Anorexia Nervosa is one of those daunting topics ignorant people love to converse about over tabloids in the grocery store line-up; or tweens console another when they confess to their best friend they secretly skipped lunch for a week. What people don’t know, is that Anorexia will be handed to you in an innocent package differently shaped and sized for each individual (perfectly shaped as the single missing puzzle piece of their life), yet in the end, years beyond the point of no return, everyone’s puzzle looks exactly the same: the same grotesque and horrifying image. You think your image is different and no one else will understand. But the reality is Anorexia is just like the Bible: Millions of peoples’ salvation, translated into myriad languages and dialects, but the message is still the same, the stories are still the same, the Saviour is still the same. The same hero, same downfall, same miracles.
Anorexia is now widely known as a mental illness, yet all mental illnesses are still very misunderstood. What textbooks can’t teach about Anorexia is the marred souls and the graphic torture behind eyelids and the superfluous monstrosity of inner delusions repeated so frequently and vehemently that they become Truths.
My own missing puzzle piece was delivered around the age of 9 years. Had I believed in God, I’m sure I would have gratuitously thanked Him for such a miraculous enhancement to my life. That’s how badly I needed it at the time.
By the time I entered Kindergarten I could read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Throughout Elementary School I excelled at several musical instruments, was known for my affluent creativity and artistic endeavors, danced a few times a week and competed in the annual local Performing Arts Festival, spent 20 hours a week training for the competitive gymnastics team, sprinted to silver and gold medals with the track team for three consecutive years, competed in long-jump and high-jump … I was the typical candidate for Anorexia: Gifted, perfectionistic, competitive, over-achiever, and compulsive. I was also restless, moody, and felt utterly mistaken in my skin.
All within a matter of a few months, my parents divorced, classmates decided I was to be the outcast, and my older sister, my best friend –the God of my understanding- disappeared into her own severe mental illness. I was left with this perfect outside image shaped together, with one large gaping hole. As a small child of 9, living in a disturbing state engulfed by a terrifying panic disorder and tripped into a deep depression with suicidal and homicidal ideation, the idea of getting a form a help is all I yearned for. By this age my spirit was so badly beaten the only way I knew to ask for it, was tacitly. I desperately sought a solution large enough to placate my inner turmoil.
With this time, the 90’s, came a plethora of made-for-TV-movies and an affluence of teen magazine articles focused on awareness and prevention of Eating Disorders. It just so happened that one of those teen TV movies graced me with an informative session on how to have an Eating Disorder. I marvelled at the two young teens’ rigid eating and exercise regimen and their ungenial idea to make themselves vomit after eating. Sure, one of them died of cardiac arrest, but the other one’s parents found out and worried and fussed over her. Surely I could mimic these behaviours perfectly and achieve the same perfect results –the attention part, not the dying part; I would never permit failure like that! So the plan hatched simply, logically, and flawlessly: Get sick, get attention, be better, and then everything would be well in the world. I never considered I might actually get sick, either mentally or physically; I was utterly convinced years well into my Anorexia that I was just pretending, and once I got the result I craved, I could just snap out of the act.
The biggest lesson I learned from the movie was secrecy is the first principle. I holed myself up in my bedroom scrutinizing magazine articles about Anorexia and Bulimia: the more numbers and behavioural details divulged, the more success I reaped for my personal one-man play.
Waking up to Anorexia was like waking up on Christmas morning each day: Excitement at the prospect of weight loss and more secrets to hide and lies to form tales. I found something sufficient to sate my constant distress.
I devoured any and all information I could find. I studied. I learned. I mimicked. I played the part secretly and was unconsciously further and further seduced into an isolated world. I was convinced I was acting a part, when in reality I was a marionette falling ever more deeply under the control of a demonic master.
As the years went on, the sheen of the puzzle piece dampened, colours muted and it began to wear at the edges. It inflated to the point where its ugliness overwhelmed the picturesque remainder; eventually (soon enough) it engulfed every bit of beauty surrounding.
The initial sheen and vibrant allure of the long-sought puzzle piece was the plausibility of reaping attention I desperately needed, as all children do. What I didn’t know is there is a secret and seductive, conniving foundation underneath the original enticing image.
By my early teens my mind was flooded by torrential obsession with starvation and losing weight, and compulsion to act in any insane way deemed necessary to make this happen. Purging by way of vomiting was originally reserved for panic situations only, but now the trepidation of any consumption was so intense the frequency of induced vomiting increased to twice in a day, then thrice, and soon enough seven or eight times a day. I still was under the guise (delusion) of complete self-control: I chose when to starve myself and purge, and I could stop whenever I wanted. The delusion was so powerful I didn’t put the powerless equation together by noticing what used to be weeks between few-day-long episodes dwindled down to days between weeks on end of starvation and purging. So deluded, I did not even notice when it became constant, day after day, sleepless night after the next, weeks blurred into months and years with no reprieve. It simply became my life. Still, I clung to the fallacious reasoning I could stop if I truly wanted to, it was simply so important to me that I chose to continue.
Hospitals became a consistent part of my life beginning at the age of 15. Looking back, ten years later, I am shocked by how young I was, and at how terribly ill I was and at the extent of denial I had locked myself into. It was that first hospitalization whence came the astounding revelation that Anorexia was a much more powerful force than I. My blatant lack of willpower distressed me tremendously: How could I have let my charade get so out of hand? I was stunned and confused that doctors and nurses fussed over this girl and deemed a feeding tube necessary and intensive inpatient treatment at the Children’s Hospital in another city crucial. In my head, they all just felt sorry for me and were obliging my feign sickness. Yet still, I could not fully concede that this was no longer a game I made up to play those around me; that I in actuality had no control over this demonic vocally intrinsic yet seemingly external voice in my head. For nearly two decades I thought it was my idea to have an eating disorder, and I desperately, pleadingly, waited for the day when I would wake up decidedly done with it. That was, after all, the simple, logical, and flawless childhood plan.
Anorexia became my identity. Starving myself, “purging like a pro”, losing superfluous amounts of weight in incremental amounts of time became my claim to fame (in my own mind). It became synonymous with power and extraordinary. It started off so innocently and years later I found myself not wanting to go back to the depths of its hell, yet wanting to feel the illusory power and extraordinariness –better than. I deeply feared if I were to let go of this holy grace I was gifted with, that I would vanish into the smog of ordinary people. Inwardly I battled extreme dichotomy: craving, yearning, needing, to be Normal –to live a life among the same lines as my peers; yet at the same time panicking with trepidation that without Anorexia I would, in fact, be ordinary. This idea was holistically unacceptable to me. Ordinary seemed so … grotesque.
Truth is the miracle when it comes to my recovery. The simple truth is there is no Holy miracle. But the ultimate truth is recovery is made up of the infinitesimal day-to-day miracles –The seemingly insignificant coffee date with a friend who says something which changes my whole perspective on a long-held destructive belief; the minute comment my doctor makes which two days later flicks on a lightbulb; the consecutive meal-to-meal successes, as excruciating as it may feel; sticking it out in rehab for the ump-teenth time despite the incessant need to run. The miracle, I’ve come to believe, is in living the destination. The journey is the destination. This may be my life, in and out of hospitals each year, sometimes on involuntary commitment, myriad shameful trips to the emergency room for IVs and heart monitoring, hours spent in appointments week after week with health-care professionals, mandatorily maintaining a rigid schedule of plan meals, grocery shop, cook, eat, repeat –A life not at all appealing to an outsider, and probably more repulsive to me. But this is it, this is my life. The Truth lies in accepting this. The miracle of Truth lies in acknowledging just how powerful Anorexia is, and that I may maintain stability briefly, but then I wishfully try to live a “socially acceptable” life –I try to imitate a semblance of normalcy I see in my peers- and quickly I crash and burn. The biggest Truth is conceding to my innermost self I cannot control my Eating Disorder.
Time after time I have tried to maintain a socially acceptable life while maintaining an Eating Disorder, and each time I prove to others it cannot be done, refusing to see the truth myself. My miracle today is seeing this. I think I can restrict my intake just a little, and I won’t lose weight. I think I can manage purging just once in a while, without it turning into every day. This is the insanity of Anorexia. It never works out the way my thoughts convince me it will; I will never be able to have the perfect rewards of Anorexia without the dire consequences. This is the Truth.
The miracle is in accepting, and having hope that, perhaps the extraordinary I crave is found nestled between ordinary minutes and days. Maybe I no longer need Anorexia to be a legend (in my mind). The irony is that for the first several years Anorexia was an ostentatious grab at attention, but it ended up stripping me of all the attractive attributes which would naturally grant attention.
The beauty in the journey is knowing it won’t be this way forever: that’s why it’s called a journey. I trudge. Sometimes resentfully, but more and more on the basis of knowing there is true purpose in the intense and painful work. So I trudge, and I come back to life. I trudge, and Life comes to me.