanky teenager). But I wake up every day ruminating about if I will have time for breakfast, and I go to bed every night having to remind myself that, regardless of whether or not I am going to be hungry tomorrow, I must eat at least three meals a day, with snacks in between. I often feel bloated, guilty, and my cranky mood can affect those around me. Because although I am healthy physically, I am no longer whole. I have wounded myself and on the outside it may have healed, with time and the efforts of those who love me unconditionally. But on the inside, my body remembers the way I hurt myself, and it cannot forgive me.

I try to surround myself with love in every way I can. I get involved in activities that are rewarding, I work hard at my studies to feel confident about my intelligence, and I keep friends that are positive beams of hope in my life. But mom, I have to try to do these things. And nothing comes easy. You’re right, this is hard for me, and there is no other way for me to explain it, except that this is who I am.

30 million Americans will suffer from eating disorders at some point in their lifetime, 95% of which are between the ages of 12 and 25. Anorexia is the most fatal mental issue, as most people are unable to get sufficient help. The government does not designate much funding towards ED research, and most health insurances fail to to cover ED related care. If you or your friends seem to be at risk, please contact BU Student Health Services today.