I looked in the bathroom mirror and a skull stared back. A skull with a thin, very thin lining of pallid skin. Blanched lips, cheekbones so sharp they looked hurtful. Inanimate eyes. It seemed as if someone barely alive was looking through someone already dead. Both seemed like strangers to me. People I had known long ago but no longer did. I felt a shudder run through my bruised, emaciated body. Then a tingle of satisfaction. I was well on my way to succeeding! All I needed was to lose a few more pounds. Maybe 10, maybe 14 -- to be on the really safe side... I had to start by figuring out how nobody would notice I would not be eating anything that night. It was my birthday. I had just turned 13. I stood 5'6" and weighed 79 pounds.
Two years later, I was dying. Whilst continuing my life, as "normal."
As the portions of food that actually entered my body had decreased rapidly, my determination, single-minded sense of purpose, motivation, discipline and tolerance of pain had grown. Monstrously. I started track and cross-country running, I walked like crazy, I skipped rope obsessively. Every day I got up earlier and earlier, repeating to myself, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." I got to bed later and later at night because I'd read that when you're awake you burn more calories. I couldn't sleep almost at all because the mattress felt hard and I could feel my bones piercing through skin, right into it. I became bruised by even the slightest touch. I shivered even in balmy weather. I dressed in loose, flowing shirts and sweaters and jeans. My grades skyrocketed; I even won a math award. The teachers at school worried I worked too hard. At a school dance when I wore tight jeans, hid the black circles under my eyes with concealer and accentuated my cheekbones, all the other kids thought I was awesome. "You look just like a model," they said admiringly. Not long after, I stopped eating entirely.
Although by then, fully in my teens, I never "acted out" and certainly never lost control. I had friends but no boyfriend (I had broken up with him on our second date when he had tried to get to me to eat roast chicken), no interest in sex, smoking, drinking. I didn't stay out late -- I wouldn't have gone out at all, if it weren't for school or sports! Yet my relationships with my mother and my yaya, like we call grandmothers in Greek, were in shreds. The rows were constant and gut-wrenching. When they peaked, I felt such passionate animosity toward them, it bordered on hatred. Later, I hated myself for treating them in this manner, for subjecting them to the onslaught of my decision to surrender myself to anorexia.
Yet I still rebelled against what I saw as my mother's and my yaya's lack of respect of my decision not to eat, maybe even not to go on living -- both intellectually and emotionally, I calmly accepted that outcome as highly possible. I even quoted Sartre and Primo Levi to dissuade them from constantly trying to change my mind and GET ME TO EAT!!!
Yet they did not stop: In unison and separately, both my mother and my yaya used every weapon they knew to make me eat something. My yaya cooked me light editions of all my favorite foods, my mother tried to reason me through, then she just yelled. They both ended up crying. Yet they never stopped urging, begging, coaxing me to eat -- and of course, I wouldn't. Our family, our lives were being torn apart as the illness reached its climax -- and approached its inevitably fatal conclusion.
One night, after one such traumatic experience (which is what all dinners had turned into), I ran to the apartment's front balcony to work off my fury. The pacing up and down in the cold wintry air would also burn up more calories, right? It would invigorate the metabolism. Even if it were only the mid '90s (And those years, life in Athens, Greece, was like the early '80s in New York), I knew all about that stuff.
Pulling the balcony door open -- everything seemed to require so much more effort nowadays, even simple movements, even breathing and swallowing my own saliva -- I overheard a snatch of conversation from the kitchen where my mother and my yaya were talking about -- what else? -- me.
"She's going to die, can't you see it?" My usually sweet and gentle yaya was fiercely telling my mother, in a reprimanding tone, "We need to get her to a hospital to be force-fed." "It'll be no use," my mother said, "She'll just stop eating as soon as she comes out of hospital and she won't trust us too. There is no chance she'll survive then. Now maybe we still have a chance to persuade her to eat. If we fail, we'll all die of course." She spoke in a matter-of-fact manner.
A lightning bolt of recognition shot through my head: These two people inside the kitchen loved me so much that losing me would not only devastate them but spell the end of their lives. I walked into the kitchen and asked them what they would do, most literally do, if I did die then. My mother said she'd jump off the balcony. My yaya nodded in agreement. I was appalled. My dynamic mother who never gave up, and my yaya, an epitome of rationality and understated chic-ness, would act like figures out of an ancient Greek tragedy all because I wouldn't eat!
Although I still thought my mother and yaya were over reacting to something not that important, I respected their desperation and felt a responsibility toward them because I now knew how much I was loved by them. I made a decision: I asked my mother to take me to my favorite pastry shop in Athens so I could eat one of its "signature" chocolate buns filled with cream. They were huge and I had once adored them.
We almost flew to the pastry shop. By midnight we were still there: myself laboriously still eating the bun and my mother applauding every bite I took, with tears of joy in her eyes. Eventually, I managed to finish it. Every bite was torture.
Every bite I took from then on was torture too. As I slowly, very slowly, grew healthier, I gained some weight. Although I was still too thin and I knew it, I could not sleep, in mortal fear that in gaining this weight and thus regaining my life, I would lose control of it. I would become "normal," therefore mortal, a woman.
In the meantime, I diligently trudged through what would amount to volumes, were it not on the internet, about my illness. I devoured myriad psychiatric papers and observations of actual "cases" which had been hospitalized. It was shocking how nearly all ended in death. Thanks to the web, I was able to heal mentally as well as emotionally. I entered many forums where both survivors, as well as people still battling the disease, were speaking candidly to one another about the disease. I read and I read and I read, until I read myself out of ever feeling so alone and vulnerable, that I would fall prey to this enemy, again.
I used the iron will and discipline anorexia had given me, to master myself. To become one of those who survived the illness. Who beat it. Every moment of my struggle was imbued with the knowledge that I was loved beyond reason by those I loved: my mother and grandmother -- my yaya, whose name lives on through me. Amalia.
Speaking on the phone with the famed psychiatrist Irving Yalom, years later, as a journalist, I realized how lucky I had been to have survived and overcome this illness. "Most patients don't," he told me, "And we psychiatrists really don't know what to do, that's the sad truth. Anorexics are too intelligent and too determined to be saved. Whether they cross over into bulimia nervosa, or stay anorexic their entire lives, most of them eventually die from complications that arise."
Nowadays, I am very health conscious, yet without rigidity. Having overcome anorexia has also made me much more reasonable in other aspects too. Like relationships. I now know you should never date a man who doesn't concern himself with whether you've eaten well. If he doesn't care about that, he will not care about you in any other sense too.
Of course, I do have some "reminders" of what I have gone through. My hands go white and numb in chilly weather -- but that happens with many other women, too. A big dinner still makes my heart beat really fast -- but then, so does succeeding at my goals or falling in love! I am slender -- but not skinny. No one would know I ever had anorexia.
Yet I never forget. I am always alert and vigilant because I know I can never be entirely safe from myself. Sometimes -- and this can happen; beware all of you out there who have gone through similar situations, or who have loved ones who have done so -- you slip. A treacherous crack opens inside you, inside your soul. The void gapes through. When this moment may arrive, is unknown. If you are going through a rough period you may be tempted to fall back into old habits. So you have to deal with it, decisively.
But I have done so -- and I have won! My mother, my yaya and I won that night when I ate the bun: the three of us. In Greek, the word for winning is "Nike." In our mythology, she is a woman -- and boy, is she gorgeous! Radiant, full of curves, and "normal." (Cindy Sherman even made her pregnant in a statue now showing at MoMa.) Yet there is nothing "normal" about her: Nike is a goddess. Like every woman: endowed with the power to overcome anything.
For more by Amalia Negreponti, click here.
For more on eating disorders, click here.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
Follow Amalia Negreponti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@aliama