Do 100 jumping jacks. Jump on the scale. Do 200 jumping jacks. Jump on the scale. Do 500 jumping jacks. Jump on the scale. Cry. Now, rewind 5 months.
The human brain isn’t fully developed until we are about twenty-five years old. The average teenage girl has not matured her logic nor her ability to rationalize what is healthy or destructive to her body. I was this middle school girl who was unable to see the short and long-term destruction I was doing to my body and brain on a daily basis.
I was never one to be jealous of other body types when I was growing up. My parents raised me to be an active, healthy, fun-loving kid who loved to eat both vegetables and cookies. Ice cream sundaes were a norm in my family, but so was being active and exercising. I always had an appetite and didn’t think twice about my weight; after all, I was the furthest thing from overweight. However, one night when I was in 7th grade, I stepped on the scale to weigh myself. A switch flipped in my brain.
My middle school days suddenly became long, empty, and consumed by thoughts about food, exercise, and weight loss. I began to skip breakfast every day. By mid-afternoon each day, I had only eaten about 250 calories. I weighed myself three times a day: when I woke up, when I got home from school, and before I went to bed. The highlight of my days became getting home from school and being able weigh myself because I had eaten sub-500 calories so far and had burned at least 300 calories from after school sports. All my problems would be solved if I felt thin. I craved emptiness from dawn to dusk.
I would try to lose .5-1 lb a day. The math in my head: gain at most .5 lbs each day and lose 1-1.5 lb while I was sleeping. The goal by the end of each school week: lose 5 (or more) pounds. Before I knew it, I lost 30 pounds in a month. I hit my lowest weight over on May 17th, 2009: 109 lbs for a 5’7 figure.
Routine became crucial. I avoided social events and dinners with friends at all costs with the fear of facing a decision with food that required self-control. I went to bed at nine pm every night to lose at least a pound overnight. I stopped drinking water in fear of gaining water weight. I exercised uncontrollably. I had to exercise every day because my naïve middle school brain could not understand how I could put food into my body without gaining weight. After all, food is weight, so I automatically gain weight, right? Wrong. I was missing the information that your body burns up to 1500 calories from just sitting down and doing nothing throughout the course of a day.
I was addicted to playing games with my body. I tested my body by eating sweets to see if it could “handle it” and not gain weight. Sugar was my reward after a hard week of self control and discipline. Sunday night depression would set in as I would step on the scale and see that I gained two to three pounds in a weekend. Fortunately, I told myself, I had the week to become skinny again. I became obsessed with dropping weight because I loved the idea of being thin. I was a prisoner to my own mind. Some days I wanted to cry, yell, and scream at the future I predicted to be trapped in. However, other days, I felt strong, powerful, and invincible when I had control over my body. It was a vicious cycle with the scale that I was unable to escape for about two years.
An excerpt from a word document I wrote to myself in the summer after 8th grade:
“I mean, think of summer and all the bathing suit and picture opportunities. You don’t want to ruin those. The goal is to have all of your shorts fitting loosely on you. NO cookies NO cake for the whole week at least. You’re so much happier and better off when you’re skinny. Don’t fall for temptation. The food has really hit the limit and it needs to change. Read this before every lunch and meal. Please please I beg you to eat under 1000 calories every day.”
This was my alter ego speaking. The ego I wanted to so badly to get out of my head but couldn’t for five years. This was the ego that destroyed my body not only physically, but also mentally. I needed to change. Something else needed to happen. But I couldn’t tell anyone about it or else my rituals and routines would be discovered, leaving my mind and body exposed to the world around me.
During my freshman year in high school I gained about ten pounds on my own. I finally was starting to look healthier. I stopped weighing myself altogether, however my eating patterns during the week and weekend were still similar. Even though I looked better physically, things started to take a turn for the worse mentally. I became uncontrollably self-conscious, worried that people could notice if it looked like I had gained minimal weight in my face, stomach, legs, butt, you name it. I would avoid eye contact in all conversations because I was so worried that my face looked fat. I wasn’t social anymore because I thought people were judging me now that I had started to gain the weight back quite rapidly. My anxiety about my body and social interactions was through the roof. I didn’t even realize I was beginning to suffer from another mental illness.
Even though I was never diagnosed an anorexic or bulimic, I knew I had an eating disorder. After some research, I discovered that I had “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). Essentially I was showing the symptoms of anorexia but without the long-term and life threatening weight loss. It’s important for everyone to understand that you don’t have to look dangerously thin to have an eating disorder. What you don’t know is that your best friend sitting right next to you may be suffering from an OSFED and he or she needs your help. Eating disorders are not just a physical illness, they are a mental illness that can be easy disguisable.
The one thing I learned throughout my journey is the value of being aware of your body, what it needs, and how to treat it. I don’t restrict myself from anything I crave because I am still sick of restricting myself from food for four years. I’m an athlete who requires nourishment. I still feel obligated to exercise every day, but for a different reason. I exercise to relieve stress instead of to burn calories. I exercise because I want to, not because I have to. I eat because I want to, not because I have to.
As Rose Kennedy said, “It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” Eating disorders will never diminish from the depth of your mind, but they will become less powerful and threatening with the passing of time, experience, and maturity. My mind has protected its sanity by covering my eating disorder with scar tissue. The pain has been lessened but it will never be gone.
Fast-forward four hard years, thirty healthy pounds, and three therapists later. I have been diagnosed with generalized and social anxiety disorder but I embrace every bit of it. I use my mental instability to create new goals and challenges in every walk of life. I now take anti-anxiety medication and continually see a psychiatrist and I am proud to admit it. With a very particular and OCD way of thinking, it’s hard to get along with others and their personalities, but I’m working at it one step at a time. I can eat ice cream with my friends, I can hold a one on one conversation, but most importantly, I finally remember what it’s like to be me. Even if it took six years, I could not be happier to say that I conquered my eating disorder and am thankfully starting to live my life. I finally feel free.
I now look back at my old pictures and am stunned that I thought I was fat. It is incredibly hard to admit that those with eating disorders see through a different lens in life, one that no one else understands or looks through. It is our job to shrink these lenses by eliminating judgment, criticism, and comparison of all bodies. I look through a new lens now. A bigger, more realistic, loving lens. My legs are muscular and athletic, not big. My cheeks aren’t big, my face is just naturally round. And finally, my body is healthy, not fat. It’s been a long road of recovery; I’m far from what I once was but not yet what I’m going to be. Keep calm and learn to love yourself. You are so much stronger than you think.