A Decade of Anorexia

I used to think I’d beat it. But my eating disorder is always finding new ways to ruin my life.

Photo by THE COLLAB. from Pexels

I have a collection of photos on my phone in a folder named “BELLYZZZ”. I should’ve deleted it once I realized what it was: a way to track my stomach fat and make sure that my belly was getting smaller. But instead I keep it as a reminder to myself: you haven’t beat anorexia — it’s just found new ways to come out.

The first time I can remember hating my body I was thirteen. I’d just sprouted breasts (gone from A’s to C’s in the span of three months) and my baby fat still clung to my edges, making me look older and more womanly than I was.

I would spend hours in the bathroom, hiding from my family, taking pictures of myself at different angles to make sure I was aware of every ounce of chub.

I was angry at my body for changing so quickly, for stripping me of my girlish speed and finesse, and I was angry at society. Old men started to take notice of me, examining my hips and tits, and I wanted to go back to being an invisible girl-child again, nimble and uncaring about the opinions of grown adults who ogled me.

The Internet was a wild place back in 2005. I’m not sure how I first came across it, but there was a page that guided girls to the “pro-ana” lifestyle — aka, pro-anorexia — that I landed on one day. It was a long list of “tips” for keeping yourself from eating and to force your unenergized body to exercise. I was intrigued. Is that how all of my peers and how all the models and celebrities kept their bellies so small? By starving themselves?

And so I began my own journey towards anorexia. Based on an Internet post, yes, but influenced by the wider societal message that fat = bad. My father would tell me if I just lost some weight, I’d be a pretty girl. I watched “America’s Next Top Model” obsessively, hoping one day if I lost weight, I could end up on the show myself. Everything in my life seemed to center around being beautiful and perfect and I fell short again and again and again.

The thing that gets to me now, a decade later, is that I was never and am not what anyone would consider overweight. It’s just my body composition — I carry most of my weight in my breasts and my belly. But I was so angry at myself for not living up to this bullshit standard that I changed the way my brain worked by feeding myself negative thoughts about my weight all the time. It got to be so that when I look in the mirror, I have to take a picture to be sure of what I’m seeing. The thoughts warped my perception to the point where I would never be happy with my body and never see it in a realistic and healthy way.

My breaking point came when I was fourteen and a counselor-in-training at a sleepaway summer camp. All the counselors were older and international — from New Zealand, from the UK, and from Canada — and I wanted to impress them. So one day while we were in the dining hall, I proposed a bet. I knew that they would be up for it, since they were always betting stupid things between themselves. “I bet you I can go without eating for three days,” I said.

14-year-old me.

No one knew it was just a way for me to justifiably starve myself for three days. I was away from home, with no access to food aside from being in the dining hall, so I figured it would be the perfect time to test out my willpower.

You see, I was never any good at being anorexic, thankfully for my body. I struggle with hypoglycemia, so when I don’t eat my body literally starts to shut down. I get dizzy, my heartbeat gets super fast, and I can’t stand up straight or walk. So I’d never gone more than ten or twelve hours without eating in my life before this moment.

Those three days were the worst of my life. The first day I still had a bit of energy, so I worked as best I could setting up the archery targets and hauling water for the campers. That night is when it really started to hit me — watching everyone eat their dinner in the dining hall while I scribbled in my notebook. I was working on the first draft of my first book at the time and it distracted me from thoughts of hunger.

The second day was much worse, though. I barely had the strength to get out of bed and instead laid there in a haze for the first three hours of the day. I wasn’t asleep, but I was in a half dream-state, seeing visions behind my eyes. My stomach was a pool of emptiness, clawing at my insides.

I broke on the last day — the counselors told me they’d knock off ten dollars from the bet if I just ate now. I downed a bag of chips like they were my only life line. I was so emotionally exhausted by this point that I almost cried, eating those chips. I remember now the way that everyone looked at me, with eyes full of concern. Like the counselors had figured out they unwittingly played along in my anorexia game.

After that, I tried to get better. I started running and joined my high school track team, so food became less of a fear since I was burning it off every day. I had never really lost weight in my yo-yo with starvation, but running seemed to smooth out the roundness of my belly and shrink my boobs a little bit. It helped me gain a false sense of confidence that would be ripped away a few years and a shin injury later.

Throughout all of this, I’ve tried to focus on health. I’ve done so much research about nutrition and what kind of nutrients the human body needs that I feel like I could write a book just from those obsessive thoughts alone. I’ve gone from being a vegetarian to an omnivore to a raw dieter (only a week, don’t worry) to vegan and back to omnivore, trying to find stability and health in my diet. I never wanted to feel the way I did on that second day of starving myself again — I wanted to be good to my body, not punish it.

It’s been over a decade since I first found that webpage. I’d like to say I’ve come really far, but that would be a lie. I’ve just gotten better at hiding my self-destructive ED thoughts from myself by framing them as “health” or “wellness”.

The latest round of this has been my vegan diet over the last two years. I initially began to eat this way entirely for health reasons and also for the hope it might help the other mental illnesses I suffer from as well. At first, it did. When I wasn’t working, I was able to cook every meal for myself and make sure they contained the vitamins and nutrients I needed to thrive. But then life got in the way.

I got a full-time job at a retail store and met my now-boyfriend, who worked across the street at a vegan-friendly restaurant. My father was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor last November and life has been a struggle for me in general since that happened. But I also lost a ton of weight. I wasn’t eating enough. My stomach became flat, sure, and it looked nice to me, but I was tired constantly and always moody. It was a constant fight to stay present when my stomach was empty.

Sure, I looked healthy. But I did not feel good at all.

It’s always hard for me to admit to myself when a new iteration of my ED becomes apparent. This time, it took me entirely too long, and I’d gotten to the lowest weight of my life. Friends on Instagram and Facebook commented on how great I looked and this spurred me on for a while. Still, in the back of my mind, I knew that it wasn’t right for them to encourage me to lose weight, especially not like this. But I never let it come to the forefront of my consciousness.

Not, that is, until recently. I’d spoken to my boyfriend about it and asked him honestly, “Do you like my body like this? Or do you think I’m too skinny?” I’d gotten to point where my breasts were two flappy sacks of skin. I felt disgusting and wanted to see if I was correct in my assessment — even though I though my stomach looked good in the mirror, did I actually look good to him?

Me circa 2017.

He showed me a picture from my Facebook, one taken a year or so before I met him. I was in a different period of my life, but I looked healthier and happier than I’d looked in the years since. It floored me to see my body in a totally different way, looking at it through his perspective.

“I like your curves,” he told me. “I think you’re a beautiful woman, regardless of what size you are, but you looked so much healthier back then.”

I broke down in tears, my stomach heaving. I didn’t think it was possible for anorexia to come back, over and over and over like it has for me. But it did. And it hurt to realize it. I thought I was stronger than this, to keep succumbing to the irrational voice in my head that tells me I don’t need to eat.

But the reality of EDs is much more complicated than I ever realized, as a curious thirteen-year-old on that webpage. I know it cannot be good for my body to go back and forth with weight as I have, so I’ve made a commitment to myself to finally put the weight on and keep it this time, for good. It’s only been a few months and it’s hard to keep myself from falling back under the spell of those thoughts — “Just eat healthy, don’t pollute your body, eating isn’t worth it if it’s garbage, you have such a big stomach, why don’t you have abs, do some exercise to work off that flab,” — they just never end.

But I don’t have to listen to them. I’m stronger than some evil voice in my brain, telling me what I need to do. I love myself enough to nourish my body, even if I think it needs too much or needs more than the average person. I love myself enough to exercise in a healthy manner, not when I’ve eaten so little I can barely stand. I love myself enough to not restrict my diet, especially when it’s hard for me to intake enough as it is.

I love myself enough to allow my body to be the way it is, naturally.

I still have a long way to go, but I’d rather be here, working on it, than lost in the fog.

Getting there. Working towards happy and healthy.

Sam Ripples is an essayist and novelist living in southern Colorado. She has an interest in words that provide the mind, body, and soul with rejuvenation and hope. You can follow her on Twitter here.

More by Sam Ripples:

Essays about mental health, productivity, and living life in our own unique ways.

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