By the time I was two years into my eating disorder, I had gotten used to having total control over certain things. Every night, right before I took my pill, I would record that day’s calories and weight in a note on my phone. I always took great pains to keep my phone hidden from my boyfriend, which I’m sure eventually made him suspicious. Take note, because maybe your significant other isn’t having an affair after all—they just don’t want you to know exactly how much of their time they spend looking up calorie counts or calculating their weight down to the decimal point.
By the time I met my boyfriend I had already been in and out of one hospital and a few outpatient treatment programs, but no longer bore the emaciated appearance of a stereotypical anorectic. I was able to get away with being “naturally skinny.” I had already had a few awkward encounters with friends who had tried to “cure” me, and I didn’t want this power struggle to be a part of my new relationship. So I played up my focus on health and my fast metabolism as much as I could. I pretended to enjoy things like kale and yoga. When he suggested that we have fruit smoothies together, I pasted a smile on my face, chugged my 32-ounce blend down, and soon after excused myself to perform a two-hour session on the elliptical that he still remains blissfully unaware of.
We dated for five months before he confronted me. He made comments about my appearance, sometimes, but it didn’t seem like he was seriously concerned. He was often away on business trips, and whenever he returned I was a little bit thinner. If he brought it up, I would claim stress, or loss of appetite, or natural weight changes. “People, women especially, often experience fluctuations in weight,” I’d say. “Except your weight only seems to fluctuate down,” he would reply, but then drop the subject.
Whenever we were together, I made sure to eat a lot so as to throw his suspicions off. I would fast the entire day and then eat a normal dinner with him. He would look at the plate I had just cleared, and my innocent face—Your girlfriend definitely DOES NOT have an eating disorder, it said—and seem a little bit reassured.
I kept losing weight though, and when someone sees you naked that much, soon enough they’re going to start noticing.
I finally told him the truth about my eating disorder—not in a calm and collected manner, but during a screaming fight. I don’t remember what the fight was about but I do remember sobbing and saying “I hate you” over and over again, until I wasn’t even sure what I meant by it. I was probably trying to say something entirely different with those three words, but all he heard was that I hated him.
Actually I do remember what the fight was about. It was his first night back in the country after travelling for two weeks—during which I had lost seven more pounds. When I came to pick him up at the airport, the first thing he seemed to notice was the way my smallest jeans had begun to bag. He didn’t say anything at the time, but later that night, he told me to get on the scale. I refused and we started going back and forth. I spat at him that he was a control freak; he told me he knew I had a problem, he just wouldn’t know how serious it was until I got on the scale.
I felt trapped, suffocated. “What do you want to do, force me back into the hospital?” I shouted. “What do you mean, ‘back’?” he said, his expression changing.
I had no choice but to tell him.
He reacted the exact way I had always been afraid of. He told me he’d had his suspicions all along but now they were confirmed. He demanded that I gain weight, at least to a healthy number, and that I stop obsessively looking up calorie counts during our meals together (turns out he did know what I was doing on my phone after all). I cried and cried. I told him he was making me feel like I was back in the hospital again.
He pointed out that unlike the doctors, he couldn’t keep me here. I could leave anytime. “But I refuse to date someone who is slowly killing herself.”
I cried some more and eventually gave in. Over the next few months I forced food down my throat, eating things like chocolate and nuts and avocados. I climbed up to a normal weight. Until could no longer wrap my hands around certain places on certain limbs, could no longer see parts of my skeleton that had been visible for what seemed like forever. Every time he saw me he told me that he loved my new body, that I looked so much stronger and healthier. And then he would ask me if I was happy with my appearance. At first I had to lie and look away from the mirror, knowing that I would burst into tears if I saw the places where my bones no longer poked through.
Eventually, though, I realized I wasn’t really lying anymore. I had to throw away my beloved old jeans, but there were a few perks to my higher weight, which I ran over in my head whenever I was feeling bad about it. I wasn’t constantly cold, I no longer got sick all the time, I was much stronger. For once I just wanted to be a normal girl with a normal relationship, who no longer had to quickly tuck her phone away whenever her boyfriend came into the room. Another thing: now, whenever he looked at me, there was no longer that old shadow of worry in his expression. That same look had been constant in my parents’ eyes over the past two years, and I realized I was sick of it. I realized I valued my relationship with my boyfriend over my relationship with my eating disorder. (And I’d once thought I could never love anything more than it, that it would be all I needed, forever.)
Maybe I can never be “cured.” Maybe I will never be able to look in the mirror and totally, completely love what I see. But that doesn’t mean I have to hate it, either; it doesn’t mean I have to end up like some of the women I met in inpatient—fifty-year-olds who had been doing the same thing for decades, cycling in and out of hospitals and treatment programs, coming back every time because they couldn’t get better.
One thing my boyfriend said to me, many times: “I don’t want you to be doing this just for me. I want you to do it for yourself. Even if we break up tomorrow, I want you to promise me you won’t go back to the way you were.”
I’ve heard it said that you must learn to love yourself before you can love someone else. But what if it takes someone else loving you for you to realize that you do, in fact, deserve this love? My boyfriend achieved what a forced hospitalization and several outpatient programs could not: he made me realize that I was a person who was capable of far more than just being thin, and that I no longer had to torture myself to be thought worthy of love.