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“Have you eaten anything today?”
“Are you fucking stupid?” The intake nurse paused briefly when I cursed at her for the second time; the first time had been when she stated that she thought (in her professional opinion) that I suffered from a “severe eating disorder.”
“No shit” I told her.
I hadn’t eaten that day. I hadn’t eaten that week. I hadn’t eaten much of anything for the last 5 years. I was 5’8”, 98 pounds, and 23 years old. And I was dying.
“You may have to get a feeding tube.”
“Fuck you.” I had resolved that being belligerent was going to get me somewhere. The nurse would kick me out of the hospital. I could go home and forget that this ever happened. I wouldn’t have to go down the hallway and join the miserable-looking girls in pajamas I saw wandering aimlessly. But I couldn’t. I was anorexic. And as much as I didn’t want to be there, I belonged there.
My eating disorder was caused by a lot of things. Genetic pre-disposition, trauma, abusive relationships, complete and total lack of any sort of healthy coping mechanisms, borderline personality disorder, repressed sexuality, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, bullying, general inability to just fucking deal with living my life. But everyone has a breaking point. Mine happened to be pleather pants.
Five years previously, my friends and I had gone to Hot Topic (it was 2000, don’t judge me) and a pair of pants didn’t fit right. That was all. Something in my brain snapped. And I just stopped. I stopped eating.
The flirtation with anorexia that I had cultivated for the majority of my childhood and high school years almost instantaneously turned into a full-on love affair. My eating disorder became everything. It was my best friend, my lover and my confidant. It became the only thing I could count on and the only thing I believed in.
I carved out time to spend with it. I checked us into hotel rooms so that we could be alone together. I ruined actual human relationships in favor of my eating disorder. I pushed people away. I lied. I stole. I became a pretty horrible person. In short, my eating disorder was an abusive, controlling bitch. And I loved her.
The remainders of my college years are one big blur of food, vomit, pills, exercise, self-injury and misery. Somehow, whether due to incompetent doctors or by virtue of my own stubbornness, I managed to stay out of the eating disorder unit. That’s not to say I wasn’t threatened with hospitalization. I was, often. But the thing about being over 18 when you decide to spiral down the hole of complete and total self-destruction is that nobody can legally force you to get out of it. Not if you’re smart.
And I was smart. I wanted to protect my affair at all costs. This included everything from plain, old-fashioned lying, to elaborate manipulations of my weight: water-loading (drinking literally GALLONS of water before being weighed), hiding rolls of coins in my socks, the works.
One time I actually stole my chart while I waited for the doctor and changed the weight the nurse had written down. OK, I did that, like, 26 times. But now I found myself curled in a pink vinyl chair (oh, how I would grow to loathe those pink vinyl chairs) facing a nurse who remained incredulously calm in the face of my rapidfire swearing.
Why? Why, after all these years, did I volunteer to go to the one place I had gone to such extreme lengths to avoid? Because if there’s one universal truth about eating disorders (and there aren’t many) it is that they are EXHAUSTING. And I was tired. I was tired of starving. I was tired of throwing up. I was tired of having bruises from my own bones. I was tired of being cold all the time and never sleeping.
And, at the time, the hospital felt like a better option than dying. I was, maybe, a few days away from a massive heart attack. My kidneys were all but shut down. My blood pressure was so low that the doctor had no idea how I was actually, physically, able to stand, let alone drive myself to the hospital. I was emaciated. I had a fucking tail. Guys, I HAD A FUCKING TAIL. I was so thin that my tailbone protruded inches away from my body. Cool? Maybe. Really hard to sit or sleep on? Yes. Scary? Definitely.
The nurse put a plastic bracelet on my wrist and told me I could go down to the lobby to get my suitcase, but that I had to take the elevator. I was no longer allowed to use stairs. Too much exercise.
I was admitted just in time for dinner. They placed a vegetarian burrito in front of me. I stared at it. For a brief moment, I panicked that I had forgotten how to use a fork. I was informed that I had 20 minutes to finish not only the entirety of this burrito, but a box of milk and a dessert as well. At 10 minutes left, I was terrified. I was shaking from fear at the sight of a frozen burrito. Some part of my brain recognized this as validation that I had made the correct choice in checking myself in.
I finished my meal with seconds to spare. I felt awful. I was told to go into the common room and sit, because we aren’t allowed to use the bathroom for an hour after a meal. Don’t fidget; fidgeting is exercise (I would come to learn that pretty much anything other than breathing was considered exercise).
I dejectedly sat on the couch. The girl next to me, a frail-looking blonde, touched my arm. It shocked me. It was the first time I became aware that there were other human beings in the room.
“I know it’s scary,” she whispered. “It’s going to be OK. I’m glad you’re here.”
As I started to eat again, my memories become clearer. That’s the thing about starvation; it kills brain cells. Most of what I have written about up to this point I culled from old journal entries and hazy memories. I don’t remember most of the years between 2000-2005. I had to research my own life to write an article about it.
Looking at some of these photos, I don’t even recall taking them. I don’t remember my own college graduation. My first memory, my first REALLY CLEAR memory, was eating an avocado as a snack. The way it tasted and felt. Re-learning what the sense of taste actually was. It was the first time I had actually tasted anything in years. That avocado is burned into my brain.
The 2 months I spent in-patient were some of the best times of my life. I say that with no hint of irony. I had fun. No, getting blood work done at 4 am every day wasn’t fun. Standing in line at 5 am in a paper dress to get weighed wasn’t fun. Having to count out loud while peeing so that the nurses know you aren’t throwing up isn’t fun.
But wheelchair races are fun (as long as you don’t get caught). Building mattress forts in the common room and filling them with farts, collapsing in giggles, is the best game ever. (Fun fact: Every patient on an eating disorder unit farts. Constantly. Everywhere. It’s a symptom of re-feeding. And it is HILARIOUS.) I laughed. I made friends. I didn’t have to wear anything but pajamas and slippers every day. I colored. I read books. I learned to knit. I wrote, a lot. I learned how to be a person again. The hospital was, ironically, the place where I felt the least sick.
After I was discharged, I spent another month in day-treatment (meaning I spent from 8am-5pm at the hospital, and spent the evenings at home). In the end, hospitalization took up 3 months of my life. It doesn’t seem like much, does it? But those 3 months changed everything.
I didn’t walk out of those doors for the last time fully cured. My weight would waver for another year, dropping to a dangerous (though not as dangerous) point again. But that time, I knew what to do. I sought help. I climbed back. I stayed out of the hospital. Not by being manipulative or “smart,” but by being self-aware and confident in my own ability to get better.
Because as much as my stay in the hospital was one of the best times of my life, I never want to have to go back.
It’s been 7 years since the hospital. I am still friends with some of the girls I was in treatment with. Some have gone back, some haven’t. Some are doctors. Some are mothers. And, sadly, some are dead.
Anorexia nearly took me out of this world, too. And I hate it for that. I’m left with an irregular heartbeat, bone density loss in my joints, and to this day I can’t take a shit correctly. But I’m alive, and I will be for a good while longer. I no longer have a tail. I have a job, I’m getting a Master’s Degree, and I’m generally a happy person.
I got better. There is no “pleather pants” moment for when I finally felt recovered. I can’t point you to one specific day or memory where everything just felt OK again. But it did. I replaced dying with living.
I still go back to the hospital as a guest speaker for awareness events sometimes. This past March, I was waiting to speak, sitting in that same common room, when a young woman sat next to me. She tucked her knees up to her chest and started crying silently. She was shaking. I reached over and touched her arm.
“I know it’s scary,” I whispered. “It’s going to be OK. I’m glad you’re here.”