How did I ever deal with this disease full-time?
TW: Talk about Eating Disorders.
My boyfriend Tyler is a big superhero fan (we watched Black Panther on our first date), as is his best friend Alex. Since I like to seem interesting, and I love him, and I want to get to know him by getting to know the things he cares about, I set myself the goal of watching more Marvel movies so that we could have another topic to talk about. I recruited Alex, Alex’s boyfriend, and a couple other friends from work (Robin and Anna), and we started watching Marvel movies on weekends.
Within a month it had become our Thing. Every Friday or Saturday we’d get together, buy snacks from 7/11, catch up, and watch a movie. Mostly we would stream them from Amazon, but we watched Captain Marvel and Far From Home at the cinema—and everyone had to put up with me being extremely pissed that Captain Marvel and her wife weren’t actually wives in the movie.
We also watched Endgame in the cinema. We went to the local mall, joked about how big the soda portions were—we all feigned noble resignation as we volunteered to take sips of Robin’s Coca Cola so that he didn’t get diabetes from drinking it all—and bought a big bucket of popcorn to eat inside the theater.
The movie started off well. We joked during the previews and teared up when we saw Tony Stark’s emaciated body and how angry he was with himself. I was so proud that I’d watched enough Marvel movies to get the references.
And then Thor showed up.
This article is not meant to be a critic of Endgame: as far as fat-shaming goes, I actually think that Endgame is not so bad. Thor’s redeeming arc (for now I’m going to ignore the problematic, implicit claim that his perfectly understandable depression needed redeeming at all) has nothing to do with losing weight or miraculously “beating” his mental illness. There is even a conspicuous mention of how he is “still worthy” despite his struggles. The reason why I’m bringing this example up is that as soon as I saw Chris Hemsworth, the coils of barbed wire that are my eating disorder, and that after a decade of intensive treatment I usually manage to keep at a small distance from my skin, tightened around my throat and my stomach and my limbs. I had my hand in the popcorn bucket when Thor made his appearance, and I snatched it away, empty, like I’d been burned. I ate nothing for the rest of the movie, and I skipped dinner.
Later that night, back at my boyfriend’s place and as I was trying to fall asleep, my stomach—which I’ve made a point to feed like clockwork since I truly committed to recovery—started protesting loudly. Tyler figured me out almost immediately.
“Did you eat at all after the theater?”
“I didn’t have time.”
A pause on his part, as he decided to address the underlying issue instead of fighting me about its manifestation. “Did something about the movie bother you?” I stayed in silence. “Specifically, did Thor bother you?”
For the next half hour, he gently tried to convince me to eat something. Anything. He didn’t have much in his apartment, which he shared five other people who left the kitchen so dirty it was impossible to cook, but he got up and started digging snacks out of drawers. Potato bread. Red Velvet Oreos. Golden Delicious apples that he kept in the mini-fridge. He went to the kitchen and came back with a carton of vanilla soy milk.
And there I was, sitting up in bed, wild-eyed, dry-mouthed and white-knuckled. So hungry. I could hear my pulse as it rushed through my ears. I was panicking. From how scared I was, one would have thought I was about to die. And I was, because with this disease, every time I eat, something inside thinks that everything will crumble if I dare put food in my mouth. Every meal is a bargain, as I weigh my hunger against the fear that I’ll be ruined if I appease it. Usually I can rationalize through this, but that night a single character in a single movie had made my panic go from a whisper to a deafening roar in the space of three hours. Even though I was starving and I wanted to eat, that voice was drowning me out, snatching my pleads for food right out of my throat. As hard as I was trying, I was physically unable to vocalize my hunger.
Eventually I said yes, yes I would eat, after I couldn’t bear the concern in Tyler’s eyes anymore. He put one slice of bread in a white-and-blue ceramic bowl and turned off the light at my request, and I ate in the dark. After the first bite the knot inside me unraveled and I started sobbing. Once I finished eating, my boyfriend held me until I stoped crying. And then I went to bed, and the next day I was fine. It was as if nothing had happened.
My therapist calls these sudden mini-relapses “Blips.” Every once in a while my eating disorder will rear its head up and dig its heels in and I’ll spend any amount of time, between an hour and a week, in a haze of dread and self-loathing. Sometimes Blips have behavioral manifestations and I’ll skip meals or try to purge, but most of the time they are a purely mental battle. I wish that I could restrict, I wish that I could purge, I wish that I could go outside and run for hours at a time. Upon failing to, I wish that I could self-harm as a punishment to my perceived moral shortcomings. I berate myself for being “to weak” to relapse.
As I’ve begun to internalize a recovery mentality, the Blips have decreased in frequency but not intensity—if anything, my frustration when I go through one has gotten worse. Even scarier, I’ve begun to direct the anger I feel during Blips towards the outside world. Back when I was sicker, the panic I felt during these mini-relapses felt justified, and I had someone—myself—to blame for what I perceived as a risk (gaining weight). Now I’ve convinced myself that what my body looks like doesn’t define me and doesn’t actually matter all that much to people who care about me, that it’s not my fault that I’m sick, and that I don’t deserve to live with the self-loathing and destructive perfectionism that haunts me—but at the end of the day I’m still stuck with this. When I make it to 10 P.M. and I realize that I experienced my entire day in the third person (focusing on my mental image of what I must look like to someone else rather than on what I am seeing or feeling), when I look into a mirror and a knot ties itself in my throat, when a paralyzing panic seizes me every time I see a picture of myself, the specifics don’t seem to matter at all. It’s of no importance whether my fear is warranted or even rational—the pertinent thing is that the fear is real, it’s there, and it tears me apart. The knowledge that my illness wasn’t my fault or my doing actually makes everything worse, because when I could blame myself for my suffering I was a little better at shouldering it. Now I just resent life for giving me this burden to carry—which in turns makes me angry with myself, because what kind of self-absorbed asshole must I be, to think that I have it that bad? My anger emanates off me in waves during Blips, infinitely more dangerous and difficult to control than if it were directed inwards.
I guess this article doesn’t have a neat ending with a feel-happy moral. It only has what I choose to tell myself so that I don’t fall back into my anorexia’s deadly talons: that if I were to let go and relapse, the fear and anger and frustration would become a full-time thing and not just a sporadic malady. That even if, like a mirror, my brain warps my perception of my progress, my steps in recovery do matter. They are worth it. My life quality, social life, academic performance, health — they are all infinitely better than they used to be. A few months ago I was scrolling through my camera roll and I realized that over the past two years, my smile in pictures has gotten steadily bigger and more genuine as I’ve become happier and stopped worrying so much about how wide my face looks. I was so proud I didn’t even care that the pictures also clearly showed the weight I’ve gained. When I’m frustrated during a blip, this is the kind of unambiguous victory — however small — that I hold on tight to. Recovery gave me my smile back. Recovery gave me my friends back. Recovery gave me myself back. My self. Recovery hurts like a bitch, but it’s kept me alive and kicking. It will continue to hurt, and it will continue to keep me alive. In the same vein, this disease is frustrating as hell, but if I’m frustrated it means I’m still fighting it, and I haven’t fallen back into the short-term relief of my behaviors.
It means there is hope. Because I’m alive. And I’m angry. And when my eating disorder tries to change the former or redirect the latter, I will kick back.