The red numbers on the clock bleed into the darkness. Soon the room lurches into focus as my eyes shake off sleepiness. 5:32 AM.
My arms feel heavy as I begin to shift. My mind is buzzing from the night before—I’m still drunk. As my senses wake up, I smell something musty, sour. I start to turn over in bed and then I realize. Oh my god. It’s in my hair! It’s everywhere. It’s vomit, caked in my hair, down the length of the bed, trailing from the bathroom.
I get up quickly (too quickly, if you ask my hangover) and stumble into the bathroom. My eyes are wide, staring back at me from the mirror. A single contact has dried and stuck to my cheek. I’m still in my party clothes.
A mix of dread and bile rises up from my stomach and I put my head in the toilet. Tears streak down my face. The force of the vomiting must have dislodged the contact lens from my eye.
Afterwards I return to the mirror, one of my only friends, and look at my stomach. It’s flat, almost concave. I wrap my fingers around my upper arm. I pinch my thighs. I decide that, since I threw up dinner, I can have a full power bar for breakfast instead of my usual half.
This was March 5, 2016. The day before I realized I had a problem. That evening I didn’t miss a beat. I was chugging a bottle of wine to fill the spaces in my stomach and rushing to meet friends for a night out. I was in black jeans that I bought skin-tight for my shrinking body. Now I had to hike them up as I walked.
The night passed in the smoky haze of a DJ set. I made it to the front but was more interested in the way my bones jutted out of my arms than the music. We snuck a bottle of vodka into the bathroom and I ran back periodically for reinforcements.
Each shot went like this: You shouldn’t. Big swallow. You’re going to get sick. Lurch in my stomach. Ah who cares, this will be your last night out and then you have to start studying for finals. So make it count. Another gulp.
I loved to push myself, to bring my body to the edge and watch which way it fell. More liquor, more dancing, more starving. By the end of the night my legs buckled as I walked home. I collapsed in bed unaware that I would wake up to a completely different world.
The next morning was the turning point. I opened my eyes and immediately sensed a shift. It felt like sludge was running through my body instead of blood. I could barely move. My mind seemed hazy and I couldn’t hold onto any one thought. Well, studying is out of the question today.
I peeled myself out of bed and scraped together breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. All of a sudden evening had settled in and I had no idea how I passed the day.
I was supposed to join my friends at Taylor’s house, but by 7 pm all I could do was pull the covers over my body and close my eyes. When Cleo called to recruit me to the party, I had shifted face-down on the bed, with my phone next to me. You should answer it, I thought. Move your hand and answer it. Come on, just reach over. I couldn’t. After the ringing stopped, the silence weighed more than I did. I will never forget that moment. That moment, to me, is my eating disorder stripped and laid bare. No glamorization, no exaggeration. Just a girl in a lot of pain; exhausted and alone.
The hardest thing I had to do through all of this was to tell my mum. My mum, who had seen her daughter through two and a half years of university, who told all her coworkers about “Elizabeth’s good grades” and “Elizabeth’s plans to go to medical school.” My mum, who had been talking about my weight for a couple months, even after I told her there wasn’t anything to worry about.
I was on the phone with her, “I don’t want to be like this, and my body doesn’t want to be like this, so who does? It’s like my mind is split in two. On one plane is the rational side, telling me to get treatment. On the other is the disorder. But now the distinctions have blurred to the point where I want to feed both my body and the disorder. It’s why I can see myself going to treatment, but not getting better.”
She comforted me as best she could, but neither of us anticipated the struggle ahead. Recovery.
I was able to finish the year, give or take a few exams. During those final weeks in school I could barely think straight. The only coherent thought was: eat less. Eat less at the expense of your friendships. Eat less even when you’re studying and start to feel dizzy. Eat less so you can go out and drink more. Eat less to protect your thigh gap, to feel your ribs, to be proud of yourself and your body.
Then I went home. To the comfort and tedium that I at once crave and despise. I had a couple of weeks before the doctor’s appointments and blood tests and referrals began. The days passed tensely. I was irritable; confrontations quickly escalated to screaming matches. “You’re so out of your depth that I wish you’d just drown,” I said to my mum one evening after dinner.
Everyone seemed to watch me: my family, my friends, my sisters’ friends, people on the street. They all had the same expression in their eyes—flecks of curiosity, depths of pity, glimmers of sadness. It was like I was a walking exhibition on human suffering, and tickets were selling out.
Breakfast turned into lunch and lunch into dinner and I forgot how I filled the time in between. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the doctor’s office explaining how I got to be there. “I had lost weight studying for finals in December 2015. When I went back to school in January, I um, I didn’t know how much to eat to keep the weight off. Restricting became a way to manage my anxiety. I didn’t feel pressure to do well in school anymore because I lost my sense of responsibility and accountability. I just felt really good about myself—I would eat less and then see changes in my body. It was a really effective means of positive validation. The exhaustion and depression were worth it.”
The doctor was taking notes, nodding periodically. When she looked up and caught my eye, her expression was different than what I was used to seeing. There was no curiosity or pity or sadness. She looked at me with confidence, like she knew how to help me.
“Okay, thank you Elizabeth. I see on your paperwork that you mentioned your alcohol use. Can you tell me a little more about that? How often do you drink? How much do you drink?”
I was caught off guard and stumbled over my words, “I drink about…uh, 4 times per week, maybe. And like, a couple glasses of wine, some shots, some mixed drinks. That sort of thing.”
My voice trailed off.
She asked me more questions, but my mind stayed in this place. Why would she mention my drinking? She doesn’t think there’s a problem, does she? Pause. Is there a problem?
Suddenly the room was silent and I realized she had just asked me a question. “Sorry, can you repeat that?” I winced.
“Yes, of course. I was saying that I think The Healing Connection would be a good fit for you. They offer a partial hospitalization program, which is five days a week, seven hours a day. You will have lunch, snack, and dinner there. It’s primarily group therapy, although you will have individual sessions as well. What do you think?”
“Yes, and I would also recommend an assessment with a substance abuse counselor.” She gave a tight smile and my jaw dropped.
On my first day at the Healing Connection, the walls seemed to jump towards me, primed to attack. I assumed a position in the circle and began surveillance. To my right was a young girl whose quiet stoicism rivaled the Queen’s Life Guard. Next to her was teenager who wore a thick wooden cross around her neck and clung to it like a life-raft. Then a boy. He had a frenetic energy that just barely bubbled to the surface. The smell of lunch clung to the stillness in the room. I could see everyone tense up.
Sometimes I felt ready for the meals but often my stomach clenched and my heart pounded and tears seared my face with each bite. In an early journal entry, I wrote: I hate my bloated stomach and my fat thighs. I hate that when I sit in shorts, the fat on my legs pools all around the bone, as if someone stepped on a piece of pie and the filling oozed out. I hate my flabby arms. I hate every stretch mark on me. I hate my bumpy skin. I hate my knees—they jut out at odd angles. I hate my mind—this war raging inside of it and the voices that grow and shrink. I hate recovery and I hate the eating disorder for putting me through it.
I longed for the days back in university, when I felt a warm pride welling where food was meant to be. I missed that paradoxical feeling of strong fragility, where I was pushing my body to the limit on nothing but power bars and salads and wine.
Wine. I craved it. The Healing Connection enforced strict sobriety, complete with periodic drug testing. They sent me to an addiction specialist and I sat in anicy grey room telling this man about the time I vomited in bed. I told him how I drank for energy, how it filled the emptiness with a buzzing warmth. I didn’t tell him how I missed it. How I could feel it on my tongue as I talked. He threw around words like “alcoholic.” In the end, he said that my drinking was so deeply tied to the eating disorder that as long as I was treating my anorexia, I didn’t have to enter in a substance abuse program.
A couple weeks after, I could start to breathe again. I had been sober for a month and no longer felt an insatiable pull towards my parent’s liquor cabinet.
Months passed in the haze of therapy. Small, beautiful moments of progress started to trickle in—like that time in the shower when I looked at my legs with a curious hopefulness instead of a deep disgust. I returned to university, sober and starting to heal. It became second nature to refuse drinks. Friends quickly adapted to my new party persona—water instead of wine, conversation instead of beer pong. “It’s easier than it looks,” I explained once to a girl whose eyes widened when I said that I didn’t drink. “I feed off of the energy of the people around me.”
I’m still boisterous, bold, energetic. But it comes completely from me—not the alcohol.
The beginning of school was built by triumphs. My first hamburger in six months, the second time I turned down a shot of vodka, the third bite of ice cream, the fourth hour of time with friends.
Now I’m sitting at the same desk where I would squeeze my thighs, feel my ribs, make excuses to finish a bottle of wine. But instead of doing any of those things, I’m writing this final letter to my eating disorder.
I’m sorry that your pain and anxiety have settled within me, but I’m getting too weak to support us both. I am so tired of hearing your voice as my stomach fills with food and feeling your jolt when I see my body growing. What’s happened to you, to us, to favor sickness, depression, denial instead of life? How have you become this consuming, inextricable force in my head?
You’re so selfish; don’t you see I’m exhausted? You’re so thoughtless; don’t you see we can’t stay like this? You’re so careless; don’t you see you’re pushing me closer to destroying us both?
You’re a predator—you came to me when my mind was spinning and searching for something to hold on to. I found you, and you began to build a fortress around us both. Do you remember those times at night when my hands would pass over my empty stomach and settle in the valleys between my ribs? Because I do.
Do you remember when all I wanted was one power bar, one bite even, but you held me back? Instead that evening you fed me misery and the fat between my thighs.
What about all the times when we walked together, starved together, thought together? I know you miss this, and sometimes I ache to relive just a moment, a feeling, with you.
But something has changed now. The healthy voice you shattered and swept away like broken glass has returned. There are still cracks, pieces missing, but it’s strong enough to expose you in this article.
I know you fear this voice, why else would you destroy it in the first place? And I’m glad you’re scared, for all the times I was scared. For all the times I quietly swallowed my tears or checked to make sure my heart was still beating. Like I said, I’m tired. Tired of walking this tightrope, tired of your whispers in my ear. It’s your turn now. It’s your turn to be tired and afraid.