It’s strange, but it’s widely accepted in our society that “You’ve lost weight!” is considered to be high praise. You could be ill, you could be on your deathbed, you could have a stomach bug that takes all the joy out of food and you could be shaky and weak, but damn it, if you’ve lost weight, you’ve done something right. And you are expected to take the compliment just like a kind appraisal of your new shoes; you are supposed to let the person know your secret, so that they too might drop a few pounds. Are you supposed to ignore the implication that you somehow looked less great before? That your extra weight was a fault? What if, through all that weight gain, you’d simply been trying to lose weight all along?
I am fifteen, and I have been living off of a daily regimen of a tall coffee frappuccino light, a fruit cup, four gallons of water, and half a cup of fat-free/no-sugar-added/taste-free vanilla ice cream. I run a mile a day and perform the “total body” circuit workout I pulled out of Seventeen, to the motivational beat of Kanye West’s “Workout Plan.” In September, I weigh 35 pounds less than I did in April, and when I return to school, stares follow me in the hallway, but I don’t know this until after I snap in October. All of the restriction falls by the wayside. I make up for lost eating time, and then some. I gain weight. A tremendous amount, in a tremendously short period of time. At five foot five, I weigh 200 pounds.
Four years later, when I am in treatment for binge eating disorder, I learn this is not an altogether rare phenomenon. The brain and body, literally starved, override any intentions for moderation and you binge. You cannot survive forever on little to no food. Yet while some anorexics turn to bulimia to keep everything “in balance,” I have never made myself throw up. I have simply gained.
I see the look some guys give me when I admit that I used to be much heavier. Maybe I imagine it, perhaps I’m projecting, but it usually seems that I lose stock in their eyes once the secret’s out that I’ll probably tend toward salad and won’t be partaking in their Sunday football pizza fests like one of the dudes. “Oh no,” they think, “she’s like a loaded bomb. A former fat girl can detonate at any time. All it takes is one slice of cake, and she balloons. It’s Oprah Syndrome. No woman, once fat, stays skinny forever.”
Almost, not quite. A piece of cake could send me reeling, especially if I’m stressed. I could reach for another, and then a few cookies, and maybe a scone from Starbucks I buy surreptitiously with my iced coffee, and then a stop at the grocery store where I throw in a bag of lettuce and a few apples to make the pint of ice cream and the package of tortillas look innocuous, and before I know it, I’m cruising.
“Cruising,” much like how frat guys bar hop to pick up dates, is when you enter a state of half-awareness, propelled solely by the search of food, almost driven mad by the need to eat, to feel better, to quell the anxiety building up in your throat. As if food will keep you together. It won’t, of course, because you cannot eat away an emptiness that is not hunger, and you will hate yourself through every bite. Sometimes, you’ll cry while you’re stuffing your face, and you have no idea why you keep moving your hand to your mouth, and yet this is the coping mechanism you’ve reverted to.
And I’ve been so good, you think to yourself. I’ve been so healthy, and working out every day, and watching what I eat — because most binges are not a free-for-all every second of every day. There is usually a significant amount of restriction going on, or at least intended restriction. You start the day with such good intentions: to only eat x amount of calories, to run y amount of miles, and then you’ll end up in z size jeans! It’s fool-proof math, and with all your fat percentages and heart rate calculations, you’re good at math. But, invariably, a wire can trip somewhere on any given day, and all of your intentions are shot to hell. Tomorrow is another day, you think. I might as well give in and binge now. Because it makes just as much sense to crash your car once you’ve slashed one tire, but that’s logic you’re unable to grasp in the moment.
There is always tomorrow, you think. Tomorrow, I’ll work on being skinny.
I am finally in treatment for binge eating. The therapist looks at my symptoms — she calls them symptoms even though that seems so clinical, because we are not allowed to call them “habits” or mention them in detail for fear that we might trigger somebody else in the room — and says, “You know, I think we should also work on your exercise addiction.”
They can’t take that away from me, I think. I also realize that such a thought is denial, resistance, and wholly indicative that yes, there is something wrong there. But I’ve been working out two hours a day to counter the binges. What would happen when I stop? The binges will take over and I’ll balloon even more. But you won’t be bingeing anymore, my therapist assures me.
How does she know? How is she so sure? I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.
“That’s the one thing holding you together, isn’t it?” my mother asks over the phone later. It is. Exercise is my crutch, a double edged sword.
Two years later, I run a half marathon, but not because I am still crazed enough to work out for two hours at a time. In fact, I finish in 2:08, which would have been a routine workout for me at my worst. I realize that because I was used to endurance workouts, training for a half marathon didn’t seem as daunting or time-consuming as other people might find it to be. Instead, I hobble off the finish line, find my friends, and we eat brunch. One mimosa goes straight to my head, and I gleefully order migas — tortilla chips and scrambled eggs and cheese, with beans and guacamole and extra chips on the side. This is not a binge, this is a celebration. I actually feel “normal,” whatever that is. A girl celebrating an atypically long run with food. Balancing it out. Going on with my day and my life. The brunch does not trigger any later symptoms. I do not cruise for food. I feel happy, and not just because of the runner’s high and the medal I’ve got swinging on my bag. Though I cannot have my cake and eat it, too, I have succeeded.
Yesterday, somebody asked me what I’d done to lose weight. “I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder,” I tell her, point-blank. I see the confusion. Wouldn’t that imply that you’ve gained weight? But I look nothing like the Girl With Eating Disorder that society has often pictured. I do not stare blankly out from under lank hair with hollow eyes. My legs aren’t sticks — far from it, mine have always been muscular, and they will always touch. I do not wear a size zero, and I never will. I don’t want to anymore, either, though I admit that once upon a time, that was my main goal in life.
I am still careful about what I eat, because I know that on days when I’m not in a great mindset, one slip can lead to an avalanche. There are foods that tend to trigger binges, and foods that don’t. I veer toward the latter most often, though on “bad days,” I find myself staring blankly in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, fighting with myself over the bag of granola I know I can eat in one sitting. But then I’ll need to buy milk to go with it, I think to myself, and suddenly buying two things instead of one seems too daunting, so I turn and leave the store. Most of the time. Sometimes, I falter. Sometimes, it’s hard to stay recovered, and I revert back to old ways. Sometimes, it takes a bender to realize that none of this is worth it.
Sometimes, I feel as if I failed at anorexia. I used to wonder what would have happened had I not snapped, but over time, that question became less important. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. What if? “What if you hadn’t spent seven years of your life trying to kill yourself?” a friend asks me. She, too, has been in recovery, yet we don’t talk about what individual tricks have worked for us because what helps one person get better might not help another. We are wary of giving each other false hope, and so instead, we simply talk about how strange it feels to be on the other side. Because it is strange to have devoted your whole life to one thing, only to realize that it’s not working. It isn’t sustainable. She is right, it’s a die trying sort of endeavor. Whether I meant to or not, actually “succeeding” at anorexia would have meant dying in the end, or at least being severely hospitalized, because there would have always been five more pounds to lose. That is not a journey I want to take anymore.