When I was sixteen I became anorexic. The term “anorexia” originates in the Greek oregein, which means “to desire,” or “to long for.” When I think of the word, and my world then in it, the negating prefix disappears to leave only the longing, a pale arm reaching out with standing tendons, tight and desperate.
I fell into it unintentionally, starting out with a simple diet when I fell in love and found that my desire was reciprocated. Losing weight, first slowly then at an accelerated rate, was exhilarating. Every night I turned sideways to stare at my flat stomach in the mirror, high on the power I wielded over my physicality.
Within two months I went from 115 to 87 pounds, knew that a medium orange had 60 calories, did a hundred sit ups and ran in place for forty minutes after a solitary dinner of egg whites and four glasses of water while my family talked to each other in whispers on the other side of the wall.
I struggled for four more years, control eliding into bulimic episodes and finally landing me in suicide watch sophomore year in college.
Alone in an infirmary with my body, I decided I had to leave. This country, with its nutritional labels, fat-free cookies, and girls who competed for Most Empty Plate at every meal, was killing me.
I changed my major to French, signed up for an accelerated schedule in order to study abroad in seven months, binged, took ipecac, and purged under moonlight by a pristine winter lake on campus, the vomit warm through the plastic bag, cradled in my lap like a child.
The Dean told me I couldn’t go: my already delicate health would be jeopardized in a strange environment without familiar support structures. Still, I went.
The idea of calories and preservatives were a myth in southern France. At three-hour lunches I forgot that I was supposed to be careful, cleaned my plate because it was delicious, and walked home afterward since no one drove.
I only had two mild relapses, surrounded by people who moved often, ate well and to whom the idea of bad eating or withholding was utterly foreign. I was enamored with the fresh gnocchi at the restaurant across the street and the sweet tomatoes on gruyere and fresh bread pressed together into a panini on the way home from University.
For the first time in five years, I wasn’t feeding off of myself; I was eating. It was a miracle.
By the time I came back to the States a year later, I was a world ahead of where I had been when I’d left.
My body longs for equilibrium. I believe that it desires life, a glass of good wine, hearts of romaine with a bit of olive oil, pepper, and vinegar, steak (medium-rare), hot bread with cold butter, a beautiful fruit tart glistening with glazed summer strawberries, and a heart thankful, a day spent, a night full.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.