Personal Story: Make It Happen
I am not an expert on eating disorders, or an expert on anything really. I don’t speak or write on this topic regularly. I was friends with Jenn, and I had my own experience with an eating disorder, so that’s what I’m going to share with you.
When I think about Jenn, I feel so sad. I feel the weight of what this illness can do, how it can seize someone and cause an implosion. When you see individuals who have starved themselves, you see it from the outside. You see the body, wasted. But that’s just the consequence – the real illness is all in the head, the heart, the soul.
When I started college, I was relatively healthy. I was health conscious, ate well and exercised a few days a week, but as far as I can tell, I was pretty normal. By spring break of my freshman year in college, I had lost a lot of weight. My face was gaunt, my elbows poked, and my clothes were too big.
What happened? Well, during my experience, everyone had their theory: I must have looked at too many models in fashion magazines, and now I feel fat even though I’m not. I must be so busy with school that I forget to eat. I must be getting pressured by boyfriends or sorority friends to look sexy. I must be trying to get attention.
Eating disorders are too often simplified, and often trivialized. It’s not always about trying to be thin or sexy, and the cure is not a matter of putting away the magazines, or as my dad once innocently suggested, just drinking a couple milkshakes each day.
Different people have different issues, different triggers for the behavior. But I would theorize that there is at least one common ground between individuals with eating disorders – both the cause and the solution are complex.
For me, there were a lot of things going on at that time in my life. For most teenagers, starting college is full of transition, which is more stressful for some than others. There was so much uncertainty. What would I study? How successful would I be at this new Ivy League school? What would I do after college? Who would I be friends with? What kind of person would I be here – Intellectual? Party girl? Hipster? What guys was I attracted to? What relationships would I keep with those friends and family back home? I was struggling with an identity crisis. My perfectionism didn’t help. I equated normal or average performance with deficiency, mediocrity. The blond girl from the movie, American Beauty, Angela, explained my attitude quite well, when she said “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” I wanted all or nothing, to be exceptional at something or drop it altogether. And on top of everything else, moving up north for school proved quite difficult for me, and the cold weather and grey skies contributed to my depression.
With all the uncertainty, pressure, personal dissatisfaction, and seasonal depression, I felt like my life was totally out of control. As I lost confidence, I began to introvert further. I began feeling more and more isolated, being so far from the friends and family I had known back home and not yet feeling very close to anyone at school.
I was searching for something by which to define myself, to fulfill me. There's a phrase from one of Anne Sexton's poems that describes how I was feeling: "waiting for the lost ingredient, as if salt or money or even lust would keep us calm and prove us whole at last." While I was struggling with my identity, there were certain things I knew I did not want to be. I did not want to be at the bottom of my class in school; I did not want to be in the nerdy sorority; and I did not want to be fat.
Food and exercise became a source, and soon the sole source, of personal satisfaction. Here was something certain, under my complete control, without having to rely on other people or worry about external circumstances. I began to define myself in terms of calories; I could structure my day in terms of calories. Calories did not depend on weather or test scores. I could think about what I would eat and when I would exercise, come to decisions, and that would be that. Unlike everything else that seemed so uncertain and unsatisfying. Of course, all of these issues only fueled each other. As I became more depressed, I because more isolated, and therefore even more depressed. As I became more starved, I became more paranoid and obsessive, which caused me to starve more.
All of these things I understand now – but I didn't then. This understanding didn't happen in a week, or a month. It took a few years to gain.
So I went back home for spring break. The reaction from my family and best friend from high school was heart-breaking. The looks on their faces was suddenly a mirror for me – I realized that I looked like a cancer patient. I knew then that I didn't want to be like this, to look like this, to think like this. But I felt like I was in a deep hole and had no idea how to climb out. Furthermore, I wasn't really sure how I'd gotten there in the first place. I never intended to lose so much weight. I actually liked my body less as I got thinner. I lost the weight not because of a desire to be skinnier, but partly because of my fear of becoming fat. Also, developing an eating disorder is like creating a monster. You control it until it begins to control you. So at that point, I wanted to get better but I didn't know how and I was very afraid.
I sporadically kept a diary at the time. That spring, I wrote: "Nothing can make it go away anymore. My heart races and my mind won't shut up or let me sleep. I can never concentrate. I want to cry, vent, but nothing will come out. I just want some peace and quiet. I want to be able to think about things, like I used to, before I got a one-track mind. I feel so alone! No one I can talk to, yet everyone knows, which makes it worse. I don't enjoy anything, and the best I can hope for is a distraction."
When I got back to school, I made the best decision that I had made in probably several months. I picked up the phone and called the student health center to make an appointment. The best decision, but one of the hardest phone calls of my life. I remember sitting on the floor in my dorm room, my heart racing, trying to think about what I would say. I turned up the stereo, just in case anyone might hear me in the hallway. I remember finally saying the words "I think I have an eating disorder" and they were like rocks in my throat.
Digging myself out of the hole was hard. Actually, the first step was not to climb out, but to stop digging deeper. At the student health center, I had to meet with four different professionals. I needed a general medical doctor to make sure I hadn't destroyed my body too badly, such as by losing bone density. I needed a psychiatrist to provide anti-depressants to help me think more clearly and lift my spirits. I needed a psychologist to help me think through all of the underlying issues and start to work through them. I needed a nutritionist to help me identify my disordered behaviors and start to change them. I went for appointments probably once a week for about two years.
Improvement didn't happen immediately for me, at least not visibly. I was starting to make some progress mentally, but after several months, I had only gained maybe ten pounds back. I know that other people in my life were frustrated by this. If I had acknowledged the problem, why couldn't I just eat my way back to good health?
First, it takes time to identify the underlying psychological issues, and even more time to start dealing with them. In addition, a component of my illness was obsessive-compulsive disorder, which made it very difficult to deviate from my routine. It also made it very difficult to turn off the obsessive mind, to stop thinking and worrying. Moreover, once habits become engrained, they are very difficult to break, in part, because you no longer know what is normal in reality and what is just normal to you. Furthermore, it took time to fill the void. I couldn't stop obsessing about food and exercise until I had some other thoughts or feelings or ideas to replace the obsessions with. Finally, sometimes other people would interfere, with comments about how skinny I was and could wear anything - and - do I model?
What I'm trying to say is that even in the best case scenario, where the eating disordered patient wants to recover, and is trying earnestly, it is a long and hard road.
I don't think there was any one breakthrough moment for me along the way. I just slowly made my mental and physical repairs over the course of about two years. Once I started treatment, and acknowledged the elephant in the room, I gradually felt less ashamed. I started allowing other people back into my life.
This is where Jenn really came into my life. I don't remember exactly when or how, but at some point I guess we realized we had some issues in common. Well, we actually had a lot of things in common, loving books, choral music, and animals. But we also had our eating disorders. She was one of the only people – outside of the professionals at the student health center - that I could really talk to about my disorder. I mean really get into the details and not feel ashamed or just plain crazy. I don't think I realized just how hard Jenn was fighting her own demons. One of the effects of an eating disorder is that you become very self-centered. I don't mean selfish, but self-absorbed. I wish my memories of the times we spent were clearer. I also wish I could have been more of a friend to her, especially after college when we started losing touch.
My treatment ended when I finished college, at which time I moved south to start law school. It's kind of bizarre to most people when I say that I enjoyed law school more than college. But it's true. In a way it was like a second chance for me to get the college experience I missed while I was silently obsessing and starving. In my new city, I immediately connected to others. I quickly found a close circle of girlfriends, met my now husband, and adopted a wonderful pet from a shelter. I also strengthened my relationships with my family back home. After all the therapy, I felt rooted in my identity and confident about my abilities and ready to live my life.
It's not that my life is perfect now, not that all trace of my issues have disappeared. It's just that I know better how to identify and deal with problems now, without turning to my body for help or blame. I get obsessive or anxious sometimes still, just not about calories or exercise. My husband is amused that I need to check twice to make sure the oven is off or that the door is locked, that I can't stand clutter and want things arranged in the house just so, and that I make lists for everything. So I have a Type A personality – I can live with that.
I still have a relationship with food, but a healthy one. I am a vegetarian, and I enjoy cooking, eating out at restaurants, and trying new things. I still pay attention to what I purchase and put into my body, but for much different reasons. I have maintained a slim but "normal" frame for several years now. I exercise when it feels good, or more honestly, when I can find the time given the demands of my job.
My husband and I met six years ago during law school, and have enjoyed a very loving and healthy relationship. We are expecting a little boy to join our family this spring, and could not be more thrilled. In a way, this pregnancy has truly brought me full circle. It has been the most beautiful experience, and I have never been more amazed by and appreciative of my body's capabilities.
For those who are still struggling with an eating disorder, have hope. We are all stronger than we know. Ask for help when you need it. Take one step at a time. Imagine a different future for yourself, and know that it's possible. Make it happen.