Still not entirely sure if it was a cloak of invisibility or a badge of honor, but I was quite the tennis player! Basically, people knew I was good at something, but it was a thing that mattered to so few people. Frankly, at times, I couldn't summon the energy to make it matter very much even to me. I got the vibe that I was supposed to be the best player on the team, so I donned the uniform and made it my business to win often. But more often than not, even the winning felt like a sh*tty part-time job.
It's weird to feel lonesome when you're surrounded by teammates, friends, coaches and teachers who genuinely care about you, but I was somehow able to indulge the part of me that believed I was both unknowable and unworthy.
I didn't feel like I was a part of anything in high school, which is strange because I had wonderful, smart, funny, popular friends who would have happily claimed me as one of their own. I loved them, I still do, but I thought they were having the time of their lives in the midst of my nightmare. I should have asked more questions because apparently not all of them were experiencing an easy, breezy ride either.
From my perspective they were cheerleaders with boyfriends and good hair...
What could possibly have been bothering them? I, on the other hand was depressed as f*ck and in the throes of a monstrous eating disorder. Things sucked for this this tennis-paying, academically underachieving "Blue Devil" for a solid four years...
Although there were certain periods that were so much fun they could have been fatal.
Because my friends with the good hair were cheerleaders or Rockettes and otherwise engaged on football Fridays, I needed a partner in crime to go to games with. I found one in a girl who had just transferred to the district and also played on the tennis team. Together we could have starred in some sort of cautionary After School Special. Our Friday nights consisted of getting as drunk as possible before, during and after most football games. We also smoked cigarettes and listened to copious amount of ACDC in her Buick sedan.
Our highway to hell was Route 19.
This was as close to rebellion as I had ever come, and I liked it. We started skipping school together. Before things could really escalate, she got a serious boyfriend and disappeared from my life. It was a blessing in disguise. We were so bad for each other.
Also not good for me in high school: Guys.
I recall one particular push to lose weight was set in motion by some boy not liking me. My solution was to starve and run myself silly just to show him. I was super prepared to cut my calories to spite someone else.
When the diet began, I was probably pushing 15. It was never a diet as much as straight-up calorie restriction to a level that wouldn’t have been life sustaining in the long-term. It was also obsessive exercise under the cover of darkness, an elaborate series of lies, unrelenting compulsion and a razor-sharp focus on all-things me! It was hugely successful in that I lost weight, felt happy and sensed that people looked at me differently.
Something else happened. I couldn’t stop. There’s this thing about having an eating disorder: Almost immediately, it becomes the only thing that matters.
Girls are mean...who cares? My grades suck...that seems irrelevant. I can’t play tennis all that well because I am starving...oh darn! I can’t listen to people because of the dialogue in my head about weight, food and exercise...I bet they don’t have anything important to say anyway! My world became super small. I cared about numbers on scales. Period.
As an eating disorder sufferer, I epitomized a phrase I’ve come to know so well: Egomaniac with an inferiority complex. It was all about me...all day long.
Basically, you could go f*ck yourself because I was very busy feeling sh*tty about myself.
Have you ever been hungry—Really hungry? It’s terrible. Starving myself on purpose was painful. I reached a breaking point one fine day and proceeded to power down food like I was in the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. Afterward, I felt so full and defeated. I believed that I would instantly gain weight and be a fat, fat, fatty before I even digested the food. I made a game-time decision that would prove to be game changing:
I puked on purpose.
It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun. It never worked very well for me either. I have consulted with many bulimics who say that all they had to do was lean over and the food came right up. One woman told me that after years of bulimia, she couldn’t tie her shoes without having to hold back whatever was in her stomach.
Long story short, when I puked, and I would try to do it pretty often at times, it always sucked. Only very occasionally did the food come right up. Mostly it was a long, drawn-out process, the end result of which was always: A sore throat accompanied by strained muscles in my neck and face, bloodshot eyes, utter exhaustion and unshakable self-loathing.
My inability to have success with bulimia really pissed me off for years. I just wanted the food that went in to come out. If there was a price to pay for that, I was willing to pay it: Tooth decay, ulcers, bloated face, the potential of sudden death caused by an esophageal tear or some other misadventure. Bring it. My goal was to be skinny come what may, dammit. Back then, I was convinced it was my curse that the big B didn’t come easy for me. I’m probably alive today because it didn't.
While starving and compulsive exercise remained in my eating-disorder mix, bulimia upped the ante significantly. My entire life became about beating the clock. After I ate, it was like pressing start on a stopwatch. Thus opened the brief window of time during which the food had to come up. Digestion would make the calories I’d consumed all mine and I had to lay some ground rules as not to let that happen.
The rules went like this: No, I can’t go to a restaurant. No, I can’t eat with you. No, I can’t go here, or there or anywhere. I’ll see you later because I’m busy. Forever.
You see, a public bathroom was no friend of mine. My eating needed to happen at home, and so did my puking. There were exceptions to this rule and they reflect how unbecoming my bulimic life had become.
- In the woods
- In a bucket in my bedroom (I then sprayed it with hairspray until I could dispose of it properly)
- In the bathrooms at the high school track before going running
- In the high school skating rink bathrooms when the track bathrooms were locked
- In my friends’ houses
- In the houses where I babysat
- In the bathroom at many a therapist’s office (because, “well, fuck them!”)
- In mall bathrooms
- And when push came to shove, in Porta-Johns
I did not puke at restaurants or during the school day at school because I’m not an idiot. People notice that sh*t. Maybe I wasn’t always good at bulimia, but I was pretty decent at hiding it.
When I wasn’t puking, I was starving, running or playing tennis. The problem with bulimia for a sh*tty bulimic like me: I had to starve and run to make up for the occasions when I binged and couldn’t successfully purge. It sucked to have to exercise the calories away when Plan A had been to eliminate them.
During this stretch, I was so angry and miserable that seething and growling became my primary means of communication. I had stopped speaking to my parents unless absolutely necessary. I was vile to them.
One day, my dad said to me, "You need to lighten up, kid. These are supposed to be the best years of your life."
If I had claws, I would have scratched his face clean off. He had no idea who or what I was. He didn’t know sh*t. For him to suggest that it was all downhill from here…
Instead, I laughed, "This? This is as good as it gets?"
I started seeing a host of therapists around that time. My secrets were becoming harder to hide. There was the weight loss, the eau de vomit permeating the upstairs bathroom, the occasional puke splatter on the wall. Then, a do-gooder friend ratted me out, and off to therapy I went!
I was unwilling and unable to share my feelings with some stranger, so in therapy, I lied about most everything.
I delighted in toying with my first therapist, Peter. He was generally a fine therapist or whatever, but he made one fatal mistake: He weighed me at every single visit.
I had no actual mental health training at that time, still don’t, however, even I knew it wasn’t a good idea to put some weight-obsessed psycho on a scale and then proceed to judge them based on the digits it registers. I felt it my civic duty to f*ck with him for being such an incompetent douchebag, so I convinced him and my parents that he had cured me.
In hindsight, I realize he had a plan in putting me on that scale every week. He wanted to show me that I could eat three normal meals a day, digest them and be able to maintain a healthy weight.
What Peter failed to realize, partly because I was a f*cking deceptive liar, was that I no longer had the capacity to do normal things when it came to food.
I couldn’t help him to help me, so I pretended I was fine instead.
During the walk to the car after that final “I’m all better” visit, I hid tears from my mom. All I could think was:
This poor woman. She thinks I am getting well and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.
I wasn’t afraid to die. I was more afraid to live. I also felt such guilt because I knew if I died, it would be so horrible for my parents. They didn’t deserve this. I thought: They don’t deserve a kid like me.