“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” – Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator
Like many anorexics, I developed little checks to reassure myself I was okay, i.e. thin enough for the day. My basic check was to wrap my hand around my upper arm to make sure my middle finger would touch my thumb. At one point, my check was to feel my hip bones, something I did continually throughout the day, even though I knew it was impossible to gain enough weight to change that drastically in a few hours. These were rituals that, over time, became habit. There were also lies and rationalizations that constantly fell from my lips. They weren’t outright intentional lies; “I ate earlier” didn’t seem like lying. I just didn’t tell anyone how much earlier it was when I last ate, and a “huge lunch” is all relative. My dedication to being honest was unintentionally waning and the line between reality and fantasy became more blurred in my head.
Looking back, I can see how I fooled myself in order to hang on to my eating disorder. I wanted to justify what I was doing, so that I didn't come off as sick to others. I rationalized and tried to explain away my quirky behaviors, hoping those around me wouldn't think I was anorexic. I don't think I was very convincing, but I continued trying to hide my disorder. Being on the other side of the illness, I now understand how frustrating it is to hear someone try to explain her strange behavior that doesn't support health with bizarre and irrational excuses.
When I see anorexic people today, I can detect rather quickly how far into the disease they are without taking great notice of their actual body weight. It’s one of those “anorexics can’t fool other anorexics” phenomena that occur once anorexia has been experienced on any level. It’s obvious when the anorexic is visibly thin, but there are other indicators. Aside from the little checks they do, I can see the illness in the eyes. Anorexics have a certain look. If it’s severe, the look is vacant. If the person is recovering, the look is pained and deep.
By the time I had my first seizure, I was completely lost. I had recently given most of my possessions away, thinking the end was near. I could feel myself slipping further and further away from the world around me. Consumed by obsessive-compulsive behavior, it was a struggle to make it through the day. It seemed that the thinner I got, the worse the OCD symptoms became. It got so that picking out an apple at the grocery store was an impossible task. I felt like Persephone seeking out prettier and prettier flowers in the fields. Each time I would settle on an apple I thought might be okay, I’d think maybe there was a better one. Only very rarely could I actually choose one that was acceptable. Finding the right one actually had little to do with size, shape or ripeness, it just had to “feel” right.
I’m sad to say that even after my first seizure, I wasn’t ready to make an effort to get well. It would have been difficult even if I had been ready, because my finances were pretty well exhausted. Any treatment facility was out of the question. Besides, I felt I was losing the fight. Being healthy takes balls. Claiming the right to life and having radical trust in the universe is not for the weak. Embracing self-worth and self-wisdom takes an enormous amount of sheer strength and faith. I don’t mean that in the typical religious sense, but faith nonetheless. Simply put, being human takes energy.
Because I had become so sick, I no longer felt like a woman. Even in high school, when I was so thin, I had a sense of my femininity. However, once I become so terribly emaciated, I felt asexual and made little effort to dress or care for myself except for basic hygiene. It was more important to me to remain thin than to evolve as a person, even though on some level I wanted to be well. The worst part during all of this was that I could feel my mind losing ground. Up until that point in my life, my mind had always been razor-sharp and overactive. Thoughts flooded my brain and creativity oozed from my very being. All of a sudden, I was living in a haze and experiencing things in slow motion. Then, horror of all horrors, I felt my thoughts escape the bounds of my own control.
As hard as I tried to focus my mind by reading or concentrating, I just couldn’t. What I didn't know is that my serum sodium level was dangerously low; I had diluted my electrolytes through excessive water intake, and this condition – called hyponatremia – was causing my brain to short-circuit. Complete and utter panic grabbed me to my very soul and I knew something terrible was happening. Instead of calmness and nice white lights near-death survivors often claim to experience, I came face to face with paralysis, blackness and complete loss of control. After the seizures would pass, I would remember bits and pieces of the events leading up to the seizure itself; the tingle in my back, the repetitive thought that was stuck on replay, and the screaming that came from my mouth but seemed so far away.
Each visit to the hospital was expensive. The ambulance ride alone was close to $1,000 per trip. My insurance company had dropped me after my second hospital stay, so my parents footed the bill. After I was told the seizures were not exactly life-threatening, I wore a small necklace with a sign attached to it that read, “in case of seizure, please do not call an ambulance.” After two trips, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for another ride for me.
When I woke up one night to severe chest pain and shortness of breath, I thought for sure that was it. My mom and I took a cab to the hospital, where the doctors told her not to expect me to make it through the night. I begged them to find room for me at an eating-disorders treatment facility. Their response was, “Sorry, they’re full.” I looked at my mom and asked, “How sick do I have to be?” Clearly I was going to have to figure this out on my own. The real question was: Did I even want to get well?