I have never written or spoken about my childhood confrontation with dying very openly before. Content trigger warning: phenomenological account of childhood eating disorder.
Now that I am well into adulthood and it has been so many years, I feel less and less of a need to invest in concerns about plausible negative perceptions from others in favor of sharing more truth. I want to investigate myself and share that with you because I believe the world is healed in sharing our truths.
I often wonder if it is rare to remember what it was like to be a child with vivid detail. I remember so much, and find that the more I focus in to one moment, the more it all comes back. Perhaps it was my very early inclination towards phenomenology, the “what is it like” inquiry into the qualities of lived experience, that provoked more vivid memories of it as an adult. My father and the principal of my school both strongly encouraged me to start journaling from a young age, and I started trying to write novels very soon after I had started writing them. And I always wanted to know how the world was and could be experienced differently by different minds and bodies, which later led me to fall in love with Oliver Sacks’ writings and get deeply immersed in neuroscience.
When I was nine years old, something happened to me. I recall it feeling like a deep spiritual experience. My body was something that I did not understand. Why was I stuck with it? I found everything about having a body to be strange and alienating. I did not like that I had saliva in my mouth, for instance. I found the sensation very awkward and unpleasant. My body slowed me down, I felt. Whether or not I am on the autistic spectrum has frequently been questioned (still unknown), but what I will say is that I identify very strongly with the experiences of sensory overload and high sensitivity reported and described by individuals on the spectrum.
My uncle was always obsessed with food, and seemed to incessantly shame my mother and the rest of our family for not eating healthier food. We were a standard middle-class family, and both my parents worked full-time jobs. I commend my mother for cooking us dinners every night in the best way that she knew how to do — feeding five people is certainly not easy. To this day, my mother’s Swedish Meatballs is my all-time favorite meal even though neither her nor I eat beef anymore. Forgiving my uncle is very difficult because he put so much pressure on food, and put into my mind from a very early age that being healthy means constrains, judgments, rules, and restrictions. Later as a teenager, my uncle told me that studying philosophy would leave me jobless for life (which it certainly hasn’t — I have received luxurious grants to work in 6 different countries after studying philosophy during my MA).
When I was about eight years old, I recall my uncle grabbing my child tummy and teasing that I was a bit chubby and had some leftover “baby fat.” With the best intentions assumed, I believe this was meant simply as a jovial tease. But it really made me very sad. Alas, from looking at pictures of myself throughout my lifespan, I do not think there was ever a point in my life that I was chubby, except that I was born as an 8.5 lb baby. I had always been slim and slender, and tall for my age. But somehow this put in my head at a very young age that I was not really in control of my body or how I looked. I remember later asking my sister about how I could get rid of this “body fat”, and her laughing and saying that it was perfectly normal since I was still a child. But I did not want to be a child. I didn’t feel like a child. I hated when people treated me like a child, and recall very frequently when my great aunt finally visited and spoke to me with great wisdom and wonder, when I realized, “I need to find out what this is.” It turned out to be philosophy, and when I found out that philosophy existed it was like finding my soulmate.
I recall reading a story from a Buddhist monk/Bodhisattva describing the experience of being put into a child’s body after reincarnation as profoundly humiliating and frustrating. Somehow, some part of me identifies with this.
It started at my uncle’s house, unsurprisingly. My stomach was very upset, and I could not eat. I would lie down. The adults would probe me with various thermometers, trying to figure out what was wrong. As anorexia is at its core an anxiety disorder, this makes a lot of sense. I had, in essence, a “nervous stomach.” I was scared to eat the food that was supposed to be proper and good and healthy because it made me feel guilty for liking the food that wasn’t. I did not understand the food that I was eating, which also makes sense since it was new to me. I remember I would go into the bathroom to be left alone. This is when I started my sensory deprivation “safe space” practice: I would curl my head into my lap and encase it in my arms and hands. Then I would plug my ears with my thumbs and cover my closed eyes as much as possible with my hands and arms to shut out all light. This would allow me to enter the twilight-sphere of phosphenes and other (I believe) blood-pressure-related bursts of light that would console me. I could hear my breathing in a way that felt like an ancient soul breathing through many centuries and through many, many bodies to this one I had now here with me. And I felt very safe.
A knock on the door to see if “I am okay in there.” I slowly unravel and look up to see this picture of my cousin as a baby being washed in a sink basin. His tiny little body looks so holy and perfect. And this makes me sob uncontrollably. I wish I could be perfect like that. I look down and my hands look like black veins poking out through rotting flesh on bone.
I had to come back to the dinner table, and just sit with them. There was still food on my plate. I toyed with my fork and looked down the whole time. I felt like all eyes were on me. And to this day, I cannot stand when people watch me eat. I beg to go lay down on the couch, and finally when everyone else is almost done eating, they grant me permission to go lay down. Again, I feel like I have no control.
I was told that I need to eat something at some point, but that it was OK for me to lay down for now. They asked me questions about my bowel movements that made me very uncomfortable, as they tried to assess what is going on. I just mumbled that my stomach really hurts, and I recall that it did. I had the feeling of a muscle cramp that I would get if I ran too far too fast without breathing properly. I tried to point to where the pain was. I remember something about a little tiny handmade angel doll being given to me by my aunt, but I am not sure if I am just imagining this. But I remember how it felt to hold the little doll, with its wooden wings and soft body and head, and a little felt dress. And I remember once peaking into a room where my aunt had worked on crafts and feeling a certain special energy, a spiritual energy, and thinking that she was also in touch with something that I had been feeling all my life. I knew that it wasn’t religion because I had read the child’s Bible given to me by my grandfather and found it very upsetting. I really liked the idea of guardian angels, and I imagined them flying around in white draping gowns towards the ceiling of the room where I felt this energy from my aunt, looking down at me with bright, big smiles, just desiring for my growth and happiness.
Some months later I decided to gradually stop eating. I knew that I could not be too suspect if I were to stop all at once, so I just gradually ate less and less. I remembered how empowering this felt, and how much I loved the control I had.. To me, it was like mind over body dominance. It was like an athlete in sport: I had to just keep going. I remember that my classmates started paying attention to me and expressing concern, and this made me feel less alone. I carried some very heavy pain in me, and I wanted them to sense that, but I was not very strong with spoken words at this point in my life. Eventually I learned to completely manage my hunger simply by eating occasional Nutrigrain bars. I rarely looked in mirrors. I did not care what I looked like, nor was I obsessed with being thin. These are common assumptions about anorexia that I think are misconceptions. I liked the control.
My next vivid memory is of being called to the school nurse when I was in the middle of the class spelling bee. The announcement sounded into the classroom as a woman’s voice said, “Lynda needs to come to the nurse’s office immediately. Her father is here.” I was very, very scared. I was also upset because I felt like I had been “caught” for my clever trickery, and I did not want to have to face concerned adults while I was just doing my thing. And in that moment, “my thing” was acing the class spelling bee. I was always one of the last kids standing and competing in the spelling bee. I might have rolled my eyes. I did not even know where the nurse’s office was, or what that was. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Naughton, saying, “Just go to where you have been before when you felt sick, by where you come in to school in the morning.” And so, I did.
I remember the walk there. I remember the way the school smelled. I remembered getting close to the big double-doors of the school entrance and feeling like I wanted to just run and run and run and be free. I knew that this was going to be bad. I had been caught. It had gone too far.
When I got to the school nurse, there was a big, grumpy-looking woman with her arms folded standing next to my father, who was sitting on the nurse’s bed looking very, very small suddenly, and very sad. He might have been crying, but he hid this from me. “Lynda, come here,” he said. He grabbed me and hugged me, but there was nothing to hug because I was so small. I felt like I disappeared in his arms. “We’re so worried about her, and we don’t know what to do.” he said to the grumpy nurse. The nurse looked me up and down, and I really did not like her at all. “I would take her straight to the hospital.” she said. I felt like a disease. “She’s not healthy, and should not be in school.” This made me very angry. My father got a sandwich out of his briefcase and handed it to me. “Lynda, we’re going to go on an adventure today, and you need to leave school early. Eat this in the car, OK?”
Even though this whole situation had upset me, I was exhilarated to be going on an adventure with my dad! And it was just him and me, no big sister or big brother to join! I ate the sandwich, leaving the crusts, because I knew it would make my father happy and I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to go on this adventure together. We pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. “There is a very nice man here who will ask you a bunch of questions so that we can get to the bottom of this mystery of what is going on with your health, Lynda.” my father explained. I was confused because I did not know if we were still in an adventure and playing, or if he was trying to exorcise my Ana from me, and I did not want her to be found.
Alas, I complied. I had to. They felt my stomach. I got a CT scan, going into a strange tunnel. All of the doctors and nurses held my hand and told me that I was such a brave girl. I liked the attention. I loved being brave. The Indian doctor was a very nice man. He told a lot of jokes that made my father laugh, and this made me laugh. We waited together for hours and hours, my father and I, for all the results to come in.
What happened next is to this day one of the scariest moments I can recall ever happening in my life. I remember sitting inside of something like a phone booth in the middle of the hospital, me on my father’s lap. And I remember hearing my father saying on the phone to my mother that they would have to keep me in the hospital overnight. At this point, I screamed and I sobbed, “NO!!! You can’t do that to me!!! NO!!!!” I ran away, and the nurses and my father had to catch me and hold me. It must not have been too difficult since I was so frail and had very little energy to expend, but the most wicked parts of my darkness came out in that moment. It must have been really hard for everyone to see such a little child in so much emotional trauma and pain. They had to find a room for me in the child’s ward. My mother must have already been on her way because I remember that she arrived quite quickly after that. I remember seeing her beautiful coat billow behind her as she ran quickly to me, grabbed my little face in my hands, and kissed me on the forehead. “It’s going to be okay, Lynda. We’re here now.” she said, and I collapsed into her arms, and my parents both hugged me and one another.
They put me into a hospital bed and my parents both stayed with me overnight. They put a sign behind me over my head that had my weight written on it. 40 lbs. I had little cubby-holes where I could put all my clothes and my shoes. The nurses were all very nice to me, and would read to me until I fell asleep. I’d awake in the middle of the night crying very often. I was really scared. One nurse introduced me to Irish folk music, and the River Dance, which she really liked. They fed me delicious hospital food, which I eagerly looked forward to every single day. I loved the way it was packaged and presented to me like a grand meal, something straight from the “Be our guest” scene from Beauty and the Beast. But I tried not to let anyone know how much I looked forward to it, and only ate tiny bites of it, savoring each one.
I remember my brother saying that I was just doing it for attention. This made me very angry, and I threw a tiny bit of food at him. My brother was fifteen, I guess he had probably just started high school, and thus it made sense for him to view me as a drama queen focusing all the familial and parental attention onto myself. This made me very angry, though. Some part of me must have realized at this point that it was not really a choice. I felt more like I was possessed. I wanted to eat all of the delicious food, but felt so compelled to keep going.
One day, the nurses called me into a room. They were all like angels. They touched my hands softly and told me over and over again that I was doing such a good job and that I was such a brave girl. They smiled and cried at the same time. “Just a little bit more now.” “This part is really going to hurt, Lynda, but I know you can do it because I know you’re so brave and so strong and I know you want to get better.” And at that point, I did. I was tired of being sick, and not being able to control this thing that had originally started out as a means of control. The ultimate control was now controlling me too. That was when they inserted the feeding tube, and to this day I have no idea how I had the capacity to allow a giant tube to go through my nose to my stomach without writhing and screaming in pain. But I recall perfectly that I just kept breathing, that I surrendered to the fact that it was necessary, and that the guardian angel nurses kept looking at the tube, and turning their beautiful faces towards me and smiling through beautiful tears, and squeezing my hands, and saying, “That’s so great Lynda, just keep breathing.”
Had the feeding tube not have been inserted when it was, I probably would have died. I came very, very close to the brink of death. The feeding tube day was probably when I realized this the most.
After the feeding tube, I got healthy enough physically to only have the psychological parts of the disease remaining to be treated. I was still not eating full meals. So, I was moved to a mental health live-in hospital clinic. This was very scary because I was the youngest one there. There was another very young boy who I think had violence issues, and he was a few years younger than me. They made me play blocks with him, but I felt like I was too old for this sort of activity and only doing it to be nice to the little boy who was very mean to me and would attack me with the blocks until the nurses told him to stop. I felt very strange about all of this, and it was the first and last time I ever saw or played with the little boy. And then there was this really crazy woman who was older than me. She had a tongue piercing and once ran naked through the halls of the hospital. I was so scared of her. I thought for sure she would show up in my room, next to my bed with an evil smile in the middle of the night. She was soon removed also, or at least I do not recall her being around for more than a few days.
Then my roommate Cyrese showed up. Cyrese had a lot of issues at home. Her step-father was an alcoholic, I believe. She hung up magazine pictures all over her side of the room. They amused me. I thought Cyrese was very, very pretty (and she was). In the mornings, she would spend an hour in the bathroom with all her makeup. One morning I accidentally opened the door while she was still doing her makeup. She just laughed and said it was no big deal, but this resulted in her putting an “Occupied/Unoccupied” flip sign on the door. This was also confusing for me because “occupied” was a big word, so I had to just remember that the “un” version meant that it was OK to enter.
Cyrese asked me why such a young girl was in a hell-hole like this. I didn’t know what that meant, so I just said I was put there and that it was not my choice. “Well, what’s your thing, then?” I explain that I had stopped eating. “Well, you look healthy enough to me. Sure, you’re skinny, but you’re SO YOUNG. This place is nuts. Can’t they just send you home with your family?” I shrugged. “I guess not.” Cyrese looked sad, and puzzled, “Well, then, Miss Lynda, I’m going to take care of you and make sure you get out of here, OK? If anyone bothers you, you just tell me so.” I smiled at cool, pretty Cyrese and bounced on my bed, “Okay!”
Cyrese told me that the secret to me getting out was just eating a full meal. “But I don’t want to do that!” I said. “I don’t like the food, and they give us SO MUCH.” She laughed, and nodded, “I know, but that’s your ticket to freedom. So just do it for me, okay?”
They gave us an Arts and Crafts Hour after dinner, and I really loved it. I learned how to make these little origami frogs that would jump when you pressed on their backs. I started drawing quite regularly, and I got to be quite good at it. Everyone in the hospital was impressed with my drawings, and started hanging them up. All the women in the arts room were also like angels, who showed me this whole new world of creativity and the imagination. I liked channeling my energy into making things that entranced people.
So, one day in the lunchroom, I got very close to finishing my plate. Cyrese looked at me with a very proud and intense stare and mouthed, “Keep going.” And so, I did. The plate was cleared. “Look, everyone! I did it! I finished my plate!” I announced and started dancing all around the tables. Cyrese grabbed me into her and hugged my full belly, and I giggled. Then one militant nurse declared that the plate was not completely cleared, and she requested that I eat all the little piles of food I had pushed to the edges of the plate. I did not care; I was so happy with my success that I did not mind to do it. Cyrese angrily retorted, “What, do you want her to lick the damn plate?!” I laughed at this, and after clearing away my food piles with my fork lifted the plate sideways and started licking it. “That’s enough, Lynda.” The nurse took away the plate, and she said, “Well done. We’ll be happy to write this on your daily report.” Then Cyrese came by, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Well done, Lynda!” I high-fived her.
That night, my mother and father came to visit during our Arts and Crafts Hour. I was finishing some paper craft I was making, and my father waited by the door. I was a little embarrassed to be the only person to have their parents visiting so much, but I was so young that no one ever teased me for it. When the Arts and Crafts Hour ended, everyone left and my father grabbed me, having heard the news, and spun me around and lifted me up over his head, exclaiming, “You ate a whole meal?!!!!!! That’s amazing!!!!!” I was up in the sky, I remember, looking down at my father’s glowing, happy face. My mother was crying and smiling at me. They both hugged me. Cyrese looked back at me with a big smile.
That night in our room, Cyrese cornered me and said, “Lynda, did you see what happened tonight??!! I’ve never even seen anyone so happy and proud as your father tonight. He lifted you up over his head! That was amazing!!! Keep doing it, Lynda. If that’s the home you get to go to, then it’s a good place. Keep making your poppa proud.”
And I ate full meals everyday from that day onward.
Ana does not go away completely. I believe it is a lifelong disease. Ana is not a choice. No one would ever choose to have this disease. I struggle and fight with its scars and resounding echoes almost every day of my life. My inner demons writhe inside my head and heart telling me that I am unworthy of love, happiness, and fulfillment. I am never good enough, and I could never be. Ana channels me to be the ultimate perfectionist and to expect more from myself than is reasonable or fair. Ana wants me to push myself to the bone, no matter what it takes.