It’s Easter weekend, a weekend about a resurrection, new life, and heavy crosses. I thought it was only fitting to take some time to contextualize my own new life, heavy crosses and resurrection, through a candid disclosure of my experience with Anorexia Nervosa. It’s part memoir, part field guide, but pretty much all naked from an emotional perspective, so I ask respectfully for your gentleness in digesting these pieces of my heart.
Demon as defined by DSMIV
A. Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (e.g., weight loss leading to maintenance of body weight less than 85% of that expected; or failure to make expected weight gain during period of growth, leading to body weight less than 85% of that expected).
B. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
C. Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
D. In postmenarcheal females, amenorrhea, i.e., the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles.
Type: Restricting Type vs. Binge-Eating/Purging Type.
- DSM-IV. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC.
My Statistical Overview
“Annie” and I coexisted for five years (age 11-16). I can’t separate the beginning or the end and some of the details aren’t really that important. I’m five foot two and at my most fragile state I shrank to almost nothing. I recovered eventually by the grace of God, Ridge Meadows Hospital in patient treatment, Children’s Hospital Day Treatment (D4) and an outpatient program. There were also a lot of pharmaceuticals, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, general practictioners, and psychiatric nurses. I was able to get myself up to a maintenance weight before I was discharged. Since then I have fluctuated upwards to allow for “happy fat”, shrinking back down again to my current form (healthy, strong and leanish).
Not just a numbers game
The number on the scale can absolutely be an indication of impending doom and danger for an anorexic if it’s really low. The reality is that weight loss is a symptom of anorexia and it’s a visible one, but the absence of visible symptoms is not the most accurate measure of someone’s recovery from this disease. Weight is a physical thing, but anorexia also resides firmly in the psyche.
Anorexia is like having the person who hates you the most, the most irrational tyrant you can imagine, living in your head rent free, trying to burn down your physical foundation from the inside out. It’s an interminable abusive relationship that’s nearly impossible to leave because it transpires in your own damn head. It’s being possessed by an evil spirit who hates you. Those voices can cause problems before the weight loss starts to show.
There is no magic number on the scale that can insulate you from the risk of getting behind the wheel of a car when your blood sugar is low from hunger and you’re exhausted from an exercise binge. It’s precarious at all points. Adding to the misery is that nobody really understands the battle in which you are an unwilling participant.
You’re So Vain (and must be secretly judging me too)
There is a widespread misconception that Anorexia is about improving one’s physical appearance. That might be the case for other women, I can only speak to my own journey. I don’t think starvation made me more attractive. Even when I feel “fat”, it’s with a recognition that “fat” is a stand-in word for a feeling I can’t name appropriately. Anorexia for me was about how much space I gave myself permission to occupy, and a desire to disappear. The reality is that I was experiencing a form of dysmorphia. I couldn’t see myself. I wish I could say that that is something that goes away on recovery but that was not my experience.
I have trouble in the mirror seeing where my body ends. This makes buying clothing challenging. I can see myself in photos for some reason and I rely on people in my life to point out changes in my body because I lack that spatial awareness. I remember an exercise we did where we had to draw our bodies full size and then we were traced on the same paper and I remember being shocked at the disparity. As much as Anorexia skewed my self perception, it did not affect how I saw others.
There is a further misconception that the self imposed judgements of anorexia are standards we hold other people to, which is simply not the case. I don’t know how many times I have heard “If you think you’re fat, you must think I’m huge”. Nothing could be further from the truth, because it’s not about you. It’s about me and how I feel about me. I remember even when I was sick I wouldn’t wish my condition on my worst enemy.
“Why don’t you just eat something?”
If only it was that simple. Anorexia is a weird dichotomy in that it’s an illness but it’s an illness where recovery can be a choice. I wish I could choose to recover from a cold or a flu. The reality is that at no point would just eating something make me better. That being said, at a certain point I made a choice to participate in my own recovery and that’s where it took up strength. Without that will, doctors could sustain life but I was not able to thrive until I gave myself permission to move on.
Moving on is on a sliding scale. The reality is that there is long term damage from this disease. I get to explain to every new dentist why my enamel is gone (comorbid bulimia). It causes long term neurological damage in processing pleasure (see this interesting article ). As much as I would like to move on and forget about it all, there are things that remind me of that time (plastic picnic ware because we weren’t allowed real cutlery, cottage cheese the other girls used to strain the liquid out of). I also don’t feel growing hunger so I have to map and plan my food, I’m either not hungry or excruciatingly starving and must eat immediately. I don’t know if full recovery is something that is possible but with the support of friends and family, I’m learning to cope and love myself in the meantime.
The cornerstone in my recovery is love. It is the love of my little boy that motivates me to stay healthy, learn and model good habits, and keep myself safe so I can keep him safe. This post is my fifteen year marker since I decided to give life another chance and I’m blessed by the life I was able to bring into this world, my Liam who inspires me to a be a better, healthier mommy.