6 a.m. The alarm clock blares. I don’t want to get up, but I have to, as I need to be ready for class in an hour. It is the middle of September, and although I am buried underneath several layers of blankets, I am shivering. With trepidation, I peel the sheets off of myself, bracing for the cold. My roommate is still in bed. God, I envy her ability to stay asleep for so long. I can’t remember the last time I made it throughout the night without waking up multiple times.
I shower in steaming hot water but it does nothing to warm my frigid body. Still wearing a towel, I pour over myself in the mirror. Purple bags hang beneath dim eyes; protruding collar, rib and wrist bones jut out from dry-grayish skin. Downy hair covers arms, face and upper back. There are healing scabs on my wrists and hips from where I’ve taken razor to flesh in a futile effort to feel something. I’ve also tried drugs (mostly marijuana and alcohol) but those attempts were fruitless as well. I am utterly numb.
I’ve been at this low weight for over six months now. I haven’t gotten any stronger despite weightlifting six to seven days per week. Last I checked, shortly before coming to school, I was 86 pounds. Since classes began, I’m positive I’ve lost a few pounds from my five-foot-six frame. My size 00 jeans have been feeling roomier than usual, and the days are becoming increasingly foggy.
As I brew a second cup of coffee, my stomach growls. I ignore it, transfer the coffee to a reusable thermos, grab my backpack and head to class.
Class doesn’t start for another 40 minutes, so I walk to a dining hall for breakfast. One would think that a girl with anorexia nervosa would hate going into such a place, but I don’t mind. I’ve become so accustomed to constant hunger and deprivation that nothing in the dining hall even tempts me. The appetite-suppressing effects of the coffee only make it easier to pass over French Toast, chocolate chip pancakes, muffins, and all the other dishes I should crave, but don’t.
I make myself a small bowl of oatmeal (140 calories) with slivered almonds (60 calories) and fresh berries (30 calories). I also get a hardboiled egg (65 calories) and a vegetarian sausage (80 calories). One would think a 375-calorie breakfast is a lot for a girl with an eating disorder—if I had a nickel for every time I heard “But can’t you only eat like 500 calories per day?”—but I know it really isn’t. The majority of the calories in the meal come from protein, a macronutrient with a high thermic effect, meaning it takes a lot of energy to digest. Thus, although the food contains approximately 400 calories, I am not really consuming that much energy. My body is working so hard to digest the food that by the time it’s done, it will have burned off most everything I’ve consumed.
I eat very slowly, taking care to cut up my egg and sausage in small bites, swallow small mouthfuls of the oatmeal. As I eat, I think about the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber contents of the meal. Is there the right ratio of each? Did I eat too many carbs, and if I did, will the excess glycogen get stored as fat? Speaking of fat, are the lipids in the meal healthy enough, or is there too much saturated fat and cholesterol from the egg? Damn, I should have just gotten more almonds. Fat, stupid pig. How could you make such a moronic mistake? I need more protein, fewer fats and carbs. My anxiety kills my already weak appetite, and I leave the dining hall with the meal unfinished.
When I get to statistics, it is just about 9 a.m. I honestly don’t know why I even bother coming to class. I can’t focus on the lecture, let alone take comprehensible notes. Sometimes my vision blurs, or my heartbeat stutters, or I feel like I’m going to faint. When students are assigned in-class group work, I let others do the talking while I pretend to execute calculations and write down important numbers. It’s a façade; all I can think about is working out at the gym and what I will or will not eat.
My life revolves around food and exercise. Nothing for which I used to feel passion now holds a place in my life. I used to play piano, read voraciously, write creative stories, draw beautiful pictures. I was smart, friendly, generous, artistic and funny. I had good values and a morally sound heart. What do I have now? A toned body and an empty stomach? I try to convince myself these things are worth the joys I’ve sacrificed, that someday it will all pay off. I try.
If I don’t lift weights, I am not breaking down muscle tissue, which means it doesn’t need to be rebuilt, which means I don’t need to eat as much. So if I don’t work out, where will the calories from food go? Like I feared at breakfast, will it get stored as excess weight? I am too afraid to find out.
While I limber up with a few light sets of squat, I notice others are looking—no, glaring—at me. I’ve become used to it, the staring, the whispering, the disgusted expressions. I know I look unattractive, but I don’t care. I’ve lived with this eating disorder for so long that I can’t imagine living any other way. And it does serve its purposes: when I’m starving, I don’t have to deal with negative emotions, with stressful relationships, with rejection, with the paralyzing anxiety of the unknown. Eventually, I’m sure this disease will kill me but for now, I ignore the thought and focus on burning off calories I’ll never eat back.
This piece was written in honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which takes place from Feb. 26 to March 4. The theme for NEDA Week is “It’s time to talk about it.” This refers to the fact that, despite greater media coverage of mental illnesses in recent decades, there are still many misconceptions about eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness, and according to nationaleatingdisorders.org, approximately 30 million individuals will suffer from one of these illnesses at some point in their lifetime. While they may superficially appear to revolve around food and body image, eating disorders have much more complex roots. These diseases are generally a manifestation of verbal, physical, or emotional trauma, and ultimately serve as a coping mechanism against distressing feelings, memories, and events. Any person of any age, gender, ethnicity, or background can develop an eating disorder.
Since I was nine years old, I have struggled with anorexia nervosa. Over half of my life has been defined by hospitals, doctors’ offices, therapy sessions, psychiatric medications and—of course—food. Because of my eating disorder, I have spent close to two years in various hospitals and treatment centers, and I missed so much high school that I almost had to drop out and settle for a GED. Fortunately, that did not happen, and I am now at CSU. But my illness still permeates my life on a daily basis. Indeed, the above story is completely nonfictional; it was inspired by my personal experiences with anorexia. Even today, I constantly have to fight the urge to use food and exercise as coping mechanisms for stressors (or “triggers”) that present themselves, while simultaneously battling self-deprecating thoughts, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Just recently did I begin actively recovering. In December 2016, I was 82 pounds and ready to die, but shortly after Christmas, I had a realization: this illness does not have to define me, and it does not have to take my life. Since deciding to embark on the road to recovery, I have regained a significant amount of weight, but more importantly, I have regained hope and happiness. I no longer feel that I have to be “the anorexic girl” to manage the stressors of life. I am allowed to be proud of who I am and what I have to offer the world. No longer will I hide behind the mask of an eating disorder.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out for help as soon as possible. Even if you have not been personally affected by one of these life-threatening illnesses, I implore you to educate yourself on them. For a variety of tools and resources on eating disorders, please visit nationaleatingdisorders.org. Here, you will find information on a variety of topics, from general facts about eating disorders to how you can get support or support those currently struggling.
Lauren Willson can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @LaurenKealani