TW: Graphic mentions of eating disorders and eating disorder recovery.
With arms crossed over my chest as I squeeze every protruding rib bone and squirm with each inch of loose skin, I begin a new game. Call it a game, call it a challenge—some might even be tempted to call it a thriller of the modern age. I can’t remember exactly when ham and cheese sandwiches began relating to the stealth of sneaking across town to fiddle with the rocks in the Connecticut River, pleading with the elements of nature to take my delicately prepared lunch and leave no evidence of the crime committed. I stand with my legs shaking, expecting to be caught and condemned for the now sacrificed Farmhouse whole grain bread, Boar’s Head extra-sharp provolone cheese, and thinly sliced Bold Peppenero Garlic ham, now drifting with the current.
It was December of 2021, the month I turned seventeen and the month I became accustomed to winning a contest of starvation. Like a loyal friend, this river waited for me every day. I loved this river. It kept me smart. And sane. Exemplary. Or so I had thought.
Cars passed by. Perhaps they wondered why a young girl was standing alone, why her once joyous and chubby cheeks had now turned concave, how she had begun to lose a war against her own mind.
I used to be a happy kid. A live-in-the-moment and forget-to-lock-the-door kid. A “yes” kid. “Yes,” to my grandmother feeding me snails collected from the nearby mountains, to hot chocolate runs with my older sister, to missing first period for Friday brunches with my father—a handful of ricotta-filled cannolis for him and a BLT everything bagel for me. “Yes” kept me alive.
Until “yes” disappeared—until I couldn’t celebrate my birthday because how could I explain the lack of cake? I couldn’t visit my sister at college because what if she offered me a bite of her sandwich? I couldn’t watch a movie with friends because wasn’t there a chance that they would want to bake cookies afterwards too? The rules I lived by restricted not only my nutrition, but also my intake of life—still, I clung to them.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was a seventeen year-old addict with the countenance of a century-old methamphetamine user. I was overcome by pride for the structures I had created, impressed by everyone’s worry, forgetful of a life that existed beyond my mind, in which food wasn’t meant to be the main character of my story.
As I returned to the Connecticut River day after day for eight months, I thought I had mastered this ultimate act of deceit. That is, until my mom turned right into Connecticut Children’s Eating Disorder Clinic and my vision flooded with lemon-curd-colored emergency rooms, streams of psychiatrists, and flashing lights reflecting a dangerously-low heart rate. My mother kept her eyes fixed on the road, but reached across the console to thread her fingers through the rips of my jeans. She picked at my skin as if she might find the daughter who she never thought would cry over eating three raspberries instead of two, unable to fathom the thought of the public eye after having eaten an actual meal.
As we parked, I looked up and found the hospital. My prison. Or perhaps a refuge from the prison I had created. It depends on how you look at it.
Through the blood tests, meal supplements, 5:00 a.m. vital checks, my mom never left my side. She understood that I had reached a point of not trusting my own mind, a mind fixated on living for a certain type of body rather than a life beyond one. I had transformed from a child who didn’t spare a second thought for food to a skeleton of a girl too consumed by fear to venture off what she thought made her “perfect.”
Even now, almost a year after living in a center for anorexia, I cross my arms, fussing over the rings that feel tighter on my index finger. I pass the same river, but it has grown foreign. I wonder if I’ll see a sandwich floating by—I know it won’t be mine. Still, there are days when I remove all reflective surfaces from my dorm room to stop intrusive thoughts. There are times my suitemates wonder where the smile of a girl who downed a Ben & Jerry’s pint on the library roof went. There are weeks when I am terrified of what will happen if I fully commit to recovery, the months when I teeter closer to my next relapse. But, when those inevitable moments occur, I question if a disordered life of perfection is worth missing out on those fleeting, tender moments of everyday life.
Like when I roll down the passenger window of my mom’s white Toyota RAV4, leaving my river behind in the rearview mirror, driving through the night for the kind of donuts that have Nutella oozing out of their centers. Or an Oreo Blizzard from Dairy Queen. We’ll figure it out on the way.