Friday, February 7, 2020

My Freedom Day

At first glance, this is just a picture of me taken of me earlier this week, being silly while holding a macaron.  I was going to delete it, because it was me goofing around, but just before I did, I stopped myself.  Because this picture, and the moments surrounding it, are actually something of a miracle.


On this day, twenty-seven years ago, I was stepping out into a cold and rainy February day in Northern California — stepping out from a hospital where I’d spent the past almost-month due to an eating disorder.  


I don’t like talking about this time in my life.  It embarrasses me a little, it makes me kind of sad, I worry about what others will think, and I wonder if I do say something, does it even do anyone any good?  


But every time I’ve tried to write this week, this was all I could think about.  So I here I am trying to put what’s on my heart into words — words that I hope and pray help and don’t hurt.


That day that I left the hospital, I was far from “healthy.”  I still weighed less than I should have at that age for that height, and I still had enormous anxiety about control that I would struggle with for another good year or so.  But I was no longer in danger of my heart failing, of actual death, so they let me go home.


Trying to explain the why’s and how’s of what had gotten me to that point would be take longer than I want because that’s not really the reason I’m writing this today.  It was definitely a struggle for control, and a search for value everywhere but where I’d really find it, and like matches being dropped into a tinderbox, everything blew up, way out of my control.  What I can tell you is that it started with me wondering if I could just lose a little weight (weight I absolutely did not need to lose!), because maybe then people would like me more, and it spiraled from there.  


My family was overseas at the time, and I was attending a boarding school.  One of my roommates said one day, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘too skinny.’”  She said this when I had a patch of raw skin on my backbone from doing so many sit-ups, and a bone on my sternum was sticking out.  I know now that it was just a dumb thing to say, as I have done many times myself, but at that moment I believed her.  I bought into her words, and I almost died.  


My parents brought me home from the boarding school first, desperate to get me healthy again.  They took me to a psychiatrist in Bangkok who told us I didn’t have any markers for an eating disorder, so I just needed to eat more.


“Do you like milkshakes?” he asked me.  I nodded.  “Do you like peanut butter?”  I nodded again.  “Well, then, my prescription for you is to go out and a get a peanut butter milkshake from Swenson’s.  Do that every day.  You’ll be fine.”  He sat back in his chair and folded his hands on his chest with a satisfied smile.  Case solved.


But... I just couldn’t.  I was trapped in a prison of anxiety that if I listened to him and just ate whatever, my life would spin way out of control.  Already, I told myself, no one liked me (this was also as untrue as my roommate’s words, but when you’re fourteen, you believe these lies), and no one ever would.


I remember Christmas that year and always being cold, even in Thailand, always being so tired.  Everything in my body hurt.  Then one night I had a dream.  I was taken to this hospital.  I could clearly see the pattern on the curtain around the bed, and I walked over to the window and looked down into the courtyard, taking in the fountain below, and the brick wall of the hospital building.  A voice began talking and said very clearly, “You are going to die.  You are never going to have friends, never fall in love, never going to get married, never have children, never see any of your ideas or goals come to pass.”  I started crying, begging for whoever spoke these words to be wrong, begging for a chance to live.  Then I woke up.


My dad took me to California in early January.  I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know how to help myself because “drinking a milkshake” was somehow physically impossible to me.  I literally choked when I tried.  En route, we stopped in Singapore.  The air conditioning in our hotel room made me shiver from cold, so while my dad was watching television, I drew a hot bath.  As I stepped into it, I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror.  We didn’t have a full-length mirror in our home, so this was the first time I’d seen my body in its entirety for quite a while.  


I didn’t like looking in the mirror ever.  I’d believed the boys on my bus in fifth grade who told me for our entire 20-minute bus ride both ways every day that I was the ugliest thing they’d seen and had a hard time disagreeing.  So that evening, I flinched and looked away quickly, but what I’d seen alarmed me, and I looked back. 


I knew then, for sure, there was such a thing as too skinny.  


The reflection in the mirror was just bones with skin over them.  The sore on my back had grown so that most of the skin over the vertebrae in my middle back was raw, and my chest was just bones sticking out at weird angles.  My face looked like little more than a skull.  I stepped into the bath and hid my face from my reflection, sobbing.  This was not what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get better.  


I slept almost the whole flight back to San Francisco.  I was too tired to fight when my dad drove me to the hospital, and they decided to check me in.  I was taken to a room and as I looked around, terror filled me.  The curtains were exactly the print I had seen in my dream.  I walked to the window, knowing what I would see, but still having a pounding heart as I looked into the courtyard below, seeing the brick wall and the fountain I already knew from my dream.


I cried that night begging my dad to take me home, swearing I would figure out how to get better, that I’d do whatever they said.  I know now how it must have nearly killed my dad to leave me there.


What happened over the next few weeks was that all control was taken from me, then slowly,  in incremental steps, granted back.  I had counted calories before, but now everything was measured: how much I ate and drank, how much I peed.  I was walked down a hall every morning wearing nothing but a hospital gown to be weighed.  It was humiliating.  My heart and blood pressure did crazy things as I began to put on weight so that I was literally bed-ridden for days because my heart could fail if I got up and walked around.  My skin all over my body ached like a bruise, like I’d been beaten everywhere.


The day I left, they told my parents, “She’ll be back.  It might be just once or twice, but she’ll be back.”  Because the people who worked there knew well the prison of eating disorders, and that escaping them is no easy feat.


But I didn’t go back.  I knew that it would mean death.  I fought, and sometimes it felt like an impossible battle, but eventually I was healthy again.  


I’m sharing this — the ugly and terrible and painful and humiliating — because I want you to know just how horrible it was.  I think the term “eating disorder” gets casually tossed around without an understanding of the actual hell it is.  I want you to know that this is the reality of where an unhealthy attitude about eating, and mostly about yourself, can get you.


But also, I truly believe that eating disorders are not at all rare.  I cannot tell you the number of people I’ve heard say, “I mean, it’s not like I have an eating disorder or anything,” but seeing the way food consumes and controls their minds, their lives, I would beg to differ.  True, not everyone gets to the extreme point I got to where actual medical intervention is needed, but I think a lot of us have unhealthy approaches to eating.  Eating disorders don’t always look like a skeletal teenage girl; they have many different appearances.  If you are reading this and can relate at all, please know that you are not alone.


More than that, I feel like eating disorders are looked at by some as “totally crazy.”  I beg to differ.  If things were bad twenty-seven years ago, they’re far worse now.  We live in a world where so much value is placed on appearances and especially on weight.  Numbers are everything to us.  How many followers do I have?  How many people liked that last photo I posted?  And all this can get so muddled up to where it suddenly makes sense that the number on the scale will dictate love and approval.  


It’s strange — on the one hand, that experience feels so far removed from my life now.  I love eating, my hanger is scary and real, and I’m a healthy, happy weight.  I’ve got an amazing and loving husband and a bunch of kids running around.  I weigh myself only at the doctor’s office and almost never think about the number of calories in what I’m eating.  I never do fad diets or even fast for faith purposes.  I make it a point not to say to or in front of my kids, “That food is bad for you!” or “Ugh, I look so fat today,” because I know the slippery slope that kind of talk creates.  I can (and sometimes do) happily try to pretend that it never happened, or dismiss it as “a crazy thing I did.”  


But the thing is, I think any of us can, very easily, be “crazy,” even if it isn’t an eating disorder at all.  I have for years loved the Susanna Kaysen quote from Girl, Interrupted


“Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret.  It’s you or me amplified.”


The truth is, I thank God every day for rescuing me out of the hell that is an eating disorder, but I also know there are daily battles I need to fight with Him to stay on this side of sane.  I think if we are honest with ourselves, that’s true for all of us.


And that’s why I’m writing this.  I might sound like a broken record by the time I finish, but I want everyone who reads this to know: you are NOT alone.  You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone...


So even though that time in my life almost seems like a glitch now, even though I don’t want to dwell on that dark time in my life, my heart needed to address it here.  I want you to know that I didn’t just take a picture with that chocolate macaron, I ate it. And as I ate it, didn’t think about fat or sugar or calories; I just thought about how delicious it was.  I didn’t even at the time remember those hospital walls, I just looked at my daughter across the table, laughing about something she had said.


And I tell you, that’s a miracle.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing! As your classmate at the time… I had no idea anything was wrong! I think that’s part of this… We go around every day thinking about our own problems and not realizing that other people could be dealing with all sorts of things! Thanks for sharing!
    Also, I think I actually remember going to Swenson’s with you and some friends! (I personally prefer chocolate chip cookies and chocolate peanut butter milkshakes over macaroons but… Still an awesome photo!!! )

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    1. I remember that trip to Swenson's! It was before things got completely out of hand, but I was definitely on a slide down, unfortunately. Really, it all happened so quickly.

      That's such a good point, that we don't realize what others are dealing with, the battles they're fighting, until they are somehow revealed to us. I think it's a good reason to be gentle with others (something I all-too-often forget to do), and to try to be a safe space for admitting weakness or pain.

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    2. Also, maybe you just haven't had as good a macaron as this! Keep trying! LOL!

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  2. Hi, I stumbled across your blog through instagram, and just wanted to say thank you for sharing this, even though I'm sure it was hard. Even though I haven't personally struggled with this, I think it will be such an encouragement to so many people. I also am trying to pass on to my daughters a healthy view of food and their bodies. It reminded me in some ways of Emily Wierenga's book "Atlas Girl" - I think even she and her husband also spent some years in Korea.

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    1. Thank you so much! I truly hope and pray that it encourages many! And thank you for trying to give your daughters that healthy perspective! I think too few of us think critically about our words and attitudes toward our own bodies and health. I actually have *a whole lot* I want to say about all of that, but it may be a post for another day! haha.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading and encouraging!

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