I’ve been asked this question a lot, since I did the impossible and lost the weight so quickly: “What’s your secret?”
As if I had some magic solution to their bodily insecurities. As if somehow, I had found an easy, painless, and healthy method of changing my body in such a drastic way.
I grew increasingly resentful of the question, especially at the time I was still entirely trapped in my disorder. I was having a harder time processing emotions and to me, comments like these were invalidating and demeaning. My eating disorder was offended. I’d put in a lot of effort, goddamn it. I felt that my hard work was being unrecognized and mitigated by these assumptions.
Now that I’m in a more sound state of mind, I realize that the people asking me this question weren’t trying to take from me my counterintuitive sense of accomplishment. They also weren’t trying to imply that what I’d done was easy. Instead, they were looking for an outlet to rid themselves of their own weight-related dramas (of which I suspect every person has at least one).
However, despite the fact that they weren’t implying any sort of simplicity in my process, I don’t think they understood how difficult it really was. So, retroactively, I’ve compiled a list of 20 skills you should think about cultivating if you want to lose the weight as quickly and dangerously as I did.
At the end of the list, you can tell me if you think it’s worth it.
** IMPORTANT NOTE: None of these are meant as genuine tips, or pro-anorexia suggestions in any way. Please take note of the heavy sarcasm and understand that I am actually advising AGAINST doing any of this.
1. Be ok with constant headaches. Carry Advil in your bag for them (along with seltzer water, cough drops, mints, gum, and other expensive “necessities” that have little to no caloric value, but that you know will keep your mouth busy).
2. Allocate large blocks of extra time in your day that you will unwittingly spend idling in grocery stores or convenience stores investigating food. You’ll stare at calorie labels. Maybe even waste away twenty to thirty minutes agonizing over which variety of “appetite control whole grain cracker” to buy.
3. Forget how it feels to be hungry. Settle instead for a ringing in your ears and general fogginess and sluggishness of the brain. Sometimes you’ll know your body wants food because you’ll get a really sharp stomach pain, or it becomes so hard to concentrate that you know something must be up. At the really bad points, I could feel my brain actually shutting down. I said a lot of things to people that didn’t make sense. I don’t remember a lot of the details from these times.
4. Make to-do lists, lists of things to remember, lists of things to remember to pack in the morning, lists on lists on lists. You’ll start to notice— you’ll forget everything. The lists are because you don’t trust yourself to remember. Or not to get so distracted thinking about your eating plan for that day that you forget.
5. Before you go to bed each night, allocate at least 30 minutes to constructing an eating plan for the following day. It’ll help you get to sleep.
6. Oh, yeah: sleep. Become unable to fall asleep without over-the-counter assistance. Your body wants you awake and eating, and it will fight you for those 8 hours you need now more than ever.
7. Be tired. All the time. Fight through waves of exhaustion to get to class, to walk home, to talk to a friend, to read a page of a book. Fight hard.
8. Endure long walks home from class in which you’re not sure if your knee is going to give out or if you’ll make it over that next step, all the while listening to your brain run in never-ending circles. It’s debating whether you’re going to eat a 20 calorie cracker or a 50 calorie cup of soup when you walk in the door. Yes, this decision will take the whole walk to make.
9. Lose trust in your body. Wonder if you’ll be able to make your muscles move the way your brain tells them to during your daily workout. Because chances are, they’ll crap out at least once.
10. Practice a believable laugh and shrug when someone asks you why you’ve had the same gigantic bruise on your thigh for the past 2 months.
11. Practice repairing relationships with friends and family— you’ll need to, because with the amount of plans you’ll cancel to simmer in your room and the amount of times you’ll snap at people in sudden bouts of irritation or rage, there might not be as many left as you thought there’d be.
12. Miss out on plans with friends because they want to order food during said plans.
13. Give up your hobbies, or at least your enjoyment of them. This is your hobby now.
14. Stomach going to your high intensity interval training class at the gym after becoming nauseous at the sight of your low weight on the scale.
15. Practice lying to yourself. For instance, I convinced myself that eating a pecan half before working out meant that I ingested enough fat to provide mental motivation for the hour-long workout. I pretended I could feel it in my cheeks.
16. Resist cringing when you read an essay you wrote during this time; the sentences might not make sense, and your vocabulary usage will be frighteningly limited.
17. Be okay with laughing less.
18. Allocate extra money in your budget for vitamin supplements— you’ll need them.
19. Allocate extra time in your day for your lethargy; you’ll walk slowly, and get things done slowly, too.
20. Your personality will change. Be okay with that. Practice convincing yourself that holding yourself to your imaginary high “diet” standards matters more than who you are. Practice looking in the mirror and saying, this is who I am today. I don’t know who I was anymore, or where she went… but I do know how to keep going.
I’m not telling you these things to scare you. I’m not telling them to gain sympathy, either, or to shock you into pity. I have no interest in any of that.
What I want is an understanding. There I was, all semester, cultivating those 20 really dangerous habits with ferocity that border lined violence. And it was overlooked (even by me: I hardly noticed these things happening until they already had).
Friends encouraged some of my behaviors. People asked my advice. Encouragement from my peers gave the disorder more and more importance, and it consumed more and more of my thoughts. With my eating disorder, I didn’t have to think about the real problems that were going on in my everyday life. It was my coping mechanism.
That’s the other thing: it wasn’t about the weight. So many people assume that eating disorders develop because of body image alone. They think that a person goes through all the crippling effort of an eating disorder for the sole purpose of looking good. They tell people “you’re not fat! You’re so skinny!” thinking that it will make the eating disorder go away. But here’s the part that’s vitally important: that isn’t true.
The only way to beat an eating disorder is to understand it. I’m still at the very start of recovery, like I said before. But the progress I have made has come from understanding those around me and understanding myself.
So I’ve written this not to scare you: rather, I think we could all benefit from a little understanding. Had I known what to look out for, had I known where it all was headed, maybe I could have caught myself. Maybe I could have stopped it from getting so bad. Maybe I could have asked louder for help.
Granted, no one person’s eating disorder is the same. But understanding from society doesn’t come in a day. It builds over time. Slowly, people come forward, stories are told, perspectives shared. One story at a time. And maybe, this way, one less girl in college will have to face that terrifyingly blank stare in the mirror. Maybe one less girl will have to forget who she is, or crash her car, or wreak havoc on her family in order for her illness to be noticed or treated.
I really hope so: it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on even the worst of people.
So this month, give a little thought to eating disorders. You might notice, they’re more prevalent than you think. Look out for those around you. Lend an offer of support to a friend. Refrain from making “too much pizza” jokes every once in awhile.
And if you think that a friend, or even just someone you know, might be struggling, consider reaching out and saying something. They might hate you for it in the moment, but they don’t really hate you: their disorder does.
Take it from me. After three and a half weeks of solid meals, I’m finally done with the re-feeding transition process. I can sleep at night again and my brain is back. I made a clever joke the other day and read an entire book in a weekend. My disorder didn’t give me those things: it took them away. And now that I have them again, along with a plethora of other things life has to offer, I’m terrified of going back. And to the people who helped me get here, even this far, my eating disorder is kind of pissed off. But me? I’m filled with an endless gratitude.