Originally published at Swakker Café in January 2010
I started counting minutes and hours when I was four years old. I counted varying increments of time during which I kept my fingers crossed – index and middle, both hands, the way people symbolize good luck. It began innocently and simply, or so it seemed. The first time I crossed my fingers was during a prayer to God, I guess, or to whomever the force is that in childhood we believe controls our lives. I was praying that my mother would give me permission to spend the night at my friend Pam’s house. While Pam’s mother was on the phone with mine, I made my decidedly childlike appeal. Please, please, let my mom say yes. If she says yes, I’ll keep my fingers crossed all night. It seems sort of cute, the bargaining. At four years old, a sleepover was a serious issue. There hadn’t been too many things in my short life that I had consciously wished for so desperately. And for some reason it seemed to me at the time that the best way to insure that I would get my wish was to offer some sort of sacrifice, perform some small penance. It worked, I had believed; my mom said yes, and I kept my fingers crossed all night. I never once thought of abandoning the promise. In fact, I was sure that something horrible would follow should I break my end of the deal. And that day, that deal, turned into two years of crossing my fingers. I ate, took piano lessons, played kickball – all with my fingers crossed. I appealed every day to some omnipotent force to grant me favor or simply spare me danger or pain in exchange for my physical offering. I came to believe – at four years old – that I couldn’t be happy and safe unless I was a little uncomfortable in return. It made perfect sense to me, and the crossed fingers came to feel natural. I had a strangely instinctive feeling for how long they needed to be crossed on different days as well as several meticulous methods for keeping track of this time. It kept me safe.
Over the year that followed my original bargain, I came to develop, or simply to manifest, the idea that safety and consequent happiness were concrete and quantifiable ideas. It was a confusing paradigm, this numerical pursuit of joy. In fact, as I failed to find any way to be satisfied with my own total, I transferred my need to cross fingers, to count, into other parts of my life. Happiness, as a final number, had left me feeling deficient. So I began to quantify those things I could control, as care and consideration were beyond both my computation and manipulation. As a kindergartner, I counted letters. When I could make the number of letters in a sentence divisible by three, the number of people in my family, I felt better, out of danger, on top of it. And as I entered the third grade, I began counting certain idiosyncratic gesticulations and phrases used by my family members and tried to extract formulas. This, too, gave me some safety for a time. I was out of their reach. On top of them. Eventually, though, none of these numbers seemed adequate protection. So I began to count me.
By fifteen, I was counting crackers. Crackers, carrots, crunches, calories, whatever. I had become so undeserving of unlabored happiness that I had to offer myself. By giving away, literally, parts of me, by sacrificing actual quantifiable parts of my body, I neutralized the fear that I didn’t deserve good fortune. Denying myself sustenance and counting the means and effects became my daily offering. I maintained the agreement I had made at four years old. As my needs got bigger, I got smaller. The less I felt I deserved, the less I weighed. And I was safer with every number smaller that I got. But the longer I counted, the farther away the wishes and happiness drifted – an ironic foil to my well intentioned plan that over a lifetime became what people like to call an eating disorder.
I managed to count my way through my teens and twenties. I was lucky, as far as anorexics go, in that I had several infallible covers. First, I was a dancer. “Oh, that’s why you’re so skinny. You definitely look like a dancer.” Right. Second, I attended a very competitive and demanding prep school in Connecticut. Anytime I was supposed to be at a meal, I did homework. Anytime my friends were going out for pizza, I had work to do. And no one thought it strange that a very intelligent girl should have to do eight hours of homework each day to maintain her grades. I came to enjoy all the lying. I just ate. I’m allergic to milk. The secret was almost as important as the counting; it separated and protected me from everyone else. By feeling outside of their reach – everybody’s, that is – I was safer. At least they couldn’t hurt me. Plus, I had a secret way of keeping things under control that they did not. So, I made sandwiches in the kitchen where all of my family could see, and then I excused myself and my sandwich to my bedroom to study. Often, I didn’t remember that the sandwich was in my sock drawer until weeks later. And I counted like I had never been able to count before. Eventually, I realized that it was best to get all of my counting and eating out of the way in the morning. Otherwise, my mind would be running numbers all day. In order to concentrate on school and other things, I needed to get all of the computation finished before I left the house. So, every morning I would wake before the rest of my family and eat my predetermined number of calories. (I am wary of disclosing my numbers; I don’t want to provide a plan for any other counters out there.) I had measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a scale. I weighed my cereal. And then, for the rest of the day, I drank warm Diet Coke and chewed on my lips, making sure not to swallow any lip skin. I couldn’t count those calories. My shrinking body assured me that I had made enough of a sacrifice, so I didn’t have to obsess about the metaphoric rock that I always believed was just waiting to fall out of the sky and crush my little, bony body. Between the secrecy and the offering, I was safe from all forces, those that I could see, the other people, and those I could not, the nebulous threats of unhappiness or injury. The sound of my empty stomach grumbling was my trumpet of triumph. I lived for that sound. It meant I was okay.
In my twenties, the counting came and went. Well, it ebbed and boomed. Sometimes, I went months just roughly counting. But whenever things got hairy, I went back to hard numbers. And the reinforcement and excuses I had accumulated in my teens continued. “God, you’re so lucky. I wish I were that skinny.” Luck. Exactly what I needed. I was too busy to eat, with college and then work. And since I had to relinquish the title of “dancer,” I became a runner. “Oh, that’s why…” And again, no one thought it strange that such a busy woman, running five miles a day and working and going to graduate school, never needed a sandwich, was never seen eating a meal. My live-in boyfriend, when I finally asked him if he thought it was strange that I had been eating popcorn for dinner for six weeks, replied, “I just figured you wanted to look good for your aunt’s wedding.”
How I grew from an obsessive-compulsive child into an anorexic woman is a complicated configuration. Of course, transferring my need to control everything onto my body may have been a logical, almost instinctive, process for me. It has been well documented that girls with obsessive-compulsive behaviors are more likely than others to develop anorexic behaviors. And, yes, I was a sensitive, fearful child who was desperate to control things while I felt my family and my world spinning out of control. My parents fought, the news was constantly talking about nuclear war – mine was an unstable life. But before we dismiss the parable in my story, consider the lives of kids today. How many children do you know whose families are broken or otherwise in crisis? How many terrifying images are children exposed to in the media? Life gets more out of control for kids by the week. So while the onset of my disease has many personal, clinical, and complicated components, they are not unique.
Furthermore, the fact that I was able to maintain an eating disorder through my teens and twenties speaks to our societal expectations. Had I instead decided to cut myself or pull out all of the hair on my face and body, others would have noticed, eventually at least, and some intervention may have thwarted the pervasive and consistent growth of my disorder. Instead, my chosen sacrifice was only reinforced by my environment. Instead of becoming “the crazy girl”, I became “the skinny girl”, an identity I not only embraced but for which I was constantly, albeit often unintentionally, rewarded. It is not as simple as the ubiquitous lament of fashion magazine letters to the editor, though there is certain validity in that complaint. The ways in which I was reinforced were far more insidious as well as reflective of a society that not only rewards women for being thin but also encourages and allows an obsessive need for perfection. In order for me to have an edge, to cope, to walk down the street, I needed to surpass the “standard.” And while this belief may have been born of my brain’s faulty wiring, too much or too little seratonin, or a breakdown in the feedback loop of my basal ganglia, it was nurtured by the feedback of a community that still lets girls work that much harder for what should be, well, not that hard. As for fashion magazines and celebrities: yes, a piece of the culpability pie is theirs, as well – a big piece. I do not blame societal factors for the onset or duration of my eating disorder. I know, however, that I was not inspired to recover until I understood how these factors complicated my recovery.
There are two components of my resolution: the deeply individual and the societal. I dove into the former and untangled the mess. I still struggle some days, but I did get well. At age 33, I finally put myself in treatment. I spent nearly a year in an Intensive Outpatient Program, where I did, as people say, “the work.” It was unpleasant, it was difficult, and it healed me. But healing in the confines of the program I attended was one thing – I left my job, I was in therapy all day. Doing the work out in the world, in this world, is another. An addict can stop using drugs (not that this is any way a simple challenge), but I need to eat and live my life -- in the same society in which all of these problems began. I wrestle with this part now, every day -- not so much for myself, but for my daughter, for my students, for girls I don’t know. The questions of why I was allowed by so many to exist for so long as a starving person, why it was so easy to find reinforcement for my malnourishment, why I felt that being sickly skinny gave me an edge -- these questions still haunt me. Consider what my ex said to me: “I thought you were just trying to look good for your aunt’s wedding.” He was an educated, generally supportive partner. And he thought nothing of the fact that I ate popcorn for dinner for six weeks. Surely he was not alone in the misguided idea that women who behave and look like they are starving are normal. Well, maybe we are normal – but it’s not okay.
I started starving when I was 15 years old. It was 1985. Where are we now? It’s not getting better; it’s getting epidemic. Take a look around. Look at the size of models and actresses. Look at the covers of magazines, the covers about “Celebs With Cellulite!” or “How She Got Her Body Back After Baby!” Watch “The Real Housewives Of Orange County” when one mother of two teen daughters goes shopping with them, repeatedly asking what size their jeans are and telling them proudly that hers are size 0. Read Women’s Wear Daily, in which Kate Moss reveals her personal motto: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” Ask a middle school girl how she feels about her body; I guarantee you’ll be shocked at her reply. What are we telling girls about what is right and what is “normal?” What standards are we offering them? We show them that they should strive for perfection – teeth, body, hair – and we are still reinforcing their unpleasant and unhealthy pursuit of it. There are many girls counting crackers out there, I assure you. Ask yourself why.