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Old Secrets, Old Battles: My Journey Out of Anorexia

Yesterday a dear friend  from college asked me to write a piece for her cooking blog. She said that she was impressed by my writing, and she would love to see how I approach food writing because I was someone who was “very aware of the connections between food and psyche.”

For a second, my head swelled. My friend is one of the best writers that I’ve ever known whose gift for words and language is astounding, and I love getting compliments from her. But then I felt it, overshadowing my delight, a feeling in the pit of my stomach: shame. Oh, right, I thought. She knows. That. 

She was referring to a time in my life that only my closest, oldest friends know much about. I’ve never lied about it, but I don’t talk about it either. I tell myself it’s because it just doesn’t come up in conversations with anyone who has met me since I was in my early 20s, and that’s true. In fact, I’ve had entire dating relationships of more than a year without having a conversation about it. That person that I once was — this other Jessica, at age 18, 19, or 20 — was in many ways a different person. Decades have gone by, and this Jessica feels further and further away, like a tiny speck in the horizon that I have to squint to see. But she’s still there, and I’m ashamed — and a little afraid — of her.

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When I was 18, I became an anorexic. I was not a typical candidate for anorexia in some ways, a perfect candidate in other ways. I was strong, thin, healthy, and proud of my body. (I remember beaming when my high school ballet teacher told me that I had the perfect, strong dancer’s body.) I had a fast metabolism and was accustomed to eating anything that I wanted.

At girls boarding school, where I went for high school, eating disorders floated around in the air like a mysterious virus that some overachieving, anxious girls caught. Some girls ate like birds or didn’t eat at all. I had one friend who fainted in the shower regularly because she hadn’t eaten. Another girl whose shrinking into a skeleton could be watched day by day.

But mostly at that point I was puzzled. I didn’t know what to say to girls who talked about how obese they were when they didn’t have an ounce of fat on their entire bodies. I made it through this prep school world without changing my eating habits much or my own feelings about my body.

During orientation week at Wesleyan, I got a phone call from my family that changed my world. I’m not going to go into details, but my world was thrown into chaos. And I was alone and ashamed. I had never felt so utterly alone and confused. I couldn’t talk about my family’s crisis with my new college friends who barely knew me. I would sit in a phone booth far away from my dorm — yes, this was the early 1990s — and talk to my parents. Then I would sob.

Everything felt out of control, and I turned inward. I couldn’t change anything about what was going on in my family’s life — I was far away, powerless — and I wouldn’t talk about it. I would stay  in control, perfect, no mistakes, just like always.  Soon, I discovered that the structures and routines that I always put in place to make sense of my world were not enough. I still felt like my world was in chaos. So I became more rigid, more controlling. And then I discovered that there were two things that I could control completely: how much I ate and my weight. No one could have any input; this was mine.

I know that there have been countless books written about women’s relationship to food. I’m sure someone could have studied my case and made sense of it. I still don’t get it. Somehow over the years I had learned that it was socially acceptable — desirable even? — for women to be obsessed with food. When my world spun out of control, I turned to that obsession as a coping device. I became immersed in a world of counting calories, counting exercise minutes. Instead of thinking about uncomfortable things and resolving my own feelings about my family or myself, I thought about calories.

And I went on this way for a couple years. I worried my family, my friends. But I would admit nothing. I excelled at college, straight As. This was my mantra: nothing was wrong. Finally, the summer after my sophomore year, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was tired. I was weak. I weighed less than 100 pounds, having lost more than 30 pounds. And when my mom proposed that I should see starting “seeing someone,” I relented, finally admitting that I wasn’t “in control” anymore. It was the hardest decision of my life, but I let go. I wanted help.

It was a hard journey back to becoming “normal” again. But I did it. I had a lot of help, from books, from a therapist, from friends who listened to me cry and encouraged me day or night. During that summer of my sophomore year, late at night I made phone calls, sitting in the dark of the living room after my parents went to sleep. I confessed to my closest friends everything that I hadn’t told them. With each phone call, I was lighter and freer, and that lightness had nothing to do with the weight on a scale. By the end of the summer, I felt so wrapped in love and acceptance that I knew everything would be okay.

Within a few years, food became what it was before: a source of nourishment and joy.

Looking back on my early adult years, anorexia is the best thing that happened to me. I know that sounds crazy, and I wouldn’t wish that sort of pain on anyone. But for me it allowed me to become a better, freer, and less rigid version of myself. I opened up. I learned to let people in and give up control. I realized that it was okay that I wasn’t perfect. In fact, my lack of perfection made me a better friend, a calmer person, and it brought me a renewed sense of freedom and possibility.

But it’s still there, that shame, under my skin. I didn’t want to be known — still don’t — by a label, a quick shorthand for someone who has confronted mental illness. I wanted to be known as myself, not that girl who had anorexia, or the girl who once had an eating disorder.

But so much time has passed, and I realize that keeping silent isn’t good for anyone. How many times have I heard new friends obsess constantly about their bodies? Or young, beautiful girls in my classroom say that they’re fat? Or new moms who are so obsessed with losing baby weight that it takes away from the joy of their new baby? I want to say to them, “It’s not worth it. Trust me. It’s not worth losing any second of this precious life or your identity to worrying about an extra five or ten pounds. Don’t flirt with entering that prison of weight obsession and denial.” But I’ve always stayed silent, afraid to bring up my own long-ago battles.

I’ve always felt that weight is a Woman’s Issue, in that big, important sense. How many young women’s lives have been interrupted or their identities or dreams crushed because they get caught in a spiral of control and obsession?

Now maybe I’ll start speaking up.

Thanks to my FTSF hosts: Stephanie, Kristi, Janine, and Kate.


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  1. Considerer says:

    YES! Your voice is so important, if only so other people grappling with this struggle or similar ones, have a point of reference and an understanding of the ‘getting beyond’.

    Glad you answered this way, and glad you came through. Also glad you’re positive about how it helped to (pardon the pun) shape you as a person.
    Considerer recently posted…7 Quick Takes #47 x FTSFMy Profile

  2. Wow, Jessica. I think this is incredibly brave and also extremely wonderful and important. Having watched a co-worker’s daughter battle with anorexia for years was painful even from the sidelines (she did eventually find her way out of it after a hospital visit at 74 pounds and a 2-month treatment facility). I say thank you for sharing your voice. I also say thank you for reminding me today that the extra 8 pounds I am carrying around is not worth the time that I spend thinking about it. Thanks for that, too.
    Really excellent writing.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…It’s Just Skin.My Profile

  3. What a beautiful and elegant piece; it touched me. I’m so glad that you got help and that those feelings are far, far away from you now. Maybe writing about your experiences will make the feeling of shame you described, recede as well.
    Alabama Yankee recently posted…DMZ, AlabamaMy Profile

  4. Julie Burton says:

    Jessica, the word that kept popping into my head as I read your piece was “BRAVE.” I too, have often buried my “dirty little secret” of my battle with anorexia that occurred nearly 30 years ago, as I still hold onto a certain amount of shame about it. I am so moved by your honesty and your strength that allowed you to “come clean” with your story and share such important messages with others. Thank you so much for this, Jessica.
    Julie Burton recently posted…The Agonizing Necessity of Letting Your Child FailMy Profile

  5. Jessica, wow. Of course, I had no idea. I think it’s very interesting that both of our posts, though completely different, both share stories that we don’t necessarily “lie” about, but aren’t forthcoming about because of a buried sense of shame. Strange timing, that both of us finally felt like speaking (or writing) up about it. Thanks for such a brave post.
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. recently posted…On Choices and FreedomMy Profile

  6. Wow, I can’t say enough how brave you are to share this and thank you for all young girls out there that may read this. I myself never had issues with this, but did know someone that I was friends with who did and you described the controlling part of this perfectly. I had trouble understanding the motivation behind this back then when she was going through it, because I just always liked food way to much to not want to eat it, but the more she explained it to me, the more I could see where she was indeed coming from. Again, I thank you for having the courage to share and admit this here.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…The Hardest Choice I Ever Made & Those First Few Weeks of Blogging~FTSF #38 + October Daily #4My Profile

  7. Very brave and very important post. I have never dealt with an eating disorder, but I am very conscious and critical of my weight. I try really hard to be positive about it because I have three daughters. The oldest is only 11, yet all three have already referred to themselves as “fat” before. I think stories like yours are important so that young girls can see that they are beautiful and that a few extra pounds are not worth the pain. Again, I am amazed by the heavy topics in today’s FTSF.
    Lisa @ The Golden Spoons recently posted…The Road Not Taken . . .My Profile

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I, too, was anorexic and bulimic for 6 years (all teen years) but I have had the opposite reaction once I was past the illness – I am pretty open about it whenever it has come up, and just matter of fact. However, I have not told my two children (now teenagers, one girl, one boy). I almost did years ago but my husband asked me to refrain. I think he was right. There is a lot of fragility and vulnerability in the preteen/teen years and children are forming opinions of themselves, their parents and what is possible in very real terms. I will tell them someday but I have come to understand the illness in more scientific/psychological terms that I don’t feel that I need to hide it. I have found this matter of fact approach puts people’s guards down and they are able to ask questions and have a better understanding of the illness – and that health and normalcy are possible in the end! I admit to still having ‘control’ issues (subtle, I think) and would like to have more self-confidence but I see these flaws as war wounds and I am healthy and productive and living a good life! Carry on, Jessica! We are all the better for your sharing and your honestly and your beautiful writing!

  9. Wow, Jessica, thanks for sharing that with us. I see so many of my students (AP, hard workers, perfectionists) who begin to struggle with eating disorders in high school as a way to cope with a teenage life that seems to be out of control. You are so right in describing it as a way to feel control when everything else seems to be crumbling, because that is exactly what I see in my students that have dealt with this. And as a gymnastics coach, I also saw these problems. I appreciate your description of how it started, and how you were able to reach out for help before you became too sick. A great message for many young women.
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Multiple Universes and Shimmery RiversMy Profile

  10. Amy Graham says:

    I so appreciated this post, Jessica. We all have secret struggles–it amazes me how connecting it is to read other’s stories and share our own. For me, it’s kind of like, “Oh good–I’m not the only one who’s screwed up!” (I dealt with social anxiety in college and I felt like I was a NUTCASE.) I’m so glad you were able to overcome anorexia, and that you are able to have a happy, healthy life! There is so much more to life than our size!
    Amy Graham recently posted…A Cheapo’s Winter Survival GuideMy Profile

  11. Jessica says:

    This was very brave of you to share, and very important, as well. It’s hard to admit that you need help or to ask for it, but I am glad you did. I hope we can get to a point where mental illness is not brushed aside, and people won’t be afraid to get the help they need (and people will be more understanding about it). Wonderful post.

  12. Lisa says:

    This is incredibly brave of you to write. It is sickening to me how many girls and women are plagued with weight obsession and I would be lying if I said I haven’t grappled with it myself. Now, I just try to model healthy eating with my girls in the hopes that they will have the tools to bypass this route when they are older.

  13. Sarah Almond says:

    Once again Jessica you’ve written something that I can so relate to. I’ve struggled with body dysmorphia for much of my life, but in college a series of events in my life that I could not control triggered a year where I subsisted on nothing. I was down to 90 pounds on a five foot four body. Definitely not healthy! I eventually came to my senses and started eating a healthy diet to get to a healthy weight. I still struggle with eating now but in different ways. Thank you for sharing this Jessica, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone! 😀
    Sarah Almond recently posted…Don’t Be That TreeMy Profile

  14. Rachel says:

    You write about such a hard subject with such grace, Jessica. I really feel it. It is beautiful. We are all better for having read your story. And I think that others struggling with eating disorders who read this will feel a sense of connection with you, feel like they are not alone and feel that there is someone who has made it through and can offer them hope! Thank you for your bravery.
    Rachel recently posted…Fighting the Good FightMy Profile

  15. Kimberly says:

    I love you so much right now. I really do.
    I know that you hate that part of you, but when you set her free, you helped more women (and men) than you’ll ever know.
    People need to be able to connect with real stories, and I think this is wonderful.
    I’m sorry that you struggled like that but I’m even more proud that you overcame this terrible illness. You’re a strong soul my friend.
    And an inspiration xo
    Kimberly recently posted…Holding It InMy Profile

  16. Katia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story, my friend. I love everything your write, but your introspective posts are just so profound. I know you say you still don’t understand this completely, but your writing tells a different story. I think that as you point out the calorie counting is definitely a way of control. I will speculate further that control through food is a built-in mechanism we humans carry. We see it often in our kids. I knew you were strong but story shows me just how strong you are. Lots of love to you friend and am so hopeful to meet you some day.
    Katia recently posted…Why Job Searching After Mat Leave is Like DatingMy Profile

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