A Letter to My Anorexic Self

Dear Kat,

I’m not going to try to convince you to stop what you’re doing, because without it, I wouldn’t be me, and I’m really glad I went through everything you have to go through. That’s a life strategy you managed to figure out pretty early: not to waste time on regret.

But that sounds like me sitting up here in Superior Oldperson Land, right? I know you really hate it when people say “when I was your age” or when they try to tell you how you’re going to feel next year or the year after. You know I still hate that? Even now? I’ve just gotten more used to it.

That brings us to secret #1 of four I have to tell you: adults aren’t really that much better at life. We’ve just had a lot more practice at pretending we have our shit together. I seriously wish I’d known that when I was your…sorry. So even though you feel like you’re a hot mess compared to the people around you, that’s okay. That feeling won’t have left you by the time you’re thirty. The only people who actually do have their shit together are horrible people. Everyone else is pretending.

Here’s something else I know. You want everyone to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. You want them to be amazed at your discipline, at the resistance to food you’ve developed. It is not easy to do what you’re doing, and you want your parents and the school counselor and everyone else to pat you on the back for it.

Of course you know full well that if you explain what you’re doing (seeking even a little bit of acknowledgement, of praise for your work), they’ll get you help. They’ll make you eat, make you build up your flesh again, and the evidence of how hard you’ve worked to get where you’re at will be gone. No one will ever know about that effort, how much stamina and self-control it took to reach 98 pounds, because that body will be folded in to the new, fleshier body. Proof of your inner strength will be lost in the outer flab.

I understand how much that prospect sucks. But the real bitch of it is — secret #2 — trying to fuel yourself with the validation of others leaves your tank empty. Whatever you’re doing for them, you have to do for you, so you can look yourself in the mirror without blinking. This isn’t just true with a situation where you think other people should be proud and they’re not; it’s true all the time. Whether other people are proud of you isn’t as nourishing as whether you’re proud of yourself. Not that nourishment is your goal right now.

It’s not about fatness for you, or beauty, or society’s expectations. It’s about discipline and willpower and control. I know that, the way no one else does. (I even know the more-secret curl of why that lives deep inside you, but I can’t tell you what it is. You have to parse it out on your own, later.) It’s about reaching a threshold where you can say I did it, I made it, that accomplishment is undoubtedly mine. The threshold is weight, but it’s also the amount of food you consume each day, smaller and smaller, decaying in increments like a radioactive isotope. It’s people looking at you a little too long, and the consequent triumph inside that they noticed what you’ve done.

I know how much you care about what people think (secret #3: you can’t actually scour off the residue of caring about what people think until you live through years and years of caring too much about it. It sucks, and I’m sorry), but I’ve got to be honest. No one is going to look at the 98-pound version of you and see what you see. They’re only going to see a painfully thin girl, and how they interpret your skinniness is way different than how you interpret it. You see you fixing a problem. They see you suffering. You won’t want to believe me, but here’s the truth: you’re not succeeding at fixing the problem. You’re suffering.

Still, even if no one else is, I’m proud of you. I really am. I’d like to say I’m couching that in “…except that you’re doing something super-unhealthy,” but you know what? That’s too wishy-washy for a letter from me to you. I’m genuinely proud of you. Surviving on so little food ain’t no walk in the park. I’m sort of amazed that you were me, actually, that you managed to get through days and weeks and months of being dedicated to this goal, that you didn’t falter or break before you decided you were through. (Spoiler: you decided. No one else pushed you into stopping.) I know you’re ashamed of your past as a quitter, and this is one instance where you didn’t quit.

One more secret I have to tell you. This discipline you’re exhibiting, in this thing that you know is anorexia, the word that beats in your brain even if you can’t say it out loud or write it in your journal — this sheer strength of will is a good thing. It’s a quality that’s going to help you a lot as you get older.

The problem is, it’s a good thing that’s being used for a piss-poor purpose. You know how energy is never created or destroyed? The energy that you’re putting into eating less is tremendous. And you can use it for better stuff than eating less. Stuff that actually shows off the power you have inside your brain. You might not know what that stuff is yet, but I know you can figure it out. Dr. Heslin is going to help you, and Ms. Schaffer, too.

Last year, I learned a new, freaky conception of past and future. Rather than seeing the past and the future as a line, with the past on the right and the future on the left and the present in the middle, some philosophers see all of us as walking backwards into the future, into a dark and unknowable landscape. The past, meanwhile, is still vibrant and alive, and all we can ever do is look into it.

We can never see where we’re going. Only where we’ve been.

98 pounds is where you’ve been. 98 pounds is not the only version of you, nor is it even the best version of you. There’s a lot more to you than that (pun intended). Even if you can’t see into it, think about where you’re going. I’ll be waiting for you there.

Lots and lots of love,
Katharine