“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
That was my senior yearbook quote and a saying I’ve come to live by. I’ve always adored it because:
- It was said by my favorite director, Woody Allen. The man is utterly brilliant and if you have yet to watch Sleeper, or Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, I ask that you do so immediately following your reading of this post.
- Its words have proven themselves to be the most honest, relevant, and applicable things in my life. Just two years ago, if you had asked me what my plans were, I would have replied with a detailed and elaborate expectation that is vastly different from the story I am about to tell you.
In 2012 I was a freshman in high school and not at all someone my current self would want to spend a moment’s time with. I was dissatisfied with the way I looked and the way I felt. Actually, that’s a complete understatement. I despised the way I looked and loathed the way I felt. I’ve always been super short and grew up dancing, doing gymnastics, and figure skating. My parents never enforced strict dietary guidelines, so I got away with a decent amount of unhealthy food in my diet. By no means am I suggesting that my parents eat carelessly. They simply enjoy food and know how to monitor their intakes, but don’t always opt for the healthiest food choices. They trusted that I’d come to understand that a bag of gummy worms doesn’t constitute a meal; I didn’t. When I stopped dancing in middle school my diet took a toll on my body. While I was never “fat”, I was not as thin as the majority of my friends who played soccer and basketball. When I began noticing the differences between my body and those of my friends, I became unhappy. I was filled with annoyance every time I sat down and felt my stomach roll over my jeans or my seatbelt in the car. I would constantly squeeze my inner thighs and wish a gap would magically appear in place of the excess fat between them. Every time I walked and felt my legs rub together I wanted to scream. Oh, and don’t even mention my arms. It’s both embarrassing and hilarious to recall that once tried to wrap my arms in saran because I heard that it would make them smaller. I was dealing with a ton of anger, which was illustrated in my acting like a complete jerk. It’s hard to explain, but I thought that as soon as I liked the way I looked I would have the right to be happy, and could then love and support others.
My larger issue was doing anything about my self-hatred. See, the only times I exhorted myself to change were when I momentarily filled with panic and anger after catching a glimpse of myself or sitting a certain way. I would react by lying down on my floor and begin to do a few exercises, but by the time I reached my fifth crunch or push-up, I would find myself crying too hard to continue. Tears of self-pity and discomfort rolled down my cheeks as I stared at my ceiling and wondered, Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I stop myself from eating? And why do I have to stop myself from eating when other girls eat all they want and don’t gain a pound? Why can’t I just be happy the way I am? I’ve always been a control freak and felt I had no control over my eating habits and appearance. I felt completely worthless because I was incapable of overcoming what was driving me mad. Sometimes my niece (who is also one of my best friends) and I would try to commit to losing weight together. We’d say “Okay, diet starts now,” and last a few hours before eating a sleeve of Oreos and laughing at our lack of determination. Essentially, I’d fallen into an endless cycle of not caring about my appearance, caring, crying about it, trying to change, and repeat.
Then something changed.
I’m not quite sure what lit the little flame in me, but I can recall feeling truly different during my freshman year school trip to France and England in early 2013. I had given up meat for Lent, so when my class and I had meals at restaurants, I was given a separate dish. I noticed that whatever I was given made me feel healthier just because it wasn’t the steak or whatever other meat everyone else was being served. I suddenly felt a bit proud to be eating well, and didn’t mind the attention I was getting from doing so. So, even when Easter arrived and Lent ended, I decided to continue practicing vegetarianism.
Next, I was introduced to what would become my worst enemy and closest companion- exercise. That spring, a few girls in my class and I began going to a gym near my school. I chuckle at the fact that the first few times we went, I would convince everyone to take the bus. The gym was eleven blocks from my school. I made us take a bus to go eleven blocks. Oh, Elizabeth.
Those first few workouts were tough. They were also the best things I’d ever felt in my life. I hadn’t the slightest idea that being sweaty could be so satisfying. Before long, I found myself going to the gym without my friends. I tried to go two or three times a week. It became addicting. Working out on gym equipment, being wonderfully sore the next day, and feeling and looking healthier were completely novel sensations to me.
Right at the start of that summer, I watched a YouTube video that introduced me to another game changer. This one was an app called MyFitnessPal. The YouTuber was a pretty, fit, driven teenager who seemed really cool so I thought, Yay! This will help me stay on track this summer. I downloaded the app and entered all my goals. Instantly, it became a security blanket- a source of comfort and control that I relied on throughout my weight-loss journey.
Ironically, throughout this whole experience, I’ve never technically been overweight. I’m 5’1 and my highest weight was 126 pounds. Although that’s at the high end of my BMI scale, it’s still a normal weight. But that didn’t matter. For years, I had felt miserable and thought I looked like poo. I felt like I was wearing a fat suit with a stuck zipper. I believed I was in the wrong body, and constantly daydreamt about how happy I would be once I got myself the right one. I frequently wonder how I (and many, many others), as an intelligent and happy person, got so caught up in an idea as trivial as body image. I’ve truly always been a joyful person; I have no reason not to be. I have amazing family and friends that would do anything for me, I live in the coolest city in the world, and was enrolled in the Scholars Program at my amazing high school, meaning I took mostly advanced classes. There was just that one little thing missing- a body that I liked. I would look at pictures of thin girls on Tumblr and think, That’s the body I belong in. As soon as I look like her, my life will be perfect. In the same way people wish for glasses or braces, I secretly wished for an eating disorder. It’s not until your glasses fog up in the rain or you get food stuck in your braces that you second-guess that initial desire.
MyFitnessPal had me eating 1,200 calories per day. At the time, this made complete sense to someone who wanted the number on the scale to go down. If I want to lose weight, I have to eat less. Duh. But I can’t deny that the voice of reason in the back of my mind wondered, What happens next? Once I lose this weight, will I go back to eating more than 1,200 calories? Won’t that make me fat again? Nonetheless, I dropped every question I had as soon as I saw the number on the scale drop simultaneously. The weight loss was slow at first, but really picked up speed as summer progressed. I began making it a point to stay below 1,200 and stayed busy enough to limit the time I had for meals, so that I’d eat less. Before I felt comfortable enough to use a new gym near my home, I would wake up every morning and dance for an hour or more, and I took dance and yoga classes at my old studio. What was once a tiny spark of motivation had spread like wildfire. I began to feel healthier, look better, and as a result, feel happier. I was cheerful and, while I felt I had a long way to go, enjoyed watching my body progress towards one I thought I would like.
I think it’s important to mention that this was also the summer of my first serious boyfriend. I think this factored into my determination because he was very active and played several sports. Whether I recognized it at the time or not, this influenced me a lot. His athleticism gave me something to work towards and helped me set my own goals. When we began dating, I was already down 14 pounds. The ultimate goal I had entered in MyFitnessPal was 110. I was just two pounds away from where I wanted to be! I don’t even remember when I reached 110 because, by that point, that number meant nothing to me. Why would I stop losing weight now? I felt amazing, but still didn’t think I looked thin. At least not as thin as the girls I spent hours scrolling past on Tumblr and Instagram. Nothing and no one was going to stop me from looking like them. I would stay between 800 and 1,000 calories during the week but was so busy with my boyfriend on the weekends, I could get away with eating only 500-600 calories. I remember a Saturday on which I ate nothing but some grapes and tortilla chips, totaling around 320 calories. The reactions I got when I went back to school that autumn were also quite encouraging. I was getting bunches of compliments from classmates and teachers about how good I looked. Wow, I thought, This is what healthy feels like. I had a ton of energy just from the large apple and 14 mini pretzels I would eat at lunch. And if someone asked for a pretzel? Please, have one! Or four! I don’t need that many. I’m on a mission. It became a game for me; the fewer calories I ate, the prouder I was.
By February I was down to 94 pounds and loving it. I would read endless ”#ana” (anorexia) and “#mia” (bulimia) posts on Instagram (I now strongly condemn these very negative and triggering posts, and pray that those girls find solace in places aside from social media) in admiration of girls with eating disorders who were struggling so much. Some were trying to recover and some had relapsed and were falling back into the trap. While I related to everything these girls were writing in regard to their dissatisfaction with their bodies, I never equated myself to them. I though Wow, I’m nowhere near as skinny as her- I’m fine. Meanwhile, I never went out, felt insanely weak, had frequent headaches, rarely had meals with my parents while at home, and thought about food from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. While, deep down, (and I mean very deep) I knew what I was doing to my body was unhealthy, I was seeing myself in a completely new light. I was finally the “tiny” person I wanted to be. I could wear what I wanted and loved how I looked in most pictures. However, there was still fat on my thighs. And my arms. And perhaps a bit on my stomach. This was simply unacceptable. I lost a few more ounces right before I went to my annual physical at my pediatrician’s office. In one way, I’m terribly grateful for this appointment because I genuinely fear the damage that could have been done if I had lost any more weight. At the same time, I slightly despise that appointment because things were about to get much worse for my mind and body image. Of course, my doctor called attention to my weight loss, and, of course, I easily responded to her questions with lies that I had even convinced myself of.
“I just wasn’t happy before.”
“I eat so well now.”
“Yes, yes. I definitely get enough protein.”
Then my pediatrician said something I’ll never forget. “Okay, well maybe just gain a few. Have an extra burger or something!”
And that was it.
To her and my mom (who was sitting next to me) this was nothing more than simple sentence encouraging some weight gain. But to me it was permission. A prescription. What my body had been begging for, but my mind denying. I had the right to gain weight. So then began binges. Something I’ve learned throughout this process is that a binge doesn’t necessarily have to be two pints of ice cream and 5,000 calories of chocolate cake. A binge is simply consuming more food than one desires to eat due to the way that person is feeling. I don’t think I ever ate more than 800 calories in one sitting, but I was eating so mindlessly and emotionally that I honestly couldn’t say for certain. I would eat Raisin Bran until my stomach hurt late at night and then log it as less than one serving on MyFitnessPal because I would have lost my mind if I had been honest about my portions. I’d eat half a bag of corn chips and insist that the manufacturer was lying about the number of servings per bag, because there was just no way I had eaten that much. My mind had built a protective barrier around a reality that I was not at all ready to deal with. In about ten months, I gained about fifteen pounds. While I did need to raise my BMI, this was not at all a healthy gain. Instead of having more energy from food, I had trouble staying awake in school for most of my junior year because my diet was so imbalanced. I hated myself every time I overate, whenever I weighed myself while half leaning on a chair to avoid getting a proper reading, and every time I looked at myself in the mirror. I knew I had gained weight but refused to accept the differences in my body.
I was subconsciously hoping I’d find a way out through veganism. As I watched a “What I eat in a day” video made by a vegan YouTuber in June of 2014, I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to go vegan right then and there. Unless I was binging, I wasn’t eating much dairy or egg to begin with due to fat content, so I knew I’d simply have to pay more attention to ingredients. Plus, I’ve always been an extremely driven person so I had no worries that I would want to quit after a week. I remember thinking to myself, Wow! These people eat as much as they want and don’t worry about getting fat, feel amazing, and save the planet!! This is my calling. So many people find health and happiness by adopting vegan diets. I’ll be one of them. Little did I know it would take me a whole other year to reach that point.
One truly exhilarating, rewarding, life-changing thing that I discovered after going vegan is running. In one way, I approached it incorrectly because I was running ten miles on a treadmill, exhausting myself, and then binging and wondering why the number on the scale was increasing. On the other hand, running changed me and developed my persona in unimaginable ways. It has introduced me to an incomparable high. I’ve learned that by lacing up and going for a run, I have the power to instantly change my mood. It’s welcomed me into a community of equally insane but driven people who share a love for the pure joy that accompanies slamming rubber soles against pavement. It makes me happy!
Thus, after a year of binging, I decided that enough was enough. If I wanted to see a change, I was going to have to make a change. At that point, the only time I had succeeded in losing weight was by significantly reducing my caloric intake. I also knew that by denying what I was really eating, I would never fall out of a binging cycle. I needed a way to preoccupy myself so that I wouldn’t focus on eating. Water. That was the solution. I would drink water until I was dizzy and had headaches. I self-inflicted hyponatremia, meaning I was drowning my own body cells, just so I couldn’t put more food in my mouth. And it worked. By the time spring had sprung, I felt amazing. I was losing weight, had more energy, and was continually increasing my mileage.
Beginning in May 2015, I ran every single day for 137 days. I had plans to run a marathon the following autumn at whichever college I decided to attend. Then in mid-August, while on a 15-mile long-run, I was making my way down West End towards my home when I suddenly felt as though my inner thigh had been stabbed. The pain literally took my breath away. My inner thigh had been sore at the beginning of my past few runs, but I assumed it was a strained muscle and would move on. Even when the pain hit during that run, I convinced myself that I had simply landed the wrong way. Still, I knew something was wrong. I paused for a moment, but used the pain to push myself to finish the run. Sure enough, I was back at it the next morning with some cool blue athletic tape wrapped around my leg. After two weeks of running on what I had diagnosed as a torn muscle, my mom made a doctor’s appointment for me. As soon as the words “possible stress fracture” left my doctor’s lips, I was hit with a wave of nausea that lasted for a solid month. Then, on my first day of senior year, when my mom called to tell me that the results of my MRI showed a stage four stress fracture in my femur, I just about fell over. MY FEMUR. A fun fact that I’ve shared since I was little is “the femur is the strongest bone in the body!!” The strongest bone! Yet mine was one degree away from needing a very serious surgery. Femurs don’t just fracture. This has to be a sick joke. Honestly, my only real concern was, of course, running. I didn’t give a damn that a bone that’s supposed to be invincible just broke inside of me. I cared that I was about to become “fat” again! I had just gotten back down to 100 pounds- no one was going to take that accomplishment away. I freaked out. As soon as I made myself face the reality that running was out of the question for a bit, I made a mental commitment to maintain my weight, no matter what that meant. After hours of research, I decided that swimming and gentle cycling were the answer. I spent the first three hours of my senior year prancing around, thinking about how much I was going to work to better my school’s track team and cheerleading squad, and the next three months hobbling up and down and ridiculously steep block to a freezing cold pool on crutches, eating less than 800 calories a day, and digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole whose walls were bound to collapse at any moment.
The days of September through November were deficient in the morning runs I had envisioned since summer, and abundant in cab rides from school to doctor appointments in every corner of Manhattan. The appointments were made with the intention of learning what had caused the fracture. I had to see this orthopedist to see how I was healing, and that orthopedist to get a second opinion on my results. This general physician to get these blood tests, and that general physician to get the same exact blood tests. One lovely appointment with an endocrinologist consisted of a long speech explicating that my leg was fractured solely because of veganism. When it was told I should, “Eat an egg,” because,”C’mon, one egg won’t hurt a chicken,” I smiled at the man and gently explained the composition of tempeh, seitan and countess other vegan sources of protein and calcium, while my inner voice screamed, “I eat a maximum of 800 calories when I’m feeling daring dumbass. Of course I don’t get enough protein; I don’t get enough anything!” I know he was trying to help, but at that point I was so used to lying about how well I ate, it didn’t matter.
In mid-November was time for an appointment with my pediatrician. Walking into her office that day, I knew I had been backed into a corner. I lost seventeen pounds since the last time I had seen her, had just completed my three months on crutches, and was sitting in her office with a heart rate of 44, tired eyes, and a lifeless complexion. Over the past two years, I had become an expert at lying to her (and everyone else) about my habits, but one can only fake it for so long, you know. After a long, honest talk she sternly expressed her concerns for my health, and gave my mom and I the contact information of a therapist. However, just as she had during my previous appointment, my doctor said all the wrong things. She told me to go home and eat as much as I could. She advised filling my face with fats and anything to help me gain weight as quickly as possible. She also wanted me to return for a weigh-in two weeks from then so that she could decide if I needed to be admitted to a facility to receive treatment. What is she even saying? Treatment for what? I’m fine. Not really. But still. Everything was happening so quickly and I felt unbelievably overwhelmed. These things aren’t actually going to happen. You’re fine. Just eat more and this will finally be over. One thing that still bothers me about that appointment is the fact that she did not diagnose me to my face. She called my mom to diagnose me over the phone. I feel that in order for someone to seek recovery, he or she must first hear and be forced to process a diagnosis.
“You have anorexia.” That was what I least and most wanted to hear. I also wanted her to say, “You’re fine- you were anorexic but you’re okay now.” I wanted what I knew was happening it in my past already. I was angered and hurt by the fact that my doctor could not verbally address what I (and pretty much everyone else) had known for so long. She also gave the same binge-triggering advice- “Go buy a pint of ice cream- vegan, of course.” I’ll give her props for the vegan adjunct, but for nothing else. Her approach is so concerning to me because I know (and other professionals that I have discussed this with agree) that it is a recipe for relapse, which makes my heart ache for those who are denied proper support while struggling with an eating disorder. Anyway, days later, I went to my first session with my therapist who I owe a whole lot to. While talking to her has been eye opening in many ways, it is the nutritionist that she suggested I speak to that changed the game for me.
Now, recovery doesn’t happen overnight. I didn’t wake up one morning and think The day has come. We shall recover. In fact, there are moments in which I, instead, think, Dang it, this is hard. But as I continue along this winding road of recovery, these tough moments become fewer and further between, and the road consistently straightens. At the moment my mom told me that my doctor had vicariously diagnosed me with anorexia, a novel desire for change began crescendo inside of me. What I had known and thought to myself incessantly for three years was finally out in the open and healthily being acted upon. I felt relieved and incredibly excited to recover, but stressed about what that recovery would entail.
In the weeks that followed my diagnosis, I experienced (and continue to experience) moments that make me think, Oh my goodness, it’s actually going to be okay. You’re going to survive. I had one of these moments when I met my nutritionist, Alix. It was on that day that everything changed. I mean really changed. While Alix was not the first person to send a rescue rope down the hole I had dug myself into, she was the first person to send one long to reach me. My mom and I sat in her office and, for the first time ever, I heard someone verbalize everything I had been feeling for the past three years. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. She was the first to remove a brick from the wall I had built between my family and friends, and me. At that first appointment, Alix also recommended PR: A Personal Record of Running from Anorexia, a book that seriously kick-started my recovery. I read the book in two days. Just as Alix verbalized my thoughts, the author, Amber, not only put what I was feeling in writing, but also illuminated the harsh realities of anorexia and the consequences that your body pays the longer you submit to anorexia’s authority. While reading it, I felt a strange combination of empathy, admiration, and fear that encouraged me to say, “No more.” I encourage anyone to read that book; it genuinely describes both the feelings of being caged by an eating disorder, and the utter bliss of being set free.
Seven months have passed since that first appointment, but I feel as though my mindset has undergone seven years of change. I exercise for forty or fifty minutes if I want to, but ten if I’m not in the mood. I take rest days when I need or simply want them. I spend hours creating new vegan recipes in the kitchen because I’m in love with (instead of triggered by) cooking, and passionate about veganism. I ate an entire meal at my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, instead of my usual salad and tablespoon of cranberry sauce. I go on vacation and can finally enjoy my food, my surroundings and, most importantly, my company. I run- not because I feel I have to, but because I’m thankful for the air inside my lungs and the magnificence of that post-run feeling. When I walk home, I don’t worry about how many calories I am burning, but, instead smile at the people I pass and enjoy the sights around me. Am I saying that I am completely where I want to be? No, but I am getting there. And that’s more than okay with me.
Until now, only seven people (including doctors) had been told about my eating disorder, and I can’t imagine ever having the guts to write this had they not gifted me such an overwhelming amount of love and support. My reasons for refraining from opening up about my eating disorder were due to both the trouble I (still) have with accepting imperfections that make us human, and my desire to be in the right mindset when discussing anorexia with my friends and family. I haven’t even told my best friends! I now recognize how amazing they are, and know that they love me no matter what. While posting this is quite frightening, life without fear is as stale as month-old soy wrappers.
So, that brings us to now and the beginning of this blog. Recovery is a compilation of a million little changes in thought and behavior that, in retrospect, have the power to move mountains. I can feel those mountains slowly (but surely) shifting, and want to document that change here. I also feel that I am finally in a place where I can be open about my struggle with anorexia. I know that I am prepared to face and triumph over what has tried and failed to break me over the past few years. Because I now see that what once appeared to be a giant boulder blocking my path was nothing more than a big rock, I want used to use social media platforms to help others discover the same. By sharing my highs and lows, letting go of perfection, and finally being honest, I plan on making a difference in my own life and in the lives of others. So, if you have made it all the way down to the bottom of this post and did not say “Oh, enough, Elizabeth” 😉 and ex out of the screen, I salute you and thank you for your eyes and ears (even if you skimmed). I hope that you stick with me on this dazzling, delicious roller coaster ride we call life.
That’s the story, morning glory!