When I think of anorexia, I think of Karen Carpenter. Like every normal teenage girl who came of age in the 1970’s, I idolize Karen Carpenter (I, unfortunately, grew up in the 2000s, which makes the “normal” qualifier irrelevant). But only insofar as I would give my right arm to feather my hair and belt out “Superstar” in front of a screaming crowd. It never occurred to me to want to be thin like Karen Carpenter. I knew that she died of anorexia, which as a little girl, I knew to be some terrible disease where you weren’t allowed to eat cereal or chicken fingers or any of the other beige foods starting with the letter “C” that I was willing to eat.
But her death, years before I was born, was irrelevant to me the way that Janis Joplin’s or Jim Morrison’s deaths are irrelevant to me: tragic, of course, and preventable in hindsight, but a fact of life, a thing that happens to people who aren’t me. It is only when I am 25 years old and staring at a piece of paper that says in clinical numbers—307.1, the diagnostic code for anorexia nervosa—that it occurs to me that I never got the feathered hair or the Asian tour, but I did get that freaky disease where you forget how to feed yourself.
I always assumed that if I were to contract an eating disorder, it would be something like pica, where you eat paint chips or whatever, things you see on “My Weird Addiction” (or read about in your favorite children’s book, the Childhood Medical Guide, if you were a friendless child with bizarre literary interests). Anorexia is awfully basic for a girl like me who prides herself on being original. Anorexia is for cheerleaders and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul contributors. I’m a writer—I’m supposed to be an alcoholic, or bipolar; something sophisticated and higher-brow. I’m too smart to starve myself.
But as ridiculous as it seems—that I, a girl who has always been best described as voluptuous whose favorite sin has long been a tie between sloth and gluttony, could be on the brink of death from self-induced starvation—the omnipresent pain in my chest tells me the truth.
“No, it’s not,” my then-boyfriend said when I mentioned that I thought my chest pain might be a consequence of my alarmingly low weight. I don’t know why—maybe he genuinely believed it, or maybe he was in denial, or maybe he was just sick of the fact that somehow the smart-mouthed, energetic little thing he’d fallen in love with had morphed into a moody, listless, half-cadaverous excuse for a human who would rather exercise than spend the morning in bed with him. I can hardly blame him. Nobody wants to date a sack of bones.
And a sack of bones I am. To clarify: I have always had great boobs. It’s awfully lowbrow of me to say that in such a public forum, but it’s true, and it’s important. They are perfect, and nobody in my family knows where they came from. They are big enough to be noticeable, but not so big that they’re, you know, slutty—because as any woman knows, large breasts are a visual indicator of one’s genetic predisposition not only to heterosexuality but also to wanting to sleep with any and all men, including that guy yelling at you from his car window—and they’ve always been one of the few parts of my body that I am comfortable with.
I looked down one day, though, and instead of my beautiful Raphaelite boobs I had a bra that I could have worn to smuggle drugs. Instead, I had a lucky rib.
“Rib” is probably not the anatomically correct term. I never pretended to be good at science, but to the point, I had a lucky rib—a little nub that protruded from my sternum that I could feel when I poked around at my chest, which I did often when I wanted to make sure that I was still a good and disciplined and virtuous person and not a greedy-sloppy-sluggish pig.
My lucky rib was more fascinating to me even than the base of my spine, which I discovered for the first time some eighteen months ago when the protective layer of fat that coats my bones first began to melt away. It became my talisman. I rubbed it like an underfed Buddha.
I could count, then, every bone from my collar to my waist.
It becomes harder to concentrate. I quit reading books. When I was a kid, I used to get a stack of books from the library, read them all in three days, and beg my mom to take me back. At 25, I am no longer able to read books because they are too much for my shriveling brain.
My hair grows brittle and falls out in clumps. The more I exercise—and oh, boy, do I exercise; even my spin instructors admire my dedication to the classes that I attend every day without fail—the grayer my skin grows. My veins pop out of my arms and legs. My heart pounds out of my chest. Sometimes, when I lose control and eat too much, I stick my finger down my throat and vomit. This is by far the least glamorous part and I try to save it for when I really need it, like when I eat ice cream.
“If you continue like this, you will DIE,” C_______ writes to me in an email.
“I had two heart attacks,” says K__. “You will have a heart attack.”
I dislike these opinions, so I ignore them. I stay home, mostly, or I go to the gym, where people ask me what I do and what I eat and eye me enviously. The gym is a safe place. Restaurants and bars are not safe, so I stop going to them. I go to bed early. C_______ and K__ want me to be healthy, they say, and happy, but it’s unclear to me how I can be happy if I’m not skinny and being skinny is incompatible with going to restaurants and bars and staying out too late to get up and exercise. Plus, I get cranky when I’m hungry, and I’m always hungry because I only eat when I’m ready to chew off my own arm and I stop when I stop shaking and that doesn’t really mean I’m less cranky, just that I’m less faint.
I’m not very much fun to be around. My boyfriend dumps me, eventually, and then I am alone, except for my lucky rib. Like a country song about a lovelorn vegetarian at a barbecue.
I am a sack of bones dangling from a coat hanger.
I used to be a wild animal. I used to go out dancing, take four shots and sweat it out in a pile of bodies and then go pile into a booth at the diner and order chicken fingers or buy a bag of tacos from Del Taco and down them in the back of the car.
Have you ever asked a sack of bones to go out dancing with you?
Nobody loves a sack of bones.
I watch a video of Karen Carpenter a few months before she died, after she had been force-fed 30 pounds’ worth of food in a hospital. She is haggard. She could pass for sixty—and I’m not just saying that because she has the same haircut that my grandma did before she died, which I don’t think you can really blame on anorexia—and her skin is gray like mine. I want to drink away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because alcohol has calories, and I want to read away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because I can’t read, and I want to run away my calories and so I do until my heart is practically popping out of my chest and I hear again—“I had two heart attacks. You will have a heart attack”—and with no love and no wine and not even a book to keep me company, I know that I have lost.
This is rock bottom, I suppose. Sometimes, now, twenty pounds later—and counting, God help me, I’ve already replaced my pants twice and I’m about ready to join a nudist colony—I look at pictures of myself from those months between when my boyfriend dumped me and when I finally called the treatment center and I am abjectly horrified. I want to make inappropriate jokes about the Holocaust and the Bataan Death March because I don’t know how else to explain away the complete irrationality of starving yourself.
Rock bottom is the night at work that we need to pull an all-nighter, and I can’t bring myself to eat so eventually I lose it and start screaming at my coworkers and solidify a reputation for myself as the psycho girl who can’t hack it during an all-nighter. Rock bottom is leaving my best friend’s bachelorette party early because I want to get up early and run the next day. Rock bottom is doing that again at her wedding.
But I felt so glamorous. This is what they don’t tell you about anorexia: you feel like a movie star. “You look great,” I hear, often, from coworkers and strangers and relatives and friends. “What do you do?” I am unused to this attention and this is what is so hard to give up: the idea that I’m finally doing something well. I’m not good at very much: I wasn’t very good at ballet, and I wasn’t very good at being a girlfriend, but for a time, I was good at being skinny and that felt really, really good.
I am smart enough to understand that being good at something that will eventually kill you—“The only good anorexic is a dead anorexic,” C_______ says to me, and I suppose logically, that’s true—is not actually a talent you want. I go to therapy and the dietitian and I learn that I’m slowly killing myself and that my body is eating away at my brain and that if I don’t start feeding myself again, and soon, I’m going to lose my job and then I will have nothing, absolutely nothing, left to live for.
What I also learn is that I have a choice: I can be a glamorous movie star in a tiny dress with jutting elbows and cheekbones and ribs that I can count in a dressing room mirror, or I can be a human being, with a life and friends and love and hobbies.
My therapist gives me a list of the things that happen to you when you starve yourself: not just the hair, or the being cold, but things I never guessed, things that explain why my life has become so intolerably lonely. It turns out that starving yourself is a good way to become an antisocial hermit, only minus the part where you read the works of James Joyce and write your version of Walden, because as I’ve mentioned several times, malnutrition is really bad for being a functional human.
I am given instructions to feed myself. This is ironic: I’m 25 years old, I was the valedictorian of my high school class, I have a degree from an almost-top-10 liberal arts college and I have to pay $160 an hour for a woman to tell me how to eat properly. (Maybe if I’d gotten Phi Beta Kappa, I’d still be able to eat sandwiches without feeling like I’m trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Prove? What do you even do with a theorem? See above re: not being good at things.) It’s demoralizing.
I cry a lot. I cry about the bachelorette party that I missed. I cry about the fact that I went an entire year without eating sushi because it has rice in it. I cry about my relationship, both because my eating disorder destroyed it and because I think that maybe letting myself stay with someone who was so cruel to me was, in a way, tacit permission to let me be cruel to myself. It seems to me that I have lost an entire year of my life to what looks to other people not like a disease but a weakness, and I cry over every night that I could have spent dancing and drinking and eating bags of tacos from the Del Taco drive through but instead I spent on the couch reading a single page of some women’s magazine over and over until I finally digested whatever bullshit they were feeding me about how I should hate my body.
Eating disorder therapy is not all tears and confessing that your high school dance teacher made you keep a food journal (side note: in retrospect, that was really fucked up). It’s kind of fun, trying to regain 20 pounds. It’s fun to say that going out and drinking beer and eating pizza is your therapy. It’s fun to down a whole plate of enchiladas like you’re a fifteen-year-old boy and feel the warm sensation of fullness spreading through your veins in a way that you haven’t felt in months.
It’s not fun to feel yourself seized by a wave of panic induced by a plate of enchiladas. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing to be 25 years old, gainfully employed, ostensibly an independent adult, and to be brought to your knees by a plate of enchiladas. It’s not fun to buy a new pair of jeans every month because you’re blowing up like a hot air balloon. I could probably buy stock in the Gap right now. I would happily join a nudist colony right now if it meant that I never had to put on another pair of jeans and feel the button crushing into my fat belly every minute of every day, reminding me that I am no longer thin and glamorous.
I’ll be 26 in three months. I’ve remembered mostly how to eat on my own again. I am reading voraciously, catching up on all the books I missed while I was underwater. I have a new boyfriend who puts his hand on my belly sometimes like it’s something precious. He looks at me like a girl in a Renaissance painting and I forget for a moment that I’m covered in fat, that my lucky rib is buried again, that I’m not virtuous or special. I go out dancing and I eat pizza and I drink beer, and when I do, I look at everyone in their sweaty, imperfect bodies, girls with mascara running down their cheeks in cheap faux-silk tops from Express and boys who are finally outgrowing their teenage metabolisms and I feel—well, not lucky, yet, but at the very least, at home in the world again. Alive, again, at last.