February 25 - March 3rd is recognized as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Content may be distressing to some readers. Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, class, or location. Sharing stories fights stigma, increases awareness of signs and symptoms, and encourages those suffering to seek help.
All my life I thought something was wrong with me. From my earliest memories, my weight was the subject of conversation. When I was two — two! — my pediatrician asked my parents to put me on a diet. They refused, but I knew I needed fixing. I recall accidentally peeing my pants in nursery school, standing with one of the teachers, looking through cupboards for a pair of clean underwear. There were none big enough to fit me. I associate shame with that memory, not because of peeing, but because of being too big.
In elementary school, things got worse. Teasing was a daily event and I became my own worst enemy. I would compare myself to other girls, eyeing them on the high bars, their skinny bodies spinning. Oh, how I wished to have the freedom to move like they did. Even when I was happy, I thought about my weight. How many calories does laughter burn? Could I Bewitch this away, magic myself thin with a twitch of my nose?
There were good things about me. I was smart. I had friends. I liked my dance classes. But no matter how many positives I added in the plus column, the single negative of my size outweighed them all. Pun intended.
About age 10-11, something shifted. Call it hormones, call it physiology, call it chance. I hit a growth spurt, and as I lengthened, my fat began to disappear. Suddenly, my body was gaining an entirely different sort of attention. My ballet teacher praised me. My father suggested I could be a model. When the bullies tried to tease me, my friends came to my defense: “She’s not fat anymore!” My body — so long a source of weakness — now made me powerful.
By the time I hit seventh grade, thin was something I would literally give my life for. I began to purge, throwing up in secret after eating a meal or having dessert. I began a crazy cycle of restricting my food intake so much that my body, literally starving, would crave everything it could get its hands on. After stuffing myself, uncomfortable, disgusted, and terrified of weight gain, I’d puke.
Don’t try this at home. I am fifty years old, and I have been dealing with this disorder on and off for 38 years. You do not want this. You do not want the secrecy, the self-loathing, the selfishness, the obsessive thoughts, the destructive feelings. You do not want the fear of a ruptured esophagus or eroded teeth or an erratic heartbeat. You do not want to feel death is better than life.
This is what I know now that I wish I knew then. My body was never the problem. The real problem was that early in my life I didn’t feel like I could express my feelings safely. I didn’t feel like there was room for my feelings in my house. If I let my sadness, my fear, my anger out, I would never be able to live up to my father’s expectations. My mother, herself a compulsive eater, taught me how to manage my moods with food. Food, dieting, weight obsession — what a manageable distraction from those unruly emotions.
But what does it mean to not express yourself? It means you don’t have a lot of self-respect You judge yourself. You believe yourself unlovable. And since you are unlovable, you better hang on to the people you’ve got, because there isn’t going to be anyone else to save you. You will be abandoned. Better to make yourself disappear — stuff your feelings with every bite, flush them with every purge. Better to hide beneath layers of fat or shrink into nothingness than unleash sorrow enough to drown, rage enough to deafen, and fear enough to paralyze. Not only will your emotions drive you to madness, they will drive everyone you love away…
Believe me if you don’t believe yourself.
That voice of unlovability is the lie. This is a truth I remind myself everyday. One day at time. And the miracle is that after doing this long enough, I now believe it. The moments of self-doubt are shorter, the insane behavior with food looks almost “normal” (whatever that is!). And believe it or not, I am grateful for the place the disorder has brought me today. It has brought me empathy and compassion that I don’t think I would otherwise have. It has brought me insight and strength, resilience and courage.
Recovery is possible. The risk is worth it.