I think of my adolescence as divided into two chapters: before anorexia and after anorexia.
I'm going to be really honest with you, I've tried to write this post dozens of times only to stop halfway through, frustrated and frankly pissed off. What usually comes out is a jumble, a mess not worth sharing. I slide out of my desk chair, lie on the floor in my bedroom (really), and stare up at the ceiling wondering why I can't get this story out.
The other day, I finally isolated the problem. See, the thing is, to truly honor this story, to tell you why I became anorexic, the path it took me down, and the long road back, I have to tell it through the eyes of my 14-year-old self; how I thought back then, what I felt, what motivated me. My almost-40-year-old self does not like this at all. As I write, she pokes her nose in constantly, armed with her years of experience and insight, always judging, rationalizing and criticizing.
"Pipe down," I tell her. "You'll get your turn later. First, we need to hear from the girl."
So here we go.
It was 1990, the summer before I started high school. At 14, I had a crush on at least two of my older brother's friends, was strangely obsessed with Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time album (truth be told, I still love that album), and knew by heart the calories of every single item I ate.
By 14, just a few years older than my own daughter is now, I'd been dieting on and off for two years, embracing the twisted paradox that the less there was of me, the more my value grew. As a child of the 80s, this was not particularly unusual or unique. Back then, no one told us "strong is the new skinny." There was no big-booty worship, no celebration of muscular arms or washboard abs. Instead, many of us came of age under the care of mothers who carried their own distorted body baggage, scars leftover from the eras of Twiggy and Barbie. We were fed a steady diet of mantras like "never too rich or too thin," and taught that thighs have one, and only one, acceptable shape: straight.
My friend's older sister was anorexic. She was the most gorgeous girl I'd ever seen then; that kind of beautiful you always remember from your youth when everything seems so exaggerated and extreme. When she became anorexic, no one could understand why. But something in me knew. I knew what it felt like to look so together on the outside, and yet underneath, in the places no one could see, feel that all of it -- you, your life, your achievements -- were not good enough. As concern for her grew, the farther down she slipped into the disease, I remember watching with what I can only describe as admiration. To my struggling 14-year-old eyes, she had stumbled on what seemed like the perfect solution to that festering pool of "not good enough" that bubbled inside.
And for me, at least initially, like all good addictions, it was the perfect solution. Anorexia was everything the textbooks say it is: A way to feel more in control, a distraction from difficult emotions, a perfect fit for high-achievers, all in line with cultural norms and expectations for women. Anorexia turned me into a mini accountant overnight, counting and recounting calories all day long, quieted the noise in my head and numbed my sensitive heart. Wasting away, I was the picture of who I thought I was supposed to be.
But there was more. In those early days and weeks of claiming I either wasn't hungry or didn't feel well or was just too busy to eat, I was alight with -- and I know this sounds so weird - hope and excitement. You see, I told myself, and I believed, one really spectacular lie: If my outsides show just how bad I feel on the inside, if I get sick enough, thin enough, someone will do something. Someone will save me, fix me, even change for me. And then, finally, everything will be OK. Everything will be good enough.
What followed were years and years of dancing to the beat of that lie, annihilating myself in the hope that someone else would rescue me. My body became the sole expression of my unhappiness, ground zero for every conflict I couldn't work through. I was waging a war in which I was the only victim.
I tried to get well many times. I'd eat only to have my starved body hold on to every morsel, my weight rocketing up seemingly overnight. There were good patches, times when I gained weight and kept it on for a while. A well-meaning friend or family member would remark on how "healthy" I looked. I'd want to punch them in the mouth. In my mind, "healthy" became synonymous with "OK," and I most certainly wasn't. Back down the rabbit hole I'd go again.
In my second year of college, anorexia was winning and I was losing. I could no longer see my way back to a normal relationship with food. More so, while my peers had spent their adolescence developing a whole arsenal of coping strategies and tools, I had only one: starvation and more starvation. It was my only weapon; a crude machete that at first did as it was intended but later just left me hacking away in vain.
I entered in-patient treatment and started the long process of unearthing the girl that got buried in the rubble of anorexia. At the start of treatment, I was the picture of compliance. Tucked away in the Arizona desert, I did everything that was asked of me. I ate, attended art therapy and equine therapy and group therapy and all kinds of therapy and, in many ways, I waited; waited still for someone to fix me, to put me back together.
Not long into my stay, though, a frustration began to build, an itchy feeling underneath my skin. Day after day, I'd sit next to girls who had been there for months before me and who were so medically fragile that their stay was sure to extend for many more months after I left. And the whole thing made me angry. Angry for all of us. Was this the best we could do? The best solution we could come up with? Staging all of our battles -- for control or perfection or worthiness or whatever else haunted us -- on our bodies and our plates? It was a tiny glint of perspective, a sliver of a view into the madness of it all, and the first step toward acknowledging that it wasn't working, at least not for me anymore.
One evening, walking back to my room, I thought about all the years I'd spent destroying myself, running from myself, all the while holding out hope -- believing the lie -- that someone else would save me. The truth was, many people had tried. But that night, my soul stirred with the knowledge that it was only me who could do the saving. That was a terrifying thought. I didn't know how or where to begin, and I felt so weary and broken.
In the distance, lightening filled the night sky. Rain was coming. I'd always been afraid of thunderstorms. It was a childish fear, but if you're following along here, I didn't exactly have a good handle on managing my feelings. But something about the warm desert air that night made me decide to stay outside under a covered patio so that I could watch the storm. And it was magnificent. Big booming thunder, brilliant white lightening that chased away the darkness just long enough to reveal the desert landscape.
But it was the smell of the air that I remember most. When it rains in the desert, the air fills with this indescribable smell; sweet and pungent as if the bone-dry earth has just let out one really great big exhale. I'd never experienced anything like it, and to this day, that smell is like a rare gift, one that seems to fade and drift away as quickly as it came, leaving me wanting more.
That night I realized, had I run inside, hid from the storm, I would never have smelled that smell. It sounds silly, I know, but it created a small shift in me, an openness to the idea that life's storms could also contain beauty.
Soon after, I left treatment and went home, knowing that no person or place was going to save me. The road back to normal -- a normal relationship with food and my body - was not a straight one. It took years and I had my share of missteps along the way. But when I look back, two things made the difference. The first, I made a deal with myself that I'd eat no matter what. I told myself over and over, as many times a day as I needed, no problem was ever going to be solved, no feeling ever made better by starving myself. The second, and this is one I'm still practicing, when the storms of life blow in, don't run inside, don't hide. In fact, if you can, stay awake through the storm and watch it unfold. The storm will pass. It always does. And sometimes, what it leaves behind is more beautiful, more wonderful than what came before.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.