“I Think People Will Want to Know What Happened to you”
How telling my story launched my life as a healthy human and writer
Anyone who saw me in my teens had to know something vital was amiss; I was drastically underweight and phobic about getting fat. Yet my mother vetoed my request to see a psychologist. She didn’t trust the Freudian brand of analysis that was current in the ’60s. She didn’t want some stranger nosing around in our private life, and she preferred to believe that the only thing wrong with me was my stubborn fixation on dieting. Our family doctor agreed with her, so my eating disorder was never officially diagnosed.
I “grew out of it” in college by inching my way to a normal weight in imitation of healthier classmates, who modeled sisters I hadn’t known I was missing. They ate. They laughed. They planned their futures. They shared their lives, thoughts, and feelings. All of which was new to me, I was so closed off. But I faked it until I looked normal.
“Maybe it’s not too late to add a postscript,” Dad suggested.
By the time I was 23, I had a BA in painting from Yale and a job as a flight attendant with United Airlines. I had no perspective on my past, though, or direction for my future. That changed as I stood in the galley of a 737 one day leafing through magazines while the cleaners readied the cabin for our turnaround to New York.
My illness was a distress signal
There, in a medical feature in Vogue appeared an exact description of the compulsion that had dominated my teens. The exercise, the calorie counting, the avoidance of social engagement, the embrace of weight loss as my sole measure of personal accomplishment, dwarfing all other values or goals. A standard of perfection so self-defeating that its ultimate realization would mean death.
I could hardly breathe as the significance of this news sank in. The misery that had usurped my adolescence was a diagnosable illness. It was not the willful defiance that my mother believed it to be, but a kind of anxiety disorder. Anorexia nervosa literally meant “nervous absence of appetite”.