What’s it like to have an eating disorder?
In many ways, Michelle’s story is typical of teenagers everywhere: In middle school and early high school, she was struggling to be popular, figure out her identity, and gain independence from her family. The pressure to be perfect was mounting. Sadly, Michelle’s solution to dealing with these problems was an increasingly common one among teen girls — she developed an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 10 million American females and 1 million American males are struggling with eating disorders. The honesty with which Michelle tells her story helps to explain why.
As told to Leila Kalmbach
When I was in eighth grade, I felt pretty good about my life. I was in the highest grade at my private Catholic school, and I was one of the captains of the cheerleading squad. I felt powerful and popular in the school.
I’d worked hard since fifth grade to be popular. All the popular girls were pretty and smart and perfect, so I tried to be perfect too. Finally, it seemed to be working.
But I was worried. I’d be entering high school the next year. All my friends were going to different schools, and the school I was going to, a private all-girls school, didn’t even have cheerleading, which was my life. I felt like all that control I’d worked so hard for was slipping from my grasp.
The thought of all that change coming made me anxious, and I knew I had to get control over something. So I started focusing on my food.
I developed daily rituals to keep myself in check. I would make sure everyone else was taken care of before I would take care of myself. I carefully monitored what I ate and how much I exercised.
I devoted the entire summer after my eighth grade year to getting into my eating disorder. I was obsessed with food and weight and trying to obtain an unobtainable size. I never felt good enough.
One day, toward the end of the summer, I had lost a decent amount of weight, and my mom told me I looked like I had gained weight. I was devastated. I thought, ‘I’m entering a new school, and the first thing they’re going to think about me is that I’m fat.’
When I did start high school, though, everything was better than I’d expected. The school wasn’t cliquey, and I felt welcome and supported by both the teachers and the other students. I stopped worrying so much, stopped focusing so much on food, and actually started gaining weight again.
But it still felt like something was missing. Around the winter holidays, I was settled into my new school, had friends and a day-to-day routine, but it wasn’t quite how I’d pictured it. And at home, my parents did not understand what I was going through, so we often had confrontations.
Slowly, I started turning my focus back on food. When I focused on my food, I felt like I was getting whatever it was I was lacking otherwise.
Most days, I didn’t let myself eat more than 800 calories — if I had more than 1,000, I felt like I was a worthless waste of space. Around that time, I became a vegetarian, and my mom doesn’t cater to my vegetarianism, so I made my own dinner. Every night I would make exactly the same thing: 2 ounces of pasta — no salt, no butter, no sauce — some bread, and water.
I also carefully controlled my exercise. I would wake up at 4:30 every morning to exercise, then leave for school at 6, work out for another 20 minutes in the fitness center, and exercise again after school.
At the same time, though, my eating disorder made me feel even more depressed and alone. I felt like no one could relate, and there was no one I could talk to about it. It was very isolating.
One day in March, I didn’t have school, and I went to work with my mom. It was an awful day. I was at my lowest weight yet, and my eating disorder was making me sick. I just wanted to collapse. I thought, ‘I don’t want to keep going on like this. I’m in so much pain right now.’ I couldn’t even stand up. I was dizzy, lightheaded, I just wanted to sit down and kind of fade away.
And yet, that pain wasn’t enough to motivate me to make changes. What finally did motivate me was just the opposite: happiness.
Over the summer, I went on a foreign exchange program to Switzerland for three and a half weeks. There, I was in complete control of my life. I felt carefree, I was independent, and I was given so much trust by the Swiss family that I wasn’t given at home. I felt happy for the first time since before fourth grade.
When I got home and started school again, though, all of the independence I’d experienced in Switzerland was gone — and along with it, all the happiness. I wanted it back.
I started falling into old habits, but this time I knew what was on the other side. I didn’t want to be depressed anymore, and I didn’t want to starve myself. I went to my school psychologist and told her about my eating disorder and depression, and she helped me tell my parents. She also got me into a weekly therapy group, which I’ve been going to for nine months now.
I know now that I gave all my power away to my eating disorder without even realizing it — I thought I had control over my life if I could control what I ate, and thought that independence resulted from attaining a certain weight. Now I realize that by moving through recovery and voicing my story, I am taking the control and independence I have and using it, instead of handing it away. I’ve rediscovered the hobbies that my eating disorder took away from me: writing, drawing, singing, hanging out with friends.
I still have relapses every so often, and I’m still missing the motivation to fully recover. But I think back on all that happiness I had in Switzerland, and I use that as motivation. I look at my eating disorder as a war that’s going on. You can lose some battles and win some, but in the end, it’s who wins the war. I want to win this war.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, feel free to contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also suggests visiting teenhelp.org and To Write Love on Her Arms.