By Anna Brüner
I had a cheeseburger for dinner tonight. Not a rare occurrence by far. Americans consume 50 billion cheeseburgers a year, and just like any proud American, the greasy little buggers hold a powerful place in my heart (both metaphorically, as well as literally in my arteries). As I savored my meal over the clinking of beer bottles and the buzzing chatter of old friends, however, I still could not totally drown out a decade’s internal narrative that remains ever-present in the back of my mind like some fucked up, killjoy vigilante of the psyche.
It was the last day of summer, I was at a great restaurant surrounded by friends I love after a day at the beach, and all I could focus on was the mental deconstruction of my quarter-pounder. A quarter pound of meat alone. A 120 calorie slice of cheese. One fried egg = 70 calories. The bun is surely no less than 300 calories. Allow 30-100extra calories of leeway, considering how much butter was used to cook this. Then there’s the three slices of bacon, plus three beers…it only spiraled faster from there. A mental checklist a mile long, and I was ticking off all the boxes simultaneously, as routinely as most people take notice of the temperature in the room. My burger was no longer a meal, but a series of numbers. It’s not something I ever have to think about doing, even though I think about it all the time.
All in all, in one meal, I consumed at least 1500 calories. This would have never happened three years ago, when I was eating around 250 calories a day…if I ate at all.
Though since starting college I have become notorious for my cooking exploits, my love of red meat and fried appetizers, and my intimate relationship with a well crafted margarita, I am still plagued every day by an eating disorder that consumed every moment of my life for six years. While it has been three years since I have weighed myself, a year since I stopped looking at clothing sizes while shopping, and 9 months since forcing myself to throw up, very little has actually changed about my relationship with food and with my body. I still body check dozens of times before leaving my home, and dozens more throughout my day. I still wrap my hands around my thigh, using where my thumbs fall against my tattoo of Ganesh as a mental note of how much size I take up, and never once think about the irony that I got this tattoo as a testament to my “recovery.” I still exhale all of my air just so I can suck my stomach in and feel how tight the skin wraps around my ribs…my most noticeable habit, and the first one friends in Chicago have ever picked up on. Sometimes still, while I am ashamed to admit it, I will cry after meals because I hate the feeling of being “full.”
I tell people my eating disorder started when I was twelve, but it was probably earlier than that. I went through puberty incredibly young, left Catholic school and started public school just as my father was diagnosed with cancer, had almost no friends, and was staying at a different relative’s house week to week for a summer. When I did start school and make friends, they were thin and pretty and popular. I was fat and funny. Add in the usual insecurities of adolescence, burgeoning depression and anxiety, and the fact that middle schoolers are literally the worst people on the planet, and I had a perfect storm of chaos that was craving for structure.
I won’t go into my entire disorder, as that would take far too long and that’s not what this is about anyway, but to sum it up bluntly: I stopped eating. I dropped from 150 lbs. to 115. People noticed. I liked that people noticed me, and that my intake of food (or lack there of) offered me the one sense of control I had. The feeling of emptiness was addictive. I would weight myself hundreds of times a day just to watch the ounces fluctuate. At my lowest, I weighed 92 pounds. When my hair started falling out, I was almost happy about it.
I tried several times to get help. I went to therapy, rehab, saw dietitians, made meal plans, and even became vegan at one point because I thought it would help me develop a healthier relationship with food. I would exercise and I try to build muscle, would run three miles a day, and found every excuse to bake or cook for friends. It wouldn’t take long, however, for me to stop listening to my therapist, for me to drop the meal plans, for the exercise to become as excessive and obsessive as the feeling of emptiness, and for me to give away entire cakes without ever tasting a single bite. Every solution I found would ultimately fail in a matter of months, and I would land straight back in the regimen of my rituals, perpetually cold, weak, tired, and unsatisfied.
Then one day in April of 2012, during the final weeks of my senior year of high school, I caught a documentary on TV about eating disorders. It was one of those A&E specials, nothing particularly high brow, but it followed different people around in getting treatment for their disorders. One woman was fifty years old and talking about her bulimia, which developed when she was a teenager, and something inside me clicked,“I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” As engrossing as my disorder was, part of the sense of control I found was in thinking it would eventually just go away if I ever wanted it to. The concept of living my life in constant fear of my own body, the paranoia never stopping, always sick and aching and hungry terrified me.
On April 7, 2012, I threw away my scale. I no longer check calories on menus. I ask doctors not to tell me my weight when I go in for checkups. If my clothing feels tighter than usual, I change outfits. I try not to dwell on any of it for too long. It isn’t easy by far, but I know it is rarely even this easy for most people. I know everyone is different, and their disorders are different. When therapy and rehab didn’t work for me, I took it upon myself to make a change because I didn’t want to go to college and still be running to the bathroom after every meal or breaking down because I gained half a pound. For so many years, I identified as “Anna, the anorexic” or “Anna, the bulimic,” and while I think it’s important to openly discuss my eating disorder with whoever will listen, I do not want it to ever become my identity. I have spent far too much of my life thinking of myself as a sickness.
Last year I was interviewed for a book about ED recovery and the final question I was asked was “Do you consider yourself recovered?” I was shocked when I said “No.” But, I am better. I don’t think I ever will be recovered, per say, but I can always be better. I openly talk with friends and their mothers about their own eating disorders and insecurities. I make efforts to eat and exercise healthily. I no longer vocalize my criticism of my body. I try every day to lessen the internal narration, the numbers, the ritualization, the self hate, bit by bit. I meditate. I write. I eat cheeseburgers. I fight. Maybe the will to fight is all recovery really is.