Two things first:
I want to reiterate something from Part 1: I don’t remember large chunks of my life from ages 27 through 34, and I’m sure I’d be ashamed if I did. Yes, this is a mental illness, and I’m sympathetic to myself for the perfect storm of too many life changes triggering it, but I chose to stay sick for years afterwards.
The other thing is that I’m not going to give numbers beyond childhood. That’s a gory detail that even I admit I am curious about when reading about eating disorders, and it’s only a trigger for me if I’m looking for a trigger. However, the numbers are not the point. There is no scenario in which someone is living a better or worse life because she has a BMI of ____ versus ___ +/- 1. I’m too ashamed of flushing my youth down the toilet to brag or prove how sick I was. I wasn’t even close to being the sickest, and I’m glad about that. Apart from the possible connection to my three miscarriages (which is very iffy), I came out of this with no long-term health consequences, and that means that my anorexia was not nearly as severe as it could have been.
Good. The point is that I regret all of it because I spent years being miserable when that was not the only way.
I have been emetophobic (phobic of vomiting, or seeing/hearing others vomit) since at least second grade. When I was in fifth grade, there was a student in my class who got migraines. Sometimes he’d vomit because of them. I only remember him actually vomiting in class once, but I remember being very frightened when the teacher changed our seats so I was next to him. I remember being as nice as possible to him, sticking up for him if anyone gave him the slightest hard time…as if protecting him from getting upset would somehow protect me from his involuntarily bodily functions.
I think my mom was starting to show her first signs of decompensating in that year.
I remember staying home “sick” a lot. I missed a lot of school. My mom called me a hypochondriac (and she wasn’t wrong). One time when she took me to the doctor, some ordinary illness showed up, and I felt relieved/vindicated.
I was becoming school-phobic, although I didn’t recognize it as such. I had a lot of mild symptoms (especially nausea, which meant I wouldn’t eat. I’ve always been a person who loses my appetite when nervous/stressed/anxious. In my conscious mind, if I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t throw up, so I would err on the side of caution). Sometimes I’d be fine for the first part of the day, and then my mom would drive me to school late, and I’d start feeling sick as soon as we pulled up.
My district was desegregated, so during intermediate school years, I was bused to an inner-city school. Sometimes I’d be in school and be picked up rather than take the long trip home on the bus.
My mother and I described it as “waves of nausea.”
[Later on, during my senior year of high school, I developed some PTSD symptoms after a car accident, and now I know that what I was experiencing was more of a panic attack.]
I lost weight. My pediatrician showed my height and weight on a growth chart—I was taller than average and lighter than average. She told said, “if you lose any more weight, the effects on your health will be disastrous.” (I looked it up on a children’s BMI calculator yesterday, and my BMI was quite low—third percentile. That’s the last number I’ll use).
The doctor did not, to my knowledge, suggest any further investigation or treatment.
What got me to eat again was the school year ending and my mom telling me that if I didn’t gain weight, they’d have to stick a tube down my throat. I think she was talking about endoscopy—which probably was a possibility–but she definitely didn’t tell me that I would be asleep during the procedure. To 11-year old me, that meant I was guaranteed to repeatedly gag and/or vomit.
According to my mom, I missed about thirty days of school that year. I wasn’t held back, maybe because the school had already suggested I skip a grade. (I chose not to because I didn’t want to leave my friends. My two best friends and I continued to go to a different class for reading/spelling and the gifted program one day a week at another school in the city). I don’t think I should have been held back, but it’s so strange to me that the school didn’t do anything at all. Now, there would have been home visits and possibly a CPS investigation. I don’t know that my mom was sick enough for that to have led to her getting help, though.
I didn’t want to not eat. I didn’t want to be too underweight. However, I admit that I thought my place on the growth chart was “special.” And, that summer, someone took a candid picture of me pausing to pick a fuzzy off of my t shirt while sweeping the rec hall of the all-girls, Christian camp I attended. I looked so skinny. My legs looked so skinny. I looked at that picture many times, and I took pleasure in it.
I have vague memories of counting calories at some point in childhood, but I don’t know if it was before or after 5th grade. I was probably just emulating my mom, who tended to be overweight in those years. I was also obsessed with staying up all night (“pulling an all-nighter, and then load[ing] up on the caffeine tomorrow”), as I worded it in my diary. I guess I was exploring agency and control.
[I got rid of my diaries when my mom was at her sickest and most invasive. I didn’t see any point in keeping them if they weren’t just for me, and I was afraid I’d get in trouble if I wrote anything that she found upsetting.]
I was pretty normal during middle school. In the 8th grade, I went through a phase of eating a whole can of beef stew every day after school. I got up to what was at the low end of a healthy BMI. One of my mom’s friends remarked at our Christmas party that I looked “healthy—[I had] filled out.” I knew that it was a compliment, but it bothered me in a way I can best describe as making me feel ordinary when I wanted to be special.
In high school, I was skinny because of the loss of appetite I experienced when I was nervous. Boys made this ten times worse. I was treated for an ulcer [ETA: I just remembered that I had a barium swallow test, so maybe there was actual proof of an ulcer]. I tried to gain weight—we bought some 1800-calorie protein powder from GNC, but it tasted gross. We didn’t bother with Ensure, because it was expensive, and I’d have to drink so much in order to gain weight quickly. I didn’t want to be super-skinny during this time. I was often “accused” of being anorexic, and I found that insulting. After the last paragraph, one would assume I was pleased, but I was pretty confident as a high-schooler. I didn’t think people had any right to comment on my body.
My senior year of high school, I met the boy who later became my husband. It was at a wedding that February; we wrote letters to each other until that August, when I took the train from Delaware to where he lived. We fell in love immediately, and profoundly. I lost a bunch of weight after that trip because I was so devastated at not living near him (I didn’t even get to see him again until that December). Our relationship was very drama-filled, so I was constantly anxious or unhappy, with periods of manic bliss in between and during visits to distract me from the need to eat. On the whole, though, I ate okay.
I went on the pill and put on enough weight freshman year.
A month after graduation, I moved to where he was going to live (although he still had another year at Yale) and established my career. My weight and eating were fine during this time.
March of his senior year, I found out about all of the cheating he’d done over the course of our (6-year) relationship. Over the next year, my weight went up to right in the middle of “healthy” according to BMI. I become obsessed with and disgusted by my belly. My sex drive also almost completely disappeared.
I was 25 at this time.
I joined Weight Watchers. They didn’t turn me away even though I was a healthy weight. I lost weight.
At the end of that year, we got engaged. We were to get married the following August. Four months before our wedding, my parents called me to tell me that they had bought a house 1800 miles away. I didn’t even know that they had been looking. I had an invasive thought: “I don’t want to eat anymore.”
That thought came into my mind. I didn’t produce it. However, I did consciously think, “I finally have a relationship with my parents that’s something like what I always wanted. Now, I have to take a 4-hour flight every time I want to see them, and one day, that flight will be to bury them.”
I knew WW wouldn’t accept me, but I still had all my old stuff, so I did it. Well, actually, I overdid it. I also started Wellbutrin, which kills my appetite (I requested it of psychiatrists on and off for years afterward to make it easier to restrict). I shrank quickly, and it’s very apparent in my wedding photos how ill-fitting my dress was. The bodice was way too loose. I wanted the tailor to take it in more, but my mom was already so not into planning the wedding that I felt guilty making them spend more money.
I should have just paid for it myself. I don’t know why that didn’t even occur to me. I was an adult.
We returned from our honeymoon in St. Thomas–two days before my parents moved. Within a two-week period, I had gotten married, moved in with my husband, started a new job at a public school teaching a different level, and my parents (along with my beloved dog) left the east coast. It was too many life changes at once.
I was very nervous at work. I was afraid of “getting in trouble,” of kids throwing up in class, of not getting tenure. I developed nodules on my vocal cords by December, and I was a wreck at home. Maybe in February, I joined a gym as an outlet for my stress. What I was really doing was self-harm, punishing myself and releasing stress through overexercising rather than, for example, cutting.
The day I joined, they asked me to estimate my weight, and I guessed ____ (a normal BMI). They weighed me, and I had been off by 15 pounds.
When the weather got warm, I’d run at the beach and go straight to the gym to work out. I found a note that had been passed when I was out of school one day on which a student had written “Can we say ‘anorexic’?” about me.
By summer, I had a calorie quota. Anything over that had to be exercised off. In time, I basically ate the exact same thing every day.
My husband and I fought about it, but his ADHD made it into a game for me that lasted for many years. The game was to see how much I could get away with before he noticed or said anything.
I still got a period every month.
Somewhere in there, I asked my therapist if she thought I was anorexic, and I was hoping she’d say yes. She said, “no, but I think that you have a problem with food.”
In July, I went into the city to go see my husband’s therapist in the West Village. I often went into the city and wandered around or hung out with him at work, and sometimes his therapist saw us together. When I got there this time, my therapist (who was friends with my husband’s therapist) was also there. It turned out to be an intervention to get me to get treatment. I put my paws up and agreed to do it.
The day after the big east coast blackout in 2003, I checked into Renfrew (a residential treatment facility for eating disorders that I highly recommend) in Philadelphia. There were two “fishbowl” rooms right across from the nurses station for patients that were in the most immediate danger. They put me in one of them, which I don’t get, because I wasn’t nearly as emaciated as the other fishbowl girls, but I was told that they thought I’d lose weight before I gained.
I didn’t. I was very compliant.
Treatment was very physically uncomfortable. They “up” your calorie count every couple of days so you adjust and don’t get re-feeding syndrome, but your body just doesn’t know how to process a normal amount of food, and it just sits. I never felt anything but completely stuffed. It was also impossible to get 8 hours of sleep (especially when I was across from the nurse’s station, because there was a lot of traffic and talking) because the last activity ended at 9:30, I got my vitals done at 5:00 am every morning, and I’m not someone who can just decide it’s time to go to sleep and have my body obey.
That was also the first time I’d experienced anything like having my freedom taken away since I had lived with my mom. It was nothing compared to being in a locked facility, but it was still stressful.
After three weeks, I checked myself out because I needed to get back to work (I was there four days into the new school year), and I wanted to go to SPX to see my comics friends.
I went back to “real life” with nothing more than regular therapy once a week. They wanted me to step down to day treatment in the city near me, and then intensive outpatient (three nights a week, I think), but that wasn’t feasible. I was untenured, so I was already pushing it by missing the beginning of the school year. I ended up telling my principal what was going on, because (1) I was afraid he’d think I was going into treatment for drugs if I didn’t, and (2) I needed a doctor’s note, and the only one I could get from the facility was from the psychiatrist.
Staying under the radar, but not actually living
Somewhere along the line, I picked up occasional laxative abuse. I knew it didn’t work, but I was terrified of vomiting, so I used laxatives as “punishment” after I felt I had overindulged.
The following summer, I went into day treatment in Renfrew in New York, and honestly, it was nothing like Philadelphia. I don’t think I got anything out of it other than supervision for what would have otherwise been dangerously unstructured time. I only went for two weeks, and then I declined intensive outpatient treatment.
That was 2004. That fall, I started social work school. I asked for a new field advisor in my first year when he told me I looked like an eating disorder patient. When my supervisor in my second-year internship said he had been a little worried about me when he first met me, I just gave him my best, “Aw, you’re so sweet…I wouldn’t want to worry you” face and told him I’m just naturally scrawny.
From then until 2008, I neither recovered nor got sick enough for anyone to demand a higher level of care. I stayed under my “85%,” but I look heavier than I am (light bones?), so I didn’t draw any attention to myself until I was well under that.
In 2005, when I was in social work school, I joined a psychodynamic eating disorder group that was run by PhD (psychology) students. It was a very important anchor to me, and it still is very special to me, even though I “graduated” in 2011. (I was the first to leave because I was actually better enough to not need it rather than someone who just ran)/
I took pictures of my body in the summer of 2008, just before I found out about my first pregnancy, and I was emaciated. After my miscarriage, I gave myself a month to cope by restricting, and then I had to get back on track. I don’t think I restricted after my second miscarriage—all I remember are the physical details (this was the one I insisted on doing naturally) and all the testing that followed.
My ob/gyn helped me with weight restoration. I’d do it for a baby. I knew what I needed to do in order to gain weight, but having a sweet authority figure to cheer me on helped.
After my third miscarriage, I didn’t restrict. I think I was above my 85% by then, because my pre-pregnancy weight for my fourth pregnancy was above that, and it was three months after the D&C for the third loss.
When you’re still in love with the idea of being sick, recovery looks like a training or dancing montage from an 80s movie. You’re saying “I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” someone is coaching you to say you can, and you’re struggling through to eat that sandwich. It’s daunting, and you’re not always sure you can do it. At any minute, you might say “fuck it” and give up. That’s not how it went down for me.
Somewhere along the way, my weight was healthy enough that that my doctor said I could stop coming in every week…or I could continue if it would help me maintain. I stopped seeing him, but a few months later, I realized I was still doing it. I was in recovery—not with a bang, but a whimper.
I called it being “in recovery,” because that was a grey area. If I slipped, it wouldn’t feel like I had crossed a line. I wouldn’t need to feel like a failure.
The only exercising I did during this time was biking. Everything else I’d done on and off became an obsessive activity—I couldn’t not count the calories I was burning.
I did fine through pregnancy. Once I started having bleeds, doctor knew I was going to have a preemie, so he wanted me to gain weight as quickly as possible. That was hard to do on bedrest, because the food just sat in my stomach like a brick. I was underweight before pregnancy, and by the end (32 weeks), I weighed the same as I did when I joined Weight Watchers.
Two weeks after I gave birth, I was at my pre-pregnancy weight, and I stayed there until my husband left me in July of 2013. I didn’t want to lose weight, but obviously it was an extremely stressful time. I looked like shit.
The door is closed but not locked
I didn’t relapse. I wasn’t tempted to relapse—not just because going into treatment would take me away from my daughter, but also because I wanted to deal with my divorce in as healthy a way as I could manage. Eating was just sort of an obligation that I didn’t enjoy. I could have easily taken advantage of it. I didn’t. Instead, I created a list of self-soothing activities that I kept in my purse and taped on the wall of my bedroom closet.
Spring of 2014, I ended up in a long distance relationship with a guy who had been a personal trainer. He got me into weight training—which I love, and I’m able to do it without thinking about calories at all. However, he had an eating disorder. I know orthorexia is controversial, but I know an eating disorder when I see it, and he had it. Literally the only carbs I ever saw him eat were organic fruit, oatmeal, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. He claimed to love beer, but I only ever saw him drink half a beer. He was lactose intolerant—either that, or he just didn’t think dairy was “pure” enough—so he turned up his nose any time I mentioned getting protein from dairy. He pushed me to do this diet even though I told him over and over that it was better for me mentally, with my history, to eat some “garbage.” He also pushed me to eat meat and referred to me as “skinny-fat” at one point.
Now that everyone knows why I’m not with him anymore…
He was in good health, very muscular, and a great weight. I tried on his way of doing things, but I couldn’t eat the way he did without being anorexic. I was extremely disciplined in terms of not eating the “bad” things, but I also disliked much of the stuff I was supposed to eat, so I just didn’t eat enough. I broke up with him in September, and sometimes I felt like I was saying “fuck you” to him every time I ate something of which he wouldn’t approve. I also didn’t eat eggs for months because I was so burnt out on them.
I have encountered quite a few lifters/trainers since him, and they were all much less stringent. The 20 year old was particularly good for me. He encouraged a cheat meal every day I trained, and said eat Twix as much as I want—just time it to be after workouts. I’m very grateful to him for the training help he gave me, and he has no idea how healthy his guidance was for me mentally/emotionally.
I still usually say I’m in recovery—I only tend to use past tense with crushes, because an eating disorder isn’t even a little bit attractive. I think that if I were more than only-mildly susceptible to a relapse, I would have done so in the last two years. There was more than enough turmoil and upheaval to fuel it, and the “divorce diet” is an accepted phenomenon. I probably could have gotten away with it for a while without anyone calling me out…but I wasn’t tempted. The only way I could “do” this new life was to find healthy coping mechanisms. As I started to acquire them, I noticed that I was happier than I had been when I had had all of the things that one has on their “30-something” checklist.
I wanted to keep being happy. I wanted to be even more happy.
I still say “in recovery,” though, because there are still ghosts of the eating disorder. I’m still “weird” about some things. Any weight I gain goes right to my belly, which is only flat when I’m within 5 pounds of the weight at which I was hospitalized. That’s probably my biggest trigger.
The second thing that’s still a trigger is trying on pants that end up being too small. I admit that I also still take some pleasure in not being able to find jeans that are small enough to fit.
The other problem is “binging.” I’m using that term loosely, because the only times it’s not an exaggeration would be perhaps after I’ve had Xanax or Seroquel, which make me crave sugar. The former also lowers my inhibitions. I’m fine with getting Taco Bell or a candy bar with lunch on gym days. If I’m not working out that day, or I get two candy bars, it’s not okay. I still “feel” fat afterwards.
I’m also still weird about carbs. I love them, and I eat too much sugar, but I’ll also randomly pass them up. The other day, for example, I ate a Smashburger. I got a black bean burger with lettuce and avocado. No bun. But I also got and polished off a huge order of sweet potato fries.
That night, I had taken Xanax and stayed up too late oversharing with my crush, and then I went into the kitchen and ate most of a huge Panera chocolate chip cookie, a cotton candy Oreo (which wouldn’t normally tempt me at all), and an unknown quantity of regular oreos. I beat myself up about it the next day. I’m still kind of bothered by it.
I still feel shame. I feel shame for being such a bad model to my students. Talking about how much I love Twix and Taco Bell and discouraging dieting talk doesn’t balance out being a visibly-skinny role model. They’re not idiots.
I also am ashamed of my lack of progress in weight training. If I ate more of certain things (that I’m not nuts about) and trained harder, I’d get more muscle. I follow some lifters on IG, and while I think that’s better than thinspo, I do feel like I could be doing better…so I feel a little bit inadequate sometimes.
But I don’t relapse because it’s just not on my menu of options anymore, and now it’s just me. I crave peace in a way that I didn’t for years, and I find satisfaction in taking situations that would have been dramatic in the past and facing them bravely but calmly and in a way that is as little of a “big deal” as possible. There’s no partner with whom to play that “see what I can get away with” game, and I find the idea of upsetting my parents very stressful. I get my attention fix when someone tells me they read my blog and don’t hate it. Most importantly, now I have a daughter who I desperately want to raise to be happy and full of self-love.
I’m almost 40, but I’m younger than I’ll be when I’m almost 50. Almost everything is different now that I see what a waste of youth, time, and energy sickness was, and I never want to give up those things.