I developed an eating disorder on purpose.
It sounds counterintuitive. It’s like the DARE program telling roomfuls of terrified preteens that “nobody wants to be a heroin addict when they grow up” as they flip through a slideshow of skeletal mugshots and emergency room abscesses. Nobody asks to have an eating disorder.
Except sometimes, you do.
January 2015. The night before the start of my second semester of my freshman year. I’d dropped my glasses with the help of LASEK surgery, I’d chopped off all my hair (twice) and dyed it (also twice). On the cusp of something new and exciting, I dug into my wardrobe looking for something to wear to the first day only to find… nothing fit.
Your first semester of college is usually never kind, and Christmas break didn’t help. With brand new better-than-perfect vision I watched as my reflection in the mirror struggled to button a pair of jeans that had fit so perfectly just six weeks before and tried to dissociate my physical being from that reflection.
Now, I’ve never been skinny (excepting a brief period of my childhood where I was too sick to eat for months at a time), but that was something new altogether. I’d never really put on weight – just maintained enough of an irregular, unhealthy diet that the trash I put into my body was counteracted by the fact that I never really knew for sure when my next meal would be. I’d never even stepped on a scale, except when I’d be weighed by one parent after visitation with another to ‘prove’ they were unfit for custody by the fact that I’d gained or lost a fraction of a pound, whatever the situation happened to be.
It was one of those moments where the gears of change started turning. I’d already moved thousands of miles away from home, lived by myself for six months, taken road trips alone to big cities, and changed my appearance in ways I’d never been allowed to before. I was unstoppable. Why not lose some weight as well?
So I hit Google. I learned what calories were and how to burn them. I learned what a healthy diet was and that mine was pretty much the exact opposite of that. I downloaded meal-tracking apps and input my data and learned that I could lose two pounds a week eating 1200 calories, and I realized that I generally ate a lot more than that.
I regulated my diet. I ate 1200 calories. I cooked at home, stopped eating out, stopped putting cream and sugar in my coffee. I started going to the gym for thirty minutes a day. I bought a scale and weighed myself each morning. I watched the numbers shrink as rapidly as the bad habits I was dropping.
For the first time, I felt good about my body.
2012. The world was supposed to end, and I wished all year long that it would. Abuse at home was so pervasive that it invaded my school life, to the point where I felt like I was choking on it, steeped in it, unable to escape. I walked on tiptoes at home, never said a word to anyone, spent my days drenched in a cold sweat with my heart panic-racing, wasted my nights locked in my bedroom sobbing into pillows because it was a sweeter music than the cops being called once again.
I started cutting myself. I’d done so, on and off, since 2007. But that year, I kept a notebook. I logged all of my failures that week – things as simple as being cut off while talking (because it must mean that the words I was saying were unimportant and a waste of others’ time) to things as entirely out of control as my dad and his girlfriend fighting (because I’d reasoned that, had I not been born, my parents never would have divorced, he never would have met her, etc etc). I’d rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, and at the end of the week, I’d multiply that rank by two and make the appropriate number of incisions on the tops of my thighs.
What I lacked in quality I made up for in quantity. I didn’t want dramatic scars. I wanted to punish myself for existing, for being a detrimental presence in the lives of everyone I knew – doing something deep enough to warrant stitches, to make messes in the bathroom, to cause concern; that went against my ethos. It would have made people pay attention. I just wanted to hurt.
I stopped a few months before I went to college because I’d found a way out, a light at the end of a tunnel that I never thought I’d be able to escape from, and, in the process, a sliver of self-worth that told me maybe now I could get better.
March 2015. I was dropping weight quickly. I liked the way my waist felt smaller, liked the way my stomach cramped when I got hungry, liked the way my body ached after a workout.
Gym sessions got longer: I could burn more calories that way, and thereby lose weight more rapidly. Meals got smaller, or got cut altogether: if I ate less, then all those calories I burned at the gym wouldn’t have to work through a pesky stomachful of food and could get straight to the fat, and I’d lose weight even faster!
It worked flawlessly for weeks. I came home from my very first Long Beach ePrix, and at Easter dinner, my mom took one look at me and endowed me with the coveted title Skinny Minnie. The pride I felt at those two words was more gratifying than anything else I’d done – more than graduating salutatorian, more than making it into a prestigious university, more than living through years of bullshit and still managing to come out on the other side.
I ate until I was uncomfortably full. I even had dessert.
I dutifully logged the entire meal into my calorie tracker to make sure I could compensate for the damage. I didn’t eat for two days, doubled my gym sessions, and picked up intense sprints to make up for it.
September 2015. A summer in Europe eating nothing but buttery pastries and carb-loaded breads. Ignore the fact that I averaged 15 miles of walking a day; I entered a new semester poking at the stubborn little pooch at my hips and lower stomach and pledged I would be skinny no matter what.
I knew what I was doing. I attacked the Internet with a refined vigor, searching for tips and tricks and hacks to lose weight that led me to darker sides of the weight-loss world. I was angry. Working out wasn’t fun, it didn’t make me feel good – it was to compensate for the fact that I ate. Eating was a nightmare. I stopped doing it wherever I could. I never went out with anyone because it would mean hard questions about why no one ever saw me do more than poke at a meal.
It was the first time I’d ever felt cravings so intense that they were all I could focus on, but my starved body was looking for the satiety I wasn’t giving it. I spent hours flipping from weight loss blogs to recipe blogs filled with decadent desserts to food delivery apps to see all the things I was missing. It was as much self-punishment as it was a test of my self-control. How long could I last? How many pictures and artfully-decorated cupcakes and gooey chocolate brownies and mile-high pies could I look at and still go to bed hungry?
I spiralled into forums full of the things therapists look for when diagnosing anorexia. I learned that I should drink a liter of water any time I feel hungry to fill myself up. I learned that if I really wanted something, I could chew it up and spit it out – I could have my cake but I didn’t have to eat it, too. I learned how to fast for a day. I learned how to sleep through hunger pangs because I knew I’d wake up skinnier on the other end. I knew what I was doing. I knew I was seeking out pro-ana Tumblrs and filling my Instagram with thinspo accounts. I knew these were the signs of an eating disorder, and I knew I was adopting it because I needed something to control, and I knew this was a much more satisfying way to control something than digging the blade of a pair of scissors into my leg every Sunday night.
Because at least I was changing something. I was thin enough that my clothes all stopped fitting, that I could throw them all away, and I kept telling myself it was a victory and that I was doing it for a good cause.
December 2016. My wisdom tooth-removal surgery didn’t go quite as planned, and I watched days fall away on a diet of nothing but a banana in the morning and a bit of soup (if I felt up to it) in the afternoon. After three weeks, I dropped ten pounds and was the skinniest I’d ever been. I couldn’t open my swollen jaw, but I could stand in front of the mirror, so paper-thin that I thought I might disappear when I turned to a profile view.
It made slipping into the semester that much easier. By then, my fridge was perpetually sparse. I stopped eating meat because it was too calorically dense, I cut out all fats, I wouldn’t touch any carb unless it was a complex carb – and that was only when I was truly desperate. I put on a little of the weight I’d lost during my surgery, but I’d never been so consistently small. I adopted a hands-on-hips pose every time I stood anywhere; it felt nice; it felt like victory.
I rewarded myself with tattoos. I hated myself every minute they healed where I couldn’t go to the gym. I cut my calorie intake down to 300 a day and was so disgusted in myself that I couldn’t just drop it down to 0. I knew I was being impractical and irrational, I knew I should start seeking help, but I also knew that that would mean putting on weight, and I wasn’t ready. Just ten more pounds, I kept telling myself. If I get down to 105, I’ll build my diet back up slowly and get healthy.
It doesn’t work that way. I knew that. Like putting a bandaid on a fatal wound, I knew my mantra wasn’t going to help anything. I just helped me feel a little bit better about what I knew I shouldn’t be doing.
July 2016. Another summer of traveling. I put on five pounds and had a month off to spend with my family at home. But with my parents’ business opening up and my siblings out with friends, I dedicated myself with renewed vigor to the weight-loss game, determined to finally hit that coveted 105-pound mark that had always seemed just out of reach.
Every day, I’d wake up at 7. I would spend four hours walking on the treadmill while my family was out. When they came home for lunch, I’d tell them I’d already eaten. After they left, I retired to my bedroom for another few hours of extended HIIT workouts. When they came home for dinner, I’d tell them, again, that I’d already eaten. I might allay any worries they had by snacking on popcorn or making a mini salad, eating where they could see. I spent any time I wasn’t working out crying in bed, miserable, feeling like I was wasting my summer and then using the sick bile of emotion to get up for a run. Shower, sleep, repeat.
I broke the 105 pound mark – and then some.
September 2016. The end of my last away race weekend that year. Camping in close quarters with two other people, it was hard to maintain the habit of never eating, but I managed to claim eating a few meals while they were in the shower and to eat as little as possible while they watched. On the journey home, I had nothing. I kept feeling my stomach, making sure it was still flat even when I tried my hardest to distend it.
Parking my car, I realized the elevator wasn’t working and that I’d have to climb the three flights of stairs up to my apartment with my backpack and some hand luggage. Three flights – no big deal.
I woke up in the stairwell and an hour had passed.
September 2016. When I made it up to my room – dizzy, winded, limbs trembling – I sat in front of the mirror and took a hard look at myself.
My hair was falling out. My teeth ached. My fingernails were so thin that I had to keep them covered in polish so they wouldn’t break. I couldn’t run farther than a mile without exhausting myself. I couldn’t stay awake for more than a few hours without a nap. I hadn’t had a period in nearly a year and a half. I had finally, comfortably, slipped into a pair of size 00 shorts. I could finally step onto the scale and see numbers in the double – not triple – digits.
And I finally faced the fact that this was just another mode of self-harm. This was me cutting myself, punishing myself for existing. This was me trying to be a kind of unachievable perfect in an unachievable way and only making myself miserable and unhealthy in the process. This was me realizing that this had to change.
When I picked up groceries that night, I stocked my fridge and pantry in a way I hadn’t for a year. And while it would still be pretty sparse for most people, it seemed dauntingly full to me.
This isn’t a story with a happy ending – or even an ending, really. The thing that nobody tells you about those pesky self-destructive habits is that they just don’t go away because you want them to. I still have the urge to spend my weekends slicing obsessively into my leg just because I made the slightest mistake. I started eating again, yes – but that doesn’t mean this eating disorder went away. It just swapped into a more socially acceptable ‘disordered eating’.
The thing that nobody tells you when you start eating again is how fast you’ll gain weight. Because, yes, I knew it would happen – but I didn’t realize that by October I’d have put on twenty pounds, that by November it was another ten more, that by February I’d be as heavy as I was when I decided to start losing weight to begin with. Nobody tells you that months spent in starvation mode fucks up your metabolism, that you can still not eat the daily recommended calories that someone in your age group needs, that you can still be active, and that you can still watch the numbers on the scale skyrocket. Nobody tells you that suddenly those numbers will drop, that you’ll lose five pounds, put on ten, lose fifteen, put on five – in the span of a week – because your body doesn’t know how to react. Nobody tells you that you never feel hungry, that eating 300 calories for a meal leaves you feeling sick and heavy, even nearly a year later.
The thing that nobody tells you is that it fucking sucks. That you slog through every day helplessly watching your best efforts be for naught – watching the weight you lose suddenly come back out of nowhere. That you’re trying so hard to be healthy and all you want to do is cry because you finally know what you look like skinny and you keep looking at all those old pictures where your cheekbones looked so sharp and your arms were so small and your waist looked so good and you have all these clothes that are four sizes too small; that you want to cry and maybe you do but you still make sure you eat.
The thing that nobody tells you is that you can’t look at food normally anymore (ice cream is always going to be calories you’re wasting on sugar and carbs, french fries are delicious but are they really worth all the fat, every meal has to be weighed out and analyzed and picked apart). That you’re going to indulge in something you love and hate yourself for days afterward, no matter how many times you tell yourself that a handful of candy isn’t going to ruin a great day.
The thing that nobody tells you is how conscious you are of your body – of the way your stomach presses against your jeans, of the way your thighs jiggle when you walk, of the way your arms look when you cross them. Nobody tells you how much you dread anyone pointing out any of those things, or how much it hurts when someone looks at you differently because the last time they saw you was when you were 100lbs, or how someone will call you soft and you’ll think about it for weeks afterward.
But nobody also tells you how great it feels to finally let go. To have drinks and eat french fries and go out with friends and eat things you haven’t tasted in years. To have enough energy to go for a run. To wake up in the morning and not need to plan for intermittent naps all day. To push aside those worries and finally have fun, because for once you’re making memories instead of hiding away in shame of how you look, working yourself to the point of drop-dead exhaustion every day.
The thing that lots of people will tell you about kicking those nasty little self-destructive habits that somehow worm into every inch of your life and hijack your brain and make every moment a living hell is that it gets easier. Sometimes they skim over how fucking hard it is in the beginning. Sometimes they make it seem like you just get to jump from fucked-up-point-A to perfectly-normal-point-B in a couple of days. But those people aren’t wrong. It’s slow-going, it can be miserable, but I’ll be damned if you don’t sit yourself down and look back after a few months and realize, huh – this has been getting easier.
This isn’t a story with an ending. It’s not a precautionary tale like the heroin addicts on the DARE slideshows. It’s not a story of triumph, unless we’re talking about poor choices triumphing over me, in which case maybe it is. It’s not even really a story, because stories are fictional and make sense and have resolutions and involve characters a whole lot more interesting than I could ever hope to be.
I think this is just me. An unashamed, unabashed me coming to terms with myself, understanding how this chemical-ridden trigger-happy brain of mine works, realizing there are common threads, coping with trauma, etc. Me shedding light on parts of myself that I hide, because I think it’s disingenuous to claim the shambles of Elizabeth Werth are anything close to put together when I try so hard to let other people know that they don’t need to be ashamed of their mental health. Me putting myself into words – because that’s really all I know how to do – and me giving those words to a general You because the next step for me, I think, is to stop trying to deal with this alone.
So, here I am.