Part One: Raisin Bran and Other Painful Things
Dinner comes late in the Kelleher household. With four children, my mother is a rather busy woman, and, frankly, remembering dinner’s daily occurrence isn’t her forte. This story begins on one of those late-dinner nights, and I was hungry — real hungry. The clock above the stove read seven, a time when one would expect the kitchen to be empty and dinner still stuffed in Whole Foods bags. But on this evening, I concluded that dinner’s nonexistent state was a sign that we were each to prepare our own meal.
And so I reached for a deep red ceramic bowl, poured myself a small serving of Raisin Bran, and walked out of the kitchen, spooning milk and cereal into my mouth.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked from her position on the couch. “We haven’t had dinner yet. I just ordered Thai.”
“Oh,” I responded, turning on my heel and walking back into the kitchen. “Well, I figured we were getting our own dinner. I don’t want any Thai. I already ate cereal,” I called over my shoulder, feeling my anxiety begin to rise.
“That little thing! Don’t be silly. You had two bites. You’re eating dinner.”
“I can’t eat, Mom. I already had dinner. I’m FULL!” I slammed the bowl into the sink, the ceramic shattering as it hit the aluminum surface. In a storm of anger, I flew down the back staircase to the basement, my fury swelling as I replayed the events in my head.
“Stop, Brittany! Stop!” my dad shouted. I turned and glared up in his direction, ready for a pitched battle. But when I looked into his familiar face and saw the concern drawn across it, my anger melted and I was overcome by a flood of emotion. I collapsed, my shoulders shaking as I began to sob silently.
This was wrong. This was all wrong. That girl backed into a tight corner, hugging her knees and burying her tear-soaked face into them was not me. I didn’t know this depressed, lifeless girl whose spirit was gradually fading. My parents, who had cautiously migrated down the staircase, were now standing over me, watching, not knowing what to say. After a period of prolonged silence interspersed with my occasional gasps for air, my dad slid to the floor. “Brittany, do you want to see a doctor?”
Finally, someone asked. Finally, someone acknowledged that I had a serious problem. I nodded my head, buried it back into my knees, and sobbed some more.
I am a recovering anorexic, and this is my story. I’ve thought about it every day since I was 16-years-old. I’ve analyzed it, dug deep for its root, and cried over its reality. I’ve thrown things, books and pens mostly, mad that this stupid, unfair disease ruined an unrecoverable chunk of my life. I’ve told this story many times before, to therapists, to friends, and to my parents and siblings in piecemeal. I’ve shared it as encouragement for others to get help; I’ve nodded to it in an undergraduate speech. I’ve thought about this story and recanted it so many times that, to be frank, I’m tired of it. I desperately did not want to write about it again. But I must, because I have never told it honestly. I have always glossed over those aspects I am most ashamed of and constructed it as if it were a thing of the past.
But I now am healthy enough, mature enough, and, finally, courageous enough to tell this story right. I know it will leave me vulnerable, exposing the raw edges of wounds still healing. At times, it will reveal a hated side of myself that I loathe for anyone to see. But it is the truth. And it is me.
Laying Roots: Perfectionism, Popularity, and the Media
With puberty and hours of training as a dancer, I came to resemble my parents — short but strong, compact and muscular. By the time I was fourteen, I had a wide back, sculpted shoulders, and powerful quads. Rarely did I think of my body, and when I did, it was out of pride. I liked being stronger than my male peers, and I liked resembling my parents’ muscular build. Besides, I was the eater of the family. Whereas my cousins preferred grilled cheese and buttered noodles, I took pride in sharing the “adult” menu with my father, our favorite always being a medium-rare filet. At thirteen, fourteen, even fifteen years old, I was the emblem of healthiness. I was the last person anyone would expect to fall prey to an eating disorder.
In trying to make sense of this all and uncover its roots, I now see the subtle cues that indicated my susceptibility to anorexia. Most obvious is my neurotic perfectionism. At five years old, I was reading to my kindergarten class. At seven, I (privately) declared that I would be the valedictorian of my grammar school, and by ten, I had extended that goal to high school. From fifth grade on, I spent hours studying each night and felt such stress that I feared never graduating from middle school. To look back at that younger version of myself, and all the tea she drank to soothe her worried soul, makes me smile, even chuckle, at the ridiculousness of it all. But it is also saddening, for in that ten-year-old self I see a compulsiveness that would eventually bring about my physical and emotional deterioration.
Such compulsive tendencies weren’t enough to fuel an eating disorder, though. After all, I had lived fifteen years without knowing my weight or giving it much thought. But high school changed me. A desire to fit in a new environment changed me. From that first day, I knew which girls were the cool ones and the ones I hoped to flock down the halls with (slow motion and Mean Girls-like, of course). Their appearance gave away their soon-to-be popularity. They exuded wealth and beauty. They had perfectly straight, typically blonde hair that spilled down their backs. They wore Polo button downs, North Face backpacks, and white knee socks with Sperry Top-Siders. To accessorize, they dotted their ears with the same Tiffany & Co. “Bead” earrings and slipped on matching tennis bracelets. Of course, there were plenty of reasons for why they were popular and I was not, not the least of which was my growing introversion. But my teenage eyes didn’t perceive the social canvas in such clear light. The explanation for my friendship difficulties was obvious — I didn’t look right.
So, I rectified this and came to mirror the peers I envied, Top-Siders, North Face, Tiffany’s, and all. But such aesthetic changes did little to expand my circle of friends. Now I was just a lonely clone who associated looking wealthy with friendship and happiness. And so I worked harder. I had my nails manicured weekly (Lincoln Park After Dark, anyone?). I wore oversized, white Coach sunglasses to look like a Hollywood socialite. I started watching E! religiously so that I could emulate the wealthy and fashionable stars. Then, one summer afternoon when I was doing just that, Lindsay Lohan flashed across the screen. She was looking over her bony shoulder, pouting her lips, tossing her mane of golden hair, and staring down the camera with a piercing, confident glare. She looked so glamorous. Her bony body and protruding spine looked so glamorous.
“That’s what I want to look like,” I thought. And so began my life with anorexia.
The Summer of Skinny
That declaration — the decision to emulate Hollywood’s gaunt (and likely drug-driven) aesthetic — was in the summer of 2006. It was at the height of waifs walking down (and dying upon) runways, and of sickly thin stars (think the Olsen twins, Nicole Richie, and Ms. Lohan) becoming the object of concern (read: pathological admiration). To be honest, I can’t remember much of that time. I lived in a state of starved numbness in which thoughts of food consumed all of my energy and focus
For as smart as I was, I was a real idiot when it came to dieting. I thought what I was doing was normal. I thought hunger was the state in which all the fabulously famous lived. Besides, I liked the constant gnawing in my stomach. I thought it was a sign that my stomach was eating itself away, and whenever I felt it, I’d become giddy and do a little dance to “skinny, skinny, skinny” running through my head. “I’m in tune with my body,” I’d tell myself time and again. I listened to its satiety cues. I knew the precise moment that I was full. Surely, I didn’t have a problem. America did! They were fat, lazy, and self-indulgent, and I was the epitome of self-control. I had achieved all that the magazines had told me, hadn’t I? Didn’t I play the diet game and win, learning the art of restraint that few women ever master? I was skinny and proud of it, and unlike many anorexics, I didn’t mind showing off my hard-earned sickly body to the rest of world. But underneath it all, I knew something was wrong. I knew that a suggestion to eat a chicken sandwich, or worse, to drink a glass of water on a Caribbean day, shouldn’t drive me to tears. I knew that moving from my characteristic prostrate position — or just staying awake — shouldn’t require such energy. And I definitely knew that I shouldn’t wake in the morning only to faint back into bed, my arms helplessly and wildly grasping the air for a chair, a table, anything to steady my legs of Jello.
On one of these summer days, shortly before the Raisin Bran and shattered bowl incident, I climbed two flights of stairs and locked myself in the privacy of my bathroom. With my shirt rolled into a makeshift half-top, I stood on my tiptoes, looking at my profile in a full-length mirror and surveying my exposed stomach. By this point, such behavior was not unusual. I did it several times a day — when I first woke up, before and after every meal, and as a last minute ritual before slipping into bed. In fact, I did this whenever I passed a reflective surface, glancing around to make sure no one misconstrued my anxiety for narcissism. But this day was different. All I could think was “I’m anorexic. I think I’m anorexic.” I said it partly out of pride, partly out of disbelief, and partly as an admission of a need for help. But I was sure as hell not going to be the one to ask for it.
If it wasn’t for my parents’ concern in the earliest months of my sickness, who knows where I would be now. They could have taken the easier route and convinced themselves that all would be OK. They could have told themselves that I was just being “healthy” or that this was a phase of adolescence, as so many parents do. But instead, they aired on the side of caution, stepping in after only two months of weight loss and a dying spirit. If it wasn’t for the risks my parents — and especially my father — took, sending me to hospital after hospital, fighting with me as I refused meal after meal, and remaining vigilante even when I insisted that I was healthy, my life would have taken a very different path. And that, that extreme act of love, was the greatest gift they could have ever given.
My so-called “recovery” began the September of my junior year in high school and consisted of being shuffled from one doctor to the next and paying thousands of dollars for treatment that I had no intention of following. By the time I arrived at the hospital, I had already blown through two doctors. I had learned to placate these individuals, feeding them the answers they wanted to hear and convincing them of my psychological progress.
But these tricks failed to fool my parents. They knew that I wasn’t just “adjusting to teenage life” or going through a “depressive stage” that would resolve itself. They knew that six months worth of blood work, nutritionists, and therapy sessions had left me off no better. They knew that my healthiness would have to come through a different route. And so they cleared their schedules, pulled me from school, and dragged me to Chicago’s most renowned eating disorder program. As we sat side by side at the clinic, we listened to the doctor explain my height and weight didn’t make me fall within the criteria for anorexia. I wasn’t sick enough to enter the four-step program. Instead, I could join stage four as an outpatient. He explained that I needed to gain thirteen pounds, drew a nice chart to indicate my expected progress, and said to call every Monday with that week’s weight gain. He didn’t care how I gained the weight, he said, and he wasn’t concerned with the emotional toll that doing so would take. “Everything will correct itself once you get your period again,” he said.
Maybe. But you have to change eating habits and gain weight for this to happen, and, with little supervision, I did neither. Instead, I ate the same foods each and every day —I still refused red meat, avoided protein in general, and hated cheese, butter, and salad dressing. I still rejected most caloric drinks, cut my food into tiny pieces that I chewed ever so slowly, and sat listless and hungry most of the day. Yet, each Monday night, my father would lead me down into the basement, scrape the glass scale across the tiled floor, and instruct me to step on it. A half of a pound higher and my stomach would sink; a half of a pound lighter and I’d silently congratulate myself.
Then the fighting would begin. My dad would stand steely eyed, staring at the number silently, his chest rising and falling with each breath he took. “Ugggh! DAMNIT! GOD DAMNIT, BRITTANY!” he’d shout, slamming his fist against the wall and beginning his weekly lecture. I, in turn, would assume my usual pose — arms folded, eyes fixed on the floor, and ears closed to all that he was saying. And then he’d begin to cry. His face would swell, its pale color turning a deep pink as he’d wipe the tears streaming down it. He’d let out gasps of air as his body shook, his broad shoulders quivering in a way that was unnatural and heartbreaking. Here before me was the strongest man I knew. His presence commanded respect from all who met him. His mental strength enabled him to dream big and conquer his every goal. He was my hero, my idol, and my best friend. And because of me, he was now sobbing. I had done this to him. I had caused him this pain, and all I wanted was to make it end.
I’d wrap my thin arms round his shoulders and hold him tight, letting him convulse on my shoulders as my tears fell onto his back. “I’ll do better, Dad. I’ll try harder. Please don’t cry. I’ll do better.” And then we’d do it all again the next week.
I really did want to try harder. I didn’t want to hurt my father any longer. I didn’t want to see him stare off into space, knowing that he was worrying about me. I didn’t want to watch him grow quiet at meals as he stole glances at my untouched plate. And I sure as hell didn’t want to make him cry. But I also didn’t want to gain weight. I had two conflicting goals, one that guided my actions six days out of seven and one that controlled me each Monday evening. After the emotional fights, shared tears, and promises to get better, I’d decide that I would change. So, when the clock struck eleven and my parents and siblings were safely tucked in bed, I’d creep down the back staircase, flick on the kitchen lights, and head for the snack drawer.
My night eating started innocently at first, with just a handful of pretzels. But it felt good. I liked eating the carbohydrates that I denied myself when the sun was up and others were in my presence. It was comforting and something that I looked forward to. Soon, this weekly ritual turned into a nightly one. I’d eat and eat and eat, telling myself, “It’s OK! You need to gain weight.”
I would allow myself to binge until I hit a certain number in my head, which had long been the most extreme weight I could swallow. I’d stuff cracker after cracker into my mouth and then run down to the basement to weigh myself. If I hadn’t reached my caloric goal, I’d gleefully run back up the stairs to inhale more food. It was only after I was physically sick and completely disgusted with my behavior that I would I stop. I’d wrap my arms around my stomach and crawl up the stairs to my bedroom, hating myself for my uncontrolled behavior. The next day would be one of starvation in order to lose the weight gained the night before. Unsurprisingly, I was so hungry by eleven the next evening that the cycle would begin all over again. Eat, weigh myself, eat, weigh myself, eat, hate myself and determine to starve the next day.
It was because of one of these binge-starvation cycles that I discovered Maria. It began after a dance class, when my friends were eating lunch and I, having binged the night before, was picking at my food. As I tore apart my Lemon Zest LUNA Bar, my friend Becca turned to me.
“Is that all you’re going to eat, Brittany?”
“Yea, I’m really not that hungry,” I responded, adding, “I have a stomach ache.”
But Becca knew. Becca had also struggled with an eating disorder and had spent her high school years in and out of treatment programs. As she watched my telltale signs of anorexia, she saw herself in me and approached my dance teacher out of concern. My dance teacher, in turn, approached my parents, who decided enough was enough. We needed a treatment that would work.
Enter Maria Rago. Maria is the founder of an eating disorder clinic based upon what she calls a “feminist approach” to recovery. It is a nurturing program that acknowledges the obvious necessity for weight gain but admits that this alone is no cure. A fuller-bodied anorexic is just that — a heavier individual who is afflicted by the same anxieties and compulsive thoughts driving her behavior. Understanding this, Maria begins by addressing her patients’ concerns with their bodies, believing that by tackling the root causes of the illness, eating habits will normalize and weight gain will occur naturally. Maria took my scale away and untethered my body image from a number. She helped me to rediscover true satiety and to move away from my regimented eating schedule. She even succeeded in reintroducing certain foods into my diet, like real butter, cheese, pre-dressed salads, and an occasional scoop of ice cream. I did gain some weight, enough to menstruate again but never enough to be in a safe zone. I always teetered on the edge of an unhealthy weight, and if stress resulted in a lost pound or two, I’d fall fast and hard into the depths of sickness. And that is exactly what happened when I entered Princeton.
The Hungry Freshman
I wish I could wrap my arms around my freshman self. I wish I could hold her skinny frame and massage healthiness into her flesh and energy into her blood. I wish I could tell her that controlling her body could never make up for losing her control over academics. I wish I could tell her that her sickness is only compounding her unhappiness, making studying harder and friendships impossible. I wish I could tell her that she is a beautiful, strong individual who belongs at Princeton and that it is OK to ask for help.
When I was a freshman, I was so sick. I was so, so sick. And no one knew. Without my family, I was not only free from their watchful gaze but also from their anxious, worried faces that encouraged me to eat for their sake. And so, I entered college with a new host of dining rules designed to eliminate the pounds I had gained in my last months at home. Thoughts of food danced in my head all day long, teasing me and making studying a virtual impossibility. Numbers flashed across my eyes as I repeatedly summed the number of calories I had consumed. With so little caloric fuel, I was constantly fighting to stay awake and chugging six-Splenda iced coffees that simultaneously provided my caffeine fix and curbed my appetite.
By this point, my eating disorder had taken a different form. I had grown less concerned with what I looked like and now craved what my emaciated look signified. It was proof of total control, and that I demanded. While this had always been true, Princeton’s academic rigor and my newfound feeling of mediocrity intensified these feelings. If academic perfection was now beyond me, I thought, a perfect figure was not. I could control my body, and my appearance could serve as a yardstick for success. If I faltered and ate a roll at lunch, I’d become incapacitated by self-loathing and disgust over my limited self-control. I’d reprimand myself over and over again, telling myself that now I couldn’t eat as punishment. Most often, I would just retreat to bed, unable to concentrate and hoping that I would wake the next morning as a functioning person.
This was my life throughout freshman year. Hunger, loneliness, and feelings of worthlessness colored my days. Even as a member of a wonderful dance group, my ability to form friendships was hampered by the dullness that comes with constant hunger. It wasn’t until that summer that something fundamentally changed.
We were in Hawaii. My parents, siblings, and I were dining at a little restaurant on the beach. With the setting sun behind us, we were snapping pictures and laughing until our sunburnt faces stung from our exaggerated expressions. But when the waiter placed the menus before us, unease immediately filled the table. It always did. My father watched as I stared at the menu, knowing all that I was weighing in my head. With his silence came the rest of my family’s, as they tacitly acknowledged the changed dynamic and settled into its discomfort.
“I’ll begin with you, Miss,” the waiter said, gesturing in my direction.
“I’ll have the Caprese salad, please,” I said quietly.
“And for your meal?”
“Just that, please.”
I could feel the tension rise as the waiter circled round the table, taking the remaining orders. I saw my father clench his jaw and watched him stare into the menu before him. I imagined the millions of thoughts running through his mind, all of the worries and memories that were flooding in, and I braced myself for the backlash. As soon as the waiter stepped away, it began.
“You know you can’t have just a salad for dinner, Brittany.”
“Well, I don’t want anything else on the menu. I can’t eat red meat, I hate fish, and I’m sick of chicken.”
“Well, you can’t have a salad.”
“Fine. Then I won’t eat,” I said, slamming the plastic picnic chair into the table and storming off with my father quick on my heels. I didn’t get far before he caught up with me and began his requisite lecture. I folded my arms and stared back at him with a combination of disinterest and icy contempt.
“You’ve regressed, Brittany. You’ve lost weight. I can tell. You know it’s not acceptable to eat a salad for dinner. Blah blah blah.”
I had heard all of this before and was tuning most of it out, mumbling “Yes, Dad. I’ll try harder” so that he would just shut up.
But then he said something that caught my attention. “Brittany, you’ve been struggling with this for four years. Why don’t I ever hear conviction in your voice when you say you’ll get better? Huh? Why don’t you say, ‘I’m going to beat this thing!’”
“Four years?” I squeaked as my shoulders began to tremble. “This disease has ruined my life for four years? It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this. All I’ve done is work hard in life. This is not fair.”
It wasn’t, and I was sick of it controlling me. I had finally decided that anorexia and I were over. Our four-year love affair and all the comfort and pain that it had offered was ending now. I was determined that my next years at Princeton would be different. I was kicking my anorexic habit.
Once an Anorexic, Always an Anorexic
I entered sophomore year with this newfound resolve and the determination to truly fight my anorexic tendencies. Thankfully, I stumbled upon new resources along the way. The first came in the form of a companion. Joe and I met as freshmen, and my instant infatuation was deep, all too apparent, and frequently embarrassing. Thankfully, Joe brushed aside such awkward advances in due time (read: eight months), and we fell into five years of love, friendship, and support. In Joe, I finally found someone to spend time with, someone who would end my loneliness. In him, I found a friend whom I was willing to bend my regimented life for and who would replace food as my day’s focus.
Most importantly, Joe taught me what I couldn’t do for lack of calories. His focus was tremendous and unlike anyone’s I had seen before. He would study for hours without breaking concentration, never lifting his eyes from the page, never stopping for social media, and always disappointed by his “too slow” pace. I, on the other hand, was constantly distracted.
I struggled to read a single page without my mind wandering or my pen summing caloric consumption at the top of the page. I read too slowly, retained too little, and, at the very least, doubled my study time for such inefficiencies. Yet, I wanted to be like Joe. I wanted to excel like him; I wanted to rise to the top of my class as he had; and, most importantly, I wanted to be an academic leader in both my eyes and those of my peers. For his example, I saw that anorexia had put a dummy goal before me and distracted me from achieving my real dreams. His presence was a persistent reminder to fight against engrained habits and to channel controlling tendencies into my work and away from my body.
The second form of help came two years later in a pair of running shoes. They weren’t pretty —in fact, turquoise and silver in color. But they were always on my feet. I first slipped them on in an effort to overcome the boredom of the elliptical and in search of a new challenge. What I didn’t expect, though, was that running would forever alter my relationship with my body. I saw myself as a runner, as an athlete. Now, the thought of burning away last night’s ice cream or this afternoon’s salad wasn’t my motivation; the feeling of strength, of powerful legs carrying me through mile after mile, was.
Even more impressive, though, was my shifting perception of food. Training leaves you hungry — real hungry. I’m talking ravenous, bottomless pit, stash two Power Bars in my purse kind of hungry. As an anorexic, I would have suppressed those feelings, totaled my calories, and decided to drink an iced coffee or two. But as a recovering anorexic, my thoughts were different. While they would begin at suppression, they would change course and remind me that food was my fuel. Without it, my running days would come to an end and my months of hard work would have been for nothing. And with that I’d pick up my fork (or spoon, or hands) and eat anxiety-free. Ironically, the one activity that is so intertwined with eating disorders, mine included, was the key to my psychological freedom.
The third and final source of help came in the form of 108 high school seniors. They were my students, and I was their teacher, friend, mentor, and at times, surrogate parent. They attended a school where order and safety was replaced by cursing and fighting, where books were banned because “these students” couldn’t handle them, and an inept leadership team cared less about student learning and more about saving their own behinds. At the tender age of 18, these students had experienced greater hardships than many people ever do. They were familiar with death and poverty; many knew hunger and homelessness; and the majority was fighting to finish high school and be the first in their family to do so.
This was the reality I now faced. I had traded stacks of books and intellectual development for lives. Frankly, I didn’t have time for anorexia. I was fighting too hard to stay afloat and make heads and tails of this teaching thing to think so selfishly. Having already made great strides in my recovery, I was at a place where I could see this. I could accept that my dual goals of academic and bodily control were entirely self-concerned. At 22, this abruptly changed, and I was forced to reconstruct my life. Consequently, I gained weight. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. A chest and hips aren’t the worst thing in the world. Either is looking like a woman instead of a prepubescent teen.
Having said all this, I don’t want to paint a false picture. Recovery is gradual. It is far from linear and never steady: at times it plunges forward, at others it stalls, and at others still, it pulls itself into reverse, leaving an uprooted life in its wake. But what is different about true recovery is that I stand at the helm. Not my father. Not my therapist. Not the disease. Me. I am recovery’s impetus; I am its director. It is only for my strength of will — ironically, that same will that enabled three years of starvation — that I have brought anorexia to its knees.
Yet, anorexia will always live dormant within me. It waits to awake and entangle me in its strangling embrace. It is my responsibility to keep it at bay. I cannot give it the sustenance it longs for—restrictive eating, caloric counting, and self-loathing; for once I do, it is a steep slide back into the depths of sickness—and that is one place I never want to return.
Anorexia is a life-long battle, and I know that I will always be in recovery. But I also know that I have achieved an incredible feat in beating this horrendous disease. And for that, I have finally gained happiness.