Emerging from the Darkness: Reclaiming my Life
By: Mackenzie Woods, Saint Mary’s College Chapter Leader
I wake up to the smell of my mom’s homemade chocolate chip pancakes. A scent that should be greeted with excitement and happiness is instead a source of dread for the 13 year old me. Immediately, my mind starts racing, desperately trying to figure out how I can avoid contact with food for yet another day. I brush my hair, put on my school uniform, and carefully scrutinize my skeleton of a body in the mirror, making sure I can still fit my bony hands all the way around my fragile waist. Sitting at the breakfast table, I silently pray that my mom will walk out of the room long enough for me to dump my steaming hot plate of pancakes down the sink. On the way to school, I sneak a peek at the lunch that has been packed for me and secretly vow to throw away its deadly contents by the end of the day. Then I kiss my mom goodbye as she drops me off for the first day of seventh grade. Here I am, surrounded by friends and teachers with whom I've attended school for the past seven years, and yet, I have never felt so alone. My first day of seventh grade would come to resemble every subsequent day of the next few years. Filled with fear, self-doubt, uncertainty, and loneliness, I found comfort and safety in one thing. The thing that sought to destroy me but ultimately ended up saving me. The thing I call ED.
ED is my eating disorder--the voice that lives deep inside me, pushing me to embody perfection in its most extreme form. Perhaps you could say I was destined to develop an eating disorder from early on. After all, I was an introverted, grade-A perfectionist growing up in Los Angeles, a city that drilled unrealistic standards of beauty into my brain day in and day out. ED was no stranger to me either. He had slipped into my family just a few years prior, deteriorating my older sister Ann-Marie’s body to the point of near death, right in front of my eyes. Despite all of this, however, the eating disorder was never something that I “chose.” Quite the contrary in fact—ED chose me as one of his victims. He started as the voice that told me my sickly sister was the model of absolute perfection. I’d always aspired to be like Ann-Marie, but ED took mere sisterly admiration to another level. Ann-Marie is skipping breakfast—you should too. See how she subsists on diet coke and gum for days at a time—maybe you should give that a try. Don’t you want to be able to borrow her new pair of Seven brand jeans? And ED pushed on. If I had an insecurity, he had the solution. You got an A- on that paper? Skip a few meals—you’ll feel better. Don’t feel noticed at school? Maybe you just need to take up less space. These thoughts may sound absurd and twisted, but the truth is, as Ed’s grip on me tightened, I lost any capability for rational thought, and his thoughts, words, actions, became mine as well.
Years after her own recovery, my sister wrote of her experience: “Allowing ED into your life is no different from selling your soul to the devil. It’s a done deal. His attack is swift and sweeping, and the effects are long and lasting.” Once ED was in my life, he was there to stay—a malicious demon whose sole mission was to consume me, one skipped meal at a time. And with his constant criticisms and threats haunting my every movement, I let him. Before I knew it, ED had ripped all the life away from me. Food consumed my every thought and action, and I was on top of the world, finally seeing some results and experiencing an empowering sense of control. Ironically, the hunger eating away at my stomach became so fulfilling. As people took notice and tried to help, I pushed them away. I was determined to be the best anorexic there ever was, and I wasn’t about to let anyone impede this quest. My hair fell out in clumps, I had to hide under layers of clothing even on the warmest California days, and I couldn’t so much as bend over to touch my toes without feeling utterly exhausted. And still, I denied everyone’s pleas. The doctors couldn’t scare me. They were just trying to make me fat. A deteriorating victim, I fell faster and faster each day, terrifying my family with the news that my heart rate and blood pressure were so low I could suffer a heart attack at any given moment.
After one particularly reluctant visit with a psychiatrist, my mom sat me down and gave me an ultimatum. If I didn’t make a change right then and there, I would have to be sent hours away to live at an inpatient facility where I would be placed on a feeding tube just to be kept alive. Terrified at the prospect of being sent away, I sobbed for hours and then, slowly, painfully, picked up the fork to eat. I can’t say with certainty that this is the day my recovery started, but I do believe it sparked some subconscious realization that if left to continue down this path, ED would most certainly kill me. I had a choice to make—die or live, ED or a healthy life. Choosing the former was by no means easy. It meant picking up the fork again and again, “teaching” myself how to eat as if for the first time. I remember surprisingly little of my day-to-day life during this period, but certain moments are stored as snapshots in my memory. The time when my parents had to force-feed me a Subway sandwich while on a summer road-trip. The many times I screamed and cried upon direction to finish the entire bottle of Ensure. The time when I curled up in a ball of regret and discomfort after eating my first full meal in months, refusing to attend my best friend’s birthday party. The process was painful to say the least. ED had made me numb to both the extreme joys and pains of life, and giving him up meant letting myself feel again. It meant feeling shame, disappointment, hurt, embarrassment, fear, and uncertainty. But it also meant feeling love, hope, excitement, happiness, and true joy. With the unconditional support of family, friends, and professionals, slowly but surely, I found myself emerging from the darkness.
I have been fully recovered for about 5 years now, and blessed with the gift of hindsight, I can honestly say that I wouldn't change any part of my experience. It may seem strange that anyone would want to toy with death and experience such loss and pain; however, in my mind, ED was a gift. He was much less about food and a desire to be thin and much more about my emotional, spiritual, mental, and creative hunger. He was a disguised opportunity for me to learn more about myself and the inner strength I never knew I had. I worked tirelessly to replace his voice with a healthy, positive one, and most days, I can say that this healthy voice speaks much louder than that of ED. Diminishing the lingering eating disordered thoughts remains a lifelong process. I still have my setbacks, but I have to continually remind myself that giving into ED means giving away what makes me me, and I love my family, friends, and myself too much to do that. This newly found confidence and self-awareness is what keeps me going and inspires me to do my best each and every day. It’s what brought me closer to my Catholic faith, reminding me that my worth stems not from my outward appearance, but from the God who made me. It’s what allowed me to spend last year studying abroad in Rome, fully immersing myself in the Italian culture of food, even eating gelato multiple times a day. It’s what gave me the courage to speak up about eating disorders and bring Project HEAL to Saint Mary’s. Choosing recovery put me back in control, and the opportunities that lie ahead seem countless. Life is a choice I will never regret.