At first, starvation makes you high. Lights are always too bright, your surroundings always a little off-kilter. I float into an exam, scribble furiously, and am the first to leave. The second I leave the classroom I can’t remember what I’ve written, but I ace it. One morning I get out of bed, and when I next open my eyes, I’m lying sprawled on the hallway carpet. My sister rushes from her room, startled by the thump. I get up, laugh.
At first, starvation is about becoming skinny. Lying on my back, stripped down to my underwear, I notice how my panties stand propped on my hip bones like a house on stilts. My stomach doesn’t touch the waistband. This means I am skinny, so I am happy.
I stop taking birth control to see what will happen. I don’t get my period for three months. This means I am sick, so I am happy.
I go to a bar with friends. I wear a gray tube dress, baggy in the middle and tight at both ends. It looks like a potato sack, but I like how my legs and arms emerge from it, four exceedingly pale, bony things. I drink two gin and tonics, eat a handful of French fries. I get home in the middle of the night, everyone else asleep, and pedal on the stationary bike for an hour.
Eventually, though, the hunger wraps itself around your body and you become heavy, sluggish, vicious. You no longer see skinny in the mirror. You see a hideous, snarling thing. I can’t speak to my mother without spewing bile. My boyfriend buys me vitamin C supplements and urges me to eat, maybe you’ll feel better if you eat something. I eat an apple, slowly, glaring at him. Are you fucking happy? No, he’s not.
I am terrified of leaving the house. Outside, the cold seeps into your marrow and coils in your limbs. I am never not cold.
Now, starvation is about death. I fantasize about dying beautifully–as if in the moments before my heart gives out I will become Kate Moss and leave behind a glamorous corpse.
Then, the body rebels, and I binge for days. An entire box of ice cream sandwiches, jars of peanut butter and Nutella, bags of wine gums and Sour Patch Kids. I walk to meet my boyfriend, stomach lurching. On a sugar high, I seem happy for the first time in months. I giggle. We take the bus for 45 minutes just to get me a cup of tea, but I can’t take a sip. I don’t want to let anything else pass my lips. I don’t, for two days.
I treat the people around me like paper dolls. I can color and crumple and manipulate them because they don’t feel as deeply as I feel. If they take the abuse, if they stay, it means I’m not as repulsive as I think I am.
Finally, the beginning of the end: I’m on the bus, on my way to class. I wear black sweatpants and a gaping black sweatshirt. This is all I wear now. The day before, I’d bought a box of double chocolate cookies from the Kosher bakery near home, fresh from the oven, and ate them all. Then I’d moved to the junk food cupboard–top right on the wall of kitchen cabinets. Took down a bag of Oreos or Smartfood popcorn, maybe both. Dipped a spoon in the jars of peanut butter and Nutella and finished those, too. Tried to throw up, couldn’t, fell asleep sobbing.
On the bus, I try to tally up the calories. I haven’t eaten since then, and I am nauseated. The bus stops at the end of the line. School is a ten-minute walk away. I don’t walk. I sit down on a bench and call my mother, who hasn’t heard a kind word from me in months. I can’t go to class, I say. Can you take me somewhere? A hotel room?
So I can die.
She leaves work, takes me to the hospital. I am checked into emergency psych, a plastic bracelet snapped around my wrist. I trade my sweatshirt for a blue cloth gown. Waiting for the psychiatrist, I watch a skeletal girl on a stretcher refuse the apple juice her mother is proffering.
The psychiatrist on call is one I’d seen several years before. He was smug, detached, superior, then as now. He writes me a prescription, practically rolling his eyes. I can see how pathetic he thinks I am, and I can see that he’s right.
This is the start of getting better.
I begin seeing a therapist. He doesn’t think I am pathetic, merely sick. He introduces me to the radical concept that I am enough. Maybe you are thin enough. Maybe you are smart enough. Maybe you are loved enough. Maybe what really matters is the good you do, not how you look or how you are perceived. This takes time to absorb. It requires letting go of the security blanket of falsehoods I’ve been clutching. But, slowly and with fits and starts, I do.
The worst year of my life isn’t neatly bookended, a thin stripe of Sickness sandwiched between two solid blocks of Health. That snarling, selfish, vicious thing is still me. I still fight that pitiful creature. I still fight to live in my body comfortably, to look outside myself. But I do fight, and I do live. After a late meal with friends, I sleep, and I wake up warm and content instead of guilty and frozen. I drink coffee at the kitchen table with my mother, and I learn things about her I’d never bothered to ask. As my body gets rounder, I even feel beautiful sometimes. The year after the worst year was better, and each year since has been fuller, more whole.
Rebecca Hiscott is a writer, editor, and Canadian living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.