I remember the first time I ever became really aware of my body. I was eight, and playing at my friend, Dani's house. We had just spend the morning playing Marco Polo in her pool and were happily ensconced in the corner of their family's den, munching on potato chips and leaving wet stains on the couch from our still-damp swimsuits.
"You won't be able to eat potato chips for very long", Dani said with a sad shake of her blonde head.
"Why not?" I asked, reaching for the bag. Dani pulled it away and set it on the table before turning to me with great solemnity.
"My mommy says that potato chips make you fat." she whispered gravely. "And you're already getting fat."
I froze, my brown eyes opening wide. "I. . .I am?"
Dani nodded gravely and poked a finger into the flesh of my thigh. "Your legs are kinda fat here. And your tummy pokes out. Your tummy should be flat like Cheryl's."*
*Cheryl was Dani's babysitter, and from her perfectly frosted and feathered hair to her cork-soled platform sandals, she was the very image of teen perfection in our eyes.
I looked down at my stomach as though seeing it for the first time. I was no stranger to the concept of weight and dieting; my mother was on a perpetual diet and constantly referred to herself as "your old, fat mother". I can never remember a time in my childhood when my mom, or any other adult woman for that matter, expressed any joy or acceptance of their appearance, but it never occurred to me that my body was something I should become worried about, like an impending illness or an errant child. But on that spring day in Dani's house, I really looked at my body for the first time as something shameful and ugly. . .a feeling that stayed with me for the next thirty years of my life.
In high school I was able to put my self-consciousness on a back burner, as I was very involved in extracurricular activities that kept me busy and active. But college. . .college was where things began to spiral downward. I joined a sorority, because my sister had done so and as with most things in life, I relied upon her example when it came to socialization.*
*I am about as socially active as Howard Hughes during a SARS outbreak, so if left to my own devices I would happily spend the better part of my life locked in my apartment watching "Pawn Stars" in my underwear.
While the majority of my "sisters" were amazing, wonderful young women, I never really felt like I fit in. My parents had moved me up a year in school and starting college at the age of seventeen was terrifying. I was thrown into many situations where I felt pressured to do certain things and act a certain way that I was not emotionally prepared for. So, I discovered alcohol and food. The alcohol made me "looser" and better able to interact and mingle, and the food calmed me down after the fact -- it provided that warmth and security that allowed me to feel safe after being in what I perceived as many unsafe situations. So I gained weight. A lot of weight. Like, the Freshman 15 plus two Olsen twins weight. I graduated from college with a body I hated, a life that terrified me, and no discernible goals for the future.*
*Oh, yeah. In NO way will THAT scenario end in a raging eating disorder.
I moved to Portland after college graduation, because that was what EVERYONE did when graduating from any of the Oregon state universities. I lived in an apartment alone, worked at menial jobs alone, and binge ate at home every night. . .alone. One day, after a particularly horrific binge I sat on my couch, bloated and miserable, and it was like a switch flipped on. I actually remember hearing a voice in my head saying "You don't have to eat. No one can make you." I pushed aside the empty food cartons, went to bed, and the next day I woke up and simply. . .stopped eating. It just seemed to make sense to me. I hated my life, I couldn't seem to change anything else about it, but I COULD change my body. And it did change. Between exercising 3 to 4 hours a day and subsisting on a diet that would make a Trappist monk shudder, the weight fell off and the compliments flew in. Everyone wanted to know my "secret" and for the first time in my life, I was the one receiving praise for my appearance. It was heady and intoxicating, and fueled my fervor even more.
One night, as I was critiquing my body in the mirror after committing the cardinal sin of ingesting an extra spoonful of peanut butter, it occurred to me that I could just make the peanut butter. . .disappear. I hunched over the toilet bowl, pressed two fingers down my throat, and set off a chain of events that would haunt me for years to come. It wasn't long after this that I met my ex-husband. I was working part-time and attending law school. . .*
*To this day I have no fucking clue how that happened. I think someone told me "You should go to law school" and it didn't seem worth the effort to argue.
. . .but in truth, my really career was my eating disorder. My entire day was structured about when and what I could eat, an exercise schedule that would make an Olympic gymnast say "Whoa, ease up there Nadia", and sneaking opportunities to binge and purge in private. Gil rode in on his white horse, saw this terrified little hot mess and told me "I'll take care of you." Since I knew I didn't want to actually be a lawyer, and I couldn't think of anything else to do with my life, the thought of having someone else handle my shit for me sounded pretty appealing. So, we got married. . .and by the grace of God and countless fertility treatments (eating disorders do a number on your girly parts, yo.) the short people were born in 2002.
I would like to say that my eating disorder magically disappeared the day my beautiful children were born. I would like to say that, but I've been pretty honest with y'all up to this point so I see no need to start bedazzling my bullshit now. Being a stay at home mom was great for my children, but for me? Not so much. My children were micro-preemies at birth and I couldn't take them out in public for one year for risk of germ exposure. One year. Nowhere. I was like Anne Frank only with no hot German guy, and two colicky babies. As the grew stronger and healthier, we were able to venture out into the world a little, but at that point I had grown accustomed to my isolation, one that my ex husband strongly encouraged and enforced by limiting my access to family and friends, saying they were "all against me" and that I was "a bitch" when I was around them. My entire world revolved around my husband and children. I had nothing else. Nothing that was MINE. Except for my eating disorder. . .that was mine. . .no one could take it away.
I sought therapy, both in-patient and out-patient, but in the end none of it mattered because at that point I honestly didn't give a damn if I lived or died. It wasn't until my divorce that things became clearer. Not at first. At first things got worse, and I my weight dropped faster than Rosie O'Donnell on a greased fire pole. I sank into a horrible depression, got arrested for a DUI, and completed the trifecta of suck by contracting a virulent strain of mono that forced my boys and me to move in with my parents for four months. But then. . .then. . .things gradually started to rebuild.
I started graduate school in special education and it was like a light went on in my head. "This is what you are meant to do" it said, and I pursued my education with excitement and joy. I met other people in my graduate cohort. . .people who were interesting, and intelligent, and funny, and I found myself forging friendships; REAL friendships, for the first time in years. My education parleyed into a job I adore, and before I knew it, I had a life that was. . .mine. It's not like the eating disorder went away overnight; but its voice got a little softer every day, and suddenly the choice between spending two hours at the gym or taking my kids to the park to meet up with friends was a no-brainer. I was happy. I AM happy. And true happiness is kryptonite to addiction and disordered eating.
My eating disorder is not gone. . .like my alcoholism, it will never really be gone, but it is controllable. Unfortunately, life with an E.D. is harder than life as an alcoholic. OK, OK, before all of my A.A. homies get all up in arms, hear me out. With alcoholism, the answer is simple. Don't drink. Black and white. You lock that tiger in the cage and you never, EVER let it out. But with eating disorders there IS no black and white. You HAVE to eat. So every day you lock that tiger in the cage. . .and every day you have to take it out 3 to 5 times, put it on a leash, take it for a walk, and lock it back up again. Every. Damned. Day. Do I still struggle? Yes. Are there still days that I look at my body in the mirror and cringe. Of course. Do I still purge when I'm extremely stressed or sad. I do. But I don't weigh myself. I don't let my body issues dictate my life choices. I don't judge my worth based on the size of my jeans. My eating disorder will always be that still, small voice in the back of my head that torments me, but my love for myself will be the louder voice that tells it to lighten up and eat a fucking sandwich.
February is National Eating Disorders Awareness month and in honor of that, I want you to write in the comments 10 things you love about your body. Ready, set, go. . .
1) My hair is thick and shiny and has just enough wave that it can be staight or curly and it always does exactly what I want.
2) I have a dimple in my left cheek when my smile is genuine.
3) My skin has never broken out. Never.
4) I have crinkly laugh lines around my eyes that I once heard referred to as "roadmaps of joy" and I have adored them ever since.
5) My legs have completed 15 marathons and countless half-marathons, relays and road races.
6) My shoulders are rounded and defined and smooth as river rocks.
7) I have long "monkey toes" that I can use to pick things up, play the piano, and (in my more flexible days) apply makeup.
8) I have my father's nose and my mother's smile
9) My body created two miraculous human beings and provided the nutrients to sustain their lives.
10) I am a beautiful child of God.
Share the love, y'all.