Once Anorexic, Always Anorexic

by Claire DeBerg

I haven’t put pen to paper about my anorexia in years. Maybe even a decade. As unbelievable as it is for me to be typing the next sentence, it is true: I was anorexic more than 20 years ago. I can pontificate (and perhaps I will at another time) on what life has been like since but I think what is important is to get inside the mind of an anorexic for a bit. That season of my life is vivid as though I’m watching short films of my life as a fifteen-year-old. I can see moments and everything distinctly: the clothes I wore, the eyes of my mother, the sound of stepping on the scale while the metal wheel of numbers spun around until settling on the big red line. Even though it was a scary, dark time it was also one where my body was working fiercely to stay afloat, stay alive, stay aloft this strangely creeping vine which is anorexia nervosa.

But let’s go back so you can get an idea about me. I had an ideal childhood. No, seriously. I lived in a distant suburb of Minneapolis so while there weren’t sidewalks, there were close neighbors and my childhood was spent hanging with all the boys on our block. Lots of boys! My best friend, Billy? Well, there could be no better friend. We road bikes, played flashlight tag, touch football, He-Man, house, Inspector Gadget. He would dress up my baby dolls with me, I would climb trees with him. My parents were together as were all the parents on our block. We had neighborhood Christmas parties, we trick-or-treated together, we played two-square at the bus stop, we went to one another’s pet funerals and walked the trail to the supermarket together. It really was perfect. I would not change one thing about my childhood.

I am the youngest of three and my brother and sister are my favorite siblings. Ever. There was just lots of goodness and lots of wit and plenty of freedom. I share all of that because I know it is common to dig back into someone’s life to try and pinpoint the fallen family member, the moment of the family flood, the dark key that unlocks the why everyone asks when they wonder over an eating disorder. How does one girl fall into anorexia and her friend doesn’t? How does one boy succumb to overeating and his neighbor doesn’t? The truth? Who knows? Who knows what ingredients were standing in the wings all my life waiting to stir up what would amount to a giant, unwelcome recipe? Who can know especially since I had this delicious, epic, dreamlike childhood that I secretly want to return to knowing what I know now. (Because if I could, I’d spend more time reading in the tree fort or sledding on Billy’s hill. I’d make better hutches for the chickens so they wouldn’t lay eggs on the motorcycle seat only to have them fall and break each time they stood up. And I’d for sure pay more attention to the Northern Lights when my parents would rouse us from bed and carry us to the back porch and wonder at the purples and greens lighting up the midnight sky.)

But I digress. This is my story about anorexia. And keep in mind this is a story. Is it all the truth there ever was about my disease? Yes. No. Both. If each of my family members were to write about their lives and how they interacted with mine when I was 15 there may be some overlaps, but I imagine there would be conversations I’ll never know occurred, there would be details remembered in a different order, there’d be food I’d forgotten about and words I can’t remember saying. This truth alone is why our connection to our families, our friends, our dear ones is life. Life is all of our truths melding together to make something powerful. So this is my part, my piece of the something powerful which is my year of being an anorexic.

I was at summer camp. Bible camp. I never really paid attention to food. I was happy with anything my mom prepared (which was always pretty amazing considering she had three busy kids and two careers as a nurse and teacher). When I think back to meal time at the Davis house my main motivation was how to eat as quickly as possible so I could go back and play in the tree fort or jump on my bike and catch up with the boys. But the summer I was 15 I noticed my friend throw out dessert every evening at Bible camp. Red Jello-O with those slick, sweet little mandarin oranges from those stubby cans. Yes! She’d throw that right into the garbage and not look back. I couldn’t believe it. But I was intrigued because I also noticed that she wore a bikini when we had canoe wars and for me that felt extremely exposed. Beyond the fact that bikinis for an athletic girl like me were just too cumbersome and would serve to hold me back from playing, swimming, running. Who needs straps and cups to divert attention from being victorious in a game? I wanted to swim! I remember sitting on the dock next to her as she laid on her towel. Her hips jutted out in a pointy way that I could not stop staring at. I had not paid attention to my own body in this way. So then I looked at my own hips. And so it began.

I compared my shoulders to other girls. I watched other girls’ ankles and thighs and looked at my own. I’d ask these inner questions: Were my fingers as spindly as hers? Did my neck look thick like hers? Are my thighs jiggly or tight? It was like a game and mostly I agreed that I was winning because to be quite honest, I was normal, healthy, great, beautiful at 15. I was keenly aware, though, that every comparison did not see me as the winner. This appears as though a truth…that there is always going to be someone who you think has better hair or a better chin or a better whatever than what you have right now. My husband says, you can always always find what you are looking for. If you’re looking for opinions to bolster your own, you can find those. If you’re looking for people with more money than you, you can find them. If you’re looking for beauty on earth, you can find that. If you’re looking for honest relationships, you will discover them. What you look for is the first of many choices. Choose wisely.

For me, my choice was to look for girls thinner than me. I found them. I wanted to join them. I wanted to win. So I restricted some foods here and there. No more desserts. I passed on seconds. I eliminated sides altogether. My mother, in all her goodness, made me a sack lunch everyday for school. And everyday during high school that year I threw them in the garbage. Sometimes I’d check out what was tucked inside since she would often write a note or send some money for a snack. But all those baggies of cherry tomatoes? All those half sandwiches? All those cups of popcorn? Gone. Tossed away. Ignored. And that hurts. It hurts right this minute as I type because now that I’m a mother I know what building a lunch for my daughter means everyday. I know those crazy lunches I’ve made when we’re running low on the grocery front (sorry about the dill pickles and hard boiled egg tortillas, Gloria!). I’m sorry, mom, for disregarding the love you wrapped in a brown sack for me day after day.

Tossing out food and eliminating food from my diet (I kept a list of foods to never eat again which included things like carrot sticks, sliced strawberries, hamburger buns) coupled with running miles and miles with the cross country team meant my goal of being thin was very quickly being realized. And then it became a darker game. I was no longer thin, but I was skeletal, my energy waning for all things save for running.

This is what it looks like: my face got hairy. I grew this thin film of hair on my body which is a reaction bodies sometimes have when emaciation removes all the body fat which is necessary for keeping warm. My body was crying out little spurts of hair on my skin to try and keep me warm. My bones made their appearance where they’d never been seen previous. I was achy. My joints ached. My elbows and knees lost all their padding and when I awoke in the mornings I was still tired and my bones were sore as though I were an old lady. My hair got weird and stringy, dry and brittle. Those are the physical ramifications of this mental illness.

That’s right: eating disorders are a mental illness with physical ramifications. Do not forget this when you are standing with someone you care about in the deepest part of their disordered eating–whether overeating or not eating or binging–this is an illness that cannot be stopped on a dime. It wasn’t a matter of discovering the hidden switch so I could flip on my normal brain and start eating again. This is what it looked like for me:

Wake up: weigh myself

Go to the bathroom: weigh myself

After going to the bathroom: weigh myself

Before a run: weigh myself

After a run: weigh myself

Before a shower: weigh myself

After a shower: weigh myself

Before getting dressed: weigh myself

After getting dressed: weigh myself

Before eating: weigh myself

After eating: weigh myself

Before bed: weight myself

Do you detect a mental illness emerging? A pattern? A control issue? So what happened? Look at me now, I’m healthy. Well, things were happening in the background of my family. My sister was away at college but recognizing my odd behavior when I came for a visit. She talked with her college counselor and snail mailed my parents packets of information on anorexia nervosa (this is all pre-Internet, you understand). She and they were praying for me. My brother was away at a boarding high school but when he returned on weekends and less and less of my body was there to greet him, he could only switch to reverse psychology in his teenage boy attempt at recognizing I was changing. I poured over recipe books totally enrapt with food of all kinds, especially not eating them. I re-wrote recipes. I made lists of foods to never eat. I loved grocery shopping and watching The Frugal Gourmet.

Eventually my parents must have reached a breaking point with me and took me to a nutritionist. I think the breaking point was this particular night my mom took me with her grocery shopping. She asked me to pick out some ice cream I might enjoy. I spent an extremely long time in the freezer section. I was shaking and chilly but I read the ingredients list of 37 different containers of ice cream and I finally agreed to get some weird ice cream that was like non-fat, low calorie, unreal cream-weirdness. I put it in the cart and my mom started to cry. Right there in the grocery store. And seeing my mom cry horrified me. I understood for a flash that my refusing food was affecting everyone around me. She left our shopping cart right there in the freezer section. She just walked away leaving our full cart behind. I remembered then as I cowered from the chill in the air that she used to do this when my brother and I would get too silly or too crazy in the grocery store as little kids. She’d leave her cart in an aisle, quietly take us by the hands and we’d walk out. And when my sweet, calm mom would do that my brother and I knew it was big. It was big to leave a cart full of food that she’d had to go back and re-shop for later, and it was big because she was so easygoing and kind that hurting her felt so ultimately terrible. We really paid attention to what we’d been doing when she’d abandon the shopping cart. When she walked away from the cart with my ice cream choice already warming on the pile of groceries…I knew this was big. I knew I was hurting my mom and maybe that was the switch, I don’t know. I agreed, then, to go to a nutritionist.

My task was to record everything I ate for a week and the physical activities within which I engaged. Everything I ate? That was hardly anything. I do remember feeling as though the two slices of green apple I ate one day was particularly heavy…lots of food…too much. Writing that food journal secretly made me proud at first. I hardly ate anything and now I could record how very little I consumed. I ran about 25-30 miles a week then. When we returned to have my food and exercise log analyzed, this is the memorable report: “Claire, you’re barely consuming enough nutrients to satisfy an inactive three-year-old.” I turned this news around in my head. I was losing. Yes, I was losing weight, but all this time I was losing strength, losing friends, losing hair, losing energy, losing warmth, losing it. And here I thought I was winning. It is true that in my strange game I was winning but after that news I started a brand new game and I played full out. My parents, my sister, my brother, this nutritionist–we all entered this new game which was: Claire needs to gain weight. I was the leader of the team and while the scale slowly crept up in numbers from 88 pounds to 89 pounds and then 93 and then 102 and then 113 (my goal weight), I started feeling better physically. I couldn’t run as swiftly as before because I was gaining back fat, after all, not muscle. Once the body is rid of fat, muscle begins to shed and when the major muscles go, the big one (the heart) can’t give life and pump life all at once so it lays it down, it turns it off, it gives up, withers, dies.

But not me.

A strange thing occurred when I started gaining weight. I touched my body. Not in a sexual way but in a caring way, in a way I’d never done before. I marveled at it while touching my quads that were so powerful and able and doing all the lifting, twisting, stretching, bursting without me telling them what to do or how to do it. I really took some time with my arms and touched them and felt the fat growing around my bones as somehow a giant hug I was giving myself–letting my body wrap itself up. This personal hand blessing eventually turned into a deep gratitude for the bodies I saw around me. I discovered there are all manner of bodies encasing all sorts of different, amazing, scary, profound, hurting, interesting, lovely women. I loved these women! My blinders were put up…instead of judgement about what shape a woman was, I just learned about them, listened, made real friends, became a real friend myself.

I don’t have a grand solution for how to come up from the deep darkness of anorexia. I don’t even know how to honestly recommend people attend to a loved one with anorexia. Would pleading from my family have worked? I don’t know. Would threats, begging, ultimatums? I don’t know. But for me what worked was shifting my masterful attention from my body to the people around me. Shifting that attention brought me lots of insight and allowed me to see beauty that I’d ignored previous. But again, I realize shifting of attention is an abstract idea difficult to instill in others let alone someone with a mental illness like anorexia nervosa.

I’ve committed to making powerful choices and because I believe that once you’re an anorexic, you’re always an anorexic–you always have tendency toward ill behaviors and disordered eating and obsessiveness–it means I get the terrible and wonderful opportunity to make a powerful choice everyday. I can choose how I enjoy food, how I care for my body, what I say about women’s bodies around me when my daughter is listening, how I spend my free time, what I choose to order at a restaurant when I’m with women and on and on and on.

Some of those choices look like this: I talk about how my daughter’s body is so strong and amazing and able. I order delicious entrees when I’m with women friends to show that I’m not afraid of food and food does not own me and that I order food I truly want and if that is a salad, I order that, but if it isn’t I don’t. I savor delicious food and really feel its texture in my mouth and appreciate how the wonder of the human body manages this awesome fuel called food without my having to give direction. I run around the lakes of Minneapolis. I take walks pulling my son in the wagon, I run beside my daughter while she bikes and if it rains and if we stop to watch a snowy white egret or our plans change, that’s all okay and it is all good.

Later in my life when I was faced with another dark night of the soul I found myself in an emergency trauma center with an on-call therapist in the wintery darkness of an Alaskan afternoon. I’m facing a life-altering prospect and she asks me, “Have you ever hit rock bottom before this?” And I say, “Yes, I was anorexic when I was a teenager.” And she says to me, “Okay. Take this piece of paper and write down the top three things that lifted you out of the bottom of your eating disorder.” Without hesitating I wrote down: 1. God. 2. My sister, Jennifer. 3. My parents. When the therapist looked at the card she handed it back to me saying, “Here you go, these are the ones who will lift you up again.”

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