A Timeline of My Eating Disorder
I am 9 years old, sitting in my fourth-grade spelling class. Despite my advanced reading ability, I am a sub-par speller, and studying at a third-grade level. In preparation for an upcoming test, the teacher has positioned the students in a circle, and we’re going around the room spelling words she assigns us out loud. When my turn comes, the teacher says, “chubby.” “Chubby” I say, “c-h-u-b-b-y.” As soon as I finish spelling the word, a boy next to me whispers audibly, “Yeah you are!” My heart feels too big, my face too hot. No one has every bullied me before. The same boy taunts me for the rest of the school year, and for the first time, I wonder what it means to be fat.
I am 11, sitting around the dinner table with my family—my mom, dad, and older brother. We are eating corned beef hot dish, a meal I despise. I hold my nose and swallow whatever is deemed the “correct” amount of corned beef. Then, because I was good and had cleaned my plate, I would get dessert: chocolate zucchini cake—a moist, decadent concoction that I looked forward to all summer. As I served myself a large slice, my dad, standing behind me, comments, “That’s an awful big piece! You probably don’t need all of that.” I look down in shame, cut the piece in half, and sit at the kitchen table staring at my cake as a lump wells in my throat and tears threaten to sting my eyes. I am a pig for wanting too much.
I am 13, at a garage sale with my grandmother. The sale is at her neighbor’s home, and as the two women chat, I look through stacks of clothing. During a lull in the conversation, her neighbor holds up a baby blue blouse and says, “This is cute, and I bet it would fit you.” My grandmother glances at the blouse doubtfully and replies, “Maybe not, she’s got some meat on her bones.”
“But she’s slender” the neighbor points out. I stand silent, not part of the conversation but a witness to a debate about my own body. Silent, as if my body ought to speak for me, as if by fitting into a piece of clothing I would be slender enough to not be an object anymore.
I am 14, celebrating Christmas with my extended family. We have finished eating dinner, and plates of colorful Christmas cookies are unwrapped. Everyone gravitates toward the table, filling small paper plates with gingersnaps, frosted sugar cookies, and chocolate covered pretzels. I sit on the couch, chomping fiercely on a piece of gum, convincing myself that the sweetness of Juicy Fruit can satisfy my craving for a thick, frosted sugar cookie.
My aunt says, “Sarah, aren’t you going to have anything?”
Before I can answer, other family chimes in, “Oh, Sarah doesn’t eat dessert,” and, “She usually eats graham crackers after dinner.”
My aunt, who never had kids of her own, says, “Hmm. You ought to live a little.” I’m confused, inundated by mixed messages. Should I “live a little” and have a cookie? But my family has defended my way of eating. What would they think if I caved? Would I still be skinny? Anxiety nestles into my chest as I sit glued to the couch, afraid to move.
I am 16, at the Wisconsin State Track Meet at the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. I just earned second place in the 1600-meter race, finishing behind the reigning State Champion and record-holder. It is midday, and already scorching hot for late May. My coach and I seek shade beneath the bleachers, and I pull an apple out of my backpack.
“You’re going to want more food than that. The 2 mile isn’t for a few hours,” he tells me.
I happen to disagree. “If I eat too much, it’ll upset my stomach,” I tell him. And it’s true—I’d been having stomach problems all season due to my new, low-carb diet. My body, deficient in carbs, felt heavy, slow, and tired.
“If you say so kid,” he tells me, and walks off to cheer on my teammates. I munch on my bruised apple, alone under the bleachers. Isolated, as always.
I am 18, and my mother has recently been diagnosed with cancer. She is being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and my dad is staying with her. I am a senior in high school, and my brother is a freshman at a local college. We are living at home alone, and I don't know how to cope. I am worried about my mother and suddenly, I don’t know how to feed myself. I run out of “healthy” food—all that is left in the freezer are packets of corn and cuts of beef. I stop at the grocery store and buy cereal, milk, bananas, eggs, and peanut butter. The man at check-out says, “Someone’s making breakfast!” and I nod, not sure what to say. I eat Cheerios and bananas until my stomach hurts. I eat until I cannot feel anything—not the pain of possibly losing my mother, not my anxiety about school or running, the need to be best. After I binge, I feel so much guilt that I run to the bathroom and turn on the shower to drown the sound of vomiting. I have never in my life felt so ashamed.
I am 19, sitting across from my college cross country and track coach in his familiar but barren office. My roommate lost about 20 pounds over the summer, at his direction. A teammate voiced her concern about the sudden weight loss, and my coach decided to address the problem with me,
“It’s normal for runners to look different,” he began. “She’s not unhealthy. We would never let her become unhealthy. But she is a runner, and to be a good runner, sometimes we make sacrifices. Are you worried?”
I wish I said, “Yes, I am terribly worried,” but I didn’t. Instead, I let him talk, his beliefs drowning the truth that was deep inside of me, the part of me that knew he wasn’t right. I let his beliefs become my own until I could no longer see the eating disorder that slept in the bed next to mine, could not see the eating disorder that stared back at me in the mirror. Could only count my ribs and starve myself, eat and purge and starve myself again, until I was utterly alone and numb.
I am 21, in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to fix a laberal tear in my right hip. My parents, who drove from Northern Wisconsin to Vail Colorado to be with me, could not hide their worry.
“I’m just not all that hungry,” I told them, again and again and again. I was terrified to gain weight, terrified that my coaches would tell me, once more, that my body was not a runner’s body. Despite how their words and actions hurt me in the past, I wanted more than anything to make them proud- I ached to win their praise. Using the MyFitnessPal app to track my calories, I obsessed over every bit of food that passed my lips. When my parents dropped me off at the Denver Airport, I wept uncontrollably. My hip was in a brace, and I sat in a wheelchair, but that was just my body. That would heal. My eating disorder, on the other hand, was rotting me from the inside out.
I am 23, and my boyfriend has caught me buying appetite suppressants on Amazon. As we sit side by side on our leather sofa and he questions me, all I can think was, “I should have known better.” I should have ordered them later, when I was alone. That way, I wouldn’t have to explain to him why I was ordering diet pills, I wouldn’t have to say the truth out loud, acknowledge the ugly, hungry elephant in the room. That night is the first time I say out loud, “I think I have an eating disorder.” The next day, I visit my college's mental health center. I sit in a cozy, welcoming office for over three hours, pouring out the heartache and pain that had defined my life for so many years.
“I don’t know what to do,” I tell the counselor.
She smiles at me kindly and says, “But you’ve already done so much.”
I am 25—two years out of college and living in Orange County, CA. I am 2,000 miles away from my old life and overcome by a realization: I had to leave home to even begin to get better. I could not recover in college, as I surrounded myself by and compared myself to other runners with a tiny, lithe bodies. I could not go home to my family, because they didn't know of my pain and I couldn't tell them. The process of Recovery has been slow and incredibly painful. There have been relapses, moments when I've hung over a toilet, watching my dinner disappear and wishing I could do the same. There have been moments of uncertainty and raw agony as I learned how to undo years of self-hatred. There have also been moments of triumph, learning to feed myself again, regaining the confidence I lost as a child, connecting with others who recognized my pain. Since moving to California, I’ve slowly rectified my relationship with food, my body, and running. The process has not been simple or easy, but I have learned to embrace a new kind of freedom. A new kind of life in which loving myself unconditionally has allowed me to thrive more than I ever thought possible.
I realized the enormity of this new life during a recent run near my apartment in Laguna Beach. It was just me, my thoughts, the dirt beneath my shoes and the sun rising over the Saddleback Mountains in the distance. Nearly six miles into my run, the trail flattened out, bordered on one side by silent, lonely telephone poles. My legs felt light, the clean air was exhilarating, and for the first time in years, running felt free. It was such a beautiful, unexpected moment that I raised both arms over my head and laughed out loud. My own moment of triumph. A return to the child inside of me who fell in love with running for the pure joy and pleasure of movement. A moment that reclaimed the sport that had been twisted into ugliness and torn away from me.
A moment of redemption.
P.S. Eating Disorders stem from a variety of places-genetics, perfectionism, self-esteem, and so much more. The words of the individuals in this post are not a condemnation but rather an exploration of the nuanced origins of pain, an exhibit of the impenetrable importance of words, and a redemptive reflection of my own journey. If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) hotline at (800)-931-2237, find a local Eating Disorder Anonymous (EDA) meeting here, or find a certified therapist or treatment center here.