A Thank You Letter, Written Too Late, To The Woman Who Saved Me From My Eating Disorder

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Inherently, there are a lot of numbers that come with eating disorders.

Number of pounds is an obvious one – lost or gained, both of them are tracked. The number of beats your damaged heart is able to make. The seemingly insurmountable number of calories you’re supposed to consume. The miniscule number of calories you actually consume. The number of times you complain about being cold – can someone please turn up the heat, you ask from beneath a mountain of blankets, even though it is 70 degrees outside on a sunny July day. The number of doctors’ appointments you have in a day. The number of days since this all started.

For the lucky ones, there’s also the number of days, or months, or even years, since it all ended.

“Ended” though, is a relative term. Awfully subjective. I come from the school of thought that eating disorders never truly end, in a traditional sense. Once you have an eating disorder, you never truly “get over” it. You never truly “cure” it. You are constantly relearning, rebuilding, and recovering. Eating disorders are a lifelong battle, a battle against the little voice in your head that never quite goes away. The little voice in your head is perpetually there, etched into your being, for the rest of your days.

For me? It’s been ten years since that voice first wormed its way into my life. It’s been nine years since that voice almost killed me.

Over those nine years, that voice has gotten quieter. It no longer resembles a horrified screech that would panic at the sight of the cream cheese and jelly bagels my childhood nanny would ask me to eat, on doctor’s orders, after school. I don’t hear the voice relentlessly drilling into my head that I had to run farther, run longer, around the East Side of Providence like I used to, even after I had just run four miles at track practice. It doesn’t lie to me anymore, promising me that I was doing this for the “right” reasons – to be pretty, to be thin, to simply be enough.

That’s not to say it is extinguished, though. Like I said, it never truly leaves you. To say I don’t hear it everyday would be a lie. It faintly echoes sometimes, wondering almost innocently if I should maybe try going to the gym and getting on the elliptical again – your regularly attended yoga practice isn’t “enough.” Almost harmlessly, it asks if I should really be getting a skim caramel macchiato on the way to class – water is fine, and conveniently calorie-free. Sounding like a concerned friend, the voice wonders if I couldn’t stand to go on a diet as I browse through online stores for new bikinis for the (still terrifying) summer season.

Inevitably, however, with all of the passive aggressive suggestions that small, almost faraway voice makes, we resist as we have been taught; we ignore as we have learned to; and we sigh with some annoyance while trying to shake that duplicitous reminder of days gone past out of our thoughts, clinging onto the mantras of health and acceptance we have come to relearn.

When that happens, when that voice tries to sneak its way back into my head, trying to regain some control over me, I wind up thinking of my overall experience with my anorexia. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or maybe it’s that belated 20/20 vision that hindsight promises to give us all, that leads me into reflecting on the way I’ve lived my life since I was first introduced to anorexia. I can sit here, thinking about the almost-decade-long journey it’s been since the morning after my fourteenth birthday when I was first hospitalized, and find myself slightly incredulous of it all – the way things have changed so drastically from what I categorize as my “sick” days, to today, when I am a healthy, in recovery, 22-year-old, closing in on my college graduation – a date that a fair amount of people in my life weren’t sure I was going to live to see.

That tribe of people, those who have followed me throughout my journey of an eating disorder, are varied, ranging from my immediate family members, to close friends, to not-so-close friends who thrived on the scandal of it all, and those seemingly thousands of doctors, who were inarguably led by my doctor, Suzanne Riggs. Riggs, as I called her, was the team leader of my own group of doctors within the Eating Disorder Program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital – again, a small tribe all of their own, full of questions, tests, measurements, and specialties.

I met Riggs when I was thirteen years old, when I had finally been exposed as an anorexic, and from the immediate start, I hated her. I hated her clinical diagnosis, which was the first that I had heard since my pediatrician had so delicately only said I was “sick.” I hated her sharp intuition that knew, instinctively knew, just how badly I was suffering, even from our first appointment. I hated how she could so clearly see through the façade I had perfected that was meant to cover up my tricks of the anorexic trade. I especially hated her for trying to admit me into the inpatient program on that first visit because of how desperately, near-fatally sick I was.

My hatred for Riggs lasted all throughout my in-patient and out-patient treatment. Who did she think she was, trying to take this sickness away from me? I knew they didn’t see anorexia the way I did; they didn’t see it as my validation. They didn’t understand what anorexia meant to me. Where I saw salvation, everyone else only saw the hopeless cause that I had become – except for Riggs.

Looking back, I can’t possibly comprehend how anyone could embrace such constant resistance to something so simple. It is easy to look back now and realize that that help, that assistance, and strength was the salvation I was looking for – and one of the main supporters that it came from was Riggs. Again, hindsight is 20/20, usually in the most bittersweet and delayed of ways. Hindsight, in my case at least, is more bittersweet than most. Where people are usually given the opportunity to thank the people that help them, that save them from themselves, I never will.

There’s another number that goes along with all of the rest that are neatly categorized within the multitude of numbers that make up the story of my own anorexia. That number is seven – seven years this month, since Dr. Riggs lost her battle to cancer.

Where so many of us were so consumed with our own obsession of slowly killing ourselves, none of us ever realized that the person trying to save us was, herself, dying. None of us knew, until after the fact.

Those often-ironic twists that Fate likes to throw at us, they never really stop being curve balls.

It’s with that number of years in mind, and with so many other numbers in mind, that has turned this into a thank you letter – a letter that shouldn’t have to be written, because it should have been spoken instead. I never got the chance to thank Riggs for everything she had done to save my life, because I was too busy doing everything I could to sabotage it. And yet here I am, in part due to her expertise, her support, and the support of so many other people in the story of my anorexia, alive. Though it took me many years, years even after Riggs had come into and gone from my life, to reach this point, I am still alive. There will always be a part of that that is due to her.

So, to Suzanne Riggs, I have to say thank you, as delayed as this may be.

Thank you for giving me the chance to live my fullest life, without the constraints of my anorexia holding me back.

Thank you for the 3,115 more days of breathing that I wasn’t sure I had left when I was first admitted to the hospital.

Thank you for continuing to fight for my recovery, even as I fought against it and clung to the sad, denial of a belief that somehow anorexia would be the one to save me.

Thank you for giving me more birthdays, Fourth of Julys, even Thanksgivings.

Thank you for being so dedicated to not only my struggle, but the struggles of so many other people in the program, who would not be alive without your support.

Thank you for returning the simple pleasures of life that anorexia stole from me.

Thank you for letting me have favorite foods again – for even simply just enjoying food again.

Thank you for letting me love cooking and baking now, something which would have both horrified and triggered me in the past.

Thank you for my numerous, bi-weekly appointments – although once an annoyance to me, I can now understand it showcased your dedication to saving my life. TC mark

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