A photo of me when I was a healthy weight at twenty-one years old.
A photo of me one year later and almost fifteen pounds lighter.
When I was growing up, my mother often said to my brother, “Just wait until your children do the same thing to you!” if he was late getting home or didn’t call when he should have. She never said it to me, though – she didn’t need to. I came home when I was supposed to, I did my homework, I dated nice boys, I obeyed. Always, I obeyed. But, in my early twenties I put them through something no parent should have to go through – watching me slowly starve myself. Well, they didn’t really have to watch, being that I was living four hours away, but when I came home skinnier and skinnier, I know they were alarmed. I thought I was fine, though and couldn’t understand why they would ask me to move back home. Now, watching my child eat less and less and weigh less and less feels like the worst possible karma. It also feels like somehow it’s my fault.
Now, there are probably some of you who know me who are thinking, “I knew she had an eating disorder!” or maybe, “I was right when I told her she needs to eat a steak!” But, it’s not what you think. I didn’t look in the mirror and see a rotund person staring back at me as I zipped up my size zero jeans. I hated how skinny I was. It wasn’t always like that – I was “curvy” by the time I was ten (my nickname was Dolly Parton!) and all I wanted was to be flat and skinny like the other girls. I got my wish when I was eleven years old and lost fifteen pounds, due to an illness. I learned to be careful of what I wish for – for the next several years I was terribly insecure about my weight. But, by the time I graduated high school I weighed about what I do now. I had a boyfriend who took me out to dinner a lot and out for ice cream and out to the movies with vats of buttered popcorn. Gradually the weight crept on and I looked healthier. By my sophomore year of college I weighed five pounds more than I do now. I’d like to think it was the weight training I was doing, but I’m sure it was the late night pizzas and giant chocolate chip cookies from the student center.
But, then something happened – I can’t really get into it here for a few reasons. Let’s just say that I was a mess of anxiety for a good reason, but I hid it very well. The only thing that suffered was my appetite. I just couldn’t eat. Well, that’s not exactly true – I could eat a lot my junior year, but I would be in pain and really nothing appealed to me. Slowly, I started eliminating the things that made me feel like someone was knifing me in the stomach and was left with plain pasta, vegetables, fruit and corn muffins. Oh – and English muffins. I lived on English Muffins with jam. It was like I could only handle the simplest of foods – comfort foods that you’d eat when you have the flu.
It was my psyche that was distressed, but I acted fine. And to tell you the truth, being hungry blurred the edges of the pain a bit. Sure at first it’s an uncomfortable sensation, but after a while that slightly hazy feeling when you haven’t had enough to eat felt almost like a buzz from a glass of wine or a couple of beers. Any study on nutrition will tell you that you’re just not as sharp if you’re living on fumes and that’s what I was doing. An English muffin with jam for breakfast, a cup of soup for lunch or maybe just a baked potato with a bit of cheese, a bowl of pasta with margarine and some veggies thrown in for dinner. I ate enough to barely stay upright and I was almost pleasantly out of it at times. Being hungry turned down the volume of the noise in my brain. I’m sure that’s hard to understand for the average person, but I wasn’t average. More importantly, I got used to the feeling of fuzziness. But, by the time I turned twenty-four I was ill all the time – bronchitis, sinusitis, any germ that walked past me I caught – and I had lost more than weight.
You see, I had a boyfriend – whom I thought I would marry – but he couldn’t stand to watch me starve. He dangled the carrot of an engagement ring in front of me – saying that if I gained ten pounds, we’d get engaged. I tried. I went to therapy. I learned what was behind my not eating and gradually I was starting to fix it. But, it was just too late – it was too painful for him to watch me destroy myself when he knew that the solution was so easy. Just eat. Eat everything. Eat anything. Just eat. But, I couldn’t. Not at first at least. So, he walked. Watching my son now, I completely understand it and even feel bad about what I put him through. I also feel bad about all the family dinners when I’d come home to visit and be like a deer caught in headlights as everyone exhorted me to put more on my plate. Put more in my mouth. I thought I was fine though. Now, when I look at pictures from that time it horrifies me.
I tell my son, X, that I understand. I tell him that I know what it’s like when food seems like the enemy, because of how it makes you feel. He’s scared to eat, because he’s scared of how he’ll feel, not because he wants to be skinnier. If you read my essay Twice Exceptional on Boys, Dogs and Chaos, you know that X has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His stomach pain is caused by anxiety, not the food he’s eating, but he can’t see that. I couldn’t see it either when my head and gut were inexorably linked. So, I tell him I get it. But, it still scares the crap out of me, because I know how incredibly hard it is to get past it.
There are times when I really feel like my husband, blames me for X’s eating problems – little comments here and there. He’ll take his words back after, but it’s still hanging there. Dark and damaging. There are times I blame myself. I’m a picky eater – part of it is self-preservation. I’m allergic to two things that are in so many foods. I over-analyze the menu when I eat out and worry that something will be cooked on a shared surface and I’ll have a reaction (it’s happened more than a few times). I also still fall into the trap of no-appetite when I’m stressed. Like the other night – I had a half of a bagel with butter and cheese for dinner. Last night I had a bowl of cereal. Sometimes I’ll eat a cup of yogurt with a spoonful of peanut butter for dinner. But, I’m at a healthy weight now. I weigh ten pounds more than I did when my ex and I broke up.
It all worked out just fine, of course. met my husband a year after that break-up. I had been going to therapy and the gym and I was happier and healthier than I had been in a long time, even if I was still a little underweight. But, when we were newlyweds I hit a stressful patch and food became the enemy again. I had a wake-up call, though. I fainted while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I had only eaten an apple and a cup of yogurt since breakfast that day and when my husband took me to the emergency room my blood sugar was dangerously low. I realized at that moment that if I wanted to have a healthy pregnancy at some point that year, I had to start taking better care of myself. I went to a nutritionist and did the hard work of making myself eat more. I know, some of you are surely snickering, “How hard could it be to eat fattening foods?” The answer is very hard – when your brain is telling you not to eat it.
I know this is the problem with X and I feel completely helpless. I’ve taken him to the doctor – he showed us X’s weight on his iPad on a chart with blue and red lines. His weight wasn’t even anywhere near the curves. If his weight was the same percentile as his height on that chart, he’d weigh thirty pounds more – he’d weigh almost what I weigh. But, it’s not. It’s way below. I’ve told him that I’m going to take him to an eating disorder clinic, which he was not happy about. We’ve offered to buy him a tablet if he hits seventy pounds. Nothing works. So, I just try to let X know that it will get better. That he can get through this and come out on the other side. He won’t always be afraid to lift the fork to his mouth. Sometimes you just need someone to listen. When I hit rock bottom on the scale – my lowest weight was seventy-nine pounds when I was just shy of twenty-four years old – I only told one person. He didn’t judge me. He just listened. (If you’re reading this, you probably know who you are and you may remember this. Even if you don’t, I’ll never forget.)
I try to do that for X. I try to listen without judging. It’s incredibly hard when you just want to scream, “Eat something! You’re making yourself sick!” But, talking about it just makes it worse. Talking about it guarantees the food will sit on X’s plate, rather than wind up in his stomach. But sometimes, the best medicine for an eating disorder is just knowing that someone understands what you’re going through – just knowing that you’re not alone.
“Eating disorder” is a thorny label, though. The doctor said that X doesn’t really have an eating disorder, because he doesn’t think that he’s fat. I disagree with that. I think any time one eats too much or too little, it’s an eating disorder. And, an eating disorder is a wily opponent. It makes you feel like things will never get better. Like things are hopeless. X tells me that he wishes he were someone else. He wishes that he could be like the dogs and eat everything in sight. He wishes he could just shovel the food in. I tell him that he can be that person. But, only he can hack through his food fears. The first pediatrician we ever went to as new parents told us that there are three things you can never make your child do – poop, sleep and eat. “Don’t even bother trying to control those three,” he said with a sigh. And that’s got to be the hardest part of this whole shitty situation – I can’t make X eat. Only he can do the difficult work of realizing that food is not the enemy. Only he can hit the bottom and claw his way up. I can only let him know that I’ll be beside him every step of the way and will give him a boost out of the shadowy depths whenever I can.
I didn’t really want to write this post – or at least I didn’t want to share it. But, as a writer you have to be willing to shine a flashlight into the darkest corners of your life. If not, you may as well step away from the laptop. Plus, if my son was brave enough to let me share his story (I asked his permission before posting this), I could certainly be brave enough to share my story. I had two other reasons to write this – one selfish, one not. The selfish one – this essay has been pinging around my brain for a long time. If I didn’t write it, it would probably keep playing in an endless loop, keeping me from getting my other work done. The unselfish – I know there are other people out there going through similar things. And while I can’t offer a solution – unfortunately there isn’t an easy one – I can say the same thing I say to X, “You’re not alone.” And sometimes, that can make all the difference in the world.