Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of disordered eating.
I couldn’t believe the three numbers before my eyes.
“1-3-9,” the scale read, and I got off and danced around — all six feet, two inches of me — a happy triumphant little jig in the apartment I shared with a lesbian couple in Park Slope (the cheapest room I could afford after getting divorced in Chicago and coming to Manhattan for a writing job at the New York Post).
139. 139. 139!
My goal had only been to keep my weight down to 155 pounds, and then when I saw that this was possible, 150 pounds, and then, always having been a competitive person: 145.
To think, the scale had been tipping toward 200 almost five years earlier. At the time, I didn’t feel at peace in anything: my clothes, my body or my grasp of what my metabolism had become as I morphed from never gaining a pound no matter what I ate because of my exceptional height to, suddenly, nothing fitting.
Stepping off my scale triumphantly and looking in the mirror at my thin frame, I thought of how impressed everyone seemed with my new look. It was like I was suddenly part of a sorority for the first time in my life. Kappa Kappa Skinny Chick.
“Divorce suits you, Mandy.”
“You’re looking great.”
I stepped closer to the mirror and swept my hair down across the sides of my face, trying to cover the cystic acne that had appeared all along my chin since my period had stopped a few months back.
I had heard this could happen.
It was annoying. Here, I finally had a body that seemed almost model-like, and now my face was the problem.
One of the many doctors that I sought out as I tried to figure out why I could not seem to get my period put it to me quite simply.
“You’re pre-anorexic,” he said. “That’s why it stopped.”
I was livid.
Frankly, I had a dangerous (for a hypochondriac) level of access to doctors at the time, having worked at a medical school for years before and profiled various physicians who indulged my various theories on why the end was now nigh for me personally.
After talking to one particularly close MD buddy, I composed this tight lipped with rage little email. When I look back and read it now, it breaks my heart:
I received the blood work results back. The endocrinologist said, “The pituitary hormones are low and the estrogen is low and the gonadal test is also abnormal which shows that the problem is stemming from the hypothalamus but this pattern is quite typical [for women who are pre-anorexic].”
He said that he was not going to order any more tests, which is pretty maddening as my body’s hormonal balance feels very much off-balance. I am having crying jags, my hair is falling out, and I very much want to get healthy and make sure that there is not a bigger problem that is going undetected.
One of my closest friends (who is an oncologist at Harvard) said that since I had a good rapport with you, the less doctors involved, the better. He said that you could order an MRI or other tests so to wait to get your opinion.
I would appreciate it if you had a minute to call me. Or if you want to wait until you get the results from the ultrasound that is scheduled for Tuesday, that is fine, too. Thank you.
Do you know what the letter should have said, if I was being honest?
“I’m scared. I don’t feel like I have anyone I can count on in my life so I’m trying to get reassurance from doctors instead. PS: I know an oncologist at Harvard.”
The ultrasound I mentioned in my email eventually revealed—according to the lab tech who decided to interpret it for me—that I was a classic case of PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. I read the majority of results on the Internet about this, until I finally met with the actual doctor, who told me that the tech actually had no business diagnosing, and that no, this wasn’t what was wrong with me either.
I was simply too skinny. Too skinny and too stressed.
Wisely, she did not indulge my demand for the MRI either. (I remember once convincing an immunologist to perform an entire battery of tests to rule out potential allergens because I had seen two barely noticeable little red bumps on my hands after doing the dishes... so I was pretty certain I had a severe latex allergy like the ones I had just read about in JAMA. Nope. Just too much Dawn Spring Scent was all.)
She instead reinforced the message that my eating was too restrictive (no carbs for dinner, and no eating after 6 p.m.), and it would be in my best interest to eat whatever I wanted instead of counting out broccoli rabe scraps every day at lunch like it was my job.
Furious again, I went straight to Sbarro and ordered a few slices, some breadsticks and dipping sauce. It was heaven. Angry and then pleasurable and then too full and ultimately self-hating heaven. This was a party. I also got ice cream. Then I went home, waited until my roommates were asleep and raided the refrigerator leftovers. Then I ate cereal. Three bowls. I felt sick.
My stomach ached the next morning, and I vowed not to eat all day. The same pattern emerged that evening, and the next. My period still didn’t return but all my skinny girl clothes started getting tighter and tighter until they didn’t fit at all.
Instead of reducing stress, my new obsession with gaining weight in order to restore my period did the exact opposite. Furthermore, disgusted at my inability to micromanage the entire healthcare establishment, like a cracked-out junkie looking for drugs, I desperately sought solutions beyond the (very obvious to everyone but me) fact that I simply needed to take care of myself and to nourish my soul. Because—that’s boring.
I spent $500 on an intuitive healer who prescribed overpriced vitamins that fascinatingly only she and her husband sold in a dirty little store along with some colloidal silver that I promptly Googled and discovered was not only dangerous but could also turn my skin blue. A South African hippie doc whose overpriced office overflowed with folk art and who signed his emails “One” told me, “You have looked everywhere for answers, but you have not looked within yourself.”
Alternating my quacks with the occasional legit medical practitioner, I eventually stumbled into the office of an Aetna-covered acupuncturist who had done a “Wellness Day” health fair at the Post, who listened to my nonsense patiently and respectfully, then proceeded to finally get my tightly wound body working again with regular needle treatments to stimulate circulation. Lo and behold, my period—after more than half a year of absence—finally returned.
Having avoided the scale all this time, when I faced it once again, the second digit had doubled. I now saw “162.” But I didn’t care. I didn’t even care that I hadn’t been able to kick the binge eating habit I had now developed as my secret nightly companion. I even tried out cognitive behavioral therapy where I was supposed to journal my food, but instead, the exercise made me feel more obsessive than ever.
Track my dinner? You’re not the boss of me. I’ll eat two instead.
Eventually, I confessed the binge eating to a psychiatrist who made the case for Zoloft. The last time I had been prescribed antidepressants in 2005, I threw them out after a Google search on why I shouldn’t take antidepressants. This time, I complied.
The obsessive thoughts actually did wane. While before I constantly felt like whatever thing I tried to not do had suddenly became the most overpowering desire in my life, there was now a softer edge to my thinking.
I even lost a few pounds, and when my doctor friend who had advised me the most during this time came to visit in New York, we went out for cookies and coffee in Little Italy. I told him about all the fractured pieces of my personality I felt I was trying to bring together by not engaging in such extreme behavior, and he was understanding and kind. There were two and a half cookies on our plate left, and he put one of them down and said, as if reminding a child, "I feel full."
I couldn't accept that I was now simply okay just because the binging had stopped. I again fell into an insatiable, addictive pattern of “spiritual” seeking. A private yoga lesson led me to a chiropractor whose sessions included things like magical removal of built-up anger that I had stored in my feet. This doctor told me I needed to get my weight to a "healthy level" and to clean out my blood. This meant: No alcohol, no meat, no dairy, no carbs, no sugar. Just for three months.
I did it, and I saw myself consistently hitting the 150s again, weight-wise.
One trip to Brazil and several times of being told how I wasn’t fun anymore led me back to sugar and booze.
Only, I never felt full. Ever.
Becoming single again combined with record levels of partying and personal disregard for my own health and safety began to take a toll on my body.
I was 171 pounds, and this was, obviously, a perfectly healthy number (the only weight that really wasn’t was when I was down in the anorexia range), but I soaked up my hangovers with McDonald’s and I used cigarettes to curb appetites and stress.
I was on what I would call the Hitting Your Bottom Diet.
It was mid-way through the year that I stopped drinking.
I rediscovered food.
I was now up to 185 pounds.
However, I couldn't help notice that I looked so much healthier than when I was skinnier the year before, which blurred together like one long night, hung over and depressed, with a trail of 3 a.m. onion rings leading from the bed to the trash can on one too many mornings.
At this point, I started to see the fleshy parts of my arms return to the point where a guy I dated once told me I needed to get in shape using some exercises he was going to teach me.
But I was happier.
Tipping the scale at 190 pounds, I embraced the fact that alcohol at least accounted for none of that weight for the first time in my life.
Single and trying to wean back down into the 170s weight wise, I fell back into using cigarettes on and off again as appetite control.
One guy I dated who I told I had just stopped cigarettes sized me up and said, “Oh that’s great. So some of the weight is just from quitting smoking and you’ll be able to lose that.”
Another helpfully chopped up jalapeño peppers and told me they were good to snack on for weight loss.
I got down to 165 pounds and I realized that the less I dated, the less I cared what guys said to me when I was naked.
Also, did I really want to date a guy who would criticize how I looked naked?
In terms of stress, this year felt like a return to the good old days of recently-divorced levels of anxiety. With every area of my life including work, family and friends in drastic flux, I felt like a hamster on a wheel, and my diet absolutely reflected this. A bag of double-stuffed Oreos? Great idea.
My go-to as-long-as-I-can-fit-into-that stretchy black dress stopped stretching. I was back up to 192 pounds. Of course, I knew (and I know) at 6’2”, this was perfectly acceptable. What wasn’t was the emotional eating and self hating that often accompanied the scale inching upward.
The progress: I recognized what was going on, and I now knew how to use a range of self-care tools to put myself (not my weight) first.
This has been the year I stopped using the scale at all.
Up until this story — and what clued me into the 50 pounds/10 years metric — I did have a general gauge on where I was at, but it wasn’t until I stepped on to see 189 pounds that I realized the benchmark I had precisely hit, weight and serenity wise.
When I'm honest with myself, I know that in another 10 years, there will be another metric, another change. But I love how the other barometer that has changed is the sizable (and seemingly endless) measures of which I can give myself self-love and acceptance.
Because a decade ago, it was completely starved out.