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Why My Anorexia Felt Like a Talent, Not an Illness

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

It started with a photograph on a desktop screensaver. The girl on the screen was smiling with lean, toned legs. I almost didn’t recognize myself. It was a few weeks into my high school’s swim season, and I had a goal to qualify for the league meet in the 100 butterfly. I’d changed my eating habits to improve my performance and adopted a strict exercise routine: hours of vigorous training each day in both the weight room and pool. Clearly, it had paid off. 

Soon, I climbed the ladder to varsity. My weight dropped. I was glowing. 

Naturally, I decided to push myself a little further and speed up the weight loss I was already seeing. I cut back on snacks before practice. I kept track of my meals. Strict serving sizes, no dessert. It was easy, simple. I didn’t feel hungry. When I lost more weight, my coach approached me after practice to ask if I’d been feeling sick lately, saying I looked thinner than usual. I insisted I was great, better than ever. And I truly believed it. I had never felt more on top of the world. His  concerns were overshadowed by compliments and admiration from my friends: “You are so toned!” “I can see your abs!” “You have the best body of anyone on the team.” In a world where  I had never felt special or celebrated for my individuality, I was suddenly receiving accolades for dieting and admiration for my changing appearance. I remember thinking that if nothing else separated me from my peers and friends, I had amazing willpower. And that was completely within my control. 

Anorexia nervosa is more than weight loss. It is a distorted reality. No matter what you look like, you are too large. And you don’t need to be emaciated or underweight to have this disorder. Perhaps you are not underweight enough for immediate concern. Maybe just your family starts to notice. Maybe they don’t. But the longer you wait, the further you slip. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back up.

The DSM-5 describes the symptoms as a restriction of energy intake, an intense fear of gaining weight, a disturbance in the experience of one’s own body weight, and denial of the seriousness of one’s low body weight. That last part is the most important and most terrifying. Experiencing anorexia does not feel like having the flu. It feels like having a talent. Most of all, for many, it is about control. Many people with the disorder have reserved and perfectionistic personalities as well as low self-esteem, so taking control over something like diet and appearance is gratifying and empowering. Take it from me. 

Before I knew it, my menstrual cycle stopped for one week. Then one month. Then half a year. I did not tell anyone. I reasoned that it was because I was working out so hard, like an Olympic athlete.

When swim season ended and my workouts were no longer regulated, I was terrified of losing progress. Instead of acknowledging my fear, I overcompensated with numbers. My whole life was numbers. Check your weight, your calories. Every morning, weight. Every meal, every snack, every cup of coffee. Calories. 

Every day was a battle. I went to a corn maze with my best friend, and her mom offered to buy us hot chocolate. I dreaded this moment, the smile and lie: “I don’t like hot chocolate that much.” Then, of course, the obligatory push from her end. A lighthearted push-back from me. This was a dance I knew well. I couldn’t afford to give in. I knew how many calories hot chocolate had and I was already close to my limit for the afternoon. Not to mention if we went out to dinner after the maze, which I assumed we would, I would need the spare calories because it was unlikely any meal at a restaurant would be low enough, even on the light menu.

My dad and I planned to get frozen yogurt one night, so I did not eat all day in anticipation. Right before we left, I gave in and ate a granola bar. I could not enjoy the rest of the night. I cried in my room. I had “failed.”

Things only changed when I mentioned in passing to my mother that my menstrual cycle had stopped. She immediately took me to the doctor. At the time, I rolled my eyes at her. But in retrospect, her decision saved me from harming myself further. The doctor looked at my height and weight chart. Concerned, he asked me if I ever felt the need to diet. I said no. I was not supposed to be as low weight as I was. My body had begun to shut down. My reproductive system failed first, something called amenorrhea. He asked me again, “did I think I needed to lose weight? Did I ever feel the need to restrict my diet and exercise excessively?” There’s something unsettling and mildly offensive about this conversational prodding. It felt as if he was coaxing my diagnosis out of me like a frightened animal from a bush. 

I started to cry. The tears surprised me as much as they did my mother. I squirmed in my chair as reality dawned on me: I’m afraid. Something is wrong.

The feeling of unease never went away. I feel like I narrowly escaped a freight train. Without that visit, I don’t know how much damage I could have done to my body. I try not to think about it. 

The road back to “normal” was constant emotional warfare. Every time I forced myself to eat a granola bar, an extra piece of fruit or four pancakes instead of three, I felt terrible. It was as if I could feel myself getting larger while my food digested. I said I was doing it to be healthy, to be strong. But every time I ate I would squeeze my sides, feeling for fat. The paranoia followed me all day. If my jeans felt tight, I couldn’t focus in school. I hated myself for each snack I ate, each time I gave in to my own hunger. 

Recently, I have been working toward developing not only a healthy relationship with food but a healthy relationship with myself. If I believe that I deserve to be happy and healthy, feel my best, and indulge from time to time without suffering afterward, I can begin to take the steps toward better habits.

I am relinquishing the need to control, listening to my body and trusting that my weight can be stable and healthy if I am also stable and healthy. Still, every time I walk by a window, I fight the instinct to scrutinize the woman I see. And although I deleted my fitness app, I still subconsciously count calories throughout the day. 

I wish I could say that my years-long struggle with food is finally finished, but healing is not a linear process

Ironically, the best way to move forward is to let go.

Follow this journey on the author’s website.

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

Originally published: March 22, 2021
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