Trigger warning: This article contains information about disordered eating which may be triggering.
Today was a typical food day: an egg sandwich for breakfast (560 calories), two iced coffees (80 calories), a mid-day smoothie and energy bar combo (520 calories) and grilled chicken with vegetables for dinner (600 calories).
It doesn’t surprise me that I’m able to document that without conducting any research. The library of nutrition labels in my head is just one of the many lingering effects from my high-school experience. I once rolled an apricot between my palms for three hours straight, thinking only of how 17 measly calories would haunt my stomach.
I am poised to graduate college in one week and I have used the words “eating disorder” exactly one time in reference to myself: in an email to my editor. By pitching the idea for this story, Haley knows more about it than my best friends.
I know that sounds odd. Suffering from an eating disorder — or any mental illness, for that matter — is often exhausting and conscious-altering. It has the ability to define major aspects of a person’s life. And yet, I have used the following sentence to describe myself exactly zero times: I was bulimic for three years and also experienced bouts of highly restrictive eating. It was exhausting and conscious-altering. It did define an entire era of my life.
When I was 15 years old, I spent all my time learning how to sharpen my hipbones and treat my bathroom floor like a church pew. I wasted hours worrying about my teeth yellowing from stomach acid and then wasted more by googling the number of calories in Crest Whitestrips. Everything was meticulously counted, scrupulously controlled. My disorder was an unquenchable thirst that masqueraded as a choice. It reinterpreted each time I said, “No thank you, I’m not hungry,” as a perverse declaration of power.
I was never confronted by a wake-up call or an intervention. I’m not sure exactly how I managed to unlearn these habits without ever seeking outside help. It certainly wasn’t easy. All I know is that I’ve fought every day to define my eating disorder as a thing of the past. I close my eyes when the doctor weighs me at my yearly check-ups; I block the “thinspo” accounts that pop up on my Instagram explore page; I see the tiny scars on my knuckles and smile because they’re white, not red.
I attribute a huge part of this success to the friends I’ve made at school. In college, I found people who were my people. I felt like I belonged in our safe little circle of closeness and late-night Doritos feasts. They have, through their support and unconditional love, inadvertently allowed me to become the cliche of “comfortable in my own skin.”
Put most simply, we are there for each other. So it shouldn’t scare me to open up to them about something that feels like it belongs so thoroughly to the past: Hey guys, I restricted my food and threw it back up for the majority of high school. It sucked, but I feel good about where I am now. Just so you know. The moment should have come easily. It never did.
Even though I am lucky and I managed to pull myself out — even though I have dubbed myself Recovered instead of In Recovery — I remember when my palms smelled like apricots. I remember my friend’s dad complimenting my weight loss. I keep the small dresses I once fit into like participation trophies. I am sometimes still overcome with memories of my body like a wasteland and it feels nostalgic, not dangerous.
The grimiest parts of me miss being cold in a warm room. When I am in this mindset, secrecy is huge. It is everything. Because it allows me to dictate my own narrative — to decide when I want to eat (or not) without someone intervening. Never talking about my disorder makes it feel mine. Like it’s interesting and complex in a brooding Breakfast Club-character way. Even without restricting or purging or calorie counting, it allows me to maintain a feeling of control.
And so I dropped weight in silence, I have relapsed in silence and I have recovered in silence.
In trying to convince myself that my eating disorder is completely behind me, I’ve unconsciously nurtured its most sinister symptom. A desire for control can become an excess of restraint. It can become isolation. It has kept my heart hostage. I don’t know if it’s possible to ever be fully recovered, but stepping out of my self-imposed quarantine feels like a step in the right direction.
Living and growing alongside such a strong support system has helped me realize that true love, platonic or otherwise, is all about telling secrets. It’s about trust and hard truths and confessions over wine. It’s exchanging keys to the rooms inside your heads. A fear of vulnerability keeps those doors locked.
Even writing this now, my hands are shaking. Being honest is terrifying. Being honest on the Internet, even more so.
But this is too important not to talk about. Not because I’m afraid that I’ll fall back down the rabbit hole, but because I am still climbing out of it. Because if I stay quiet, I will continue to hold fruit in my hands without ever taking a bite. I will continue to succumb to the illusion that a silent struggle is a noble one. I shouldn’t embarrassed to say that I’m proud when I look at an apricot and see only an apricot.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.