I was drowning in a 13-year eating disorder, quietly hiding behind the diesel trucks that were plugged in for the night after everyone had fallen asleep. I was sneaking a cigarette, hidden from the road in case someone who knew my dad happened to drive by. I was 22 years old.
I was bored and it was usually below zero and often all I was wearing were scrubby Uggs and a Juicy Couture hoodie – it was 2006 and those were rich girl clothes, clothes that don’t make you any friends in Wyoming. Especially if you have shiny, rich girl hair and your family owns half the town and you weren’t even from here, you mostly lived in Atlanta and you wore three carats on your left hand, which is more than anyone in this town has ever even seen.
I would sometimes wander across the highway at night. The only other thing to do was stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., talking to boys in Atlanta who I dated once and girls I met online in bulimia support groups. By “support” they meant “get this kind of laxative and take six times the recommended dosage, it works faster than this diet pill.” I sipped Jack Daniels mixed with Diet Coke from a Hello Kitty sippy cup I’ve had since I was two and listened to the same album over and over again, trying to figure out why moving back home hadn’t made me happier.
One night in January I crossed the road, hopped the corral fence and walked until I got to the top of the hill, easily a mile away from my bed at 1 a.m. on the high prairie. It was too cold for mountain lions and rattlesnakes and so I wasn’t afraid. There is very little that will hurt you when it is that cold, except of course the cold itself.
I was too sad to cry, and it was too cold anyway. I wore my glasses most of the time because contacts would freeze. I dug my bare fingers into the hill. There was no snow but the ground was frozen, tundra. The more the cold hurt my fingers the harder I pushed them into the ground. There was warmth in there, I just had to find it. Now, more than ever, I needed the earth.
I hadn’t eaten in 39 hours and I was exhilarated, high on my own power — the power to resist temptation, to be strong, to not need food, to not need anything that normal people need. I was more than them. I didn’t need anything. I wanted to bury myself in the earth, become a part of it. It was safer there. I knew the answer was in the dirt. A part of me wanted to eat it, like a child does.
More often than not, when I was 22, I woke up with dirt under my nails. I worried about the calories in my toothpaste. The Front Range hadn’t helped, it hadn’t fixed me. Somehow, under that big sky, my sadness felt magnified. For the first time in my life, that sky made me feel lost and afraid. I had forgotten. I had forgotten how to listen. I had forgotten the land, my connection to it.
I went back to Georgia after six months, ashamed and 20 pounds smaller I had been at Thanksgiving, the last time I had seen my mother. Her arms wrapped around me at 4 a.m. when I finally pulled into the gravel driveway, limp and weak, my hair plastered to my tear-soaked face. I had driven 26 hours straight, outran a snowstorm, purchased diet pills in rural Missouri and, for three brief seconds in western Nebraska, locked eyes with the largest mountain lion I have ever seen.
And that’s what having an eating disorder feels like. It feels like being alone, and cold, and trapped. It feels like wanting to come home but not knowing how. It feels like forgetting and being ashamed and possessing incredible strength, super human strength. Like hiding, like being exposed, like desperation.
And coming out of an eating disorder, healing yourself and coming to terms with more than 13 years of self-inflicted dysfunction? It feels like overwhelming, inexplicable fear. It feels like that mountain lion being 20 feet away, watching me get into my car at that rest stop and locking the doors and instantly throwing up in an empty coffee cup once you realize how close you were to death. And then being unable to move because of the magnitude of it all, being paralyzed and encompassed by this subtle hint from the universe.