The Unexpected Cost Of My Eating Disorder Recovery

I’m recovering from an eating disorder that almost claimed my life. I used to deny that I was anorexic, but one day, my shower drain and clumping comb betrayed me. Shedding, I'm shedding, I thought. My long hair was falling out.

I’m doing my best. But many days I find myself struggling against my own internal monologue. I can't hide my battle scars; strangers slap my face with their gaping looks, their accosting comments, “Hey, Twiggy, go eat a sandwich!”

They see me, and they see transgression. My body has, like so many others, fallen outside of the parameters of the "ideal" — in this case, dipping too low beneath that razor-thin line of perfection. And bodies (like mine) that fail to conform — they're fair game for criticism.

“What is wrong with your arms?” a drunk person asked me once. I haven’t worn short-sleeves since.

I wash my hair gingerly, caressing my head like it could at any instant break. Breakable. That’s the way my doctors treat me, after all. “Stay off your bike,” they tell me, “one fall could kill you.”

After three months of intensive outpatient therapy, I’ve finally stopped shedding flesh. I’ve got five hard-won pounds back onto my bones, though my doctor says without at least 20 more I probably won’t live to see age 35.

But my God, I’m moving up. So why does my hair keep coming down, down, down?

Here was my hair before:

And here's my hair now:

You might not notice the difference in volume — but I do. My doctor tells me this is part of the process. The “process” seems to encompass every horror and triumph and threat and promise.

“You've been malnourished a long time. Sometimes, when a patient starts to get more nutrition, the dead hair falls, so it can be replaced by new, healthy hair.” The cruelties of this illness continue to amaze me.

I try not to brush my hair. I don’t like to see what it does. I wash my hair gingerly, caressing my head like it could at any instant break. Breakable. That’s the way my doctors treat me, after all.

“Stay off your bike,” they tell me, “one fall could kill you.” That’s one admonishment I can’t seem to listen to. I need to feel my body warm with motion, if only a little bit. They already took away running and dancing — “until your body is safe” — but so help me, I’ll ride my bike.

Maybe I’m not the ideal patient, but I’m still showing up, making changes, and taking steps. I’ve missed only one appointment in 90 days — and that's saying something, I think.

A friend of mine started chemo last month. She cried a little when she talked about her hair, fingering her scalp reflexively, her voice hollow when she said “I know it’s silly to care this much…”

I felt a real but distant sorrow then, her sadness so different than mine — until now. I think of her today, as I braid my hair slowly, my ribs tight with fear as the sun glances off a few falling blonde threads. I feel robbed, and so alone.

Why do I finger my thinning hair and feel that something essential is dying? Our minds become needles — tight, tiny, sharp — scratching cruel music from some senseless vinyl. We drug, or starve, or stuff, or cut, inscribing the unspeakable into our very skin — and these most intimate of battles leave us feeling so very far from home.

Outside it’s November cold. The ground is covered with things falling down. Leaves and garbage, evidence of life, now useless debris. “Use this as motivation to keep up with your nutrition plan. You want to make sure new hair grows back.” My nutritionist has thick, loose curls.

I wonder if I should buy hats. I am probably overreacting. I feel a grieving rage. How did I let myself get here? But I halt, tell myself— I must remember who my enemy is.

I was taught for years to shrink myself — to be small, breakable, and quiet. Physical perfection is considered the prerequisite for self-worth, yet it's not a guarantee, either. These thoughts are poison — permissible, pervasive, collective abuse. And I must find a way to ignore these messages, even as I live in a world that is always screaming them.

I must build my life on a new thought: that I deserve to be here, breathing on this planet. That I owe no apology for the patch of time and space I occupy. That a portion of human joy could be mine, if I’ll open my hands to it.

I am growing back. It’s an incredible thing, really. My bones are too brittle, but I drink my milk, swallow my meals, and the density tests come back higher.

They say my heart muscle, once drooping near defeat, is beating stronger now. My “stick arms” that so offended strangers are taking on flesh, and I wonder how I will use them to cradle, to protect.

And there will be some days where I believe that I’m transgressing again, by getting larger, by gaining. Who am I to take up space? I’ll worry that there are just a few too many ounces of me, that my bulk is an abomination, and I’ll want to hunch my shoulders, squeeze myself smaller.

In those moments I’ll feel a wave of fear and shame, but this time, I’ll resist. I’ll recall what it felt like to stand at the edge of oblivion, shrunk to an unnatural smallness, and how gravity grew even stronger as I faded. And I’ll tell myself, again, how much I want to live. I’ll trust this thought a little more each time.

It's raining the day I make my way to the salon. I ask the woman to take her scissors and cut away the dead stuff, those parts that are no longer me. She chops. I watch the pieces fall into limp, golden piles.

I am thinking of gardens, even as winter creeps into the air. I am thinking of the story of seeds, and how they begin small and dubious, and then vanish into silent soil. Only faith and chance and time can prevail upon them to break through the earth, to begin their slow climb sun-ward. I want to think I could be that way; that spring is mingling even now with the detritus, plotting the overthrow of decay.

They say a man reaps what he sows. How maddeningly simple, and how true. Recovery is a creeping, capricious thing. The past is still at my heels — gravity is hard to outrun. But I am planting seeds, and waiting for the rain.

“It takes time.” They might as well tattoo this onto my forehead. I sigh, I swallow, I say a prayer. I'm healing. I'm choosing life.

Images: Sarah Aziza