So, for the last couple of weeks as more people have discovered this blog, I’ve been getting a lot of messages from readers about their own struggles with mental illness. The last 5 I’ve received have had to do with eating disorders.
These disorders are so hard to understand, and although I know bulimia (binge-purge cycles) and binge eating (bingeing with no purging) are very serious disorders, I’m going to talk about my experience with anorexia since unfortunately, it’s what I know.
I’ve talked before about how it started after I decided to diet to get rid of some of the puberty (blech…I hate that word) weight I gained in the 8th grade. It was just me wanting to lose a few pounds to look better in high school, where bodies were being scrutinized like never before. Along with dieting, I also started running again, something I’d done in elementary school a lot. To chart my progress on what I was losing, I would study myself in a full-length mirror everyday and weigh myself often as well. Every time that needle went down, I was elated, and every time it went up a bit, I was crushed. I was failing myself…or so I thought.
What was confounding to me was that even though the scale numbers were going down for the most part (except around the time Aunt Flow was visiting), I was more and more dissatisfied with what I was seeing in the mirror. How could my belly be getting so much bigger instead of smaller? Why were my thighs growing in direct proportion to what weight I was losing? No matter how much lower that number on the scale was getting, I was still convinced my body was disgustingly fat.
So, I started limiting my food intake even more, and then running at least 4-5 miles a day. For breakfast, I’d nibble on my usual pop-tart, but would throw the majority of it away while mom was curling her hair. At lunch, I’d toss my sandwich in the trash and have a couple of chips or part of a fruit cup. I ate very minimally at dinner, directing the conversation away from food, and moving stuff around my plate to make it look like I was eating much more than I was. After showing off my bod more when this all started, I’d begun wearing baggier clothes since I realized how horrible I still looked in spite of these measures.
I think this distorted body image is the hardest thing to understand for those who have never experienced it. When I’d look in the mirror at my -100 pound body, I wouldn’t just think I was still fat, I knew I was. I could see it! It was staring back at me as clear as day! Having people tell me I was getting too skinny made no impression on me at all (it still doesn’t), they had to be lying just to make me happy. We now know that a distorted body image actually has to do, at least partially, with an abnormality originating in the parietal cortex of the brain as well as issues with the serotonin system. So what we see is what our brain is telling us to see. It’s kind of like a visual hallucination someone with schizophrenia might have; those images they see are a result of their chronic brain disorder, and not something they can control unless meds are used to suppress these.
Running more and more, walking to school and back, doing aerobics, and fidgeting all of the time (to burn even more calories) was exhausting, but necessary if I was ever going to have a body I was happy with. I knew the body ran on fuel, and I’ll never forget one night when I was in the basement watching TV and I had an Oreo in front of me. One Oreo. And even though my stomach was empty and I had ran that day so all of my energy was depleted, I simply could NOT eat that Oreo. I’d put it up to my lips, get a ‘taste’ of it, and then put it back down, just looking at it. I literally found myself unable to eat that damn Oreo no matter how much I tried. The next day, with nothing in me, I started running my 4 mile route, and halfway through I didn’t think I could make it home since I was so weak. I dragged myself those last couple of miles, and when I got into our large backyard, I actually crawled the rest of the way home. That’s not an exaggeration; I actually crawled. If anyone would have asked, I’d have said it was a special stretching method. Anorexics are very good at deceiving others in terms of what they eat, how much they do, and weird behaviors they might engage in.
It was around this time that people started noticing how thin I was. I reveled in their recognition, something that was positive for me after all I’d done to get that way, even though their comments were negative. “Damn, Kristi, eat something!” “Hey scarecrow!” “Don’t blow away in this wind, Miss Anorexic!” I had 1 friend my freshman year when this was going on; if you look at my yearbook, there’s only 1 autograph and it’s from her. It’s very difficult to make or maintain friends when you are concentrating only on food, weight, and dieting.
Once, I was playing basketball at my grandma and grandpas house, and when I went in, all skinny, sweaty and smelly, my grandma told me that the neighbor had called her (this woman was a billion years old, could barely use a phone, and probably half blind to boot) and told her how beautiful her granddaughter was. I knew this was a lie (see above description), but it was grandmas way of telling me to stop this nonsense, because I was fine.
I wasn’t though. You are never ‘fine’ with anorexia. You’re never satisfied with how you look, and when you see the perfect models in the mags (I read Seventeen all of the time, and my sis and I would sneak my moms Cosmos), it just reinforces how you need to measure up to these impossible standards.
When my mom could see what was happening and realized I needed some intervention before I got much worse, she made an appointment with a psychologist and we all know the story there (if you don’t, you can read it here.).
Yes, I got ‘better’ in that I was able to start eating more and got to a healthier weight, but I knew this made me look horrible. I’d never been a ‘pretty’ child; I had buck teeth, acne, plain brown mousy hair, and you get the picture. But now my body was ugly too. Great self-esteem, huh?
I firmly believe that anorexia is a chronic disorder with periods of time where it’s ‘less active’ and then it’s reappearance again. And I believe this return is often triggered by a stressful event, a depressive episode, an ‘innocent’ diet where you want to just lose a few pounds, or a time when you are questioning your worth in general. At least that’s been true for me. After all 3 of my divorces (shutty the mouthy), I’ve experienced an exacerbation of this disorder, finding myself becoming more and more unhappy with my body and the start of restrictive diets and extensive exercise again. And, since anorexia has a biological basis (along with environmental beginnings that trigger this abnormal physiology – once again, my opinion), this resurgance of behaviors triggers the start of the brain feeding (no pun intended) into the full blown condition again. (I only have pics of more recent times. I don’t have pics from high school).
Since my early high school years, there’s never, ever been a time where I haven’t been conscious of what food I eat. I ALWAYS restrict myself. Even with all of my education, I still have a brain leading me to believe that 1 candy bar will add a couple of pounds onto my frame. If I’m ‘naughty’ and eat too many carbs, my belly pays for it in that it’s now HUGE and I need to hide it under un-tucked shirts. Sometimes family members will comment on how much food I’m eating. Little do they know that this makes me feel guilt over eating a good meal, while not accounting for the fact that’s the most likely the first meal I’ve eaten all day.
My most recent bout with anorexia showing itself seriously started when I was with my ex. I was significantly older than him (hello…cougar, anyone?) and was already feeling inadequate in the looks department since I was comparing myself with women his age (who were actually the age of the women he cheated on me with). Add to this his comments on my neck wrinkles and other body flaws, I started dieting again to at least have my body look good for him.
Here’s whats so freaking hard, Grasshoppers: never being able to eat anything without scrutinizing myself afterwards and feeling guilty if I did overindulge (as defined by my own standards). Maybe some of you reading this know what it’s like to see food as the enemy, and when you are surrounded by food ads every where you turn, and have to eat it everyday to keep going, how do you ever get these ideas out of your head? It would be like a recovering alcoholic having to live in a bar.
I’ve been writing about what a fucking bitch bipolar is and how hard the battles are everyday to fight it. I also have this other fucking bitch of a disorder that also makes me be in combat mode all of the time. I don’t know why I had to have these, and even saying this makes me feel selfish and small since I realize other people are fighting MUCH larger demons than this. But, just once, I’d like to wake up dictating my own mood and eating a brownie without feeling fat. Just once, I’d like to look in a mirror and like what I see. Just once, I’d like to put on a pair of leggings and not reprimand myself for having such a huge belly. Just once I’d like a day off from all of this. Just a day. Just so I experience how more ‘normal’ people feel. Just once.