It was just a little insecurity. Nothing out of the ordinary. So people made fun of me in middle school; my personal favorite was ‘do you wear those gloves to hide that you cut yourself?! LOL.’ In a way it boosted my self-worth to not rely on my peers for confidence. I thought they were mean to me because I was different, and since they were mean I took that as a compliment and I doubled down on the weird things about me and sometimes made a spectacle of myself to make sure no one forgot that I was not like them and to make sure they never thought I cared.
I might have cared a little. I wasn’t afraid of attention for being weird because it’s who I was, but I feared what they would think if I ever changed. I fantasized about moving away to California someday and getting to start over and finally be happy. I even had a Word document where I would copy and paste pictures of the clothes I’d someday wear when I stopped exclusively wearing pajamas. To avoid their opinions, I decided to wait until I could leave that town until I got to wear them.
I used to dance. I was never very good at it, and I got the impression most of the other girls didn’t like me very much there either. But it was something I enjoyed, so I kept trying. I’d work as hard as a lazy and awkward and uncomfortable little girl could and never got picked for a solo or called out as doing a good job. But I did admire the other dancers, so it hurt my self-esteem that they didn’t like me and that I knew I was never able to match their skill level.
Gym class was the hell where my self-esteem went to die. I was terrible at sports. I was afraid of the ball. I felt incredibly uncomfortable having to change in front of my classmates and I felt meta-insecure knowing it was obvious when I’d hide in the corner of the locker room and switch shirts without ever exposing my torso.
I got glasses in fourth grade and was so ashamed that I hid them and only ever told one friend until I turned 17 and needed them to drive, so all throughout middle school when the time of year came where they did eye exams I had crippling anxiety somebody would open the pencil case I hid my glasses in and find out my dark secret — imperfect vision.
I outgrew these things. I quit dance and devoted my time to music. It was where I always felt I belonged. I opened my heart to new people and that made me realize change wasn’t all bad. I felt happy enough that I found the motivation to face the fear of my change being noticed, and I started to get dressed in the morning. Eventually I developed my own style. I felt comfortable with the clothes I wore. I even loved the clothes I wore. I realized glasses were awesome and cute and now I have too many. I realized not all sports have flying objects that might hit me in the face, and I embraced them.
But somewhere in there all along was a neglected little girl who didn’t know who she was and still didn’t like herself. She saw how so many different people found her unlikeable, so she concluded it must be warranted. So many people didn’t like me or haven’t liked me, and at some point I didn’t like me either. I never particularly liked my body, and the fantasy of California me included being beautiful someday.
It was just a little insecurity. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing I couldn’t have overcome.
As long as there wasn’t someone actively fertilizing that insecurity.
* * *
This guy befriended me. He got to know me and the intricacies of my cognition. He found out what mattered to me in life and then treated me like Play-Doh. He shaped my world to such an extent he eventually had the final say even in what I thought. He admittedly understood me so well he could accurately predict how I would respond to anything.
Then he raped me and convinced me I wanted it. He would tell me I was “gorgeous” and he was attracted to me, but he would study my body intensely before he would say with certainty I wasn’t fat. After several negative pregnancy tests he expressed that my boobs were bigger. I assume his motivation for this was a combination of four things:
1) He loved the drama of a pregnancy scare.
2) He loved to see his ability to control my thoughts in action.
3) He wanted an excuse to continue to have unprotected sex with my vagina.
4) He wanted to put it in my head that I had gained weight.
Number 4 goes hand in hand with one of the ways he would try to convince me to have sex with him: “Sex burns calories.” That was a mantra I at least once played in my head to keep my mind off of the painful penetration that was being imposed on me.
One time we were sitting on his couch. I was watching him play some video game and when he thought they were funny he would have me read a text message from his girlfriend he was ignoring. He was eating veggie chips. He instructed me to eat them. I told him I didn’t want to. He ordered me to eat them anyway. So I did. I told him I didn’t want to be eating them, and I was becoming visibly upset. This made him laugh, and the longer it went on the more funny it was to him. I almost certainly purged them, because during the time he was raping me I had a rule: if I eat more than once in a day, I throw it all up.
* * *
I ended up with many food-related rules — enough to replace all the commands he had ever given me.
The following year when I was still in high school the rule was only eat with others, that way I could make it seem like I was eating normally when in reality I would eat nothing that no one saw. I would text one friend every time I ate anything. I would stay up late looking at recipes I’d never make.
By the time I graduated the rule became never eat anything substantial with people, because I was able to isolate myself enough that I could have lots of other rules for the process of eating without anyone noticing. Rules like
Eat a tiny bite.
Chew until disintegrated.
Wait 60 seconds after swallowing before taking the next bite, longer if you can.
Drink lots of water in between.
Make every meal last as long as possible so you don’t feel so hungry because you spend all day eating almost nothing.
Only eat with miniature utensils. Hide them in a glasses case so no one sees them.
Eat dinner by 5 pm at all costs or don’t eat at all.
If any remaining friends want to hang out anywhere near 5 pm or do anything involving food, lie and say you can’t go. (Hate yourself for lying.)
Watch TV while eating or else. Even at a restaurant.
TV show must be queued up before you leave for work, the first commercial already played, so it is ready to go when you get home with dinner.
Stop eating entirely during commercial breaks.
Never eat rice.
Heated blanket also must be left on all day so that it can be warm for the food when you get home with it.
Sleep by 10 pm.
Sleep on back so gravity will flatten belly during the night.
When ordering takeout, which will become every day, eventually from only one place, it must be hot when you start eating it or else. Therefore, on the way home
-seat warmer on for food
-illegal u turn
-ignore speed limits. Must get home as fast as possible
-yellow means go.
-barely red means go.
-ignore the stop sign
This was not just a little insecurity. This was anorexia. This was not just about food. This controlled my life. Every single decision. This was unbearable. This was not living. This was still safer than giving my brain the freedom to cope with what it had gone through at that point years prior.
* * *
Recovery happened and happens one decision at a time.
At first, recovery was allowing myself one human-sized bite at the end of each meal to get just a little satisfaction from it.
Then reading a book while eating instead of watching TV.
Telling friends the truth about why I don’t want to hang out at 5.
Stop making that illegal u turn.
Slowing down at that stop sign.
Stopping on the way home to help a loose dog, even if it means cold food.
Not chewing that much.
Eating twice a day.
Eating three times a day on vacation.
Eating three times a day whenever.
Enjoying food again.
Going out to dinner with people.
Writing instead of reading while eating.
Dancing with myself in the mirror.
Telling myself I am enough
Believing I am enough.
Starting to live again.
Starting to think again.
* * *
Recovery came with a lot of hiccups. There were times I swore I was in recovery but looking back I can’t even tell the difference between those moments and the worst of times. Relapse happens. The upward journey continues, if you let it.
And there will be a moment — it happened for me, and I’ve seen it happen to another. It’s a moment of realization, where your brain finally has enough food in it on a regular basis and you are finally able to recognize, holy shit, I’ve been a slave to such meaningless rules!
Somewhere in the disorder you really forget what it’s like to be normal, you lose touch with the value of life and time. At first you convince yourself the suffering is worth it, but then you do it so continuously you forget you’re even suffering.
Until the moment you’re really truly not anymore. You’ve gained some of the weight back, facing your biggest fear, facing the comments you’ve agonized about hearing — comments like “you’re looking stronger,” comments meant to encourage your healthy change but that you can only hear as “you’ve gained weight and EVERYONE knows it!” You’ve already gone through that, and you’ve survived it, so why stop now?
It’s a moment where you remember how nice it is to just GO, spontaneously, without planning for days how to navigate the food, the lies you’ll tell, the anxiety you’ll face.
You give yourself the permission to STOP with the fucking rules. It’s the exact moment that after all these months or years your voice is finally just a touch louder than the voice of the eating disorder and you realize you’ve been SCREAMING all along and you still are, you’re still fighting, and being back on your own side is such an incredible relief that you push so hard against the illness that suddenly everything that reminds you of it no longer triggers you, it just makes you sad or maybe mad, but you know it can’t take you, because you realize you’ve won. You have your life back. And you’ll never take it for granted so easily again.
If you’re on a recovery journey of your own and that moment hasn’t come yet just know as long as you don’t give up, it will. Keep on fighting. You won’t see it coming, but just like that you will learn to live again.