Chapter 25 – Lost
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin
When I was little I was terrified of death. My dad, being the hard-core scientist that he was, told me that when you die, that’s it. At the moment of physical death, humans simply cease to exist. At age four, I tried not only to imagine what nothing was like, but also to imagine an eternity of nothing. Often I would become so scared I would turn pale and people around me thought I was sick. My tiny brain just could not wrap itself around the concept of either eternity or nothingness, so death became my biggest fear, along with spiders, which for some reason I tried to like in order to please my dad, who liked the creepy little buggers. However, from puberty on, gaining weight became my biggest fear. Oddly enough there is a homeopathic remedy that deals with all three fears – fear of gaining weight, fear of death and fear of spiders – that is made from the tarantula spider. I tried it once and did notice a very slight easing in all three of these fears, but question whether the improvement was due to the work I was already doing on myself or the remedy.
When I was a teenager, everyone knew I was anorexic. It was obvious. When I first got out of the eating-disorder treatment center in my twenties, though, I fell somewhere between “normal” and sick. I appeared normal, but was still terrified of gaining weight and was overly focused on what I ate. When I started to fall off my meal plan and became too tired to work out, the pounds naturally started creeping on. I became depressed. My psychiatrist upped my Prozac levels, but this only seemed to make me more discontent. In fact, I started to feel completely unlike myself. I even noticed that my handwriting was changing. I was agitated while clinically depressed and my thyroid was still not functioning as it should. In a frantic move, I cut my tongue with a razor blade in horizontal lines, hoping this would somehow get me to eat less. Knowing it was a completely irrational act did not stop me from mutilating my tongue, and yet even that didn't help me eat less. I ate despite the discomfort in my mouth. Nothing felt right. I was so miserable that I wanted out. I didn’t care how my pain ended; I just wanted it to end. Since I couldn’t see a way to get better, I tried to slit my left wrist. The fight between my fear of death and my fear of living in my current state was raging in my mind. I had no idea which fate was worse – nothingness or fatness. In addition, I didn’t know if I had it in me to off myself, but I decided I was going to try.
I knew the correct way to cut my wrists – along the arteries, not across them. When I tried, though, I got too scared. The blood was so vivid and red, it made me falter. I didn’t want to see the life drain out of me, so I searched for another option after bandaging my wrist. Swallowing pills seemed a much calmer way to go, so I started swallowing aspirin, one after another, until I lost count. With a handful down, I felt a surge of calmness. It was at that moment I wavered. I wasn’t convinced I wanted to die after all, so I told my sister and was taken to the hospital, where they re-bandaged my wrist and gave me charcoal for the toxic level of aspirin in my body. After vomiting up everything in my stomach, I was admitted to the eating disorders unit again and stayed just a few days to stabilize.
I spent most of my time alone the second time at the hospital. I refused to go to lectures or groups and was there only to be supervised while I was slowly tapered off Prozac. Going off the drug too quickly can sometimes cause debilitating withdrawal symptoms. Julia seemed far gone and for some unknown reason was having severe nose bleeds. She was bedridden, hooked to her IV and extremely pale. The doctors were threatening to put a feeding tube in her nose if she didn’t eat something soon. She was transferred to the medical hospital after she passed out for a second time. I assume the tube went in. Although I made great efforts to stay in touch with her afterward, my letters and messages went unanswered. Even her family would not tell me whether she made it out alive. I can only hope Julia found the strength and courage to survive. After being discharged, I vowed that if I ever attempted suicide again, it wouldn’t be a half-assed job. I was embarrassed at what I had done and could hardly face even my closest relatives.
Oddly enough, getting off Prozac was the best thing that could have happened. At one point, it was thought that decreased serotonin levels in the brain led to anorexia. Today, research points to the possibility that it’s actually too much serotonin that may contribute to anorexia. In a sense, some feel that anorexics are “self-medicating” by unconsciously restricting foods that would be broken down into the precursors of serotonin.
After stopping the Prozac, I experienced a return to myself. My weight dropped slightly to just around 100 pounds, and I felt more in control. The depression also seemed to lift.
Unfortunately, the next few years would be a roller coaster of more illnesses and injuries. Over the course of a single year, I was diagnosed with several viruses, mono, ulcers, walking pneumonia, an absorption problem, and tonsillitis. I was basically sick every two weeks. I did my best to train and go to school despite chronic fatigue and continual down time. After one doctor told me I had asthma, I used an inhaler for a while. I ran 36:36 at a 10k race in California wondering if the humid weather was affecting my breathing. It turned out I was misdiagnosed and what the doctor originally thought was asthma showed up on an x-ray a month later as pneumonia. When I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist about yet another sore throat, he could see the emotional strain all this illness was having on my basic outlook on life and decided to take out my tonsils. Even though the tonsillectomy did help my health improve, my college career was coming to a close before I could get fully back on my feet. Despite running varsity for the cross-country team my last year, I felt off and wondered if my entire running career was ending before its time.
Shortly before college graduation, I started training with a local coach. The relationship was short-lived, because after I ran 38 minutes for 10k on the roads, he claimed that I was washed up and needed to take at least a year off. He refused to coach me anymore. This was another example of a coach not willing to help an athlete through what some consider the toughest time for a runner – a necessary rest period. Back then, most coaches gave the impression that they only wanted to deal with an athlete if that person was already running well. There was no offer to guide me through what I knew would be an uncomfortable situation if I even could attempt the down time. Despite some improvement in my general health, I felt burned out. Sadly, I had no idea how to live life apart from running. The thought of not running was terrifying. I didn’t know how to eat if I didn’t run. I had no idea how to deal with life if I didn’t run, and I had developed a compulsive routine that I clung to with everything I had. Winning started to be less meaningful than my routine, but I wanted so badly to be back on top. I just couldn't figure out how to stop being so compulsive with my exercise. So, instead of quitting, I decided to up my distance from the 10k to the 15k. It was a good distance for me. I even won a little prize money. In the past I had not been allowed to accept cash or prizes, because I was trying to keep my amateur status, both for a possible Olympic bid and for racing in college. This time I could accept it. The rules have changed now, and young athletes are often able to put cash earnings in a trust fund.
Somehow during this time I was able to have an on-again-off-again relationship with a runner from the East Coast who had moved to Colorado to attend school. The relationship was more off than on again for two years. I did have periods where my health was good and I felt emotionally stable, but my lows were extreme and even I didn’t expect anyone could handle being around me. There was no doubt that, in addition to all the physical ailments, I was still struggling with depression. Whether it was my fluctuating moods that caused it or simply that he found someone else, we split up for good shortly before I graduated from college.
During one of my extreme down periods, I checked myself into a hospital for depression. Unlike the strict rules at the eating disorders unit, the depression unit was casual and meetings were optional. After attending a few, my roommate and I decided the meetings were not useful, so we holed ourselves up in our room instead. We snuggled in our beds and took turns reading (in our most melodramatic voices) excerpts from romance novels that caused us to burst out laughing. Though thoroughly depressed, we felt better when we could talk and laugh, and the two of us formed a close bond.
It turned out one of the girls on the unit was bulimic. She had previously tried to kill herself by overdosing on sleeping pills and anything else she could find in her cupboards. After three days she woke up dehydrated and dizzy. Unaware of how many days she had been out, she called an ambulance and was rushed to the hospital. She was admitted to the depression unit shortly thereafter. I was shocked that nobody went looking for her in the three days when she was passed out and nearly dying! It was worrisome to me that none of her friends were concerned when she had not returned calls or showed up at work. She explained this away by saying that her schedule had always been flexible, and people probably just figured she was taking some time off. I wondered whether anyone would notice if I were to go missing for that long. The two of us remained friends for a few years after our release. Eventually she got married and had children. It took becoming pregnant for her to stop purging, but she did it.
Right after I got out of the hospital I took a job as a nanny for two children in middle school, a boy and his younger sister. I helped them with homework and drove them to various activities. They picked up on my unusual eating habits right away, and I had to let on that I had issues. I worried about the girl because she was so thin. I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing this beautiful child go through what I had gone through. I allowed her to eat anything, even the most sugary snacks, because otherwise she would hardly eat at all. I cooked pasta and pancakes whenever she wanted and offered to make runs to the store so she could pick out a snack. We talked openly about eating issues and I sensed she might be struggling. Years later I found out she did have a serious bout with anorexia while she was in high school. At the time I suspected she had tendencies toward anorexia, I was unable to protect her from eventually falling into this kind of illness. As much as I wish I could have changed her fate, nobody could have done so. Her future was in her own hands.
While I was working as a nanny I did a photo shoot with a modeling agency, thinking that it might help my self-confidence to step into a career in fashion. I knew that agencies took all sorts of people for various kinds of work. Incredibly, the photographer told me that if I wanted to make it as a model, I would have to put on a few pounds. I was shocked. I had always assumed that models were supposed to be thin, and I couldn’t accept that I was too thin. Nothing ever came of my modeling attempt. After a few rejections, one for having “skin that’s not flawed enough” – they wanted to try a product and needed a “before” shot – I decided I didn’t have the energy to make the long drives to modeling calls in Denver anymore. I also knew that any kind of rejection, no matter how carefully worded or cushioned, was not helping my self-esteem.
A few years of working as a nanny had passed and I realized I was beginning to lose myself. I was growing tired of my life and the rut in which I found myself. I had a degree in psychology after studying behavioral neuroscience (which my dad claimed was not a “real” science), but I decided not to attempt grad school, even after doing reasonably well on the GRE. Obviously there was no pleasing my dad academically if I couldn't be a female version of Einstein, and that was unlikely to happen with the physics gene having bypassed me.
It was starting to look like I had nothing left in my life. The more depressed I became, the more weight I lost. It was subtle at first, but I was down to 95 pounds before I knew it. I was struggling with my identity, and no longer able to define myself as an elite athlete. The transition from elite athlete to normal person was incredibly difficult. It was almost like experiencing a death in the family. I wasn’t ready or able to say goodbye to a sport that had been such an important part of my life, but I knew I was no longer the athlete that I once was. I thought saying goodbye was a must.
I felt that I needed a radical change after I graduated from college, so I looked into joining the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with diabetes insipidus, a rare form of diabetes that I learned later was related to my anorexia. My pituitary was shutting down and I was no longer able to regulate the water balance in my own body. I was constantly thirsty. In addition, I was constantly running to the bathroom to pee. It seemed to be a catch-22 – if I drank amounts of fluid that didn’t force me to void constantly, I’d become dehydrated. Since I was unable to join the Peace Corps, I took a job as a teacher at a preschool. My weight continued to drop.
One day I had a fleeting thought about what it would be like to be less than 90 pounds. It was just a blip of a thought, but I started to actively pursue it. I was so completely tired of my compulsive training and eating habits that I could not for the life of me see a way out of them, and I decided to give it all up cold turkey. And just like that, I quit running. I was still determined not to gain weight, so I came up with a way of estimating calories and allowed myself just over 1,000 calories a day. Occasionally I would binge and sometimes resort to purging, something I thought I would never do again after I had stopped doing it in college.
My complete abstinence from exercise didn’t last long. I started some biking and walking, but I did less the weaker I became. I was on a path of total and complete apathy. I was living in limbo between life and death, too afraid to take a stand either way, so I lingered.
My sickness was so overwhelming that it didn't even seem all that odd to me to be living back home with my parents at the time. I couldn't imagine living the life of a normal woman. I no longer even felt human. The reality was that I was a ghost of my former self, slowly disengaging from the world. Relationships were out of the question. Socializing was not on my mind, and I no longer had any kind of real goals. I refused to go out to eat with anyone, and my life seemed secretive and lonely. So much of my mind was consumed with what and how much I ate. While other women my age were planning their lives, with or without partners, or establishing themselves in their lives, I was fading.
For over three years my weight hovered between 80 and 85 pounds. I was living breath to breath, often wondering if that next breath would come. I quit working at the school and took a job cleaning houses twice a week. As I was living at my parents’ house, my mom started a routine of morning and nightly checks to make sure I was still breathing. Many times she expected to wake up to her daughter having died in her sleep. As much as she wanted to help and dreamed of seeing me get well, there was nothing she could do for me.
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