In this article, written for Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I describe my struggle with anorexia and the conscious shift it took to begin the path of healing.
It is painful for me to look back on the images of myself taken during the worst phases of my eating disorder. I don’t have to see my full body in the photograph above to feel a strong gut reaction. This picture was taken in an ice cream store in Paris in 2012. I remember feeling freezing cold despite the sweltering heat of the summer day. No matter the temperature, cardigans never seemed to be enough to warm me up. I was posing in a food-patterned dress alongside my heaping ice cream cone, telling the world through my deliberately staged smile that I was most definitely okay. Yet I can tell from my sunken eyes, my bulging veins, and my protruding bones that I most definitely was not.
I remember the habitual late-afternoon light-headed irritability I felt as I took an eternity to decide on which ice cream store and flavors to indulge in, the ravenous hunger I felt before taking the first taste of my ice cream, and the shame that I was instantly struck with after chomping down the last morsel of my cone. I told myself that I didn’t need dinner tonight and could run it off in the morning. Before this trip, I had just spent 3 weeks in Kenya, where the locals boldly asked me if I was sick. I was in denial, equating their continuous intrusive questioning to cultural differences in beauty standards and cultural norms in what was appropriate to ask a stranger. Yet I couldn’t help but feel wounded by their words. I wondered, did I really look sick? How did I get to this point of self-starvation, and how long could I maintain it?
Since childhood, my diet has been my silent rebellion. When I was unhappy with my family, I would either refuse to eat my meals or binge eat desserts when the opportunity presented. When I turned 14, I learned that I was no longer had to listen to the strict dietary guidelines that I was raised with, and I rebelled harder by becoming a vegetarian (which at the time meant consuming nearly all of my calories through pizza and cookie dough). When I joined my high school’s cross country team at age 15, I no longer had the need to rebel against my parents, and I instead began directing my warfare towards myself.
Starving myself was a conscious decision, but the first few pounds that I shed naturally from beginning to run were a catalyst. A major chunk of my afterschool time was consumed by cheerleading so I barely trained when I made it to State as a sophomore in high school. My effortless victory was met with praise from my peers, my parents, my teachers, local newspapers, and my cheerleading squad (who congratulated me for being lighter to fly because of all the running). I thought that if I kept cutting calories and actually trained, I had potential to be good at running, and, more importantly, I'd have an identity to cling to.
I began pushing myself harder and harder. To run more, to run faster, to eat less. Before long, my eating disorder had become my identity. I no longer consciously controlled what I was eating. My eating began to control me. I became more and more rigid about my routines. Making it through each day in my quiet, dizzying struggle became more and more of a challenge. Yet as long as I reached the next morning for my next run and my next meal, it was worth it. It was worth it for the vivacity of colors, textures, and tastes that I would experience after my morning runs and for the mouthwatering anticipation of my first bite of a walnut, a pancake morsel, or a piece of granola hitting my hollow stomach. As long as I kept running fast times, no one would bother me. I could be alone with my eating disorder and life would be okay.
As a Sophomore in college, after a year of running on an NCAA Division I track and cross country team, my body began to fight back. I had constant knots in my stomach and could barely digest the limited volume of food that I would ingest. I hadn’t had a real period in years (at least, not one that hadn’t been induced by birth control). I fainted – twice. The first time was two days into up-leveling my vegan diet to a “detox diet” in which I crossed even more things off my okay-to-eat list. I was shadowing a local physician and had been on my feet for the afternoon. The doctor was doing a routine check-up, and I fell head-first into his patient’s lap.
The second time that I fainted was while I was doing a research internship in Colorado – almost exactly a year after the ice cream photo in Paris was taken. I was dehydrated from running twice in a heatwave the day before and once again on the morning before shadowing a surgery. Before the surgery even began, I started feeling lightheaded. I couldn’t stop yawning and my ears began ringing. This time, I wasn’t lucky enough to have a soft patient to break my fall. The heavy weight of my 80ish-pound body toppled headfirst onto the metallic edge of a surgery table, busting open my brow line and concussing my brain. I remember being so far away from the world. I felt as if I were floating in a deep black and blue outer space, listening to voices of a faraway dream. As I began to regain consciousness, I realized the voices I had been hearing were from the crowd around me. I was instantly mortified. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” I promised. Once again, I most definitely was not.
Just as the onset of my eating disorder arose from a conscious decision for self-starvation, so to did my decision to heal. Although my concussion was a red flag, it wasn’t the turning point. I had a few months left of feeling like a hamster on a wheel until the realization finally hit that my eating disorder had gained control of my life. The same summer that I lived in Colorado, I began practicing yoga as a way to improve my flexibility for running. My favorite teacher talked about “finding your edge” often in our classes. I didn’t fully understand the concept at the time, but his words felt comforting, and they planted a few seeds for self-acceptance. I kept coming back to classes even when I returned for my Junior year from Colorado because I inherently knew there was something healing about the practice.
Throughout my Junior year, I felt as though I were just hanging on by a thread to my cross country times. Finally, I was lapped out of the 5k in our indoor conference meet, and the moment of shame somehow flipped a switch in my head. As I slumped down on the sideline in tears, the room suddenly brightened around me. I felt in every fiber of my body that I had been destroying my body. I was done.
I spent the night sleeplessly crying, journaling, and jotting down plans for my path to healing. I desperately needed a new identity, one that wasn’t defined by my body image, my running times, or even my GPA. I consulted my course catalog, deciding that I still had time to add French as a second major, to re-route to global health as a professional plan, and to schedule yoga teacher training in my long-term goals for life because I realized that my yoga mat was one of the few spaces that I could feel like I was enough.
Although my denial of my disorder was shattered in an instant, healing from a 5.5-year disease was inevitably a long process. I needed a hard reset for my long-held dietary habits. Thankfully, I studied abroad in France that summer and had a host mother whose mission was to teach me French culture through the art of eating – a tactic that I would have brushed off at any other time in my life had I not already consciously made the decision to heal. In France, I finally began to let myself savor the full experience of food again without being crippled with shame.
After surviving 5.5 years of anorexia, my relationship with food will never be the same. I have regained a normal weight and mostly normal eating habits, but I am still plagued with worry that I’ve done permanent damage to my heart, my digestion, my fertility, and my mental health. In the long run, anorexia can be a silent killer, causing death without warning from electrolyte imbalance or cardiac arrest. I realize this now that my protective veil of denial has been lifted.
My narrative is not unique. It’s the over-told story of a white girl who falls victim to a culturally-bound syndrome and learns with time that she is worthy of a life that is defined by more than the numbers on a scale or the seconds on a clock. My story is nothing new, but it is mine to tell. And so I raise my voice against my silent rebellion with the hope that it can catch the ears of a few of the countless others who have been at any stage along our shared path. Together, our voices are stronger, and together, we can continue to heal.