I SIT here, waiting for my long-overdue lunch, ordered online for delivery, stomach growling: I am “starving to death,” or so it would seem.
These days, I use the phrase as most do— simply as a figure of speech. Barring reference to certain poverty-stricken parts of the world, most of us use it as an exaggerated, more dramatic way to describe extreme hunger.
But there was a time when I was literally starving to death. And I did not even know it.
It was a time that I have never recounted in writing. Until now.
This is the story of my battle with anorexia and bulimia. And it isn’t an easy one to tell.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me starve myself
I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided to “stop eating.” I was 10 years old, a slightly chubby fourth-grader in pigtails and ribbons. I loved my pigtails. Up until the afternoon that a peer-who-shall-remain-nameless decided to crack a not-so-funny joke: “pig-tails for the little piggy! Hahahaha!”
Whoever coined the “sticks-and-stones” saying must have never gotten teased. Words hurt; and they stick to your soul like chewed-up gum to a shoe sole.
It was years before I ever wore my hair in pigtails again. It was also then that I decided that I was taking too long to grow out of the “baby fat” (which my dear Abuelita would constantly say it was, as a form of re-assurance).
I was never a fat kid; was quite skinny, in fact. But between 3rd and 4th grades, I discovered food. And food and I got along very well, indeed. So I knew it most likely wasn’t “baby” fat.
It was the enemy.
To my juvenile mind, the quickest way to get rid of the enemy was to deprive it of the source of its strength. This was my Art of War.
So I cut down on calories; slowly severing my friendship with food, until I was eventually left with a pack of Skyflakes a day: one cracker was a meal, washed down with half-a glass of pineapple juice. Sometimes, I would indulge in fruit.
There were days that food would win and I would be racked with guilt; regretting for hours on end the meal that was eaten, no matter how delicious the fare or how hungry I was.
Purging for a pop-star
Summer rolled around, and with it, a big announcement: Leif Garret, live in concert at the Folk Arts Theater!, the poster declared. Be still, my 1970s fan-girl heart. As your laughter subsides, let me explain that this was my pop-star god; the main character of all the pre-teen hormonal fantasies spun in my head. He was coming to town and my dad could get me backstage.
Panic time. I HAD TO LOSE WEIGHT QUICKER.
I blamed it on those times that I did give in to food; and the quickest, most logical solution to this problem? What goes in, must come out.
I began purging. For a pop-star.
Ten pounds and an autographed poster later, I was happy. At least until I ventured another look into the mirror.
The naked truth
The cycle continued for years on end. I would gaze intently into the looking glass, skeptically analyzing my birthday suit. The verdict, always the same: “ILL-FITTING! THIS BIRTHDAY SUIT IS FAR TOO BIG! Smaller size, please!” screamed the voice in my mind. In fact, I was already a size 0.
Starve-binge-purge, exercise, weigh-in, look in mirror, repeat.
Surprisingly, no one caught on as to why I got up at the crack of dawn, to do one hour or more of calisthenics. Or why I spent so much time in the bathroom, music blaring; only to emerge bleary-eyed, face flushed, with an accompanying stench veiled by cologne and air freshener. Or that I always had the most interesting excuses to get up during a meal, or—better yet—skip the meal entirely. I learned countless creative ways to dispose of food: spitting mouthfuls into napkins, as I “wiped my mouth” every ten seconds; when no one was looking, scraping it into a plastic bag hidden on my lap; or quickly coughing it down my shirt (gross, I know). As for packed snacks and lunches meant for school, they would be relegated to the deepest, darkest recesses underneath my bed; their existence, hidden until proper disposal come evening—or a few days later, in the case of the occasionally forgotten, and already reeking, food item.
Subterfuge was the name of the game.
My hair thinned; my eyes were sunken; my nails, brittle as could be. My teeth became eroded from all the gastric acid, and would often chip even just biting into an apple. My knuckles were forever wounded from scraping against my teeth. I developed hyper-acidity, from the constant churning in my stomach. My hormones were completely out of whack, and affected everything from moods to normal female cycles. I lived in a state of dizziness; more anemic than a person fallen prey to a nest of vampires. My heart—which was, as it turned out, under stress—was skipping beats, and not because of a girly-crush or whatnot.
So many warning signs that my body was in distress. But I paid no heed.
Until I got sick. Really sick. Sicker than I apparently already was.
In 7th grade, my weight had dropped to an all-time low of 67 pounds. I was elated. My body, not so much. I ended up in the hospital, three weeks; sick as a dog with pneumonia and typhoid. My body couldn’t fight. At this point, I was barely eating. The mere smell of food was enough to induce the gag reflex, and I would spew out bile on command. Like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
It was then that in hushed tones, the doctor first posed the million-dollar question to my befuddled parents: “Have you ever considered that your daughter may have an eating disorder?”
A “what” now??? Back in those days, an eating disorder was quite unheard of.
It was then that I felt the first twinge of fear, as alien-sounding names rolled off his trained tongue: Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. I vaguely remembered them in reference to Karen Carpenter. Vaguely. But evidently, I had them both.
He said I needed to gain weight, and quick, in order to get better. He ordered the nurse to put me on a glucose IV drip. My meals were monitored very, very closely. I had to eat, the nurse said, or the doctor would have to put me on a nasal feeding tube.
I knew I was gaining weight, much to my dismay. And there was nothing I could do about it, in my weakened state.
The nature of the beast
After the hospital ordeal: A regimen of weight-gain supplements and appetite stimulants; a military-style plate with apportioned sections; and more of the close monitoring.
My initial fear, however, was quickly overcome by the obsession to once more shed pounds.
My mother would supervise my meds, personally handing me each pill, which I would then very carefully slip underneath my tongue, to fish out as soon as she turned her back. I would save each pill in a tiny dresser drawer, count them at week’s end, assuring myself that I had not accidentally swallowed any. And just to be doubly sure, I started taking diet pills to counteract the weight-gain pills I had not even swallowed.
That was the nature of the beast: its irrational claws, sinking themselves into the insecure, the troubled, the addictive, the obsessive victims.
Both disorders are psychological in nature, messing with the mind as aggressively as with the body. Rooted in issues of self-esteem, anxiety and control, interpersonal conflicts, and depression, they are harsh task-masters; difficult to escape.
Recent studies have uncovered that there is a genetic predisposition to these diseases; in many cases, marked by a familial history (diagnosed or otherwise). Knowing this, I now watch over my daughter like a hawk; ever on the alert for signs and symptoms that I myself managed to hide so well.
Anorexia (which is characterized mainly by food-deprivation, an aversion to food, and an obsession with weight), and Bulimia (characterized by the cycle of binging and purging) are both life-threatening, can be fatal, and require long-term treatment. Both disorders can strike at any age, though anorexia is most common in teens, while bulimia is often seen in young adults. And although females are most affected, it is seen in males, as well.
My own battle lasted years and years; well-into my high-school and college days, although not as severely.
At a certain point, I had grown tired of struggling: with the disorders; with my parents and those in my circle; but mainly, with myself.
The guilt and shame. The isolation and despair. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Slave to many masters: the mirror, the scale, your poor self-image. All masked by the seeming form of control these disorders make you think you have.
“I got this.” No, you don’t.
“I’m in charge.” No, you’re not.
The very thing you do as a form of mastery over your own life creates a vortex that sucks you in.
The long and cringing road
I decided to help myself gain real control of the situation. Although I cringed at the thought of gaining weight, I knew this was no way to live.
I joined a support group for anxiety and stress-related disorders and learned breathing techniques, healthy diets (I became vegetarian, 21 years in all), positive reinforcements, and productive ways of dealing with stress.
I forced myself to drink the prescribed supplements, and turned to counting calories instead of avoiding them.
It was a long process, loaded with challenges, and more than an occasional slip-up. But I have since gotten better and have even had the chance to pay it forward, counseling other girls battling these disorders.
To this day, I remain on guard and ready to fight; knowing that the monster could once more rear up its ugly double head. Much as it is taught in rehab, the cautionary phrase remains: once an addict, always an addict. And this is a sobering reality.
I still exercise like a freak. You will occasionally catch me knocking my hip-bone with my wrist; a comfort mechanism of “feeling my bones jutting out.” I continue to watch what I eat, although food is certainly no longer the enemy. I pester people closest to me with questions of “Am I fat???” And you will find a bottle or two of green tea or green coffee pills in my medicine cabinet; “energy boosters,” I tell myself, and I use them accordingly.
But I am stronger now. I have learned to shift my focus to more positive things, and this has freed me from the shackles of self-loathing. I no longer hate myself; on most days anyway.
I remind myself that life is worth living, and living well. And this has made a world of difference.