When you turn eighteen, it seems like all signs point to freedom; doors for new possibilities and self-discovery open. “Eighteen” doesn’t usually bring to mind being sponge bathed by your own mother or having to wear gel packs on your butt to prevent bed sores. Your hair should not fill the shower drain and your bones should not be at risk for brittleness or breakdown. Those are characteristic of decrepit eighty year olds nearing the end of their lives. You should not have to make the decision to fight for your own life or succumb to an illness. Concerns should arise when enough peach fuzz begins to coat your face that your younger fourteen year old brother cannot compete anymore. Parties should not be sources of guilt; they should be a platform for making memories, whether they are fond memories or black-out, make you sick thinking about them kind of memories. College should be a source of excitement and wonder, where independence flourishes. It should be a time of trial and error, as well as triumph, where you begin a new chapter of your life. Yes, it would be a lie to say that there is no anxiety surrounding thoughts of college, but these uncertainties should never outweigh enthusiasm.
I defined “Emma Borgstrom” as a loving daughter, dependable sister, and a devoted friend and girlfriend. I only saw myself as an honors student, proud high school graduate, and four year varsity letterman in track and field. I hoped people would only see that I am a recipient of a University of Vermont presidential merit scholarship. I single-mindedly and rigidly believed that I would sift through college after high school, and go on to pursue a worthwhile career, achieving my far-reaching aspirations along the way. In this utopia I was safe, neat, predictable, and benign. I was safeguarded from the unpredictable events of life that had the potential to crack my perfect outer layer and expose my vulnerability. To me, I was not weak, I was in complete control of my life. I was polished.
On October 4th of this year, I found myself in a delirious state of denial, combatting the reality that my short-lived journey as a college student would end and a new beginning would start at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After six years of battling this eating disorder, I thought I had the power and wisdom to control it, but with the major transition from high school to college, I reverted to my instinctive coping mechanisms: restrictive eating and overexercising.
I was just twelve years old when the domineering voice of my eating disorder came into my thoughts without an invitation. Much like an alluring siren desperate to seduce you, this voice gradually enticed me into believing it more than I believed my own voice. Once it had a sealed grip on my mind, the stringent rules regulated by this voice began to take shape and would continue for the next six years. These rules governed how I existed, and convinced me into believing that this was naturally how I thought. It turned into a game with no foreseeable end and convinced me that this was simply how my brain functioned. With my competitive nature and perfectionistic standards, I would not allow myself to lose.
Rule #1: Only eat foods that have nutritional benefit, nothing in excess, no indulging. Ignore your infatuation with food. Those thoughts won’t stop but you have the power to numb them. That one square of chocolate? Unnecessary. You will be more esteemed, more commendable if you forget the chocolate. Always volunteer yourself as the designated driver, any indulgence will only yield setbacks. See the people mindlessly eating sweets? They are out of control of their lives and they’ve already lost the game. Indulging causes you to lose control, and no control translates to losing.
Rules #2: Watch the numbers on the scale at least twice a day. Down is good. Thinner is a success. If the scale reads otherwise, you cannot allow yourself to be happy. But how could you be happy anyways? Leanness is happiness.
Rule #3: Keep up with these patterns. These strategies keep you driven towards success. Patterns keep you comfortable, no risks need to be taken in this game. Soon you’ll find yourself eating the same thing everyday. An apple in the morning, a handful of trail mix in the afternoon, and a modest bowl of roasted vegetables will do later in the day.
Rule #4: Everything is moving in the right direction, but we cannot allow any threats of losing. It is time to increase exercise. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you choose, as long as you keep moving. Don’t let yourself rest. Walk up and down the stairs whenever you can. It is a lie to think there is nothing to do. No homework left so watching television is a viable option? False. There is always something left to be done. You can be doing something more valuable with your time. Keep slimming, keep winning.
Rule #5: We are on the right track. People are beginning to recognize your success. They stare when you cross the street. This must be envy; envy of your control. Allow this to fuel you, but do not let people stare too long. Now it’s time to be quiet, fold yourself up as small as you can. Sharing your opinion can be a fatal error. They can crack your protective, perfect outer layer. You have to promise to be benign, neutral. Don’t draw any unnecessary attention. This must be kept a secret. Okay?
Rule #6: Now is when the game begins to slow. The numbers will continue to fall but not at a creditable pace. Your head may be fuzzy, concentration may be lost, but at least you are in control of your life. Do not relent, do not begin mindlessly eating now. You have invested too much. Begin to thrive off of your longings for food. Subside any cravings with a piece of gum and a gulp of water. Now is the time to focus.
This game did not come in a box labelled with a warning reading "This game is highly addictive, if the rules are broken an overwhelming feeling of guilt will manifest, and you may find it hard to stop." This game was not developed for vanity-related issues, or concerns with appearance. Never did I deem myself overweight. Rather, I was consumed by a lack of authority in my ever-changing life. Yes, my self-image became distorted as the game persisted, but it was control that this parasite of a disease thrived off of. As the game progressed, so did my failing health. I was introduced to a side of myself that I did not believe existed; one rooted in despair, impatience, and anger. According to my evil twin, parents or anyone with authority must be targeted as deterrers from my control and perennial habits. They always had ways of quieting your independence and sense of control. As a result, my parents became the subject of my anger, withstanding my reactivity like a punching bag. Despite my evident lack of control, my headstrong eating disorder subsisted, constantly telling me that I was only worth something, I could only be someone, if I lived by its uncompromising standards. I became lost in addiction.
My high school career was simply survived, not lived. I lost sight of my identity as my track career persisted. Rather than allowing my passions to fuel me and view myself as “someone who loved the sport of running,” I became my runs. I was a runner, and would only answer to that label until my high school career came to an end. As my days as a long distance runner ended with high school, I became bewildered by the idea that I no longer had an identity. I no longer had something to define me as special. Control seemed to vanish, and the sirens in my head began to intensify. The summer leading into my first year of college amplified this loss of control. In three short months, I would be uprooted from my familiar home and planted in a different state, where I would learn to develop new relationships and shape my future as an adult. Exciting? More like paralyzing. My eating disorder saw this as an opportunity to insert its power. My modest amount of muscle tone diminished with the summer months, and I soon became an anatomy lesson for the human skeleton. Tensions rose as my loved ones panicked at the thought of sending me to college. I weighed less than I did at eleven years old. Eleven year olds don’t belong at a university, right? They searched for answers. Plates of food were shoved towards me in hopes of shrouding my powerful eating disorder, but in response to this final push, I restricted more. Exercise became my first priority, causing me to overlook the incessant dizziness I felt.
College move-in day only intensified these habits. I was now in a space where my parasitic illness could feast. A state of the art gym was just a flight of stairs away and the dining hall was filled with only farm-to-table sourced foods— it would be just enough fuel for me to burn off in the gym. No one knew my background, so I could create the exact identity I so desperately desired: a healthy, in-control individual with standards people only wished they could compete with. All I wanted was a perfect size and shape as well as an untouchable GPA, how could this be too much to ask? With a lack of nourishment came a deteriorating mind, one incapable of completing simple tasks and solving minor dilemmas. My mom’s phone would ring at least fives times a day. Her caller ID would read her daughter’s name, but a codependent, anxiety-ridden stranger would speak on the phone. I only thought in black and white, seeing answers only in restrictive eating and excessive exercise. Challenging chemistry midterm soon approaching? Cut calories. Magic! The stress would soon disappear. This was clearly a false notion that was only recognizable when my mom called to tell me that she was making the eight hour car trip to the University of Vermont and admitting me to the hospital. My heart rate of thirty-four read “help” but my strong-willed mind condemned the truth. The secret that I had kept for six years was now exposed, and I was forced to face the impending reality that I would be enduring recovery.
My journey to recovery began for all of the wrong reasons. In the past, I always managed to uncover a new method for manipulation, which in turn, allowed me to stay within my realm of security. This time, however, I was being monitored every minute of every day by various doctors and my parents. I spent days and nights racking my brain, searching for manipulative ideas, but failed in trying. With all of my freedoms stripped, I was forced to concede to my doctors’ and my parent’s rules and abandon those of my controlling eating disorder. Foods I never dared to imagine eating in six years returned to my plates, and each day I lay comatose in bed, pining for a way out. Although the amount of food never decreased, my hope for something better waiting on the other side of this misery persisted. Anything would be better than the physical and mental turmoil I endured daily. Each day, every hazard in my brain alarmed, telling me to revert to my habits, and everyday I had to search deep in the dark, unscathed trenches of myself for the strength to keep eating, to keep pushing towards the looming hope of a more fulfilling life. My body became unrecognizable to me and so did my identity. Who would I be once I conquered this disorder? It has been what has defined me for the past six years and has elucidated me as special. This is a question that I will continue to search for as my recovery path continues.
This time was different. Changes needed to be made in order to realize my life’s goals. While restricted to bed rest, I recognized by defenselessness, my loss of freedom as an eighteen year old, and my yearning for a more fulfilled life. Though my thoughts are still often plagued by my toxic eating disorder, my craving for a more compelling life has began to outshine this darkness and melancholy. I promised myself one thing: under no circumstances would my mom ever have to sponge bathe me again.
Now that we know each more intimately, will you take the step towards sharing this six-year long secret with everyone? This is not a journey to be dressed in shame. It is a story to be told fervently and passed on with enthusiasm. Send it on.