Part 2: Anorexia
This is part 2 of a 4-part series of posts on eating disorder recovery. Check out the first post here, and find links to the continuation of the story at the bottom of this installment.
In the summer between my 8th and 9th grade years, I was gearing up for my second summer at smart kid camp in Kentucky. Yessir this high-achiever was a proud attendee at VAMPY camp, which literally stands for Verbally and Mathematically Precocious Youth. NERD.
I had attended VAMPY camp the summer prior as well, and it had been my first time away from home for that long. After initially having some adjustment issues and homesickness, I ended up having the time of my life with other awesome, outgoing, “gifted” kids. I was in “gifted” programs throughout elementary school, and this camp was kind of the next step up for older kids to go and study more challenging material and be treated like college kids on a college campus for a month.
The difference this time was that towards the end of 8th grade, I had started obsessing about my weight and food. I was reading a shit ton of shitty magazines like YM, Teen, SELF, and the like.
I could write an ENTIRE ANGRY BOOK about such trash magazines and the effects they have on young women’s body image. To this day I will not read a magazine with any photos of women in them. Even looking at such publications brings up some truly traumatic old feelings.
In my very organized, very compulsive way I had started to make plans for how to lose weight and achieve what I perceived to be perfection. I had already started dieting and running a whole lot, pretty innocent at first. But being sent away for a month where my parents couldn’t see me gave me a rich environment to perfect my budding eating and exercise rituals where no one could tell me no.
Rituals. A huge part of any anorexic’s M.O. I can’t remember when I started counting calories, but that was one of my biggest rituals. I pored over nutrition labels for everything I ate. I wouldn’t eat at restaurants unless I could find their nutrition information online. I measured everything out, wrote everything down. For a normal person, this would’ve probably been an alright (…questionable), sensible way to diet and lose weight. But for a person who is wired physiologically for obsessive behavior and addiction, this was the perfect thing to latch on to AND BE REALLY GOOD AT and CONTROL. The tipping point came quickly, and pretty soon counting and controlling turned into heavy restricting and starving. I was a full-blown anorexic.
So that summer at camp I went all in. In the mornings I would run three to five miles before classes. For breakfast I would have a piece of a PowerBar, which I would cut into fifths so that each piece was 40 calories. I still remember all the numbers. So many numbers ruled my life. At lunch I’d have a pile of lettuce with vinegar and black pepper, which I estimated at another 40 or 50 calories (right…). I used to use online calorie counting websites to estimate my caloric intake. If I found out something had even “negligible” fat content, I felt absolute soul-crushing anxiety. I was restricting calories, but I was completely eliminating fat from my diet. After lunch I would go back to my room and do crunches. For dinner I would have a spoonful of refried beans and go for a brisk walk. The hungrier I felt, the better I felt.
…Let me rephrase that, though. I didn’t ever feel good about myself. If I was hungry, I felt in control and I felt power. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw a fucking lard ass. The dysmorphia that happens in an anorexic’s brain regarding her body image is insanity. I look back at photos from the time like, damn Ally you looked like a Skeletor. But back then I was simply not skinny enough. Not good enough. I absolutely hated myself. To give you an idea of how I spoke to myself– my internal monologue– here is an excerpt from a journal:
Nightmare. God, that’s hard to read. And that is how I spoke to myself every day.
Food and exercise rituals are not the only obsessive behaviors that plague anorexics. In addition to counting and re-counting (and re-counting) calories, my life was ruled by many other numbers. The number on the scale. The size of my pants. How many glasses of water I drank. How many ounces in a cup. How many minutes working out. All of these numbers told me how good I was or what I was worth. The endless numbers game is a clear symptom of OCD behavior. Another obsessive habit was relentlessly pinching my body and checking mirrors for fat. Not even just mirrors– any reflective surface from which I could snatch a judgmental glimpse of my body to assess how fat I looked, tortured me throughout the day.
At my thinnest I got to be just around 100 pounds. At probably five-foot-six at that point, I was pretty damn thin. And most of it had happened over the course of just a few months. My body shut down; I stopped having my period and my hair was coming out in giant clumps. I remember pulling chunks of long brown hair from my brush every single day. Still not good enough. An anorexic will never be good enough.
At some point during camp, around when I lost my period, I called my mom because I knew things weren’t right. She came to visit for a weekend and I could tell she was trying to hide her alarm. Clearly she was concerned but as a doctor she probably knew that bringing it up would just turn me into a defensive monster. My parents probably have a better memory of all of this, but if I recall correctly it wasn’t until I got home from camp that I kind of fessed up and agreed to seek out some help. I had almost stopped eating completely at that point and I still hated myself. I was absolutely miserable.
So going into ninth grade I shaved all my hair off and started a rehab program in Chattanooga called Solace. It was part one-on-one psychological therapy, part family therapy, and part group work. I began the program with three other anorexics and I had to take a full day out of school every week in order to go to the day-long outpatient sessions. I didn’t tell my friends that I was absent because I was seeing a psychiatrist– I felt embarrassed.
Solace was in and of itself a good program. We did cognitive behavioral therapy exercises (CBT), wrote daily affirmations to build self esteem, incorporated art into our recovery, talked about family issues, and learned about good nutrition. It was at Solace that keeping a journal become a daily necessity in my life. Learning to express myself in a way that felt safe and satisfying, and being able to look at and break down my emotional states was a huge step in understanding why I was anorexic in the first place.
During one particular family therapy session, I saw my dad cry for only the second time in my entire life. It made me want to get better so, so badly. I didn’t want to hurt my family by being sick and depressed (I was on or trying several anti-depressants over the course of my therapy and recovery. Though they helped bring up my depleted serotonin levels, all of them made me feel pretty numb and detached. I did not enjoy being medicated and sedated.). Causing that type of pain, and what I perceived to be burden, to my family made me desperate to get better fast so we could all just get back to life.
So that’s what I did. In theory.
I figured out how to be really good at those group exercises. I figured out the right things to say to my therapist. I even ate a little bit to gain weight back and get the OK to be discharged. I remember the day that I finally ate peanut butter again, which was at the time one of my “unsafe” or scary foods. Small milestones. In truth, most of my core issues were still there unresolved and bubbling below the surface; I still feared food. I still put a lot of my self worth in what I looked like and what I weighed. I was constantly comparing myself to other women and models. I still didn’t truly know how to assert myself and address emotions in a healthy way. But I covered it up, manipulated. I got really good at that. And they let me go free.
My battle with eating disorders had just begun.