It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was sixteen years old and my high school sweetheart broke my heart. He said the spark was gone. We all know what that means in teenage boy language. I felt heartbroken and alone. Soon after, I had surgery on the back of my calf to fix a scar and then had my wisdom teeth out one week later. I was having trouble eating while recovering from the surgery, but even when my mouth started feeling better, I still wanted to restrict food. I was losing weight. It felt good. Something had clicked.
My battle with food started slowly. At first, I was restricting carbs and then fats. I insisted that anything I ate was fat free. This WAS the 90’s, so fat free was the diet craze. It wasn’t hard to find fat free substitutes for just about anything. Within months, I progressed to eating only vegetables or lettuce dipped in yellow mustard. 600 calories per day became my absolute limit. That’s about one-third of what an active teenager of my height should take in.
The calorie counting started to consume my every thought. My family was getting worried and constantly nagging me to eat. My friends were nagging me to eat, but finally gave up, and eventually gave up on me in the process. I felt so alone.
Why won’t you eat? You look horrible. Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to us? Why are you doing this to me? The truth is, I didn’t know. For once in my young life, I felt in control of something. Counting calories and losing weight felt good. I remember sitting in classes adding every last calorie in the margins of my notebooks. I was obsessed, and had no idea why.
At some point during the fall of my senior year, my weight dropped dangerously low, and my mom insisted I start therapy. I remember sitting in the therapist’s office talking about my dietary needs, but never much about my emotional needs. I couldn’t rationalize why I was terrified to eat or why I was so depressed? I was so focused on controlling calories that I was unable to focus on the emotional healing I so desperately needed.
In the spring of my junior year of high school, I was named First Team All State for softball. I was a star center fielder, who was already being recruited by many Division One programs. I was also a starter on our varsity basketball team. I was fast and tough. By the time fall rolled around, I was fully consumed by anorexia and could hardly walk up and down steps without getting winded. When senior year basketball started, I was severely underweight. Coaches from opposing teams, who had watched me play for years, expressed their concern. My mom was horrified. This was a wake up call. I slowly started to recover, but still kept a close eye on the scale.
See, that’s the thing about anorexia. It may have appeared that, as I put weight back on, I was healing. When I got close enough to my original healthy weight, my family and friends breathed a sigh of relief, even declaring me “recovered”, but the eating disorder- that voice in my head- was still there, just lurking.
Eating disorders, while so visibly physical, require so much more emotional work to overcome. At this point, I had not done the emotional work. I had no idea why I was so focused on calories and my weight. It took quite a few years to finally reach the clarity to realize I needed to focus on those calories to keep my mind from focusing on emotional pain.
By the time I went off to college, I was back to my original weight and was seemingly healthy and recovered. My family was fooled. I was fooled. I went off to college as a pre-med Chemistry major, taking 18 credits in my first semester. I was also playing Division One softball, which was a full-time job in and of itself. Our practice field was a 45 minute ride from campus to boot. Often times, I would return back to campus in the evening and the dining hall would already have closed for dinner. I had to survive on microwave Chef Boyardee meals or anything my roommates could remember to bring me from the dining hall. My classes were hard. Keeping up with make up work when we traveled for games and tournaments was hard. Softball was hard. I wasn’t the star anymore. My game was really struggling, as I think the anorexia had done more damage physically than we realized. My self-esteem was shot. I was feeling out of control again. In a big way.
Flash forward to spring of my freshman year of college and I was starting to lose weight again. That summer and throughout sophomore year, my anorexia was back and even worse than it had been in high school. I decided not to play softball anymore. I just wasn’t healthy enough. I am 5’8” and my weight went down to below 100 pounds. I had been very outgoing and social during my freshman year, but now I was fully isolating myself. I was commuting home every weekend so it wasn’t obvious to my friends that I was staying in my room. I think a part of me was also a scared, hurting little girl who needed her mom. It’s weird, but I remember going home and feeling like my parents hated to look at me. When I was at school, I felt like my friends and classmates couldn’t look at me either. I felt like a total freak.
I made it through my sophomore year. My grades, surprisingly, were not suffering. I was consistently making the Dean’s List. All of my brain power and energy must have been going to counting calories and studying. I had none left over for socializing or just being a normal college kid. I was sleeping a lot. I was no longer menstruating.
When I went home for winter break during my junior year of college, I was struggling with the thought of going back. I felt like a freak, like a loser. I did go back to school in January but quickly withdrew for the semester.
I went home and had no idea who I was anymore. I didn’t have school. I was no longer a competitive athlete. I was still just a hurt little girl.
The next few years were full of ups and downs with my eating disorder and resulted in multiple hospital stays. The emotional work had finally begun. It was painful, and I will never forget those incredibly brave, strong young women who were there in the hospital with me as we all leaned on each other while trying to battle our demons together. No one else can understand the conflicted feelings of hating your eating disorder with every ounce of your being, but desperately needing it at the same time. I didn’t want to feel that way. None of us did, but we needed it.
When you hear, as a parent, that what your children hear from you is what they become, it’s true. Growing up, I constantly heard, from one of the people who should have loved me most in the world, that I wasn’t ever good enough and I believed it. I never felt like I was good enough. Excelling in sports wasn’t good enough. Making honor roll by busting my butt wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I was a “moron.” See, that sticks with a kid. I was never good enough for my father so I would never be good enough for me.
My eating disorder helped me to quiet that voice. I’m not a medical professional, but I do see the parallels between eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. Drugs and alcohol help to quiet those painful inner voices too. I was a teenager and in my early twenties when I was truly suffering, but inside I was just a little girl in pain who needed to heal. I needed to learn that that voice and that pain did not define me.
I remember my mom was so terrified that I was going to die. At one point I ended up in the coronary care unit of a hospital in Philadelphia. My EKG had no p-waves, which was the evidence that I was damaging my heart. I wasn’t feeding my body enough to keep my heart beating regularly. This was rock bottom. Here’s the thing: I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be alive. It was all too much. I needed a break from the pain.
It was a roller coaster six to seven years, but I did finally go on to fully recover. I finished college and after quite a few years of soul-searching, I found my purpose. My purpose was to survive and to help people. I had to make sense of the hell that I had been through and use what I had learned to help others.
I still don’t know what saved me, what kept me from finally giving up completely. Why did my story end so differently than so many others? What I do know is that I am here for a reason and I want to share my story. I went through hell, the deepest, darkest depression, the experience of not wanting to live another day, and I came out on the other side of it. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.
In many ways, I am grateful for my eating disorder. Without it, I am not sure I would have ever faced what I needed to face to heal emotionally. The emotional pain and trauma manifested itself in such a physically obvious way, and so quickly, I had to face it. This was the most difficult challenge I had ever faced in my life. I faced death, wanting to die, and I survived. The new me- forever changed- was stronger, braver, and more in touch with who I was and what I wanted my life to mean. I wanted to take my experiences and help others. It took me a while to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to share my story, and that’s okay.
I am now happily married with three strong, brave, amazing little girls who think I am a hero. I now let that be my voice. They believe in me. They need me to believe in myself. They inspire me to be better every day. I also teach at an all girls’ high school. I am strong. I run marathons and have recently discovered triathlons. I am in awe of what my body can do. I am so blessed in so many ways. I truly love my life. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could love my life and feel proud of the woman that I am. I still struggle with anxiety everyday, but I know how to manage it and I know my triggers. I know who I am. I love who I am.
No matter how hopeless you might feel, there is always hope. Focus on what you want out of life when you get to the other side, hold on to it, and don’t let go. Fight for it. Don’t give up. When you have lost the strength and desire to fight, let someone you love do it for you. You are worth it. You are good enough. The world needs you. Remember my story. Your pain doesn’t have to define you. Someone else’s voice doesn’t have to define you. Life can be so beautiful if you fight your way through the darkness and allow your soul to heal.