My father first explained to me what anorexia was when he spoke of one of his favorite singers, Karen Carpenter, passing away due to complications of the disease in the 80s. The very idea of it baffled me.
“She died because she didn’t eat,” my father told me.
“Why didn’t she eat?” I asked.
“Because she was sick. In her head she thought she was too fat, so she stopped eating enough and it killed her.”
Why on Earth would anyone just… choose not to eat? The food is right there, you need it to live- it seems like such a simple equation. So what if she thought she was fat? Being alive is more important than not being fat… Isn’t it?
A decade later my fiance would find himself begging those very questions of me as I stoutly refused the meal he had cooked me. He would often come to me, tears in his eyes, telling me he didn’t understand. He needed me, he said. Why was I choosing to endanger my life, and risk him losing me forever? It was selfish and cruel that I would opt out of the life I had promised to him based on some abstract fear.
In truth, there was so much more behind my sealed lips than fear. There was a sense of helplessness, a thirst for control. An addiction to the thrill of making it one more minute, one more hour, one more day without food, to watching the numbers on the scale dip lower and lower every time I stepped on.
In my mind, I was a broken and shriveled thing. I had been beaten down by life, chewed up and spat out, and my wounded soul ached to share my bruises and scars with the world. When I didn’t eat, when I let myself waste away until my cheeks were hollow and my eyes were sunken, people looked at me and they knew something was wrong. They knew I was sick, injured- dying, even. I drew comfort in knowing that others could see me for what I truly was.
These days I don’t feel so damaged. I have grown and flourished in many ways, and I believe myself more capable and more worthy every day. But that doesn’t mean that my eating disorder has left me entirely. Sometimes it lies dormant, and I almost forget that it’s there. At other times it swells up inside me and grasps for control. On those days I catch myself looking in the mirror more often, picking at spare fat and loose skin, and second-guessing the food I put in my mouth.
For a long time after my last run through intensive outpatient, my husband had sole access to the scale. I wasn’t allowed to see how much I weighed, in case that triggered my obsession again. Recently, however, I convinced him to let me see it. I had been doing so well, I assured him- I just wanted to know where I was at.
I kept the scale after that. I know he noticed, but he hasn’t bothered me about it. He believes in my recovery, and my dedication to staying healthy. I’m beginning to think maybe he trusts me too much.
I weigh myself every day now. That first number I got was disappointing, and I wanted to do better than that. So I ate a little less the next day, and the next. I watched the number drop every day after that, sometimes by an ounce or two and sometimes by nearly half a pound. It excites me, gives me something to work for, something to focus on, to aim for and achieve. The thrill of getting to check my weight gets me out of bed in the mornings.
This probably is not a good path to be on. I talk a lot about being so much better now, and in so many ways I am. But I am still sick. The voice lives on inside me, even though I have ignored it for so long now. Suddenly I am finding it a little bit louder again, and, to my shame, I am listening.
I know that I should tell someone, my husband maybe or my therapist, but I don’t want this to end. Not yet. Just a few more pounds- let me get down to my ideal weight within the healthy range for my height and then I will give it up. I look at pictures of me back when I was the sickest, and I no longer want to look like that. I don’t want to be dizzy and out of breath every time I move, and I don’t want to live in a haze of foggy, malnourished thinking. But yes, there is some small part of me that missed this.
I hope to bring better news the next time I update my progress. I feel as though I am letting people down. Mental illness is not a choice, and sometimes it takes over, but that is no excuse. I hope that very soon I will be able to snap myself out of this and take charge of my body again.
Until then, I refuse to allay my responsibility for my own actions. It is I who am choosing not to eat enough, and I am the one who is continuing to practice behaviors that I know very well to be detrimental to my well-being. While I may be making a big mistake, I blame no one but myself. I know that that attitude will serve as my leg up when I am able to find my footing again. When I chalk up all my bad decisions to my illness, then it has won. I am conceding its power over me. When I own up to my behavior, I can feel the weight of the guilt and of my duty to take care of myself on my back, and I use that weight to resist the pull of my disordered thoughts and urges.
Life with anorexia is a constant battle, and some days, some weeks, or some months, I may lose- but I by no means intend to give up the fight. I know that in the end I will win.