[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person's mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
Memories with my eating disorder begin in a middle school cafeteria in southern Virginia. I gave away food from my lunch until I didn’t have anything left. The anxiety of other people watching me eat and the paranoia of being judged for my food choices started to overcome me until eventually, I would spend the lunch hour in the bathroom.
Soon after, I began taking diet pills, restricting my eating, and giving up more of the foods I used to love. I didn’t know it yet, but this was the beginning of my journey with anorexia. My anorexia faded to the background when bulimia came into my life in college. Both disorders existed alongside each other, one to complement the other, but bulimia quickly became my greater love. My roommate taught me how to induce vomiting when I got too drunk, and after a few tries, I was a natural. A year later, I was purging every meal. Soon, my hair began to fall out and I was spitting up blood. I was light-headed, pale-skinned, and underweight, but it wasn’t enough. When you have an eating disorder, it’s never enough. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) estimates that at least 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder; it’s difficult to know the exact number, though, because it’s an incredibly private disease. When I was at my most ill, I refused to go out into the common area of my college apartment when anyone was there; I waited in my room, stomach empty and bladder full until everyone left or went to bed. I canceled plans, left parties early, and made excuses to be alone with my disease.
A common myth about eating disorders is that they’re just part of a phase or diet. “It’s just an eating disorder, it’s not that serious,” is a sentence I‘ve heard all too frequently. But it is that serious. So serious, in fact, that the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that the mortality rate due to eating disorders is the highest of any mental illness. I wish I could eat pizza and ice cream on a Saturday night and not hate myself when I’m done. I wish I didn’t compare my body to every other body I encounter, literally sizing myself up and always missing the mark. I wish I could stop killing myself to be thin, but I’m not always the one in control. Evening is when my day begins. Each night, I select an outfit for the next day based on how I feel about my body. If my midsection is my main concern, I set out loose-fitting jeans; if I’m extra self-conscious of my arms, I select a thick cardigan. It’s a rare occasion that I feel even remotely comfortable or attractive in any outfit, but I do the best I can. After I lie down for bed, my brain churns out a Rolodex of everything I consumed that day, and I am inevitably blanketed in shame. Why couldn’t I resist those cookies in the conference room at work? Did I have to order that wine with dinner? How many calories does it add when you swallow your gum? Somewhere around 2 a.m, my mind exhausts itself and I drift to sleep. In the morning, I stand in front of the mirror and lift up my shirt. This is the lightest I will be all day. I suck in my stomach and turn to the side. I grab a handful of skin and pull it away from myself, imagining myself thinner. I picture a flat tummy and cute belly button, taut skin with an olive glow. I get dressed in the still darkness of our bedroom and try not to look at my body—the folds in my stomach when I bend, the pinch of skin when I button my jeans. My husband is still asleep in our bed, unaware of my shameful daily ritual. He knows I am sick; he has sat with me after an anxiety attack sent me to the bathroom during Christmas dinner, rubbed my arm when I cried how I will never be good enough. He tells me every day that I am beautiful, and even though I need it, I never believe him.
Breakfast. This is the hardest meal because despite waking up hungry, I don’t want to let go of that feeling of lightness, of an empty stomach, of control. On several occasions, I have pulled my car over on the way to work to purge in a neighborhood or empty parking lot; I keep a stack of napkins and hand sanitizer in the glove compartment for this reason. When walking alone, I have even ducked behind a tree or parked car and left my breakfast in the dirt behind me. When my eating disorder beckons me to do something, it’s an overwhelming need to eliminate everything inside me, a panic I can’t ignore. The food sits heavy in the pit of my stomach like a pile of stones, a hard lump in the center of the body I have never accepted as my own. All day, I am either thinking about what I just ate or what I’m going to eat. I assess every situation I’m in based on what types of food will be there, where the bathroom is, and how easily I can purge. When I go to dinner with friends, I feel shame looking over the menu. It’s as though the others can read the desire for a cheese board and brownie sundae on my face, and I am instantly ashamed. Then there is the attempt to break away from the table and get to the bathroom unaccompanied. One the most horrifying phrases a bulimic will ever hear is, “Oh you’re going to the restroom? I have to go, too.” I pray for a single stall so I can be free of the anxiety of another patron or friend walking in. If someone accompanies me to the restroom, as women are ought to do, I burn with rage both at my friend and at my failure to execute my plan. Later, as everyone is leaving, I will lie and say I have to go again. My day ends as it began: lying in bed, visualizing the food in the pantry, and willing myself not to give in until I fall asleep. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for a full recovery, whatever that looks like. I’ve always thought of my eating disorder as an addiction, but instead of drugs or alcohol, my vice is food. I can’t escape the thing that is killing me because it’s also the thing that keeps me alive. I can’t simply stop eating and call myself “recovered.” I can’t smash every mirror so I’m not set off by my own reflection. I go to therapy every week and try to avoid trigger foods. I practice yoga to be more appreciative of my body and what it can do. I’ve even participated in walks to raise awareness about eating disorders, but this isn’t a disease with a cure. I fight every day to be better and stronger, to keep my disease from defining or consuming me like it once did. I find solace in friends who empathize because they've been where I am, and my husband who has never judged me and is a constant source of support. I have accepted that my disease is a part of me and I will keep surviving it; my old friendly foes anorexia and bulimia will be with me for the rest of my life, and I am ashamed to say I find a small comfort in that.
The "A Day With Mental Health" series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis. This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.