I was nine years old when I first felt the heaviness of my weight. I can’t tell you if I was aware of my weight before that moment at the pool during the summer of my 9th year but I can tell you that it was in that moment that I knew I wanted to be thin more than anything. I was often as the “thin” one as mothers selected the guest lists for their daughters’ birthday sleepovers. A way to identify me from my twin sister. The way they said ‘thin’ made it feel like an accomplishment; something my twin sister or my friends had been unable to do. At nine, your body is in pre-puberty so some of my friends had begun to show examples of this awkward stage. Pimples decorated our faces, our adult teeth stuck out of our mouths, and small breasts started to grow no matter how much we tried to conceal it. We were taking our seats and buckling up for the most difficult ride of our lives: puberty.
Most of us embraced it, the early bloomers especially. Some had already had their periods – something I’m still unable to grasp at 26 years old – they were the natural leaders of our friend groups and I was their loyal follower. Being the runt of not only my friend group but also out of my siblings had its advantages. I still had my stick-straight shape and a baby smooth complexion and this is how I became Slim Jim. I enjoyed the nickname that no one else had. In a world of early birds I was different and the adults around me made it seem okay.
The day it all changed happened in my safe haven. In the backyard swimming pool of my uncle’s home that resided on the most perfect slice of heaven you could dream of, Slim Jim was taken away from me and I desperately wanted to get it back. As I showed off my silly array of poses before diving in I declared “Here comes Slim Jim!” As I reached peak air I can recall so vividly the words “Jim isn’t so slim anymore.” As I reemerged from the water I was not the same girl that dove in. I was forever changed with the idea that I had lost my identity. My identity for so long has been slim that I would do anything in my power to achieve this name again. I would prove them wrong. I will be slim. I will win.
The problem with eating disorders isn’t the lack of food, which many might argue is one of the worst and most obvious symptoms, but the utter desolation that plants itself inside the soul. See, the key is to win over your brain demon. I call it a brain demon because it resided there in my deepest brain folds and still frequently visits, even now in my late twenties, when times get stressful. Like the Egyptians sacrificed for rain I would sacrifice for thin. The problem with this logic is that you aren’t allowed to include anyone in your focus. The more people you knew, the more you would have to fool and that was a layer of added exhaustion I wanted to avoid.
I remember when, in the sixth grade, I first did the “pencil” test. I stood in the mirror of my apartment complex’s gym and stared at the fat that clung to the empty shell that was once my body. I remembered thinking that as long as my thighs didn’t touch I was in control. As the pencil struggled to roll down my legs with ease the tears would fill my eyes and I would punish myself with 2 more hours of cardio. I will pass the pencil test, I hummed. Things got easier once I joined my middle school basketball team and I could add more cardio to my nightly routine. However, I had to begin skipping school lunches. Yes, this would be the answer: I would restrict and then burn off more fat. I would skip breakfast and lunch and skip in glee to my basketball practice. I was cheerful and accomplished as I rose to the top of my age group in endurance. I’d take my rightful place at the top of the pack as the clock counted down the final minutes of our ten lap run. BZZZZZZ, time for suicides. Back and forth, free throw line, 3 point line, half court line, I would finish the full court sprint tired, hungry, but successful in my quest for the ultimate dream: being thin.
My mom did the best she could. So far, my brain demon had stayed a secret and after practice she would offer to get us anything we wanted to eat. I wanted french fries as my body ached for carbs. I would binge but never throw up because I was not one of “those” girls who suffered from an eating disorder. I just had more discipline than the rest. Instead of throwing up I would often lie and tell my mom I wanted to go to the computer lab in the apartment office to mess around with AIM as my older sister occupied the phone line. I would now commit to the 2 hours of cardio that I perfectly planned out during my basketball practice. I was winning.
Years of cardio and won pencil tests kept me happy. That is until an unexpected illness occurred. I was 15 and my mind and body was a wounded survivor of the death of my grandmother. The woman who I would always watch reading when I was a young girl. The woman who couldn’t help but make a simple magazine craft anything less than perfect. My mom really tried to hold us together. However, as her own depression sucked her down, my brain demon went into overdrive. The one thing we didn’t expect was this surprise illness that nearly stole my life, but it made me thinner so it couldn’t have been that bad, right? Meningitis ravaged my insides. Bile built up in my stomach and sizzled until the morning I woke up. Days, weeks, hours unconscious in a state of vegetation. As a nurse, even my mom was unsure if I would survive. But I did. I first woke up after dreaming of my grandmother: a story I keep for my closest of friends. I was amazed at the size of my boobs from the IV fluids. I must admit, now as an adult, that it was the coolest thing to see me with a chest size I had tried so hard to destroy. I was reminded of the woman I wanted to be but couldn’t allow. I was in a haze and I still faintly remember the episode of Oprah playing in the background. When the doctor came in to run his tests he pushed wildly on my abdomen. I warned him it hurt. I warned him I might throw up. As I barely made it to the toilet to purge the illness from my body I remember so sharply the thought that crossed my mind. As my body constricted around the toilet and I heaved so violently that I lifted myself off the floor and blood vessels burst across my cheeks, I asked myself “How many pounds have I lost?”
Returning to school was supposed to be the hard part. My brain felt woozy but my doctor had cleared me to go back. I tried to put together my best outfit, and I returned to homeroom. When I got there I was rarely asked about my stay in the hospital, but more people commented on my weight loss. I obviously had lost a considerable amount of weight off of my taut frame from days without eating. I knew how much I had lost but it was my secret, my success, not theirs, and I would not share it with anyone else. After losing that much weight in a less than ideal fashion, my body rebelled at the new pant size I wore and worshipped. But that would not stop me. I would continue to wear this size, if not smaller, and nothing could get in my way.
My first time using dietetics I cannot actually remember. I do remember my dependency on Lasix and I guess that is more important to the story. I no longer played sports in high school as my demon wanted more time spent on my dirty little fixation. I also chased the idea of a boyfriend and enjoyed playing with the emotions of others to fulfill my time. I felt no emotions of my own as the thinness had zapped my ability to connect with anyone other than my brain demon. This is also the juncture where I only allowed myself one meal a day and before my demon could judge me, I concluded that I was a growing girl. To combat that one meal, I planned my nightly runs to be more intense and longer. I also knocked back the Lasix that sat in my mother’s bedroom, careful to never take so much from the bottle that it would notify her of my weight loss plan. I would consume my fries and Lasix and then let the demon consume my soul as my tired legs swelled and my soles ached, but I was unable to stop.
Eventually, by the time I reached 17 I hit a wall with Lasix. One wasn’t enough anymore and so I upped it to two. My period was so faint and far in between that I was riddled with anxiety over the possibility of pregnancy as I danced with the wrong kind of guy. On one night in particular, my exhaustion caught up to me and I hit a wall. Two Lasix wasn’t enough this weekend. I needed three for the mere fact I had not peed enough. I had not rid my body of enough fat and I was desperate for a third pill to fix to all of my problems that evening. Thirty minutes after choking down that fizzled Lasix my heart skipped a beat and I knew it had hit my system. I guess this would be the time to introduce the small fact that I have always had a congenital heart disorder. A small fact I chose to ignore. A small fact I had so deeply pushed down into my memory that after this third Lasix it burst back into my life. As my hands, feet, legs, and face felt fuzzy, I knew I had made a mistake. I passed out on the floor of my mother’s bathroom. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to get up and look at myself again. I choked out a weak cry for help. I finally had accepted that I couldn’t do it alone. As I lay there, fragile and weak, I yelled for help in an empty home. I was alone.
In some ways, I achieved what I had sought out for almost a decade. I had rightfully earned the title of “the thin one,” but I was blissfully unaware of the stigma attached to that success. I shrugged off the voices in my head that wanted to rationalize why I was being drug tested yet again at school. A test I would definitely not pass but the school officials wanted me to so badly. Punishment didn’t need to be handed down to me from a guidance counselor and I had something stronger than recreational drugs to keep me focused. Only my brain demon would punish me and most days it would do the most damage. At this point my mother refused to engage in this rollercoaster I tried to convince myself was a fun way to spend time. She refused to buy me size zero jeans and often remarked that it was Burger King or treatment. I could no longer hide it from those around me and that is when I started to lie. I lied to my mom that it was just a phase, and I lied to her about the number on the scale. She wanted 118 and I couldn’t give that to her. I had shared with her my sexual assault that I couldn’t get past. Something that, even if my brain demon went away, would always be there telling me to look different so it couldn’t happen again. If I just stayed thin than no one would want such a fragile body to take advantage of.
Leaving high school early gave me a new identity separate from the people I had known for so long and a new set of friends to fool. The second semester of my freshman year in college was a difficult one. I was in a class with a teacher who I adored but housed 20 of the meanest young adults you’d find in a 200 mile radius. They were all in the same club and for the 4 or 5 of us who did not share their same interest, we were outsiders. One of the turning points of owning my disorder came in the form of a science lesson in that same classroom. Calculating one’s BMI can be embarrassing and the number a very difficult thing to admit. However, I calculated that my BMI was under 17 and I couldn’t wait to win the project. As I a walked into the classroom, the professor wanted us to list on the board our BMI’s we calculated the night before. Column one: slightly above average, column two: average, column three: under average. Bing, I found my home on the board and cheerfully found my seat. As I sat perched in my seat with the proudest of postures I’d ever displayed, I waited as she worked her way through columns one and two. When she reached column three, there was only one entry: mine. When the professor stopped for a moment and put the chalk down, I was prepared to accept my lifetime achievement award, ready to talk about what I had done so right and all they had done so wrong. Instead, she pivoted, looked me in the eye and asked the class what a BMI that low would indicate. It was as if the entire class studied together the night before and in unison replied “anorexia.” I sought the stares of my two buddies across the table from me but even they had avoided my teary eyes. Horrified and embarrassed, I gathered my things and never returned to that classroom.
Somehow and someway I found myself less inclined to listen to my brain demon after that incident. Very soon after I found a young man that I adored. There was an immediate and intense connection that had me divulging my darkest and most corrupt actions throughout the night of our first date. A firm hug and kiss on my forehead reassured me that I was still human, that I could still feel, and that I could beat my disease. My mom was just as desperate to find me help and with the partnership of her doctor, who almost refused me as a patient due to my frail frame, I was held accountable. I could get better or not and die. I won’t say that over the last 8 years I haven’t struggled. When I first moved at the age of 23 to live with my now husband, I internalized the very rocky and lonely road I was now on. Without even thinking, I had lost 7 pounds in less than a few months. I assured my mother that I was okay even though I cringed at the thought of being more than 122 lbs. I felt a sense of failure, but it’s a failure that I am now able to accept a little easier as my body changes through my late twenties. Preparation for my wedding day was difficult as my clients at work asked if I would be dieting for my big moment in the perfect white dress. I easily laughed off their questions and assured myself there would be no dieting. I still run, and find it hard to eat more than one full meal a day. I graze which allows me more calorie intake in a day than I had ever experienced before. Before my honeymoon, I expressed to one of my dearest friends my fears of being away from a scale for more than 8 days, a comfort I have yet to let go.
However, I made it and I indulged. I let my body be loved by a man who had watched from the sidelines my illness that once caused so much isolation. He never tried to fix me, but only supported my choice to fix myself. I wonder now how different my life could have been if I had allowed myself to enjoy food. To allow myself to enjoy my life. To stop running well after 1 A.M. I won’t get those years back and the years ahead of me are uncertain. As a wife, the uncertainty of becoming a parent scares me. Will I be able to? Will I feed my child while incubating her in my body? Will a fall into old habits after delivery? My husband and I are open and often talk about our fears surrounding my demon. After intense premarital classes, I finally sought professional help regarding my future, something my husband openly expressed he wished I had done sooner. But I guess this was the missing piece of the puzzle. In my first session I finally gave a name to my brain demon, a name I had literally run from for so long. My exhaustion from over 16 years poured out of me as the stigma of the name no longer scared me, no longer weakened me.
We call it anorexia.