This is part two in a series about how I developed anorexia at age 12. You can read part one here.
I remember the first time I thought I was fat.
It was around my brother’s birthday and we were spending the night at my father’s a.k.a. our old house. I remember how achingly empty the house felt. How could the place we had lived for almost my entire life feel so alien? It felt so strange to want to be there so desperately every day we weren’t there with my dad but at the same time recoil at being there because it felt like the house was in some split alternate universe.
I went to my room to get some clothes and started trying some on for a reason I do not recall. I remember not being able to get a pair of shorts over my hips and then subsequently realizing that I had hips. I found the nearest mirror and stared horrified at myself.
I think I may have cried or maybe just I seemed upset when I came downstairs but I do remember announcing to my dad in the kitchen that I was getting fat. Being the practical scientist he is, he got up, found a measuring tape and measured my hips. He wanted to give me hard cold evidence that my hips weren’t that big.
This is the picture my father took of me that night. It’s a bittersweet photo because I look so young to be feeling such self hatred. I don’t look fat at all. I had no idea what would lay ahead because I couldn’t “see” myself.
On New Year’s Day shortly after the clock struck midnight my close friend’s brother, the boy I had been pining over and flirting with since the beginning of the school year finally kissed me. I still smile thinking of that night where a smitten young girl had her first taste of love. I remember his hand cupping the side of my face with this song playing in the background as his parents drove us back to their house.
How sweetly 1996 began compared to how sadly it would end with me a 1,000 miles away in my first eating disorder IP stay. How much can drastically change in such little time.
We began “dating” which primarily meant hanging out, holding hands and slipping away to kiss in his bedroom when I slept over at my friend’s. He made me feel pretty and special and the sadness I felt over my parents divorce and Grandpa’s death felt a little bit easier to deal with. 3 months later he broke my little 12 year old heart by slowly ignoring me over the period of a few days and then promptly dating one of my friends.
I was crushed.
It was then I began to equate sadness with food. Thanks to tv shows I thought that eating a lot of junk food was how one should deal with a break up. I ate pizza, ice cream, and Reecs’s Peanut Butter Cups on the weekends with my mom, feeling guilty about the junk food and crying because he didn’t love me anymore. This was the first time I would feel guilty about eating.
Soon I started making myself throw up.
The first time I made myself throw up was because a friend told me I was mean to another girl in my grade. I felt terrible as I had become a little obsessed with being the nicest girl in my grade since I knew I couldn’t be the prettiest or the smartest. I NEEDED to be nice to everyone and any infraction was something that I would ruminate over for the rest of the day and into the night. This was obviously a HUGE overreaction to a small minute situation but the facts were that I was a 12 year old kid struggling with things much larger than whether I was nice to someone or not.
Emotions felt REALLY big and really scary and I was beginning to search for ways to “numb” myself.
That day that I was told I was mean, I came home, snacked on some grapes and then went to my bathroom and threw them up. I had read about bulimia in one of my teen magazines. Little did I know how many more times I would hover above that toilet with my fingers shoved down my throat. After it was done I stood up, washed my hands, brushed my teeth, and went back down to watch tv with my little brother.
This would happen several more times that spring.
Sometimes it was because I felt like I had eaten too much and sometimes it was just punishment for being such a crappy person.
I only told one of my friends. I didn’t think much of it until we had a school talk on eating disorders and she raised her hand to ask about “a friend”. My face burned with shame and I felt certain everyone knew she was talking about me. I stayed after to sheepishly admit to the woman giving the talk that “sometimes I make myself throw up”.
I didn’t do it that often. It wasn’t a big deal.
A few months after the eating disorder talk, summer vacation began. I left 7th grade as a girl who loved school, who was terrified of getting in trouble or breaking rules and who didn’t do many impulsive or erratic things. 10 months later in April 1997, I would be suspended for doing incredibly stupid things and not allowed to come back on school grounds except for 8th grade graduation. How much can drastically change in such little time.
The sweet timid girl who played by all the rules got lost in that sad month of June and didn’t fully return for a long time.
My mother wrote about that change many years later for a textbook on eating disorders and I feel that her words articulate it far better than I can. She describes it as only a parent can, one who has watched their child float out to sea while they sit on the shore franticly waving their arms.
“Within a six week period that summer, she would go from the bright, school loving, risk aversive daughter and older sister to a gaunt , black clad, scantily dressed girl, unrecognizable but still fiercely loved…Instead of being welcomed into friends’ homes, parents feared and shunned her…She seriously contemplated suicide many times. Sometimes she told someone, sometimes she didn’t.” (Munn, Robbie “Through the Looking Glass“. Treatment of Eating Disorders: Bridging the research-practice gap. Maine, Margo, Hartmen McGilley, Beth, and Bunnell, Douglas, Academic Press, 2010, page 355)
It all happened so fast and yet so slow.
After school let out, I decided I needed to go “on a diet” even though I really knew NOTHING about nutrition or calories or the appropriate amount of protein a 12 year old girl needs daily. My understanding of diets literally rested almost entirely on Cathy, patron saint of self deprecation and failed weight loss.
I thought that to properly diet that you should have a lot of disgust for your body which I definitely had, that one should try to consume A LOT less food, one should work out a lot even if you hated it, and that one should eat a lot of fat free cottage cheese.
I have never been able to eat cottage cheese again because after that summer, it just tastes of self-hatred.
I started to make myself run even though I hated running. I started to eat less and quantify foods as “good” vs “bad”, a mental equation I guess my dad got wind of. He decided to buy me a book about nutrition and losing weight “the right way”.
It was perhaps a poor choice on his part given that I did not need to lose ANY weight. The “SCARY WRONG VERY BAD UNACCEPTABLE” weight that I had me so upset…was only 6 lbs away from being medically underweight for a young woman who now was 5’6″. Its actually the very same weight I am now although I am almost two inches taller. Its funny how three numbers can hold so many emotions.
For a long time I would refuse to be this weight whenever I had to regain weight and get incredibly upset if I got even a few pounds near it. It would take me 7 years to finally go over that weight.
I know my father was just trying to help me “do things correctly” as I think both he and my mother could “smell” that something wasn’t right.
It was an innocent mistake by a parent who had little knowledge of eating disorders and did not know that I had already been occasionally purging. Just like a crow scouring a field for a shiny object, I was looking into the world for any and all acknowledgement that I was fat, gross, and worthless.
A few weeks after that a crisis occurred.
A day before the year anniversary of my grandfather’s passing and the day before we were supposed to drive down to Mississippi to visit his grave, I took a razor from my mother’s bathroom and cut myself on the side of my left wrist.
It was completely unplanned. I was feeling sad because another boy had broken up with me, Amusingly enough, it was my first boyfriend’s best friend who had very sweetly won my heart by dedicating a song to me on the radio (love in the 90’s y’all). After he broke up with me I felt incredibly ugly and unlovable. Looking back however, I think this first act of self harm was much more about my grief over my Grandpa and the subsequent losses that followed. The fact that it happened so close to the anniversary of his death says to me this is probably true.
Shortly after my mom came into my room and noticed I was acting weird so I told my mom what I had done. She sighed deeply and left to I assume call my Dad and then my new therapist. She then took a bath and after I snuck into the bathroom and took another razor. I cut myself some more. I had never self harmed before this, I had thought about plenty of times after reading about it in a magazine but it had never actually played out.
When I began to cut myself the second time that day, something inside me shifted and I couldn’t stop.
A little bit later I would learn about disassociation and I would then understand what had happened in my bedroom that day. It was as if I levitated from inside myself and watched from the ceiling. I was in my body but I was also outside of it. I know it sounds crazy but I swear to you, that’s what happened on that day in June.
I tried counting all the cuts once I was done but I lost count after 50.
Sometimes in the right light I will catch a glance at the silvery scars that are left on my ribs and stomach and I am back there for a split second, sitting on my bedroom floor writing my sadness on my skin.
I didn’t tell my parents about the second series of cuts.
The next day my parents took me to see my new therapist who I had met with all of maybe two times for an “emergency appointment”. She asked where I had hurt myself. I shyly lifted my shirt to show her my chest and stomach and then pulled up my shorts to show my thighs. I averted my eyes for a second and then looked at her face.
I watched her eyes widen and her pen move quickly against the paper where she was taking notes. The way her face looked made me feel cold and nauseous as I realized I had crossed a line, that I had made a terrible mistake. I was always incredibly cautious and never did things impulsively, I understood in that moment that what I had done would change everything.
I wanted to take it all back.
I was hospitalized 2 hours later at the local mental hospital attached to the facility my therapist was a part of. I would be there for the next 7 days. I didn’t tell them about the throwing up. I did tell them that I thought I was fat and that I hated myself.
I remember being in shock for most of it. How many times had my dad and I driven by this building on our way to video store? My mother’s house was only 15 minutes away and my father’s house maybe half an hour away but I felt like I was on a completely different planet. It was a rude awakening as the some of the other kids on the unit were REALLY mentally ill.
A boy cornered me the 2nd day there in the day room and whispered “Im going to get you alone and I’m going to rape you”. When my roommate told me she had been there for a month my stomach dropped. I was terrified this boy would hurt me and I would be stuck there forever. I cried myself to sleep every night.
It was nightmarish but necessary considering the gravity of my self harm.
They put me on Paxil which would make me lose my appetite and then finally sent me home. I swore to my parents the self harm would never happen again. I wish I could say this was true but that too would become a coping mechanism I would heavily rely on for 5 more years.
I feel shame just writing that.
I had been trying to hide the darkness in my brain for months and once I was discharged I just gave up and let it all out, whether it scared people or not. I didn’t care anymore. The hospital stay had hardened me. I came out angry, cynical, and ready to self implode.
Some of my behavior was very cliche for a really depressed teenager with an eating disorder. I started wearing a lot of black “it makes you look thinner”. I started smoking cigarettes “it helps curb your appetite”. I listened to Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album on repeat and wrote “love is suicide” on my walls on the day my weight hit double digits.
Since I wasn’t very hungry from the Paxil, I stopped eating lunch and then breakfast. About 2 weeks into this, I said to myself, “Why should I eat at all?” . Anything consumed was to be eliminated by vomiting or with handfuls of laxatives I bought with stolen money out of my mother’s purse. Almost 13 years of eating and suddenly my brain decided that feeding myself was a terrible crime. The weightless was swift and fairly easy.
I was hooked.
The third part of this series can be found here.
Thank you as always for reading. Please feel free to share this series with those who are struggling with eating disorders and self harm, those who are in recovery, and those who are interested in understanding eating disorders more. Open and honest discussion about these issues is a powerful tool that will hopefully help us to eradicate these devastating illnesses.
If you or someone you love has an eating disorder please go here for support.
You aren’t alone, friend.