Down the Rabbit Hole

I remember the first time I made myself throw up. It was a Friday. I was fourteen, a freshman at a new high school and horribly self-conscious. My mother, even at this point in my life, had an uncanny way of projecting her insecurities on me—the youngest of three daughters and therefore, her last chance to do it right—and it became her personal crusade to chisel my body to her ideal form. I had the intrinsic drive to excel academically and athletically on my own, so even though SAT vocabulary lessons have been her favorite car game since I was in grade school, her focus turned to the girth of my hips. My mother raised us with the philosophy that if something is not to your liking, don’t praise it just to be polite. It helps no one, she always said. Thus, in that militant spirit, Saturday mornings became weigh-in days. At age six, I was bribed with new clothes if I lost five pounds. I remember posing for a picture before a swim meet around that time in my obnoxiously bright, purple swimsuit that I had been so proud of days before, being very aware of how my thighs touched and counting down the seconds until I could wrap myself in the safety of my towel. I still have that picture, tucked into the corner of my dorm room mirror, and I am constantly struck by how vulnerable that small child looks. As I grew older, the pressure to be thin intensified as my accomplishments piled up. I was so close to success and how dare I let an extra helping at dinner stand in my way. My mother regulated every bite and the contours of my body, awkwardly navigating their way through puberty, were her obsession. I switched out school lunches for apples and threw myself into soccer in middle school and finally got a taste of the approval I had been pining for.

That Friday, the one that drew the line between the before and my current reality, the after, I desperately wanted more of that rare support and I knew that the scale awaited me the following morning, with her goal only a few pounds away. I hadn’t eaten anything since Wednesday, delighting in the hunger gnawing at the back of my ribs, but my body beat my mind and I indulged that afternoon in a cookie. It was white chocolate, with macadamia nuts. I hate nuts. But after sugar sharpened my hungry mind, one thought become clear: I couldn’t have it in me. My mother would know and the familiar fear and acute sense of betrayal from years past would bubble up again. I slipped into a bathroom in the basement of the arts building at school, and shoved my fingers toward the back of my mouth. I hadn’t thought about how my nails would feel on the raw, pink skin at the base of my tongue. I had been trying this two-finger trick for years to no avail, but that day, the soggy cookie splashed into the toilet bowl. The taste of acrid vomit filled my mouth, my eyes watered and the faint outline of teeth marks lined the back of my hand. The sense of true accomplishment was overwhelming. I washed my face and pushed open the door of the bathroom, giddy with what I had just done. I was the weight my mother wanted (needed?) me to be the next morning. The day after that, my nails pierced the back of my throat again. Several months later, it was the tip of an old toothbrush.

For two years, my dates with the toilet were my secret and I reveled in that fact.

As my middle sister floundered in college, her developmental disorder thwarting her every step of the way and forcing her to solve problems with handfuls of pills, I lied to friends to explain why I wasn’t eating lunch with them. Lunch with them meant by the time I got to the bathroom, it would be too late. The calories would have already attached themselves to all my insecurities and finally reinforced, they would fight back against my feeble defenses. As my parents greeted each other with screaming matches, I would crouch on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, vomiting a box of crackers as quietly as possible into a water bottle, which I clutched with a white-knuckled grip. With every creak of the floorboards that reverberated in the house, I would freeze, a deer hearing the snap of a twig under the hunter’s foot. The panicked moments didn’t stop me, though. As my friends proved to fade in and out according to their needs, not mine, I created a place in my mind where that didn’t matter. Friends would only get in the way, after all, so their absence was a necessary measure, I reassured myself, not a loss.

I ended up at the hospital at the end of that year. I smiled politely in therapy and cried at the appropriate moments. I stayed my obligatory two months and threw up in the airport on the way home.

I returned to school for my senior year. Bloodshot eyes and shower fainting spells replaced parties with classmates before our exodus to college. I felt, for the first time, understood as I nestled into the arms of my bulimia. Safe, even, as we sat in another hospital when prom, graduation and the rest of my high school career passed lazily at home. There was tremendous comfort in feeling my heart beat erratically in my chest or throwing up blood. Finally, I was seeing tangible proof of what I had been feeling for years: betrayal by what was supposed to be supporting. My melodramatic eighteen-year-old self was high on bitter, angry self-righteousness.

As I matured, my eating disorder matured along with me. Though once a destructive act of rebellion, it grew to be a veritable entity, wrapping its entrails around me. I was nurtured and I was suffocated. Coming to Dartmouth was supposed to be the salvation I needed, and I bargained on recovery simply falling into my lap upon setting foot on campus. Yet, my multiple stints in treatment and tenuous-at-best graduation plans suggest otherwise. I love this school with all the cheesy sentiments of feeling right at home at the Big Green, but the pressure I feel here is staggering. Academically, socially and emotionally, I feel the nagging pull of needing to do more. The weight of the “shoulds” is daunting and at times, downright smothering. Perhaps that is why I continue to find it so difficult to have food inside me: I’m already so full.

It’s hard to say now if I regret those years on the journey to that conclusion. The ones spent bent over the toilet and the intermittent ones spent clawing my way back to functioning only to be pulled back in. I’m humbled and I’m ashamed. I’m proud of surviving, but still harbor that terror of truly living, with all its inherent responsibilities. When thinking about doing those angst-filled teenage years—and these rocky college ones, too—over again, I find solace in telling myself that I would have asked for help earlier or been more honest or been braver in speaking my young mind. Yet, in moments of brutal clarity, I relish every scar, experience lost and desperate moment. I am proud of how I met my own needs, albeit in a misguided way. There’s a core assumption in dialectical-behavioral therapy that everyone is doing the best he or she can in any given moment. Pride has been replaced by the quiet resignation that maybe, I’m just doing the best I can.