An Unhappy Birthday

I’ve never really liked birthdays. In fact, I grew up dreading them. My mother almost always forgot the occasion. Relatives I hated swarmed in from out of town. People watching me eat meant I had to eat more. I felt I didn’t deserve any of the presents I received. The passage of time made me anxious about how little I’d accomplished. I frequently spent the day in a hospital of some sort. And then there was the cake.

The cake! Oh god, the cake! The cake was the worst part. I’d spend all year worrying about the cake, planning for the cake, calculating how many calories were in the cake, devising ways to compensate for the cake. A slice of cake had 1000 calories, right? So, if I ate nothing else that day, I could have half a slice and not gain any weight, right? Or I could eat normally and exercise for five hours to burn it off? Or I could purge it? No, that would only get rid of 30% of the calories, providing I did it properly, and I’d still have 666.66 calories in surplus. What if I restricted for two days before? Could I have a whole slice then? Or could I just have a bite? How many calories were in a bite? Or a tiny bit of the frosting? Just a lick! That was my favourite part anyway. But there would be crumbs on the frosting. How would I account for those calories? It wasn’t worth it. I just wouldn’t have any. But I would exercise extra anyway—just in case, to burn off the cake I didn’t eat.

That was my birthday every year, and it was miserable. Like many people, I used birthdays as an opportunity to beat myself up, to get down on myself for all the things I hadn’t done, for everything that I wasn’t. The event emphasised my biggest insecurities—failure and fatness—and I spent the holiday punishing myself for my ‘obesity’ and ‘idiocy’. Needless to say, it was not much of a celebration.

It was my birthday last week, and although my circumstances were not ideal, I tried to make the best of it. I bought myself a book I wanted. I didn’t receive many other gifts, but I’m glad I have this text for my research. I attended two dance classes. They weren’t the challenging jazz ones back home at Pineapple, but they gave me an opportunity to work on my technique. I redeemed my birthday reward for a free drink at Starbucks. Maybe I ordered my hot chocolate with nonfat milk and scraped the whipped cream off in a panic, but at least I challenged my fear of liquid calories. I spent some quality time with my cat Katherine. It was sad not to be in London, but Katherine is so adorable and sweet. I stopped at my favourite bakery. My cake was delicious even though my friends were not there to share it with me. Did I have the best birthday ever? No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I’m lucky to be alive having this birthday at all.

Birthdays can be hard, I know. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to celebrate them. You can treat them like an ordinary day if you want to! Just please, please don’t use them as excuse to hurt yourself–mentally or physically. Acknowledge who you are and where your at. You may not be who or where you want to be, but you are someone, somewhere. I hope you can appreciate that.

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Disclaimer: This cake was from the Saturday before my birthday. I enjoyed a chocolate cake on the day itself, but the icing smudged on the bus trip back to my flat, and consequently I didn’t get any good pictures.

Obligatory Post-NEDA Week Post

Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I never finished my obligatory “I hate anorexia” post. I had planned on describing my experience with the disease. I was going to tell you how I suffered for eleven years, how I weighed 70 pounds, how I refused to eat more than 200 calories a day, and how I was forced to dropout of school (twice!) to go to treatment. I had intended to throw in some gruesome details about hospital stays, ambulance rides, residual health problems, and diet pill overdoses. I was hoping to include some statistics, too—pie charts featuring mortality rates, bar graphs with instances of relapse, colour-coded information about demographics, etc. I had even picked out some literary-rhetorical devices to enhance the gravitas of my manifesto. I was supposed to convince you that anorexia was the worst thing in the world and that recovering from it is the best thing you could ever do. But I can’t, because that would be a lie.

The truth is I loved being anorexic, and I loved anorexia. It made me happy like nothing else ever had, perhaps like nothing else ever will. I genuinely enjoyed losing weight, and starving myself gave me an irreplaceable sense of self-actualization. I found solace in every pound that I lost. Each new bone that protruded was a badge of honour. Exercising five hours a day became a point of pride. Hunger made me feel elated, and there was no euphoria like resisting it! I delighted in the scared looks from strangers on the street. I greeted each hospitalization with a smug smile, because at least, they meant I was doing something right. Cutting up a protein bar into seven pieces and eating it–and only it–throughout the day was thrilling. And most of all, there truly is no greater joy than stepping on the scale and seeing that you’ve reached your ultimate goal weight.

But Let’s Get Real—that was this year’s theme, after all—there are other things I want to do with my life; I have hopes, I have dreams, I have goals, I have plans. I want to go back to school to earn my PhD in English Literature. I want to be Shakespearean scholar. I want to publish a variety of criticism and lecture at universities across the globe. I want to act in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I want to write a novel. I want to dance. I want to win a Tony. I want to perform in Carnegie Hall. I want to fall in love. I want to get a dog. I want to visit Australia. These are all things I cannot do with an eating disorder, so I have to make a choice. Anorexia is an all-consuming illness. It’s it or everything else. And I choose everything else; I choose a life, I choose the future, I choose recovery. Not because I want to, but because I have to.

Our Unhealthy Bodies Can’t: The Problem with Project Heal’s New Campaign

“My Healthy Body Can” is the title of Project Heal’s new campaign. In conjunction with Straight Curve Film, the organization is encouraging participants celebrate their recovered bodies by posting pictures of themselves engaging in various (presumably physical) activities that they are now healthy enough to enjoy. The endeavour and its endeavourees are admirable, but there are some very obvious issues here.

This is a remarkably ableist, exclusive, and offensive campaign. With its tagline, “My Healthy Body Can” this movement neglects and excludes a huge portion of the recovery community–the chronically ill, the disabled, individuals who settled at unconventional body weights, and those with irreparable damage done by their eating disorder. What about them? Their unhealthy bodies can’t. Does that somehow disqualify them from celebration? Does that deprive them of support? Does that discredit their achievements? Does that discount their recoveries?

It shouldn’t. They have had to fight even harder for recovery. Treatment resources are harder to come by, care is more expensive, certain problems are taken less seriously, and every day is a struggle to balance the mental and physical components of their recovery. Some of of them will never recover from their eating disorders; some of them literally can’t.

I am one of those people–one of the unhealthy, one of the excluded, one of the perpetually sick. I will never recover from my eating disorder. I have incurable cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, and metabolic damage from ten years of severe anorexia. I suffered a heart attack that has led to irreversible myocardial tissue death and dangerous tachyarrhythmias, which will only get worse; I do not get periods, have a less than optimal body fat percentage, and can never bear children; I eat a specialized diet of 4000 calories a day, catered to my numerous acquired food tolerances and permanently low electrolytes, to barely maintain a below minimum BMI; I see doctors weekly, exercise daily, and take medications (nearly) hourly to keep my liver running, my kidneys working, and my heart beating, but, despite all that, I will someday need transplants anyway. My body is not and never will be healthy, and because of that, there are many things I cannot do. Maybe you can ride your horses and do your yoga (thank you, Amalie Lee for that gem!), but I’ll be here in a hospital, hooked up to a heart monitor, trying not die.

So, Project Heal, I’ll ask you once again. What about us? I see you’ve replied to your dissenters with a copy-and-pasted link to a tokenistic (phrase borrowed from the wonderful Michelle Elman) blog post, but I think I speak for everyone when I say, that isn’t good enough. Please apologize, please revise your campaign slogan, and better yet, please help us. We want and need, deserve and demand change. Increased support and resources for the minority members of the eating disorder recovery community–for those of us who don’t have the perfect, conventional recovery–are essential. Our unhealthy bodies can’t, but we matter, too; we deserve help, too; and most importantly, we can recover, too.

It Won’t Happen to Me

It won’t happen to me: That has been an overarching theme in and out of my recovery. I’m a smart girl; I did my reading. I knew anorexia had its consequences; I just refused to acknowledge them. Hair loss, muscle weakness, dry skin, fatigue, osteoporosis, amenorrhea, organ failure, death. Whatever. It wouldn’t happen to me.

It can. It would. It did.

Let me tell you about August 3rd, 2016: Light rain dribbled from the sky, and there was slight, dull ache in my chest. Thinking nothing of it, I got up, put on my favorite red lipstick, and popped three diet pills. My favorite scholar was lecturing on Shakespearean sexual suicides today, and I wanted to get to the hall early to tell him what I thought of Cleopatra’s death, how I read it as an extended enactment of the Renaissance ‘die pun’. I sped down the Selwyn stairs so quickly that I ran out of breath. It must’ve been the running that caused me to feel a little ill. No, I’d been sick earlier, too, right when I’d woken up. The pills, perhaps? A bout of violent vomiting truncated my contemplations.

The pain in my chest was worse now, heavier, and I was dizzy, so dizzy that the world spun around me and lights on passing cars danced like fireflies. It felt like someone was squeezing my left arm. I couldn’t breathe. I practically fell onto the ledge in front of the college, clutching at my chest with tingy, claw-like hands. A sensible passerby must’ve called the British equivalent of 911 (999?), because the next thing I remember was screeching down the rainy roads in a screaming ambulance.

I woke up–if that’s the right phrase?–with my face pressed into a green white tile floor. I turned my head a little to look around; I saw chairs, and couches, and a vending machine. There were legs, too, sneakers and swishing pants, voices and people, wheelchairs and carts. ‘Do you have an emergency contact?’ I heard someone say. Did I? Was she talking to me?

Hands grabbed my feet and my shoulders, sore, soared off the floor. I found myself sitting up, back against a bendy chair. I was confused. Why were we moving? Where we going, gliding and sliding, sliding and gliding? Or were we? Was I imagining this, dreaming, nightmare-ing? I tried to pinch myself, but my arm wouldn’t budge.

Wrinkled white paper crinkled underneath brittle bones as they dropped me into the hospital holding bed. Nurses–well, I assume they were nurses?– started sticking things on me, red and white circles with wild, winding wires. I could see a sea of them, all over me like some horrible kind of rash. I wondered what they were. No, I didn’t want to know; I didn’t want to have to know, if you know what I mean?

A woman in blue told me to stay very still. They were going to do an EKG now, and I had to stay very still. But what was an EKG? Would it hurt? Did they have to take any blood? Is that what the circles were for? Hadn’t my psychiatrist wanted me to get one of these a while ago? I had so many questions–and so little breath to ask them.

A whirring, a tapping, a scratching. The printer in the back of the room spat and choked, gagging on a scroll. There was a wrenching, ripping sound as someone broke it open, tearing out its contents. With furrowed caterpillar brows, the printer surgeon examined his specimen. He handed it to the woman in blue who nodded and left the room, muttering something about something called an echo.

‘Printer problem.’ Someone said, stomping on the sludgy silence.

‘Yeah.’ An awkward laugh, a sigh that filled the room. ‘Must be. This can’t be right. That wouldn’t happen to her.’

It can. It would. It did.

The woman in blue returned with cart. ‘We’re going to do an echo now’ she informed me, as if I had some clue what that was. Strangers stripped me, black scissors bisecting a brassiere back. Folds fell to the floor and like a ragdoll I flopped forwards, arms contorted backwards, purposefully pulled into a hospital gown. Cold hands nudged my shoulders into a sinking pillow, and suddenly something chilly crept across my chest. Blue goo, lots of it, glittered like snow drifts under a fluorescent sun, and a probe skated over me, making my heart beat loud, loud over the hospital beeps.

‘Okay.’ Voices whispered. ‘Okay.’ The word bounced off the whitewashed walls, fleeing the room, fleeing like a mouse trapped a hungry snake’s cage. ‘Okay.’ They all looked at each other; I could feel the fear in their eyes.

‘You tell her.’ They said, speaking all at once. ‘No you, no you.’

Tell me? Tell me what?

Doors slammed, footsteps hammered, and faces leaned towards mine. I saw a mouth move. A man said something, something no one should have to hear. ‘You suffered,’ he informed me, looking down at the stack of papers one more time. ‘You suffered an acute electrolyte-imbalance-induced myocardial infarction.’

‘I what? A what?’

‘You had a heart attack.’

‘A what?’

‘A heart attack.’

A heart attack? No, that was impossible. Only old, fat men had heart attacks. It wouldn’t happen to me.

It can. It would. It did.

I had a heart attack that day, and I’m glad I did. Yes, I’m glad I had a heart attack. It almost killed me, but it saved my life. It was a wake up call, a slap in the face, a red flag in the neverending haze. It forced me realize what I couldn’t on my own: I am not immortal; I am not invincible; I am not immune. It could happen to me–and it did.