I remember the day it all began so clearly. I was fourteen. Just. We were standing in line, waiting to go into our Geography lesson. I’d always had a tendency towards skinniness, and I’d never seen it as an attractive feature – on myself, or anyone else. In fact, I had a passionate mistrust of the word “diet”, or anything to do with radical, short-term modifications to what I saw as a long-term issue.
And that issue was self control.
Around me, the girls were talking about the weight loss fads to which they subscribed, weighing up their relative successes (pardon the pun), and generally bemoaning their obesity. Although I stayed out of the conversation, I was irritated (a fairly typical state of mind for me in my early teens, I admit). “Why must they complain. They all look fine! And if it’s such an issue, just do something about it. If you won’t fix it, don’t complain about it!”
I decided I’d show them how it was done.
More to it than meets the eye
There were other things going on in my life at that time, as well. My parents were fighting all the time. They often spoke of divorce. We’d looked at countless houses with my mom as she tried to find “somewhere better” for us to stay. She’d even taken a job – a new development for our family. We knew the quickest route to a divorce and the legal ramifications of a trial separation. All weekend long they’d rage and fight. Threats were thrown down like gauntlets, and plans were made for “moving on”. By Sunday night, there’d be peace. And while the week would generally start off well, by Friday we’d be back at battle stations, armed and ready for combat.
Nothing I did could ease the tension. I tried to control my siblings’ behaviour to reduce tension. This would be amusing even with average individuals, but with my headstrong, stubborn and independent brother and sister, it was a recipe for disaster. I tried to ace all my classes at school, but there were some I could never master, and there always seemed to be someone better than me. Nothing I did could propel me to the top of all my classes, and I put in longer and longer hours to achieve mastery.
To make matters even worse, I was often sick. Food made me nauseous and caused my skin to break out. I had an ongoing cold and frequent bouts of bronchitis. My stomach was a hard knot of cramps no matter the time of the month, and I was plagued by headaches. Now I know that these were symptoms of my gluten intolerance, but at the time I simply felt like an undiagnosable failure.
These contributed to growing sense of being out of control over every aspect of my life.
It felt like flying
First, I gave my sandwiches away. There were enough growing, geeky boys around to help, and I explained that I “wasn’t hungry today”. That worked very well for some time, but eventually one of my teachers got suspicious when she caught me sleeping on her desk, and told my friends not to accept lunch from me.
Next, I made up a story. I told my mom I thought I might be gluten-intolerant like her, and asked if I could take a salad to school instead of sandwiches. She obliged. I loved that because even if I did “cheat” and have some of the salad, it was just lettuce and tomatoes, and I knew that wouldn’t have any effect. (I had no idea, then, that my “lie” was the truth).
Besides feeling tired (which took some time to start), I felt fantastic! For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t hurt. My skin was sallow, but my spots were gone. My stomach was flat, and my gut no longer ached. My brain was clear, and I could think. For the most part I had so much energy that I hardly felt the need of sleep. It did occasionally catch up with me, but over all it was a significant improvement in my quality of life.
After a few months, people noticed. I would fob them off with vague excuses, such as having an iron deficiency when I as obviously tired. I told them they were imagining things when they said my weight had dropped. I claimed I was dancing in my spare time, and that accounted for it. I said I ate like a horse at home (and at home I said someone had given me a meal at school).
I avoided meal times and family gatherings involving food. I hid food, threw food away, and claimed to have stomach cramps or nausea when faced with a full plate of food. My history of gluten intolerance symptoms was my firm ally in this deception.
I would never tolerate the mention of the word “anorexic” – after all, I didn’t care about being thin. But that’s what I was – and it had so very little to do with my dress size or a number on the scale
Coming back down to earth
Eventually,my period stopped, which was a welcome relief. However, I knew what I was doing. I had made my point and began to see that the time would soon come when I’d have to “go back to normal”. I was dreading it.
Then one night, around 1AM, I woke my parents up because I had severe abdominal pain. I thought my dad was spinning me around and around, but when I woke up in hospital I discovered that in fact I had passed out and been rushed to ER. I had appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. My moment of truth came when I needed to be anaesthetised. I hadn’t told anyone my real weight in so long that I couldn’t bring myself to do so now. I lied, giving the nurse a number nearly 10kg higher than my real weight. As I drifted into unconsciousness, I heard the nurses comment on how my body looked like that of a 12-year-old. They were sure someone had written the wrong information on my forms …
It took a long time for me to come round. My surgery was at 6AM, and at 3 in the afternoon I was still out cold. Even the doctor was concerned, and they took measures to wake me up. When I came to, and after understanding what had happened, I realised just how foolish and selfish I’d been.
I resolved to live a little more boldly, and leave a few things to chance. I also made a commitment to my own health: I would find out why food made me sick, and I would stop taking on other people’s problems.
This journey was a trial by fire, and it taught me a lot. I’ll discuss the lessons I’ve learnt tomorrow. But today, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever faced an eating disorder? Are you facing one now? Or have you loved someone who battles with food/body issues? I’d value your comments. Please share your thoughts in the comments box below (just be nice :)).