By Lorraine Dresch
When I was in nutrition and wellness class the first semester of my sophomore year of high school, Ms. Carico briefly touched on the topic of eating disorders. She told us what anorexia nervosa and bulimia were at their most basic level, how anorexia is refusing to maintain a healthy weight by not eating normal meals at their necessary calorie intake, and bulimia is purging food through vomiting or laxative use. I remember having this morbid fascination, of sorts, that people could seriously go through with such outlandish behaviors, just, so I thought, to lose weight. But it was still very distant in my mind, kind of how the matter of “the starving children of Africa” always gets mentioned and repeated and yes, you know it’s important, but it loses its meaning after a while and you can’t see how it is important to you, or how you can do anything to change it, because it seems like it will always be there anyway. My knowledge about eating disorders at this point was like that. It was like, there is US, the “normal” people. And then, there is THEM, the ones with the problem. And in my mind, it would be obvious who was who. The people with eating disorders, I told myself, would be found with an empty tray at lunch or making themselves sick in the bathroom. They would be really tiny, and it would just be completely obvious to everyone around them that they were one of THEM instead of one of US. One day, I thought, they’d realize, “Hey, this is dumb!” And bam! Recovered!
It didn’t occur to me until after I’d developed an eating disorder myself the very next year that there are starving people in America, too. And that I should start paying attention, because it’s not as easy as sending them food and telling them to eat. I learned through my experience that detecting eating disorders is not as simple as scanning a crowded room and labeling the skinniest girl there anorexic. If it were that easy, people wouldn’t be dying.
But they are. They do every day. Over 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorders in the United States alone. Of these, one out of three will die.
I was almost one of that third. I developed anorexia nervosa when I was fifteen. It started with what I thought was innocent enough. I began to exercise while watching the show “Glee” on Netflix in my living room. With each musical number, I’d jump from the couch and perform a series of random, highly-energetic dance moves. These generally resembled a cross between a monkey rejoicing over a bunch of bananas and a caffeinated squirrel. When the song ended, I’d collapse, waiting for the next aerobic session with Lea Michele and the rest of the cast.
While it was simply an entertaining game to me at first, I began to criticize myself to higher and higher levels in just a few weeks. I never remember being comfortable in my own skin, even though I wasn’t public schooled until I was thirteen. Body snarking comments from dance classes and school began tearing me apart in a deeper way this year, however. I was tired of being told I was ugly and had a jellybean body and bushy eyebrows. I wanted to control how the people around me would react to me, and I thought I could do that by changing my appearance.
I started counting calories in March of 2012. Everything was now a number, and I would think about that number all day, every moment. I kept lowering my calories, until I was eating way too little and exercising way too much. But I felt like I was controlling my world.
By junior year, I would take notes in class, but get distracted and write my weight over and over instead. I literally was incapable of feeling emotions. I would stare at my boyfriend of almost two years at the time and think to myself, “I know I love you. But remind me…what’s love, again? I just don’t even know.” I walked through the halls of Union High School in a stupor. It took all my energy to walk up the stairs to class. I froze, shivering no matter the temperature. My head ached. I couldn’t concentrate to drive. I was sixteen and trying to get my drivers license, but would fall asleep at the wheel after fifteen minutes. I bruised easily. Someone tried to pinky-promise something with me and my finger turned purple. My hair began to thin and fall out. Everything I did was focused on food: Do I have this many calories today? Should I go there, because there’s food there, and I don’t want to eat it, OK? Oh, I should hide this food, so they’ll think I ate, right?
Then I hit my goal weight.
And then I reached a pound lighter, in spite of it.
Why? Because when you are sick, nothing is good enough. You will never be happy with what you are if you are judging yourself only by scales that measure your relationship with gravity. You are dying. You can feel nothing but emptiness.
Because having an eating disorder isn’t ever truly about your weight or your appearance. It’s about feeling helpless and trying to change that by forcing your body to be something it is not. An eating disorder isn’t a switch in your brain you can flip on and off whenever you feel like skipping dessert. No one wakes up and thinks, “You know what? I should stop eating!” I didn’t. It’s a slow process, because an eating disorder, whether it be anorexia or bulimia or binge eating or one not mentioned specifically, is a mental illness, not a choice.
But recovery IS. Recovery does not mean that when you reach your goal weight or start passing out that all of a sudden you need recovery, because you finally have physical “proof” that you need it. Recovery does not mean that you go and spend some time in a hospital or clinic and return home like you were never sick. No, recovery starts when you realize you have a problem that you cannot manage or even live with. Only then can you begin to save your own life.
I never knew that, even when I was forced by my parents to spend a month in an inpatient treatment center eight hours away in Ohio in October 2012. I was so sick, but couldn’t see it at the time. I thought I was invincible, doing what was really just a slow dance with death. My brain was so starved I could no longer think rationally. I felt in control, but I never realized that I had became a robot programmed by anorexia. Recovery was a dirty word, synonymous for “giving up,” dropping your previously held food rules like, well, hot potatoes. I thought there was absolutely nothing my new Ohio friends could say to me that could convince me treatment and recovery would be anything but awful. I gained back the weight I had lost, yes, but inside, I was still sick. I hadn’t made the choice yet to recover.
When I returned home from treatment in November, I still shared the mindset of my eating disorder. It took many more months before I gradually made the decision to recover. Nothing magical happened in a moment to change my mind, and no fairy godmother came down from the clouds to congratulate me afterward. But I had slowly decided I would at least try to live a life not consumed by what I was consuming. I would challenge that mental illness that told me I would never be a healthy, happy 17 year-old girl. Because that light between your thighs may turn out to be the light at the end of the tunnel. You may play your ribs like ivory piano keys, but your heart no longer sings.
I will say now what I believe is the most important piece of advice when helping someone else with an eating disorder. If someone you know has an eating disorder, or even if you are just a little suspicious that they do, you need to talk to them about it. Right now, mental illnesses like anorexia and bulimia and other eating disorders have social stigmas. That person you know may be too scared to tell you about their issues, because someone might have told them once before that people with eating disorders are weak, or over-reacting, or making it up. But that’s absolutely ridiculous, and these are myths that need to be busted. Eating disorders are real, dangerous, and deadly. They shatter friendships, families, and lives. So take that step and go to that person. Be compassionate. Tell him or her that you care, no matter what. Say you’ll support them and be there with them as they recover….And then do it! Help them get professional help, like a therapist or a nutritionist. Encourage them to see themselves as so much more than what they are feeling right now: as a priceless, worthy, amazing person, not just a body. It’s not going to be easy to help someone else, and it certainly takes more than just a few words, but it’s a start. And you will have a chance to help them recover and fight next to them as they battle to save their own life.
If you find yourself struggling with eating and food, please know there are people who love you always available to talk. No one should suffer in silence. Even if it feels like you aren’t suffering right now with your eating, you’re just “in control” or “on a crash diet,” you need to talk to someone. I say this in the kindest way I possibly can, because I’ve been there: Your mind is lying to you. Your mirror is lying to you. Your scale? Liar. Maybe even your friends are lying to you. Because right now, you are not healthy. You are not your true self when you are in the grip of an eating disorder. No one is put on this earth to fit a certain pant size or be “perfect.” Human beings are undefinable, infinite, amazing creatures of magic and light and yes, we all have darkness within us sometimes too, where everything hurts and we can’t see any beauty in ourselves, and that is alright. Because our lights are still shining through those times, and we can still illuminate the universe. Without the blackness of the night, how could we see the stars?
So let me leave you all with these questions: How much love do you think you would show someone else, if you knew they were struggling with their appearance or with eating? And how much love do you have right now for yourself? If those don’t match up, let me tell you something. There is a phrase in the Bible that says, “Love your neighbor as you love YOURSELF.” So learn to care about your own mental health, yourself, just as much as you care about your best friends’. You deserve love, too. We all deserve it, no matter what we go through on the inside or look like on the outside. Be kind to yourself.
Lorraine Dresch is a college freshman who is passionate about recovery, equal rights, musical theatre, and fashion. Her life goal is to adopt an orange and white kitten, name it Fuzz Machine, and love it forever. In her free time, she felts sweaters, thrift shops, and takes selfies. Find her on her blog, thefeatheredelephant.blogspot.com, for more of her journey.