This past week, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a post written by the younger sister of one of my daughter’s friends. It read:
“At Marquette University, a mandatory freshman English class has a writing unit for connecting personal stories to a social issue. A social issue today that is often overlooked is eating disorders. Sadly, many eating disorders can be stopped before they begin. This is my story; however, the take-away is how to save a life.”
Given my own story, I felt compelled to open the attachment and read it. And so I did.
I’ve always known Jensen as an incredibly bright student, so I was not at all surprised at how well written her story was. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, I found myself smiling and laughing, at her dry sense of humor.
But then I came to the part that said,
“I could have been the difference, if only I spoke up and said something.”
I stopped reading, and was filled with regret and shame.
You see, while Jensen had been writing about her own negligence, I was thinking about my own.
I had been aware that Jensen had been struggling, yet I chose not to say or do anything.
So instead of becoming part of the solution, I became part of the problem.
I felt compelled to reach out to her, as I wanted to acknowledge her courageousness in sharing her story, and to a greater extent, I wanted to apologize. Typically, this is something I would have thought about doing, but never followed through with. But for some reason, I messaged her. And she immediately responded.
After a brief correspondence, I asked if I could share her story. I am grateful that she said yes.
The reality is, there is a very real possibility that you know someone struggling with an eating disorder. Statistics tell us that in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).
There is also a very real possibility you can make a difference. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “People struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help. The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery.”
You can save a life.
So here it is, Jensen’s story. I’m hoping it will inspire you to make a difference as much as it inspired me. (As with any story of eating disorders, some may find parts of Jensen’s story triggering.)
How to Save a Life
As I walked down the road, apparitions passed by. Not people, faceless apparitions. They didn’t seem to notice me. Brr! The biting winter air whipped my face. Cold and lonely, I carried on. Somewhere deep down I knew I wasn’t alone. One percent of women were like me, right? But I never noticed them before, just like others weren’t noticing me now. I guess they are taboo: eating disorders. Sometimes, people are not able to notice other people’s inner battles, but as a disease classified as being at least 15% below normal body weight, many cases of anorexia nervosa are noticeable. From wanting to look like Barbie, or looking up to double zero run-way models, to being called fat daily by family, friends, or enemies, eating disorders have become all too common of a problem. However, each individual case is not a statistic.
Mine started simply; I just wanted to fit into a size zero, beautiful black dress for my sophomore homecoming. As stereotypical as it may be, I wanted to look like a princess. After breaking my hip six months prior, I became lazy and unable to exercise. Naturally, muscle atrophied and adipose tissue increased. But, by no stretch of the imagination was I fat. At 5’ 6” and 130 pounds, I was the ideal female: healthy. As clear as the summer sky that day, the perfect solution came to mind: eat less. Animal rights seemed the ideal excuse to become a vegetarian as an archetypal first step towards not eating.
Giving up meat was easy, but the process started slowly nonetheless. Giving up one food group at a time insinuated the easiest path. I thought I was only dieting, but one group at a time, every food group was given up. First meat, second delicious, mouth-watering carbohydrates that I so craved. But they weren’t for me. I was fat. Fat girls don’t deserve food. By the end of two weeks, every food group was gone. School was starting, so a daily routine was established. I’d wake up, immediately go to school without breakfast, skip lunch, come home and have lettuce or celery for dinner so my parents thought I was still eating. Simple enough.
What wasn’t simple enough was how I felt. The girl in the mirror was growing, and not in height. More than ever, my stomach bulged out and my thighs looked like tree trunks. Physically, I was exhausted. My head constantly was spinning, my breaths were short and shallow. Often times, my sight would just go blurry because I could not focus. That blurry vision symbolized what was to come; life flew by in a blur. No matter how I felt physically, I had to keep losing weight. Not eating only made the odd girl in the mirror get larger, but then I thought maybe exercise could aid the problem.
As a fall sport, I played volleyball. While hundreds of block jumps and line sprints helped me become a better volleyball player, it did little for fat burning or cardio. After practice dragged on and my legs felt as if they were about to break, I knew I had to run. My feet felt like bricks supported only by delicate twigs, my legs. But one step at a time, I continued. At this point, I was less than 100 pounds, a scary enough fact on its own.
One day, I sat on the bus to a volleyball tournament, feeling only slightly worse than normal. My heart was hurting and felt like it was going to burst. Fading in and out of consciousness, I knew something was wrong. Slowly, my extremities started moving without my control. My tongue went numb. Like paralyzing fear out of nightmares, I couldn’t shout for help. I was having a seizure. Luckily, Coach noticed and assisted me with this minor health problem. After that incident one song would run through my head like a hamster on a wheel, “How to Save a Life” by The Fray. It gave me hope that someone would notice me and my problem.
But, no one seemed to notice what was going on in my life. No one said anything. My daily routine continued. Wake up, go to school, run for a few hours, go home, shower, straight to bed. Dizzy all the time, life was meaninglessly flying by. My head pounded and spun, breathing got harder. Even walking was too much effort some days. After two months of not eating, mirror girl only got larger. Every day I would check, hip bones touch the counter before stomach. Thighs, definitely not allowed to touch. My hands must fit all the way around my waist. My ribs all had to be accounted for. I was dying.
I knew I was dying, but I knew I was fat. The first time someone ever said something to me about my weight, I took it as the best compliment a girl could receive. “Jensen, you look like you haven’t eaten in 6 months!” How kind. It had only been three. A few friends tried to tell me I was too skinny, but I wouldn’t listen to them. The Fray replayed in my head, “Let him know that you know best/ ‘Cause after all you do know best” (King n.d.). I was fat. I saw it in the mirror. I felt how heavy my body was when exercising.
Then suddenly, everything changed. My best friend decided he needed to do something about my situation. How dare he? He knew all I wanted to do was lose weight, I wasn’t happy being the fat girl. Trevor told my parents that I needed help immediately. At first, I told him I didn’t care, but I was betrayed. The Fray returned to me even through the rage, “Step one, you say, ‘We need to talk.’” (King n.d.). I didn’t want to be alone in my battle, but I didn’t want to get better either. Fat girls didn’t deserve to get better. My parents were going to make me go to a dietician, who in turn would make me eat. Life would be a living hell.
Anger, rage, fury all do not even begin to describe what I felt towards Trevor. Exploding at him, I told him I never wanted to hear from him again. Watching the girl in the mirror get even bigger was pure agony. The pain of losing weight was incomparable to the struggle of having to gain it all back. At my lowest point I weighed 87 pounds. 43 pounds to gain before I was allowed to exercise or even participate in life again. Recovering from an eating disorder is a slow process: years of recovery. Eventually becoming healthy and realizing Trevor was a true friend, a courageous friend, I had lost someone who truly cared. The Fray still remind me, “Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend/ Somewhere along in the bitterness” (King n.d.).
Second semester I was sitting in my health careers class. It was an ordinary day, nothing special. My teacher had a box of Oreos, one for each student. Yum! I didn’t take one because I was trying to eat healthy as part of my recovery. But, one other girl didn’t take an Oreo. She wasn’t small, but something was off. I could sense it. I never saw her over the summer. Once school started again, I was stunned. I stopped dead in my tracks the first time I saw her. Skin and bones, she was smaller than I ever was. Shame. That’s what I felt. I knew something was wrong, and I could have been like Trevor and said something and prevented that girl from having an eating disorder. But I wasn’t brave. I let her down, someone who I knew was on a cold, lonely path. I could have been the difference, if only I spoke up and said something. As The Fray put so appropriately, “And I would have stayed up with you all night/ Had I known how to save a life” (King n.d.).
People do not talk about eating disorders. Even for how common the problem is. Sadly, many instances can be stopped before disordered eating turns into an eating disorder, if only someone is brave enough to speak out. Speaking out isn’t easy. I couldn’t do it. Even with knowing exactly what the girl was going to go through. However, speaking up is worth it. I remained angry with Trevor for a long time. Eventually, we reconciled. We temporarily lost each other, but for a good reason. I was alive, and he saved my life. Talking to someone with noticeably different eating patterns, or shedding light on someone with a too quickly diminishing body mass, in the end, is the right thing to do. Someone who gets a full blown eating disorder’s life is forever changed. I went down my own cold, lonely path that many others fall trap to. Everyone should dare to make a difference to help someone carry on their journey and they, too, can know how to save a life.
King, J. (n.d.). “How To Save A Life” lyrics. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/fray/ho