Does Dirt Have Calories? How I Overcame Anorexia

After accepting my diagnosis, anorexia seemed like the one special thing about me. "Recovery" seemed synonymous with "fatness," "failure" and "mediocrity." When my therapist threatened hospitalization, I lied, promising to gain necessary weight.
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A rear view of a young woman looking away to the sea during sunset, with illuminated Tsing Ma Bridge in the background.
A rear view of a young woman looking away to the sea during sunset, with illuminated Tsing Ma Bridge in the background.

The content of this post may be triggering to some readers.

I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris -- woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should have been a pinnacle in the modeling career I'd held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder.

My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness -- i.e., happiness, success, perfection; I had to run.

I stepped out of my tiny flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel sunrise -- a living, breathing Monet.

The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting‚ estimating the previous day's "damage." So accustomed to the accompanying dizziness, anything else would've felt foreign. But this time was different.

Pushing the added off-ness aside, I observed a dip in the ground ahead. It looks like an adult-sized cradle. Perhaps I sensed what was coming.

Increasingly dizzy, I couldn't outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. And for a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.

I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than contemplate how long I'd been there or if I'd been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories?

I don't recall how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: "You have anorexia. You could've died... could die."

My thoughts went wild: I can't have anorexia. Please don't make me eat. I felt neither thin nor "skilled" enough to have a disorder marked by starvation.

I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. After accepting my diagnosis, anorexia seemed like the one special thing about me. "Recovery" seemed synonymous with "fatness," "failure" and "mediocrity." When my therapist threatened hospitalization, I lied, promising to gain necessary weight.

Then one of my nightmares came true: I gave in to my longing for a bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the sweet dollop in my mouth, my entire body trembled. Head-to-toe orgasm. Intoxication. Relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, until all that remained of the half-gallon sat like a rock in my shrunken stomach.

A bingeing/starving roller coaster ensued, worsening until I had little awareness of all I'd consumed until I found myself sobbing amid wrappers and crumbs.

"I will do anything to stop this," I told my therapist.

"Good," she said. "After bingeing, don't skip your next meal."

Anything but that, I thought, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired while stopping bingeing. Utopia. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.

One night after a gargantuan binge, I considered gulping the poison I'd used occasionally to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. When I couldn't find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.

Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. That calmness paired with tired frustration brought clarity: Try something new.

I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror, and looked not at my belly or thighs, but my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.

"You can't live like this anymore!" I cried. "This is not who you are."

These proclamations were the first signs of self-love I'd displayed in years, a light in the dark cave I lived in. If I kept it on, I knew my life would change. So rather than plot restriction strategies, I plotted a future free of ED.

I threw my "skinny clothes" and scale away, and removed the size-tags from clothes that fit. I vowed that for one year, I would not make any attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning with trembling hands I ate breakfast, forcing thoughts of I love you, You're going to be okay.

The bingeing continued at first, until I doubled my lowest weight. Still, I carried on, sans restriction. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.

Months later, my eating had normalized and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends and even, on occasion, laughing. But I still felt awkward eating around others. Hunger and fullness put me on-edge. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn't left. He'd merely grown quieter.

Over tea one afternoon, my mom gave me a CD featuring Lee Ann Womack's, "I Hope You Dance."

"It's time to find joy," she said. (And here I'd thought I had everyone fooled.)

The song's message about "dancing" hit me full-force. I'd been eating because I was supposed to and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep-end again. To recover fully, I had to manifest joy around eating.

With a velocity I'd only previously applied to treadmills, I began studying food from a new perspective: health and happiness. I obtained a certification in nutrition, volunteered at soup kitchens and challenged myself to eat mindfully, dine in public and savor the ice cream that triggered my first binge, one serving at a time. On difficult days, I asked myself what I'd feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that, until gradually, finally, I became her.

One cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table eating spicy chili and fresh-baked cornbread. An unexpected breeze swept through my window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannellini beans, I laughed. Struck my amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table.

Need help? Call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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