“Sir, I cannot.”
“What, my lord?”
“Make you an honest answer; my wit’s diseased:”
HAMLET, ACT III SCENE II
I’m not usually big on Facebook trends, but I do like Throwback Thursday. I like seeing old photos from friends; I like flicking through the music I used to listen to; I like looking through the things I wrote when I was younger. But one thing you don’t see a lot of from me is old photos of myself.
It’s because behind the smiles in my old photos, I see something that the naked eye can’t see: my mind was diseased.
I suffered from EDNOS: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. I didn’t fit into a neat little box. Like an anorexic, I starved myself. Like an anorexic, I was obsessed with perfection. Like an anorexic, I had severe body dysmorphic disorder. Like an anorexic, I wanted to be thin, not healthy. But like a bulimic, I binged. Like a bulimic, I purged through exercise. My weight wasn’t low enough to cause some of the physical symptoms of anorexia that are necessary for diagnosis. I didn’t purge by puking or pooping, because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t check all of the boxes for either disorder. Hence, EDNOS: a little blend of both. I used to think that I “couldn’t even get an eating disorder right”.
I don’t want to give any false impressions. My life was never in danger. At my lightest, I tipped the scale at around 110lbs. I won’t call myself a “survivor” because I was never one of those eating disordered people you see on documentaries refusing to eat, even though doctors are telling them that if they don’t gain weight, they will die. But it doesn’t mean that my struggle wasn’t real, and I certainly was heading that way. I fought therapy, worried that I would get fat. I won’t speak of the tricks that I used to fool everyone into thinking that I was eating – I learned many of them from blogs and personal websites just like this one, and I don’t want to teach them to others – but rest assured, I fooled everyone. And while I was fooling everyone into thinking I was healthy, I was in deep trouble.
Perhaps the easiest way to convey the extent of the trouble I was in is to tell you the story of my heart tattoo. I’d toyed with the idea of getting a heart tattooed on my hip for a while, but just wasn’t completely certain that I wanted it. Then my scholarship benefactors hosted a weekend promising swimming, among other activities. I got the tattoo so I would have an excuse to not swim. I was desperate to not have to wear a bathing suit, but I was so convinced that if I didn’t have a medical reason for not swimming, people would wonder why, and conclude “it’s because she’s fat”. I was so desperate, that I had myself permanently inked. Or maybe I should tell you that my GPA my first semester was a 1.2, because I felt “too fat to be seen”. I hid in my room, skipping classes and exams, and almost threw away the scholarship.
My ankle was my saving grace. I was drunk, like I usually was in those days (another reason why my weight never reached life-threatening lows), and I sprained the ankle, badly. As terrified as I was of gaining weight while I was injured, the idea of re-injury – of going back to the gym before I was ready, and putting myself out for another six weeks – was more horrifying. I told myself that eating was a necessary evil towards keeping my strength up and getting thin. Meanwhile, my counselor pounced on the opportunity of six whole weeks where I couldn’t purge through exercise, and I was actually willing to eat, even if it was to ultimately reach an unhealthy goal. When I did re-injure the ankle – ironically enough, not from exercise – my counselor got a few extra purge-free weeks while I recovered. I realised something: no one was treating me any differently. The scales were telling me that I had gained weight. I had to loosen the Silk Spectre II costume that I was making for Halloween. But no one was batting an eyelid. No one was stopping me in the street to tell me I was fat. Teachers weren’t saying “I’m reducing your grade because you’ve put on weight”. None of my friends were telling me “look, I’m sorry, but you’re just so big now. We can’t be friends anymore”.
I remember my counselor encouraged me to put paper on a wall and draw what I thought was my life-size outline, and then stand up against it and have a friend draw around me. He promised me I would see a difference. It took me weeks to work up the courage to do so, with the help of my roommate. I pinned paper to the back of the laundry room door. I drew my outline. I checked it over and over. I was certain – bet-my-life-on-it sure – that it was right; that what I’d drawn accurately reflected my size. I called my roommate in to join me.
I saw the look on my roommate’s face when she looked at the outline I had drawn, and I just knew – ‘knew’, the way body dsymorphics do – that my outline was too small. I ‘knew’ the expression of concern on her face was because I had underestimated how fat I was. She pitied me. I was disgusting.
She drew around me, and when she was finished, I turned to look.
I wish I had kept the picture I took of that outline. I wish I knew that one day it would be a distant memory. What I do remember is that I’d drawn my waist one and a half times bigger than it actually was. I remember that both of my real-person thighs fitted into the space I’d drawn for one of the outline-person’s thighs. I remember that even after I’d been given this absolute proof that my perception of my body was wrong, I refused to believe it. My roommate had faked it, somehow. It was a trick of the light. Never mind that the scales, the clothing size I wore, and the body outline, put together, should have opened my eyes. It didn’t.
Because when your wit is diseased, your mind offers you no honest answers. Even while the numbers on the scale are decreasing, the image you see before you in the mirror is growing in size. When you are sick, when something has taken hold of your mind and is whispering “you are hideous”, your eyes stay closed.
I wish I could sit down with the eighteen-year-old me. I would tell her, “you’re not the size you think you are,” and she wouldn’t believe me. I would tell her, “one day, you won’t even own a set of scales”, and she would look at me in horror. She would ask me how she was going to know what she weighed, and I would tell her “one day, it won’t matter to you”. She would disconnect, then; she would refuse to believe that it was her future self before her.
So I would pour some gin into her tea, so she would know I was on her side.
Then I would shake her by the shoulders and I would tell her something that she needed to hear, and not only so that she would know that it was really me, really her:
I would say, “LISTEN. Listen to me. I know that you think you are worthless. You think that you are nothing special: that your grades aren’t good enough; you’re not funny enough; you’re not nice enough; you’re not informed enough. You think that you could be something, but only if you lose weight first. You think that you have nothing to offer but your body.”
And that would stop her in her tracks, because that thought – “all I have to offer is my body” – is one that kept her awake at night. It is a thought that hurtled noisily through her mind when she tried to study. It is that thought that was on the tip of her tongue at every counselling session – but it was one she had never said aloud.
“You are WRONG,” I would say. “You have worth. You are funny. Your grades would be more than good enough, if you spent as much time studying as you do at the gym. As Aibileen would say, you is kind; you is smart; you is important. You won’t get that reference until you read The Help. Which you will; because this isn’t going to go any further. You’ll go on to read The Help and write two novels of your own. You’ll get married; you’ll have a baby; you’ll get divorced; you’ll go back to school; you’ll find your dream job; and you will learn that the LEAST important thing about you is your weight.”
I like to think she’d look at me, and say, “But how do you know all this?”
And I would tell her: “Because that’s the life that I am – that we are – living now. I’ll tell you a secret. One day, you’re going to look in the mirror and love your body; and you will weigh a hell of a lot more than 110lbs.”
I am sharing this because National Eating Disorder Awareness Week starts on Sunday.
I am sharing this because there is still so much stigma attached to mental illness, and, frankly, it is bullshit. I am hoping that those of you who did not know my story are shocked by it. I’m hoping that what you see when you look at me is not “someone who had an eating disorder” but someone who has their shit together. I am hoping I can help debunk the myth that people with any sort of mental illness are “fucked up” or “damaged”. I am hoping that I can be proof that recovery is possible.
I am sharing this because by national statistics alone, there could be 13 people among my Facebook friends who are quietly suffering from eating disorders. If you use statistics for the demographic of most of my Facebook friends (females, ages 18-30), that figure jumps higher.
I am sharing this because only 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder will receive treatment. One in ten. That figure is far too low.
I am sharing this because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
I am sharing this because I hope that you will stand with me to fight against this nonsense.
Donate to charities helping those with eating disorders and other mental illnesses. There are many of them out there.
Sign petitions. Petitions calling Disney to create a plus-sized princess. Petitions to remedy the harm caused by “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” sites. Petitions for better insurance coverage. Sign, and sign, and keep signing, even if you’re signing petitions very similar to some you’ve already signed. Our voices are small, compared to those of the companies we are petitioning. We need to be heard.
Talk to your children. Talk to your friends. Teach them about the value of inner beauty and good health (mental and physical). Teach them about the lies that the beauty industry feeds them. Teach them about the impossible standards that the beauty industry promotes.
I am sharing this because I hope it can open even just one set of eyes.