By: Frances Molina
I remember when I first realized I had a real problem. Freshmen year, dormitory bathrooms. I’m in the shower sobbing. My face is a pinched and swollen mess of tears and snot. My head hurts. I’m crying because after a full day of restriction and practiced starvation, I caved and ate an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting. I’m standing in the shower with my head against the wall and my hands kneading my waist as if I could so easily away all the poor choices I made that day and I’m deciding against calling my mother with this because she’s sick of my shit and I’m thinking about cutting myself instead because it’s what I deserve – when a voice in my head calls out so clearly, I could have sworn I had said it aloud to myself.
The voice says, “You will get through this. You will not always be miserable. You will not be miserable.”
The next day I book an appointment with a therapist. Her name is Jenny and she specializes in eating disorders. During our first few sessions, I am diagnosed with EDNOS, an eating disorder not otherwise specified, in the restrictive class. Mine is a problem that moves in between the lines. My body isn’t starving and I haven’t lost my period but I’m eating around 600 calories a day. I don’t really binge eat, but when I lived at home with my family, I used to sneak spoonfuls of ice cream in the middle of the night, mortified and afraid of being discovered in my gluttony.
I didn’t get help because I wanted to start eating again. Back then, all I cared about was being thin and losing my virginity. I got help because I didn’t want to start cutting again. The voice in my head, (the bad one, not the one which saved my life), that constantly counted my calories and reminded me to skip meals, was beginning to insist that cutting would keep my fat ass in line.
“You will get through this. You will not always be miserable. You will not be miserable.”
But it was a start. I would see Jenny for two years. My issue with food would evolve into an issue with myself and then into an issue with my parents, with men, with the patriarchy, with my compulsive perfectionism and desperate need for validation. My eating disorder, like many eating disorders, was not actually about being thin or looking pretty. It was about control and the near orgasmic experience of exacting it on the only person who would do exactly what I wanted: myself.
During our sessions, Jenny instructed me to go see a nutritionist so that I could relearn how to feed my body. I went only twice. The first time, I sat with a very nice doctor and tried to keep my panic at bay when she told me I would have to start eating more than a thousand calories a day. At my second visit about a month later, I lied about all the new foods I was eating and all the progress I was making. I didn’t lie because I was still in the grip of my own fiendishness. I really was making progress. I lied because I wanted my complimentary – and frankly worthless – pat on the back. If the doctor told me I was doing a good job and getting better, I could be a little more assured of it myself.
The truth was no matter how many calories I consumed and how meticulously I kept my food journal, I would still be prone to unhealthy habits of control. I was making progress because it was what I was supposed to be doing. So long as I had someone else keeping me accountable, I could receive all the empty validation I wanted and I could continue lying to myself. I could keep pretending that feeding my body was equivalent to caring for it and by extent, giving a shit about my life. Just because I could eat again without hating myself didn’t mean that I didn’t still hate myself.
I was making progress because it was what I was supposed to be doing.
The issue of my eating disorder would take a backseat in the winter of my sophomore year. In November, I was recovering from a violent sexual assault. When I wasn’t stifling the urge to drink a bottle of bleach, I was trying to manage my anxiety, which left me in grips of panic and without much appetite. It would be several months after the incident before I could actually admit out loud that it had been assault. My mind, still reeling from the shock of what had happened, did not want to admit that I had not been in control. In hindsight, despite all of the pain and the anger and the nightmares, it was a good time to start over with myself; to re-learn how to be in my body, to rebuild myself with nothing but love and support in the foundation, and to rediscover why my life was worth fighting for.
My narrative is both common and uncommon, familiar and foreign. Like my disorder, it moves between the lines and avoids definitions. Lots of people with eating disorders struggle with perfectionism and a need to feel in control. Incidences of rape and sexual abuse can induce disordered eating for victims struggling with confusion and shame. In my story, things are out of order or altogether missing.
In all the books I read, and all the Lifetime movies I watched about eating disorders, there is always a defined period of recovery. You lose enough weight, somebody gets concerned, and you wind up in rehab. There you are watched by doctors and you are forced to eat until you can convince people that you’re not entirely hell bent on killing yourself.
I never saw a day of rehab. Never sat in a circle of other sick girls in group therapy. My family didn’t have the money to put me away and I didn’t have the time to disappear and become a whole person again. Self-care is a privilege and over the years, as I navigated the intersections of my own identity – brown girl, poor girl, anxious girl – it was not always a privilege I could afford. How was I supposed to make sure I was getting my 2000 calories a day when I was going to school full time, hustling at two part time jobs, and trying to live on the twelve dollars in my bank account?
Despite all of the progressive conversations that have emerged around body positivity and eating disorders in the last ten years alone, nobody really understands what’s going on. They’re reading from the Lifetime movie script, the popular American narrative of the eating disorder, simplified, sympathetic, and – forgive the pun – digestible. I’ve had every kind of professional from psychiatrists to gastroenterologists ask me about my eating disorder and the line of questioning usually goes: “So this eating disorder thing? Is that over with? You have that handled right?”
Despite all of the progressive conversations that have emerged around body positivity and eating disorders in the last ten years alone, nobody really understands what’s going on.
The answer is no. After years of restricting and moralizing my relationship with food, I have no idea how to eat. At most, I can pretend to be normal. I can say with affected authority what is “healthy” and what is not, but I spend most of my grocery money on snack foods, ice cream, and expensive wine. I can feed myself when I’m hungry, but I know I’m not eating right. I drink too many of my calories and like any other uninspired vegetarian, I eat too many carbs. I take supplements to make up for the nutrients I don’t eat because I’ve got a wicked case of anemia and on my schedule and on my budget, I can usually only afford a meal and a half a day. For all intents and purposes, I’m still sick.
And there’s a possibility that it could always be this way. I might never have this “eating disorder thing” handled. Even if I can reorganize my life and improve my diet, I believe it will always be in my brain and in my body, an automatic and panicked response to rejection and disappointment. In the back of my mind, I will always be watching myself, the curve of my breasts, the rub of my thighs, the wideness of my body when I lay in bed beside my partner. And I can always find reasons to not like what I see.
But I’m not trying to be thin anymore and I’m not trying simply to survive. For the first time in a long time, I want to be a whole person. I want to be more than just alive. I’ve found reason enough within myself to try to find my own normal, to teach myself that it’s alright to get it wrong on the first go round and start again. I do it every day, even when it feels like a chore, even when simply not eating might seem like the easier option. I’ve got to rewrite the script that everyone else is reading from for myself. Otherwise, I’m just moving in place and the only thing separating me from who I am now and who I was back then – crying in the bathroom, alone and afraid and hungry – is one bad day.