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The Hungry Freshman
I wish I could wrap my arms around my freshman self. I wish I could hold her skinny frame and massage healthiness into her flesh and energy into her blood. I wish I could tell her that controlling her body could never make up for losing her control over academics. I wish I could tell her that her sickness is only compounding her unhappiness, making studying harder and friendships impossible. I wish I could tell her that she is a beautiful, strong individual who belongs at Princeton and that it is OK to ask for help.
When I was a freshman, I was so sick. I was so, so sick. And no one knew. Without my family, I was not only free from their watchful gaze but also from their anxious, worried faces that encouraged me to eat for their sake. And so, I entered college with a new host of dining rules designed to eliminate the four pounds I had gained in my last months at home. I kicked off my diet with Outdoor Action, or my experiment in caloric deprivation while hiking for eight hours a day. I then ditched all protein, consumed only salads, and allowed myself carbohydrates only at dinner. Princeton's Late Meal salads were always my meal of choice, for they not only regulated my caloric intake and inhibited taking seconds, but the six-hour wait between meals was a test of will that I enjoyed. Thoughts of food danced in my head all day long, teasing me and making studying a virtual impossibility. Numbers flashed across my eyes as I repeatedly summed the number of calories I had consumed. With so little caloric fuel, I was constantly fighting to stay awake and chugging six-Splenda iced coffees that simultaneously provided my caffeine fix and curbed my appetite.
By this point, my eating disorder had taken a different form. I had grown less concerned with what I looked like and now craved what my emaciated look signified. It was proof of total control, and that I demanded. While this had always been true, Princeton's academic rigor and my newfound feeling of mediocrity intensified these feelings. If academic perfection was now beyond me, I thought, a perfect figure was not. I could control my body, and my appearance could serve as a yardstick for success. If I faltered and ate a roll at lunch, I'd become incapacitated by self-loathing and disgust over my limited self-control. I'd reprimand myself over and over again, telling myself that now I couldn't eat as punishment. Most often, I would just retreat to bed, unable to concentrate and hoping that I would wake the next morning as a functioning person.
This was my life throughout freshman year. Hunger, loneliness, and feelings of worthlessness colored my days. Even as a member of a wonderful dance group, my ability to form friendships was hampered by the dullness that comes with constant hunger. It wasn't until that summer that something fundamentally changed.
We were in Hawaii. My parents, siblings, and I were dining at a little restaurant on the beach. With the setting sun behind us, we were snapping pictures and laughing until our sunburnt faces stung from our exaggerated expressions. But when the waiter placed the menus before us, unease immediately filled the table. It always did. My father watched as I stared at the menu, knowing all that I was weighing in my head. With his silence came the rest of my family's, as they tacitly acknowledged the changed dynamic and settled into its discomfort.
"I'll begin with you, Miss," the waiter said, gesturing in my direction.
"I'll have the Caprese salad, please," I said quietly.
"And for your meal?"
"Just that, please."
I could feel the tension rise as the waiter circled round the table, taking the remaining orders. I saw my father clench his jaw and watched him stare into the menu still before him. I imagined the millions of thoughts running through his mind, all of the worries and memories that were flooding in, and I braced myself for the backlash. As soon as the waiter stepped away, it began.
"You know you can't have just a salad for dinner, Brittany."
"Well, I don't want anything else on the menu. I can't eat red meat, I hate fish, and I'm sick of chicken."
"Well, you can't have a salad."
"Fine. Then I won't eat," I said, slamming the plastic picnic chair into the table and storming off with my father quick on my heals. I didn't get far before he caught up with me and began his requisite lecture. I folded my arms and stared back at him with a combination of disinterest and icy contempt.
"You've regressed, Brittany. You've lost weight. I can tell. How much do you weigh? You know it's not acceptable to eat a salad for dinner. Blah blah blah."
I had heard all of this before and was tuning most of it out, mumbling "Yes, Dad. I'll try harder" so that he would just shut up.
But then he said something that caught my attention. "Brittany, you've been struggling with this for four years. Why don't I ever hear conviction in your voice when you say you'll get better? Huh? Why don't you say, 'I'm going to beat this thing!'"
"Four years?" I squeaked as my shoulders began to tremble. "This disease has ruined my life for four years? It's not fair. I don't deserve this. All I've done is work hard in life. This is not fair."
It wasn't, and I was sick of it controlling me. I had finally decided that Anorexia and I were over. Our four-year love affair and all the comfort and pain that it had offered was ending now. I was determined that my next years at Princeton would be different. I was kicking my anorexic habit.
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.