For a couple of years, it was simply a “fluke.” Perhaps a minor character flaw. A mistake I’d never make again. I was a great person to live with, except when I snuck my roommate’s frozen waffles into my locked bedroom. I was excitable and happy, except when I didn’t take my medication and spiraled back towards the dark symptoms of my childhood depression. I was a healthy eater, except when a half jar of peanut butter would disappear before my brain even kicked in. Each time, slowly, consciously, I’d clear away the evidence, start up the Zoloft again, plan the replacement cereal or hummus I had to pick up the next day, silently promising myself that I just wouldn’t do it again.
But I would. I always did.
And no one noticed. My life seemed sparkling and remarkable from the outside. After nearly six years of intense childhood depression and symptoms of bipolar disorder and OCD, I started taking Zoloft at age fourteen and I hit a rapid upsweep. I graduated with honors from the premiere performing arts high school in the country, and attended a top university theatre program in New York City, where I landed leading roles and received straight A’s, eventually graduating Phi Beta Kappa as the salutatorian. I had a wonderful group of supportive friends, and a family that, although far, supported me unabashedly. I even had a couple of attractive, talented boyfriends, who loved me dearly. By all accounts, I was “fine.”
At 20 years old, I was accepted to the apprentice program at a prestigious summer theatre festival in the Berkshires. This was the kind of opportunity that purportedly launched careers. It was summer camp for the famous, and I was going to be a part of it.
But the first morning there, I woke up in my dorm bed in a cold sweat. In the shower, my vision narrowed to a pin, and I slid to the ceramic floor, head between my knees. As I made my way to the dining hall for breakfast, I felt like my body was moving of its own accord, swinging and flopping, holding together more because of my bones than my will. I felt my brain buried deep inside my rebelling body. Over the next three days, my condition worsened. Also over the next three days were all the preliminary auditions, initial classes, work assignments, and key bonding activities between the other apprentices. I quickly learned that despite my brain’s rabid determination and will, I simply could not force my ailing body to comply with its orders.
Later, I learned that I had contracted a case of meningitis from a tick on a camping trip in Northern Idaho a week prior. But what I discovered were the limits of my will. Even though I got better within a week, I anxiously played catch-up all summer, expending enormous amounts of energy to prove myself as someone worth paying attention to. I attended every party, submitted myself for every opportunity, worked harder than anyone else at each call, often requesting extra shifts, woke early, and exercised daily. With all that manual labor, anxiety, and, of course, a three-times-a-day cafeteria meal schedule, I started noticing that my clothes started fitting a bit looser. I didn’t intend to lose weight, but I felt good. Great, actually.
I was first pulled aside a few months later (and another 15 lbs lighter), by my roommate, a petite blonde with rosy cheeks with whom I had a weekly yoga date. She called me into the living room, her eyes full and wet. “We’re concerned about you,” she said, slowly. “You look really thin. Too thin.” I felt my cheeks flush, and I wrapped my legs around themselves. “I know,” I breathed, the first wave of tears sliding down my face on my exhale.
And I did know. But I was also confused. I never consciously counted calories or limited my intake, ate full meals when at restaurants and chocolate when it was around, and I never purged. I weighed myself occasionally, but never aimed lower than I was. I was simply in a routine that, for better or for worse, gave me comfort and stability. Even more, in fact, I was still occasionally going into eating “zones,” (my term for binges) where, as I emailed my therapist, “I eat when I’m not hungry. I feel as though I can’t stop eating. I feel guilty afterwards.” I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
The pullings-aside continued, from professors: “there is a lot of concern in the department about whether you have an eating disorder,” my boss, my therapist, and repeatedly from my roommates. When I had my blood drawn for a required test to get my visa to study in Russia, I nearly passed out, admitting to my nearby friends as I sipped on a juice box, that I “know I’m underweight.” An investigation into a labral tear in my hip revealed the beginning stages of bone deterioration. People would say things like, “You’re so thin!” and I would flush, embarrassedly. I knew it wasn’t good. But I also didn’t know where to begin.
My weight loss was a mere chapter in my story, but it was the only one that everyone seemed to have read. It was like the depression and pain that had percolated so long inside my mind was finally visible on the outside of my body. When I was seen, the cracks in my perfect façade were visible, and as I wrote at the time, “no matter what I say, there is nothing that will make people understand exactly what happened. I want to be seen as the strong, grounded, NORMAL person I am, but I feel like… I’m walking around with a scarlet letter on my chest and I didn’t do anything to put it there. They put it on me and I can’t convince them it’s not right.” I wanted them to see what was inside, yet the outside was what caught the attention. I didn’t want to focus on fixing the visible signs of sadness and pain—that wasn’t the problem. I wanted to heal myself much deeper.
Over the next few months, I saw an internist, who read my weight at 98 lbs, underweight for my height at 5’5”. She referred me to a nutritionist, and my long-term therapist referred me to a psychiatrist. I quickly gained weight back, healthily and un-, seesawing to my highest-ever weight in a few months. From that point, slowly, I began to try and mend—from the inside-out.
Two years later, I am still mending. And although I’ve begun to talk about my experience as “eating-disordered,” I have a hard time using those terms. I didn’t suddenly wake up in the morning and feel bad about my body or decide to start bingeing or restricting.
My “disorder,” at least for me, is an unconscious disease—and my changing body was merely a symptom of the chaos within my mind. Eating too much, or not eating, or feeling guilty about eating was, for me, the newest coping mechanism in my toolbox for trying to hold it all together.
I am not recovered yet. For what it’s worth, these symptoms are forcing me to unearth all of the internal struggles I used to be so adept at holding in, and to stare them straight in the face. It’s not pretty, but it’s a step forward. I’m starting to understand that unlike the phrase I used to yell at my parents, I am NOT my behavior. My behavior is a way that I am coping with something deeper inside me. It’s a sort of empowering thing to realize—that I am not a statistic, not just anorexic, or a just a binge-eater, or just depressed, but rather a unique young woman with a unique set of symptoms, struggles, and coping tools.
My struggles with food are not a character flaw. They are not something I can simply stop. Disordered eating is my body’s slow rebellion from a willful, demanding mind. My recovery has been an entirely new journey inside myself, both mind and boyd, and I am amazed by the person I’ve found. She is a bit messy, opinionated, frazzled, imperfect, and unique. No one has made a Lifetime movie about her. There are no self-help books just for her. She refuses to be labeled. She is one-of-a-kind. And I love her.