Holly Pinafore™ image copyright Danielle Travali. Illustration by Mike Raysor.

Sep 12, 2012

My recovery story, in honor of the 2012 National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Walk on Sunday, October 7

I hated my body from age five, when a girl in kindergarten told me my oversized dress made me look pregnant. Though the poor girl probably had no idea what she was talking about, I never forgot the comment, and always felt overweight. I hated myself because I was always shy and boyish looking, with an ugly bowl-shaped haircut. I hated myself because girls often bullied me in preschool, kindergarten and first grade, taking advantage of the fact that I was sensitive and shy. I hated myself because my father left my mother when I was six. I hated myself in high school because I had anxiety from these things that happened when I was little. 

I have used the word "hate" one too many times. I'll spend the rest of my life making it up to myself with love. But before I talk about recovery, let me share my story with you.

The summer of '98. I was 12 years old. Each time Mom drags me to the grocery store, she runs down the frozen foods and butcher section.  I am always freezing in shorts and a tank top and I can’t stand the sight or sharp smell of bloody red meat, so I venture over to the huge magazine section past the toiletries-beauty products-pet supplies-bakery aisles. My eyes cruise right over my usual Tiger Beat, All About You, or Teen magazines, and for some odd reason, I grab Fitness and Shape instead. Without paying attention to the actual articles, I flip through the glossy pages. Beautiful ladies with chiseled abs, slender thighs, and perfectly toned arms make me dislike my own little body even more.  I’m going to make myself look even better than that. 

Now, I can devote all my time to sculpting my body rather than lounging by the pool with my friends. But I’ll have to take some drastic measures. This is going to be a challenge, but I’m tough enough—I can do it and I won’t stop until I prove to myself that I’m the best. 

I was never a mean, envious person, but after the day I chose to physically “recreate” myself I’d stare each female body up and down. This happened everywhere, in the bank, the bookstore, or even in church. Soon enough, turning on the television and looking at girls’ bikini bodies on MTV Beachhouse was not even possible.  Whenever I spotted a tall, thin, or muscular girl, a wave of jealousy nearly sucked me under and I'd have to change the channel. I was afraid of going to the beach with friends because I didn’t want anyone to see how I looked. Surprisingly, my friends always said, “You’re lucky to have such a nice body. You should definitely show it off.” But I never believed them. I thought they were just lying to make me feel better. I just didn’t trust anyone. I promised myself that until I dropped a few pounds and toned up every part of my body, I wouldn’t reveal a damn thing. From this point on, I would scrutinize every nutrition label, cut my portions in half then in half again, and force myself to train like an Olympian every day. It would take ten years for me to realize I was behaving like an abusive parent to my sad little child-self.

It’s another hot afternoon and Grandma calls, “Lunch time!”  She’d made me my favorite grilled cheese just the way I like it—really hot and crispy.  My mouth begins to water at the smell of bread, butter, and cheese sizzling on her old frying pan.  I say, “I’ll be back…I’m just going for a walk.”  Well, more like a run—nine times around the block and I’ll be done. 

“Well, hurry up.  Don’t let your sandwich get like ice,” says Grandma, pointing at me with an iron finger. 

I flick open the back door and let the wind slap it back. I hop over the first and last concrete steps of the back porch and onto the hot asphalt. My three-inch pony tail sways back and forth and my glasses jostle as my arms move, and I propel myself on the balls of my feet. I skip over bumps and cracks on the gray sidewalk and pick up the pace.  All my frustration and desire to be fit burns inside of me and the only way to release it is to run faster. I’m sprinting around the block, the wind slapping at my back, my quadriceps and calves burning, my heart knocking against my chest as if it wants to fly out.  I won’t stop until my body feels tighter.  I’ll keep going until all the oxygen in my worthless body runs out, I thought.  That’s right, you stupid neighbors.  Keep looking at me like I’m from another planet.  You’ll see—I’m going to look better than you and you’re ‘gonna be sorry you didn’t work as hard as I did. 

I keep on sprinting, nose in the air, oxygen scarce, until I see the brick wall of Grandma’s house.  I see her in her clean, cherry-colored apron with a hand on her hip. She shakes her head at me through the large front window.  Finally, panting like a dehydrated puppy, I slow down and walk up the steps to her door. The little cowlicks on the side of my head curl up with sweat that soaks my itchy scalp and my saturated sports bra is visible underneath my white tank top.  My face is hot and sunburned, my legs are throbbing, my feet are blistered, and I’m so hungry I could scarf down a five-course meal. Yet, I promised myself I’d fight anyone who tried to make me eat.

Like any Italian grandmother, my Gram pulls out her infamous wooden spoon and says, “If you don’t sit down and eat this sandwich right now I’ll whack you over the head!” I say nothing and eat nothing. Grandma wraps the grilled cheese, shoves it in the fridge, and says, “You’re thickheaded.”  I pretend not to hear her, sprint up the stairs and into her bedroom where she keeps the scale. I step on and off in a matter of seconds. I meander over to the full-length mirror, glance at myself, and look away, ashamed. I pinch the skin of my stomach, legs, and arms. I begin to stamp my feet and punch myself over and over. You fat, ugly thing. Why don’t you just die. Die. Die. I want to die.  God, please, I hate myself. Let me die. 

I stand there all alone feeling unsatisfied, sweaty, starving, exhausted, and above all, fat.  I am twelve and a half years old, five foot one, and 67 pounds.

I guess I was so caught up in the idea of being better than everyone else that I failed to see that I was gradually withering away to nothing.  I felt I had to compete with every one of my friends at everything: I wanted, more than anything, to be the smartest student, the greatest cheerleader and of course, the thinnest, fittest girl in the class. I would pull all-nighters studying for tests and typing lengthy  papers. I would practice my cheers, dances, and gymnastics moves for hours and hours in the back yard without even taking a ten-minute recess. I’d run miles every day, do countless crunches and pushups for two hours without fail. If I skipped one day, I’d punish myself by eating nothing but steamed vegetables, if that. I’d work even harder the next day. My quest to lose a few pounds would eventually turn into a quest to gain back my self-control. 

I’m falling apart.  It’s been two months now and Mom thinks something’s wrong with me.  She stares at me wide-eyed and says, “Your face is gray and your arms are nothing but skin and bone.” She also notices how I won’t even eat meat anymore, and that I don’t talk much to the rest of the family.  She says, “You’re so irritable that if a safety pin were to hit the floor you’d probably explode.”  But I don’t care what she thinks or says.  I’m still not satisfied with myself.  I was only supposed to lose a few pounds, but what’s a few more? If I can look just as good as the Shape and Fitness models, why can’t I look better? Why can’t I be thinner and prettier and smarter than all my friends? Why not! Why not!

I step into the shower to let the hot water soothe my body. I scrub myself and for the first time, I feel my jutting ribcage and facial bones. Where is the rest of me? What am I doing to myself? The water merges with my tears of shame as I rinse off the suds.  I step out, dry off, slip on an old Disney World tee-shirt and walk over to my bed where I hide my face in my soft pillow and cry for the remainder of the night.

Next morning, Mom says, “Come on, we’re going to the grocery store to pick up a few things.”  I don’t believe her, but she says, “Get in the car!” and pulls me into her minivan.  I know she’s lying. We pull up to a neat maroon house, go inside and sit down in a secluded waiting room that smells like old people and cowhide. Within twenty minutes, an elderly Indian doctor buzzes open the door.  Before I know it, he’s asking me confusing questions in broken English. He weighs my sixty-something pound body, writes notes on his clipboard and picks up the phone to admit me to the pediatric ward of the nearest hospital.  “Severe anorexia and depression” are the only words I hear him say.

I try to hold my sick feelings in by squeezing my eyes, plugging my ears, and pressing my lips in together so hard that they nearly turn purple. But at this point, I am so terribly ill that I just burst out as if I’d just reached the surface of the abyss in which I’d been drowning for a long time. As we leave the office, I scream, pound my fist on my mother’s dashboard, chuck random items around my house, leave scuff marks on the walls from kicking them so hard, and repeat over and over, “God, let me die tonight.” My teeth chatter, I shiver in these saggy clothes, and I stand here freezing—all alone in the world.

I was admitted to a hospital and underwent treatment for two weeks. I reached my "goal weight" at age 13, but I didn't really recover until after college. After my treatment for anorexia, I suffered for years -- especially as an undergraduate -- by bingeing and then purging with exercise by running up to 14 miles a day to punish myself for being "bad" whenever I ate the "wrong foods" or indulged with my roommates. I always compared myself to everyone else, especially other women. I was never good enough. I was never, simply, "enough." I always felt inferior, inadequate, unlovable and empty. So I restricted, binged, and purged food in the attempt to control my life. 

But the good news is that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this to you if I hadn’t made some kind of positive changes. So, I’m encouraging you to do the same thing. Even if your story is different from mine. I will do my best to help you. Is my life perfect? No way! Do I do or say stupid things I’ll later regret? Do I humiliate myself? Sometimes. Because it’s part of the word “humanity.” Because I’m human. But I know that I have the power to make things right. One way is to tell you how fabulous you are. Just look in the mirror! You’ve probably heard this a zillion times, but you need to hear it until your ears start ringing: there will never be another you. Never ever ever. So rejoice and be certain that people can try all they want but they will never get to be you. And aren’t you lucky for that. I didn’t include a question mark at the end of that sentence because it’s really not a question. It’s a statement of truth.

I’ve met so many loving, caring people who have placed metaphorical mirrors in front of me to let me know how beautiful I am inside. Your childhood is over and there’s nothing you can do to change it. You’ve got to move on, but you can still live a happy life. You are not your own experiences. You are not your parents’ mistakes or vices. You are a beautiful person with so much to give the world. The last thing I want is to see you hurt or upset. You, my dear friend, deserve to live a joyful, healthy life filled with the knowledge of how wonderful you are. And it’s not just some new-age “woo woo” meditation. It’s the truth. 


Melissa said...

Thanks for sharing your story lady. I think so often we over look our own value—not just physically, but in many other ways too. We don't believe we're smart enough, kind enough, work hard enough... We don't think we're dedicated enough or deserve the things we get.

And I'm not sure what the answer is, but women everywhere need to realize they ARE good enough. Good enough as who they are. Forever and always.

Muscle Recovery said...

Thank you for sharing your very inspiring story. Really had a great time reading this one.

Bridget Flynn said...

Thank you for sharing this. Almost every woman and girl has experienced dissatisfaction with her body, because we're taught that we need to look the same. Be the same. People are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike, and each breathtakingly beautiful in their own way. The beauty and value is in the individuality. What we have are not physical imperfections. They are US.