It Happened To Me: My Sister And I Developed Anorexia At The Same Time
At some point in life, I gave up my weirdness. Instead I spent my time trying to trick everyone into believing that I wasn’t the girl who, for a week in seventh grade, carried a leather-bound, gold-trimmed copy of the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" and laughed maniacally whenever anyone asked her if it was the Bible. My sister, on the other hand, learned the ancient English runes used by Tolkien in "Lord of the Rings," and wore a copy of the Evenstar necklace to prom. She was my haven. We could speak exclusively in quotes from books and movies and had a legion of inside jokes rivaling "Arrested Development's." We talked about everything, from our crushes on Fruits Basket manga characters to our mutual hatred of our bodies.
I felt horrible because I wasn’t breathtakingly thin and fragile. I feared that this aesthetic transgression would make me become a disgusting burden on the health-care system. My sister’s body loathing, driven home by middle school teasing, was comprehensive and consistent. Clothes became our shield. Together, we adopted a series of “healthy lifestyle changes” (a diet in all but name. We started walking a mile each way to work out at the YWCA. We promised to keep each other honest.
When school started again, I was able to keep going to the gym. My sister, who played three instruments and was first in her sophomore class, was not. To spare my sister’s feelings, I started to go to the gym in secret. I also began to notice that she was watching me during meals.
On her birthday at the end of January, she was overwhelmed with homework for AP Chemistry, and overwhelmed with self-hatred because of the birthday cake she’d consumed. In a conversation that I should not have heard, she told our mom that I was the “paradigm of perfection” in everything from popularity to body to grades, and that she was shit. This eavesdropping marked my first descent into madness. I'd known my sister felt competitive (“Great, you got an 'A' on your AP test? That’s just one more thing I have to live up to”), but I hadn’t known the depths of it. Something in my head snapped.
Soon, we were in a race to starvation, carefully trying to restrict more than the other. I lived in fear of accidentally eating more than her. I calculated the calories of any missed opportunity to exercise and instances when my sister exercised and I did not. We still walked to the YMCA together, but I walked slightly ahead, worried that I’d give into the urge to rip her face off. To reassure myself that she was the sick one, I obsessively tracked all the symptoms of anorexia I noticed in my sister. The fact that I could check off every symptom for myself, too, didn’t register until I realized that I hadn’t flipped the page on my Hugh Jackman calendar in two months -- which wasn't like me. My libido was shot! Symptom #12 on WebMD.
I turned us both in the day after my senior prom. Our mom scheduled assessments for both of us at a Maudsley eating disorder center, where family treatment was the model. I went first, telling the intake person everything, all my insane thoughts and rituals, in a desperate attempt to prove that I had anorexia and needed someone to make it go away. My sister, on the other hand, went in ready to pass the "I’m not an anorexic test,” and emerged enraged that the doctor thought she was. We were admitted to the hospital together. I took comfort that my pulse was lower than my sister’s. She maintained that she did not have an eating disorder and weighed what she did because of self-control.
When we were released from the hospital, I refused to participate in the planned joint family-therapy session. My sister, who had been shouting at my parents for days, didn’t care. We had separate sessions. During her session, I could hear her screaming from the waiting room, comparing the act of my parents forcing her to gain weight to rape. After this, she communicated mainly through Post-it notes for several months.
Going through re-feeding caused me to amend my idea of hell, which had previously been “going through middle school again with wet socks.” Since one of the main principles of Maudsley was to gain the weight back as quickly as possible, my sister and I were on meal plans that eventually resulted in gaining back a quarter of our respective current body weights. I felt triggered to engage in ED behaviors by my sister’s mere presence, which was problematic since we shared a room and ate all of our meals together.
Our relationship sometimes felt like fellow prisoners' in a camp. We would commiserate on the exquisite awfulness of going through treatment, making buzzword bingo sheets that included the phrases “fake it ‘til you make it” and “you’ll just have to tolerate it.” We knew what the other was going through. Sometimes, our relationship was closer to that of two academics competing to be mentioned in a footnote. Occasionally, I was one of the people who “made her fat and ruined her life forever,” and she was the sister who just couldn’t deal with it.
Our relationship fluctuated like this for a year and a half. I scrapped my plans for college for two years; I was suffering from a depression that gave me the superpower to sleep fourteen hours a day. My sister, also extremely depressed, started bingeing, which caused her to start cutting, and, occasionally, purging. She would rant to me about how god-awful our parents were, how disgusting her body was, and how she just wanted to die. I would hesitantly share my shame over my suicidal ideations and my failure to go to college. This closeness was usually followed by me shutting down. My sister would also withdraw, afraid that she had shared too much that would make its way to our parents. I struggled to walk the line between trying to ensure my sister’s safety and protecting her trust. I was terrified that she would stop talking to me, making it impossible for me to stop her from killing herself.
Despite moving out in September, the deterioration of my level of functioning mirrored my sister’s. As I was researching inpatient facilities for depression, my sister was applying to 14 different colleges and engaging in record amounts of ED behaviors. A few days before I left for rehab, my sister told me that if she wasn’t allowed to go to college, she would either mutilate her long-despised face or kill herself. Once I estimated the frighteningly high likelihood of both scenarios, I told everyone everything.
I then proceeded to not speak to my sister for three months. Our relationship had turned into the kind of over-the-top mess only found in YA novels, and I needed to finish the goddamn book before everyone was killed by sexy dystopian vampires. I got a lot of my shit straightened out and, when I came back to my hometown in March, I found that my sister had too, seldom engaging in ED behaviors or cutting.
Since I’ve been back, our relationship has been tentative. We bond over our love for nerd culture, mainly in the form of binge-watching TV shows. We speak mainly in quotes from "Arrested Development." We try not to talk about anything deep, and anything that sounds like it could be about one of our bodies is taboo. Sometimes it feels like we’re playing the people we used to be in the relationship we used to have. For the most part, I’m OK with that. I’d rather have my sister in my life without it being excruciating, even if it's forced.