At the time anorexia took hold of me, I fit the classic mold: Caucasian, middle class, overachieving, perfectionistic and hurting in a place my young 14 years hadn’t equipped me to express with words. Like most pubescent girls, I was consumed with finding myself, and somewhere between episodes of Ricki Lake and Totino’s frozen pizza, I got the idea that the ideal me could control her life right down to its nutritional content.
This article is part of a fall wellness series RELEVANT is producing in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
At first I was caught between my developing body’s craving for ramen noodles and my mind’s burning hunger for thinness. I was disgusted by my gluttony and habitually berated myself for not even being able to make myself anorexic. Instead of heeding their cries of warning, I pored over stories of anorexia, looking for any clues I could find that would help me make the disorder stick. And wouldn’t you know, practice made perfect, and by my junior year of high school, I had become a starvation artist.
America is a nation of paradox, and in no way do we contradict ourselves more than in our relationship with food and fitness. We run on treadmills and stand on moving walkways. Chances are, the last magazine you picked up advertised a thick, juicy hamburger on one page and an impossibly thin supermodel on the next page who you can bet hasn’t tasted the inside of a Big Mac since they gave away the secret of the sauce. We are taught to use food to seduce, reward and salve, then told in the next breath that food is the enemy, and if you are a real hero you will learn to conquer and destroy.
It’s no wonder that even the best-intentioned eaters find their food consumption disordered at some point. Good luck finding an American who could honestly tell you they have never felt a little pudgy staring into the rock hard thighs of models in their Calvins. A 1995 study found that 70 percent of women felt shameful, depressed and guilty after thumbing through a fashion mag; yet, some of those same women were probably lured into a Taco Bell driving home from the research lab. Most of us have grown accustomed to this irreconcilable dynamic, and roughly 95 percent of the country will eventually tell Vogue magazine to kiss it and go about their merry way.
So what of the five percent who can’t “just get over it,” whose battle between food and thinness sinks into their souls and becomes a battle to the death? I used to think eating disorders were about food, and therefore were remedied by getting over oneself and eating more (or less, in the case of compulsive overeaters). Once these women realized through rational thinking that God designed them with curves, they would snap out of it and put some mayo on that sandwich. I used to think it was that simple, until I had a taste of the drug myself.
Recent studies at the University of Pittsburgh revealed abnormally high levels of serotonin in the brains of people with anorexia, and while normal levels of the hormone are believed to maintain emotional well-being, an overdose may be linked to anxiety and obsessive thinking. Starvation, on the other hand, prevents tryptophane (a serotonin-producing amino acid) from entering the brain, leading Dr. Walter Kaye to hypothesize that people with anorexia may in fact be self-medicating. In effect, depriving their bodies of food reduces the anxiety-inducing levels of hormones, “creating a sense of calm.”
Now I’ve admittedly never smoked pot (won’t my mom be glad to read this), but I can say that the “high” I got from starving myself gave me a zen-like buzz—minus the munchies.
The cruel irony of an eating disorder is that you are drawn in thinking you’ll finally get the control you crave, but eventually you surrender all control to the disorder itself. The less I weighed, the less it became about weight. Numbers and hipbones are merely a way of representatively measuring success, and the real triumph comes not in your thinness but the fact that you could make yourself that thin.
You realize the pounds fall into a bottomless pit, and the brief victory you sense at another one lost is silenced by the sound of dignity in free fall. I used my body to paint a desperate picture of loneliness and emotional starvation, all the things I was too afraid to say with my mouth. But the truth of the matter is, as loud as my bag of bones was screaming, I still couldn’t hear myself.
I was addicted.
I often wonder in retrospect how I got away with it. The piece-of-bread-and-ten-pretzel daily intake (meticulously counted), the hipbones that could cut glass, the David Copperfield disappearance of my soft tissue … A high school classmate left me dumbfounded recently by admitting rather nonchalantly that “we all knew you had an eating disorder … but what were we supposed to do about it?” In some ways, he had a point. He couldn’t tell me anything I wasn’t ready to hear. He couldn’t make me see the distorted house of mirrors I was holed up in. And he certainly couldn’t make me eat.
All he could do was love me, let me know he saw me and that he would hold my hand while I found my way back from addiction and deception to the real me God had waiting all along.
My road back to health was a slow and steady one, and thanks to the power of prayer and the power of therapy, I’m able to fill my mind with thoughts other than food. I still look in the mirror from time to time and grimace at the fleshy lump lounging languidly where my hipbone used to protrude, or get sick and lose a few pounds, only to remember the smell of anorexia and entertain the idea of falling off the wagon again. But when it comes down to it, I have nothing to say anymore. My body is no longer my mouthpiece sent into the world to speak the words my lips couldn’t form. I found my words, spoke them and was free.
I have a vision (albeit, a cheesy one) of Heaven where we will finally, finally, have eyes to see the true beauty in each of us. In my vision there will be no more external reality, but only exposed souls walking around in all their intended radiance. Bones will no longer exist, having been replaced by the fruit of the spirit, which will shine in all their supermodel glory, and we will run and laugh unhindered by the former things of earth. I have it on high authority that it—you—will indeed be glorious.
For more information on eating disorders, check out findingbalance.com.