The writer first began starving herself at 7. But losing weight was the last thing on her mind.
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While sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office recently, I found myself picking up an academic journal, when something caught my eye: an article called “The Starvation Experiment.” The article I read was about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a research project between 1944–1945 in which volunteers underwent starvation for the purpose of studying the psychological effects on its subjects.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that the subjects experienced severe psychological distress, like depression, and became socially isolated and withdrawn as the study progressed. Because from the time I was 11, I had starved myself. And not because I was obsessed with being skinny or looking a certain way. For me, hunger was a test of will—and it was a distraction from my loneliness. Yet it made my lonelier, sicker, and drove me to eat even less.
At 11, I remember the excitement of becoming a latch-key kid. Feeling independent and grown up, I walked home the few feet from where the bus dropped me off, pulled the gold-colored key from my backpack and tried to open the door. It was stuck. I had no choice but to keep trying or sit in front of the door until someone got home. After about 15 minutes, it opened. Our three-bedroom house was quiet and empty—and for the first time, it felt cavernous.
At the time, my father was on the verge of losing his job, and my mother had returned to work to help support the family. In a few short months, our family would go bankrupt and lose our house, our car, and all of our life savings. I could feel myself diminishing as everyone was immersed in their concerns. I was on my own—I had to take care of myself now.
It was four in the afternoon, and my stomach was growling. It had been nearly five hours since I’d consumed anything, except for the Dr. Pepper I had guzzled on the bus. I grabbed a handful of Doritos and headed to the TV to play video games and watch my shows until one of my siblings came home. I didn’t eat until the next day at lunch. I was too preoccupied. But that forgetfulness seemed forgivable, doable. I was alive, I was okay. I didn’t need to eat. In some strange way, it was empowering.
In Machu Picchu, the inhabitants had to adjust over generations to the altitude, to the point where their lungs adapted to be able to use less oxygen. But sometimes we live in an environments where we need something so dearly that we adapt in deformed or harmful ways. As I did, in my parents’ home.
When I was 7, I broke one of my mother’s favorite statues. It was perched on the fireplace mantel, and it caught in the folds of the fabric of a blanket I was pretending was my cape. She chased me around the house until she caught me by the hair and dragged me by the head into the bathroom. There, she bathed me in steaming water and dishwasher detergent. These scenes were not uncommon. So I began to defy her in a quieter way, by not eating, staring at the food at my plate for hours as she busied herself in the kitchen to watch me.
“You are going to eat it,” she’d tell me.
By the time I turned 12, I noticed something was not right. My ribs were sticking out like hard fingers, my stomach was sunken, my knees were bigger than the rest of my legs. I wore baggy clothes to disguise my 50-pound body of bones, but it made me look smaller. Students began to ridicule me at school, in the hallway, in the restroom. Bones, they called me. Skeleton. My face became gaunt, ghostly pale. It made me turn away from people even further. And back to the comfort of not eating.
It was my secret, and though it was unconscious, a badge of honor. Usually when I was not eating I was studying and reading into the late hours of the night. It was my only way, I told myself, out of economic and emotional poverty.
I used to ride my bike along the bayou behind our house, the shore littered with trash and other waste. I would travel toward the sunset thinking to myself that on the other side, the area where I couldn’t see was my destination. I would reach there if I tried hard enough, and dedicated every ounce of my body to getting out of the neighborhood, out of my house.
This is what’s so insidious about anorexia, or any eating disorder—that it is not always a conscious decision to starve. Rather, withholding food is about control. And it’s a type of body language in which we communicate to ourselves and other people that says, I control my body, and you are not a part of it. But soon it gets too hard to control, and then it becomes a manifestation of mental illness.
I was 21 when I reached the height of my starvation—I was 78 pounds. I was in a doctoral program for literature, and would deny myself food as a way to deal to the overwhelming academic stress. Many nights I would read material for six to eight hours straight and “forget” to eat. At the time, I was grappling with a crippling depression, which I attributed to my difficulty in finishing my first year—not the fact that I was starving myself or vice versa.
I moved back home and began working as a journalist. I replaced the stress of school with the pressure to enter into a competitive field, and obsessed with a single story where once again, I “forgot” to eat. I got to get the story right, I have to get it perfect. It was the same narrative I would tell myself when I was 12. I have to get straight A’s. I have to get out of here. It was just a different form.
Still struggling with ongoing depression, I sought help from a psychiatrist, who told me I was anorexic. “But I don’t try to lose weight be skinny,” I said.
“It’s atypical,” she said, “but anorexic, nevertheless.”
I was furious. I had seen her staring at my knobby knees, my bony arms. She was judging me for being thin and not being able to help it. I was a staunch feminist, didn’t she realize? I thought feminists couldn’t be anorexic by their very definition. I didn’t care how I looked, not in that way. I didn’t want to look like a model, or dream of conforming to some standard.
“I don’t care about food or being thin. That’s not it,” I argued.
She ignored me. She wrote out a prescription for Celexa and advised I see a psychotherapist. I refused to talk to my therapist about my not eating. Instead, I spoke only of my depression and my loneliness. It was a matter of pride. I was not materialistic, and I didn’t believe in appearing like a supermodel to appeal to other people’s idea of perfection. I wore closely cut hair and had a nose ring; at the time I didn’t even believe in marriage. I thought, I was a radical, for God’s sake!
It was simply my secret, a hard-won way of dealing with life, and without it, I had no other coping mechanism or life raft to help me survive. I had grown up learning to use this tool to survive an environment that I no longer lived in.
But I had a mirror, and one day I took a hard look coming out of the shower. Every sharp angle was an expression of my pain, the lack of worth I felt in myself, the sign of my loneliness. It took me five years to recover. I had to confront my anger with my mother, who refuses to this day to acknowledge any wrongdoing. I had to decide over years of therapy and writing and thinking that I had finally escaped.
I don’t need to starve anymore, but once I did. I needed that form of deprivation to feel alive, to tell myself that I existed in an environment where I didn’t feel like I did. I’m not there any more, especially in my mind. It is easy to get trapped in an environment even we are miles away, in time and space. But I got out. And I can breathe.
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