When the mirror lies
How many calories are in toothpaste?
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but asking it is what made me realize that I had a problem. As I brushed my teeth that afternoon, what seems like a lifetime ago, I wondered how long I would have to work out to burn off that toothpaste. Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? You’ve already done two hours of cardio today, warned a voice inside me. Normally, I would have ignored that voice of reason, mostly because it sounded alarmingly like my mother. But that day, the me who had gotten lost in all of this seemed to be demanding that I take a good, long look in the mirror.
So I did. And what I saw made my mouth drop. Was that me? My skin was thin and yellowed, like parchment paper. My eyes hollowed and blackened. Small, fuzzy hairs had sprouted on my face. I had developed a condition known as amenorrhea, the absence of at least three consecutive periods. Mine had ceased for six. I was 18 that day, and I weighed only 85 pounds. I worked out, religiously. Two hours a day, seven days a week. I think I missed a day once. I cried. Then I worked out for four hours the next day to make up for it.
My obsession with food increased, ironically, as my list of allowable foods decreased. The girl who had once lived for steak, medium rare, suddenly swore off meat. Now, only small, ritualistic meals sustained me: a rice cake with a sliver of cheese. Jars of baby food eaten with a tiny spoon. An apple or a pickle. In retrospect, I can say that on some level, I saw what was happening to me. I was just truly powerless to stop it. That’s not to say I wasn’t in control. No, each hunger pang I endured proved I was in control. Each starving hour that passed between four o’clock and bedtime made me feel focused, disciplined. It was all the fuel I needed to resist another meal. The truth is, anorexics feel a lack of control in their lives, so they take control of one aspect — food. Alas, this illusion of control can only last so long.
As I discovered, signs that indicate a loss of personal control begin to appear increasingly as anorexia takes control of you. Small clumps of hair would come off between my fingers in the shower. I was always cold. Sapped of all energy, I would fall asleep wherever I went — at the movies, in the car en route to a party, then again at the party, in a chair. You might be wondering how one gets to this point. Where does it all begin? The causes of anorexia are still not well understood. There is no one cause. Some of the more common triggers include pressure to be thin from peers and media, perfectionism, stress, and depression.
For me, not eating wasn’t about striving in vain to look like a supermodel. The sad truth is that I hadn’t learned to love myself on the inside, so I projected my irrational fears, expectations and feelings of inadequacy onto something within my immediate control — my weight. And guess what? I wasn’t any closer to loving myself even after I’d lost every ounce of weight I could.
While my battle with an eating disorder drained me physically, it drained everyone else around me emotionally. Frustrated friends, unable to get through to me, soon stopped calling. One night, a group of us were driving to a cottage for the weekend. On the way, we stopped at one of those greasy, side-of-the-road burger joints. When everyone rushed in for fries, I stayed in the car. You wouldn’t catch me in a place like that. My god, it actually smelled of calories! My friends were now well used to my self-righteous abstinence, but that didn’t stop them from complaining about me when I went to the washroom at the cottage. “She couldn’t just eat fries for once?” one of them asked in a hushed tone. “She’s probably in there weighing herself right now.” I was weighing myself. I stepped off the scale, shame burning my cheeks, sat down on the edge of the tub and cried. Here I was, surrounded by friends, and I had never felt so utterly alone.
My resolve only strengthened as waves of hurt washed over me. I used it to mask my depression over losing friends. They were jealous. Because I, unlike them, had willpower. Let them eat fries! I was in control. Now that I was home all the time, my parents seized the opportunity to try to shake some sense into me. Only it didn’t matter what anyone said or did to help me. The revelation that I had a serious problem wasn’t to come from a friend or family member. It had to come from where it began — inside myself. My catalyst was that toothpaste.
Kneeling there on the bathroom floor, sobbing and choking — this is one of the worst images I own of myself to this day, but also one of the most poignant and transformative. As I was to learn on that painful climb out of the wormhole I’d somehow fallen into, eating disorders involve extreme searches for balance, but they are rooted in instability. The two are difficult to reconcile. For the next 15 years, my weight would yo-yo with the stresses of life.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s when I finally found myself, learned to love myself, that I arrived at a healthy and sustainable weight. It took me a long time to see in myself what others see — a successful, dynamic, intelligent, worthy woman. That’s not to say I never have moments when I glance into the funhouse mirror of my past and see a fat girl. It’s just that now, I know that mirror lies.
I do still work out. Not a lot. An hour a day, maybe three days a week. I don’t cry if I miss a day. And when I can’t think straight, when I fall in love, when I feel lost, when stress threatens to choke me, when I feel I can’t do anything — I brush my teeth. The toothpaste reminds me.