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The Silent Struggle

My Personal Battle with Anorexia

This image of my 16-year-old self is a haunting reminder of where I could have ended up if my story was just a little different. Photo by Sarah Sturgis.  

I lost the things I enjoyed most during the height of my eating disorder. I was a writer. I used to be praised by my English and literature teacher for my writing skills in high school, but when my eating disorder fully held me captive during junior year, I could no longer find the words to write. My body was shutting down and my mind became foggy all the time. School became increasingly difficult for me, a previously straight-A student.

One night, I forced myself to write about the distress I was feeling in a journal, which up until that point contained no thoughts or acknowledgements of my disorder. After that night, I couldn't find the words to write about my struggle in that journal or any other, until about a year ago. Here is an excerpt:

“You are screaming at the top of your lungs, but no one seems to hear nor do they notice the pain in your voice. The hurt runs deeper than the rivers that flow from your eyes. No one seems to notice the blank canvas covering your face. The smile that you put on is far from what you really feel. It’s a mask you hide behind. A sense of hopelessness surrounds you. It consumes you. You are alone.”

Some might call it melodramatic. For me, those words couldn’t express even ten percent of the hopelessness, confusion, and distress I was feeling at the time. I write this to show how difficult it is for someone to speak up and ask for help while going through an intense eating disorder. For me, it was an almost impossible task to talk to anyone close to me about what I was experiencing, primarily because I didn’t even know the extent of what I was doing to myself. I had no words to describe it to my family and friends and was afraid that if I tried, I would simply hear the words, “Just eat more.”

To me, that phrase would’ve been completely devastating so I kept it to myself.

For a time, I lost my love for dancing. It faded away as I became so miserably anxious and depressed all at once. I no longer felt I would get a job as a professional dancer and thought I should just quit dancing. But, the intense fear of gaining weight if I stopped dancing drove me to continue.

From the first time I can remember, I’ve always struggled with a negative body image. I remember feeling fat and ugly as a kid and being in ballet just exacerbated those thoughts. I constantly compared myself to others and wondered why I didn’t look like my skinny sister. Unaware these thoughts were piling up, they didn’t turn into restriction until high school. During seasons of Lent, I would purposefully go on different fasts and give up certain foods to limit my intake so I could lose weight. These techniques didn’t really work, and I began to eat somewhat normally after.

Then, during my junior year of high school, I was asked to be a trainee in the ballet company attached to the school I grew up in. I quickly realized I didn’t look like the professionals and felt a great need to actively do something. I spent hours researching how to lose weight and looking up different diet plans for my body.

It hit hard when I was cast as the Arabian soloist in the Nutcracker, whose costume consisted of a bare midriff and little material elsewhere. I was so uncomfortable with my body that I had an intense fear of wearing that costume and looking anything but skinny. I distinctly remember having severe anxiety attacks over food and after looking at my body in the mirror. Depression hit hard when I couldn’t live up to my own expectations.

I performed the role and was told by audience members and other dancers I was toned and in shape, but I couldn’t see it and still felt fat. Dropping from around 130 pounds to nearly 104, I had lost a great deal of muscle mass. I counted calories viciously and was eating around 500 to 1,000 calories a day maximum. Some days, it was probably as low as 300. As a 5’9” teenager who was dancing the schedule of a professional, around nine hours a day, and still trying to do school, my calorie intake needed to be almost ten times what it was at my minimum intake.

Even then, I had no idea what I was doing to myself. I couldn’t even recognize that I was anorexic nor did the thought cross my brain until much later. I simply thought serious dancers did not eat hardly any food to attain their aesthetic.

This pattern continued until I was a wreck emotionally, physically, and mentally. Still, no one told me to seek help. I was told by some that I was looking very thin, but it only encouraged me to continue out of validation and fear of going back to my old weight. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I was so plagued by my appearance that I began fasting along with restricting, only having an eight hour window in which I could consume food. During those hours I could eat, I tried to consume only as little as humanly possible. I felt so sick and to this day have only a foggy memory of that period of time.

During senior year, my body was finally shutting down, and I no longer had the motivation to live or get out of bed. The only thing that kept me up and dancing was my anxiety over gaining weight. I was miserable and couldn’t feel happiness or any passion to dance.

Then, one night after the last show of a weekend of performances, I was with my family eating dinner in celebration. I excused myself to the bathroom because I felt a sharp, intense pain in my back. I now suspect my kidneys were failing, but at the time, a fearful realization set in that the effects had caught up to me and I would have to be hospitalized because something was very wrong. Forcing myself back to the table, I knew I needed to eat something substantial then and there. The pain subsided and I felt I had escaped a hospital visit.

As my health problems continued and I became severely anemic, I sought out health care professionals but thought I had a thyroid problem because I still felt I was fat. Not getting the answers I wanted, I turned to my own techniques. Going on every diet I could think of from paleo to non-fat to no-carb to no-dairy, I was in pursuit of the impossible: a perfect body. Someone else’s body.

The emotional struggle became so painful and gut-wrenching that I needed it to be done. I needed to not exist for the pain to go away. I hoped every day that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning or that I would faint during ballet class so people knew something was wrong. This didn’t happen, so one night as I drove home from rehearsal in a complete breakdown, I wanted more than anything to have the courage to drive my car off the road into the trees at 60 mph. I can’t describe how close I was to doing this, but I now understand that I probably wouldn’t be here today if my circumstances were just a little different.

Slowly, healing became possible throughout my freshman year of college, but recovery was incredibly scary as I began to see my body change and I started to gain weight. Then, when I was finally starting to be OK with my body again, I was called out in a company meeting and told I had to get my weight back down again. I was absolutely furious and devastated but used my anger to fuel my desire to get better in spite of the comment.

Healing was long, and every time I became OK with eating more, I realized how little I was eating the step before. I suffered many relapses, one of which was during my sophomore year of college after transferring to the University of Oklahoma and feeling the pressure to impress a new director and a new set of teachers. When life becomes difficult, my old thoughts slip back into my mind and are not easily removed.

Like many others who have struggled with eating disorders, I may never see my body the way it truly is after going through anorexia and severe body dysmorphia. Every day brings its own struggles and requires a new healing thought, but I am a firm believer there is hope in the midst of darkness.

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