BE YOUR OWN HERO: A writer’s experience
I am a survivor.
And no, I don’t mean that I crawled out of the window of a burning bus or beat stage 4 cancer.
But, I am a survivor.
I am not a hero. I have never saved a kitten trapped in a large tree. I have never fought fires, never led a protest, never took any real action to change the world.
But, I saved myself from wasting away. And to me, that’s heroic enough.
I have struggled with body image issues since I was three years old. I remember little toddler me, standing in front of my mother’s tall, floor length mirror, staring at the thin fabric of my clothes and my soft, baby-fat stomach underneath. It was Halloween. I was a witch that year, and my costume was one of those last-minute, only-choice-on-the-rack type of things. My mother noticed me frowning. ‘What’s wrong,’ she asked. I told her, ‘I look fat.’ I remember her face. She looked so dumb-founded. Like, how could a three year old think she’s fat? How could she possibly be worrying about her size so young? I wish I knew the answer. Now, at age eighteen, I still am not exactly certain why being small is so important to me.
I grew up in a household where excellence was, and is, everything. Where ‘average’ was never good enough. Where every B on my report card was met with a tight smile, and, ‘you could do better.’ Where even A-pluses weren’t enough. I was pushed to join every club, every sports team, every student organization. Where as soon as one goal was met, I was being shoved right toward another. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing at all bad about teaching your child to be driven and go after success. But it’s equally important to give your child time to be a kid, to sharpen their creativity, and to figure out who they are and what they want to be. As a young child, I never thought much about all of this. I just thought that was how things are supposed to be.
And then I started middle school. Suddenly, none of my peers seemed to care about getting As, staying out of trouble, or going, as teachers would say, ‘above and beyond.’ Suddenly, it mattered how I dressed; if I wore lip gloss, if my stomach was small and tight and if my thighs had a gap between them. I started middle school at 5’2, 144 pounds. I was twelve. For the first time in my life, it felt wrong to look average.
I felt invisible. Because of my size, because of the frumpy nature of my style, because I was one of the ‘smart’ kids, I was instantly labelled: Nerd. It was so different from elementary, where good grades and excellence meant popularity. Here, in the wider, longer halls of my junior high, lined with lockers and secrets and cliques, all anyone seemed to care about was ‘pretty.’
The summer before my eighth grade year, I hit puberty. Naturally, I started thinning out. My body composition started changing. I looked less like a child and more like a woman. I came back to school that year with a new found confidence I’d never felt before. Little did I know, that feeling would quickly plummet.
The attention I received at school the first few weeks, was, to say the least, exhilarating. People wanted to go on dates with me, they wanted to look like me. For the first time, I was pretty. And I loved it. I was blonde, thin, and tall (for my age). I made new friends, friends that were popular and who looked a lot like my myself. I found myself panicking. I’d never felt so confident before, I’d never had so many friends, or been one of the ‘cool’ kids. I wanted to feel that way forever. I chalked all of my newfound success up to one thing: I was small.
At the beginning of my eighth grade year, I was 5’5. I remember the first day I weighed myself. A warmer-than-usual November afternoon. I wa shocked to see that I had actually gained weight since starting middle school. I didn’t realize that with aging and puberty comes natural, healthy weight gain. My eyes blurred. 152 pounds. It was like warning sirens were going off in my head. I knew I had to do something to get that weight off. To stay beautiful.
I heard from a friend about a new, super cool app. ‘Kind of like Facebook, but edgier,’ she’d said. Tumblr.com. It was there that I saw photos and posts relating to ‘thinspo’ and the ‘pro-ana’ concept for the first time. In the beginning, I told myself it was okay to look at, that there was nothing wrong with sitting around looking at pictures of girls who starve themselves, as long as I didn’t become one. But just like an addict becomes much more likely to relapse if they are around other addicts, I quickly began having and truly believing thoughts like the ones so proudly posted all over the site. ‘Think before you eat,’ ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,’ even ‘No one loves fat girls.’ I instantly adopted diet ideas that I found online. By December, I had lost around 40 pounds. 5’5, 112 (lbs). I spent every free second I had after school, before school, even during, researching more ways to lose weight. I truly believe that for me, the weight loss was an addiction.
After losing the initial 40 pounds, the weight loss only sped up from there. I began eating only a handful of goldfish crackers everyday, I’d steal laxatives from the grocery store, I spent hours Googling the calories in a single bite of food. Eventually, though, that wasn’t enough. I remember breaking down and bawling in a mall fitting room because even at now 108 lbs, I still couldn’t squeeze into an extra small. My whole life revolved around numbers. I told myself I was too fat to leave the house; I’d get in horrible fights with my family everyday for months because I refused to get out of bed. I told myself I’d leave the house and have fun when I was skinny. After Christmas, I decided I needed to take my sickness to the next level. I ate only fruits, told myself I was a ‘fruitarian.’ I worked out 5-6 hours a day, and on days that I was too busy, I’d walk around my room all night after everyone was asleep to burn off the calories. At some point in May, I went to the doctor and they told me I was basically weeks away from a heart attack, and formally diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa and exercise addiction. Finally in June of 2015, I weighed in at 5’5, 72 lbs. I decided I’d had enough of never leaving the house, spending every waking minute working out, and never eating, but I didn’t know how to get better. My only solution was rather than live ‘fat,’ I should just die skinny. On June 24, 2016, I attempted suicide and spent the next eight days in immediate care at a psychiatric facility, thus marking the beginning of my recovery.
Nearly 5 years later and almost 80 pounds heavier, I am super content with my body and my life. My one goal is to raise awareness of the dangers of anorexia, and to teach young girls like myself that they’re worth so much more than a number. I know so many teens that tell me everyday how disgusting they feel, how they can’t bear to eat their favorite foods in fear of gaining weight, how they just want to lose ‘5 more pounds.’ The worst part is, it’s never just 5 more pounds. Anorexia nervosa is an addiction. You become addicted to a chase that never ends. Even throughout all of the agony, to someone suffering from this disease, it somehow all feels worth it. However, I know that it is never worth it. People never realize the lasting, horrible effects starvation can have on your body. It’s 5 years later. I still get cold in warm rooms. I developed anemia. Exercise is still extremely difficult mentally and physically. I have shrank 3 inches. The disease has affected my fertility, my menstrual cycle, and my whole reproductive system. So, if you feel that you may be struggling, please remember: fat is not a feeling. It’s a word we use in place of sad, hurt, upset. You’re most likely not depressed because you’re ‘fat.’ Too many times, sufferers think that as soon as they’re ‘skinny enough,’ they’ll be happy. Nine times out of ten, there’s something else going on. Give yourself time to reflect on the things you’ve experienced in your life. What is making you feel inadequate, unhappy, and insecure? The sooner you let yourself feel and heal from your emotions, the sooner you can tell the difference.
Haley Simmons is an author from Parkersburg, W.Va.. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or purchase her book online through Amazon, Kindle or Google Books.