*This post may contain triggering content.
Anorexia Nervosa: “often simply called anorexia — is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.”
That is the definition according to Mayo Clinic.
To be completely honest, I don’t even know where to start with this one. I am almost 25 years old and unfortunately more than half of my life has been a battle with an eating disorder. Obviously, these days that battle is more like kids playing with styrofoam swords… it doesn’t really do much damage. But it wasn’t always that way.
I guess I’ll begin with… the beginning. The first time I remember being aware of my body was in fourth grade. I took dance lessons and while I was by no means “fat” I also wasn’t the thinnest girl in the class. Unfortunately, these girls also liked to point that out. I remember starting to question whether or not I was fat. I also distinctly remember my aunt giving me a lecture with a Barbie doll telling me that the body was disproportionate and anorexic (and at the time I didn’t know what that meant) but I knew enough to know it meant not eating and naive little eight-year-old Jackie, of course, said “I’ll never be anorexic!” Well… JOKE’S ON ME.
Fast forward a few years to the summer before high school when my mom sat me down for the first time to tell me “I think you have a problem.” I was thirteen at this point and had a flair for the dramatic so obviously, I stormed out of the room yelling that I absolutely did not have a problem. That was just the first of many times I fiercely denied having an eating disorder. And that’s the thing, for a long time I really didn’t think I did. Sure, I didn’t allow myself to eat “junk food” and pretty much only ate salads, but I wasn’t not eating. At that point, I still believed that to be anorexic you had to starve yourself. I didn’t realize just how complex it was.
Let me backtrack for a second and give you a brief description of myself in eighth grade. I weighed around 95-98 pounds, and I remember this because I weighed myself at least three times a day. (Yes, it was bad, I see that now.) Anyways, I had a friend tell me I was the most optimistic person she knew. I’m still wondering where that girl went… because that’s something I’m still working to get back to. I have some good memories of eighth grade. Like playing field hockey and jamming out to Hannah Montana before practice. I was the girl standing on the picnic table dancing and belting out the lyrics. Yup. I also remember running laps in my bedroom and then standing in front of the fan to cool down so that my parents didn’t know I was working out. I was a sneaky little shit… or at least I thought I was, I probably wasn’t.
I will be completely honest and tell you that high school in general, especially freshman year is quite a haze for me. There are some random memories that stick out here and there. Like how the comments about my body went from being about how I wasn’t the skinniest girl in the room to how you could count my ribs through my shirt. These comments were meant to help me, they came from a place of love, for the most part, but they fed me. These kept me going. Part of my problem was that the more weight I lost, the bigger I looked to myself when I looked in the mirror, so when someone told me I was too thin, I ate that shit up. No, the irony is not lost on me.
I was in and out of treatment throughout my freshman year, from intensive out care patient programs to eventual hospitalization. It took me until the morning I was being admitted to the hospital to realize I did in fact have a problem and that nobody could help me unless I wanted it. It came down to the choice of whether or not I wanted to live because the sad truth is that I was very quickly starving myself to death. Or I guess they could stick a feeding tube down my throat, but that would only solve half the problem.
Eating disorders are mostly mental, though the effects end up being physical as well. It’s really hard to explain an ED to someone who has never experienced it. Even my mom who was by my side through it all and has a great understanding, can’t even begin to truly know what it was like and sometimes still is like inside my head. My thoughts were consumed of what food I was eating, how many calories it was, what I might have to eat in the future and how I could burn it all off. It was exhausting to keep count of all of the calories while scheming to avoid my next meal without drawing attention to the fact that I wasn’t eating.
My therapist during all of this had a great analogy to attempt to explain how the mind of someone with disordered eating works. ED, aka “eating disorder”, was like that uncle that no one likes yet somehow manages to weasel his way into every holiday and get the last word. Uncle ED always manages to be in the back of your mind, feeding you thoughts of your worthlessness that encourage your disordered eating without you even realizing it. “You’re worthless and you should suffer.” “You don’t deserve to eat because you’re fat.” These were the thoughts sprinkled throughout my childhood until they became so loud and prominent it was all I could ever think about. It took me so long to realize I needed help and that while I couldn’t do it on my own, I needed to want to do it in order for any help to work. And no, it is not as simple as “just eating a burger.” When you are that underweight, the lack of body fat is so severe that the brain’s cushion of fat pads have deteriorated, making clear thinking and sound decision making nearly impossible. You literally cannot think straight.
A lot of people don’t understand eating disorders. They think you can just eat a burger and be over it. It is also not contagious… I remember in high school the mom of a friend of mine referred to my struggle as “the Jackie Vlahos disease.” I think it was along the lines of “you don’t want the Jackie Vlahos disease.” Like you can catch an eating disorder. Unless you’re actual skin and bones, no one will know you’re struggling unless you want them to. Or if they’re knowledgable and know the signs. But, for the most part, you wouldn’t necessarily know if someone is struggling or not. We hide it, and we hide it well.
Ten years ago I was declared to be “recovered.” Again, this isn’t really something that all of a sudden you are one day cured of. An eating disorder, even in recovery, is always a struggle. It’s a daily choice to continue fighting, though it’s a hell of a lot easier these days. Even ten years later, sitting down and writing this is not easy. Putting these words down on paper (or the internet) is so permanent. Sometimes I can forget that it all happened, but very rarely. I am no longer “that anorexic girl,” I am so much more than that. Yet in some ways, I still am “that anorexic girl.” Gone are the days where I could have fun with friends completely uninhibited. I may come across as someone without a care in the world, but this right here is the most vulnerable part of me. Typed up and published for all of you to read. Because this wasn’t just my reality, this is the reality of over ten million women and one million men in the US.
I feel like there is usually a “moral to the story,” but for now, I am sharing my story because for so long I didn’t. I kept it inside and only let those closest to me know the details. So many people struggle with disordered eating and probably think they are all alone (I know I did) because no one really talks about it. It’s a problem that needs to be talked about more, so this is me, contributing to that conversation. Whether you are struggling or a loved one is struggling, this doesn’t have to be your reality. There is hope for a better future. While it may not be perfect (what is?) it’s certainly a hell of a lot better than living in the grips of ED.