Hi, all, from sunny Fort Collins. Forget visiting Florida to escape the cold. Just swing by Northern Colorado.
But on to other thoughts.
A little late on the Thinking Out Loud post this morning, but I still wanted to jump on the bandwagon and share my thoughts about something that’s been nagging me, lately: how to tell the story of my eating disorder. Specifically, where it starts.
Last semester, I submitted a piece of the memoir to workshop in my graduate-level nonfiction course. It described a trip to Gage Park in Topeka with my mom, where I had visited often as a child, on the day I first decided I was going to go see someone to get help for my eating disorder.
I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t read, couldn’t follow an episode of Downton Abbey. I was depressed, kept bursting into tears for no apparent reason. I couldn’t get to sleep at night. I couldn’t stand to have the thermostat set below about 80. Slacks that I had purchased in May, in anticipation of starting a my first full-time job in August, wouldn’t even stay on my hips. I was undoubtedly anorexic.
But as my colleagues in the memoir workshop pointed out, it was very unclear, in the draft, how long I’d been that way. That summer of 2014, I’d dropped something like 20 pounds in 10 weeks. Other people started to notice something was really wrong. (A lot of them also responded to my sudden weight loss by complementing me on how “good” I looked. But that’s another story.)
On the other hand, I also mentioned in the draft that I hadn’t had a period since my freshman year of college.
Five years. No period. That’s one long sentence.
I first lost weight a as a freshman in college. I had been a bit overweight since elementary school–not morbidly obese, but bigger. I didn’t think very much about my weight at all, and when I did, I certainly didn’t feel motivated to do anything about it. Here’s me in my prom dress, senior year of high school. Please pardon the cupcake on top of my head. : P
Certainly, I was annoyed that I couldn’t fit into the dresses I wanted to fit into. But I never considered actively trying to lose weight until I started unintentionally losing some my freshman year of college. I used to boast that I lost my freshman fifteen, rather than gaining it. Which makes sense. I was trying to live on grocery bills that were less than $30 a week. And the scholarship hall where I lived required us all to cook for ourselves, which meant I wasn’t going back for seconds at every meal, like I had done living with my folks. And I started exercising–just yoga, at first, but then I started step aerobics that winter. And so my body changed. I wasn’t super-skinny, but I had a much more athletic figure.
A lot of people who were close to me started complementing me on my changing figure at that point, especially family members. If you’d asked most of my friends and relatives during my undergraduate years, they would have told you that I was making changes for the healthier. Weight loss, in our culture, means health, and you have to get down pretty low before someone will think you’ve gone too far.
Now that I know how to recognize the symptoms of anorexia, on the other hand, I know they were already starting to creep into my life. Over the next several years, they just grew and grew and grew.
- My period stopped in January of my freshman year. I didn’t just miss one or two. It stopped entirely. And besides two fluke months about a year apart my junior and senior years, I didn’t get it back until a couple of months ago. As a result of those five years of amenorrhea, I now have osteopenia and am at high risk for osteoporosis and bone fracture.
- I stopped honoring my hunger. I didn’t like to eat anything between meals, if I could help it, and I often wouldn’t eat until I was extremely uncomfortable. I learned to take pride and pleasure in that so-hungry-I’m nauseous feeling, and felt guilty if I ate before I got to that point.
- I got cold very easily. When I shook hands with someone or went dancing, they often remarked on how cold my hands were.
- The gym became my way of life. No matter how much homework I had to get done, I did what I could to make it to step aerobics at least twice, if not three times a week. Which is not necessarily excessive exercise. Not by the standards of many folks who develop exercise bulimia. But knowing my own state of mind, I know that my thought patterns were not healthy. I wanted to always be exhausted, always pushed to the absolute limit. If I had to miss exercise, even for a week, I felt confident that I was going to gain weight. And one of the things I liked about it was how damn hungry it made me feel, and how that hunger, to me, was a sign of my accomplishment.
- I gradually grew more and more anxious about social gatherings involving food, like potlucks, going out for ice cream, holidays, etc.
- I started reading all of the nutrition facts on everything and became hyper-aware of calories. I considered a 400-calorie meal to be a pretty big meal (certainly too much for breakfast or lunch), and when I did snack, I tried to keep to 100 calories. Which meant I was operating on well under 2000 calories a day for years, with regular, intense exercise. No wonder I lost my period.
- I thought about food constantly. I had all my meals planned out, days in advance.
- Unplanned food made me anxious.
- I stopped enjoying things because I couldn’t focus on them, thinking instead about food. This was definitely the case for me when I studied abroad in England and Scotland. It would have been a fantastic trip, but my thoughts were constantly occupied with what I was going to eat, to such an extreme that I felt like I didn’t really enjoy the trip at all. I felt like I was losing myself to food. Was I skinny? No. I actually gained weight on that trip. But I lived to eat. And in retrospect, that’s a sign that I wasn’t eating enough, and hadn’t been eating enough for a while.
- And 10–to me this one is the most telling–I started to associate my body with my identity. My physique became a symbol of the new, “college/adult” Joyce I had become, and I was often fantasizing about people from my teenage years seeing me and being stunned by how I had changed, taken control of my life, grown up. And for that reason, I believed, I had to keep the weight off. If I could lose even more, all the better.
All those years I thought I was healthy. My friends and family thought I was healthy.
Was I anorexic? Arguably not. I ate regularly: carbs, proteins, fats, fruits and vegetables, even dessert. My BMI was supposedly “ideal,” whatever the Hell that means. I weighed myself, but not every day, or even every week. I was athletic, healthy, strong, and good student…and in many ways, quite happy.But I had disordered eating. It seemed harmless at first, but before I turned 22, it had taken over my life.
So where does my story begin? Was there a sudden turning point, a day when I woke up and was suddenly anorexic? No. It was a gradual progression, from something that seemed to make my life better, that seemed to others to make me better, but added up to years of misery. Sorry if that’s dramatic…but it did.
Have you ever struggled with disordered eating? Where did your story begin? Was it a sudden change, or a gradual progression?
Have you ever made a change in your life that seemed like a good thing at first, but turned out to be a terrible decision?