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Anorexia: Learning From The Past
May one person's past help another person's future.
Every parent has encountered moments in their parenting lives when their children do something that reminds them of their own childhood. On most occasions, these antics are humorous as we parents are reminded of our own youthful mischief. Sometimes, however, the haunting is much more serious.
I was shocked when my daughter – a gorgeous 11-year old with charisma, natural beauty and an amazing intelligence – refused dinner one night. I thought perhaps she felt ill, so I did the mom thing and tried my deductive reasoning tactics. My daughter finally looked at me and simply said, “I need to lose weight. I have a belly. I am fat and I hate it.”
Until then, my daughter was a person with a very positive self-image. It broke my heart to hear the disgust in her voice. I became concerned. My daughter has absolutely no idea that I fought anorexia for ten years. I have never talked about it and for all I know she doesn’t even know what anorexia is. After healing from that time in my life, I believed I had successfully closed that painful chapter in the history of my youth. It took me a moment to gather myself. I was caught off guard by the fear that flooded me. My precious, perfect and beautiful daughter was taking a first step in a disastrous direction.
I hugged my daughter for several moments and then asked her why she was unhappy with her body. She told me that for a few weeks two girls at school made fun of her on a daily basis, and that she was tired of it. We had a long talk. I told her, “Baby, I wish someone had sat down with me around age twelve and said, “Sarah, your body is getting ready to go through puberty, and it is going to make some crazy changes. Things which aren’t supposed to puff up will, and things that should puff up may not…(this made her giggle, especially since I have always been flat-chested) and you cannot even begin to decide what your body will look like until you reach about 18 or 19.” If someone had said that to me, I would have spent a LOT less time worrying about how I looked and a lot more time focusing on the things I enjoyed.” My daughter and I snuggled on her bed and talked about lots of things – girls, bullies, friends and even puberty. As I kissed her goodnight and left her room, I felt better, but not great.
I was now left to deal with some feelings I had not felt in a very long time. I became anorexic at age 12 because I hated the changes my body started forcing on me. I also hated some of the bullying I experienced at school. I wanted to be unseen at school, so I believed the smaller I was the more invisible I would become. Moving to a new school compounded my confusing and stressful years of puberty, in addition to my parents' deteriorating marriage and an overwhelming sense of self-hatred.
I had a father who often reminded me how I could be better if I tried. In fact, my father had the most to do with my poor self-image; his incredibly demeaning method of “joking” with me about all of my flaws cemented my distorted perceptions of myself. My parents had problems in their marriage and I often watched my mother endure extreme physical abuse. It wasn’t until I went through counseling years later that I learned to cope with many things. It is true whoever said it: you do spend the second half of your life trying to deal with what happened during the first half.
Ages 13-14 were difficult enough, but my family’s big move to another state at age 15 pushed me over the edge. With anorexia, I could be in control. I learned that I could not control other people, but I could control myself. That sense of control was my security blanket. I had a whole system of rewards for good behavior (i.e. not eating). If I met my goal for the week, I bought a new CD for myself, or I created something artistic. I always kept a journal, and after years of lying hidden in a box, I read one the other day. One passage ended with “Oh – did great today. One banana.” I hid my eating disorder from my parents.
I truly believed that if I were thin enough, smart enough and pretty enough, my Dad would accept me. If I were all of those things, I myself would be happy. If I were all of those things I wouldn’t be picked on anymore. And yet there was a side of me that knew I was intelligent. I was an honor roll student. I knew I was talented. I won awards in many endeavors. I knew I was good…but other people can’t see your insides. People see the outside, so I remained in control.
The first time anyone confronted me about my weight was when I was 15. I had a terrible cold and my mom took me to see a family physician. The doctor was a woman. I remember she examined me and asked routine questions. She and I were alone in the examining room. After our business had been conducted, she paused and stared at me. I remember thinking she looked very serious. She said, “Eat. You are a beautiful girl. Eat. Start eating or I will be seeing you in the hospital. Do you hear me? Eat.”
I never mentioned the conversation to my mother. I was shocked. I was angry at first. I thought, “You don’t know me! Who are you to tell me what to do!” A few days later I worried about the prospect of a hospital stay. If I went to the hospital my parents would know about my “hobby”. I realized for the first time that I was in trouble. Until that day, it was my secret world. I weighed 89 pounds and every time I looked in the mirror I was disgusted with my body. I never considered it a diet and I never believed I was anorexic. I was in control until I realized I was out of control.
My senior year I weighed 90 pounds. I was obsessed. I couldn’t even see myself anymore – I know this because the girl I remember seeing in the mirror is not the beautiful young lady I now see in those yearbook pictures. I find myself saying, “I was beautiful! Why didn’t I know it?” I didn’t know it because I sincerely believed I was fat. Not just fat, per say, but ugly and undesirable. My mind had switched gears; I had trained myself to see the negative things. I wore metaphorical blinders when it came to my body. I didn’t even care what others thought anymore: I wanted to reach my own goals; achieve my own happiness.
My battle with anorexia had become personal and I didn’t know how to stop it. I had established years of a routine and it was comfortable for me. It was no longer about looking good in a swimsuit; most anorexic girls will never be caught in public in a bikini anyway because they hate the way they look. This was about being good enough. I wanted to be good enough – but for whom? Even that was now cloudy at best. For myself? Sure, but I started to question why. Two days after I graduated from high school, I moved out of my house and started college. I promised to become “healthy”.
Two years into college I weighed 96 pounds. I worked a full time job, took 17 hours of school and taught classes on the side. I never had time to eat. I was too busy or too tired or too something all the time. I was no better than I was at 13. I tried to eat healthy foods, but my stomach was tiny. I didn’t hold much. I took vitamins and tried to get extra sleep. I thought of ways to compensate for the absence of nutrition. Even now I don’t know how I did everything I did back then. It was crazy. I buried myself in work and school. My mom and dad divorced. My mom was in and out of the hospital because of her Lupus. I still had control in one area, though, and that made me believe I was somehow coping. I completely ignored my anorexia dismissing it as something that was no longer a serious issue.
The following year I crashed and burned. My body couldn’t take it anymore. I was 90 pounds and over scheduled. I no longer had a period. I was exhausted all the time. I kept a cold. I could never get warm enough. I was depressed. My grades dropped because my memory was shot. I didn’t date because I could never stay awake past 8. My control was at an end.
My first trip to the hospital was one cold night. Even though my mom was homeless at the time (it was a nasty divorce) I called her. I had nowhere to turn. My mom drove me to an older hospital downtown – an hour away. Neither of us had any health insurance. We had to go to the hospital where people went when they didn’t have coverage. I was hurting all over – my entire body, but it was my heart that was killing me. Every time my heart beat, it sent pain throughout my chest. I could feel every beat, and I tried to hold my breath to slow my pulse. I was scared. Mom and I sat in the corner, watching drug abusers and hookers come in for treatment. A homeless man watched me from across the aisle. I didn’t want to find out I was responsible for destroying my body and have it end in a place like that. I knew I needed help. After two hours of waiting and some tests, the doctor on duty informed me that I had a bad case of mitral valve prolapse, and that I was underweight. When I asked him what I could do for it, he chuckled and said, “No one ever died from mitral valve prolapse” and left the cubicle.
I dropped out of school. I got a better job. I started to eat. I didn’t eat a lot, but I was eating. I ate two times a day instead of once. I ate more than one thing at a time. Even though it took my body two more years to sort everything out, I was moving in a good direction and I knew it. I got some counseling at school and it was a godsend. My body, ravaged by malnourishment, suffered a barrage of ailments. My immune system was running on empty. My last serious bout of illness was mono. Although I was eating, I was 22 years old and weighed only 92 pounds. During my recovery I stayed with my mom. She set me up on a blind date and I decided to take it. That is when I met my husband. We saw each other every day after that, and I wanted more than ever to “get right”. At our wedding a year later, I weighed 103 and I was still eating. I made myself a promise and I have kept it to this day. I am healthy in every way.
My diligence in providing my children with a great home life and loving parents does not make my daughter immune to other negative influences. I do hope it will help her cope with the tough days ahead, when she is unsure of herself or when she makes her own mistakes. I strive to teach my kids how to have a good self-image and appreciate themselves for who they are as a whole, not just one part. I know we cannot protect them from everything. It is truly frustrating when two students in a classroom can damage ten years of positive work in a few weeks. Part of our experience is learning how to deal with those difficult people and diffuse their behavior.
There is a lesson in everything, and I am included in this one. Perhaps I should be honest with my daughter and share my story. As much as I would love to keep it in the past, maybe she can learn from my mistakes. She came to me last night. She told me that she wondered what those girls would look like after they went through puberty. She told me they already wear bras and have their hair highlighted…that they go get their nails done… She scoffed and then she said to me, “Mom, we’re just kids. And we’re supposed to be kids, not grown-ups. And that is exactly what I told them.”