Eating and exercise has always been an enigma to me. Growing up, I saw how my mother would exercise fervently and eat extremely healthy. I also saw the opposite on both spectrums with my father. When I was around 13, I didn’t think twice about eating and exercise. I ate exactly what I wanted, as much as I wanted, when I wanted, and never exercised unless forced to in gym class. My genetics made for a quite chubby kid but I didn’t care. I did what I wanted and found joy in activities that didn’t have anything to do with weight or looks.
Everything changed when my oldest brother got engaged. I was one of nine bridesmaids, and I was also the youngest at age 14. A few months before the wedding, I went in for a dress fitting and found that based on the designer’s measurements, I was a size *. My mother and I looked at that for a second with a tinge of awe. Apparently, I was in * now, at age 14. At that moment, I cemented it in my mind that this size was unacceptable. My mother and I talked about it, and decided that going on a healthy diet before the wedding might be a good idea. It was the first time that I attached my weight and size with my self-worth.
That semester, I was a lot more careful about my portions. I made small steps, and tried to go for jogs around the neighborhood as often as I could. My brother even ran with me as much as possible to give me tips and suggest how I could keep my stamina up. By the time his wedding came around, I had dropped about * pounds and needed to have my dress brought in * sizes because of the weight loss. I felt proud of myself, and excited for the wedding.
The wedding day brought on entirely different feelings. Of the nine bridesmaids, I was the youngest, largest (besides the pregnant maid of honor), and palest. Every other bridesmaid had gleaming, golden skin, and I felt pink, freckly, and far below the standard of beauty at this gathering. I felt enormous and disgusting, and beside me were eight beautiful, tiny, Barbie dolls. The entire night I felt humiliated and embarrassed. On top of that, as my brother was walking with his bride to the limo to take them to their honeymoon flight, I felt a complete sense of abandonment. My oldest brother wasn’t just married, he had left our family to create his own. Family vacations would never be the same, nor would holidays. Everything struck me at once, and it was a bit too much for me to handle.
After the wedding, I began obsessing about losing more weight. My doctor informed me that my weight was very normal for a girl my age and height, but I didn’t want to be “normal” anymore, I needed to be extraordinary – just like those other bridesmaids. This is when things started to shift. Instead of just being careful about portions, I determined what foods were ‘allowed’ and ‘bad’. I stuck to a routine of eating oatmeal for breakfast, a healthy sandwich and salad for lunch, and a half portion of what my mom would serve me for dinner in the evening. If I felt starved, I would have an apple for a snack. Behaving in this way allowed me to take my mind off of the things that were bothering me; instead of dwelling on sad things, my brain’s energy would be completely entrenched in thoughts of weight loss, calories, and exercise. It was the perfect equation for escapism.
After about a month, I had lost another * pounds. People were praising the difference in my looks, and I felt the difference too. Clothes started feeling and looking better on me. I started wearing makeup and was getting attention from boys at school. A whole different world opened up to me – something I never even considered or realized was there before. New thoughts began to pop into my mind. “Do I really need to eat breakfast? I feel fine without it until lunch.” “Why do I need a sandwich at lunch? I feel completely full after having the salad.” Before long, I was chopping away more and more calories from my daily diet. I wanted, no, needed to lose more weight to feel totally “complete” in the end. My goal went from *lbs. to *lbs. at my 5’4’’ stature.
I begged and begged my mother to get me an elliptical machine for the house. The Texas heat was getting to me and I knew as summer approached it would be unbearable to walk or run outside for exercise. Finally, after days and days of arguing, she gave in, under the circumstance that I would use my personal savings to buy the elliptical machine. It would be my own decision, using my own money. The next day, I bought one. The euphoria I felt knowing the elliptical was getting shipped to the house outweighed anything I had felt that month. My mind was drenched and pigeon-holed into only thinking of my body. After months of dieting and exercise, it was all my mind would ever drift off to. Rather than thinking of my parents’ divorce, my brothers one by one leaving, or my mother’s new boyfriend living in the house with us, all I needed to do was, simply, think of my weight. It felt better to me that way.
As soon as the elliptical was at the house, the rigidity began. My daily diet turned into * and *. Instead of eating with friends at lunch in the cafeteria, I would spend my lunch break either sitting in the library reading a book or making laps around the school. I was tired of being asked questions about why I wasn’t eating, and this felt like the most efficient use of time instead. When I got home from my classes, I would immediately go to the garage, hop on the elliptical, and start watching a show that was available using my laptop on the reading-ledge. I vividly remember one night watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’, not even concerned with the dance but mesmerized and entranced by how fit, toned, and thin the female dancing partners were. I need to look like that, I would think, while pedaling away. I’ll be happy once I look like that. Soon after, I remember my brother having a friend over and hearing him say from the other room, “Dude, when did your sister get hot?” It sent a spark through my nervous system. It was the first time someone had ever called me that, and it fueled my desire to continue losing weight even more.
One day, I was extremely irritable when I got home. My mother told me she wouldn’t allow me to bring the elliptical into the living room so I could watch TV on the cable television. She thought it would take up too much space and would be randomly placed and ugly for people to see when they came over. I was vehemently manic about bringing the elliptical inside. If she wasn’t going to help me, I was going to bring it in myself. Looking back on it now, it felt as if my brain was hi-jacked. I went into the garage and started dragging the elliptical inside. My mother told me to stop, but I didn’t. Somehow, my *-pound adrenaline-filled frame was able to drag a piece of machinery that was more than double my weight through the garage door and into my living room.
My mother didn’t know what to do. It was very apparent that this was extremely important to me, as I had dragged this heavy piece of machinery into the house myself. She let it slide. Now that I was in the house, with cable television, the only station I turned to was the food channel. I was OBSESSED with the food channel; it was all I ever watched. It was as if by watching these chefs make these delicious gourmet meals, I was almost feeding myself – yet burning calories on the elliptical. My diet continued to be * and *. I was sneaky with the way I talked with my mom, as it wasn’t typical of us to have family dinners anyway. “Are you not eating?” “I had a huuuge lunch then got snacks with Lauren after school.” “Is that your breakfast?” “Yeah, but I always grab something at the cafeteria before first period.” These were lies, but they were believable. I was losing weight, but there wasn’t much that could be said or done.
Every time I refused a meal, a snack, or even a cookie at a random club meeting, I felt powerful. The less I ate and the more I exercised, the more proud I felt of myself. I was “improving” myself. While everything else in my life was changing and going to shit, at least this – at least this – was going well. Although I didn’t have control of hardly anything that was going on in my life, I felt that how much weight I was losing was under my jurisdiction – no one else’s. Look how fucking strong I am, I would think. Ironically, I grew weaker each day.
Life became a numb routine. At night, after a full day’s worth of dieting, exercising, and sit-ups, I would lay in bed pulling my hair out. I was able to pull an extremely large amount of strands from my scalp with each run through my hair. As incredibly strange as this sounds, I would make a pile next to my bed and glorify in how unhealthy my body had become. I’m destroying myself to become beautiful, I would think with a smile. It was a pleasurable experience to see how much hair would pile up. My hair grew thinner and thinner as time went on. Before I fell asleep, I would flush the pile down the toilet.
Each morning I woke up weaker. It became a huge task to get out of my bed. My brain was incapable of thinking about anything besides my body, weight, food, and exercise. I had lost all of my friends by this point, and did nothing but go to school, exercise, watch the food network, and do homework. One night my mom came into my room with a plate full of freshly cooked dinner, and placed it in front of me. I had been refusing to come out to dinner with her and her boyfriend for some time, so she had brought it to me instead. How dare she? I thought, as the aromas of the food filled my consciousness. I was so hungry. I told her no. That fucking bitch! “I’m not hungry. Take it away,” I told her. “Julie, you have to eat.” She replied with desperation. “I. don’t. want. it,” I retorted. “Eat it, Julianne.” In a flash of anger and emotion, I balled the food in my hand and threw it at her. “GO AWAY,” I screamed, hurriedly picking up more food from the plate to launch at her. “I DON’T WANT IT.” Hopelessly, my mother blocked the food with the door, then closed it. I went to bed soon after, and when I woke up, she had cleaned the mess and the plate was gone.
Look how fucking strong I am.
The summer was approaching, and with it, my flight to Wisconsin to visit my father for a month. I wasn’t too worried about leaving friends, as I hardly spent time with anyone since my obsessive dieting and exercising had began. Upon arriving, I knew I had some strategizing to do. Family dinners were very common at my dad and stepmom’s, especially with company, so I decided that rather than spacing out my calories, I would have all of them during dinnertime. I put on the pretense that I was now vegetarian, which kept me from having to eat the meat they served. While my dad and stepmom were at work, I would walk. From the time I woke up to the time the sun set, I would walk around the town. Crossing busy streets, shopping malls, and forest paths, it was always a treat for me if I stopped at a restaurant during my walks to sit and have a Diet Coke. If I had the opportunity to tell my parents I had already eaten when they got home, I would. Otherwise, during family meals, I would pick at my plate and move food around in order to make it look like I had eaten more.
I spent my free time looking up “thin-spiration” blogs and pro-ana sites on the Internet, and studied how to stay standing during the worst times of my sickness. During that month, I reached my lowest weight; having lost over * lbs. since the start. My new goal was * pounds. Each night, I did my * sit-ups and * crunches. I dreaded them every day, but I knew I could go right to sleep after. My bedtime would typically be around 8pm, as my evening hunger would drive me to either eat or sleep; and I always chose the latter.
I remember one day, before my walk, I was staring at all the food in the refrigerator. I had a habit of this. Whenever I was at anyone’s house, I would open their pantry or refrigerator and look at their food – without eating any of it. It was one of those strange quirks of my sickness and it was impossible to deny myself of it. On this particular day in Wisconsin, I was looking in the fridge, and spotted a jar of pickles. I was starving. I tentatively grabbed the jar and read the Nutrition Facts. * pickles equaled * calories. I ate *. I immediately looked up on my computer how many times I would have to go up the stairs to burn that amount. It told me * times, so that is what I did. While walking up and down the flight of stairs * times, a moment of clarity struck. Something isn’t right here, I thought, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come.
It was time for my yearly physical, and my dad, being a physician, decided he would send me to someone in Wisconsin that he knew about and trusted. I obliged, not really thinking about how much that visit would challenge my current lifestyle. It went as normally as it could, but when we were about finished up, he told me he needed to speak with my father outside and asked me to stay seated in the examination room. During the physical, he had asked me questions and I had answered them honestly; changes in weight, appetite, mood, and menstrual cycle. My period had stopped, but in my sick-mind, I had only seen it as a further accomplishment (after all, the thin-spo blogs told me it was!) Leaving the office, my father told me that the doctor had diagnosed me with anorexia-nervosa.
It hurt to wake up. It hurt to stand. My mind was blurry and I couldn’t concentrate on anything for longer than a few seconds before returning to thoughts of food and my body. I had tunnel-vision, and the only thing I could see was my reflection. Upon leaving Wisconsin, my father made me promise that I would start eating better again. I smiled and said, “Of course.”
Once back home, that promise was out the door. However, my mother was more on my back than ever with the recent news of my diagnosis. She recruited me to help her with her school summer camp, thinking it would redirect my mind, but my personality was gone. I was a ghost in the classroom – unable to play and be joyful at all with the children. I would either stand, watching the children, or eye what the other teachers were eating for lunch.She’s eating Chick-fil-a without a care in the world. Does she realize how fucking lucky she is to be eating that? Without exaggeration, I believe I went to the bathroom at least once every * minutes just to look at my stomach in the mirror. That’s all. Just to make sure it hadn’t changed since the last * minutes. I was incapable of stopping myself. If I was in front of a mirror alone, I was looking at my stomach.
Slowly but surely, I realized how miserable my life has become. I couldn’t think straight. I was living in a fog where all that mattered was the number on the scale. One day, I asked myself if I really wanted to live the rest of my life like this, and my complete and honest answer was no. I wanted to be “normal” again, whatever that meant. I called my father, and told him I needed help. I was incapable of doing this on my own. He told me he would immediately get me to the doctor again for another check up, and see what they recommended. In the exam room, I received an EKG. Upon reviewing the results, the doctor notified my father and mother that my heart was ‘murmuring’ due to the weight loss and nutrition deficiency. That night, I was involuntarily put in an inpatient psychiatric unit for teenagers with anorexia-nervosa. I was extremely hesitant, but tried to be optimistic; thinking that, perhaps, they could help.
I hated the program. I hated the required food. I hated the supplemental milkshake they gave you if you refused to eat the food. By the end of the first day, I realized I was in my own extreme version of hell. I was signed into a boot camp to make me fat. We had schedule cards, and while those who followed the program got check marks, I was getting an ‘X’ on every time slot. This is such a waste of time and money, I thought. I need to get out of here. I was the rebel of the group, and refused to back down. I needed out of this fat camp and pulled all the cards. I called my father every day crying and told him how this place wasn’t helping me and that he was wasting his money. I wasn’t following the program nor would I ever. After a week, once we were given the clear from the EKG doctors that my heart was functioning normally again, I got my way. I had to sign a “contract” saying that I would continue to practice a program of recovery, and I did, while using my years of theatrical experience to convince the doctors that I was all for it.
Finally, I was home and back to my * pound goal – and excited about it. The night I got home from the hospital, I had a nice dinner with my mother, showing her that I would stay true to my word. My hi-jacked, anorexic mind had other plans. I knew I was required to see a therapist every week upon my discharge from the unit, but I didn’t think twice about it; I would trick her just like I had with everyone else… and this is where Dr. Melody Moore entered my life.
“If we find that you have lost any weight, even two pounds, you will be sent straight back to the psychiatric unit.” This was one of the opening sentences spoken to me during my first visit with my therapist, Dr. Moore. She had a PhD with a specialization in eating disorders, and she was serious business. She knew all the tricks of the trade, so there was no blind-siding her. It was the most difficult time of my life; surrendering to the fact that Iwould not reach my *-pound goal and forcing myself to eat and maintain my current weight. It was so disconcerting to go completely against what I had been routinely practicing for almost a year prior.
Weeks went by, then months. I returned to Dr. Melody Moore every week and secretly, without my noticing, I was getting better. This is where my passion for Counseling Psychology began, and why I am now pursuing this field for my Master’s degree. Melody allowed me to see how my mind’s automatic reactions set me up for failure. She taught me tools and affirmations to practice every day, and listened attentively to me when I explained all the darkest parts of myself. Vulnerability, on my part, was the answer. I began to see how my anorexia was a way for me to cope with how uncontrollable my life had become. It was a way to simplify; to block out those things that I was incapable of dealing with at the time.
I stayed with Dr. Moore for about two more years, and have had my fair share of therapists since that time. As my first note details, I continued to struggle with other difficulties that kept my mind off the present moment and what was happening in reality. Recovering from my eating disorder wasn’t easy. When I returned to school, almost directly after the hospital, my choir teacher came up to me in the privacy after class and asked me, “Julianne, are you doing okay? You’ve lost an extremely large amount of weight since last year and I’m worried about you.” Rationally, this isn’t something good to hear. However, in my anorexic mind, I was celebrating. I’ve lost so much weight, I’m being worried about?! In times like those in my recovery, I needed to cut off the anorexic dialogue going on in my mind before it took over.
I am, by nature, an escapist. It is something I continually give into, and yet beat myself up about when I lose myself in it for too long. After nine years, I am happy to say that I do feel that I am a “recovered” anorexic. After stating that, I’ve conversed with some young teens at the psychiatric unit I work at who look at me, astonished, asking, “but… how?” All I can simply say is that it takes time (lots of time), an experienced therapist, medication (at least in my case), and an incredible amount of courage. I still have days where I have to restrain myself from looking at thin-spiration blogs on tumblr. I still have days where I ask myself if it’s really necessary for me to have breakfast or take a day off from my exercise routine. What it comes down to, essentially, is choosing the path that leads to a more mentally, emotionally, and (most pertinent to this situation) physically happier Julianne. I would take being a ‘medium-sized’ girl any day compared to being a starving, ghostly, personality-ridden thin girl. It’s just not what my body nor genetics has in store for my frame or weight.
What all of this comes down to, is balance. It is one of the most simplest concepts to understand, and yet for someone like me, the most difficult lifestyles to pursue. My automatic mode of thinking is black or white; all or nothing. That middle ground is ambiguous and scary. In all that I do, I now try to strive for this balance, and the struggles and experiences I’ve had up to this point have only been lessons to teach me how to reach this goal. On most days, I do not regret my past or pre-dispositions, I only try to utilize them in a way that will benefit the most people I come in contact with that may have the same tribulations. It would not only be my honor, but life path, to help those who have had similar struggles as me, especially in the young adult realm. To be able to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or substance abuse would be the most fulfilling accomplishment and soul-feeding opportunity of my life.