I used to think it was my friend Alli’s* fault that I landed in the hospital in seventh grade with a heart rate between 40 and 50 beats per minute. A normal resting rate is between 60 and 100—mine was so low that I had passed out in school after an anxiety attack. This happened during orchestra. I don’t actually remember passing out, but my friend Erica said that when she followed me into the hallway, I was hyperventilating. Then I fainted and became unresponsive for a couple of minutes. Soon after this, I was hospitalized. I weighed far below what I should have at the time.
Why was it Alli’s fault? Because she could still starve and I couldn’t. I was forced to eat. I was forced to spend six hours a day in group therapy while she was in school, and her parents didn’t suspect a thing.
I’ve struggled my whole life with low self-esteem, anxiety, and a warped body image. Though I did not realize it at the time, part of the reason my parents sent me to a therapist in the third grade was that, even at nine, I was restricting my food intake and obsessed with being thin.
Then, in sixth grade, I met Alli. She was a dancer and she was told she had to be thin to do what she loved. We began “supporting” each other by counting calories. We brought salads for lunch, and when we changed for gym, we did so next to the mirror so we could clearly see who was thinner. Alli always was, so I made up my mind at the end of sixth grade to lower my intake. She followed suit. We saw each other almost every day that summer, swimming together, eating frozen mangoes, and tossing out the sandwiches our parents had packed for us in the woods near the pond. Sometimes we would go to the library and look at Seventeen or read diet books, which inspired me to read cookbooks with nutritional information to find things I “could” eat.
When school started, I saw my life slide sharply downhill. Alli and I had only orchestra together, so all but one of my core classes were lonely affairs. I trashed my lunch every day save for an apple that I cut into tiny pieces. Alli and I further limited our caloric intake. We talked about “fat” girls on the way home, many of whom I now think of as beautiful. We told each other everything about our days while comparing the number of fingers we could fit between our thighs when our knees were touching.
OK, I know you might be worried that this is going to be a pro-ana, “thinspiration” piece now, but it’s not. This is the story of my 2011. But if I’m going to tell you what happened next, I need to tell you everything I thought and felt at the time, which is not at all pretty and definitely unhealthy.
I will start on Valentine’s Day of last year. About two weeks after passing out, I checked into Bader 5, the wing of Children’s Hospital Boston that treats psychiatric disorders. I hated myself and everyone there. I hated the food most of all. Every day I counted calories until they went over my head and I felt like I was going to drown. I was sure—absolutely sure—that I would starve again once I was released.
At first, I had no friends and sat in silence, shaking and lost. Every day I woke up at five AM after a restless night. I ran in place silently in my room with the door locked—this was the only time I was allowed to close my door. At seven, I would take a shower, which humiliated me because I hated being naked, but also gave me a sick thrill because I was still “thin.” At eight, I had breakfast, which was supposed to be finished in 30 minutes, but I prolonged it to 40 or 50. At 10 AM, I had a snack. At noon came lunch, three PM meant another snack, dinner was at five. I looked forward to visits with my parents every evening from five to eight, but I didn’t talk about my recovery. Instead, I talked about sadness, and how I missed my friends, and when I would get back to school. Also, my therapy was not very productive. I tried hard to block out all of the reasons I was anorexic: my need to beat Alli at being thin, a desperate desire to get guys to look at me, the urge to be the best at just one thing. I did not share any of these thoughts with my therapists. I did not tell them how, once I was home again, I would go right back to counting every calorie that passed my chapped lips.
Then my luck changed. A girl came to Bader 5—I will call her Amanda. She arrived on my one-week anniversary there. She made my days bearable because she was like Alli, only younger and more soft-spoken. We talked about our habits. We talked about this other girl on the unit who scared us with her loud voice. We talked about television, family, friends, everything. Mainly, though, we talked about starving. And slowly, more girls like us arrived: Kelly, Coco, Lily. And I began to feel a little happier. I had people who understood me, people who hated it there as much as I did, people who didn’t want to get better. However, as everyone saw my mood change, they assumed my recovery was working. My team at Bader—which included a therapist, a nutritionist, and a case manager—decided, along with my parents, that it was time for the next step.
On March 3rd, I was let out and sent to a day program at the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center (CEDC). The program was scheduled from nine AM to 3:30 PM, meaning I could go home, but not to school. Every day was spent in silence. Inside my head, I was still anorexic. I ate like they wanted me to, but I was always judging the other girls on how “skinny” or “fat” they were, and I was always counting the calories or sneaking to the bathroom to check myself in the mirror, which was unsuccessfully covered up with motivational quotes. The people there tried to talk to me, but I refused. Group leaders would ask for my ideas on issues and about my life at home, but I would give one-word answers, all the while staring at the ground or at my thighs. I was scared they would reject me and I would be even more of a loser in my own eyes, rejected even by freaks. Freaks like me.
The only time I talked to anyone besides my parents was when Alli came over to my house. She told me about her life and asked about mine. We drew the “fat and ugly” people that we would never be. I asked her about Andrew, the boy I liked, and she said everyone missed me. She told them there had been an issue with my heart. She also told me that her ballet teacher complimented her on how skinny she was, and how her children’s-size jeans were so big that she could fit a couple of fingers between the waistband and her abdomen. Every time I saw her I loved her. Every time I saw her I hated her—because she hadn’t gotten caught and I had.
At this point in my life, I also had two other close friends: Erica and Christie. Erica and Alli were already friends, but Christie and Alli had never been close. Then, somehow, after I landed in the hospital, they were best friends. Christie had no idea that Alli was anorexic. At first I felt happy when Christie and Alli visited me together because we were like a group, but it also made me uneasy because, slowly, they were getting closer and closer. I felt like each was stealing the other from me.
Still, I started to feel a little better. Maybe it was because I was well nourished and thinking more clearly. Or maybe therapy really was helping. I became more open and talkative at the day program. I still didn’t talk about my recovery—the original reasons for my eating disorder, how I was still counting calories, my horrid body image—but I began to talk about other things, like my mixed feelings about Christie and Alli’s growing friendship and my inferiority to Erica, with her perfect grades and cello playing. I was surprised that people didn’t completely ignore me.
In April, things were looking up. I had the best 13th-birthday party ever! It was Oscars themed and everyone dressed up, me in a genuine ’20s flapper dress with red-beaded fringe. We went to the auditorium of the college that my father worked at. Everyone drank mocktails and played with balloons. I stopped caring as much about what people thought of me. This manifested in different ways, the most visible of which was that I started to wear vintage clothing. This was important because I became more confident that I could be good at something other than starving—dressing. I was slowly becoming friends with people in the CEDC and I finally had people to talk to at lunch, people whose numbers I could ask for, people who liked me even though I was messed up. I was really happy for the first time in more than half a year.
Things were going better, but I still had not recovered. I still filled in “yes” on the paper we filled out every day that asked if I had “used behaviors,” which refers to counting calories, self-harm, throwing up, weighing oneself, etc. I was still judging foods based on their calories. Meals were hard, and sometimes, at home, I did not finish within 30 minutes and had to drink Ensure. I still heard Alli’s voice in my head asking how many calories I had eaten today, and I wanted to go back to a time when I could tell her that I had only chewed a piece of gum.
I’m sorry to say that I think my methodical eating triggered bad behavior in other people. I know that if I had seen someone eat like I did, cutting peas in half, I would feel horrible. I’m sure my eating provoked in other people what talking to Alli provoked in me, the “you are soooo fat, you eat waayyyyyy too much” voice. For some reason, I was surprised that I was still in treatment while others filed out and into the evening program and new ones took their place. Why wasn’t I let out?
It was, of course, because I was still unhealthy, both mentally and physically. Then I made a mistake. I started lying on my check-in papers. I said no, I had not used behaviors. No, I was fine. All because I wanted to starve again. Looking back, I don’t know why, because I was happy and I was on my way to having healthy thoughts. Weirdly, because I WANTED to starve again, I ate my meals without problems.
My release date drew nearer. Everyone was happy for me. Happy for a liar. And it made me sad. I was released into the evening program on April 14th, which meant I had to go into the CEDC three days a week, from five until eight at night. But this time, I had no trouble making friends. People from the day program who had graduated before me were there, and I talked to them. They were some of the nicest people in the world. They accepted me and we laughed together during the 10-minute breaks after meals and snacks, getting shouted at by the counselors for being too loud. Yes, I still lied about behaviors and I had unhealthy thoughts. I never reached the point with my therapist where I told her about the issues leading up to my eating disorder or how I would still look at the backs of food boxes to check the fat content. But I did talk about Alli’s disorder, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I graduated in July.
Fast-forward to the present day. I regret lying to get out of the day program, because the treatment was necessary, but I still see my therapist two times a week. I am only now trying to get rid of my ED voice. I can go a few weeks without counting calories or looking at nutritional information. I am no longer friends with Christie and Alli. I tried to tell Christie about Alli’s anorexia and how she always asked me when I was going back to starving, but Christie didn’t believe me. She told me that it was good for girls to be conscious of their weight and that she would be happy if she lost 10 pounds.
However, I am happier than I have been since the sixth grade. I may never feel 100% recovered, but I know it’s an ongoing process. This year is going great. My relationship with my parents has improved because I’m no longer lying to them. I’m doing better in school now that I can actually concentrate. I have new friends, ones who don’t make me feel insignificant. I have a semi-boyfriend. We went to Cambridge a few weekends ago. We walked past the CEDC together, and he held my hand, and I was inspired to contact my old buddies. I hope, by reading this, others can see how important it is to open up about their struggles and not lie to the people who are trying to help.
I am counting down the months until May, when I can return to the CEDC as a recovery speaker. ♦
Charlotte S. is an eighth-grader living in the Boston area.
*All names have been changed.