This column was originally posted online Feb. 25, 2017 to honor the start of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. It has since been awarded NSPA Story of the Year for Opinion.
I met her in the ninth grade.
It’s not like we were complete strangers. We had seen each other in passing. It was that kind of almost-friendship that happens when you see the same person everywhere, but never have a reason to talk.
But in ninth grade, we finally spoke. It was briefly, right at the beginning of the year. I got a new app, one that helped me count calories and nutrients and plan my meals. She helped me learn how to use it.
It was an acquaintanceship at best, until second semester.
One week in January, things were especially bad. I was stressed and tired, for no real reason, which only stressed and exhausted me more. I opened up my lunch box, took a look, and put it away. Her idea.
We became friends.
Her name was anorexia nervosa.
That day in January, that one day when I put up my lunch, sparked a friendship that lasted months, but felt like years. After that day in January, I didn’t eat anything at all for four days. On the fifth day, I had a chocolate square. A mistake, she told me. Sixty calories.
It didn’t start out as a weight thing, but it soon became that way.
I ate no more than 300 calories a day. Peppermint tea for breakfast, green tea for lunch, a tablespoon of Greek yogurt for a snack. She helped me plan my meals.
My collarbones began to press hard against my skin, my hands hurt, my skin felt cold and dull. I was never really awake, this half-dream girl. I thought maybe the emptiness in my stomach would expand until I was swallowed whole, and I would finally disappear.
She was with me all the time, or maybe she was me. I became the disorder, anorexia and I, a ghostly marriage.
One day in geometry, she whispered to me: “You will either eat and gain weight and face all you fear, or you will die.”
It was not a threat as much as a statement, and it is something everybody with an eating disorder realizes at some point.
I sat in my chair by the door and thought about it, thought about the half of a Cosmic Brownie I had for lunch.
I made my decision. She smiled.
I went into the bathroom and jammed my fingers into my throat until I threw up the brownie.
But I didn’t die.
People started to notice that something was wrong, and they tried to help. Eventually I got better, slowly and painfully, but surely. It was a miracle, honestly. There was no reason I should have made it, but I did. I’m thankful to God for that.
She grew quiet.
It’s only at night that I think about her, long after I’ve eaten. Sometimes sadness or stress or worry will roll back her stone and she will emerge. I become hyperaware of where my legs touch, where my hips find my shirt. My bones ache and I feel small. I almost miss her.
She floats around, whispering that I need to tell someone about her, that ignoring her won’t erase the past, however irrelevant the past might be. She doesn’t try to convince me to bring back the emptiness, just to remember what it was like.
I’ve thought I’ve killed her many times. Rappelling off a cliff in Colorado, I swore backing over the edge would end her, her and all my fears. The first frappuccino I drank without her, a year after I last made myself throw up, I thought would drown her. But it didn’t.
This is the first time I’ve written about her, but I don’t expect her to leave.
Because I am still afraid of her.
I’m afraid she’ll find my sister. I’m afraid looking at her will hurt too much to stop her, and I’ll let it happen, and my sister will hurt, or worse. She’s three years younger than I was when it really started.
I’m afraid she’ll find my daughter, sometime in the vague future. Statistically, my daughter wouldn’t survive. Anorexia has a one in five survival rate, and I took the golden spot, stealing the chance from four others. On some level, I know that’s not how it works, but it doesn’t help.
If she finds you, don’t let her get to you. Know her face, know her name. Recognition is the only way to win.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Feb. 26 – Mar. 4, but help is always available. Call the National Eating Disorder hotline at 800-931-2237.