Here I present to you my inner demon, Ed. I have chosen to make Ed real, and making him real means I can be rid of him.
Ed's full name is Eating Disorder.
My name is Kate, and I'm a recovered anorexic.
There are those who have not been able to handle my recent struggles with him; when I acknowledged his existence at the beginning of this term, Ed became a presence. He became real and I was afraid of him. No longer was I only afraid of being fat...I was coping with my fears and body image issues along with acknowledging my illness for the first time for what it really was. Ed wouldn't go away with good rest and vitamins. He wouldn't go away with a trip to the health center. I had to defeat him myself, intrinsically. Unfortunately, a few You're beautiful!s or You're not fat!s don't help unless you believe it yourself. You do NOT choose to be anorexic and you can't just make it go away with logic. Any comment about weight or looks or food is a moment of terror. Luckily, I had those supporting me in spite of those who chose not to. In due time, I was able to look Ed in the eye and say that I didn't need him telling me how to feel anymore. That happened yesterday around noon. I feel free.
I want to share this story with those who want to listen.
I am a dancer. When you stare at yourself in the mirror several times a week, for hours at the time, from the time you're a little girl, it leaves a deep, lasting scar. Starting when I was eleven years old, day by day I watched my thin legs with knobby knees transform until they had curves, watched my hips widen, my breasts grow, my ass round. I was an early bloomer and I stood a curvy giant among thin, young girls. I think that's when it all started.
I moved to the Czech Republic at thirteen. With no one to talk to, I became horribly depressed. My young teenager's body was still slowly developing into the woman's body it would eventually become, and I gained a considerable amount of weight--not good weight. I was sad. I'll never forget the conversation I had with my mom, screaming, eyes brimming with tears, when I finally recognized that I wasn't taking care of myself. I managed to stabilize at a healthy weight and shape. The European mentality is much more relaxed, and once I was happy I felt little need to worry about how I looked.
Back in the United States, I maintained a stable weight throughout sophomore year and had a decent outlook on my appearance. I was back to dancing full time in my dance company and I felt strong. I don't remember negative feelings.
The summer before junior year, it all changed. I spent the summer in Europe with my family and dropped weight, and stabilized there. I was thin and I felt beautiful. I didn't deprive myself and yet I can acknowledge now that this was when I started to become obsessed with the number on the scale. 105 pounds was intoxicating, and frankly, that was a healthy weight for 16-year-old me. Throughout the following school year, I maintained about 103 pounds. I didn't feel like I wasn't taking care of myself...but truthfully, I wasn't. I enjoyed being the little girl, the one who got lifted in dance numbers and looked so small next to her leading men. I didn't realize that although I was still curvy, I had lost those beautiful thighs and butt that were a part of me. I starved them away. I went hungry during the school day. I’d throw up stomach acid because I didn’t eat. I was growing into an illness, and Ed's voice whispered in my ear: "Stay small. You are beautiful now."
I weighed myself every morning and every night.
This behavior continued through the first half of senior year. In January, I began to face an identity crisis of sorts that left me sleepless and confused. I dropped to 100 pounds. I knew it was supposed to be scary, but I secretly loved it. I loved that I felt so small, so beautiful. Ed kept whispering. When my life fell apart in February, I felt like I lost control of so much when I had always had such power over my life; then Ed told me I had the power to control something, and that idea was intoxicating. I would wake up late, drive to school, go to class, stay for play rehearsal, go hang out with my boyfriend, go to dance, go back to my boyfriend's house, go home, and go to sleep in my clothes. No one would ever know what I ate besides me. I did have meals; I didn't completely starve. But I would lie: yes Mom, I had lunch, yes friends, I ate breakfast, oh it's okay, I already had dinner. I slept and slept and starved and starved, and whittled my waist to 97 pounds. I lied and told my parents I weighed more.
Looking back, Ed had control of my life. He gave me this faux sense of power because I could control what I ate, control that number on the scale every morning and every night. I remember smiling when the number at night was less than the number in the morning, meaning I'd starved myself smaller that day. I would bring a box of cookies to school and share them...and yes, that would be all I would eat that day. My clothes began to slip off. I didn’t lose my period so I didn’t think it was that bad; I have learned recently that because I was on the pill, I wouldn’t have lost my period anyway, so I may have reached that point. I will never know—that frightens me. I rarely was naked with myself. I took showers as little as possible to avoid looking at my body. I lived and slept in the same pair of jeans for days at a time. I was afraid to expose myself to myself.
I think Ed convinced me that if I started to disappear, those people who thought I didn’t care about what was going on in my life would realize that I did. That I cared so much that I was sick and fading away. But…I think I hid it so well that people didn’t recognize how serious my problem was. No one noticed. Even I didn’t notice just how sick I had become. I recall one girl from dance class, completely removed from my hellhole of high school life, who said “Katie…you’ve gotten really skinny.” I awkwardly mumbled an acknowledgment and that was that. Life went on.
I eventually gained the weight (and even a couple extra pounds) back by May. I felt hideous and fat. I was embarrassed to wear the small shorts required for a dance costume for my company’s spring show. I was only 107 pounds, and I thought I was fat, genuinely. The number haunted me. 107. 107. I’d cry if one morning I was 108, God forbid. At the end of the month, shortly following graduation, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and was sick for the entire month of June. How disgusting is it that even though staying inside all the time during a beautiful month sucked, I was happy because it helped me lose those “extra pounds?” Throughout July I was happy—but still recovering from illness. In August, I mourned the death of my dear friend. Just prior to going to school, I was down to 103 again. How sad is it that I remember the numbers so vividly and yet I have no recollection of how my body felt?
I was 106 when I went to Dartmouth. By the end of October, I had gained ten pounds. Not all of it was a good ten pounds, but looking back, I become healthy in a whole kind of way that I hadn’t experienced in quite a while: I was happy. I was happy, and I ate. I was happy and didn’t worry or starve away the pounds. I had joined a hip hop dance group and the change from years of ballet to intensive hip hop changed my body; biceps developed, my ass returned, and my thighs grew strong.
And my God, I hated it, because I went home and my pants didn’t fit anymore.
I sat on the floor in my closet one day over Winter Break and sobbed because I felt so ugly.
I vowed to return to Dartmouth for winter term with a new regime in plan. 110 pounds or bust! Gym every day! No carbs! Ed whispered to me: starve, no one will notice, no one noticed before. In place, my new goals did not make me feel thin or beautiful or sexy. I felt tired. I felt weak. I started participating in EDPA training (Eating Disorder Peer Advisement) because I felt I could relate to people with body image problems since I had so long struggled with body image myself. Little did I know that EDPA training would become more valuable to me than I could have imagined. Day one, I was asked if I knew anyone trying to recover from an eating disorder. I thought for a moment, and fear struck me. It was all I could do not to run out of the room. I walked home later in tears.
The only person I knew was me.
If anything, this only made things worse for a while. No longer simply afraid of being fat and ugly, I now had to cope with the knowledge that I had spent much of the last few years sick with a terrible mental illness. I had been an anorexic and still struggled with an anorexic mindset and anorexic tendencies. I was awkwardly thrust between wanting to stay hungry and not wanting to let myself be sick ever again. I struggled. I cried. It pushed people away, unfortunately. Some days I felt excellent. Some days, I felt worthless. My heart willed me to stay strong, knew that I was strong at the root of it all. Ed whispered. He cooed and said: doesn’t it feel good to be hungry? To be thin and beautiful? And as much as I fought and bit and kicked and screamed at Ed, his voice was ever seductive, ever present, wooing me.
A couple of days ago and I would have said I am a recovering anorexic. Yesterday, however, I was suddenly so brightly hit by this light, this sudden burst of insight, during EDPA training. We were having a discussion, trying to figure out why American culture is so obsessed with thin, and I realized…why am I so obsessed with a number on the scale or the number on the label in my jeans? Why do I seem to believe that I am quantifiable by a stupid number? I am so much more than a number. I am not a size zero. I am not nothing and I shouldn’t aspire to be nothing. I am fit. My thighs are strong and more muscular than ever. I have an ass that shouldn’t belong to me, a white girl. My waist is trim, my hips curve seductively. My face is no longer gaunt; my smile now has a face to fill. My arms are thin and reach beautifully when I dance. I am healthy. I don’t get dizzy when I stand up and I’m no longer cold all the time. Some parts of me are curvy, some parts of me are petite, and absolutely none of me is perfect. This is my body and no one else’s. I am healthy and almost 19. I shouldn’t want to be the sick, 17 of time gone by. Why focus on being the me from the past, when I have only now, only these moments to be the me of TODAY?
I ate cake last night. I licked the icing from my fingers.
And you know how I know things have changed? I didn’t feel guilty this morning, and I didn’t step on the scale. I didn’t stare at the toilet, wondering how hard it would be to make myself purge (a habit I gratefully never was brave enough to pursue). I kicked the scale, my enabler, to the side, for now, only to be used occasionally. I went to the gym with a friend and marveled in my body’s ability to be strong, to sweat, to feel the muscles burn; action that likely would have hurt me a year ago made me feel glad to be alive and well and beautiful today. I am an athlete. I am fierce. I am strong. I am beautiful. I’m the only me there is, and my body is one of a kind.
I don’t expect the whispers to stop. I don’t expect to have perfect self-esteem all the time. But, something changed within me about 24 hours ago. I stood in front of the mirror, lifted my shirt, and smiled as my fingers trailed the fine skin on my soft waist. I turned around and, for once, found the tiny dimples on the backs of my thighs precious. I am a human. I have lived. I will continue to live. My body will ask for what it needs and will keep me well.
I don’t belong to Ed.
I belong to me.
I am free.