By Susanna Lancaster
It’s been going on for almost as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a picky eater. Sometimes I hid food in my napkins because I just didn’t want it. In 11th grade, I quit eating meat—and it wasn’t the only thing I cut out.
I avoided bread, limited dairy, shunned salad dressing, and said I was full when it came to dessert. I was always anxious, and the more anxious I felt, the less I ate. Not eating enough numbed me to what was going on in my environment, things I couldn’t change. I could control how many crackers I allowed myself or how much fluid I consumed. Each day I knew exactly how many calories I ate.
After hardly eating, I would workout for several hours, often late at night to hide how long I spent on the treadmill or elliptical. I felt strong when seeing the distances I walked or ran. After adding up all the calories I burned, it felt like a huge accomplishment.
People praised me for being “tiny,” and joked I didn’t “need” exercise because I was already so small. To the outside, I was a petite, health-conscious girl with perfect grades. On the inside, I struggled with the disorder with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness: anorexia.
As a senior at The University of Memphis, my BMI (body mass index) plummeted dangerously low to a 12. I experienced amenorrhea, lanugo hairs, and constant fatigue and coldness. Despite the physical effects of my disorder, I continued pursuing my degree in creative writing. I was finishing college a year early with a 4.00 GPA, but I was still hard on myself and didn’t recognize my own accomplishments. Perfectionism held me back. Getting acceptance to graduate school in Boston helped eased my disorder some. My weight wasn’t as noticeably low, but my relationship with food and exercise continued to be a problem.
Purging, diet pills, and laxative abuse are all things that tormented me at one point. At 24, a bone density test revealed I had osteopenia and some full osteoporosis. During the next year, I faced 15 double ear infections, had chronic respiratory infections, and my stomach lining thinned so much that merely coughing led to an incarcerated hernia. I usually had to sit in my car a few minutes before driving because I would black out simply by walking through the parking lot. I worried about dying in my sleep.
My life changed when my now-fiancé became concerned about my health and went with me to a treatment center for eating disorders. I was relieved because I knew I had a problem, though I was somewhat still in denial. I thought I wasn’t skinny enough to need treatment. I justified it because I wasn’t as thin as I had been during that final year of college, so it couldn’t be that bad.
However, I’ve learned a person doesn’t need to feel “sick enough” or be underweight to need and deserve help. Being under or overweight is only one of the many effects of eating disorders. Size isn’t the main criteria in diagnosis, and a person can have a normal BMI and look fine on the outside while having an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. I was immediately admitted into the treatment and spent most of last summer in a partial hospitalization program.
Recovery is a daily battle—physically and mentally. From my body rejecting food to learning how to handle comments about my weight gain, it’s been difficult. However, my immune system is stronger. My hair and nails are long, not brittle. I have more energy to get through the day.
My fiancé, a personal trainer, helps me perform light exercise. I don’t think about burning off all my calories, instead focusing on how much better I feel. I especially enjoy yoga. It helps reduce the anxiety that triggers the disorder, and it makes me more mindful of how wonderful exercise can be when not abusing it.
The word “healthy” means something different to everyone, and we each have our own journey to get there. For those struggling with food or exercise, my hope is that you, too, will seek a better life. Not everyone will be supportive or understanding if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, but it’s crucial to spend time with those who do not reinforce the negative behaviors and thoughts.
I’m thankful for those who have helped me heal to arrive where I am today. Compared to a year ago, I’m a new person. By letting go of this disorder and not allowing it to control me, my life has become better than I ever envisioned. I still have hard days with food and body image, but they’re becoming fewer. The hope of being able to have children is a huge motivation for my full recovery. This struggle is just one chapter of my life’s story, and I’m excited and hopeful about the life there is to gain after an eating disorder.
Photo by Philip Murphey
Susanna Lancaster is an author specializing in works for kids and teens. She holds an M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing and teaches college English courses. Her debut novel, “The Growing Rock,” is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions. She enjoys yoga, traveling, and spending time with her fiancé and her yorkie, Boston.