I've been in recovery from an eating disorder for seven years. I'm only 18. I was diagnosed with anorexia at 11 years old, but my obsession with weight and self-image had started before I even entered middle school.
Numbers have always been an obsession of mine. First it was my weight, and then it was my GPA. No matter what the number was, it made me upset. My weight was never low enough, even when it dropped to just 55 pounds when I was eleven, and my GPA was never high enough. No matter how much I tried, I always felt that I came up short.
I began obsessing about my weight well before I had even gone through puberty. I remember the feeling of satisfaction I got from ordering a low-calorie smoothie instead of the regular kind. I was only in the fourth grade.
That was the same year that my mom found a crumpled piece of paper that had fallen out of my diary. On the paper, I had written that my thighs were soooo fat. She began to worry that I had a problem and even brought me to my pediatrician to discuss it. My doctor was oblivious. In retrospect, he probably thought I was too young to have developed an eating disorder.
Me (far right), in the midst of my eating disorder, with my brother and cousin.
The stress about entering middle school coupled with joining the cheerleading team helped kick my restrictive tendencies into high gear. I was a flyer on the cheerleading team (the one they throw up in the air) and all I could think about was keeping my weight down. A couple of the girls who lifted me complained that I was “too heavy,” when in reality I couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds. My doctor had recently told me to gain some weight.
What had started out as an effort to eat healthy and exercise regularly turned into extreme dieting. My food choices started getting narrower and narrower as I ate less and less. It got to the point where on a ski trip to Vermont, I went out all day skiing and only ate a lowfat yogurt for breakfast and a Luna bar for lunch. It was there that my mom’s friend (who had suffered from an eating disorder) told my mom that she thought I was restricting.
While I was initially angry, I felt a strange sense of relief. I knew that the dieting had gotten out of hand, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If only I could lose five more pounds, then I would stop, I told myself.
My parents struggled to find a team of doctors nearby that would treat a girl so young. Finally, a doctor diagnosed me with “severe anorexia.” I remember my mother crying when she heard those words, but to me, they were grossly satisfying. I had succeeded.
I ended up hating the team that treated me. The psychiatrist was a young guy with bulging eyes who drugged me up with a cocktail of antidepressants and antipsychotics. Every time I would go back he would increase my dose. Then, I would come home and crash, sleeping for the whole day. Desperate to get me to eat, my parents (at the recommendation of my doctors) resorted to feeding their 11-year-old daughter Ensure with a syringe.
After a couple of months, it was clear I wasn’t getting better (even though I had managed to gain some weight), so my parents checked me into the eating disorder unit at the Princeton University Hospital, the only one within a reasonable distance that would take me. Most treatment centers don’t take girls under 13, so it was difficult to find a place that would accept me, even though I desperately needed help.
When I walked into the eating disorder unit at the Princeton University Hospital, I quickly realized that I was one of the youngest girls there. Strangely, I walked onto the hospital floor with a bit of excitement. I had never been away from home before and here I was, surrounded by a floor of girls and would have my very own roommate. In a twisted way, it was like summer camp. Only at this camp we had daily weigh-ins and had to get our blood pressure checked.
I quickly made friends with the group, becoming what my doctors called a “social butterfly” despite being painfully shy back at home. The only problem was that underneath the chatting and TV-watching was the constant comparison. Scarily, I was actually one of the healthier patients at the hospital. My body image was so twisted that I would stare at the girls with IV tubes, desperately hoping to one day have their twig-like arms and prominent cheekbones.
At Princeton, I talked to a therapist, nutritionist, and psychiatrist regularly and was on a strict, calorie-dense meal plan. We had to sit for three meals a day and two snacks. We couldn’t leave the table until we finished everything on our plates. Girls would practice weird habits, which were dubbed “food rituals” by the doctors, which involved cutting food up really small or spreading it around their plates to look like they had eaten it. None of this would fly at Princeton.
They also had a very strict “No Exercise Policy” which we constantly tried to circumvent. I remember once being caught jogging in the shower and we were often scolded for jiggling our legs while waiting in line to get our vitals checked. Once, I was yelled at for bending over to check my toenail polish because the nurse said I was stretching, which of course, was considered exercise. Punishments for violations like these resulted in missed visits or phone calls.
Overall, the staff at Princeton was warm and caring and I honestly don’t think I would be here today if it wasn’t for my incredible team of specialists. I particularly adored my psychiatrist who always managed to make me laugh.
After four weeks of inpatient treatment, I was moved to outpatient. I stayed in a motel with my mom for a few weeks and would go to the hospital every day for therapy. This was a huge time commitment for my family and was highly disruptive to my nine-year-old brother. To this day, I feel guilty for the pain and upheaval I caused.
A couple of years ago, we were playing a trivia game at a dinner party and a question came up, “When in your life were you most scared?” My dad’s eyes teared up as he pointed to me, signifying my time in the hospital.
After I left Princeton, my mom continued to shuttle me to doctors’ appointments every week. I saw a therapist and nutritionist weekly and a (new) pediatrician every two weeks. I didn’t struggle with schoolwork, but it was more difficult than ever to socialize normally. I hadn’t been to school in so long and I became increasingly shy and reclusive. I told everyone that I'd had mono to explain my long absence. I was terrified they would discover my secret. I slinked around the halls, hoping to disappear.
Today, I am finally at a healthy weight, but I constantly worry that I’m not thin enough. I had gotten so used to being the skinniest girl in the room, that it’s hard to accept being closer to average and actually having some curves.
Me during my eating disorder, age 11.
I would be lying if I said that I am fully recovered, that I don't have hard days. Transitioning to college life and moving to a new city was much more difficult than I had imagined. I missed my family and my home, like any college freshman, but my way of coping involved exercising obsessively and watching what I ate. I ended up losing weight my first semester of college instead of gaining weight.
I was shocked when a few friends admitted to struggling with eating disorders in the past. I was finally able to talk openly about my past and didn’t feel like it was something I had to hide. Even if they didn’t have eating disorders, the overall culture at school seemed to be extremely weight-conscious. I’ve noticed that girls are constantly worrying and feeling guilty about what they eat, even if it’s something seemingly healthy. Women are under such scrutiny and put so much pressure on themselves to look a certain way that some level of disordered eating seems to be the norm.
After coming home from the hospital
Another difficult time for me was this summer. Moving back home, to the place where I struggled with my eating disorder for years, has brought up painful memories. The sense of isolation of living in a small town, coupled with having too much time alone with my own thoughts has left me worrying constantly about my weight.
In addition, I’ve been interning at an advertising agency and part of my job involves casting models for ad campaigns. Even though my internship overall has been a very positive experience, choosing and comparing models, who are 5’10 and weigh the same as me, certainly didn’t help my already negative self-image.
But while the negative thoughts are still there, I’ve ditched the dangerous behaviors that used to come with them. This isn’t to discourage anyone who’s going through the recovery process; I’ve come miles from where I used to be. I no longer add up the amount of calories in everything I consume or tally up the amount I burn when running on the treadmill. I’m no longer in a hospital. I don’t have to pee in a cup for the nurse to write down in a chart. I’m a college student and I live away from home. I want to remind anyone who is struggling that recovery is possible, but that it is difficult.
Seven years later, I still have hard days, but trust me, it gets easier.