Seeking respite from my mind

EDITORâÄôS NOTE: This is the second column in a four part series about recovering from an eating disorder. You walk a thin line when your best friend used to be anorexia. On one arm she clutches, guiding you away from the chaos of your life, promising a land of infinite beauty and power. Holding your other arm is reality, which provides nothing but the truth, for better or worse. If I could just be a little happier, a little more beautiful, drop a few extra pounds, then life would be alright, you think. So you take one small step with her. Then another. But as soon you realize that youâÄôve somehow lost yourself in the chaos of choice, sheâÄôs already stolen you, and itâÄôs one hell of a trip to escape that clutch. Of course, my life didnâÄôt always include anorexia. I have wonderful memories of pony rides, picnics in the park, Slip âÄòn Slides and piñatas. ThatâÄôs how I remember my true self, as a smiling, healthy, happy girl. But there was also an incredibly lonely, introspective little girl who sought perfection, no matter the cost. ThatâÄôs where anorexia hid inside me, waiting until I doubted my worth so deeply that any sort of respite from myself was welcome. As a child, I always felt I was too extreme, like I couldnâÄôt possibly express my thoughts with only one tongue. I felt I was too passionate, abstract, dramatic, argumentative, aggressive, picky and emotional. I rarely, if ever, felt truly understood. My mother said I didnâÄôt find much solace in children my age (I found them loud, immature and strange) and preferred to be in the company of adults. I remember thinking I was actually an adult trapped inside a little girlâÄôs brown-haired, blue-eyed, freckled little body. This caused me to become obscenely angry every time I was seated at the kidsâÄô table on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I would whine and complain and sit steaming in frustration, claiming that nobody was taking me seriously as the adult. I was around 7 years old. This innate misunderstanding of who I thought I really was drove me completely out of my mind. In acts of sheer maturity, I would breakdown into infantile temper-tantrums, fall to my knees and hit my forehead on my parentâÄôs hardwood floors in protest. After a few smacks to the ground, my mother would scoop me up, unable to bear seeing her daughter torture herself. When I was 8, I picked up a little trick that helped control my dizzying thoughts: counting. I made up special rules, determining even numbers as good and odd numbers as bad. I began counting how many times my hand brushed our coffee table or how many scoops of ice cream I ate in one sitting. If it didnâÄôt equate to an even number, I would start all over again until I made it right. Counting gave me intellectual control, calmed my nerves and let me focus on something repetitive, rather than the thousands of thoughts that snapped through my brain every second. It was great for a while, until I became aware that it made me look insane âÄî something I definitely did not want my parents or classmates to think about me. So I stopped doing that and replaced it with other behaviors: compulsive praying, worrying and checking. I felt I couldnâÄôt get my world straight, and that bothered me a great deal. It was in my early teens that I became seriously concerned that my mind was far too active for my own good. I was acutely afraid that, with all the thoughts and feelings swirling around, there was a good chance I would lose my mind before I hit 18. I was nearly right. Anorexia and eating disorders, in general, donâÄôt just happen. They take years to fester and grow with much practice and pain, beginning in childhood, I believe. By the time you realize youâÄôre actually sick (I still have trouble believing that, myself) youâÄôre already waist deep in s–t. For most of my early education, I attended a private Christian school in Minneapolis that fostered all things rich and perfect. I did not fit in. In high school, I slowly withdrew into my own world, picking Sylvia Plath over pep rallies and solitude instead of school dances. Though it was a combination of many things, IâÄôd venture to say that high school was the straw that broke the camelâÄôs back. Starving myself helped me quiet my mind and let me focus on one thing at a time, rather than the many things requiring lists and tables in order to understand. I stopped writing and began counting again âĦ 1,000 calories, 700, 500, 300. Within a year of performing my starvation rituals, I became sure that I had completed the impossible: conquering mind over body. While all the other women in my life were braying over their new diets and their cellulite, I was simply abstaining from the whole mess. I believed I was surviving solely on my own thoughts. When my body told me to eat, I told it to shut up, that I didnâÄôt need food because I was better than that. I felt superhuman. âÄúLook at me!âÄù I thought, âÄúIâÄôm not a weak, feeble, dependent woman like you. IâÄôm thin. IâÄôm powerful. I have control over my life.âÄù I was arrogant and angry, but somehow in control. Unfortunately, the more you withdraw from eating, the more you become obsessed with food. Malnutrition does funny things. It makes you lick the rough shells of peanuts, suck down packets of Ramen noodles and lay dozens of salty tortilla chips on your tongue to taste the infinite salt, only to spit them out moments later into a trash can, much to your own disgust. This is control, you say. You are no longer that needy child, who complained and cried and hit her head on the floor until her mother begged her to stop. YouâÄôre 18 years old, youâÄôre a freshman in college and your whole life is ahead of you. But just as you think youâÄôve got everything together, things begin to unravel. And suddenly, rather unexpectedly, your life is completely out of control. Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]