I’ll never forget the first time someone called me “little” during my teenage years. It was my sophomore year of high school, during our One Act Play festival. I had just won an award for best director and my opponent’s mother fondly referred to me as “that little Erin girl”. She did not say this to my face, of course. But my mother informed me that she’d overheard it. When my mother repeated it, she said it with a hint of bitterness. But I romanticized the idea, the thought that I was this tiny force to be reckoned with, a warrior in bows and ballet flats.
Shortly after this, I developed my eating disorder. Since my reputation as tiny was solidified, my obsession with keeping it began. I shed invisible tears over the size of my stomach, the slowly growing pile of white that barely puckered over my jeans. “You’re tiny.” I’d tell myself this as I ate increasingly smaller portions, to the point where I sometimes ate nothing at all.
My boyfriend called me little too. “You’re so tiny,” he’d tell me, wrapping his hand around my wrist to illustrate his point. I confided in him that I thought I might have an eating disordeI confided in him that I thought I might have an eating disorder while on the phone with him one night during my freshman year of college.
“I’ll tell your parents if it gets bad,” he said. I wondered what bad had to be, if the ritual of purposely not eating for days whenever I got stressed didn’t apply.
When that boyfriend walked out of my life, I told myself that I’d stop starving myself. If ever there were a trigger to that habit, this was it. But, not again, I promised myself. The boy who gave up on me was not worth it.
Flash forward to a few weeks later, post-breakup. I’ve left to study abroad in the Netherlands. I’m living in a castle and making fast friends. And yet, the self-loathing that I’ve struggled with since high school sets it, tainting everything around me. All I can see is the stick legs and thigh gaps of other girls.
Here the illness part of mental illness kicks in. I don’t know why at this point in my life my eating disorder kicked in. Maybe it was the sudden transition of being abroad, perhaps it was my ex and how easily he was able to walk away, despite the deadly potential of my disease. Either way, it began. Studying abroad was simultaneously the best and worst time of my life and the latter has to do with the downward spiral that it sparked. It was the culmination of every thought I’d had about my body since that moment in the tenth grade.
I begin to stop eating again, this time worse than ever before. I start a food log tracking what I eat. I take to pro-anorexia websites, which teach me sneaky ways to lose weight. I learn to drink water before meals to feel full, to drink water between every over-chewed bite, and to snap my hairband against my wrist to punish myself for food. Snap! Snap! Snap! It goes under the table, unnoticed. It leaves a bruise, but I don’t care. The bruise is my sense of achievement, especially after succumbing to temptation in the form of fattening coffee ice cream or crème puffs. Nausea rises to my face as I imagine the fat sticking to my side, already puckering slightly and spilling over my jeans. More times than I can count, I find myself kneeling over a toilet, tears welling up from the toothbrush that I just can’t manage to shove deep enough down my throat. I’m a walking contradiction: distraught at my desire to do this and yet, resentful of my lack of courage to actually do so. I’m like a tightrope walker, forever toeing the line between healthy and ill. If I don’t think about it, I’m fine, until my thoughts catch up to me. I’m trying to remain a robot: get food, bite, chew, swallow, smile, don’t think. But I’m hopelessly in love with the thought of my ribs and hips sticking out like doorknobs from my weightless body and no one else knows. Especially not my mother, who at my sly request, brings me laxatives “for my stomach problems”. What she really brings is what I believe to be a solution for my weight problem. And so the laxative abuse begins.
My newfound relationship with suddenly legal alcohol is confusing when it comes to this. I hate the calories and find myself refusing second drinks offered by my friends. But in excess, it lets me fixate or forget.
It was fixation that came in one night abroad and lead to the worst and the best part of recovery. Skip ahead again to Friday night in Venice, Spring Break 2014. My travel group consists of six of my closest friends. We’ve just spent the week in Madrid and Rome and now we’re in Venice, enjoying our last night there before going to Bolgona. We decide to go barhopping. Intending to get a slight buzz, I order a Cosmopolitan at our first bar stop.
“You would,” I hear from behind me after I gave the bartender my order. There he is, Chris, my on-again, off-again friend since freshman year, juxtaposing the pink trench coat I’m wearing with his denim jacket. I scoff at his comment, but something about me senses that Chris knows me as well as I know myself.
We get our beverages and I drink. First goes the Cosmo, in Carrie Bradshaw-esque sips. Then come the shots: one brown and spilling over onto my trench, the other one complimentary from the bartender and resembling a cap of mouthwash. By the time we reach bar number 2, I am drunk. Excessive amounts of alcohol in a short time will do that to you when you’re starving yourself. I order a blue martini anyways and am baffled when it’s the color of pee. The room begins to spin as I clutch my friend Alexis’ arm and I don’t think I’ve ever been so drunk in my entire life. My friend Gavin, along with Chris, carries me back to the water taxi. Linked in their arms, I feel safe, safe enough that the thoughts begin to flow, the thoughts I’d tried so hard to concealed. I tried not to feel them, but the sticky hands of alcohol reach down my throat and words just fly.
“I wish I was 95 pounds!”
“I wish I had a thigh gap!”
“I want to lose 15 pounds!”
The words that haunt me while I eat scatter out like marbles across the streets of Venice. All the while, I insist I am going to die. I’d resigned myself to the fact that this may consume me.
At the water taxi, the boys look concerned and convene. I know they’re talking about me, whispering about how I need help, so I go over and approach them.
“Stop talking about me,” I slur.
“Erin,” Gavin says, clutching me. “You’re beautiful.”
Words with so much value mean nothing to me and I wish he would understand that. I wish he would understand that I don’t care what he thinks, what Chris thinks, what the boy I have a crush on thinks, what anyone thinks. The demons in my head take these words and mash them into ashes and they are in charge, not me.
The water taxi arrives and Chris ushers me into the back of the boat, where the thigh gap discussion continues.
“Stand up,” he demands as I ramble on about my dream of matchstick legs for yet another time. Despite my protests, I obey and unbutton my jacket so he can see me.
“You have a thigh gap!” he cries in his Long Island accent. “You’re skinny, you have a great body!”
“No, I don’t!” I argue back. “I need to be skinnier. I want to be 95 pounds!”
“That’s like a model who’s anorexic!”
“I’m anorexic!” I shout over his words.
“No, you’re not,” he replies and I don’t know if he’s ill-informed or in denial, but either way, he might as well have drowned me in the canal. I decide I’m getting too sober for this and decide to drink more when we arrive back at the hostel.
I did not intend to have the low point of my life occur at a hostel bar in Venice. Does anyone ever plan the low point of their life? Either way, there I was three drinks and two shots in, sobering up and stumbling back to Chris. For some reason, I keep going back to him. There we were, the two of us, alone, yet surrounded by others at that hostel bar in Venice. Then the confessions came.
I tell him I have an eating disorder. The way I was treating my body was abnormal and unhealthy and the way I feel about my body is definitely unhealthy. I tell him I’m scared of having a daughter, because I’m scared she’ll be like me. I’m scared my sister will be like me. I’m scared to let my parents down. I’m scared I’m going to die. I’m just scared.
Chris holds me. He grabbed the side of my face, clutching my hair. Normally, this makes me shriek; I don’t even mind this time. He holds my hand and makes me breath, breath, breath until I smile from the sheer silliness of it all.
“You need to tell your mom,” he tells me. “But first, you’re going to go to bed and put on some great music and you’re going to get the best sleep. Then tomorrow, we’re going to have the best day in Venice. Then we’re going to have the best train ride and plane ride and then, when we’re back at the castle with better Wi-Fi, you’re going to talk to your mom. You’re going to tell her, ‘Mom, I think I need your help.’ And you know what? She’s going to help you. And if the same thing happens to your sister, it’ll be okay, because she’ll have you to help her through it. And your parents have been proud of you since you were born and they want to help you. And in twenty years, at our reunion, you’re going to tell me about your daughter and she’ll be great because she’ll have you.”
Tears fall everywhere and the guy at the table near us stared. Here I am, having a breakdown at a generator hostel in Venice. When I gather myself, we get up to go to bed. But first, Chris hugs me for a long time, which is uncharacteristic of him. We go up to bed and I put on music, like he said to, but can’t sleep due to the laxatives finally kicking into my system. I give the rest to Chris though, after our talk and he takes them, never to speak of them again.
Later, I find them, while left alone when visiting his room one day. I could take them. I don’t.
Unfortunately, that was not the last of the laxative abuse. But the knowledge that someone in the universe cared became the voice in the back of my head, eventually motivating me to seek further help. Because I thought of Chris in my car, when I took the first dose from the new bottle I bought when I went back home. I thought of him whenever I took them afterwards and I was plagued by guilt when he asked me during the summer if I was doing alright and I said that I was anyways. Sometimes, it is the smallest voice that makes a difference.
I may not be where I need to be. I wasn’t then and I’m not now. But that night, by telling someone who cared, I took my first step towards recovery.
I’m still taking steps today. But I will get there. Someday.