Battling for Life: Surviving Anorexia
Preface: This is a story about a battle fought and won. Everyone has fought different battles and it’s a matter of reflecting on them to see the beauty in the fight. While it makes me very vulnerable to share, it ultimately illustrates courage, resilience, and strength. I share this story to impart those attributes on others. This is a two part story, this first week being about the physical and the following week on the mental. It falls in line with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDA) which is a time of year that I always try to share a little more of my story.
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Overwhelmed. From the moment I stepped off the plane at JFK, the obesity epidemic weighed on me. I had just spent a month totally immersed in South Korea, living and breathing another culture. Aside from two sumo wrestlers I saw, weight was hardly an issue. But this hit me like a ton of bricks. Everywhere I turned, I saw fried foods, greasy napkins, and empty soda bottles.
It’s not something I expected to experience upon my arrival back to the States. Instead, I anticipated the warm feeling of coming home. But I felt suffocated. And so, I made a list: things I could eat, and things I couldn’t. I rummaged through my parents’ cupboards and swore off one thing after another. I had already lost 2 pounds during my trip, but I wanted more.
Elated. A surge of dopamine released to my brain as I hopped on and off the scale, delighted by that number. Every pound lost felt like the greatest high. It was addicting, to feel that good. To see that number decrease day after day. The scale became an obsession. It was the source of my happiness and the cause of such internal torment. I would sneak a weigh-in at any possible time, trying to be quiet so no one knew this secret of mine.
Scared. Food was the enemy. I developed every excuse in the book to eat as little as possible. Milk made my stomach hurt, tomato sauce gave me acid reflux, the chicken was too salty, the apple was too sweet; my tastebuds were on high alert for anything to throw away.
And then I went back to college. Red flags went up in my coaches’ minds. Immediately, I was thrust into meetings, trying to stop this train from going downhill.
Determined. My legs felt like pistons as they pressed against the ground, my body responding as I willed myself to push myself a little bit faster. I felt hardened with muscle. I could do anything I put my mind to. Every run I envisioned crossing the finish line and earning a nationals bid. I was unstoppable.
Until I spent the night crying on the phone to my brother about a stomach ache that seemed to be tearing my insides apart. A trip to the ER and a huge shot of lidocane infused acid reflux medicine later and I was in my coach’s office, as he pleaded with me to eat more calories. Bargained with me that if I did, I would finish out the season better than ever before.
Euphoric. Tears of joy streamed down my face. All the hours spent working towards a goal paid off. I was going to Nationals! It didn’t matter anymore to me what my teammates whispered behind my back. I reached the ultimate stage in collegiate athletics. My coach begged me again to eat more. I listened.
Nervous excitement coursed through my veins. The gun sounded as snowflakes fell from the sky. In only a matter of twenty-one minutes, fate would be decided. Legs turned, arms pumped, and there was the finish line. All-American.
Emaciated. You could count my ribs, you could see every vertebra of my spine, I was a walking skeleton, but what I saw was fitness. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t sleep because of my hip bone pressing against the mattress caused the skin to turn red, go numb, and ache. It didn’t matter that sometimes lifting my legs felt like a knife lodged in my quads. It didn’t matter because I was “fit.”
Embarrassed. The water was excruciatingly cold. My body shook as it rejected the chilly temperature. In forty-five minutes, I was being pulled out, feet completely numb, lips an icy blue, as the athletic trainer feared any longer risked hypothermia. How were all the other girls fine? I hobbled to the locker-room, turned up the heat on the shower, and stood there, shivering for another 20 minutes.
My coach made me buy a wetsuit. It was a complete and utter embarrassment. Without it, I would get pulled from practice. Depression sunk in. I went from being on cloud nine to my all time low.
Relieved. At the end of the season, what felt like the longest two months of my life, I quit swimming. I hung up the towel and peace filled my body. Something shifted. I was determined to get healthy and gain weight back.
Shocked. On the day I hit triple digits on the scale, I managed to eat an entire peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the first time in months. While it took me a good hour or so to do, it’s a benchmark that I will always remember. On that same day, I demolished the school record set over 20 years prior and placed 2nd at Penn Relays in the 10k. I began to understand the importance of food as fuel.
Excited. Every pore in my body felt alive as the California sun beamed down. As the sun sunk low into the sky, the gun sounded. I found my rhythm, my breath matching my stride. I felt invincible. The lap counter clicked lower and lower. The bell rang and I gave it my final kick. I stepped off the track amazed. The scoreboard lit up with my name in third place with an Olympic Trials provisional qualifying time. The next two days were a daze, another podium in my second event and my sophomore year was my most successful year to date. Excitement for what was to come coursed through my body.