Next up this week is Celeste’s candid self reflection on her struggles with an eating disorder, and how she’s been able to grow and flourish.
My earliest memory of clear dissatisfaction with my body was when I was six years old, pressing my body against the horizontal wood slabs of my bed frame, examining the skin of my stomach poking between the gaps.
By 10 years old, I was methodically tightening my family’s belt collection over my entire torso, desperately wishing the leather would squish my body smaller.
“You are fat, disgusting, weird, ugly, worthless, less than.”
12 years old and these words colored my life. My words. Words I knew defined me because I was the taller, weirder, different younger sister of a popular, petite, pretty sister. Because I did really well in school, but was never the best. Because my mom discredited my hard work by saying school just came easy to me.
My words never went away. They were with me in the morning as I grabbed at my stomach in the mirror. They were there when we took family pictures in our Easter clothes. They were there during the school musical. They were there when I went with my sister and her friends to the beach for her birthday. My self-hatred was all mine, a secret I carried with me, shielded by a shell of positivity and personality.
The summer before I started 8th grade, the shell got really tired. My words, I think, were sick of being just words. I began to obsessively restrict, measure, count, and record everything. Exercise was not for fun anymore; it was to burn off the minuscule breakfast or lunch I had eaten. It consumed me like nothing else ever had. I was delighted as weight fell away. I had never looked this good! I quickly became a master at hiding food, finding excuses to miss meals, and avoiding events where I had to eat.
I got away with these behaviors all summer until my annual checkup, where they rushed me to the hospital for fluids due to my extreme low heart rate and blood pressure.
The next two years followed in a pattern I thought would never end. Each Wednesday my mother and I would drive fifty minutes to see “The Eating Disorder Doctor” and nutritionist. Then we would drive to see whichever therapist I had at that moment. This routine became clockwork; we spent the car rides talking about music, movies, the news, my siblings, anything but what we were actually doing. Both in the beginning of 8th grade and the end of 9th grade, I was hospitalized medically for a few weeks, forced on bed rest until I had gained enough weight to safely return home. Shockingly, I maintained perfect grades, desperate to control at least one aspect of my life.
A typical Wednesday:
[Mom pulls the minivan up to the main doors of the hospital to drop Tess off.]
Mom: See you up there! Take the elevator!
[Tess walks into the hospital, takes stairs two at a time and enters a door marked “Center for Adolescent Medicine”. We see a small waiting room painted aqua blue. There is a display on the wall with health pamphlets covering topics from “Depression” to “Puberty”.]
Tess: [Approaching the glass window and speaking to the receptionist] I’m here for my 9:15 with Dr. Palmer.
Receptionist: Okay, take a seat.
[Tess waits for a few minutes, bouncing her legs and flipping through Reader’s Digest. Mom enters and takes a seat next to her.]
Nurse: [opening a door that leads to the examination rooms] Tess, come on in!
[Tess gets up and follows the nurse into an examination room. Tess and the nurse proceed to make small talk (about the weather usually) as the nurse wraps a blood pressure cuff around Tess’ skeletal upper arm and places a pulse oximeter on her index finger. They continue talking as the nurse records Tess’ heart rate and blood pressure in laying down, sitting up, and standing positions. The nurse opens a cabinet and gets out the johnnies with the blue diamond pattern she knows Tess likes.]
Nurse: You know the drill, Hon. Come get me when you are ready.
[Tess yanks off her school uniform and changes into the hospital gown. She stands on her tiptoes and attempts to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the glass frame holding a motivational poster. She opens the door of the examination room and looks for the nurse, who is nowhere to be seen. She runs to the bathroom across the hall and lifts up her johnny to reveal her stomach. Clearly riddled with disgust, she gives her stomach a few punches for good measure, and goes back into the hallway. She gets the nurse, and they go down the hallway to the scale.]
Nurse: Okay, now. Get on and turn around so you can’t see the numbers.
[Tess obeys, then returns back to the exam room. She changes back into her clothes and gets Mom from the waiting room. They wait in the exam room in silence, usually with Mom reading a tiny paperback trash novel and Tess swinging her legs on the exam table. After a few minutes, Dr. Palmer enters, and says one of many responses I heard over two years.]
Dr. Palmer: [with a grim face] You are down this week. Your numbers don’t look good. When you go upstairs to the nutritionist she will be increasing your meal plan.
Tess’ Brain [speaking to Tess]: Good job, keep going. You can find a way to manipulate the new plan just like before.
[Or] Dr. Palmer: [with a smile] You have put on a little weight this week and your numbers look slightly better! Keep it up!
Tess’ Brain: You’re fat and disgusting. Try harder. Eat less. Exercise more.
[Or] Dr. Palmer: [in a serious voice] You have been down for two weeks now. If you keep going like this we are going to put you back in the hospital.
Tess’ Brain: You don’t care. Like Dr. Palmer would ever actually do that.
[Or] Dr. Palmer: We are going to do some blood tests to make sure everything is okay, so before you leave today go down to the lab.
Tess’ Brain: Good. Getting blood drawn means that you are going to lose fluid, aka mass, from your body. Every bit counts.
[Or] Dr. Palmer: [negotiating] If you gain X amount of weight, you can audition for the school musical.
Tess’ Brain: You really want to be in the musical, so you get a pass. For now. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that you are going to loathe yourself the entire time.
[Or] Dr. Palmer: If you tell your friends about your eating disorder, you can audition for the school musical.
Tess’ Brain [a week later after Tess tells her friends]: Okay, the Dr. made a good decision for once. But don’t you ever tell her.
[Each week, Dr. Palmer and mom would talk back and forth for a while. Tess interjects here and there, but mostly keeps her head down, blankly staring at her thighs.]
Mom: Well I guess we will see you next week.
Dr. Palmer: Yes.
[Mom and Tess walk back into the waiting room. Mom pulls out her battered day calendar and makes doctors appointments for the next four Wednesdays. Tess and Mom silently ride the elevator down and make their way to the car.]
Mom: If you got better we could spent this time and money doing something fun.
On several occasions, I would gulp down mass amounts of water or food before a doctor’s appointment to cheat reality for a little while. (If it was food, I would severely restrict the rest of the week.) I would hide empty water bottles in my room and chug as much as I could to fill my hollow stomach. I would lock myself in the bathroom and secretively, aggressively jerk my body around to shake off as many calories as I could. I would fight and argue over every measurement, every ounce, every tablespoon, frequently resulting in family episodes over meals featuring screaming, crying, and the throwing of food/pouring of drink/breaking of dishware by my mother or myself.
For so long, I was just going through the motions, barely holding on. I’m not anorexic, I thought to myself. I refused to believe I was sick- I could not even say the word “anorexia” out loud. I was convinced that it was just me, me getting what I deserved. I did not deserve to eat. I did not deserve to like myself. I spent so much time staring in the mirror at my body – a body that was severely underweight; seeing a disgusting worthless form. My hip bones piercing through my skin meant nothing to me. My blue toes and sunken eyes never registered in my mind. My hair fell out, so I cut it off. My vision blurred and I saw spots when I got up so I turned it into a game- how far could I walk without being able to see? I was freezing cold all the time. I hated myself so much that I would punch myself in the stomach and the bruises would serve as a reminder that I did not matter.
Anorexia turned me into a zombie. I had no vibrancy in my eyes or strength in my voice. I was gray and lifeless, consumed by an obsession with control. So much of my time those years was spent figuring out how to get rid of the food in my backpack, how to convince my friends that I ate lunch after school ended because I did not get hungry until then, how to feed my breakfast to the dog before my parents got downstairs, or how to hurry and dump out half my juice and dilute the rest with water to shave off a few calories. I constantly checked the size of my wrists, thighs, neck, arms, and waist with my fingers and hands. I missed so many sleepovers, outings, and school trips because I wasn’t healthy enough to go. The funny thing is, I did not really care. All I cared about was holding onto this disease and pleasing the unpleasable voice in my head that told me I was never good enough. Never skinny enough. Never pretty enough. Never smart enough, or funny enough, or cool enough.
I remember vividly one night towards the end of 9th grade: I am standing in the shower, staring down at my naked body, and I register that my stomach is flat. My stomach is flat! For my entire life, “the flat stomach” was all I wanted. And staring down at my body that night, feeling completely separated from myself, I did not care. It did not matter. I still was not good enough.
After the second medical hospitalization, I began outpatient treatment at an eating disorder program. Three days a week my parents and I would drive fifty minutes to an afternoon/evening program. I felt like I had no business being there. I did not want any help because I did not think I had a problem. I felt so empty and defeated. Each day I saw less and less of a reason for living. I did not want to be in this world, a world where I was forced into treatment for a disease I did not have, a world where I was not allowed to do anything outside the watch of my parents, a world where I was constantly watched and not trusted. I would rather die than live in the world having to gain all the weight my team wanted me to gain.
One night a few weeks into outpatient:
[Tess is 14. Sitting on her mother’s lap, shaking and hyperventilating.]
Tess: [Quietly and choked out between sniffles and sobs.] I want to die. I do not care about living anymore.
After this, my doctor decided that treating my anorexia the way we had been treating it for the past two years was not working. If things did not change, I would cause irreversible damage to my body. I had already stunted my growth and worsened my scoliosis because I had not absorbed enough nutrients to keep my bones strong. My blood pressure had been orthostatic and I had not gotten my period for the majority of the time I was sick. Something needed to change. The next day, my mom pried me off bed and we drove to an inpatient treatment center. This car ride was spent with begs, pleads, screams to take me back home.
Inpatient was absolutely awful, but I needed it. Being surrounded by women and men of all ages struggling with eating disorders was scary. I didn’t associate myself with them – to me, they were the ones who were dealing with this mental illness, and I was a fake that was not supposed to be there. Somehow I managed to make friends and not feel so alone there. I heard so many stories and yearned for so many other people to get better, but not myself. All the while I was writing down everything I was eating in this composition notebook that was given to us to write our goals. When my sister and mother came to visit me, I refused to talk to them, livid that I was still there and they were doing nothing about it.
I was put on Prozac, and a nurse observed me take it each morning alongside the plethora of other pills in a tiny paper cup. I did everything I was told because I wanted to get out.
On the phone with my dad a few days in:
Tess: I don’t want to be here. I don’t need to be here. This place is awful and I hate it. You need to get me out of here.
Dad: I know. I’m sorry you are there. I don’t want you to be there either. I’m gonna do what I can to get you out.
Looking back now I really do not think my father ever thought I was truly sick, which definitely made it easier for anorexia to keep its grip on my mind.
It might have been my extreme hatred of the place that finally gave my head the permission to fight back to the eating disorder. Given enough rationale, my brain decided that it was okay to eat this food, okay to gain weight, so I could go home. There wasn’t a moment of pure epiphany and revolution. I was willing to go through the motions because I did not want to spend my life here.
I was discharged after a few weeks and sent back to the three-day-a-week outpatient program. At this point, I did want to get better. I’m pretty sure I still hated myself, and I was beyond terrified of gaining the amount of weight I needed to make my goal, but I did not want this to be my life anymore. I participated in group, and spoke honestly with the staff member assigned to my case. Over the course of the summer, as miserable as I was, things did start to get better.
I would spend a lot of time making art (pictured right), something that had distracted me while I was in inpatient. I used a thin brush to intricately paint positive words with bright paint onto beige paper. I got to hang them up around the room we did group therapy (and pretty much everything else) in. I started to contribute more and talk about my experiences with everyone, while listening and trying to encourage the other patients. I liked having a role as a patient; everyone began to see me as the positive and determined Tess. In fact, they started to name my paintings and things I would say as “Tessisms”. I was motivated to get better because I saw how my success helped the other people in the program.
I’m not sure that at that point I wanted to get better for the right reasons. My main goal was to get healthy enough so that I could go back to school in the fall and not have to miss class for snack or doctors’ appointments. But it was still a goal, a goal my head could hold onto and use to push the disgusting, manipulative thoughts into the corner of my mind, where they would continue to yelp but I could ignore a little easier. I hated gaining weight. I did not like how I looked (but when did I ever?) so I tried not to look in the mirror.
I finished the program around the same time school started. I was so excited to go back to school and not have weekly appointments. I was filled with this boundless energy I had not remembered was possible. I wasn’t exhausted by 8 o’clock at night anymore. Everything seemed more fun and interesting. I found myself getting closer with my two best friends and making so many more friends. My personality was returning along with the color of my toes and fingernails. I had gotten a great character role in the fall play, and going to sleepovers and dancing at homecoming. We adopted a beautiful Great Dane who I quickly bonded with; she became a great source of comfort for me. All of these beautiful moments made the negative thoughts stop at thoughts instead of transforming into actions and behaviors. Life was at my fingertips and it felt so good to have fun and smile.
That winter, my dad moved out. (That’s right. Kick me while I’m trudging back up those recovery stairs.) We switched schools because we couldn’t afford the one we were at. So my younger brother, older sister, and I started at a new school that January. It was heart-breaking to leave just as I was discovering my full self. But moving schools did give me a chance to start over; I was going to a place where I had not missed any school or arrived late to third period because I was having snack in the nurse’s office.
So began the rest of high school. I had been cleared medically to participate in more activities, so that spring I did more theater and made a handful of truly incredible friends. That summer I could actually be active! I was cleared to run- an activity that has grown to be vital in maintaining my mental health. My mother and siblings and I moved into the town our school was in, so I was so close to all my new friends. I relished in trips to the beach, swimming with friends, and the simple act of living without every little meal and expenditure planned and accounted for. I had these cool new friends who knew Tess as a ball of energy and happiness and quirky weirdness and they loved it!
I tried my hand at soccer, cheerleading, and track my junior year of high school. Keeping myself busy quieted my words and allowed me to focus on something other than myself. A handful of stressful weeks led to old disordered eating habits- the ability to control something soothed my frazzled mind. But I always pulled myself back onto the right track behaviorally because I did not want to lose my exciting full life. I donned a lion costume and became the school mascot. I joined the “Girl’s Running Club”, which gave me a healthy community to get stronger in without letting running consume me like anorexia had. I was elected onto student council, and started taking art classes, which continued throughout high school and gave me a safe place to express and create. I cultivated new friendships and learned about other people and tried new things. I grew less obsessive about my grades. Support was all around me, and I did not have time for anorexia. I did not want to fall back in after experiencing a taste (ha) of life. 🙂
The summer before my senior year, my mom and younger brother moved eight hours away. My sister graduated, and started college 23 hours away. I moved back into the house I moved out of a year earlier, my dad having moved back in. I soon learned that he would spend only a handful of time in the house, mostly staying at his girlfriend’s apartment (I know! Girlfriend? Already! Yep.). My mother was extremely worried that, out of her watch and into the non-observant eyes of my father, I would soon self-destruct. I was determined not to. The first half of senior year was extremely stressful for me. I struggled to stay afloat the ocean of schoolwork, extra-curriculars, soccer, and family drama. Plus, I had started working at the local movie theater, a job that led me to a group of friends that I could not imagine life without. I was physically healthy and getting stronger all the time, but I was definitely controlling what I ate again as a way to cope with the instability of my life. I was eating, but I would certainly engage in disordered behaviors around my eating.
That summer was better. My sister and I moved temporarily to my grandmother’s house as my dad got remarried and moved his new family (his new wife and three sons from her previous marriage) into the house we grew up in. My sister and I were very angry with our family for various reasons, but at least we had each other. I was trying to take better care of myself to establish good habits before college. After spending a year virtually alone, it was nice having my sister around (she also held accountable which probably was not a bad thing). I spent a lot of time with my friends. That summer made me realize how important friends are. I realized how loved I was, how supported I was. So many summer nights spent staying up late being honest and open with my friends gave me strength.
Then I went to college. I decided to go by my real name, Celeste, instead of the nickname everyone had called me since I was born, Tess. I was a new person. I wanted to try everything. I was also painfully nervous about gaining the “freshman 15” and fitting in and being liked and being smart enough. I compared myself to everyone I saw and resorted back to overly-controlling habits to soothe my nerves. Meanwhile, the first Friday night I went to an improv show I had seen a flyer for at the activities fair. I was mesmerized by the performers’ complete unedited versions of themselves. They did not care what the audience thought of them. They were just up there playing with each other, clearly having so much fun and making magic. I went the week after that then auditioned that Sunday. To my surprise, I got a callback. Tuesday’s callbacks resulted in a midnight phone call- I got in! And my life hasn’t been the same since.
Immediately I was welcomed into the group like family- love, support, and friendship flowed unwaveringly. My brain sighed with relief, deducing that no matter what I looked like, my new friends would love me. For some reason my head went, “Well Celeste, if it doesn’t matter what you look like, then why not just eat EVERYTHING?”. And I was so down. It was as if my self-hatred had just moved onto a different form of delivery. I ate pretty badly, and I don’t think I even enjoyed the food I was eating. My brain did not know what to do with all the love and support I was receiving because I didn’t deserve it. Maybe my head’s goal was to give myself a logical reason to dislike myself? I really don’t know. I do know that I spent a lot of evenings alone soaked in self-loathing. I felt incredibly uncomfortable in my body, but I tried my hardest to not show it. Second semester was a little better, but when I got home for the summer my self-esteem and worth was basement level sub-par.
I never talked to anyone about any of this, because I was ashamed. I was not physically sick, so how could I have an eating disorder? Anyways, once you’re at a healthy weight, no one really worries or is concerned. How could I talk about this to my family or my new friends? Why worry or scare people?
What’s the point?
I felt very alone at home. My sister had joined the military, and I had moved back into my father’s home surrounded by his new family (which I am not a huge fan of). (By the end of the summer I had decided that coming back home was too toxic and that I never wanted to spend an extended period of time back in that house.) I was far too consumed with what I was eating or not eating, spiraling up and down between binging and restricting and eating normally (or what I deemed normal). Throw a brief month-long relationship into the mix and stir in a healthy dose of extra body scrutiny (brought on by myself) because I was no longer the only one looking at my naked body. The emotional and physical vulnerability proved to be too much so my summer fling ended far before the summer did.
Towards the end of the summer, my brain reached another rational thought. That this awful relationship with food and my body, a relationship that never really left even after I was considered “recovered”, was not going to get any better until I started to love myself. If I did not think I was worthy of happiness, then I was never going to be happy. I was so sick of hating me. Hating me when I tried so desperately for my friends to feel good about themselves and their lives. Why couldn’t I do the same?
“Self love” has been my motto since September, and I can honestly say I have never felt as good about myself as I have in the past several months. I have placed taking care of myself at the top of my list of things to do everyday. I try to forgive myself and accept myself for who I am in the present moment. I remind myself that everyday is a new day, and to live in the moment. I acknowledge that I am enough and I am worthy of living a full life. Being positive and mindful has helped me slowly learn how to be happy for real. I am learning how fucking cool I am and that it is not a crime to appreciate your beauty.
Yes, there are moments when I feel fat and pathetic. Sometimes I look down and hate the way my stomach pokes out. Sometimes my mind gets fixated on something I had eaten earlier in the day and it is very hard to move forward. Sometimes I let what I eat and how “good” I deem it is define how I see myself that day or the day after. Sometimes after I eat junk food I freak out and worry that I have no restraint and will spiral out of control.
The best way to combat all of these thoughts that bombard my brain is to remind myself that it is the eating disorder talking. It is not me. I would not want me to feel this bad about myself, to let these thoughts occupy more space in my head than thoughts of love and friendship and new interesting things I am learning at school and beyond.
Eating disorders are tricky and sneaky as all hell. It is so easy to think that it is just your voice. Trust me, it is not your voice. You are not your eating disorder. Do not for one second blame yourself for the harm your eating disorder has caused to you, your family, or your friends.
This is a mental illness that is never satisfied and convinces you that you are not good enough when in reality you are everything.
It has taken me years to even accept that I had anorexia, and that I still struggle with my eating disorder and disordered eating behaviors. But it is true. Anorexia took over my body as Tess slipped away into a catatonic half-life. I can still remember being in my brain staring at that mirror, and I still see an ugly fat girl, despite the fact that I clearly know now I was severely underweight. It is the disease. Accepting that the manipulative voice of self-hatred is a disease and not you is the first step to getting better.
I have figured out that my own love and self-acceptance comes before what anyone else thinks of me. I trust that my friends will support and love me no matter what. I indulge in spontaneous dance parties with myself (I’m not lying) when all my suitemates are gone. I get all dressed up for myself and admire how fucking hot I look when I go out on a Saturday night. I journal every night and always include reminders to love myself, take care of myself, and that everything is going to be okay. I’m constantly working to strike a healthy balance in my relationships with food, exercise, friends, and myself. I appreciate all the positive parts of my life, and give myself permission to be upset.
So if you were to take anything out of reading this, please take this:
Taking care of yourself is not a selfish act. You deserve to love yourself. You are enough.
Thank you for listening.
Leave a comment below for Celeste about her incredible journey, or about your own experiences with eating disorders. And if you have a specific question for her you would rather ask in private, she has provided her email for you to reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Always remember you are not alone,
You are loved.
This post is a part of our Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Find the other posts here:
An Introduction To Eating Disorder Week – What are Eating Disorders? – He Called Me the “T” Word” – An Empty Home & An Empty Stomach: My Lifelong Struggle With Eating Disorders – The Fine Print – Doubt: Sarah’s Poem –A Journal on the Imperfections of Perfection – Nervosa
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