Possible trigger warning with mention of behaviors.
Chapter 28 – The Long Road
“Courage consists of the power of self-recovery.” – Julie Arabi
Anyone who has suffered an eating disorder can tell you how increasingly distorted life becomes the longer the illness progresses. It’s hard to imagine being so lost and so stuck that hope disappears. There was a point in my illness where I had crossed over to what I truly believed was a point of no return.
When I was younger, I was at least somewhat well-rounded. I painted and drew, cooked, read books and watched movies. I don’t recall doing much of anything once my weight became so abnormally low. I also don’t recall exactly when it was that I stopped being in the world. I was isolated, except for a few select friends who could tolerate the sight of me, and I had dropped all hobbies and interests from my life. Days on end were spent exercising, though it’s hard to imagine exercising with no real strength. I also spent my time waiting for my two small meals: one in the evening, one late at night. Occasionally, there were days I would eat more normally and even some days on which I would binge, but the guilt was extreme and often very hard to handle. At the time I couldn’t see that those days of eating normally were what my body, mind and spirit craved.
Winters had always been hard on me, but when I weighed so little they became downright dreadful. I shivered in the top-of-the-line winter gear my mom had bought, freezing while others around me enjoyed the brisk air. Rather than risk another winter of extreme cold, I decided to seek warmer climates. Just a few months after being released from the hospital, I found a job at a Montessori school in Phoenix and left Boulder, hoping the new environment would not only ease the trauma of surviving harsh winters, but also allow me to escape my past. Yes, I was running away from my problems or at least attempting to escape. I wanted to get well, pay my parents back for all the money they spent on me and participate in the world again, but I couldn’t face the possible comments from other people about any weight gain. My thinness was what defined me, and I knew from past experience how hard it would be to change. Understandably, well-meaning people who would say, “You look healthy” or “you’ve gained weight” did not know that for me, those words translated to “you’re fat.” Those were the words I knew would devastate me. I was hoping that if nobody knew me as an anorexic, I might be able to change. Instead, the new environment and added stress of living on my own caused me to revert back to my most compulsive regime in terms of both exercise and eating.
Instead of getting better, I got worse. My weight was just below 80 pounds at times, and I was constantly sick. Though the seizures had stopped, my immune system could not fight off colds, the flu, or any illness floating in the warm desert air. I missed many days of work at a time. During times of illness, my fevers would spike so high I worried for my life. I would shiver and sweat the nights away and wait for morning to come, hoping I would wake to see one more day yet tired of facing these days.
When I wasn’t sick and merely trying to survive, I was compulsive, dragging myself through the days. I often called my sister or my friend, Heidi, in tears. I had no idea how selfish I was being at the time; all I could see was my own pain. I was miserable, living a marginal life. It took years before I could see the strain I put on others and how very much my friends and family suffered with my disorder. I had no idea of the sadness and anger my sister felt over losing her little sister who was, in fact, alive but not living. She felt cheated, not having a relative she could do things with, and admitted that she was tired of having to walk on eggshells around me, afraid that anything she said could upset me and potentially worsen or trigger my bad eating habits. She missed having someone she could do things with and talk to about things other than food and body image. It had been years since I had gone clothes shopping or gone out to eat with anyone. These were things my sister did with friends, because I wasn’t able to be a part of her life with my distorted thinking.
People at work were concerned about me and often tried to encourage me to eat. I refused. I was good with the kids and I loved what I was doing, but at times I felt terribly weak. I was unable to lift or carry most of the children, and I remember disappointing one heavier boy when I couldn’t lift him up onto the playground jungle gym. My heart went out to him, knowing exactly how he must have felt, but I was in no condition to be lifting the youngsters.
The kids where I worked were exceptional. They seemed wise beyond their years and had no problem making me feel welcome and wanted. To them it didn’t matter what my weight was; they just wanted someone to listen to them, play with them and teach them. While basically getting paid to play with these kids, it occurred to me that I had really missed out as a child. Although I had played with the other kids in the neighborhood, I always felt like an outcast, not accepted. It was the first time other children wanted me to be a part of the group, even though I was an adult. I longed to have their innate wisdom regarding wants and needs and their sense of joy about life. Mostly, I longed to have their carefree attitude toward food.
One day, not long after settling into a regular routine of workouts and work, I noticed that one of my teeth was hurting. I made an appointment with a local dentist and he discovered a sinus infection. He also discovered that I had an infection on both sides of my upper jaw. Apparently, after all four of my wisdom teeth were removed many years earlier, an infection eventually developed in two of the empty tooth sockets. The dentist had to go back into the socket to clean out the infection. I was scheduled for surgery just a few days later. The surgery was long and draining. I was supposed to return to work the following week, but my face was so bruised and swollen on my already too-tiny body that the director of the school where I worked was afraid I would scare the children. I sat home for a few more days until the swelling subsided and returned only to have the kids comment on my terribly pale, slightly yellow complexion. It was becoming all too obvious that my anorexia was affecting my liver and I was jaundiced.
Not long after the surgery, I developed another injury. My diet continued to be incredibly unbalanced and I was still compulsively exercising, running on a sore leg and doing calisthenics. Eventually the pain got to be too much, so rather than fight it, I stopped running. In order to reduce the fear of gaining weight, I decided to try a few days of a modified juice fast. My daily intake consisted of vegetable juice plus a little brown rice and vegetables. No other solid foods were allowed. After a few days I was starving. I binged and purged and called in sick to work. I was a complete mess emotionally and physically. When I went into the bathroom to wash away the tears, I stared darkly at myself in the mirror, my self-hatred growing. My eyes penetrated the image in the mirror, looking deeply and critically at my reflection.
That’s when it happened.
I had an epiphany. For the first time ever, and the last time since, I saw myself exactly as I was. I saw the bones on my face, my ribs sticking out, my thinning hair, my sharp hip bones protruding and my bony knees sticking out over my tiny calves. I could even see the bones between my almost nonexistent breasts where my ribs met. My arms were frail and so, so small. I was shocked, horrified. I was amazed I was still alive and finally understood all the stares and odd looks I received. I had no idea how things had gotten this bad, and I certainly had no idea how things could possibly get better. I knew I was stuck. I also knew I needed help.
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