In June of 1996 at the age of 12, I began a dance with anorexia.
This dance is one that would continue for the next 20 years. Sometimes we danced feverishly like whirling dervishes. Sometimes we danced apart but synchronized. Sometimes we clasped hands until my knuckles turned white. Sometimes we swayed slowly and I didn’t know where I ended or it began.
Sometimes I could dance alone. Lots of times I couldn’t.
I have always loved the summertime. Its always been my favorite time of year especially early summer. Virginia heat can be oppressive, our humidity can sit heavy on your skin and make your hair a terrible mess. Forget wearing makeup once it hits 95 degrees as just about any foundation will slide off your face. June is the best month in my opinion, generally less humid and less hot. There’s beautiful violent thunderstorms here where my hometown sits nestled beside the Blue Ridge Mountain and there’s also plenty of sunny days without a cloud in the sky.
Every June however, I am reminded of what happened that summer the month before I turned 13. Sometimes it stays with me for a few minutes and sometimes it follows me around for a few days weighing heavily on me like Virginia humidity.
This year it has been on my mind a bit more.
I imagine its a combination of a number of things.
I am here back in my hometown where memories of the summer of ’96 are everywhere. I love Charlottesville fiercely but a lot of sad stuff happened here, so sad that for a time I struggled through visiting as well as living here for a brief amount of time when I was 21. I worried that everyone in town still thought I was an unstable troubled young woman.
I felt haunted by my anorexia.
I still do.
I think I am also just more raw about “body stuff” right now because of my current health situation. I feel ashamed of my body in new ways and I still feel ashamed of it in old ways. I am angry at my body sometimes because of the ongoing pain and nausea, furious in fact. How could it betray me like this? Those similar feelings of anger ran true back at age 12 as well.
“How could I develop these hips and thighs after being a willowy young girl?! How dare you body!? How dare you gain weight and change?!”
I had never even cared about my weight before age 12. I am what one would consider “small boned” and pretty much since birth have been thin. Both my brother and I were somewhat picky eaters with fast metabolisms, we both could always eat what we wanted without gaining a pound. The summer I turned 11, I suddenly shot up to 5’5″ but my weight stayed the same. All of a sudden I was all legs and arms with knobby knees and elbows.
I brought home my school photo that year and my mom said (without thinking) “We got to get some weight on you, you almost look anorexic” I asked what that was and she explained in a broad way.
That was actually the first time I heard of anorexia.
I would not know until a few years later that my grandmother too danced with anorexia for my mom’s entire life. I would also find out later that my mom had danced with a slightly different dance partner before and after she had me and my brother. In a funny twist of fate, my mother did not fully recognize her mother’s anorexia or her own eating disorder until I developed mine. You can read more about my mother’s experience with the eating disorders in our family here, its a powerful read as my mother is a powerful writer.
The comment she made about my weight was a thoughtless side comment, one my mother now teaches parents not to make.
All I remember in that moment was feeling “interested” like anorexia was something special. I can’t explain it just as I can’t explain why during that same time I was fascinated by photos of my great Uncle Wendell emaciated in a war camp surrounded by other emaciated men.
It’s like my brain was primed to feel a certain way.
Genetics are powerful things and much has been researched into the genetic component of anorexia and it’s equally devastating cousins bulimia and binge eating disorder.
I entered into my own eating disorder with NO knowledge on my grandmother, my mother, or my cousin’s own eating disorders. I never got the chance to meet my Grammy, she died several years before I was born but my mom has told me at times how much I look like her and sometimes act like her. At a conference where my mom gave a talk on eating disorders and genetics she put up a slide of my grammy, my cousin Janet, and myself-all three anorexics with bulimic tendencies…and all three looking very similar.
I do not think it is coincidence that I struggle with the same thing that other family members have.
I’m sure some people could say “Oh well of course you developed one if your mother had one. You must have learned it” but my mom’s food and body image struggles were murky. Growing up my mother spoke negatively about her body in front of me. I heard her call herself “thunder thighs” and bemoan the current state of her butt and hips.
These comments would resurface in my brain once the same hips began to develop on me in 7th grade. When I saw it happening, when my pants started to not fit , when I slowly began to resemble a woman and not a little girl I heard my mother’s words in my head along with many of my own:
“Now YOU have thunder thighs and a fat ass! You’re disgusting. You look nothing like the pretty thin girls in Seventeen magazine. You look like a freak. God you’re gross”
However my mom didn’t talk about diets, didn’t count calories, or really participate in any other noticeable eating disordered behaviors besides negative self talk.
My anorexia happened all on it’s own with no guidance from anyone.
The blue print of how to slowly disappear was one I intrinsically knew without anyone’s help.
Now would be a good a time as any to explain that my anorexia began not because my body changed but because everything else did too.
Within a span of a few months everything that I knew to be true and real changed and it all changed really fast.
On June 26, 1995 when I was 11, my mother and I came home from the mall to find a voicemail that my grandpa (my dad’s dad) had passed away from a sudden heart attack. I remember my mother coming into the living room to tell me and then somehow ending up in the bathroom screaming NONONONONO on the floor. His death was a shift in our family history, a point in time almost every single person be it my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my dad…we all can say “Yes, it all changed after that”
He was everything to me.
That August my mother bought a new house and legally separated from my father. We moved in the beginning of September and that same week I started 7th grade at a brand new school after being at the same one since preschool.
It was a lot all at once.
Having been to treatment several times as well a number of eating disorder support groups, I know MANY people who have been through far more dramatic and traumatic events that triggered their eating disorders. Many people’s eating disorders started for reasons far more serious than mine and for awhile I felt really guilty about it. I used to feel very ashamed and stupid that mine was just “because I couldn’t handle my parents divorce” but it took me many years to comprehend that it wasn’t just the divorce that set this all in motion.
I began starving myself and searching for control because the tectonic plates of my life shifted so suddenly that I felt like a continent drifting off on my own across the ocean.
My grandparents house was my safe place, the place I was the happiest when the palpable tension of my parents dissolving marriage made me feel scared or when I felt like a loser at a school that I no longer fit in at. In a matter of 90 days I lost being able to cry into my grandfather’s cardigan, I lost my parents being a united front, I lost normalcy, I lost waking up every morning with my father being down the hall. I lost a number of things big and small that had been a constant in my life for a long long time.
Unbeknownst to me or anyone else, I was also beginning to wrestle with an undiagnosed mood disorder that was able for a year or two more to skirt under the guise of erratic hormones and then would rest in being a “possibility” for several more years. No one would slap an actual diagnosis on me until I was 20 and I would not find the right medication until I was 24.
My anorexia was essentially a desperate DIY scheme to try and control my shifting moods along with everything else that was rapidly changing.
I knew my emotions and the reactions to my emotions were sometimes TOO big but I didn’t know what to do. I once descried my mood disorder many years ago to my mother as being caught in storm out at sea. I could feel the swell of my emotions pull me off my metaphorical ship and I could feel myself unable to fight these huge waves of fear, of depression, of anger. Up up up the waves would rise with me frantically kicking, trying to keep my head above water, trying to suck in whatever air I could find. Then down down down we would go, each wave crashing into the next, each emotion blurring into another.
The storm would stop when it wanted to and I would try each time not to drown.
Thanks so much for reading, please feel free to share this with those who struggle with eating disorders, those who are in recovery, and those who may be interested in learning more about eating disorders.
If you or someone you love has an eating disorder please go here to get support.
You are not alone, friend.