Hi, all. I’d like to tell you a story.
It’s a long story, so I’m going to tell it in parts.
So far on the blog, I’ve mostly talked about where I am now. And although where I am now is a complicated place, it’s also a pretty happy place, a place where I take care of myself, where I have a sense of purpose beyond food, exercise, and weight, where I can eat without obsessing and be obsessed about things besides eating, where I have hard days and unhealthy thoughts but I’ve learned how to make the right decisions even when I’m feeling low.
But I didn’t just magically arrive here. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, and sometimes it took me a long time to learn from them. But learn from them I did.
I’d like to tell the story of my journey with anorexia not because I think it’s anything out of the ordinary, not because I want to throw a pity party for myself, but because I want to understand what happened in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. Because I want to call out all the bullshit I’d been taught and offer a plea for the things I wish I had been taught. And if someone else could learn from my mistakes rather than having to learn the hard way herself, that’d be awesome, too.
It started with a scale.
One spring day my freshman year of college, I made the decision to weigh myself. Danger.
In high school, I had never weighed myself, but rather had always been weighed by a nurse or the gym teacher. And though I didn’t think so much about my weight or size, per se, I did (in the way of teenagers) think a lot about how other people my own age saw me. I figured they saw me as pretty damn weird: vocal and precocious in class but extremely uncomfortable in the presence of human males; I didn’t cuss; I knew little to nothing about popular music, television, or fashion; I wore long floral skirts and later, men’s jeans; and yeah, I was a bit pudgy.
Probably every teenager feels like they don’t fit in, but I’ve noticed they tend to respond in different ways. I responded by deciding that if I was going to be weird, damn it, I’d be weird. I pierced one ear, memorized “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and did my best to act like this was all an intentional act on my part.
But it was a pretty exhausting act, and it’s no surprise to me in retrospect that when I moved about five blocks up the hill from my high school to the University of Kansas, I began to let my guard down. I bought women’s jeans and t-shirts, real sneakers (my undergraduate shoes had been Velcro), started watching Glee (of all “popular” media!). I still had my quirks (because, I learned, everyone has their quirks), but I stopped so much trying to aggressively “be unique” in opposition to a world I felt I didn’t fit into and instead focused on making new friends, taking new classes and adjusting to the world of college life.
One of the hardest challenges of which was cooking. I was very excited about moving into a scholarship hall: one of the two oldest scholarship halls in the country, in fact. It was kind of like a sorority meets a co-op: very inexpensive to live there, we cleaned the house ourselves and shared a small kitchen with six or seven other women. Some of our meals were shared with our kitchenmates; many were on our own.
The on-our-own meals totally freaked me out at first. I had never had to think before about where my food was coming from; food had always been purchased and cooked by someone else, available when I needed it, and abundant! I was accustomed to going back for seconds on every meal. The biggest worry of my food life was whether or not a meal contained one of the foods I didn’t like, especially beans or grapes.
I’m trying to remember what I ate as a college freshman, and I honestly don’t remember a lot of specifics, except that I ate generally less than I had as a high school senior. A lot less. I remember some microwave packaged oatmeal, plenty of Chex cereal and raisin bran, eggs cooked in store-bought salsa, tuna sandwiches, and lots and lots of single-serve microwave meals.
Final change in my habits freshman year of college: I started going to the gym. At first just yoga, and then step aerobics. I think I may wrap it up for this post and save the story of my relationship with exercise for the next installment, but suffice it to say that I was motivated, at the time, the health benefits of exercise. (Of which there are many!)
So my life changed, my circumstances changed, I was eating a lot less and exercising a fair amount more, and one day–I don’t remember why–I decided to step on the scale at the gym. I shouldn’t have been a surprise that my weight had dropped significantly, but I was.
Pleasantly surprised. A possibility opened up to me: the possibility that I could be a slender young woman. Not only slender, but a lot of other things I had never thought possible: that I didn’t have to use my body as a way of defying the world, but that I could instead fit in, be “normal,” maybe even a bit attractive. That was a fascinating possibility; I had always been so sure I was very unattractive. I remember I got in the sauna and smiled and smiled, so pleased with what this unexpected weight loss could mean, a new future opening up.Did I suddenly have an eating disorder, starting that moment? No, of course not: it would take me years to reach the point of clinical anorexia. But it was a shift, a moment at which a thought introduced itself to me that, though thrilling at the time, did tremendous damage in the long run: that I could be skinny.
Thanks to Amanda for the Thinking Out Loud linkup!