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The Picture in my Wallet: An eating disorder recovery story

Tucked away in my wallet is a worn photograph taken 23 years ago. My mother is hugging me from behind, peeking around my 5’10” frame, smiling for the camera. I was 20 years old and weighed 98 pounds. I was anorexic.

For the previous two years, I had starved myself. Although my hair shone in the bright sunshine and I beamed a big smile, the rest of me was a shadow of my former self. Arms as thin as twigs, hipbones protruding, plainly visible through my size one jeans, collar bone jutting out, chest sunken, ribs obvious. What the picture doesn’t show is receding gums, thinning hair, and that I hadn’t menstruated in almost a year. My fingernails were thin and brittle, vertical cracks had formed. I had been abusing laxatives. My digestive system was a mess, some of that damage permanent.

I had always been a thin child. Some would say scrawny. It was my trademark growing up, like my long blond hair and my straight A’s. When my hormones caught up to my growth spurts, I quickly put on 15 pounds. Seems inconsequential now, but at 18, just coming into my own, dating seriously for the first time, racing headlong to high school graduation and deciding what to do with the rest of my whole life, it was devastating. I had never been a popular kid, never the girl that boys were interested in, except to help them with math. The weight gain, and the cruel comments of someone I loved, sent me into a tailspin.

I started by cutting breakfast. Then came exercise. Soon I was telling my parents I would have dinner at friends, and tell my friend’s mom I had eaten at home. I lied to my parents. I had never done that before. I was losing my grip.

I became a calorie expert. I knew how many calories were in almost every type of food, how much fat, how to figure out fat to total calorie ratios. Since this was before the days of food nutrition labels, I studied calorie counting books and exercise books. I meticulously calculated exactly how much exercise I would have to do to eliminate each kind of food. Then I would exercise. But not eat.

I would go for a whole week and only eat one bite of a hamburger, then berate myself for being weak enough to eat that. Hunger pains became rewards for my strength, my resolve to battle the perceived bulge. As my pants grew too big, my perception of reality disappeared. I watched my weight drop, from 145 pounds, to 135, 125, 115. Yet I looked in the mirror and saw a fat girl gazing back. When I reached 102 pounds, I was encouraged. Only two more pounds, then I’d be perfect. I overheard a man say to his friend, “That’s the skinniest girl I’ve ever seen.” I was so proud.

My father begged me to eat, my mother nagged. So I did the opposite. My big teenage rebellion. Even my sister pleaded with me. I thought she was jealous, that for the first time in my life I looked thinner, better than she did. I didn’t. She wasn’t. She just loved me.

By this time I had been for a pregnancy test. I hadn’t had a period for several months. It came back negative. My doctor told me to gain five pounds, and said, “But you’re not going to do that, are you?” No, I was not. So he sent me for tests anyway. I was normal. At least my uterus was.

Within a couple of weeks I hit my low weight of 98 pounds. I don’t know what happened in my head, but I woke up one day, and was frightened by my reflection. I didn’t recognize myself, suddenly seeing the truth in the mirror. A pitiful girl, with dull eyes, sunken cheeks, dark circles. My hipbones stuck out further than my stomach. My butt cheeks were concave. I was skin on bone.

In retrospect, I was lucky. I didn’t need to be hospitalized. My heart didn’t fail during recovery. I do have some permanent health problems, and these serve as a reminder to me, like the photo I keep in my wallet, of my Mom and me, taken in the summer of ’83, when I weighed 98 pounds. A reminder to eat, to be healthy. To be alive. I survived that disease. I vow never to go hungry again.

Now, as I watch my teenage daughter scrutinize herself in the mirror and agonize over imaginary love handles, I cringe, and tell her my tale. I show her the picture, and hope that she learns from my mistakes. That perfection is imperfect, impossible, elusive. And it is not worth dying for.

--J.F.

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