I am 18 years old and a virgin to the real world. I have spent my life in a small coastal town made smaller by gossip and politics; a place that isn’t really so terrible to grow up in, but feels positively stifling to someone who’s never experienced anywhere else. Still, high school wasn’t as bad for me as it was for many of my classmates. I was never popular, but I had a close-knit circle of friends that insulated me from much of the typical teenage drama. I didn’t drink, I rarely went to parties. I got good grades, was the school newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief and spent the majority of my free time on the running track where there was no trouble to tempt me. My longtime boyfriend, Adam, left for college three hours away the summer after we met, which meant we’d spent two long years apart, stowing away all-too-brief hours together every few weeks when he took the train home to visit. It was not an unhappy high school experience by any means, but I itched to get out into the world where I knew life would be so much fuller.
When it came time to choose a college many months ago, I thumbed my nose at the guidance counselor who advised me to apply to the state university twenty minutes down the road—a solid safety school with a lot of potential scholarship money, she said. Attending college a stone’s throw away from the town I’ve lived in all my life is not in the cards, I explained. Much as I adored the school Adam attended, I also had no desire to be the girl who followed a boy to college. I needed autonomy. I craved freedom. I wanted to get away. Not too far, but far enough that I could no longer say I lived in the smallest state in the country. I had all this potential bottled up inside me, just waiting to burst free. A city was the only destination that would suffice.
And now, here I am: officially away. Boston, to be precise. A city that feels thrillingly intimidating, but manageable enough to conquer in four years’ time. I am a stranger to these streets now—the myriad dead ends and one ways that I imagine bred the so-called Masshole drivers—but, I know it won’t be long before they are written on my brain, ready to call up anytime an out-of-towner asks for directions. The day I move in, a sweltering August afternoon, I am calm and ready, with none of the apprehension I expected to feel. I am more than prepared; I have spent the past three months amassing ungodly amounts of overpriced college fare designed to appeal to middle class suckers like me. A purple desk lamp with a spot for holding pens and paperclips. A plastic bathroom caddy for my first foray into communal showering. The lime green and blue checked floor rug that my roommate and I have agreed fits well into our desired dorm room color scheme (it is the dawn of something called Facebook and we have been writing messages on each other’s walls for a month now, coordinating our various purchases.) As we unpack—an egg crate here, an 18 pack of Ramen noodles there—I can’t help but notice the girl moving in next door. She has long, shapely legs showcased by a short denim shirt, which she’s paired with silver flip flops and a baby blue Abercrombie and Fitch polo. Her hair is dirty blonde and stick straight, shot through with chunky white-blonde highlights that look sophisticated, not trashy the way they do on some girls. Her ears are dotted with pearl studs—probably real, I note—and a Tiffany heart pendant hangs around her neck. I lust after that necklace in a way that I have never lusted after anything—maybe not even my boyfriend—and wonder how I could possibly afford or justify the $550 price tag that my online research later tells me it fetches. She is, in a word, adorable. In two more: classy, flawless. I want to be her. But I’ll settle for being her friend. After a little more ogling, I introduce myself. I learn she is also from my tiny state; our parents comment on what a small world it is. I see myself becoming her best friend, slipping easily into the role without competition from her roommate whom she can’t stand. We will spend the school year together and then return to our home state for the summer where we’ll meet up for beach dates and backyard cookouts. My own roommate leaves much to be desired. I want to like her, but her much older boyfriend spends nearly all his waking hours in our dorm room and their favorite pastime is having loud, hostile fights followed by equally loud sex in a twin bed that’s less than four feet from mine. Needless to say, I end up spending a lot of time commiserating with girl next door whose roommate spends hours at the gym daily, yet seems to be on an every third day showering schedule. We hit it off instantly.
We have very different majors—journalism for me, physical therapy for her—so we don’t share any classes. Still, we spend all our free time together, watching Friends re-runs, taking ab strengthening classes at the gym, negating our workouts with copious amounts of alcohol and after-dinner ice cream sundaes from the dining hall. We eat nearly every meal together and, after a couple months, I start to notice a particular mealtime habit of hers; something I begin to refer to as “body checking.” With every few bites, she pinches at her waist, checking to make sure she hasn’t gained weight instantaneously. I find the habit annoyingly unnerving, but I can tell she’s barely aware of it, almost like it’s a reflex. After awhile, we are close enough that I feel comfortable calling her attention to it. She laughs it off and says it’s just something she does; she hardly notices it. After I bring it up, she only does it when she thinks I’m not looking.
She is my best friend now. We do everything together: party, study, eat, work out. Sometimes we even take showers at the same time and talk through the tiled wall about what party we should attend and what we’ll wear to it. It’s so rare that one of us is without the other that mutual friends ask where she is when they see me on campus alone. We share everything: snacks, lip gloss, gossip. I often borrow from her impressively large designer wardrobe and, little by little, accrue some essentials for myself: a North Face fleece here, a pair of Ugg boots there. I want to look just as beautiful in them as she does, but I can’t quite pull it off. One Friday night, she lets me borrow her jeans for a frat party at MIT; I plan to wear them with a new top that clings to my hips and shows off my nonexistent cleavage. But when I pull the jeans on, I can’t help but notice how my fat spills over the top, how they seem to cling to my thighs in a way they never do on her, in a way they surely wouldn’t on so many of the girls I see in my classes or beside me in line at the dining hall. For the first time in maybe my whole life, my weight gives me a moment of pause.
I have been athletic as far back as I can remember and was always thin without ever really having to think much about it. Now that I no longer belong to a team that forces me to exercise daily, I need to ramp up my motivation. I start hitting the gym more—between classes, before going out on the weekends, early in the morning—bouncing between the running track, the stairclimber, the free weights, the stationary bike. I take spin classes and leave drenched in sweat (literally—there are times the bottoms of my yoga pants actually drip) and I imagine the weight being siphoned off me. I like the way I feel now that I’m more in control, but I know I still have a lot of work to do. In the dining hall, I start eating less pizza and pasta, stick to salad and stir-fry. I am already a vegetarian, so that eliminates one whole food group. No fatty cheeseburgers or fried chicken for me. I walk everywhere, take the stairs to my third floor dorm room, subtract the after-dinner sundaes. My friend’s jeans start looking better and better on me. I treat myself to a ridiculously expensive pair of my own.
People begin to comment on how good I look. It is positively intoxicating. I ride the high of a compliment for days, spinning it into motivation to power through a tough workout. I recognize that I could easily be in bed like my roommate, still asleep at noon on a Sunday after eating half a pizza the night before. But I am here instead. That knowledge is the impetus that spurs me on when I want to crawl back to my dorm and lay under the covers. The university gym is impressive, with three circular floors of workout equipment and class studios looking down on a bank of tables and chairs dotting the ground floor. Some students sit at the tables and eat their egg and cheese sandwiches, drink their chocolate milkshakes and full fat lattes. Others, like me, watch them sanctimoniously from the treadmills above. When I’m up there pumping and sweating, I feel a rush of superiority that I have the willpower and motivation they don’t. On rare occasion, I also feel a pang of jealousy at how easy they make it seem—to just be a normal college student who doesn’t care about the dreaded Freshman 15—but the jealousy is quickly replaced with smugness at the shape I’ll be in compared to them. I know the sacrifice is well worth it.
I put in the hard work over the winter so that, when spring rolls around, I’m looking my best. Mini skirt season in the city is out in full bloom and I eagerly embrace it, though I’ve never really been a short skirt wearer. Girls lay out on the lawn behind the freshman dorms with their shirts rolled up just below their bras, exposing shallow navels and pale skin to the boys playing Frisbee nearby. It’s about 15 degrees too cold for that sort of thing, but no one else seems to notice, so I go along with it. My best friend has now become something of an adversary—we are still as close as ever, but I feel myself resenting her for her popularity, for her queen-like status around campus. I suspect she’s also grown tired of dragging me to every party; most of the guys there are trying to take her home but she always leaves with me, the girl with the out-of-town boyfriend. When she tells me in the summer that she’s transferring for sophomore year, I am equal parts devastated and relieved.
Sophomore year, I room with an acquaintance who is not yet a good friend. We are still feeling each other out. I have to get used to her boyfriend who keeps his action figures in our apartment so as not to invite ridicule from his own roommate and she has to get used to my boyfriend who still visits every other weekend from New Hampshire. She is beautiful, quirky and refreshingly confident. She is also a junk food aficionado—Hostess cupcakes, barbecue chips and all manner of foods ending in “eeto” fill our cupboards—yet she never gains an ounce. It incites jealousy in me, as I have to work much harder to maintain my weight; still trekking to the gym every morning before class and filling my side of the fridge with leafy greens and blocks of tofu. Her food is so tempting though. Sometimes, when she’s not home, I sneak into her bag of Lays or take a spoon to her Funfetti frosting, eating just enough that she won’t notice. I pinch my waist regretfully as I snack on her food and tell myself I’ll do an extra 20 minutes at the gym in the morning. And then I do, because those extra calories will haunt me all day if I don’t work them off.
I am 19 and alone more often than not. Our apartment is off the beaten path, far away from the cluster of dorms and high-rise apartment buildings in the center of campus. No one wants to expend that much effort to hang out. My roommate is gone most nights at her boyfriend’s apartment or comes home after I’m already asleep. It affords me a lot of time to get into trouble pilfering her food, one mouthful at a time. She always gets the good stuff: Easy Mac and Chunky Monkey, the full fat peanut butter I won’t let myself buy, even though my reduced fat kind tastes like peanut flavored paste. I spend a lot of time at the gym making up for my transgressions. Most days, I’m there before 5:30 AM, ushering in the day with all the professors and other campus faculty for whom working out before the sun rises is not a ridiculous proposition. I only ever see other students when I’m on my way out a couple hours later. The middle-aged front desk clerk and I are on a first name basis; he always has my favorite magazines ready for me to bring upstairs so I can read while I work out. Lately, I eat most meals alone. I don’t want to deal with the hassle of explaining to other people why I eat my salad without dressing or why I don’t want to share a plate of fries. It’s just easier to go by myself. Usually, I bring a textbook so I don’t attract pitying stares from the clusters of other students who eat together at the surrounding tables. They wouldn’t understand. I don’t eat alone because I have no friends. I do it by choice.
I begin to realize how much easier is it to skip meals when I substitute alcohol for food instead. I don’t do it all the time—I’m pretty sure that kind of behavior is reserved for alcoholics—but it’s useful when I’ve had a not-so-great day of eating or have to cut my morning workout short. Even if I’m starving beforehand, once the buzz floods my system, I’m no longer hungry at all. This has the unfortunate downside of getting me drunk very quickly and, oftentimes, I don’t even make it out to whatever party I’d planned to attend before passing out on the couch. Still, I count it as a victory if I make it through the night without eating past 4 PM and still have enough energy to drag myself to the gym in the morning. When Adam comes to visit on the weekends, I leave him sleeping in my bed while I creep out to take a spin class or to log some miles on the indoor track. He begs me not to go, grabs for my hand in the darkness as I sit on the bed beside him, tightly knotting my shoelaces. “I won’t be long,” I promise, but once I get there, the pull is too strong and I end up staying almost two hours. When I get back, he’s showered and dressed, wasting time flipping through the channels on my tiny television. I want to tell him I’m sorry for wasting our precious time together and that I won’t do it again, but I know that’s not the truth.
At Thanksgiving break, I am flooded with anxiety about the amount of calories I’ll be forced to consume over the course of the week. Everything my mom will have on the table is filled with carbohydrates, heavy creams, butter, sugar. I’m so used to eating alone that I’m not sure how to go undetected amongst so many people, to avoid the foods I don’t want to eat during a holiday focused on gluttony. The morning of Thanksgiving, I wake up before everyone else in the house so I can log some time on the ancient elliptical in the basement. It is slow going, but after a few hours, I’m able to bank over 1,000 calories from which to draw later in the day. I’m up a few hundred calories from my usual count, so I’ll be able to safely consume some of the meal without gaining too much in the process. Still, I’m careful to take the healthiest of the options: corn and green beans, mashed potatoes without gravy, cranberry sauce, salad. During the meal, my crotchety grandfather loudly points out that I can’t be much wider than a number two pencil. He’s a mouthy asshole with no filter and, in that moment, I hate him with every fiber of my being. Except for the tiny part of me that’s flattered.
People start to treat me like I have a disease (it will be years before I realize that’s true.) They ask what I can eat, rather than what I’m willing to eat. If I have to go out to a restaurant, I will scope out the menu days or weeks in advance, mentally and physically preparing myself for whatever I will be forced to consume. On a Cape Cod vacation with Adam’s entire extended family over the summer, I cite a stomachache rather than allow myself to indulge in the fried seafood the rest of the family is enjoying. My empty plate looks as lonely as I feel.
I am 20 and skinnier than ever. Those beloved jeans from freshman year have become baggy and unflattering. I‘ve purchased several smaller pairs to replace them. Now that I work in an office for my co-op job—a PR firm that’s 98% women—my wardrobe is ultra important. The girls who work there are all stick thin, except for my direct boss; a full-figured woman whom everyone ridicules behind her back. I sit right by the small kitchenette, so the conversation around me is always focused on eating. All they seem to talk about is dieting. This one is restricting carbs; that one is cutting major weight for her upcoming wedding. The chatter is suffocating; it takes up all the air in the room, seeps into my pores like poison. I absorb every molecule, letting it feed the fire of my insatiable hunger. I want so badly for them to like me. I want so badly to be like them. In order to arrive at work halfway across the city by 9, I have to be at the gym by 5 AM every day, which is the earliest it’s open. Sometimes, I have to cut my workouts shorter than I’d like, so, most days, I work out after I get home, too. I change into my gym clothes before I get on the train going home, which gives me no excuse to skip my workout. When I finally make it back to my apartment around 8 PM, I get right to portioning out the following day’s meals. Two spoonfuls of nonfat yogurt and a small baggie of granola for breakfast. (If I eat any of the granola while I’m packing it, I force myself to deduct some from the next morning’s breakfast.) Lunch is a salad of strictly veggies, no dressing. A packet of appetite suppressing tea for the afternoon. An apple or banana for the ride home. Dinner is always cereal—every single night, with rare exceptions. It’s the only indulgence I allow myself and I justify it by reasoning that, since I’m really full, I won’t eat anything else after dinner.
Some nights when I’m still hungry after the cereal, I just go to bed rather than stay awake and face my hunger. I live in an apartment with four other girls; three of whom are my friends and one, a stranger, randomly placed with us by university housing. I don’t like them to see me eat my cereal—a couple of them have made comments about how weird it is that I never eat anything else—but trying to time up when I’ll be alone in the kitchen is like tiptoeing through a field of lasers, trying not to trip the alarm. I listen intently from behind my closed bedroom door until they’ve each retired to their own rooms to study or have gone out for the night and then set about quickly preparing my cereal. Most of the time, I’m able to make it back to my bedroom to eat without issue, but sometimes, if all of them are gone and I know I’m alone in the apartment, things take a bad turn. I see their boxes of Goldfish, their jars of peanut butter, their bags of potato chips crammed into the pantry next to my row of cereal boxes. And then, I eat. First, just a handful of one thing, after which I promise myself I’ll stop. I’m at the point now where an extra half hour at the gym will erase that small misstep. But I don’t stop. Wheat Thins dunked in peanut butter. Ice cream chased by handfuls of chips. Fat, salty pickles and mouthfuls of sugary sweet whipped cream. I eat like I haven’t been fed a real meal in years. Which, I guess, is somewhat accurate. When I eat like that, I am on autopilot, unable to stop myself from continuing. I block out the emotions behind the action—the guilt and the shame and the self-loathing come later—and just eat. In that moment, I am nothing more than a starving girl standing in front of an all-you-can-eat-buffet, greedily snapping up anything within her reach. I am a bottomless pit of hunger and, even when it stops, I am still not satisfied.
On the outside, life is stunningly perfect. I’m doing exceptionally well in school, have a promising job, a long-time boyfriend who adores me and a killer wardrobe. At work, I’ve made a few friends who go to my school and are also interning at the firm. I get along well with one in particular. But, after co-op ends, we drift apart as I repeatedly turn down her invitations to get together. She asks what she’s done to offend me; I tell her nothing, I’m just insanely busy. If she knew that I go to bed at 8 PM most nights to avoid eating more after I finish my customary bowl of cereal, I doubt she’d want to hang out with me anyway. I’m content to let the friendship die rather than get close to her.
The drinking has gotten particularly bad. I rarely drink without blacking out anymore. Which suits me just fine most of the time since I now drink to forget. I drink to be someone else—someone wittier, more confident, someone who doesn’t mumble when she speaks because she never has anything of value to add to a conversation. When I drink—vodka in particular—I pick fights with my boyfriend. Vicious, barbaric fights in which I hurl insults and act like a woman possessed. And I guess I am. The fights almost always end with me sobbing apologies, begging my boyfriend to leave me and find someone normal. The worst mornings are the ones when I wake up and know I’ve done something awful, but the memory of it lies just beyond my reach. I can’t make amends for events of which I have almost no recollection. I embarrass myself in front of what remaining friends I have, in front of Adam’s college friends and, in one particularly awful scenario, in front of the co-workers from my co-op job whose approval I so desperately seek. I spend more time apologizing than actually enjoying myself. On the rare occasion someone in my company is drunker than me, I am oddly proud.
One night, I go for drinks at a friend’s apartment. He and I take the train to our respective jobs every day; I met him freshman year during orientation and we stayed fairly close. When I get there, I find out he hasn’t invited anyone else, though he called it a party when he extended the invitation. He fixes me a drink in the kitchen while I sit, out of sight, in the living room. Much of the rest of the night is a hazy blur, pieced together by random people who saw us out at a bar and my roommate who narrowly stopped him from raping me in our shared apartment bathroom. When I wake up the next morning in my bed, naked, with bruises on my head and inner thighs, I feel shame like I have never felt in my entire life. I know I am to blame for what occurred. Unbelievably, Adam does not leave me. Rather, he sits beside me in the waiting room at the walk-in clinic and holds my hand as I wait for them to call my name. Hours later, they tell me the rape test kit is inconclusive; it is likely the roofie has already passed through my system. They ask if I want to press charges anyway. I tell them I do not; I have no desire to sit on a stand and be judged for bringing this on myself. It will be years before I start to believe it is truly not my fault.
Following the assault, I swear off drinking for awhile. I know it’s the only way I can stay in control of my actions. For a few weeks, it goes well. I enjoy waking up and knowing exactly how I spent the previous night, knowing that I have nothing for which to apologize. But it’s short-lived. Alcohol is my escape from a life I no longer control; except when I’m drunk, food occupies my mind almost exclusively. I cannot enjoy one single moment without thinking of how I will atone for the food I have eaten or abstain from the food I will be offered. On my 21st birthday, I am kicked out of the bar where my adoring boyfriend has rented a room to celebrate with all our friends and wind up in the hospital having my stomach pumped.
I am 21 and I am my eating disorder.
One particularly bad binge sends the whole house of cards crashing down around me. The bingeing has reached something of a fever pitch since the assault and, with each episode, I despise myself just a little bit more. All my life, I’ve hated vomiting; I was always the person who’d rather suffer through agonizing nausea than vomit to get it over with. So when I find myself hanging over the bowl of the toilet about to stick my fingers down my throat on a Friday night while all my girlfriends are out at a party, I know I am too far gone. As I stand pale and shaking in the mirror, I decide enough is enough. The next morning, I place a call to the Outpatient Eating Disorders Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. That call will start me on the long road to recovery, fraught with missteps and relapses, paved with years’ worth of moments I’d rather stuff down deep in my subconscious than rehash and dissect. But I crave a life outside of food. I want so badly to be something more than my eating disorder. I want to be me again.
I am 28. I am a wife to the man who stood by my side all that time and fought for the girl he saw inside me, the girl I was when we met as teenagers. I am a mother to two beautiful boys, whom I carried inside that broken body made whole again. I am a daughter and a sister, a runner and writer, a loyal friend and a woman who is mostly comfortable in her own skin. I am living proof that recovery is possible. I am no longer my eating disorder. But a small part of me will always be that 18 year old girl with the world at her feet, just one step away from spiraling into a life that is not her own. I am forever beholden to the person I was all those years ago, always vigilant lest it suck me in again.
Yet, somehow I know those days are behind me. I have to believe that I am here to stay.
I am finally enough.