“You’re so strong! You inspire me.” From a young age, I was told these words. They followed me to the grocery store, school, the track, and the gym.
Strong was what I was supposed to be when I ate breakfast or went for a walk. I existed to exemplify “human perseverance” to those around me. I had to smile—to radiate positivity and pure joy no matter what I was feeling. If not, I would be disabled and unpleasant.
Able-bodies like it when disabled people exercise because if a disabled person can run or lift weight, there is no fathomable reason why an able-bodied person cannot. Any time I stepped into a gym, people would exclaim, “Seeing you here motivates me! You work so hard.” Even after two hours of exercise left my body limp, people would praise me. I was strong. I was positive. I was exactly how I was supposed to be.
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was “strong” for never bringing it up or complaining. I was “strong” for going to school and graduating. I was “strong” for going away to college. I was an example for everyone else; everyone ought to follow my lead.
Instead, I devoted my time to becoming weak. I ate as little as possible, stayed up all hours of the night, and tested my body’s limits with less than a glass of water a day. Of course, I did not consciously realize that I was weakening my body and mind in order to rebel against society’s expectations for me, and that was not the “cause” of my eating disorder, yet it contributed to my emotional instability.
Within a few weeks, my floor was covered in clumps of dry, gray-blonde hair despite being vacuumed incessantly. The skin of my hands became scaly and would peel off if I spent more than 15 minutes outside. My stomach growled until I could not distinguish the pangs of hunger from nausea. My muscles cramped every time I sat down, and if I sat for too long, my legs would go numb. My voice became hoarse from forced vomiting, and my fingers were decorated with teeth marks. My vision blurred, and my head felt light.
After six weeks of eating disorder treatment and nearly another full semester of school, I still struggle with finding strength. I tend to be strong for the sake of pleasing others instead of being strong for myself. I forget that even the strongest people need rest, an outlet for their emotions, and fuel in the form of food and water. This, I have learned, is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that I am still learning.
The number flashed on the screen and my self-confidence shrank immediately. It was Christmas break freshman year of college and I was interested to see how the holiday eating and my first homecoming of the semester was affecting my body, apparently not so well.
I was at the heaviest weight of my life, only 5 pounds more than normal, but I felt like the elephant in the room. “I’m a freshman in college,” I irrationally thought to myself, “its time for me to act like the grown up I am and take charge of my body.”
As I returned to school spring semester, my resolution to diet was put into full force with the deadline of Spring Break racing toward me. There would be bikinis, there would be pictures and there would be judging, I needed to be ready. I downloaded apps on my phone to document my daily calorie intake and I signed up for local 5k races as motivation to get fit. I was conscious about the food I was eating and intent about maintaining a steady exercise plan in order to melt of the fat that clung to my belly.
After playing squash with my friends one night I entered the women’s locker room at Ramsey and noticed that there was a scale, so I hopped on out of curiosity and I was pleased with the result. The evidence of a lower number revealed that my tactics were working and that if I continued with my efforts, than I would achieve spring break glory.
Once Spring Break arrived I spent half the week with my out of state family who I had not seen since my heavier days of Christmas and they all congratulated my seemingly healthier figure. After meeting my family at the airport we went out to a restaurant to eat lunch, where there were no calorie counts on the menu. I was slightly distressed by not knowing the exact content of what I was consuming, but I let it slide because it was only one meal right?
My routine was thrown off, but I maintained a calm composure. That night in bed I woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. My heart was racing, my frustration was peaking and tears filled my eyes. “Is this the end of my diet? I just ate so many calories! Will I be fat again by tomorrow?” These thoughts flooded my mind as I wrestled with sleep. “No I have worked too hard to get to where I am to let it all go. I’ll enjoy myself this week and I make up for it when I get back to UGA.”
Spring break freshman year was great, I enjoyed my family’s company for a few days, and then I met up with my friends at the beach and felt confident with my body’s improved look. Spring break glory accomplished…now what?
Once I returned to UGA I kept my promise to make up for my treacherous eating patterns of the previous week. I lowered my daily calorie intake and increased my workouts, but I never reestablished a diet deadline. With no goal in sight, my diet took on a whole new meaning. I wasn’t working out for fitness, I was working out to make up for the breakfast that I ate.
I wasn’t counting calories to meet my recommended daily value; I was counting calories to assure that I was eating less than even my diet required. From there, my habits worsened. Over the summer, when I returned home, I would flashback to the pounds that were added to me by my mom’s meals so I decided to cut my all of my portions in half.
A week before returning to UGA for sophomore year, my mom handed me a piece of paper with 10 symptoms of Eating Disorders and asked if I recognized any of them in myself. I was enraged with defensive anger and cried as I cursed her out of my room. I was shocked by my reaction because I barely ever cry, so it was apparent that my emotions were unmanageable.
I was elated to return to UGA fall semester sophomore year because I was thrilled with my sleeker appearance and I imagined that it could only get better. I bought a scale so that I could continue to check my progress on a daily or even hourly schedule. There was no stopping my new dieting hobby. Or so I thought.
I received the call from my parents that they were forcing my withdrawal from UGA so that I could enter an eating disorder treatment facility in Wisconsin. I broke down and cried for a week. I cried through telling my roommates that I would be leaving, not sure when or even if I would be returning. I cried through writing my withdrawal application to the university. And I cried through the assessment phone call with the treatment center as they concluded that I needed to be admitted to their inpatient hospital facility due to my “emaciation.”
When I was at my skinniest moments, I felt as though I was looking in a different mirror than everyone else, “no way can anyone think that this body is too skinny. Do they not see my belly poking out?” In fact, at that point it was literally my stomach poking through my skin, just as my ribs and hipbones did. By the time that I entered the facility on October 16, 2013, I had a BMI of 14.9, my EKG tests came back irregular due to malfunctions in my heart, I had night sweats due my body’s constant struggle to stay warm and my kidneys were close to failing.
I had started a diet to better my appearance and due to a multitude of teenage struggles rooted in low self esteem, including boys, media influence and a lacking sense of control, I had put my body through so much that it was ready to die.
I was put through such a physical and mental challenges that I sometimes look back on my recovery and marvel at the difficulties that I put myself through. One of my first mornings in treatment, I broke down crying because I was given a white bagel instead of the wheat one that I ordered. If that doesn’t show how low I was in my life, I don’t know what will.
Thankfully, with the phenomenal support of my family and friends I was able to return to a physically healthy state, along with a sound mental state, and on Christmas Eve I returned home with a new outlook on life.
Of course I still have my occasional struggles with body image and self-esteem, who doesn’t? But I vow to never treat myself in the same manner of 2013 ever again, because I value my life, and the lives of my loved ones too much to suffer through anymore avoidable pain.
During this time of year I am reminded of where I spent Thanksgiving of 2013, and I am thankful to be out of that disastrous stage of my life so that I can relish in my health and celebrate my life.