“It’s hard to explain how I got so big. Born 6 weeks early, I was small right from the start and stayed that way throughout my childhood. I was always the youngest girl in my class and those few precious months of development my peers held over me meant I was always running to catch up to them – emotionally and physically. I had barely any appetite as a child and my pickiness meant my mother had a list of maybe 4 or 5 foods I was willing to eat, none of which were optimal for a growing little girl. Looking back, I think I must have always been hardwired for an eating disorder. My mom did her best but my refusal to eat was the immovable object to her unstoppable force.
I don’t remember many specific details about my childhood. My mother did her absolute best to make a happy life for her children, but my violently abusive alcoholic father seemed to do everything to undo her efforts. Life at home was like sitting gingerly atop a land-mine, hoping against hope that the pressure of my body would not be enough to trigger the explosive.
I did my best to make myself invisible. Part of that was spending large chunks of time at my mother’s mother’s house. Tutu, as she insisted we call her after she returned from a vacation in Hawaii, lived in an aging split level packed from floor to ceiling with her hoard. I have brief flashes of memories in which I wake before her and crawl and pick my way through dark paths under and beside teetering boxes of trash on my way to the kitchen to hunt for anything to eat. She was a binge eater, and would often pile me into her Volkswagen Vanagon for McDonald’s runs or to Dairy Queen to buy ice cream cakes. We would drive home and she would sit in her recliner chair nestled between towers of trash and tear into her food like a starving animal. After the binge was satisfied, she would maneuver her way into bed and sleep late. There was often no food in the fridge, bills and mail stored in the oven, empty boxes of sugary cereal stuffed in the pantry. One year, she stole my Halloween candy and ate it all in one sitting.
‘It’s your fault for forgetting it here in the first place. If you leave it here, it’s mine.’ Never mind that she had hidden it as soon as I walked through her door, that she hadn’t even attempted to return it to me when I left. It was there in her hoarded out nightmare house that food became entwined with chaos in my mind.
Later, in my freshman year of high school, conditions at home reached a fever pitch. My father was laid off again, Tutu had moved in after her weight and age meant she was prone to falling, and I became very sick. I remember coughing and a pain in my right side so sharp it felt like my ribs must have been trying to cut their way out. I remember trying my hardest to suppress that cough, barricaded with my little brother in my room, holding him back as the sounds of my father’s drunken rage filtered up from the kitchen downstairs. I remember Tutu suddenly turning cold and hateful to me, her explanation no more substantial than, ‘You’re old now. You aren’t cute and you have a bad attitude.’ I remember how all the attention she had once lavished on me was redirected to my little brother, how she would glare at me whenever I left my room, how the small living area she was given in our loft slowly began to clutter up with the makings of another hoard. The chaos was too much to bear. So I stopped eating. The world seemed to narrow into a manageable space again with the only question I needed to answer being: Will I eat? The answer was often no.
The starvation eventually resulted in dysmenorrhea: the loss of my period. It was then that my mom took me in to see my doctor, who diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa. Nothing was done to treat me, however, because my drunken father insisted that ‘only crazy people need shrinks. She’s not crazy, she’s just doing this for attention.’ His rage became more honed in on me after that doctor visit. He sat me down one night and slurred out that ‘you’d better stop with these dramatics, or else we’ll haul you off to the loony bin. You don’t want to be locked up with the REAL crazy people, do you?’ I don’t remember what I said, I don’t remember how I acted, but I do remember that his words didn’t cure me.
My mom helped in her quiet way. She’d make me protein shakes and barter with me, dangling out the opportunity to drive the car to school in exchange for a finished shake. I remember having to slurp down the last 1/3 of the shake as we approached the drop-off zone, how the berries she’d slip in would settle to the bottom and clog up the straw. But her efforts paid off and I was able to function a little better each week. Tutu moved out of our house after she realized her attempts to manipulate and abuse were less effective on my parents, and her absence was a relief to me. My father got another job and the drinking abated somewhat. Conditions calmed down enough that I felt the piano wire of anxiety inside my chest loosen a bit and give me back my appetite.
After high school, after college, I was married. My husband is my best friend. It’s hard to find the words that do justice to describe him and our relationship. He’s my heart, I am his. Ours is a quiet, enduring love and attempting to be wordy in its description feels disingenuous. It had much to endure in the months immediately following our wedding.
I was involved in an extremely traumatic car accident in which I had to be extracted by harness from a deep ravine filled with rushing muddy water. I was laid up for months facing nightmares in my sleep and flashbacks during the day. The lurch of weightlessness and powerlessness I experienced in the collision felt so much like my childhood in some indescribable way that I was greatly diminished by it. The only thing that seemed to dull that sensation was food. My adolescent loss of appetite was turned on its head: I couldn’t get full no matter how much I ate. And as the months and eventually years passed and the acute trauma faded into something duller, food remained the constant. I gained something like 100 pounds in those first 2 years and my attempts to lose it were never more than marginally successful.
We started our business. We adopted our dog. We bought our home. We traveled. Things were calm enough and, aside from my inability to stop overeating, things were good. Thing were so good, in fact, that we decided to grow our family. I became pregnant. Pregnancy was not easy for me and was made harder still by my excess weight. I didn’t enjoy feeling occupied, even as my excitement grew for the day I would meet my daughter. She was born in January of 2018 and was the most perfect thing I have ever seen. But I couldn’t shake the feeling like my body was existing in the aftermath of the birth and that I had lost autonomy over myself. Breastfeeding exacerbated that feeling, especially when we failed to get it right. My daughter would be crying and that feeling of powerlessness would return, this time accompanied by a bright and overwhelming rage at myself for being unable to soothe her, to control the situation, to control my emotions.
I stopped eating and the world shrank in the same way it had when I was 14. My house was cleaner, I was more energetic, I felt more patience with my daughter. But all of it came at the expense of my physical health. My weight plummeted, my hair fell out, and eventually my husband had to rush me to the ER when I lost consciousness after complaining of chest pain. I was okay and thankfully the problem was nothing more serious than dehydration. But it highlighted to me that I had more to lose this time around. I couldn’t feel apathetic about my own survival because I had my husband and my daughter to think about. I started therapy and began taking anti-depressants. My therapist helped me to see that starvation had been an effective tool for reasserting control over myself, but that it offered only short-term benefit while demanding long-term consequences. She laid out in explicit detail exactly what would happen to my body as it failed while I starved it. And then she helped me to cultivate new tools for coping with that feeling of loss of control. I was able to rein in my eating habits and begin losing weight at a manageable and healthful rate. I was able to find the courage to remove my father’s toxic presence from my life, as he had been a source of continuous misery for me even in adulthood.
And now that I am right in the middle of the ‘healthy’ BMI range for my height, I have been able to maintain my weight for the last 6 months. Sometimes I still feel that old urge to starve, or even to binge, but I have developed a healthy ability to cope with those emotions and identify that they often are accompanied by some external stressor about which I can communicate or find a solution. I am able to see that my life in the last decade has been pretty great overall, apart from a few bits of baggage, and I am proud to say that I have found in myself the strength and wisdom to set that baggage down and move forward into my future life ready and optimistic for what comes next.
My body size has never been anything more than an indicator of my perceived amount of control, but I can finally appreciate myself and enjoy wearing cute clothes and feeling more energetic and mobile. My brother once told me when we were younger that my superpower was ‘to endure, to keep going even when things get really bad.’ I am proud to say that I’ve traded that for something even better: I don’t have to endure anymore because now I can actively change my circumstances for the better and enjoy these years with the ones I love.”
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