** Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggers surrounding eating disorders.
I was told by a specialist that those who suffer from anorexia are usually the people who care more about the happiness of others than themselves. They are much more sensitive from a young age, are always very in tune with the feelings of others and have a strong drive to want everyone around them to be happy.
You’ve been there for basically as long as I can remember. I’m sad to say that most of my childhood memories involve food, comparing my body to the other first graders’ bodies, crying after getting weighed at doctors’ appointments, looking forward to recess only because it was a way to burn calories, etc. I don’t want to write too much about my mother, but most of these early childhood memories involve her. You convinced me to start my first food diary when I was seven. You told me it was the only way to be perfect. But you told me I had to be perfect at everything else too. Not just calorie counting and weight, but also grades, sports, gymnastics, drawing, piano, the perfect big sister, the perfect daughter… My childhood was essentially the perfect breeding ground for an eating disorder. I’ve had therapists refer to it as the perfect storm.
You stayed pretty calm and relatively mild and dormant for a while until my volleyball career started getting more serious. I was chosen for an Elite Junior Olympic team in which I was then chosen as captain of my team. You didn’t let me be proud of myself for this. You just told me that since I now have to lead the workouts, I have to lose more weight than ever; that no team wants a “fat” captain. You told me 200 calories a day was the limit and I listened. I felt fine for a really long time. I felt good, even. Strong, in control. Working out became an obsession for me and I didn’t know how to do it in moderation. I knew I was done when I would pass out; and then would continue to do it all over again the next day. Surprisingly, you still allowed me to have friends at this point, to have a life outside of you, but not for long.
Eventually the line between you and me got blurred and I just accepted you as who I was. You destroyed high school for me. You caused me to go from a straight-A student to someone who didn’t even bother going anymore. By this point, you had me convinced that I couldn’t chew gum because the 3 calories might make me gain weight. You had me terrified of the calories in toothpaste, in chapstick, in everything. I remember the exact moment I realized how bad things had gotten. I was sitting in first period cooking class and we were told we were going to make funnel cakes that day. I felt my heart start to race but I held it together for a while. I stood in the background while everyone started getting everything together, and suddenly you told me that I needed to leave the room because if I smelled food it may be possible to absorb calories somehow. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this sounds now.) The rational part of me went to my guidance counselor and told her everything and asked for help. You were angry at me for that because now the secret was out.
I started seeing a therapist (that my guidance counselor referred me to) and dietician. I was genuinely enjoying allowing myself to eat again. More of my personality came back as I got healthier and it was so nice while it lasted. I knew I needed to gain some weight, but the day I walked into my dietician’s office and saw 114 lbs. on the scale, you freaked out. That was the day you told me I was done getting help. Graduation came shortly after, and all I remember about my graduation party was how guilty I felt over the green beans I ate and how my collarbones didn’t stick out enough in that pink tank top. I slowly regressed from there.
You honestly felt like a friend to me sometimes. A mean friend, but a friend. No matter where I went, I knew you would be there. People left, but you stayed. Even though by this point I realized how you were destroying my life, you were still very comforting to me at times. You became the only way I knew how to deal with stress. My go-to coping mechanism. Some people use drugs, some drink, I had you. Fighting with my family? You told me how to deal with it (restrict). Had a bad breakup? Restrict. Lost my best friend? Restrict. Freaking out about Restriction was a drug to me. The longer and harder I did it, the more numbed out I became to everything. Things didn’t bother me. I am naturally a person who worries about everything and has a high level of anxiety. So this numbness was very different for me and I became addicted to it. It was almost like taking a break from myself, which I desperately wanted.
I had the opportunity to go to college on both an art scholarship and a volleyball scholarship. You caused me to lose that. But more importantly, you caused me to lose relationships with family and friends. You have caused me to lose vacations, memories, jobs, family get-togethers, holidays, birthdays… the list goes on. Because of you, I have lied to the people who cared the most about me. You turned me into someone I didn’t even recognize. I remember looking in the mirror one day, just staring, and thinking “who the hell are you?” I spent countless nights freezing in bed feeling my heart slow down and skip beats, and I would calmly think to myself, “I’m probably going to die in my sleep tonight.” You stripped me of all emotion. I didn’t feel anything. Ever. Maybe that’s why I feel everything so intensely now.
On April 22, 2013, the day before my 21st birthday, my body finally gave up. Somehow, until this day, I was still managing to hold down a job, and was surviving on 70 calories of frozen fruit a day. Restricting this low effects the release of endorphins in the brain and made me feel euphoric and mellow. At the time I was in a relationship with a guy who had a lot of strange views on food as well. He would go for days at a time on nothing but Powerade. I viewed this as a competition to see who could do “better.” (I do not in any way blame him for anything I have done to my body. He was a good guy and wasn’t even aware that he was triggering me. I am simply trying to explain the competitive nature of eating disorders). When I woke-up that Monday morning and couldn’t walk anymore, you congratulated me for doing so “good.” But yet somehow you still told me I needed to do better. That 75 lbs. wasn’t “good” enough.
Legally, it is very difficult to force someone over the age of 18 into treatment, but my dad tried anyway and the judge sided with him. I felt like a prisoner. I didn’t want treatment. When my sister cried and held my hand on the way to the hospital, you had me very calmly tell her I will be gone soon but that it would all be okay. When the doctors told me I was the worst case of anorexia they had ever seen, you told me I should be proud of myself for having so much willpower.
I was still refusing food at the hospital, but passed out a few days later and woke up with a feeding tube in my nose. I was infuriated but too weak to even bother complaining. The nurses there were some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. They treated me as if I was their daughter or sister, and I’m still in touch with them today. I stayed there until my bloodwork improved a bit, and then I was admitted by ambulance to the eating disorder unit of a psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh. I remember the EMTs who picked me up. One of them was a young guy and I remember thinking, he probably had no idea what anorexia even was. But he sat with me in the back of the ambulance trying so hard to make me smile, and told me how much he believed that I could get better. My family didn’t come to see me before I was discharged, so this meant so much to me.
But even in treatment, you didn’t loosen your grip on me one bit. The fact that I was there involuntarily meant I was treated differently than the other patients and monitored more closely, which caused me to want to rebel. I hid food, I water-loaded before weigh-ins, I secretly worked out with my roommate in our room, I faked my way through countless therapy sessions… I was too scared to lose you. You were the only thing that made me feel like I was good at something. You had me continue to go through the motions of months of treatment and I eventually hit 112 lbs., the lowest weight the treatment center was willing to discharge me at. You had me start restricting again, the very day I got out. You of course wanted me to lose weight again but told me that I had to do it slower this time so it wouldn’t be so obvious.
Things didn’t get bad until fall of 2014. The only thing I remember about Thanksgiving that year is my brother standing in the kitchen crying (this is the only time I have ever seen him cry), and begging me to get help. He wrapped his fingers around my upper arm, with room to spare, and told me he loved me. It broke my heart but it wasn’t enough for you to back off.
In January of 2015 I was again forced into treatment. I was terrified because you kept telling me how fat I was going to get. I cried for days while the admission process was in the works, and thought constantly about killing myself. But the night before I left, a wave of calm came over me. For the first time in my life I wondered what life could be like without you. And that curiosity turned into anger towards you. Anger for destroying my life and my body and my mind and my everything.
The next morning I woke-up and you were complacent, which was shocking to me. Dad and I flew out to Denver that morning. I remember watching a girl around my age on the plane eating a banana. I was so jealous that she could just eat and not want to die afterward. I kind of just stared at her and tried to wrap my head around what that was like. You were pretty quiet during the whole flight. I felt calm. Sitting in a wheelchair in the Denver airport, it hit me that I was never going to be good enough for you. I wasn’t good enough for you when I hit 120 lbs., not 110 lbs., not 90 lbs., not 75 lbs. There is no “good enough” for you. Dying as a skeleton is the only thing that would have been good enough for you.
The treatment center I was going to was the most intense in the country. A part of me hoped they could really finally make me “better,” whatever that was. And they did. You got quieter and easier to ignore.
I did extremely well there and I felt like myself again. I got to know myself. I appreciated my sense of humor, my personality. The panic attacks stopped. I spent time with amazing treatment friends and didn’t isolate myself. I explored the most beautiful city I’ve ever been in. I laid in the sun. I did art again. I wrote again, every day. I laughed. God, it felt so good to laugh again. I became a leader in the treatment community and you were relatively silent. You did, however, make me feel guilty for not struggling more, of course. There’s always something for you to make me feel guilty for.
After months in Denver, I was terrified to leave. I felt closer with the people there than I have ever felt with my family. I didn’t want you to come back when I got home. I didn’t want to go home at all, and my family didn’t want me there either. You snuck back in when I got back to Pennsylvania. You “helped” me deal with stress and the transition. I was lonely and miserable. I gained weight, I lost, I gained, I lost, etc. My psychiatrist quit on me, saying I was too “complicated” of a case.
Life was a mess until January of 2016. I was finally put on meds that actually helped. I moved into a new apartment that didn’t have bad memories associated with it. It was like a fresh start. I felt hopeful. I reconnected with friends. I got back in touch with everyone from Denver. Then I met the most amazing guy I’ve ever had in my life and he is a big part of my motivation to stay healthy. Am I happy with my body? No. I don’t think I’ll ever be, and I’ve accepted that. It doesn’t matter if I’m 75 lbs. or 150 lbs., I’m never going to be completely happy with my body. This is because eating disorders are about so much more than weight. But I refuse to miss out on anymore of my life because of food and body image. I want to travel, I want to finish college, I want to have late night talks and spontaneous ice cream trips and laugh until I can’t breathe and write poems and sit on the beach and go swimming and spend time with people I love.
Right now I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m not completely better and I’ve been told that completely better doesn’t exist when it comes to eating disorders. But I’ve made so much progress. It’s still hard; and I still spend too much time trying on clothes, butter still seems extremely unnecessary to me, and I still can’t wrap my head around why people drink non-diet pop or use regular sugar instead of Splenda. I’m not going to pretend like I’m 100% ED-free. I’m not going to put on the façade that I am the perfect image of recovery because I’m not. But I’m at a healthy weight, I’ve recently found that ice cream is super good, and I couldn’t ask for a better guy in my life. Life no longer revolves around meal planning and calorie counting and exercise.
I’ve learned so much about myself and about the underlying causes of my eating disorder. The ironic thing about eating disorders is that they promise you all the control in the world; but in the end, you are stripped of every bit of control. People with eating disorders tend to be very black-and-white thinkers, which is a very hard mind set for me to get out of. I think in extremes. Everything is either the best thing that’s ever happened to me, or it’s the end of the world. There is no gray area, no in between, no moderation. When I diet, I starve. When I workout, I do it until I physically can’t move anymore. But when I love, I love hard; and when I commit to something, I give it my all. It’s hard for me to come up with things that I like about myself, but I do think I have a really good heart. I would do anything in the world to make sure that the people I care about are happy and safe and taken care of. The hard part is allowing myself to show myself that same compassion.
Meet the Author: Sarah Easterday
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us Sarah! Congrats on your recovery!