You look like Frankenstein’s monster was the first thought I had after wrenching myself up from the toilet and appraising myself in the mirror. My long brown hair was fuzzy and clinging to the back of my neck, mascara and eyeliner smeared from the unstoppable tears that leaked from the corners of my eyes. In the heat of the summer, sweat streaked away the poorly applied concealer I’d hastily slapped on my face. After 18 years of clean skin, college had adorned me with acne fantastically sprinkled across my cheeks, chin, and forehead like freckles, and I had no idea what to do about it. I was 19, a sophomore in college at a party with my older sister, and someone was banging on the door of the bathroom I’d commandeered. Flushing a toilet full of what looked like pureed salmon, I wiped my face and walked back out into the world I’d lost the ability to navigate.
I was a late bloomer according to most human benchmarks, which delayed my conceptions of body image and health until I was out in deep water. Heady with the first blush of freedom that college offered, I had taken to eating and drinking with no discretion whilst also beginning to critique my appearance for the first time. The results were disastrous as I found myself leaping into a college statistic: a young female with an eating disorder, which the darker parts of my mind reminded me I had not even achieved properly. The evidence of my failure came not only from my reflection in the mirror but in the merciless online text that defined the condition. At my current pace, I fell into the EDNOS category (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), not even worthy of the Bulimia title I coveted.
FOOD LURKED LIKE AN ENEMY NEVER TO BE VANQUISHED.
Though it had initially fallen in sync with either a night where the alcohol consumption or hormonally driven mood swings had peaked, by my senior year I was really starting to develop my disorder. Websites offered helpful tips on what was harder to expel, how to be discrete, and what to expect afterward. Like sharp, warped sea glass littered amongst the shells, I can pick each instance out of my college experience and remember how it felt, what toilet I was bowing to. The ‘you can’t, you can’t, you must, you shouldn’t, you will’ that rattled around my mind. The ache in my jaw from binging beforehand, the rapid heartbeat as my body began to anticipate what was coming. The anticipation, the excitement as I momentarily regained control over my body and forced it do something so antithetical to its nature. The disappointment when entire meals wouldn’t come up. The heartburn afterward, the feeling of my energy zapped from my legs. The knowledge that this would not make me appear like the beautiful waifs I dutifully idolized, that my cheeks would swell up, I would continue to binge, and I was only succeeding in hating myself and my body more.
My body. My body which could sprint and squat 225 pounds after one year of lifting. My body, which carried me to and from classes every day and up the side of mountains when I so desired. My body, the side of the card that everyone saw no matter how desperately I tried to hold it away from prying eyes. My body, the basis for which I was rejected by men I desired and was expanding to my great alarm. I had never been so disconnected from my body; nature’s most perfectly crafted mobile home.
YOU TAKE UP TOO MUCH SPACE, YOUR LEGS SHOULDN’T TOUCH AT THOSE POINTS, YOUR STOMACH IS APPALLING—CHRIST, YOUR HAIR, YOUR FACE, YOUR VOICE, YOU.
Food lurked like an enemy never to be vanquished. Hours in the dining hall with my male teammates were tests in self-discipline that I would always fail. Freshly baked desserts offered near sandwich and pasta stations were just one example of the temptations I couldn’t turn down. Surrounded by my svelte, muscular, sexually active male peers, I was a chunky tomboy, with hair I’d insisted my mother shave my junior year, and no prospects. The trials and tribulations of college remained a distant second to the constant play within the copulation arena, of which I was nearly always but a spectator. My close friendships with men meant I knew what they wanted and found attractive, which types of females could stir those primitive urges. Looking in the mirror, there was no trace of her within myself.
How was I to rebound? How is anyone supposed to? Life is an exciting opportunity which people, even like myself, born with so many advantages, can still find a way to twist into a painful brutality. Who would rather engage in the slow, methodical applications to reworking not only one’s evaluation of food and exercise, but most offensively, themselves? It is far easier (or was for me, anyway) to encourage others, to trash the system and rebuke the industry than to root out that little voice, a friend at that point, working incessantly. You take up too much space, your legs shouldn’t touch at those points, your stomach is appalling—Christ, your hair, your face, your voice, you. How had I turned into this shapeless blob with no curves and not even a hint of a rib to count? Based on that little voice I looked in the mirror and saw a misshapen disgrace, a hideous contrast to the ‘natural’ human form.
My junior year at college I approached a school counselor. Located above the gym that I went to on a daily basis to lift and train at, I snuck to the side door leading up to her office like a fugitive. Explaining the situation in an oversized sweater and athletic tights with my head still freshly shorn, I certainly did not have the appearance of the pitiful, slight, beautifully damaged female I had learned to want to become. Perhaps suspecting that I spoke of an issue I only wanted to have, she suggested that I consider going to the gym to do cardio more frequently. I’m sure my expression remained politely schooled, a mask of interest as she went on to advise I wear a rubber band on my wrist and snap it whenever I had the urge to engage in harmful behavior. Leaving at the end without scheduling a future appointment, I felt she had acknowledged what I already knew. I could never fully commit to any of the versions of the selves I had wanted to be. Whether it was the athlete, the smart girl, the funny girl, the girl boys wanted, the girl who didn’t need anybody—at all of these variations and more I had not succeeded. With this most recent conversation, I’d confirmed my failure even at being sick.
I HAD NEVER BEEN SO DISCONNECTED FROM MY BODY; NATURE’S MOST PERFECTLY CRAFTED MOBILE HOME.
This is not to say I was constantly searching for a way to escape and commit the next purge. I was heavily involved in and loved every aspect of Track and Field as I tried to keep my head above water in the veritable maelstrom I’d entered by choosing to major in Physics. Because I found great joy and humor in so many different facets of my life, it was nothing to brush off how deeply my sorrow descended after my mood had rebounded. Yet over time, it continued to befriend my subconscious, dropping hints and images for me to ponder over with increasing frequency until it finally consumed me.
In those moments, when the seduction outmaneuvered rational thinking, I would get to my knees with the care of a seasoned church practitioner taking to the pew—often with a sense of power so foreign that it made me giddy. At its height, the days of joy became more frequently eclipsed by something else. Stretches of my senior year felt like a long January filled with only the gray and cold. Weekly, there were hours of self-induced isolation where I was torn between fearing my friends would reach out to me and desperately hoping they would.
WHETHER IT WAS THE ATHLETE, THE SMART GIRL, THE FUNNY GIRL, THE GIRL BOYS WANTED, THE GIRL WHO DIDN’T NEED ANYBODY—AT ALL OF THESE VARIATIONS AND MORE I HAD NOT SUCCEEDED.
Today, at 23, I look back on those years with a mixture of self-disgust and surprise. That so many of us have allowed ourselves to become concerned with things of such a trivial nature is endlessly appalling, and yet I know that for at least three years, my sun rose and set by the number on the scale I was often too afraid to look at. Now, most days the thoughts never even cross my mind, and the pure joy of growing up, working for the first time, finding love, gaining freedoms—being alive—reigns dominant.
I ate lunch today and the past cracked an eye open. I guess it never really sleeps. It was not a healthy choice, but a decadent Friday splurge, and my heart started beating faster as I ate it. Knowing that I was going to eat the whole meal sent the same signals it would have over a year ago—the binge was onset, the purge was coming. Thoughts crept in the shadows, insisting I could find a toilet down on a different floor of the building where no one would recognize me. Surely, it wouldn’t be so bad after a year without doing it, would it? Surely, whatever damage was done to my esophageal lining, the back of my teeth, my metabolism, the countless intangibles within, they must have all healed by now?
Mustn't they have?
I sit back and try to observe the emotion, rather than indulging or resisting it, just as my daily guided mindfulness exercise suggests. Where do these feelings come from, and what was the trigger? Is it because a male co-worker just walked by, and I feel the urge to hide my food and make it seem like I exist via photosynthesis? Or, is it the way this pencil skirt is cutting into my stomach, making me feel as though it’s wrong to be soft and squishy? As I mull these over my heart rate settles, the bathroom becomes less alluring, and my regular activities recommence. It’s no longer an inescapable urge that I give my whole mind over to until my body performs the act. I can do this today, and every day after it. I dream of writing and traveling, of jumping out of planes and hiking amazing mountains. On the days where a harmless event stirs these murky waters, when the wave is swelling, gathering its force and planning to smash me onto the sand, I try to remember these aspirations, and duck dive instead.