When I was 11 years old, I got stuck between two tires in a tunnel on playground.
My friend’s mom had brought us, and when she could not pull me out, she enlisted the help of strong-looking men who were there with their own children. They grabbed me under my armpits and yanked as hard as they could.
“Suck in your stomach,” they told me, but no matter how much I tried to deflate my body, I would not budge.
Someone called 911, and I was rescued when firefighters used the Jaws of Life to pry the two tires apart.
I emerged humiliated.
I’m fat. I’m fat. I’m fat.
I couldn’t make the words stop screaming in my head.
That moment shaped how I viewed my body. My flesh felt so out of my control; I had told it to move and it didn’t. The time I spent between the tires taught me that I existed as two entities, my mind and my body. The latter was defiant.
As the next few years of pre- and mid-pubescence rolled along, I was often reminded of how much I hated my body. Sure there was the tire incident, but there was also the moment when I realized I needed to buy husky jeans; the time when a "friend" pointed out my "big belly"; when I grew hair in my armpits before my friends.
I wore T-shirts when swimming and best attempted to hide the outline of my physical expanse beneath baggy clothing. Yet I could never escape my feelings of self-disgust. Regardless of what covered me, I knew what lay underneath: fat, imperfection, and inconvenient bulk.
As eighth grade neared its end, and high school, varsity cross country, and the prospect of being a sexual being drew closer, I decided this was my moment to shed my baby fat; it was my time to become thin. I started training for a 10-mile road race with my dad. We went running every night. Two-mile runs turned into five-mile runs, which eventually turned into 10-mile runs. The weight that I had always been ashamed of melted off my frame.
As I began my freshman year, I went from being a mediocre runner to one of the best on my team. I began being flooded with compliments about not only my appearance, but also my newfound athletic ability.
But as I achieved "healthiness," I didn’t want to stop there. I sped right on past.
I already didn’t eat red meat, and I decided to give up poultry and seafood as well. I traded in white bread for whole wheat and 2 percent milk for skim. At first, almost imperceptably, my portions of food began shrinking. And so did I.
Like many things in life, drastic weight loss is a slippery slope. As in many other stories I have heard, my passion for health very quickly took a sinister turn.
I started going for runs by myself after cross country, and when I heard John Tesh say something on the radio about weight loss happening when you made sure you ate at least two grams of fiber for every 90 calories, I didn’t take that as a suggestion, it became my rule.
I often walked to the grocery store for fun, where I wandered the aisles trying to find new low- and zero-calorie products. From sugar-free ice cream with fiber to laxative chocolate, it wasn’t hard in a binge-and-fast-obsessed America to find foods and supplements that would aid my now full-fledged eating disorder.
I began having days where I only ate vegetables, which turned into days where I ate nothing at all. Eventually my body would crave food, but because of the deprivation, when I would finally eat, I would gorge. I would hide in my room and eat tubs of cookie dough and bag after bag of chips.
When I was done, I would lock myself in the bathroom where I chugged liters of water. Maniacal yet methodical, I always turned on the shower and the radio to hide the sounds of hacking as I rammed two fingers down my throat and vomited over and over until I thought I’d gotten it all out. When I’d look into the mirror, my eyes were glassy and bloodshot, but my seasonal allergies always provided the perfect excuse.
It didn’t take long for "You look great" to change into commentary about exposed ribs and sunken eyes. When people expressed concern, I took it as a compliment.
Like any addiction, my eating disorder made me behave strangely; I retreated into myself and felt always alone. When I ate too much in public, I made excuses to go home so I could remove the sustenance from my body. When I went to meals with friends, I lied and said I’d already eaten and watched enviously as they ate "normal" food without thinking twice.
One day while out at lunch with my mom, I made myself throw up in the restaurant bathroom. “Did you just throw up?” she asked when I sat back down. “No,” I snapped angrily, making the subject change, even though all I really wanted was someone to make me stop.
Around this time, I began drinking heavily. Minimal eating and heavy drinking not so shockingly proved to be a dangerous combination. That fall just after turning 16, I spent a month in in-patient rehab after being hospitalized twice for alcohol poisoning.
In rehab, I quickly realized that most of my counselors were not interested in talking about my issues with eating. During my initial consultation, I’d decided to be honest about my habits, and when asked if I restricted eating or made myself throw up, I said yes to both. That was the last I heard about either topic during my 30-day stay. Though the counselors spent an hour going through my bag to make sure I didn’t have hand sanitizer, no one ever thought to monitor whether I was just having an apple for lunch or skipping dinner altogether.
With alcohol and drugs taken away, I had all the more energy to invest in self-deprivation. So I did. What would it feel like to not have a problem? How would I deal with life without exercising this control?
I left rehab no less sick than I had been when I’d gone in, and I spent the next six years with all of the same habits. It always began with phases of restrictive eating, which were almost always followed by utterly out of control periods of binging and purging.
I recently logged into a secret Live Journal account I had kept as a 16-year-old. The settings were private, so only I could see what I wrote. What I found was disturbing.
In May of 2006, a little after midnight, I wrote a post that I titled "New Diet:"
“Dearest Journal, I have just thought up my new amazing diet. Each day I will allow myself six (6) cans of any given 105 calorie-a-can, canned vegetables. Each can must be eaten an hour apart from each other. I will also be allowed one (1) bag of Healthy Choice popcorn. All beverages MUST be calorie free. Drink as much green tea as possible. If any food is eaten outside of the vegetables OR popcorn it MUST BE VOMITED. Certain fruits may replace a can of vegetables DEPENDING on their caloric value. Tomorrow I will calculate the exact caloric value I will be taking in each day and make some exercise ideas! Until then, STAY THIN!”
The glee that I can hear in my writing alarms me now. That I took such pleasure in the prospect of hurting and depriving myself makes me want to cry.
I am especially saddened when I listen to the tone in the next post, that I wrote less than 24 hours later. This one I called "Fat!"
“So, it only took me a day to ruin it. I’m coming home from therapy after only having green beans and spinach today and I felt so weak. I AM WEAK. A WEAK FAT DISGUSTING SON OF A BITCH. I ate a slice of cheesecake and then came home and ate carrot cake. I then had every intention of booting it until I figured out that my throat will barely open because of my fucking jawbone. I still managed to force some of the carrot cake out. Tomorrow my punishment will be no food. I just need to break my stomach. This bastard fat ass will not keep me from puking just by a fucking jaw pain. You don’t want to puke? Fine then you just won’t get the privilege of food.”
My jaw was in pain because I’d just had my wisdom teeth removed. Hearing my self-abuse frightens me. The way that I separated my physical being and mental will into two separate beings is terrifying; it allowed me to punish my physical body without feeling like I was hurting myself. I was trying to subordinate my cravings; I had to forget that the flesh and bone that was so "needy" was a real part of me; I had to forget it was me.
It is hard for people who have not experienced an eating disorder to understand the extent to which the afflicted suffer. While desiring thinness is certainly a factor, it is not the illness as a whole, or even close. Like alcoholism or pathological gambling, it is an addiction that is entwined with both behaviors and physical sensations.
Let’s be honest, no one thinks that it’s healthy to shove two fingers down your throat to physically eject the food you just ate, but we tell ourselves the end justifies the means and that our happiness lies in confining our physical expanse to an ever-decreasing amount of space, an ever-shrinking number on a scale.
I felt overwhelmed by my life, by the changes that were happening within me and on me, and I thought in some twisted way that if I could make myself smaller I could make everything stay the way I wanted. I felt so sick inside and wanted to look sick outside as well.
Of course the answer to being mentally ill isn’t making yourself physically ill. Eating disorders are not glamorous. It is exhausting to be consumed by thoughts of calories and weight. It is scary to be overpowered by urges to fast, binge and purge.
It is depressing to pull back into a world that feels all of your own, where you make all the rules and yet none ever make sense.
SEAMUS KIRST is a New York-based writer. This essay is included in Kirst’s memoir, Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.