The title of this blog is named after one of my all time favorite songs, Difficulty, by my all time favorite artist, KT Tunstall.
Growing up, I was always skinny for my age, until about 13 or 14 when a couple of things happened. One, my chronic stomachaches stopped the summer before I entered 7th grade and I realized I could eat a lot more (chocolate/sugary food/etc.) and not feel sick afterwards. And two, I discovered I did not inherit the metabolism that the majority of my mother’s side of the family (including her) did; size zero jeans, small boobs, clear skin, all that good stuff. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I’ve really realized just how much those chronic stomachaches defined my childhood, and shaped my life. I can remember always being so excited for lunchtime at school, because it was the only meal of the day where I was ‘guaranteed’ to feel hungry, and to feel well. It got to the point where I even had my own little system of eating lunch: Mom always made my PB&J sandwiches on potato bread (which I still buy today because sentimental value), so I’d eat the crust of that first (however, if the sandwich was for whatever reason on wheat bread I would tear off the crust because picky eater/gross), then the middle. Then I would very meticulously eat the rest of my foods in a specific order, usually saving the cookie Mom would always pack me for last. Since my parents were divorced, there were even days when I would save the plastic bags or wrappers of things that my mom packed, as a way to keep a part of her with me, since I wouldn’t be able to see her for the next two to three days. I would then deliberately avoid the kitchen that night at Dad’s, so as not to see him throw it away, and then just shrug when he’d inevitably ask why I wasn’t capable of doing this myself. I hadn’t realized at the time that I just didn’t know how to answer him.
Yes I realize that a lot of this already sounds crazy, but as a child if my anxiety didn’t manifest itself as a stomachache, it often turned me into a mild Obsessive Compulsive.
There was only one time where an evening stomachache actually turned into something more serious (the 24-hour flu), and that was February of 2001, so the 3rd grade. I remember this night vividly because (knock on wood) I haven’t thrown up since. Normally, dinner times would consist of me taking a few bites of food, my stomach yelling at me to go lie down and rest, my lying down and resting, then trying to eat some more. The whole process generally took about an hour, and half the time I would just nudge the food around on my plate so it would look like I’d eaten more than I had. My favorite TV show, Arthur, would also be playing in the background, because if I ever missed an episode the inside of my head went ballistic. The same went for breakfast; because I had to get to school I never had time to lie down or watch TV, but I can remember on more than one occasion getting in trouble for not eating the food that was in front of me. Needless to say, I became familiar with the term ‘wasteful’ at a very young age, and that there were kids who had it a lot worse than me who would kill to eat breakfast every morning. That had just made me feel even more powerless, because I couldn’t seem to will myself to feel better. If I could have given those ‘worse-off’ kids my food, I would have.
When I was 10, about one week into the 5th grade, my mom, Grammy, Papa, and I took a weeklong trip to North Carolina for my papa’s brother’s memorial service. It was the first time I had traveled across the country that I could remember, and certainly the farthest I’d ever been away from home. It wasn’t the original plan for me to tag along, but the thought of being away from my mom for a week terrified me, so I had begged her (silly 10 year old Erin not understanding that airplane tickets cost money). Looking back, the three things I remember most about that trip are these: the memorial (of course), the humidity, and the food. Even the simplest of things tasted so different, like my go-to McDonalds cheeseburger. One morning we went to breakfast with my papa’s sister at this place that served the biggest, most delicious looking pancakes. Of course I had ordered them, but could I finish them? Nope. I remember sitting in my char, trying to nibble on the bites my mom had cut up for me, and failing miserably. My great aunt had even noticed something was up, and asked me if I had a ‘tummy ache.’ I just nodded, feeling so bad and like I was ruining everyone’s time. It was such a normal question you’d ask a child whom this didn’t constantly afflict. I desperately wanted to cry, and I remember going into the bathroom, taking a TUMS, and thinking for the first time in a long time I’d be physically sick, and for no reason at all! Later that afternoon, when my stomach finally calmed down and I felt hungry, my papa – who had absolutely no idea how normal of a thing this was with me – looked me in the eye and said: “well whose fault is that?”
Cut to our last night in North Carolina when we had dinner at my great aunt’s house. A lot of the family was there, and they were barbequing a pig in the backyard, something I had never seen before, let alone tasted. I remember looking out the window, seeing the thing cooking, and thinking there was no way I’d feel well enough to eat it. Never mind that I was sort of a picky eater anyway. I always thought I knew my body well enough to predict when these stomachaches would come on, but sometimes it would surprise even me; I managed to eat a full serving of dinner that night, strange Southern foods and all.
Once I hit high school, my relationship with food did a complete 180. Like I mentioned before, the stomachaches pretty much stopped around 7th grade, and I realized I was capable of eating a wider array of foods without feeling sick afterwards. This quickly became both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because in the 8th grade I could finally go to the grocery store after school with my best friend Haley and buy (and eat) several giant Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, yet a curse because throughout that year I also noticed my hips growing increasingly wider, and the love handles a little more prominent.
But I didn’t care. I was just a kid, and for the first time in my life I had been given a taste of freedom (in the form of chocolate and peanut butter).
Anyway, high school. My first two years, I had been an “athlete” and was on the volleyball team in the 9th and 10th grades. I use quotation marks around the term “athlete” because I really do mean it in the loosest sense of the word. I started playing sports in the first grade, and tried just about every one in the books; softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer…but none of them ever fulfilled me in the way I noticed sports fulfill some of my friends, classmates, and family. I come from a total sports family, and don’t get me wrong I love Oregon football and Dodger baseball, but in my family you were supposed to play sports, and you were supposed to love it. Yet I never really felt like I was in shape the way “athletes” were supposed to be. I could go on a tangent about my life as an “athlete,” but I’ll spare you this time around.
Slowly but surely, by mid-10th grade I had quit all forms of team-related, mandated exercise. I had, on the other had, joined choir, which I could go on another tangent about how fulfilling that ended up being for me, but again, I’ll refrain this time. For as long as I could remember, I had always had something to do after school in my adolescent life that was sports related; that was just the way it was and I never questioned it. Yet there I was, sitting at home after a seven-hour day at school, with nothing. Grades and academic performance were very important to me all throughout high school because I knew that’s what I needed to get into college out of state, so getting homework done was never something anyone had to push me on. In fact, I was so obsessive over getting straight A’s, that I actually cheated on an exam in my 9th grade Honors English class, because I would rather cheat than admit to my teacher that I was lost and needed help. Naturally I got caught and thus was certain I had just bought myself a one-way ticket to hell, but I digress.
Sophomore year of high school was very difficult for me for reasons other than just my anxiety and depression; a lot of transitions were happening for me all over the place. I had gone against the grain of my family and quit sports. I had tried to go to the gym and work out on my own but *insert laughter* that really didn’t work. I had actively started exploring my own faith and spirituality, realized I did believe in God, wanted God to be a bigger part of my life, and began my self-guided journey toward becoming a Christian. I had drifted apart from a lot of the close friends I had had in middle school, and at the time felt like I only had one person I could really lean on – shout out to you Isabel, you were my lifeboat. Things at home were very different; changing all around me and I felt like I could barely catch my breath let alone keep up.
So, what was the one constant through all of this?
Here are two photos. One (top) was taken early in my junior year of high school, and the other (bottom) was taken summer of 2014, in Disneyland with my mom right after I had graduated from college.
I could not tell you how uncomfortable I was in this photo on the top. I am smiling, but I can say with 95 percent certainty that what I was thinking about had more to do with double chins, zits, and how I was sure my stomach was sagging over my jeans. I would not have been caught dead in the outfit I’m wearing on the bottom, if only because of how tight the t-shirt is. I would have felt self-conscious, judged, and most of all, exposed. I would have hid myself away in a panic because to me that was better than subjecting the world to my own shame.
You never realize just how long the simplest of comments on your body can stick with you until you’re 23, staring into a mirror at your hips, and remembering how, eight years ago you could barely take off your puffy North Face jacket let alone stare into a mirror for more than a nanosecond.
“You’re not skinny, but you’re not really fat either.”
“Just stress yourself out. Then you’ll get a stomachache and that’ll keep you from eating.”
In 9th grade, I had gone on Weight Watchers for three months, when it suddenly hit me one night that eating a lot meant gaining weight. Because I had been playing volleyball, 12 pounds fell right off of me. Granted, I was not eating enough. At all. The amount of calories I was eating would be for someone who sits at a desk all day, not a 14-year-old who exercised at least two hours every day. So while I could feel the approval in the eyes of those around me and within myself – because guys! I did it! I could lose weight just like the best of them! Who needed giant Reese’s Cups anyway?! – I was not healthy. Foods such as pizza, hamburgers, things that used to be no big deal to me, became the enemy. I ate once slice of pepperoni and I swore I put on five pounds. I wanted to look like the rest of my family. No one ever spread rumors. No one ever muttered behind my back. I never got the impression that people viewed me as “the ugly girl” or anything like that, but I never got the impression they viewed me as really “pretty” either. I just existed.
The day I decided to quit Weight Watchers was the day the ultimate binging began. I could tell you how much I ate the day I realized I wouldn’t have to stand on a scale in front of my mother and a handful of strangers once a week, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details. I grew tired of feeling guilty for eating a piece of cheesecake – I still wanted approval, but maybe I could “let loose” a little more. I was now in control of my own destiny!
Apparently, my “destiny” included going home after school every day in 10th grade, avoiding the scale, and consuming almost 1000 calories.
Except I never threw them up.
To me, what I ate became the one thing in my personal life I felt I could control. I could get stellar grades in school, take on Independent Study courses for extra credit, and show up to class every day so that all my teachers and classmates would think everything was fine and dandy; but inside I was screaming, and food silenced me.
I would eat until I was so full that standing up hurt. I would eat until it became extremely obvious how quickly food was disappearing from the fridge, and why.
Please know that this is not easy for me to type. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling embarrassed of myself, and it was only recently that I came to accept this as a part of my past. I remember every day I would go to school wearing baggy jeans and a t-shirt, and then I’d cover said t-shirt with a hooded sweatshirt and black North Face jacket. I was beyond ashamed of my body, and I felt like if I showed any part of it, then other people would be too. Meanwhile, there’d be beautiful girls who’d literally wear black sports bras to and paint their bare stomachs for Friday night football games. They never looked ashamed of their bodies (although they very well could have been). Why couldn’t I fit in with them?
And yet, the only way to lessen the feeling of shame was to eat more.
“Why is no one calling me beautiful?” I would think to myself, pitifully. “Words of Affirmation” is my Love Language, and I had figured that since I wasn’t getting them from anyone else, I didn’t deserve them from myself either.
When really, it should be the other way around. There are plenty of other ways to tell someone they’re beautiful than by just saying: “you’re beautiful;” I just wasn’t listening. I didn’t know how to love my own body, or myself, so how could I have accepted love from anyone else?
Now, at 23, I’m lucky in that my time in college helped me find methods of silencing the noise that didn’t include cleaning out the fridge in a single afternoon, and in summer of 2012 I worked a job that forced me to eat healthier. Since then, I have thinned out and my metabolism is giving me a little more of a fighting chance – and by that I mean, I can eat not one but two slices of pizza and not hate myself for it 🙂
There are a lot of things about my body that I’m still learning to love – my broad shoulders and big feet, for example – but my hips are not one of them. What used to be the area that I most wanted to hide, I actually enjoy. I wear tight jeans and tight tops; hell, I own two bikinis! I’m still pretty Plain Jane compared to your typical young, stylish, Anthropologie-shopping hipster girl, but at least I’m not hiding behind a thick North Face jacket anymore (which is also good because I live in Los Angeles and wearing a North Face jacket all the time down here would be a form of torture all on its own).
I wanted to post this so that people could see that there is, in fact, a very clear correlation between anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. And that when you’re in the midst of an eating disorder, it’s nearly impossible to see anything for what it is. In my case, an eating disorder happened because I have anxiety and depression, but didn’t know how to communicate it. All you want is that control; over how thin you are, over the food you put into your mouth because it’s the only thing you have control over, over the clothes we wear to show ourselves off, or hide ourselves.
I would be lying if I said I always eat extremely healthily these days, but I do listen to my body. I know my limits, so I’m no longer over-eating. If I feel sluggish, I go for a run. If I realize I haven’t eaten a vegetable in over a week, I go to the market and stock up.
I’m telling my body, I want to be your friend.