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Author's note: I hope that someone somewhere can not only relate to my story, but draw inspiration and hope from it. I hope it can prove to people that getting over whatever hardships they're facing really is worth it. I also hope that this book can disprove some common misconceptions about eating disorders and hopefully shed some light on why people with eating disorders do what they do.
I was wide-eyed, nearly pure. I was carefree and whimsical and innocent. Blissfully ignorant, yet tragically absorbent. Everything my senses came in contact with, I took in. I was young and oversensitive and susceptible to everything.
I was walking across the huge, black mass that enveloped the ground behind Adamsville Elementary School. With each small stride, energy from the asphalt shot up through my heels and squirmed across my soles until I took the next step when the sensation would start all over again. My vision was partially blocked by locks of fine, brown hair that grazed my face as the wind blew furiously, clawing at my skin. I watched an empty swing sway in the wind with undeniable grace and immediately felt an electric charge of adrenaline and anticipation course through my muscles, knowing that in mere moments that swing would be all mine. Taking a moment to inhale the faint scent of early autumn, I slowly shut my eyes, watching the black-top, the trees, the laughing classmates completely fade out. As I inhaled blissfully, a sudden collision brought me out of my exhilarated, relaxed state. I reluctantly wrenched my eyelids apart only to find a forest of unruly hair in my way. I attempted to walk around whomever I had just bumped into and resume my journey to the swing, but before I could, the forest morphed into a face. And the person facing me, the person I had just obliviously walked into, was none other than Evan Sanders. At the same height as me, he glowered so fiercely that it seemed to scorch a hole directly through my self-esteem. His glare could always send stinging waves through my body, bone by bone. He stepped forward with a sense of masculine cockiness and shoved his pudgy face in mine. The plethora of freckles that invaded his skin overwhelmed my six-year-old eyes. Unsure whether to dash in the other direction or to challenge Evan, I stood still, petrified. He parted his thin, red lips, while his eyes continued to burn holes in my flesh. It seemed as if everything had frozen; as if the giddy children playing had suddenly halted, as if the trees blowing in the wind had completely solidified mid-sway.
“Get out of here… fatso.” Evan snarled, his mouth twisting and contorting to form the hateful words. Behind him listening intently were his friends Jack, Ethan, and Marco all with a look of mean-spirited induced humor on their youthful faces.
“FATSO FATSO FATSO!” The boys taunted, edging dangerously close to me. I backed up timidly, emotionally injured and mentally distressed. Not looking behind me, my foot struck a wooden beam, sending me toppling backwards in front of what seemed to be every first grader on the planet. A howl of laughter erupted from the throats of all those watching as I observed my suddenly thicker-looking legs. Hastily constructed self-reassurances buzzing through my mind, I scrambled to my feet noting how my thighs shook and jiggled whenever I took a step.
Six years later and not significantly thinner than six years before, I found myself running back and forth from the television to the kitchen every day after school, inhaling all the food I possibly could, stuffing abnormally large amounts of it into my mouth as fast as I could and swallowing without tasting a thing. Once I was past fullness to the point where my at least somewhat baggy shirt was stretched tightly over my stomach, I lied on my back, forgot about what I had done, and drowned myself in mindless television. I savored the feeling of complete fullness, the false belief that there was nothing missing anymore. I enjoyed the tingle through my body, as if little gnats were buzzing around in my muscles. I convinced myself that since I was full, everything was all better. It wasn’t.
On a pleasantly cool March afternoon, I strode off the bus and headed down the street after a typical day at school, stomach growling, mouth anticipating the food I knew I was about to shovel into my body. Marching up the newly redone stone steps of the porch, I searched my bag until I felt the cool, rigid surface of my house key. After guiding the key into the lock and turning it one-hundred-eighty degrees counterclockwise, I threw my shoulder into the door. The door was shoved open in time with my sighing as I slid into the silent, empty house. My body humming with ambivalence and conflicting thoughts, a force of some sort coaxed me into looking in my parents’ mirror before I succumbed to my ravenous hunger. As I gazed into the lengthy sheet of glass, I frowned at my reflection, viciously and mercilessly scrutinizing my body from every angle. Turning from side to front to side multiple times, frustration gave way to longing. I did not want to be thin, I needed to be thin; to someday soon ease my legs into the holy grail of weight-loss goals: size double zero jeans. And at that moment, I made a decision. I said to myself and my dissatisfying reflection: you are going to stop eating.
From that moment on, I began restricting my food intake. I skipped lunches daily and consciously ate less that I truly wanted to in attempt to lose weight. Having elaborately constructed the illusion of simply trying to be a healthier eater, I ensured my parents were oblivious to my impending downward spiral. By May, I had whittled my body to a slightly slimmer figure, but it was not good enough. I did not want to lose more weight, I needed to lose more weight. I needed to be thinner. I began incessantly, obsessively, and compulsively doing exercises from magazines like Seventeen and Cosmo!Girl, in addition to continuing restriction. Without any time having seemed to elapse, June had flown past my eyes and summer vacation was in my midst. Most children rejoice at the last bell of the school year, but not me. All I could hear was one word ringing over and over again in my ears: swimsuit.
Somewhat ironically, I had become friends with Jack throughout that year, even though he tormented me all through elementary school. Just as I was becoming friends with him however, he dropped a bomb: he was moving to California over the summer. Long before I was anywhere near aware, August of 2008 had knocked at my door, let itself in, dropped itself on the couch, and unpacked its bags. He left on August twelfth, while I was in Mystic, Connecticut with my parents, brother, aunt, and grandmother celebrating my grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday. We were on a boat when he left, the hood of my black sweatshirt up over my head. As I texted my friend Adam and mentioned that my friend had moved, the lightning bolt that was reality struck me. Up to that point, Jack was moving. But at that point, he had actually moved. Tears blurred my phone, the boat, and the water surrounding it. The wind picked up and wrestled with my hood before my hands flew up and secured my attempt to hide the tears streaming down my still pudgy cheeks. I scrambled frenetically to keep in touch with Jack through text, e-mail, Instant Message, you name it -- but he was not receptive. Despite my desperate efforts to stay in contact with him, we quickly drifted apart and stopped talking all together. After months of restricting my food simply to lose weight, I started restricting because I truly believed it would fill the void that Jack had left empty.
“Despair, a feeling so familiar
The realization my world is spinning
About to crash and burn
That fear is among us
That sweeping, churning dread
Knowing that my happiness is fragile in your hands
I take my one fateful chance
To show you how much you mean to me
And how much I truly care
But once I see what I have done
I slowly back down
Off my pedestal of pride and happiness
Creeping down to a hopeless patch of pain
A look of hurt slowly settling in my eyes
Waiting for the next friend to temporarily fill that space
But for now I am still on this patch of pain
Silently weeping out of self-pity
Despair, a feeling so familiar
What a timely return”
One of the main differences between dieting and having an eating disorder is that people on a diet lose ten pounds and then return to their regular lifestyle, possibly making some new additions or changes in order to maintain their post-diet weight. People with eating disorders, however, lose ten pounds and think “just ten more pounds and I’ll be happy.” After losing another ten pounds they think “just ten more pounds and I’ll be happy.” The cycle continues until one of two things happens: a) they get treatment for their illness and begin recovery, or b) they die. The example “just ten more pounds and I’ll be happy” alludes to another characteristic of eating disordered subjects. The vitality of the three words “I’ll be happy” is immense. Those three words indicate that the subject at hand, one: is not happy at the given moment, and two: believes that what they are doing will eventually lead them to happiness. As is with any other addiction, no one with an eating disorder is truly happy while they are in their illness; they may believe they are happy, but the truth is that such addictions almost always act as a buffer against some sort of negative emotion. The addiction is an oasis, a sanctuary for the afflicted mind. For people with eating disorders, they use food and their illness to cope with however they’re feeling. Their eating disorder is their escape from sadness. Their eating disorder is their escape from reality. My eating disorder was my escape from reality.
As I entered eighth grade with the 2008-2009 school year beginning, I found myself sleepwalking through life in a state of deep depression. If I was not sad or angry, I was apathetic and numb. Activities I used to love suddenly meant nothing to me. Everything suddenly meant nothing to me. At the vulnerable, awkward age of thirteen, I had less energy than my eighty-five-year-old grandmother. Even the most miniscule degree of motivation was long gone and my barely existent self-confidence was chipping away more and more every minute. Unsure of how to deal with all the unsettled feelings of longing, emptiness, and self-hatred, I channeled my emotions through food, becoming increasingly paranoid that people were suspicious of my eating disorder. I needed something to explain what was going on without sacrificing my sacred and beloved anorexia.
A significant element of an eating disorder, as is with any addiction, is lying. More often than not, people suffering from an addiction will do almost anything in order to keep their addiction and/or prevent people from finding out about it. I was and am no exception to this generality. Convinced beyond any remnant of doubt that weight loss would equate to happiness, I knew I had to keep my illness surreptitious if I really wanted to slim down. Expecting my parents to realize I was not eating, I came up with what at the time seemed like a foolproof idea: I told them I was experiencing severe acid reflux. Since I had acid reflux, I did not want to eat because it would merely make the return trip shortly thereafter, scorching and setting my insides ablaze. I also needed to avoid certain foods that exacerbated acid reflux, most of which were already deemed “bad” foods. As the weeks went on, I still complained endlessly to my parents and doctors who were befuddled as to why my condition was not improving. The only reason why nothing improved was simple. I never had acid reflux; the whole story was a complete lie.
With the acid reflux fib requiring me to frequently be pulled out of school to visit doctors, in addition to my already nearly debilitating depression, my schoolwork rotted in the back of my mind. I was constantly tired, barely awake enough to pay attention in class let alone do work once I got home. I was being hauled around to specialist after specialist, my parents frantic to understand why I was suddenly having acid reflux. I was missing half, sometimes even full days of school regularly if not to see yet another doctor, because I felt “sick”. In truth, I never actually felt unwell; I just simply did not have the energy or motivation to lug myself through yet another hopelessly miserable day. I was still restricting, but finding it harder and harder to resist the urge to return to my previous habits and binge after school. After a few weeks, I felt helpless, as if I had no choice but to pile all the food in the house in my mouth, choking it down like a snake. In the same position that I had been in less than a year ago, I sprung up from the couch, sprinted to the kitchen, gathered an enormous amount of food, stuffed it all into my mouth, swallowed and repeated the cycle multiple times. As pathetic as it was, that was the most energy I had exerted, outside of compulsive exercising, in months. Bingeing again became a daily routine, something I would look forward to throughout the day. I walked out the door, six forty-seven A.M. every day pretending I ate breakfast while my stomach growled and pleaded for nourishment. Throughout each morning, I was equally distracted by the pain in my abdomen due to lack of food and by the masochistic side of me that adored the agony of starvation. I sat at lunch, empty handed, arms crossed, eyes darting and flitting between the table, the clock, the wall; anything besides the food surrounding me, tempting me, beckoning to me. I cruised through every afternoon feeling superior and powerful with the knowledge that I had gone almost a whole day without eating. I slithered off the bus and trekked home, unlocked the door, told myself not to eat, then proceeded to devour everything in sight. Each time after I binged, I felt a nauseating wave of guilt rise up from my gut. A voice in my head would growl: “Disgusting, ugly, worthless pig. Fat, repulsive, hopeless loser. Greedy, gluttonous, self-indulging b****.” Some days I smothered myself in distractions, stifling the repulsion I felt towards myself. Other days, I scooted into the bathroom, stuck a finger down my throat, felt my stomach lurch, and chickened out. After a while though, desperation overthrew rationality.
“I want to puke
to pretend it never happened
to flush away all my worries
to watch my stress swirl into nothing
I want to eat
To silence the shrieks of hunger
To keep myself from collapsing
To focus on something else for once
I want to puke
To release my frustration
To punish myself
To undo all the damage
I want to eat
To drown out my thoughts
To give in to my depression
To convince myself that I'm okay
I want to puke
To let go of everything that I want to hold on to
To set all the bottled up emotions free
To move on from past wounds
Must this be my only escape?
My only form of comfort?
There must be another way
to forget that I'm fading.”
One October afternoon so windy that the breeze fell just sort of scraping my face, I found a girl that looked remotely like me appearing as if she had literally collapsed on the couch. She was slouched so far down that only her shoulder blades were in contact with the back of the sofa. Clearly debating in her mind, she pushed her body off of the cozy, blue couch and opened the door to the bathroom. All alone in a house with no one to witness what she was about to do, she slid her three middle fingers into her mouth. She had heard and read about people doing this before, but did not know what to do or expect. Pushing softly at first from the inside of her throat, she eventually became bold and started ramming her fingers down past her tonsils and somewhere into her esophagus, oblivious if not immune to the pain. A gagging sound escaped her throat as she felt her midsection quickly collapse inward as she coughed up a mixture of all the food she had gobbled up minutes before. Unsatisfied with the measly amount of vomit floating in the once-clear toilet water momentarily lingering below her, she repeated the process until her stomach felt as empty as it had hours before she gorged. She stepped back and took a look in the mirror, smirking with satisfaction while zeroing in on her significantly slimmer-looking abdomen. While contentment mingled with relief mingled with accomplishment and pride inside her mind, she flushed what used to be the contents of her stomach down into oblivion, not at all concerned about where it was headed to. It was gone, she was thin, and that was all that mattered. She turned the cool, silver handle next to the faucet and immediately had a stream of cold water running through her fingers. She grabbed a toothbrush, scrubbing at her teeth vigorously until her mouth was numb from the mint-flavored toothpaste and then resumed her previous position on the couch as if nothing had occurred, this time looking happier than she had looked in months. The muscles of her body that looked as hard as rock a mere twenty minutes before were now as loose as a rag doll. Her previously sour, pained expression was replaced by a pleasant, relaxed look. If I had not known any better, I would have thought that she had flushed away all her stress and worries when she flushed away the impurities of her stomach. After blindly witnessing all of this, it suddenly struck me that this girl was more of a stranger than I had ever imagined; this troubled girl that I had never seen before, this painfully insecure girl whom I could not recognize even if I tried, this stranger invading my house was the one person I hated with a passion but could never quite understand. The girl who had just willingly made herself throw up right in front of my eyes was in fact, me.
“Running from your problems
Isn’t supposed to help
And yet it creates a sanctuary
I look around
And I don’t know where I’m going
But I don’t care
I’m picking up the pace
And I don’t recognize these eyes
Where is the soul that I’ve replaced
With apathy and lies
It’s just me running alone
And I can’t hear a thing
But even if I could
None of it would make a difference
Because I’m picking up the pace
Still I don’t recognize these eyes
Where is the soul that I’ve replaced
With emptiness that won’t give rise?”
From that day on, the daily routine of bingeing was followed by a seemingly more important routine of purging. Eventually, I no longer had a problem with staring in a toilet full of vomit that I had induced myself; it became normalized, as automatic and obvious as drying your hands after washing them. I still used the acid reflux as an excuse, swearing that I tried to eat and keep it down but it just kept coming back up “on its own”. I was the sky and my untruths were the rain. Lie after lie after lie. Doctor after doctor after doctor. Therapist after therapist after therapist. I adamantly withheld admitting I never had an acid reflux problem. I negated and refused to admit having any problem with food, if not a full-blown eating disorder. It is clear to me now that I was fooling no one; my parents knew, my doctors knew, even I knew. After countless trips to countless doctors, multiple blood tests, a pointless endoscopy, and what felt like an interrogation inside a psychiatrist’s office, I still would not give the acid reflux hoax up in fear it would lead to the exposure of my eating disorder. It was my best friend, it was my security blanket and I would have done anything to avoid losing it.
Hoping that the non-existent stomach problems were psychosomatic and brought on by school-related stress, my psychiatrist prescribed me Adderall for my Attention Deficit Disorder to act as an aid for my concentration and in turn, hopefully relieve some of my stress. At that point, no one but me had any idea what my psychiatrist was really doing. “Side effects include lack of sleep and loss of appetite so watch out for those.” Doctor Donnellan said in his peculiar, scratchy voice. Loss of appetite, I thought. The words echoed in my head. Loss of appetite. Never in my entire life had I heard words that sounded as beautiful. Loss of appetite. I could barely hide my smile.
By that time it was December. December eleventh to be exact. I was still bingeing and purging at least once daily if not twice, thrice, or four times. My eating disorder had long since overtaken me. Significantly more depressed than I had been when Jack had initially left, I was in a zombie-like state. At that point, I was seeing a psychologist named Mary Jane weekly, a nutritionist named Hien (pronounced Hin) weekly, and Doctor Donnellan the psychiatrist monthly or more often, if needed. I was not at all receptive to help. I did not want to lose my cherished best friend. My eating disorder was my shield; it made me more in control than everyone around me. They had to live with feelings. I did not. My eating disorder was my force-field. Nothing mattered, I did not care about anyone or anything other than what I ate, if I ate, and when or if I purged. Anything that anyone threw at me bounced right off. I was apathetic, I was numb, I was invincible. In hindsight, I realize now that my real intention behind the self-destruction was to detach myself from everything I was indeed feeling: worthlessness, loss, rejection, exasperation, rage, resentment, hopelessness, hatred, longing. It became fact that the only way I could ever be happy again was if I were to lose more weight. I could not have been more wrong.
On December twelfth, I took the Adderall for the first time. Right before I darted out the door to climb onto the bright yellow school bus, I swallowed the circular, blue pill with a single swig of water. A small amount of the pill’s coating rubbed off on my tongue. It was sweet, but not in a good way. I proceeded to grab the breakfast my mother had ever so willingly made for me even though I knew it would end up at the bottom of a garbage can, and then run out the door, anxious to rid myself of the temptation that was breakfast. Throughout the day, I had absolutely no appetite, no desire at all to put anything besides water inside my mouth. It was if the need to eat had simply vanished, as if I was now immortal and did not have to eat in order to live. From that point forward, Adderall became my infatuation.
Throughout the weeks following that day, I continued to take the Adderall which actually did help with my concentration. However, that was not why I liked it so much. With the Adderall, not only did I not feel hungry, I did not want to eat either. I could finally enjoy the hunger pangs peacefully, as opposed to battling the urge to inhale the whole kitchen. And obviously, I lost weight. I would step on the scale daily, smirking with satisfaction if I lost and ferociously cursing myself if I gained. I was still obsessed with food, but I had so much more control once the desire for it was gone. My favorite part, though, was that I never binged anymore. In my eyes, bingeing was a sign of vulnerability and weakness, both of which I strived to expunge from my body, soul, and mind. To binge meant you were not strong enough to win the fight against instinct; you were at the mercy of your body instead of your body being at the mercy of you and your beloved self-control. I was able to achieve what can only be described as a high (and is actually known as “anorexic’s high”); it was a feeling of power and invincibility. It was my secret weapon that only I knew about and only I had.
I live with emptiness
I walk with apathy
Underneath I’m burning
I’m dizzy and confused
In such an angry place.”
Every week, I dreaded stepping into Mary Jane’s office. Regardless of whether or not I wanted to go, I was forced to anyway. There was no yelling or stomping my way out of it, no faking sick to keep me home. I had to go, plain and simple. It was a windy winter. Each week would go something like this: pitch black trees lined barely visible streets even though it was only six at night. Street lights cast an orange glow across the barely-living grass. Shivering vigorously and hugging myself in attempt to stay warm, I would twist the scratched, golden doorknob and enter the waiting room outside of Mary Jane’s office. The building was a house converted into a multi-room therapy practice. Several different therapists worked in different rooms of the house/office at the same time. Some would peek out of a dark hallway periodically, looking to see if their client had arrived. Mary Jane would open a door to the right of where I always sat in the waiting room, revealing her tiny office space and motioning for me to come in after five to ten minutes of waiting. That time was almost always occupied by either bitching over text message or reading (what else?) weight-loss articles in trashy magazines. Mary Jane was tall and slim, but not scary-skinny. Her features were very masculine with a broad jaw, long mouth, thin nose, and eyes that reminded me of bird’s eyes. Her eyes themselves were not sunken in, but the areas around them were, making them look even bigger than they were to begin with. Her thick, dark eyebrows matched her frizzy brown hair that I suspected had never been color-treated before. She was convinced from literally the first ten minutes of knowing me that I had a case of untreated, worsening depression. I think “depression” was a bit of an understatement.
We would proceed with the therapy session, me sitting on a couch that could fit no more than two children and her sitting across from me on a couch the same size but with a different, clashing pattern. I would continue to whine about Jack, bawling until I thought my eyes would explode, and more often than not collect an entire box worth of used tissues in my lap. Meanwhile, Mary Jane would nod in a clueless manner, unsure of how to help me. That was when I believed Jack was the cause of all my problems. It seemed rational enough: my depression started around the time he moved, I was sad about him moving, I felt like he had abandoned me, so instead of delving into myself and finding the real problem, I forged one. I took the easy way out, settling with the assumption that everything had just snowballed over the past few months leaving my family confused, my doctors stumped, and me in a depressed, anorexic, bulimic, heap of never-ending tears.
After about three weeks on Adderall, I felt its effects slowly but surely tapering off. I was beginning to space out more often, I was becoming impulsive again, and I was getting my appetite back. It was becoming harder and harder to resist food and the urges to eat, but I was sure that if I surrendered to my growling stomach, I would never be able to stop gorging. I was convinced that if I ever even considered eating something over a hundred calories, all of the control I worked so hard and starved so long to acquire would immediately evanesce. Despite the deafening voice screeching in my face, commanding me to deny my mortality, human instincts eventually conquered my body and drove me into what felt like years of never-ending bingeing on New Years’ Eve of all nights.
I was slouching on the floor in loose sweatpants and a shirt at least four sizes too big. I could not help but be completely consumed by revulsion. My midsection seemed as if it was literally about to burst, splattering the cookies, chocolate, and cake all over the light blue walls. A familiar voice I would months later recognize as my “eating disorder voice” crept its way into my mind again, slithering past the rest of the thoughts crowding my already foggy mind and managing to scream over the earsplitting static inside my head. “You’re just going to sit there like a disgusting, obese man and let all that fat inhabit your stomach? ” it sneered. “You’re going to let all those filthy calories be absorbed by your already revolting body? If you keep this up, you’ll suffocate all the people in the world because you’ll be the size of a planet, you sickening waste of organs and blood.” Despotic and utter emptiness asphyxiated me. Even to this day, I do not understand how I could have felt so blank and alone despite the raging volcanoes of self-hatred that gurgled inside me, refusing to cease for years on end.
After being degraded by a voice I myself conjured up, I decided that waiting around for my body to balloon into the size of an even bigger elephant than I already was, was not an option. I counted down the seconds until the New Year, cheered when the countdown hit zero, sprinted up eleven stairs to the bathroom and puked like my life depended on it. When my stomach felt empty once again, I climbed to my feet and let the ghastly liquid swirl down, down, down, farther and farther away from the girl who gave it life, shot it down, and then resurrected it. I gazed in the mirror with dissatisfaction as I waited for the crimson in my eyes to dissipate. I lifted my shirt up to reveal just my stomach and almost gagged again from merely peeking in the mirror. I was disgusting. I was fat.
Frantically swishing mouthwash through the small spaces between my teeth, a sudden realization jolted my whole body, launching a shock through each and every inch of my flesh. A voice scampered through my mind, snarling “The first thing you did in 2009 was puke your guts out. If that’s any indication of how well this year is about to go, you’re dead.”
“Angry at myself
Wishing the reflection could reach out
And beat me til I bleed
Awaiting the repair
And muffling the screams with food
And the anger returns
I must be punished, must work to compensate
For the revolting results of the damage done
And meanwhile, all I want to do is make you proud once more.”
For the next month, I dragged myself through each day spending every moment angry at the world and perpetually on the verge of tears. At the time, I didn’t understand that I was not really angry at the world, rather at myself. I remember glimpsing at the mirror and then regretting it the moment I laid eyes on my reflection, scowling at the glass with which I knew I was infatuated. I distinctly recall the unfathomable amount of loathing that I felt towards myself, and I distinctly recall feeling even angrier because I knew there was no way I could ever escape myself, regardless of how badly I wanted to. Just when I thought my self-esteem could not possibly get any worse though, something happened; something that I had never imagined happening at that time of my life, out of all possible times. I sat in the waiting room right outside Hien’s office. The walls were yellow and the wall fixtures were light green, orange, and another dark, aged-looking green. I fidgeted anxiously, shaking my leg rapidly hoping that it would burn off the calories from the previous day. Allowing myself to wander into deep thought, I subconsciously explored my own mind. With literally no reason behind the notion, I thought to myself “Something really bad is about to happen.” At that time, I thought it was that I was about to go into the hospital for more intense eating disorder treatment. I was not at all prepared for what really took place. On February second, I had just climbed into my mother’s beige van and settled into one of fuzzy seats, reflecting on that day’s play practice. Aware of the unmistakable tension in the car between myself and my mother, I shifted in my seat. There was a question lurking in my mind throughout the whole day, but I could not bring myself to ask it. Before I had time to put words together, my mother took a deep breath and started speaking as I gazed out the window. The street was suddenly moving slower than a rock. The bare trees towering over houses came to a complete halt. I knew what my mom was about to say, but I did not want to believe it. Not now, not today, not at this time of all times. My heartbeat quickened as my head seemed to rapidly get heavier. My breaths became swift and shallow, as if I was half in water and half out but still gasping for oxygen. “Uncle Joe passed away this morning.” Thoughts sped up, crashing into each other, exploding into tiny pieces, littering the space inside my brain. My hands started shaking uncontrollably; my eyes began to twitch and sting as if a swarm of bees had begun to attack my pupils. Something snaked its way down my suddenly pale cheek but I was in so much shock that I did not even have the will to brush it away. A hurricane arose inside my mind sending rain in the form of downpouring tears, thunder in the form of shallow breaths, lightning in the form of unstoppable shaking. Not now, I thought, not now of all possible times. Not now, not now, why now? Why, why, why now?! Why did he have to leave me right now?! Of all possible f*ing times, why the f*** now?! I really must be a terrible f*ing person. A few days earlier, my Great Uncle Joe was hospitalized for a reason I am still unsure of. My mother said it sounded like he had had a stroke, but that the doctors were not completely sure. She said that because they did not know exactly what went wrong, they did not know how to help him although they would do what they could. Hours later, she assured me he would be alright. This was not the kind of assurance that everyone knows is completely false, it was the kind of assurance that was genuine. I think everyone believed that Uncle Joe was going to be okay. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The next day as my mother, my brother, and I were about to leave for church, the phone rang. We let the answering machine pick it up since we were running late, but the whole house froze when we heard the tone of my Grandfather’s (Uncle Joe’s Brother’s) voice echo through the house. My mother leaped for the phone and answered with an unmistakable tone of urgency. When she hung up, her face held an expression I had never seen before. It was a synthesis of petrified, shocked, and verging on a breakdown. She told my brother and I in a shaky voice that Uncle Joe had “taken a turn for the worst” and that we had to stay home while she drove to the hospital to visit him. He passed away the following day. February third, I was forced to lug myself through a day of school. I felt quiet, exposed, abandoned, and confused. It was exactly like when Jake had moved, but this time five times more intense. The morning was uneventful despite me sinking into myself even more so than normal. Come fifth period, language arts, I was not feeling so sure. I was typing quietly and intently at a laptop when the teacher placed a paper with a rubric stapled to it face-down, on the desk that looked like sand. Anxious and nervous as I always am when I get assignments back, I turned the pages over. It was an advice paper I had written weeks before. I had written it with Jake in mind, advising the reader to take advantage of each moment they had with a person because they never knew how much time either of them had left. On the bottom of the rubric, the word “Phenomenal” was written in all capital letters. Hidden by the dark gray laptop, I allowed myself to cry. The next day was Uncle Joe’s wake and the day after that was his funeral. I attended both, stony-faced and glassy-eyed. I mingled when it was appropriate to mingle and bawled when it was appropriate to bawl. The next week was an all-you-can-shove-down-your-throat binge fest. It was my way of coping; trying to strangle the overwhelming sadness and incessant salty tears with sugary, fattening food. It did not work. I told myself that I was stupid, fat, worthless, ugly, a waste of space. I told myself that I was not worth anyone’s time and would not be until I lost weight. I told myself that if I was thinner, Uncle Joe would have lived longer. I truly and genuinely and completely believed every hateful thought. The next month is completely wiped out of my memory. The first thing I remember after Uncle Joe’s funeral is walking down my street in an oversized Rutgers sweatshirt on a quest for something I knew I would need to hide. When I reached my destination, Rite Aid, I strode in trying to look as innocent as possible. I sauntered down each aisle, skimming the shelves, searching for my prize. When my vision collided with what I was searching for, I smirked and took the box off the shelf. I placed it in front of the cashier who gave me a funny look. Before she could question me, I opened my mouth and yet again let lies fly: “My mom has been looking everywhere for these pills! You guys are like, the only store that had them!” I exclaimed, anxious to hold the box again and hear the Dexatrim Complex 7 diet pills rattle from inside the bottle. The cashier then smiled at me as if I was a five-year-old buying a lollipop just as I dashed out the door with my new best friends. I sprinted home, tore the box open, ripped off the bottle cap, and swallowed fourteen more pills than the maximum dosage of six.
The next thing I remember after that day is being in Hien’s office for what would be the last time until May. She seriously informed me that I had two weeks to turn myself around and if I was unable to cease starving myself, bingeing, and purging, I would be admitted into the Eating Disorder Unit at Somerset Medical Center. Knowing that two weeks would not make the slightest difference, I told Hien that I was not about to change my habits in a mere fourteen and that I would rather begin more intensive treatment sooner than later.
The following Wednesday, my father and I trekked through the hospital lobby and up to the First floor, West wing where I would begin my first experience of Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). We were greeted by two elderly women, one with short, frizzy, jet black hair and purple lipstick and one with a smooth, cute bob, a perpetual mile-wide smile, huge dark blue eyes, and a cackle that could be heard across the country. Their names were Mary and MaryLynn. My father and I proceeded to fill out papers with an overwhelming amount of tiny, black letters covering almost every white spot. I was given a blue binder that contained “everything I needed for recovery”. Too bad I’m b-s-ing my way through this hellhole, I thought slyly.
My first “group” was psychotherapy where each patient sat in an all-white room with pitiful, faded collages on the wall. Girls of all ages sat in green chairs that were pushed up against the wall. We began by going around the circle of women and introducing ourselves. Many people imagine these introductions to sound something like “Hi, I’m Jennie, and I’m a bulimic and anorexic.” Group was never like that, at least not in the E.D.U. We simply stated our names and then passed the task onto the person to our left. Once everyone had introduced themselves, a girl across the room from me began to talk. She was short; I’d estimate around 5’2”, 5’3”. She was a bit chunky, dressed kind of punk-ish, had her septum pierced, wore black, thick-rimmed glasses, and had short, platinum blonde, pixie-cut hair. I would later learn her name was Krystal. One of the first things that came out of her mouth was the words “my eating disorder.” I was shocked, even taken aback, by this combination of words. Prior to this, I had never heard anyone own their eating disorder; to say the mere concept of taking responsibility of my own eating disorder was foreign would be an understatement. A more appropriate adjective for this task would have been more like inconceivable.
I barely opened my eyes once throughout the hour. When psychotherapy was finished, the patients all stood up, some stretching, some mingling. I decided to introduce myself to some people since I was going to be trapped inside that stuffy box for who-knew-how-long. I shook hands, smiled, and answered question after question. When asked how old I was, I replied “thirteen”. Mouths dropped, bewildered. I was told countless times that I looked sixteen or seventeen, at least. I smiled politely and shrugged my shoulders.
We were weighed every other day in PHP. There were two rooms for groups, one with tables and one without. Both had a bathroom in which we were to undress after having our names called out by a nutritionist and being handed a hospital gown. We were required to use the bathroom before we were weighed to make sure we were not water-loading. To ensure this was done, a staff member would take a peek at the toilet once we were changed. The scale was in another bathroom on the left side of a hallway across from the psychotherapy room. Actually tying our hospital gowns in the back was forbidden and all jewelry was to be removed prior to stepping on the scale. The scale looked like a regular bathroom scale except for the fact that there was no rectangular screen on the top that projected our weight. Instead, there was a wire attached to the top of the scale that attached to a small box which was where our weights were projected. We were not allowed to know our weight and were not told even if we asked. At best, the nutritionist would tell you whether you gained, maintained, or lost weight. Once we were weighed, we would step off the scale and redress, throw the hospital gown in a hamper of sorts and prepare ourselves for the next group.
A sleep-like state
As if I’m a zombie
Walking around absent-mindedly
A reminiscent day
Missing people I saw everyday
Being the youngest
Feeling so out of place
Hoping my waistline won’t expand.”
We had different groups each day starting with psychotherapy at ten every morning. I was quickly introduced to my new therapist, Shannon and nutritionist, Michelle. (Normally, patients also get assigned a psychiatrist, but Doctor Donnellan worked at the program in addition to his private practice so since I was already seeing him, he was my psychiatrist by default.) Shannon was young, tall and tan with long, dark hair and bangs clipped back in a pouf. Her teeth were white, her eyebrows were arched. She reminded me of the girls you see on television, the ones that dole out dirty looks like a dealer doles out drugs. I did not like her at all. She made me feel like I was being attacked, that I was being singled out. When I feel like I’m being targeted, I get very anxious and defensive. That being said, therapy with Shannon was never a pleasant experience. Michelle was slim and pale with shoulder-length, blond hair. She looked very frumpy to me and she did not seem at all genuine. Her smiles appeared forced and there were times where it looked and sounded as if she was talking through a clenched smile. Nonetheless, I smiled and nodded my head, pretending to listen to their obnoxious voices while secretly planning ways to avoid eating once I got home.
Must exceed expectations
Flailing in search of perfection
Running too fast from the inevitable
Tripping, tumbling, gasping, drowning
Anger, hatred, tears of acid
Burning their way down my skin
Inhaling, shoving, swallowing, anything I can
Only awaiting the following starvation
Forcing down pills I shouldn’t take
Living with inescapable guilt
Suffering helplessly, watching myself fade
Empty or overflowing, nowhere in between
Pathetic, pitiful expressions to accompany
The weary eyes I can’t mask
Treading through hardships impassively
With only blurry vision left
And yet the repulsive reflections still clear
Just one more day and it’ll be okay
“Jennie, why are you doing this to yourself?”
Why am I doing this to myself?”
I continued the act for two weeks, but my parents were not about to let me fake recovery without a fight. With frequent reports of me still using what the patients called “eating disorder behaviors” (i.e. bingeing, purging, restricting, etc.), I was admitted to the inpatient side of the eating disorder unit. My roommate Amanda was sixteen, from Wyckoff, and very much like me. We joked and shared secrets and made fun of the nurses with accents. She introduced me to the video camera in the top, left corner of the room. It watched the room every second of every day, silently preventing anyone from exercising or harming themselves in private. I was notified that I was officially diagnosed as Anorexic with Purging although I did not look the least bit anorexic. I became acquainted with rules that would seem utterly ridiculous and uncalled for to anyone who has never had an eating disorder. I was informed that bathrooms were almost always locked and unless they were unlocked, you needed to ask a nurse to unlock the bathroom for you. Not only did each patient need permission to relieve themselves, but the bathrooms would need to be checked after we finished our business and we had to wash our hands with the door wide open. We were woken up every morning at five to get our vitals taken and to get weighed. From there we could either shower or go back to sleep until breakfast. Every meal was supervised by two or more nurses and we had to finish everything we were given. We each had a strict meal plan with a specific calorie level and rigid guidelines illustrating the appropriate quantities of each food group we were allowed.
At the end of each meal (for which we were given a limited amount of time to finish, usually forty minutes), each person at the table would inform the nurses whether or not they had “completed” their meal. It was a simple process, say either “complete” or “incomplete”; “complete” if you had finished every food item you were given and “incomplete” if you had not. “Incompletes” were rare: during my stay only once did someone not complete what they were given, although I came quite close several times. I dreaded each and every bite of my food for the first few days of inpatient; I had never realized before how petrified I had become of food and gaining weight. My hands literally shook with fear as I raised a pasta-smothered fork up to my mouth during the very first meal I had while inpatient. In a mere thirteen years of life, I had been indoctrinated into believing the word “food” was synonymous to “fat.” Memories of unbiased dining were not flushed from my brain, they simply never existed. Normal eating was not a foreign concept, it was unprecedented. For the first time I could remember, eating what I wanted at meals, respectively, was not only encouraged but incubated.
Although inpatient may sound like a concentration camp for people with eating disorders, it was one of if not the best experience of my life. I was lucky and got admitted when there was a very supportive, positive group. Particularly in the beginning of my term inpatient, we were like a family. Even some of the nurses conversed and joked around with us. My favorite memory from the mere eight days I spent inpatient has to do with my friend Seema the nurse. Seema was a short, Indian woman, probably in her early fifties. She had a thick accent and a bubbly personality. When I first entered inpatient, numerous patients told me that I would have to ask Seema about “the popo”. Apparently, Seema “got in trouble” with the police (or as she called them, the “popo”) for driving too fast. As I think about it now, I’m not quite sure why an Indian woman being pulled over by the police was and still is so humorous to me. Regardless, I doubt I will ever forget Seema, the popo, or anything else that I experienced while inpatient.
Having been provided the help I need and needed, I can recognize now the reason why I enjoyed inpatient so much was because I was able to reunite with true happiness there. Throughout eighth grade and even parts of the past year, I had been numbing myself by way of starvation. Somewhere along the course of any eating disorder, there becomes a point where the patient loses nearly all emotions because their body is working so hard to keep up with day-to-day life sans essential nutrition. With proper nourishment for the first time in over a year and the support of thirteen other eating disordered people, the ice around my heart melted and I became human again.
I was released after eight days of being inpatient and was instructed to return to PHP. The second time around, I followed the meal plan I was given, actually talked in therapy, and barely used any eating disorder behaviors. I was discharged from PHP about a month later and was finally allowed to return to school full-time. I still see Hien every few weeks in addition to Doctor Donnellan monthy and a different therapist, Shari, weekly. After two years of recovery at the time of this writing, I am doing, as Doctor Donnellan would say, “fabulously.” He and Hien both suggested that I look into doing some recovery speaking, talking to people in EDUs about my own experience and hopefully inspiring them to follow a similar path. Since leaving the hospital, I have had only a few minor slips in my recovery. Without my eating disorder, I am happier than I ever dreamed I could be.
I understand now that I used my eating disorder as a way to deal with my problems, and I am still adjusting to alternative ways of coping. Jack and I now exchange a few texts every once in a while and I have discovered that he was not at all the source of my misery. There are some days when I still wish more than anything to feel the pangs of hunger again or watch my meal make a return trip. I still struggle with managing my depression and forcing myself to focus. I am not at all “cured”. I am not rid of my eating disorder. But I recognize now that maybe I do not want to be completely rid of my eating disorder. Of course, I would like to be completely rid of the symptoms and negative thoughts, but my experiences with anorexia and bulimia have taught me so much. I have learned an immense amount about myself throughout the course of my illness and I have gained knowledge that some people may never gain. I have obtained an understanding for others and a great sense of empathy that I never imagined I could have. My recovery is not and has not been perfect, but the whole experience has given me a new appreciation for life. I now know that whittling my waist by starving myself will not solve anything inside my mind. I now understand how beautiful everything I have ever laid eyes on, ever touched, ever heard, ever smelled, and even ever tasted really and truly is.