NEDAwareness Week Day 4: Defining an Eating Disorder
The room smelled familiar – like antiseptic soap and one too many sprays of Febreeze. I shifted on the table, wincing as the paper scratched against the cheap leather. I had just finished another round of the Gardasil vaccine and inquired about remedies for dry skin – my hands used to get really dry in the winter – as in arid, cracked hands with knuckles that bled when I held a pencil. My doctor looked over my hands, brushing his moisturized fingers over the red knuckles. He set them down on my lap and looked at me very matter-of-factly.
“Have you started your cycle?” he asked. I shifted uncomfortably again. It was nonexistent. But I was only sixteen! And so active! I’d be fine! Or at least, that’s what they always told me, until today.
“Dry skin like this can be a sign of purging – you know, bulimia,” he said. “Have you tried to purge recently?” His tone hadn’t changed from his earlier chirps asking how my day was going. I stared at him blankly, resisting the urge to shift on the table. “The stomach acid does this to your hands when you purge,” he explained. I maintained my stare and stammered something to negate his potential diagnosis.
“Well, if that’s not the case, I’d recommend you try something stronger, maybe Vaseline or Aquaphor,” he said. I nodded, hoping to not give myself away.
My doctor wasn’t entirely wrong; I had tried to purge twice prior to that appointment and have tried twice since. I failed each time – or succeeded at not purging, depending on your perspective. I knew I had a problem. But no matter how small I fought to make myself, I still took up too much space.
My eating disorder stemmed from my anxiety and crippling need for control. Meals were earned by miles run, and a missed workout equated to diminished self-worth. I threw away the bread on my sandwiches at lunch. I poured salt on my food at restaurants. I fidgeted in front of mirrors, constantly pulling at shirts to hide my stomach and often opting for a baggy sweatshirt to conceal my flaws. I convinced myself I didn’t like ice cream, chocolate, or candy for fear of gaining weight. I struggled in relationships – never seeing myself as worthy of another’s time or attention – and held everyone to such high standards, one of us always backed out.
And yet, in the loneliness and isolation, in the restricted intake and obsessive exercise, I found immense relief. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t want to find it. I didn’t want to risk someone taking this from me. My eating disorder was my greatest security. It got me through intense emotional turmoil and angst – and resulted in me losing 20 pounds in less than six weeks. It provided comfort during nine stress fractures – and likely led to each proceeding injury. It gave me a sense of control in high school’s dizzying social hierarchy – and forced me to forego many friendships and relationships.
When everything felt so out of control, so overwhelming, this was my safe space. But with it came exceedingly harsh self-talk and body shaming. The voice constantly reminding me that I was not enough – not until I had the six pack, until I fit the size double-zero jeans, until I looked like the professional runners – that voice was always there. And it grew louder and stronger until the self-imposed pain and shame became too much to bear.
I finally sought help.