To avoid monotony, and provide a basic framework for my story, I’d like to get the basic facts out of the way. I developed anorexia nervosa at ten years old. The weight loss was quick and drastic, and when my parents’ friends began asking if I had a terminal disease, they got right on the phone to make an appointment with the nearest specialist. I was diagnosed at the beginning of my fifth grade year, and fought and cried and saw three treatment providers weekly. By the beginning of the next school year, however, I was better. I thrived in middle school, and even remember joking with friends about how “I couldn’t even be anorexic again if I tried.” False. At thirteen, a few months before middle school graduation, I relapsed. It was slow, and it was gradual, but my eating disorder came back with a force that I hadn’t even remotely felt when I was ten. On my first visit back to my old specialist, in early August, I was admitted directly to the hospital.
That year, my freshman year of high school, was marked with three more hospitalizations, bringing my total time spent in the hospital, and not spent in school, to seven months. I was discharged from my last hospitalization in late June, when all of my friends were finishing their final exams of freshman year. I continued to fight and struggle, probably even harder than I had in the hospital, to get healthy.
I want to share what it’s really like to live with anorexia nervosa – beginning to end, no glitz, no glamour, no dumb spoiled brat with a vanity problem. The misconceptions about eating disorders run the gamut, resulting in a vast number of people either resenting, looking down upon, or envying people who suffer from these disorders. Many people associate “anorexia” with an image of either the multi-million dollar heiress Nicole Richie, or the 40-year-old emaciated woman with multiple organ failure and trouble breathing whom they saw on Oprah last week. These are two extremes, and a real misrepresentation of the ~1% of the population who are also struggling. I have met people afflicted with these disorders of all ages, body sizes, races and economic classes; as well as people in many different stages of their disorder. The one thing I am certain they would all agree on is that there is absolutely no glamour in suffering. I hope I can provide concrete evidence of this.
I’m often asked “Were you ever fat?” and people are usually surprised when I answer “Not at all.” My eating disorder was never an attempt to fix any horrible flaw. Actually, I had always regarded myself pretty highly, at least in terms of aesthetics and thinness. My eating disorder began, rather innocuously, as a way to make myself “perfect.” Where I had always viewed myself as, say, an eight out of ten, I wanted to make it a ten out of ten. Restricting my calories and losing a token – and rather arbitrary – amount of weight (2-3 pounds) seemed at the time a logical way to achieve that goal.
It was harmless at the beginning, and felt great. I don’t think it had very much to do with a number or how I looked (as a few pounds is pretty insignificant). I just loved that I had set a goal and achieved it so quickly. The important thing to point out is that at this point, my personality had been unaffected. I am, by nature, an extremely outgoing and vocal person. I’ve always been the “social-butterfly” type in and out of school, speaking my mind with very few worries or restraints. This is something I never intended to change. With the reemergence of the eating disorder, however, it completely did.
I never understood that losing weight – too much weight – not only had physical consequences, but psychological ones as well. I slowly started to become much more isolated and withdrawn and socially anxious. I didn’t have energy, and wasn’t fun anymore. The logical, or at least semi-logical, goal on which my actions were motivated was long past. Restricting had become my new answer for everything; starvation was my default mode. When my parents fought, for example, not eating lunch would take care of all the uncomfortable feelings I was having. I craved the numbness. Logically, I knew that losing weight was unhealthy, and would make me unattractive. I even knew that the number I saw on the scale was much too low. It didn’t matter, though, what I thought or knew or wanted, as the eating disorder had grown to a new level, and was now completely controlling me. It was extremely gradual, which made it even harder to pinpoint, as there was no distinct change. Eventually, though, I lost all aspects of Kristina and became all consumed in darkness.
While fully engaged in anorexia, I was a different person. The colossal amount of time and energy that went into desperately attempting to take in as few calories as possible shocks me today. I was required to have caloric beverages at every meal, which my parents would monitor. I was secretly buying diet beverages, and when my parents weren’t around, intricately switching the labels and disposing of the drinks that my parents had bought. I remember one day, my mom made me come with her to the hairdresser so that she could supervise me having lunch. It was a frigid January day, and I was wearing a down jacket. Every time my mom would turn to glance at her hair, I would frantically tear a chunk of my sandwich off and stuff it into my jacket. I often wonder what people thought about me in school. I looked like I had just come out of a concentration camp, I twitched and shook frantically (in an effort to burn as many calories as possible), and I didn’t speak. Moreover, I slept in half of my classes, and had difficulty walking and breathing. At home, I alternated between fighting with my parents, crying, and numbness. A few times, after my parents had garnered enough strength and energy, they attempted to force feed me. Me—their 14-year-old daughter.
Clearly, and thankfully, I got better. There was no click. I also didn’t have any wonderfully compelling reason. It was more of a “what do I have to lose”. (No pun intended.) I decided that real life was at least worth giving a shot; if it didn’t work the eating disorder would be waiting for me with open arms. The recovery process, though, was hell. People always told me to latch on to the things in my life and parts of myself that were unrelated to the eating disorder. That made sense, except for the fact that nothing, not even one small fraction of my life, was “unrelated to my eating disorder.” Everything I could think of inevitably led back to mirrors, or food, or weight, or perfection, or calories, or body image, or measuring cups, or The Best Little Girl in the World. No, I was unable to dissect and revive any “normal” pieces of myself. Essentially, I had to wipe my slate clean and restart.
When I returned to school in September of my sophomore year, I felt, socially, like a five year old. To make matters worse, my insight and self-awareness were far beyond age appropriate, so I was painfully cognizant of my awkwardness. My self-consciousness extended far beyond body image – (though, thinking that you look 200 pounds while still idealizing 60 pound girls on feeding tubes is a pretty torturous mental state to be in.) I vaguely remembered the bold, happy girl that I used to be, and longed to be her again. But there was such a disconnect between me and her; I had no idea how she had gotten so confident, and even less of an idea about how shy, strange, me could even come close. The simplicity and convenience of anorexia was so tempting. But my parents were breathing down my neck, and my body was tired, and I logically knew that no matter how many times I went into the hospital, I would eventually have to come out, and face all of this. Comparatively, facing it in the present would probably be my least painful option.
Recovery required me to step way out of my comfort zone for about two years. Or, rather, forever. That comfort zone was keeping me sick, and so I had to eventually create a new comfort zone. Eating wise, I had to butcher all my “sick” rules. No more measuring cups, fat intake limits, or “I don’t eat after 8pm.” If we had a surprise pizza party in school, I ate pizza. It killed me to forgo my turkey and lettuce on whole wheat bread for a fresh baked cheesy slice, but that’s what normal teenagers do. I wanted to be a normal teenager. I got rid of my scale. Best decision ever. I had tried to convince myself for years that I could have a healthy relationship with my scale, as it was my biggest security blanket, but our relationship had never been anything but unhealthy and I knew it was hindering my recovery. I resisted my crazy impulses to “body check” by seeing exactly how my clothes fit and where they hung and scrunched. Sometimes I felt like I was crawling out of my skin, but I wouldn’t let myself do the checking.
Socially was probably the hardest. As previously mentioned, I had horrible anxiety around social situations. Or really, around people in general. At first, I challenged myself in little ways, though at the time they seemed enormous. I began to call friends to get coffee with me, or get our nails done. Once I had built up enough confidence in myself and realized I could hold a conversation and be fun for an hour or two, I stepped up. When my friends would call and invite me to parties, instead of saying I’m sick or tired or have homework, I would say yes. For a few solid months, I was miserable. I kept putting myself out there, though, in hopes that I would eventually begin to actually enjoy spending my time as normal teenagers do. Today I do.
After a solid while of doing well, I hit a minor plateau. For a while, I thought that this was “as good as it was going to get.” This is where the self-insight work came in handy. Slowly, I began to realize that, frankly, I will always be a perfectionist. That’s okay, and that doesn’t mean that I will always have eating disordered thoughts and be unhappy with my body. For me, it wasn’t about trying to rid myself of my perfectionist tendencies, but rather, redefining my image of perfection. My “perfect person” still had a great body, but she added some curves and gained a few pounds! She exercised, but to feel healthy and strong, and not in a panic about eating too much at lunch. She ate ice cream with her friends, and was able to laugh at herself. She got excited about books, and current events, and things going on in the world. She radiated an inner confidence that made people gravitate towards her. She was happy.
I never believed I’d be one of those girls who ate whatever they wanted and embraced their healthy bodies. I also never tried. There was no click, no “magical pill” to cure me. I made a conscious decision to change my life, and worked at it. Now I’m a real person. I have hopes and dreams. I have real relationships. I go out and socialize. I care about important things instead of how many calories I ate for lunch or how much I weigh. People don’t pity me anymore, they want to be friends with me. None of this would be possible if I hadn’t gotten rid of my eating disorder. So, as a dear friend of mine once told me: You have a choice. Miserable sick little girl who misses out on everything. Or real girl who LIVES. Try it.
Kristina Saffran graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in psychology in May of 2014. She is currently serving as the executive director of Project HEAL. Kristina was named a 2017 Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneur, and has been profiled in The New York Times, Fast Company and People Magazine. She’s spoken across the country –Stanford Medical School, Harvard College, The International Conference of Eating Disorders, and more – on eating disorders, recovery, and launching a successful social entrepreneurship as a teen.