The content of this post may be sensitive to some readers.
My so-called "recovery" began the September of my junior year in high school and consisted of being shuffled from one doctor to the next and paying thousands of dollars for treatment that I had no intention of following. By the time I arrived at the hospital, I had already blown through two doctors. I had learned to placate these individuals, feeding them the answers they wanted to hear and convincing them of my psychological progress.
But these tricks failed to fool my parents. They knew that I wasn't just "adjusting to teenage life" or going through a "depressive stage" that would resolve itself. They knew that six months worth of blood work, nutritionists, and therapy sessions had left me off no better. They knew that my healthiness would have to come through a different route. And so they cleared their schedules, pulled me from school, and dragged me to Chicago's most renowned eating disorder program. As we sat side by side at the clinic, we listened to the doctor explain that at 5'3" and 107 pounds, I didn't fall within the criteria for Anorexia.I wasn't sick enough to enter the four-step program. Instead, I could join stage four as an outpatient. He explained that I needed to gain thirteen pounds, drew a nice chart to indicate my expected progress, and said to call every Monday with that week's weight gain. He didn't care how I gained the weight, he said, and he wasn't concerned with the emotional toll that doing so would take. "Everything will correct itself once you get your period again," he said.
Maybe. But you have to change eating habits and gain weight for this to happen, and, with little supervision, I did neither. Instead, I ate the same foods each and every day -- a small bowl of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich with one slice of turkey and nine pretzels for lunch, some one hundred calorie snack (preferably a skim latte so that I could urinate away the calories), and a four-hundred-calorie portion of whatever my mother prepared for dinner. I still refused red meat, avoided protein in general, and hated cheese, butter, and salad dressing. I still rejected most caloric drinks, cut my food into tiny pieces that I chewed ever so slowly, and sat listless and hungry most of the day. Yet, each Monday night, my father would lead me down into the basement, scrape the glass scale across the tiled floor, and instruct me to step on. Inevitably, the scale would register around 108 pounds. A half of a pound higher and my stomach would sink; a half of a pound lighter and I'd silently congratulate myself.
Then the fighting would begin. My dad would stand steely eyed, staring at the number silently, his chest rising and falling with each breath he took. "Ugggh! DAMNIT! GOD DAMNIT, BRITTANY!" he'd shout, slamming his fist against the wall and beginning his weekly lecture. I, in turn, would assume my usual pose -- arms folded, eyes fixed on the floor, and ears closed to all that he was saying. And then he'd begin to cry. His face would swell, its pale color turning a deep pink as he'd wipe the tears streaming down it. He'd let out gasps of air as his body shook, his broad shoulders quivering in a way that was unnatural and heartbreaking. Here before me was the strongest man I knew. His presence commanded respect from all who met him. His mental strength enabled him to dream big and conquer his every goal. He was my hero, my idol, and my best friend. And because of me, he was now sobbing. I had done this to him. I had caused him this pain, and all I wanted was to make it end.
I'd wrap my thin arms round his shoulders and hold him tight, letting him convulse on my shoulders as my tears fell onto his back. "I'll do better, Dad. I'll try harder. Please don't cry. I'll do better." And then we'd do it all again the next week.
I really did want to try harder. I didn't want to hurt my father any longer. I didn't want to see him stare off into space, knowing that he was worrying about me. I didn't want to watch him grow quiet at meals as he stole glances at my untouched plate. And I sure as hell didn't want to make him cry. But I also didn't want to gain weight. I had two conflicting goals, one that guided my actions six days out of seven and one that controlled me each Monday evening. After the emotional fights, shared tears, and promises to get better, I'd decide that I would change. So, when the clock struck eleven and my parents and siblings were safely tucked in bed, I'd creep down the back staircase, flick on the kitchen lights, and head for the snack drawer.
My night eating started innocently at first, with just a handful of pretzels. But it felt good. I liked eating the carbohydrates that I denied myself when the sun was up and others were in my presence. It was comforting and something that I looked forward to. Soon, this weekly ritual turned into a nightly one, and the snacks I consumed were in greater quantities and farther down my "bad foods" list. Pretzels turned into Wheat Thins; Wheat Thins became bowls of Mini Wheats; and Mini Wheats eventually became any carbohydrate my kitchen would afford. Once I emptied a bag of greasy, salty, and virtually tasteless croutons (only thirty calories per five-piece serving!). Another time I ate three-quarters of a loaf of Irish Soda bread, savoring all of the crunchy turbinado sugar sprinkled on top. On several occasions, I carefully pulled the cheese off leftover pizza and devoured one piece of crust after another. I'd eat and eat and eat, telling myself, "It's OK! You need to gain weight."
I would allow myself to binge until I hit 112 pounds, which had long been the most extreme weight I could swallow. I'd stuff cracker after cracker into my mouth and then run down to the basement to weigh myself. If I hadn't reached my caloric goal, I'd gleefully run back up the stairs to inhale more food. It was only after I was physically sick and completely disgusted with my behavior that I would I stop. I'd wrap my arms around my stomach and crawl up the stairs to my bedroom, hating myself for my uncontrolled behavior. The next day would be one of starvation in order to lose the weight gained the night before. Unsurprisingly, I was so hungry by eleven the next evening that the cycle would begin all over again. Eat, weigh myself, eat, weigh myself, eat, hate myself and determine to starve the next day.
It was because of one of these binge-starvation cycles that I discovered Maria. It began after a dance class, when my friends were eating lunch and I, having binged the night before, was picking at my food. As I tore apart my Lemon Zest LUNA Bar, my friend Becca turned to me.
"Is that all you're going to eat, Brittany?"
"Yea, I'm really not that hungry," I responded, adding, "I have a stomach ache."
But Becca knew. Becca had also struggled with an eating disorder and had spent her high school years in and out of treatment programs. As she watched my telltale signs of Anorexia, she saw herself in me and approached my dance teacher out of concern. My dance teacher, in turn, approached my parents, who decided enough was enough. We needed a treatment that would work.
Enter Maria Rago. Maria is the founder of an eating disorder clinic based upon what she calls a "feminist approach" to recovery. It is a nurturing program that acknowledges the obvious necessity for weight gain but admits that this alone is no cure. A fuller-bodied anorexic is just that -- a heavier individual who is afflicted by the same anxieties and compulsive thoughts driving her behavior. Understanding this, Maria begins by addressing her patients' concerns with their bodies, believing that by tackling the root causes of the illness, eating habits will normalize and weight gain occur naturally. Maria took my scale away and untethered my body image from a number. She helped me to rediscover true satiety and to move away from my regimented eating schedule. She even succeeded in reintroducing certain foods into my diet, like real butter, cheese, pre-dressed salads, and an occasional scoop of ice cream. I did gain some weight, enough to menstruate again but never enough to be in a safe zone. I always teetered on the edge of an unhealthy weight, and if stress resulted in a lost pound or two, I'd fall fast and hard into the depths of sickness. And that is exactly what happened when I entered Princeton.
A Tale of a Recovering Anorexic is a six-part series rooted in honesty and our communal struggle with body image. It will return next Monday. In the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts! We've been silent for too long, but with truthful dialogue comes strength. If you'd like to connect (and I would love to!), I can be contacted here.