I wrote this essay when I was 21, for the student magazine at the University of Kansas. The following originally appeared in Jayplay, a supplementary publication of The University Daily Kansan, on Sept. 13, 2007.
Run 4 miles every day. Nibble the skin of an apple for dinner. Ignore the weakness, the dizziness. Just keep running. This race never has a finish line.
For two of my years at KU, my closest friend, my full-time job, my god was an eating disorder. I knew what passed my lips better than I knew how to put breath in my lungs.
Carrot. Toothpaste. Holy Communion.
I didn’t eat a morsel without passionately deliberating, then feeling a terrified guilt that each crumb would become skin.
After every meal — typically half an English muffin and five grapes — I would rush to the mirror, hands pressing desperately across my stomach, as though fingers against flesh could somehow make sense of my life, lost in hopeless chaos.
Every bone in my back showed. I awoke each night to burning muscle cramps, my body feeding on itself. My hair fell out, and what remained was brittle and broken. My fingers and toes were perpetually cold, bluish and frail. I blacked out twice in public.
I didn’t know how to explain to friends that I couldn’t go out because I was fatigued by 8 p.m. from starving myself and planned to wake up before dawn to exercise. I drove friends away because of my obsession, my complete focus on myself. Their leaving puzzled me at the time because my eating disorder was, after all, what I thought would bring me into some surreal state of grace in which everyone would be magically drawn to the New Me.
I would be able to connect with people once I was thin. Life itself would finally begin.
Once I was thin.
But in my mind, thin never came, even when my body mass was low enough for hospitalization.
And I wanted to go. To give in to the disease. Let it define me. Make myself safe within the firm walls of anorexia. I wanted to be the girl with so much self-control. The girl above all human hungers. The girl who simply didn’t need.
Untangling all of life’s layers to unearth the root of this psychosis — which made me truly believe that my value as a person would increase as my body gradually vanished — would be impossible. While my driven, obsessive and perfectionistic personality no doubt played a huge role in fostering my eating disorder, I also found myself up against a culture that shamelessly prescribes starvation. A culture that, with its fetish for fad diets and hollow-eyed, stick-thin, asexual models, screams that the absolute worst way for a woman to fail is to be overweight.
The perfectionist in me would accept no form of failure. So I threw myself headlong into a maze of mirrors, scales and enduring emptiness, physical and emotional. I was set on the slow suicide of an eating disorder.
But when a team of doctors hired by my distraught parents hit me with the realization that my eating disorder would ultimately cost me my progress in the French language and the opportunity to study in France, I began, with no great ease, to claw my way out of a quicksand that nearly had me covered.
French was the only thing that gave me purpose — the one thing I’d invested too much of my life in to trade for white walls, a paper gown and a feeding tube.
I wasn’t afraid of never being able to have children. I wasn’t afraid of the wrecked immune system, the heart murmur, the premature aging, the chance of dying. Death isn’t real to a 19-year-old. I was afraid that, if I did live, I would never be able to reach a goal I’d started working toward long before I was intent on pounding the treadmill to an early grave.
And I would have to live with that fact — that I had given up a part of me so special and promising to be just like every other super-skinny wannabe model looking oh-so-blasé-and-wasted-and-vain. Because the world doesn’t already have enough of those girls.
I underwent treatment at an outpatient eating disorders clinic. Finding different ways to deal with the storm of fears and insecurities inside me was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’d never had to face anything real when I thought weight was my only problem.
As months of treatment passed, an idea slowly came alive within the part of me I’d been trying so hard to kill: Maybe letting go of my eating disorder would mean I had succeeded, not that I had failed. Maybe days should be spent doing other things besides counting calories, miles, pounds. Maybe my worth wasn’t contingent on the mirror and some arbitrary point in time when I was sure — absolutely 100 percent positive — that my thighs were thinner than they are right now.
Nothing was as saddening as finally gathering the strength to walk away from it all, only to find that the void in my life I thought I could fill by losing weight had only become larger. What I thought was my route to success had really been holding me back. What was supposed to at last give me an identity ended up stripping me of any shred of personality, leaving me, at the time, just a shrunken human shell — a nonbeing — too wrapped up in her jutting bones to value or be of value to anyone else.
I continue to battle my eating disorder every day. It won’t give up without a fight. But I know this fight is worth it. My dream of studying in France and the fulfillment I find in writing help me stay in the fight.
Words are my future. Silencing myself no longer interests me, nor does backing out of life because sometimes it’s stressful and messy and confusing and dealing with it would mean taking a long, hard look at myself and for once not taking the easy way out.
I know dying is much easier.
But living — with its missed alarm clocks, muddy shoes, faded friendships and those itchy regrets that just never go away — is infinitely worth the hassle.
Illustration by Becka Cremer, from The University Daily Kansan