I’m pretty sure I’ve thrown up in every bathroom in South Jersey.
My eating disorder started 12 years ago, when I was a freshman at the University of Delaware. Everyone around me was having a blast—choosing their majors, going to parties, making a ton of new friends—and I just felt out of place. And trapped. Taking some time off or changing schools didn’t seem like a possibility. I was a well-adjusted kid who got great grades in high school and should’ve been shining in college.
So, I stuck it out and felt miserable and totally out of control—and started trying to control my weight as a result.
Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. After I gained about 5 pounds that unhappy freshman year of college, I started running a lot and scaled back on what I was eating. Then, I started binging and purging. I always thought I could stop, until it became clear that I couldn’t.
I was 19 years old, hanging out with my friends from high school all summer, and instead of letting myself just have fun, going out to the movies or to the mall, and eating out afterward, I would obsess about what and how much food I could eat—and where the closest bathroom was so I’d be able to get rid of that food immediately. Malls, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants—I always knew where to find a bathroom. I always found a way to please my eating disorder.
My Dark Secret
Considering anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any eating disorder, it’s remarkable to think of how well those who suffer can keep their illness from others. But it can be done; I know, because I mastered it myself.
When I left for college I was about 130 pounds—clearly not overweight for my 5’7″ frame. By the time I reached winter break during my sophomore year, I was around 90 pounds. While my friends and family would make a few comments here and there about how “tiny” I looked or how they couldn’t understand how I could eat so much and still lose weight, nobody directly said anything to me. I think this is because I hid my disease so well.
I really had it down to a science, and I was never forced to confront it. For years, I was sick, and my friends, co-workers, family, and parents didn’t say anything, which left me feeling incredibly isolated.
At home, my parents were worried enough to ask me to go to the doctor, but I just snuck my mom’s ankle weights in to the appointment and put them on before I stepped on the scale. When you have an eating disorder, you do whatever you can to stay committed to it. Now, when I think about the time and effort I put into it, it’s ridiculous. And actually, it paralyzed me, keeping me in this purgatory of not really moving forward.
Having an eating disorder is kind of like being dragged through life to whatever next step you have to take. I graduated college. I got a job at a law firm. I’d eat, work, exercise, starve myself, binge, purge, and repeat. But I never really moved forward emotionally. I had very distant relationships with my friends and family and virtually no romantic relationships. I entered a number of graduate school programs after graduation, but I could never choose a focus.
While I never had an “Aha moment,” I finally made the connection between my paralysis in other parts of my life—romantic relationships, friends, and career—and my eating disorder. I realized I couldn’t change anything else in my life without addressing my eating disorder first—the only thing that was going to help me move forward was to get help.
My Road to Recovery
I ended up in rehab because I chose to go—nobody forced me to make a change. And I think this is one of the reasons why I have been successful at staying well for so long; I truly wanted to get better. Overcoming an eating disorder is like facing any other addiction in that you have to want to stop. And stopping is so hard, because when controlling what you eat becomes your whole life, you get really good at it, so it can be terribly difficult to let go.
At one point, it was my whole life. Nothing else mattered.
Today, it’s hard for me to believe it was such an enormous part of my life. Last week, I had a stomach virus and threw up for about 24 hours straight, and I thought, This is so awful! How did I do this for so long? This may sound silly and obvious, but my life is so much better now. I don’t think about food 24/7. Now, it’s like, OK, what do I want to eat tonight? When I make plans with my friends, I don’t obsess about what I’m going to eat—or where the nearest bathroom will be.
That’s not to say I don’t still struggle. It’s hard not to in this world where all of us spend so much time fixated on food and weight and calories. I am very aware of how people discuss food and body image. It’s not that it bothers me, but I definitely pick up on it. When friends say, “I’m so fat” or “I shouldn’t be eating this Snickers bar,” I just want to shout, “Please don’t live like that—it’s not worth it! I mean, it’s just a Snickers bar.” There are other times when I catch myself. Not that I’d binge and purge again, but if I’ve been out drinking a lot, say, or eating a lot of junk food, every now and then something in the back of my mind says, You can just get rid of this if you really wanted to.
But I don’t. I eat when I’m hungry. I eat what I want in moderation. And life’s a lot more fun this way. My message to anyone facing their own struggle with an eating disorder is this: It’s a pretty awful lifestyle to choose, and it’s so worth it to get better. Nobody could be any worse than I was. Whatever someone else is dealing with, I probably did it, too. And it does get better. It takes time, but it’s worth it to get better.