Remember this truth as you read her story. Someone you know is silently suffering. Or, perhaps, you are silently suffering.
You are not alone.
I love my friend all the more for sharing her heart-wrenching words with me and allowing me to share them with you. I respect her exponentially more for what she has battled, for what she has suffered.
Even though I am familiarly acquainted with mental illness, even though I personally suffer from chronic depression, I have never, ever, seen such a riveting expression of what mental illness is. It’s an illness, yet we never give the sufferer any credit for continuously battling their debilitating illness every femtosecond of the day. The woman who wrote this is incredibly strong, intelligent, beautiful, hardworking, humble, capable, kindhearted, sensible, competent and wise. She is trustworthy and honest.
And she is brave. Brave. Incredibly so.
I do not think any less of her.
I love her all the more.
You are not alone.
Tell my love to wreck it allI have spent the last 30 years of my life trying not to be like my father. I have excelled academically. I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa my junior year of college and graduated first in my undergraduate class. I went on to grad school to earn a Ph.D. I’ve never done drugs; I didn’t have my first alcoholic beverage until I was 24. I go to mass every Sunday and pray for guidance and forgiveness. I now work at one of the oldest, most prestigious law firms in the country. One could argue that I am successful, productive member of society.
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
-Skinny Love, Bon Iver
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
-Skinny Love, Bon Iver
My father, on the other hand, balked at college, dropped out of graduate school, and quit his job as a high school teacher after only one week. He skipped out on my mother less than a year after my sister was born, less than 24 months after I was born. He emptied their joint savings account and decided get high every day for the next five years.
After the money was gone, he lived on the street, begging for spare change to buy drugs, alcohol, food, coffee, cigarettes, and, ever so often, a book. When I was 10, my father was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. The psychiatrist said that the symptoms would have started around the time he and my mother were married, maybe slightly before. My mother emphatically denies this diagnosis; she claims she would have known. You can’t convince her otherwise…believe me, I’ve tried.
My father (though only 61) now lives in a nursing home. He spends his days reading Irish poetry, trying to find “deep” connections in the works of writers like Joyce, Tolkien, and E.B. White, and writing his own poetry, like his “Elegy to Michael Jackson”, in black crayon and on scraps of paper, discarded by other patients. He has grandiose delusions that he is Keats reincarnate. By all reasonable standards of today’s society, my father is just about as unsuccessful and unproductive as one can get.
But for all the ways in which I have distinguished myself from my father, to my chagrin, there are many ways in which we are very much alike, proving, at least, there must be a genetic connection between the two of us. Like him, I am a voracious reader. My mom likes to say that I devour books, sometimes reading 500 pages in a single sitting…enthralled in a fictional world, where people really do get their happy endings. I also possess excellent writing skills. But, I am a technical writer: precise, scientific, to the point. I do not flourish or expound. I do not write elegies to dead pop stars. Regardless of talents I have, I am humble to a fault, so as not to appear as though I have grandiose visions of myself and my abilities.
But, perhaps, the way in which my father and I are most alike is that I too suffer from an affliction of the mind, a mental disorder. While his disorder manifests itself in paranoia, delusions, and visions of self-importance, mine manifests itself in the physical, shrinking me to ever-smaller proportions of body, mind, and soul.
And, it is because of our similarity that my biggest fear of all is that I will one day become like my father: living in a home, reliant on others to take care of me, reveling in the “what-could-have-been”, a ward of the state. So, I work my ass off to prove that my disease, my anorexia, my “skinny love” does not define me as a person, a student, or an employee. Instead it is when I am alone, in the quiet depths of my apartment, my office after hours, at the gym, in the bathroom, and on my way to (or from) work that I become the 30-year-old anorexic who can’t figure out life and who wants to disappear because the way she sees it, she is an annoying, burdensome person, who just seems to get in everyone’s way.
I will not pretend that I am an expert in the field of eating disorders because I am not. What I am is an expert in me. I know where the so-called trained professionals have gone wrong when it comes to helping me. I know why I have a panic attack every time I have to go to a doctor’s office. I know why I keep people at a distance and why I don’t trust anyone, including members of my own family. And I know why I cry myself to sleep nearly every night out of fear and hatred of myself and my life.
Eating disorders are misunderstood diseases that, quite unfortunately, have plagued modern society. Many people that believe eating disorders are really a glorified version of Munchausen syndrome, in which the person wants to be sick, wants the attention, wants the hospitalization…and really could get better if she (or he) wanted. Others believe that eating disorders are addictions; sufferers just need to break their habitual vomiting, restricting, exercising, binging, etc., all of which induce some form of a high. Lastly, others take eating disorders at their face value: a control thing, a weight thing, a food thing, a vanity thing; a disorder for little bitches who only care about themselves and not about the family and friends affected by their selfish behavior.
Maybe some of these things are true, for some sufferers. But the reality is, most chronic, long-term sufferers, like myself, don’t talk about our disease. Instead, we hide, in fear of the critical eyes of people who choose not to understand that eating disorders are a disease that, like any other, erodes the sufferer’s well-being both physically and mentally. We remember ex-friends, ex-lovers, ex-people in our lives, who shunned us for a disease that has gnarled our sense of self. Don’t get me wrong, eating disorders are painstakingly difficult for family, friends, and anyone else in that person’s life. However, the painstaking difficulty of the disease itself is the sole burden of the sufferer herself or himself, further complicated by the havoc it wreaks on people we love.
If I were to meet you at a party or in the office and the topic of my health or my slight weight came up, I would say: In high school, I was very sick. I was in the hospital. I was diagnosed with a heart condition. I lost a lot of weight. Most likely, you would empathize with this because it is easy to understand and acceptable. It’s also a story that makes medical sense; people with heart conditions can lose a lot of weight. And, let’s face it, no normal person criticizes or faults someone with a heart condition.
The version that I tell people is not riddled with falsehood. I do have a heart condition, a severe one that causes edema in my legs, ankles, and feet. I take a high dosage of Lasix every day to relieve the swelling and bring my lower extremities back to normal. And, I can tell you, Lasix typically is prescribed to only the most severe heart patients because it can severely damage your kidneys. This version of the quasi-truth is incomplete; it fails to give important details and it garbles the sequence of events. It implies that a diseased heart was the cause of illness and resulted in weight loss. When, to the contrary, it was my weight loss that caused my diseased heart. And, today, under this pervasive cloak of anonymity, I will tell you the truth about me and the evolution of my disease.
I could start my story at the point in my life where I realized that I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, a good enough daughter, granddaughter, sister, girlfriend; I just wasn’t enough. And, how, in the midst of it all, I decided to become just that: nothing. Instead I begin at the point where my disorder changed from an inconsequential teenage starvation diet, into full-blown anorexia nervosa…
Fifteen years ago, this August, I had a standoff with three chocolate chip cookies in the middle of my high school cafeteria. Perhaps if I had known at the time that this would be a defining moment in my life, a moment that would shape and control the next fifteen years, I would have put more stock in my decision. Unfortunately, teenagers are known for their impulsivity and not for their rationality; I was no different. So, I chose to buy a bottle of water, not the three cookies, and called it lunch…and I hit the point of no return.
It would be the first of many no calorie, liquid lunches — a feigned attempt at a meal for filling the empty void that physically existed in my stomach, and that figuratively existed in my soul. I would later learn that diet soda was better for controlling the rumbling, hunger pangs, for tricking stomach into thinking it was full.
By January I was hospitalized after passing out at a dance. I was placed in the adult psychiatric ward and not allowed to see my family. I was imprisoned; stuck with hospital staff who didn’t know the first thing about eating disorders, let alone how to treat them. I never saw a psychologist, psychiatrist, nutritionist, or any other support team that would be routine in eating disorder treatment. What they failed to see was the desperate cry of a teenage girl trapped in a world of self-abasement. Starvation is not the disease; it’s the goddamn symptom. These ignorant fools thought that the proper course of treatment was to get me to eat. I ate one very large meal in front of the very large nurse’s aide; AMEN, I was cured. They released me the next fucking day.
In the months subsequent to my release, I lost another 30 pounds; by June, I could fit in a child’s size 10. And, then over the summer, I lost more weight. Hell, at that point, I wasn’t on my death bed; I was in the depths of hell, being dragged deeper and deeper by the Satan that is anorexia nervosa. If you are one of the masses that thinks this disease is just about control, I can tell you that, after suffering for less than one year, I had no control over anything, including my bodily functions.
To this day, I am amazed I didn’t die that summer, but by some miracles of miracles, I put on just enough weight to pull through…
Over the next 10 years, there were periods where I gained and where I lost; fluctuating between a size 00 and a 0, an XXS and an XS. Some years I filled out my clothes more, some less. Some years I got my period, many more when I did not.
Then, when I was 25, I met a man whom I loved very, very much. In the moment he told me he loved me, I vowed to get better for him, for us, for our future. And I did…for a while. We moved in together, he asked me to marry him, and we made plans. I thought I was happy. However, things changed, our relationship changed, and he changed. For a year and a half, I lived through a world of physical and emotional abuse.
I became the stereotypical abused woman, saying things like “I can’t leave him”; “He really does love me”; “It’s my fault, really”. More than that, though, my entire recovery was tied up in him, in our relationship. Leaving him and our life meant I had nothing left. And whether he left or I left, once our relationship ceased to exist, so did my recovery. I just wasn’t enough for anyone, including an abusive asshole.
Almost on cure, after we split, I indeed retreated back into the disease that allows me to be small enough to be inconsequential to everyone else, including myself. My life is a tight rope act. More often than not, I fall off and into a world wrought with calorie-restricting, binge exercising, and hunger pangs…where I quietly plead with my insides, hoping my colleagues don’t hear my stomach growl.
I’m at a point now where I’m not sure I will ever completely recover. I will always walk this tight rope, trying to balance eating and not eating, healthy and not healthy, gaining and losing. The true irony of it all would be that in my efforts to not become my father, our greatest similarity may be what brings about my demise. Wally Lamb wrote: “I must pray for a merciful, not an ironic, god.” And, that’s what I do, every day, perhaps for the rest of my life.