Strangely enough, a whole group of adults, many of them health care professionals, spent years trying to figure out why I developed anorexia nervosa at the age of 16. People had lots of different theories, but as far as I could tell the main theory of the adults was that I was suffering from existential angst. Quite simply I was too smart for my own good and pondering too deeply about lives mysteries. Somehow, the theory went, I was thinking too much, too hard and taking life too seriously. My eating disorder was an expression of my perfectionism and my drive towards excellence and a result of being aware that life was essentially cruel, brutal and unfair.
It’s somewhat ironic to me. I don’t really remember what I told the psychologists and doctors I was seeing. I do remember learning very quickly what they WANTED me to say and I would say it. I was very unhappy about missing school to attend counseling and I thought that if I said the magic words I would be released and declared cured.
Those doctors weren’t very smart. Either that or I was a superbly good liar. Since I know for a fact that I’m a terrible liar, I’m left with the conclusion that they didn’t know very much at all about the connection between trauma and eating disorders. Sure, I had a genetic predisposition to anorexia. Yes, I was a perfectionist and yes, I did struggle with existential angst over the tragic state of the world. I still do on a regularly basis and it often leads to periods of depression and hopelessness. But these reasons alone would not have caused me to get so sick that I almost died.
Ironically enough, I remember the exact moment I discovered self starvation as a coping mechanism. I was walking down my street to my boyfriend’s house, I think we were about to take the bus to school. I think it was possibly Fall. I had been sick for a few days with the stomach flu. I really wanted to go to school that day but my mother wanted me to stay home. She said if I wasn’t well enough to eat I wasn’t well enough for school. I remember taking a granola bar with me to appease her worries. I walked down the street, holding the granola bar. I felt light, empty and my mind was quiet. I felt like I was floating down the street. I remember loving the feeling. It made me feel powerful and in control. I didn’t need that granola bar! I wouldn’t eat it! I didn’t want to lose this feeling.
From that moment forward I restricted food as a way of controlling my strong feelings. I used it as a way of controlling my body and thus attempting to control my world. It seemed harmless enough at first, I never even gave it a second thought. I didn’t consider myself as having an eating disorder, I didn’t think I was sick. I just became slowly more and more numb. I was embracing disassociation. Eventually I became addicted to self starvation and I couldn’t stop. It morphed into a form of obsessive compulsive disorder as well, a set of complex rules I had to follow in order to stay safe.
The adults were so confused. I wonder if anyone actually asked me why I wasn’t eating. Maybe they did and I don’t remember. Maybe they did and I lied. Maybe I told the doctors about the empty feeling. But I think I actually just accepted what adults were telling me. I accepted the idea of existential angst and I went with it.
After a few months I almost completely blocked out the real reason I wasn’t eating. It was all to do with the sexually and emotionally abusive relationship I was in. I was coping with something I did not understand, something I did not want and something I could not express to anyone.
Ironically, part of the abuse was X forcing me into social isolation. But anorexia caused me to isolate too. I would avoid occasions where I knew there would be food involved. I would rarely eat around anyone except my immediate family and even then I would often eat alone. I continued to isolate myself even after the abuse ended. It’s not often than we consider how many social rituals involve food. Almost all of them do and when you can’t eat, you can’t be social. I was so lonely. I also felt that nobody wanted to be around me. Because during the abuse I “neglected” my friends (ie I was not allowed to see them). I felt my friends would not want to talk to me again after the relationship ended. I felt embarrassed and I felt a deep shame.
Less than one year after leaving the abusive relationship with X I was seriously ill. I had no idea how sick I was. I was living mechanically, driven like a wind up toy. I have some extremely vivid memories from that time, and some complete blanks in my mind.
I do remember sitting in my psychologist’s office, one winter day. She was looking at me intently, as if she had something very serious to say. I was sitting there, wishing I could be just about anywhere else. I remember there was a clock ticking on the wall. The chair was uncomfortable, but then sitting in general was uncomfortable at that point, bones in direct contact with surfaces.
She looked at me and she said “You are going to die. Not in a year, not in a month, but soon. You have two choices, go voluntarily to Homewood to their eating disorder program or wait until you have a medical crisis and be admitted at CHEO involuntarily.”
I looked at her. I don’t remember if I said anything. I just remember sitting there feeling numb. Surely she couldn’t be talking about me, I wasn’t even sick! I knew I had been for multiple blood tests and ECGs recently, but I didn’t even consider the reason why. I was in denial so deeply. My brain was so starved I don’t think it was working properly. All I wanted to do was continue school and finish the year.
I must have chosen at some point, because a few weeks later I was heading to Homewood. I had friends who had been at CHEO for eating disorders and it didn’t seem pleasant to me. I never told my friends I was going to Homewood. I went to high school until the day before my admission. I didn’t tell anyone, I just disappeared from school one day. I suppose my parents or my teachers must have told my friends, because I received cards and letters from them.
When I got to Homewood, I found out years later, that the staff told my parents I was too sick to attend the program. They worried that at 85 pounds and 5’9″ I was not medically stable. They ran a series of tests on me and after my parents begged them, I was allowed to stay.
I still did not believe I was sick! I remember the psychiatrist for the program administered a series of diagnostic tests for eating disorders. He showed me the results in order to “prove” to me that I was sick. I remember a graph of my answers, the norm near the bottom, a line of average eating disorder patients above that, and my answers above that. I was apparently sick, even among a sample of sick people.
A few days after the refeeding process began, I brewed a cup of tea in the unit kitchen. I had a large Eeyore mug. I walked back down the hall carrying the large mug and suddenly realized my arm was shaking. I had to stop, I was so weak I could barely hold a mug of tea. And a few days before I’d been going to school, walking, living “normally.” I think it was at that point, my arms shaking from the exertion of holding the mug that I realized something was wrong.
It’s strange to me that with all the treatment I received, nobody figured out that I had been abused. It’s ironic, because I knew I started restricting to numb out, but along the way I became so sick that the root causes became irrelevant and all anyone wanted was for me to eat.
I one picture of myself at my low weight. Ironically, X was the photographer and the one who mailed it to me at Homewood. I kept it as a reminder of where I do not want to be. Never again. Though I have struggled with anorexia to some degree for 20 years, I never went back to that low point. I couldn’t because I was too aware.
Ironically, at the age of 17, I almost died from anorexia by accident.
I didn’t speak about the abuse until I was 20. Ironically, my method of coping almost killed me.