Strawberry Milkshakes: Or, How to Recover from an Eating Disorder Pt.1
I’ve had five chocolate chip cookies today. The big ones, too. Homemade. I am sprawled on my bedroom’s grey carpeted floor. My lips are still sticky and beaded with sugar, and I have crumbs all over my face. I unbutton my jeans, which have recently become slightly-too-tight (again). I close my eyes and breathe.
I have had various iterations of an eating disorder since I was about ten. I remember my parents getting my brother and I a WiiFit for Christmas. In order to start playing, the WiiFit makes you create a character. You type in your height, then you stand on the game board and a built-in scale weighs you and calculates your BMI. My brother won the rock-paper-scissors match to try out the game first. His character on the screen jumped for joy when a green arrow placed him firmly within the ‘normal’ range. Then it was my turn. Suddenly, the Wii Fit wasn’t as fun anymore. My character looked dejected, looking down at her virtual belly, as a yellow arrow placed me in the ‘overweight’ range. From that moment on, I could feel the extra numbers on my body. I didn’t deserve to eat as much as everyone else. I felt like I must be an embarrassment to everyone. I wouldn’t have approval unless I earned it by getting back to a ‘normal’ weight. This was obviously not true, but it was what ten-year-old me believed. So, I started my first diet.
The Blood Type Diet is meant to match your blood type to the foods that were eaten by early humans at the time each blood type emerged. Because I am type O, it meant no sugar, no wheat, no dairy, no fruit. What kind of ten-year-old is on a diet where she can’t eat fruit? The thing is, the diet worked. At least at first. Probably because there aren’t that many sugar-free, wheat-free, dairy-free chocolate chip cookies. The feeling of safety at seeing my Wii character finally happy was incredible.
Then, my family moved to Switzerland, and my diet was dropped with the transition to a new city, a new home, a new school. I gained back all the weight I had lost, and then some. I also wasn’t exercising (I never liked it). I was always aware, though. Always wearing numbers like extra layers of clothing. The summer I turned thirteen, my grandparents hosted a birthday party for me. I could hear my family laughing outside, enjoying the summer evening as I sat in front of the mirror, looking at my stomach. I thought something that was was almost like it came from a different voice: ‘I wish I was anorexic’.
I am not saying I wished myself into an eating disorder. I already had one. But the moment you decide that your own starvation is something positive is the moment it crystallizes. It becomes insidious. Humans are not supposed to see hunger as valuable.
Research seems to suggest that anorexia is actually a biological mechanism that can be ‘triggered’ on a genetic level. Counter-intuitively, scientists think it is actually a survival mechanism. Turn off all hunger signals, increase urge to exercise, constantly think about eating. It is meant to encourage you to migrate because there is clearly no food here and you are starving. As time goes on, the mechanism encourages you to eat less and less food, because your body can’t waste energy stopping to digesting tiny amounts of food if an end to famine could be found by continuing to migrate elsewhere. The mechanism only ‘switches’ off when you stop moving and start eating again. Scientists also think that the disorder only consciously manifests as an extreme fear of weight gain, or obsession with thinness, because those are our current social priorities. In the Victorian period, accounts of anorexic girls often saw them mobilize ideas of religious purity, not body image, to justify their refusal to eat. At the base of it though, a mechanism that was intended to protect you is actually destroying you because it begins to work within a social group that values restrictive behaviors in the first place, and therefore never encourages you to stop moving and start eating until the situation is extreme.
School started again and I signed up to dance classes. I danced for an hour every day. I got into ‘healthy eating’, stopped snacking, and baked low-fat cookies that I never ate. This wasn’t like any of the diets I had previously been on. It had a force of its own. I never felt hungry, I had so much energy, but I thought about food all the time. My weight started dropping more, and faster than it ever had. I went on Easter holidays. I kept dancing and not snacking and eating less than those around me but not so little that it would concern them. In June, I stepped on the WiiFit scale and my character, which had for months been well within ‘normal’ and very, very happy about it, stopped. She became dizzy and fainted on screen with a dramatic and cartoonish crash. That was the first time the arrow ever put me in the ‘underweight’ range. This time, I was happy I wasn’t ‘normal’. For my fourteenth birthday, I asked my mom to bake me a fat-free cake. I still didn’t eat any.
By the end of summer, I was only eating watermelon. I was cold all the time. My head ached. My mom took me to the doctor, who weighed me and said if I didn’t gain at least two pounds by next week, I would be hospitalized. I cried in the car on the way home. My parents were wonderful and found me a therapist. They stayed next to me at the dinner table to make sure I finished my food even if it took hours. I slowly started gaining weight. I got my period for the first time at nearly fifteen. I was ‘normal’ again, it seemed.