notes on recovery

BY GRACE MONTGOMERY

Gaining weight and losing weight are just different parts of the same binary. Both are satisfactory because either will prod me towards an extreme — sickness or recovery, both of which are acceptable in their own way (as anorexia will please my diseased mind, recovery pleases my body).

This isn’t to say both extremes don’t scare me. While intensive anorexia has all of the expected malaise, gaining weight requires its own kind of suffering, in the form of self-loathing. And I can’t handle too much self-hate without wanting to die again; and I don’t want to die, not really.

I don’t know how to talk about this.

My mother first brought a scale into our house when I was eleven or twelve. If I remember correctly, she initially resisted the suggestion, despite her friend’s need to weigh luggage before her flight home.

My mother has been dieting as long as I can remember, in a seemingly hopeless attempt to lose what she considers her “baby weight.” But overweight or skinny, my mother was my hero growing up — dancing The Brim Twist with me in the kitchen, meticulously painting cherries on her bowl collection, spending long afternoons in her garden — always unflinchingly, unapologetically herself. I wanted to be just like her, body image and all.

The scale became a part of our lives around the time I reached adolescence. I became much more aware of media at this point, watching Emma Roberts’ bone-thin arms at the Oscars, and reading about Taylor Swift’s treasured, model-like physique. Keeping track of my daily food intake for health class only added to my concern. I felt like my entire existence could be defined by my grades and my weight.

Regardless, my anorexia wasn’t born out of a desire to be skinny. Despite my severely distorted my body image, the weight obsession came later. My anorexia began as merely another method of self-harm to me; another way to punish myself for the sadness I could not control.

Sadness has been within me forever. I have been sad about the world since I knew there was one, lying awake since eight years old worrying about global warming. I would never understand why I felt such responsibility for humanity’s inherent turmoil. Early on, I blamed myself — some twisted, overly sensitive part of me that caused such overwhelming sadness.

I was both right and wrong. According to the doctors, my sadness is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. Although chemistry in and of itself isn’t so distressing, I remain uncertain how much my chemical makeup defines me; and if I am indeed changing myself by rebalancing those chemicals. This uncertainty was much easier to take out on my body than to address head-on. If I couldn’t control my mind, I could at least control my intake.

The doctors diagnosed me with half a dozen disorders, anxiety and depression as the main two, borderline anorexia as another. Having anxiety is being in a constant state of panic; like everything around you is on fire. You’re running around frantically, desperately trying to douse the flames, but nothing works. They’re like trick candles — as soon as you think the flame is gone, it shoots back up. And when you tell your mother everything’s on fire, she looks at you like you’re crazy and says it’s a beautiful day. Anorexia just makes the whole ordeal even more exhausting.

Having depression is like living in constant snowstorm. You fight your way through the cold, brushing the snow off of everything you own. You feel completely numb and exhausted in just a few minutes, but when you try to tell your mother, she gives you another look, and asks how anything can be simultaneously burning and covered in snow. And you don’t have an answer to that. Having anxiety is trying everything to put out the fire, and having depression is being too numb and too tired to care what burns. Having both is just plain confusing.

Anorexia was the monster that grew out of this confusion, a clear method of self-punishment for the snow and the fire. I didn’t realize how quickly the monster would overpower everything else I was.

I was at my lowest weight when I bought my favorite pair of jeans. I thought I’d feel better in clothes that fit — clothes with a size given in negative numbers. I was constantly exhausted, cold, and constipated, yet anorexia convinced me the solution was tighter fabric. What I failed to recognize (and often still do) is how truly mental anorexia is, truly an extension of my depression and anxiety. It doesn’t matter how small I get, I would never feel “small enough.” Even when I hit my goal — when I broke 90 lbs, or whatever it was — I didn’t feel better, and I didn’t start eating again. The size 00 jeans were big on me. They hung off my hip bones. Yet nothing changed.

Even now, anorexia continues to whisper that when I get small enough, it’ll go away. I have to remind myself that it’s lying. Even if I die of this illness, I imagine it’ll still be there. Maybe even after I disintegrate, it’ll criticize the piles of bones and dust I become.

If I’d had it my way, I don’t think I’d have any body left at all. I don’t know where my soul — my lack thereof — would live.

The days of sickness and the days of eating are just different parts of the same binary. I don’t remember how to eat like a normal person. I’ve gone from memorizing all nutritional values to forgetting what they are. I eat nothing at all for two days, and two bowls of ice cream the next. Such sporadic eating confuses my body. When I restart eating after a few days of sickness, my body isn’t quite sure what to do; like my stomach has forgotten how to digest — the memory was suppressed on account of excessive emotional pain.

I know I’m gaining weight. Recovery, I tell myself. I say I’m in recovery, I don’t know what that means. The doctors tell me I’m in a healing point of my life, I don’t know what that means. They say I’ll feel weird around food for the rest of my life, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what any of these things mean. These are all just words, and although I love and believe in writing, there are times when words mean nothing. A thousand doctors can tell me the same thing time and time again, but it won’t matter until I digest it.

Grace Montgomery is a senior at the Interlochen Arts Academy. For this piece, she received a Scholastic Art and Writing award. Art by Rebecca Van Sciver. 

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