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Facing My Birthday Cake With an Eating Disorder

This time last year, I turned 21 in San Francisco. Anorexia had its claws deeply entrenched in my brain. My life pretty much revolved around when I was going to next be around food, and thinking about how I was going to avoid it. I was so preoccupied with this cycle, and starvation was eating my brain away day by day, so concerns about food lurked behind any and every thought I had, and my fear and anxiety of this repetitive cycle being broken was masked by irritation and anger.

My parents flew all the way from Hong Kong to San Francisco for my birthday. A few months before, when they had discussed coming to visit, I did not make any effort to hide my aversion to the idea. Since I had hidden my disorder from them as much as possible, they probably felt it was because I was a young woman who wanted her independence and to prevent her parents interfering in her “working-girl” life as she explored and made new friends in an exciting city far away from home. If so, they were right – well, about the interference part.

Going out and socializing with people was something I had to really prepare myself for. It was a lot of work, a lot of planning, and a lot of worry. It required me to come across like I was perfectly fine – a normal, functioning human being who ate regular meals and could conduct normal conversation, even though I couldn’t think or walk straight. Therefore, I preferred to isolate, and live life according to my own terms. In my disorder, I was more of a rebel and a risk-taker, meaning I didn’t think about the dangerous consequences of my sometimes impulsive actions. It was all part of the self destruction, the part of me that felt life wasn’t going to last long anyway. This is a very different mindset from #YOLO. It’s not having value for life and taking risks because you and your life are insignificant, rather than doing significant things and making the most of life because you know time is valuable but limited. I didn’t want people standing in the way of these reckless decisions, nor to be around to observe my special, carrot-and-stick relationship with food and all of the strange rituals and rules that accompanied it.

In August, my parents arrived. I wonder what they must have thought, as I was so strangely obsessed with when and where our meals would be, and I would come home every night and make myself my nightly bowl of oatmeal, even if we’d just been out for dinner. It was like a safety blanket I couldn’t sleep without. I would go into a panic attack if there wasn’t any milk left in the fridge – one time I even drank sour milk because I just had to have it – it was an unbreakable part of my routine. And I was uncharacteristically rude and withdrawn from my parents. I hated myself for it, so to protect of all our feelings, the less I saw them, the better.

On the eve of my 21st, my mother, remembering we had celebrated my 7th birthday in San Francisco, went out and bought a few slices of the same delicious, fudgy chocolate cake we’d eaten 14 years prior. My aunt brought over samosas – another favorite food of mine.

And what happened? I freaked out. Internally, my thoughts spiraled: “I love this cake. But shit. There is so much of it. What if I can’t control myself? I need it gone so it’s not around for me to eat. I can’t bear something so delicious and precious going to waste, but I cannot be the one to eat it. Maybe one day I’ll deserve to have a slice to myself, but not today. Not anytime in the near future. Why did she buy so much cake? What was she thinking? She doesn’t think about what it’s doing to me. I know she doesn’t know..but it is going to be the end of me. I need it gone.”

Externally, I just got angry. I snapped.

Why did you buy so many slices of cake? Who do you think is going to eat all of it?”

Yup. I yelled at my very sweet, very thoughtful, very loving mother. For buying me cake on my birthday. I was a horrible, demonic daughter.

My aunt thankfully set me straight, and advised that I apologize to my poor mother, who was now in tears. I blew out the candles and made a wish, which I now cannot recall. My guess is it was my usual request for everyone I love, and myself, to be happy. But in this case, happiness for me required I be content under the dictatorship of my eating disorder voice.

I had requested my family let me bring in my 21st with some friends. I sent my parents off to dinner with my aunt and uncle. It was an easy way out of dinner. While waiting for the appropriate “going out” time, I wrote my parents a letter of apology. It was a heartfelt, long letter apologizing for the way I’d been acting and expressed gratitude for having parents like them who came all the way for my birthday, and promised I’d make a bigger effort to change. Except, I didn’t. In hindsight, there was no way I could have improved. I only got worse, both physically and mentally, spinning further out of control in my attempts to achieve perfect control.

Halfway into my night out, all I could think about was when I was going to get home and how I was going to reward myself when I did – a treat for making it yet another long day without “giving in.” I arrived home around 3 a.m. and proceeded to scavenge around the kitchen. Despite my tipsy state, the eating disorder voice was still loud and clear. It allowed me a bite of ice cream. A cracker or two. A piece of leftover rib (?!) and a spoon of cake. I was told this was my birthday gift to myself, and I fell asleep. I woke up a few hours later feeling disgusted with my “greedy” behavior and went for a run to “rid myself of all the toxins” I’d consumed. I was proud of myself after my run and pledged to make this coming year one that was as “healthy” (read: secretly disordered) as my birthday had started off.

Little did I know a mere two months later, I would have to leave my senior year for inpatient treatment, fatally at risk of a heart attack and at my 12-year-old weight. You can read how that story turned out here. Spoiler alert: it turned out really well, and I have learned a lot. I have a lot to be thankful for.

woman blowing out birthday candles on cake August 9 is approaching once again. I’m turning 22. Over the last few months, I have transformed. In some ways, I’ve gone back to my  “old” energetic, creative, positive self, but in others, I’ve never, ever been this alive, nor this happy – happy with life with people, and most of all, with myself. My wish wasn’t just fulfilled. It has turned out 100,000 times better. I believe everything in life happens for a good reason; it just takes some reflection to see it.

Life is beautiful. Life is short. And if you are present for it, you can experience all the amazing things it has to offer. Usually, it’s the little things we don’t take the time to look at and appreciate that make us happiest. Never would I have expected that every night, I’d go to sleep looking forward to breakfast – a bowl of cereal (a.k.a the one-bowl-wonder). Breakfast is just one of the gifts I deserve to treat myself to, every single day, just because I am human and I am alive. It is an amazing feeling.

This year on August 9, I am having a big slice of cake, all to myself. I am spending the day with my parents because I want to, and I’ll be present and with them — for real this time. And I am going to be truly grateful, for them and everyone who stuck by me when I was at my worst, and is still in my life now when I’m at the best I’ve ever been. I couldn’t wish for anything better than life.