Health

I Can’t Remember Life Before My Eating Disorder

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Maybe the point of recovery is making food forgettable

Ciela Gonzalez
Photo: Maria Maglionico/EyeEm/Getty Images

II remember, with a clarity that occasionally makes me wince, the series of jarring events that led me to skip my first meal. My mom — who, make no mistake, has with time become one of the most supportive parents I’ve ever met — made a comment about how much dessert I ate during a Christmas dinner. My best friend at the time giggled when the shirt I was wearing revealed my skin jiggling underneath. My parents insisted that I cut back on sugar because human growth hormones, which I was taking for a few years, can make blood sugar levels dangerously high.

I remember the first time I ever restricted my diet: I was with my father’s family for New Year’s Eve and instead of a proper breakfast or lunch, I had one small container of yogurt. It was 114 calories. I had just turned eleven years old.

I remember my eating disorder. Thinking about the past nine years is a jumble of nutritional information tables, painfully vivid memories, and traces of emotions that sometimes still creep up on me in the middle of a meal. I remember looking up the number of calories in whatever I was going to eat before lunch every day; I know exactly how much sugar, fat, protein, and calories there are in things I have not eaten in years. I remember my mom kicking the scale she kept — hidden, she thought — in the bathroom in a fit of rage and powerlessness at watching her daughter starve herself ragged and turn into something she could no longer recognize.

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I remember how angry, how sad, how tired, and how heavy I felt all the time. I remember how the way I experienced the world at the time had little to do with actual thoughts and more to do with spatial awareness. How much space am I taking up? The question bounced inside my head like a tennis ball rocketing across an empty room. I remember getting chest pains, and joint pains, and stomachaches, and headaches, like my entire body was wrapped in barbed wire. I remember wishing I could — literally — cut off the skin on my belly with my mom’s sewing scissors and then stitch myself back together, stuffed into a smaller, tighter body. I wanted to slice myself open and scoop out my insides with a ladle.

Out of all the things that happened, I remember recovery with the most weariness. I remember not saying much the first time my parents took me to a therapist. Instead I sat quietly on a chair, all elbows and knees and wild, hungry eyes, gripping the edges and holding on for dear life. I remember the strange mix of dismay and elation I felt when a nutritionist handed me my first meal plan. Shit, there’s no way I can eat all of this, I thought. And Shit, I get to eat all of this? I remember being convinced that I could feel myself getting heavier when the number on the scale began to inch up. I remember the panic.

What I don’t remember — not at all — is my life before the eating disorder. Some of it, I’m sure, has to do with how young I was. It makes me indescribably sad, however, that my brain wired itself up so differently when I started puberty that even the couple of years leading up to it (which I should absolutely have at least a few fuzzy memories of) have become a blank. I can’t remember the last time I could consistently eat meals without worrying about macros and calories, without compensation, guilt, and anxiety. I have no recollection of what it was like to exercise only for enjoyment rather than out of a sense of obligation.

Now, as I step into my twenties after nearly a decade of relatively continuous treatment, this stage of recovery puts me in completely uncharted territory. I am now at the point where, while my disordered voice is still very much there, I have gotten pretty good at ignoring it. I’m largely unbothered by my irrational guilt whenever I eat carbs or decide not to work out. I’m slowly rediscovering the pleasure in exercise and food. I’m painstakingly going through the world-shifting process of separating my sense of self-worth from my size and body composition. Instead, I’m linking my self-worth to aspects of my personality that have climbed higher on my list of priorities than the number on the scale.

While it’s exciting to see how far I’ve gotten in my recovery, this particular phase also plays strongly into the original fears I had about leaving my anorexia behind. I am terrified of the unknown. What will my life look like without the mindset I’ve had for years? What will I look like? What will other people think of me? What little reference I have, from what I remember of my early childhood, is not encouraging. I was an introverted, eccentric kid with few friends even before I completely shut out all things social because I was too busy not eating.

Deep down, however, I still know that recovery is worth it. After all, everything about recovery has been worth it so far. And a part of me thinks that maybe not remembering is exactly what I should accept — that once I become recovered enough, food and exercise will become so inconsequential that I won’t register them like I do now. I will forget about the meals, workouts, and calorie charts much faster.

Maybe that’s what recovery is all about: making food forgettable.

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