A few years ago, I began to engage in a deliberate and bewildering behavior that, if not interrupted, would possibly have led to my dying from starvation.
The problem began during Thanksgiving break of 2016 when I weighed myself on a scale in Mom’s room and saw that I weighed 118 pounds. The weight was perfectly normal for my 5’4” height. Perhaps, I was vulnerable to the dark pathway that opened up before me because I had always been critical of my appearance. However, for no reason that could be explained, I concluded that I was too heavy so decided to lose weight. From that day, I began to use an app on my iPhone, called “My Fitness Pal,” to track my calorie intake. My weight-loss plan was simple. I almost stopped eating completely. The strategy worked great! I lost weight during that first week, even though it included our family Thanksgiving Day feast.
Life was good while I was attending school at Ron Nunn Elementary, Bristow Middle, and Heritage High. I focused my attention on academics and remember how shattered I was in sixth grade when I got a “B” on my six-week grade report. I could only imagine that “B” stood for Bad. I’m a perfectionist. My homework had to be perfect. I was never very social but developed a few close friendships and enjoyed the quality of education provided by some wonderful Heritage teachers. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
Unfortunately, I extended my compulsive behavior into another area of life. Unless they knew me well, nobody could imagine that I’m suffering from a terrible and even life-threatening illness. I never had a robust appetite and didn’t really enjoy eating no matter how delicious and appealing the people around me considered a dish to be. Finally, during that fateful Thanksgiving break I decided, as far as possible, to stop eating completely.
I didn’t recognize anything wrong with my bazaar behavior but felt I was on a healthy and happy course to achieving the willowy look made popular by runway models, A-list celebrities, and innumerable selfies posted on social media. Some of my Facebook friends would post pictures of themselves looking as though they had a near zero body mass index (BMI). I was on a course of “fixing” my appearance so that I could eventually look the way we all imagined girls are supposed to look. Slender was the look I was trying to achieve.
After losing nearly 20 pounds, anybody who saw me without the loose clothing I always wore would immediately recognize that something was seriously wrong. I didn’t look thin; I looked emaciated. The bones on my arms, legs, and torso stuck out prominently. I would have appeared as though in the advanced stages of some terrible wasting disease. Of course, that actually turned out to be true.
“WE HAD TO FACE THE FACT THAT ANOREXIA NERVOSA IS A MENTAL DISORDER. FURTHERMORE, WE LEARNED THAT IT IS A BEHAVIORAL DISORDER.”
However, I had somehow entered into a delusional state because when I looked at myself in a mirror, I felt that I still looked overweight and that I had to continue on my low-calorie diet until I finally achieved the physical appearance that I imagined to be the ideal. I no longer wanted to look thin but would do anything to look thinner.
For a long time no one recognized the self-destructive course that I had embarked on. I had always been a picky eater, so fellow diners didn’t notice that I was just pushing food around on my plate and by the end of the meal had eaten almost nothing of the small portions of food that I had dished up for myself.
I wore a lot of baggy clothing to conceal the effects that my starvation diet was having on my shrinking body. It took nearly a year before my dysfunctional habit finally caught up to me. Mom was finally alarmed by my scarecrow-thin appearance and took me for a check-up. The doctors ran preliminary tests that immediately showed there was something seriously wrong. I was dehydrated and my heart rate was only 50, which was borderline dangerous. Worst of all, my blood pressure was so dangerously low they advised me to go to bed and remain there, except to use the bathroom.
I remained unconvinced by the concern Mom and the doctor had about my condition. I believed they were overreacting. I had an appointment with a therapist that was a waste of time. I was in rebellion, which was evident by the fact that I began purging as a deliberate act of defiance in order to undo whatever helpful results were expected from the food they were now forcing me to eat.
As my condition grew increasingly more alarming, my Mom stepped up to the plate and has basically put her life on hold. As you might expect, one of the first things she did was to get on the internet. She learned how serious the disease can be. Anorexia can cause a number of serious health problems such as osteoporosis, infertility, and heart damage. Therefore, besides simply starving themselves to death, victims also die because of organ failure, electrolyte disturbances, dehydration, and suicide. Inadequately treated, the mortality rate of anorexia is estimated to be 20 percent of those affected, which is why early, aggressive, and continuous treatment is vital.
We had to face the fact that anorexia nervosa is a mental disorder. Furthermore, we learned that it is a behavioral disorder. As it turned out, I had created the condition by my behaviors, so the remedy was to undo the condition by changing my behaviors. Actually changing behaviors turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. Fortunately, Mom was able to enroll us in a program at UC San Diego, called “Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research.” Their research indicated that a family-based solution might be most effective. As a result, Mom, Dad, my sister Daniela, and brother Julian participated in a week long, immersive, family based therapy (FBT) program. Our insurance didn’t cover anything, so my folks had to pay the fee for the program, which was $5,000, plus the cost of transportation, food, and the motel bill.
Every day, we would check into the clinic and spend the day attending sessions. Their goal was to get me eating 2,200 calories a day by the end of the program. Lunchtimes were teaching events in which they taught us how to prepare meals and taught me how to eat. They were training me to follow a daily eating regime of three meals and three snacks a day. They would portion it out. At each meal I had to consume a calorie drink.
The first day was difficult. During the very first snack time, I began crying at the amount of food they expected me to eat, even though it was only a medium size serving of yogurt. Later that day, I had a sandwich and a brownie, which I did not finish. They gave us only 30 minutes to finish each meal, or I might have dawdled over that brownie until the next snack time. We were on our own for dinner. That night I had teriyaki chicken. I wasn’t able to clean my plate, so my punishment was to take a supplement, called Boost.
The first couple days were difficult, but by the end of the week, I was getting used to it. There were seminars and instructional periods where they educated us on the nature of our disease and reminding us of the terrible results that might come if we didn’t succeed — for example, how my brain and heart would shrink. Four other kids were going through the program at the same time. The five of us realized that we were on the same page. We were friendly and supportive of each other, which made the program easier.
Before we left, I had to sign a contract with my parents, promising that when I got home I would continue to follow the rules that we had been practicing at the center. It was tough. For example, one of the conditions was that Mom had to come to Heritage two times every day and watch me eat. Fortunately, my friends Emily, Mac, and Sam would join us, which made it more tolerable. After I finished eating, Mom would remain with me for a while to make sure that I wouldn’t purge. She and I had some fights about those awful rules and restrictions, but she wouldn’t back down. Mom was more concerned for me than I was for myself. Without her, I wouldn’t have made it. I might be dead by now.
Even though I’m at my goal weight of 126, I am still in therapy. The problems are still with me. Every other week we have to drive to UCSF to meet with a therapist, dietitian, and a pediatrician. I’m not allowed to be too active. They take away mirrors. My biggest problem is that I still feel fat. Portions are still a problem; it’s difficult to eat all that food during the three snacks and three meals I eat each day. However, I am starting to get used to the routine.
We’re trying to connect with others about anorexia. Mom has joined a Facebook group called “International Eating Disorder Family Support.” Last November I participated in an event sponsored by the National Eating Disorder Association. We gathered in Sacramento to walk around the capital raising awareness of the disease. On June 2, I observed the World Eating Disorders Action Day by posting on Instagram the various myths, floating around about the condition, such as the belief that there are sufficient resources available for us. And the worst myth is that anorexia can be cured simply through discipline. I hate people asking me, “Why don’t you just eat more and gain weight?” I want to scream at them, and say, “Why don’t you just grow a set of wings and fly away?”
On November 3, I’m taking a team of family and friends to San Francisco to participate in another National Eating Disorder Association event. I’m a Harry Potter fan so we will gather at Fort Mason under the whimsical title, “Dumbledore’s Army.”
The fact is, a small army of people have been helping me through this tough time. In particular, my mom has sacrificed herself. “You’re my life until you get better,” she says. Grandma Doris watches my younger siblings so Mom can take me to my appointments. There is also a special guy in my life. Marcus Dawal was a schoolmate and a fellow attendee at Fellowship Church. For a few months, we would sometimes hang out talking with each other. He would help talk me through bad spots when things got tough. Marcus listened; he understood. Now he’s my boyfriend and a rock in the midst of the storm that I’m going through.
I want to raise awareness of anorexia. People couldn’t look at me and know that I had a problem, so I’m encouraging them to become aware of the disease and to get their friends and themselves into treatment, if there’s a problem. “It takes a village” to do more than raise a child. We have to take care of each other. I’m trying to draw energy from my problems to do something positive in the world.
The last Thanksgiving meal was different than the one before when my problem was beginning. This time, I had to actually eat, because Mom was watching every forkful and spoonfull, making sure that I got it down and that it stayed down. (Thanks, Mom!)
Photos By Casey Quist