“Okay, order has been received,” Ross says.
“Hmm,” I mumble as I swipe around on my phone. “Wait, you did coconut milk with my latte, right?”
“Oh, um, was I supposed too?”
“Yes, you know I always do coconut milk.”
“Right, sorry, forgot.”
“When is the last time I bought cow’s milk for home?”
“I know, I know, sorry. I got the sugar-free flavor though.”
“Thanks,” I drone as I turn back to my phone.
I swipe through articles and Tweets before I recognize a familiar wrench in my chest. I pause, consider it, then return to Twitter.
The wrench tightens, my breath pushing out in a burst. Shit, I think. I attempt to focus on Twitter.
I swipe furiously, not retaining anything. But my fingers sweep in a frantic motion across the screen.
My chest is restricting—in-and-out, in-and-out, in-and-out. My whole body clenches and releases with the motion.
Clench-release, clench-release, clench-release. Fuck, fuck, fuck, chants around my head.
I stand then drop into my chair. I stand again, waver then drop back into the chair. “Um, Ross, this isn’t good.”
“What is it?”
“Um, I’m having a panic attack.”
“Because. My. Latte. Has. Regular. Milk” I halt out.
He pauses, and I know he’s staring at me. “Okay,” he draws out. “I’m sorry. Can I do anything?”
“No. I didn’t think things were this bad.” I clamp my hands over my mouth. “I might just need to do the elliptical for a bit.”
“Is that the best thing right now?”
“Maybe… I need to get rid of this energy.”
“Right, okay, but maybe something else is better than exercising.”
“I know; I just,” I trail off. I realize I’m gripping the sides of my head. I let go, trying to relax. I fall back into my chair. “Just give me a minute.” I sit still, taking deep breaths.
I do not exercise until later. But when the drinks arrive, I drink a third of mine and dump the rest.
Eating disorders are about more than weight, more than body image, more than looking a certain way. At its roots, it’s about control.
About 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. This is staggering. And it intersects with all races, religions, genders, disabilities and ethnicities. It’s the second leading cause of death among mental illness, the first being opioid overdoses.
Eating disorders are a mental illness. The most common are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating.
I was diagnosed with anorexia in my late teens. By the time I was diagnosed, I had lived with my eating disorder for almost a decade. I was obsessed with thin limbs that could squeeze into the tiniest sizes. At my lowest weight, I was 90 pounds, barely able to fit into a size double zero. Most the time, I purchased clothes in the girls’ section since even juniors no longer fit.
I wanted to be thin. I wanted to be beautiful. But more than that, I wanted control. So little in my life seemed to allow me to make my own choices. Diagnosed with type one diabetes at four, I spent my childhood restricting food. A dysfunctional family life that sent me soaring into fantasies to escape it. A world that dictated the woman I had to become. My deepest desire was to clutch control tight to my chest. But it didn’t seem possible. So, I controlled what I ate and how much I exercised.
My triggers: Feeling out of control. Finding no end in sight. Feeling lost, confused and serving no purpose. All these can spiral me into a restriction frenzy.
Imagine what 2020 has done for those of us with eating disorders.
When the pandemic spread, becoming a real concern, I was already dealing with some depression. An on-going health issue that still has not been figured out. Frequent dissatisfaction professionally. But in general, I was okay. But then weeks dragged into months, and COVID cases flared up around the country. Few people seemed to take it seriously, especially in the Midwest where I live. Growing tensions between black and white people, many white people refusing to listen and learn. And to boot, my husband and I were living apart since he just started a new job in a different state. I was alone with our two young boys. I had to protect them; I had to protect myself.
My mind was in a constant state of read alert, vacillating between calm and panic. Books and streaming services kept a steady buzz going in my head so I didn’t have to think.
It started with skipping breakfast, which wasn’t new. I’ve never been a fan of morning eating. Then it transitioned into tiny nibbles here and there. I jumped on the elliptical at random times throughout the day, and the boys and I went on daily walks. Soon, I found myself collapsing into bed at night, realizing I had eaten nothing. Too tired, I promised myself to eat breakfast.
But I never did.
I was not fully aware of the dysfunction creeping in. I lived through the motions, just trying to survive each day. Then, I didn’t lose any weight; not a pound. This broke the damn.
At night, in bed, my hands ran along the curves of my body. I pinched excess skin, remnants of two pregnancies. I measured my legs, gripping them between my hands. Sitting, I felt the expanse of my body in relation to the chair. Grasping my wrist, trying to reach thumb and middle finger around became an hourly ritual.
I now knew what was happening, but I couldn’t stop it; maybe I didn’t want to stop it.