YOUR FAVORITE CARDIAC PATIENT
“You’re going to die if you keep going this way.”
“I know, but at least I’ll die pretty.”
–8/15/2016, my first cardiologist appointment
It’s yours truly, and thanks to a series of medical miracles (read: great doctors) I am not dead yet. For the past ten years, I have been completely devoted to and devoured by an eating disorder. I was the consummate anorexic, and that finally caught up with me this summer– in the form of cardiovascular disease. Here is a distinctly unconcise version of my recovery story:
I don’t think I’ve ever had a normal relationship with food. My mother fed me exclusively organic vegetables while she binge-ate ice cream by the half-gallon. My father permitted carbohydrates only immediately prior to sporting events, and dessert was something to be earned; we could only go to TCBY if we rode our bikes there. My aunts talked of nothing but their failed fad-diets, and my paternal grandparents would actually shove food down my throat, holding my mouth shut until I’d swallowed. It was no wonder I started to fear food!
I was nine when I went on my first diet. I wanted to be a grown up, and to me that meant looking like a grown up, like those glamorous women glittering on glistening TV screens. They were so elegant with their blonde hair, blue eyes, tall shoes, tiny waists, and thin legs; they were pixellated perfection, so I would be, too.
Things were fine, relatively, until seventh grade. I had just switched schools, transferring from a huge neighborhood public institution to a tiny, academically elite private one. Everyone there was very rich and very smart, and what’s more, they’d all been BFFs since, like, millionaire Pre-K. I was bullied mercilessly– for being poor, for being awkward, for being fat; I was attending the school on scholarship, obsessed with practicing violin, and one of those kids who just happened to gain weight before they gained height. In a desperate endeavor to make friends, I tried out for and made the school soccer team where I did, in fact, strike up a camaraderie with some of the other girls. Everyday after practice we’d walk over to the nearby Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to get Ice Blendeds, and everyday when my mom picked me up she’d tell me how ‘unhealthy’ those drinks were, how they’d make me gain massive amounts of ‘unnecessary’ weight. To ‘justify’ the frappuccinos I began throwing away my lunch; lunch soon became breakfast, and breakfast dinner, and dinner all food until I’d be indulging if I ate 100 calories a day. I was 69 pounds and in liver failure when my English teacher forced me into treatment at the end of eighth grade.
Treatment was one of the worst experiences of my life. Sure, they put some (a lot of) weight on me, but treatment did way more harm than good. I left with more of an eating disorder than I went in with; I entered treatment thinking a calorie was a calorie until I learned carbohydrates were the devil incarnate, and I didn’t have a clue what purging was until someone (inadvertently) provided me with detailed instructions during a group therapy session. My time at treatment was spent doing everything I could to impede the weight restoration process, and when I was finally released, I continued to fight recovery with everything I had, maintaining the minimum weight to keep me out of the hospital and sticking a toothbrush down my throat anytime I ingested something that didn’t strictly adhere to my rigid, self-imposed food rules.
The summer after my senior year of high school proffered the perfect opportunity for caloric restriction; I was going to Boston to attend two graduate-level Shakespeare seminars. I planned to forgo food all together, but I quickly realized that that would not be feasible. The classes were harder than I’d expected; we read a play a day, and since the professor was my idol, I absolutely had to impress her. I found myself eating three square meals a day, not because I was hungry, not because I wanted to, but because I had to; my brain wouldn’t work otherwise. Not only did I have the time of my life revolutionizing my understanding of Shakespeare, but I really, genuinely, truly thought I’d recovered from my eating disorder.
Hahaha no. About a month later, I boarded a plane bound for Heathrow, thrilled to be attending my so-called dream school. It was a nightmare, the exact opposite of the enlightening educational experience I expected; my courses were elementary at best, my professors didn’t overflow with knowledge, and my peers certainly weren’t Baby Blooms and Little Lessings (in fact, none of them even comprehended that fairly mainstream allusion!). I was bored, and in lieu of an academic challenge, I lost forty-something pounds in under six months.
My mother payed no heed to my sudden weight loss (thanks mom), but my psychiatrist completely freaked out, insisting I make an appointment with a cardiologist, admit myself to a hospital, and take a medically-mandated leave from university. I didn’t do any of those things; instead, I fled the country, jetting off to Cambridge for the symposium I’d been invited to. I had no idea what this trip would hold: On August 3rd, there was an awful pain in my arm, and I couldn’t feel my hands, and I wanted to vomit, and it was hard to breathe, and the whole world was spinning around me. I stumbled onto a ledge in front of Selwyn, clutching at my chest with tiny, tingly, claw-like hands. A sensible passerby must have called the British equivalent of 911 (999?), because the next thing I remember was screeching down the rainy roads in a screaming ambulance. After a three hour wait on the Accident and Emergency’s green and white tile floor, the physicians did quick EKG, informed me I’d suffered an electrolyte imbalance-induced heart attack, advised I go see a cardiologist, and recommended I eat celery to keep my electrolytes up (wtf?!); they discharged me later that night, and I was profoundly embarrassed about missing a day of conference events.
I left the conference a day early to make it to a 9AM cardiologist appointment. I staggered into the heart institute at 74.7 pounds. My heartrate yoyo-ed between a terrifying 30 bpm and an equally appalling 140; they couldn’t get a blood pressure reading because the cuffs kept slipping off my arms. They ran a lot of tests and whispered a lot of things. My doctor taught me how to read an EKG. Everyone was super nice, and I really liked my cardiologist, but I don’t think I’ve ever had scarier experience in my entire life; this was worse than the actual heart attack!
About two weeks later, I returned to the clinic for some diagnostic cardiac imaging. My routine echocardiogram turned into an traumatic emergency room visit when I ate a candy bar. The sugar from the treat coupled with the anxiety about the test was a too much of a shock to my system, and I collapsed in a stairwell; thankfully, some radiology interns found me and got me to the neighboring hospital where I was (literally) shocked back to life.
It took me a while, but I finally decided to recover. I withdrew from university, committed to the nutritionist-prescribed meal plan, and ceremoniously burned my stash of quasi-legal diet pills. I have gained 30 pounds since May 2016 (10 to go until I’m weight restored!), and I am about to graduate from cardiac rehab. My doctors say I’m lucky to be alive, and I’m starting to think that maybe–just maybe–they’re right.
P.S. You can also stalk me on Instagram. My username is @cupcakesandcardiology, and my profile features shameless self-promotion and photographs of all the food I force myself to eat. Enjoy!