By Laura Eshelman
The words I would wake up to each morning for months to come: “I can’t do this anymore. I had a lot of fun with you, but I have to go now.”
I do not know which one of us hung up first. Time switched dimensions before my fingers found my friend Keri’s number on my cell phone. I do not know how, exactly, they pressed send; my hands had lost all feeling.
I still picture J. in the moments after ending our relationship, which began three years earlier in Asheville and finished long-distance with him launching a scud missile from Florida to my living room in Denver, where we had moved to our respective graduate schools. I imagine him dusting his hands off with a relieved, “That’s that,” perhaps turning up the volume on his television with little second thought to the smoldering crater left behind. My tear ducts were eerily on hold as I threw things into my knapsack to spend the night at Keri’s, inexplicably obeying all traffic laws as I drove.
They finally split open when I reached my friend’s lap. It would be nearly impossible to seal them for quite some time. Unfortunately, the kind of emotional caulk I chose to use came at a hefty price.
I often hear women speak about losing weight suddenly following hard break-ups, and I wasn’t very different; eating simply felt pointless, no matter how many people told me it was necessary. However, unlike most, my aversion to eating did not become a passing phase in the grieving process. In my case, the variable was a 10-year-old eating disorder, which thrived on my lack of appetite. When hunger re-surfaced, it became the only way I could temporarily forget how much pain I was in.
As time wore on and I remained despondent, my friends and therapists seemed to understand my sadness less and less. Increasingly alone, I began to consider the disorder the only companion that validated me. Finally, when I reached a breaking point of hating my life and myself, it whispered, “This will never get better. Just get rid of yourself. Follow my directions and I’ll help you find the end.” Deeply heartbroken, unemployed, and up to my eyeballs in student debt and self-loathing, it was the one voice that seemed to make sense. So, I replied, “Okay. Let’s get started.”
Years of cycling through bulimia and anorexia had already taught me the rules of the game: which low-calorie foods staved off appetite longest, which exercises burned the most energy, how to make sure I purged every bite of a meal. This time was different, however, because it wasn’t a game anymore—I was out for real blood. I terminated therapy and systematically shut down what remained of my social life, hiding from any element that could get in my plan’s way. I took whatever sleep-inducing drugs I could get my hands on to go extra hours without food and quell constant insomnia. I took laxatives daily to keep myself as dehydrated as possible. When I became too agoraphobic to exercise at the gym, I would do as many planks, sit-ups, and jumping jacks as possible at home until I collapsed on my back, stars scattering across the ceiling. Electrolyte imbalances from vitamin deficiencies and daily vomiting caused muscle twitches which often kept me up at night. After a while, I could wrap my forefinger and thumb around my bicep. Occasionally, I would glance up from admiring my hipbones and ribs to my face; it vaguely occurred to me that my cheeks were sunken and deep rings encircled my eyes. I didn’t care. It meant I was doing things right.
I knew that my physical condition was deteriorating, but I soon grew impatient. One day, I researched prescription drug combinations with reported fatalities, hoping for something to speed things up in my compromised state. I conned my doctor into writing me an order of them for “anxiety and insomnia.” When the tactic worked, I calmly stuffed most of my belongings into trash bags, dumping them into garbage and donation bins over several days. One night in March, I sat down with my pills, my apartment locked. The last thing I remember was scrambling to swallow them all before everything went gray.
My next memory is of awakening to the sounds of the emergency room, different people asking me what I had ingested. This seemed to happen repeatedly over the two and a half days I spent in and out of a coma. Though delirious, I managed to cobble together a bizarre sketch of how I’d landed there: according to hospital staff, my car was discovered about a mile away from my apartment, and whoever found me unresponsive in the front seat had phoned 911. Later, I realized that side effects of one of the prescriptions included sleepwalking and amnesia. Once I finally reached lucid state, a nurse told me that I had fallen face-down while being helped to the bathroom, and my front tooth was broken in half. Despite his attempts to discourage me, I asked to see a mirror. The reflection reminded me of an abuse victim at the battered women’s shelter where I used to volunteer in Asheville, whose condition at the time had shocked me to tears. Surveying my own face, I felt simply numb.
After several days, the hospital discharged me and I immediately began blueprinting attempt #2. However, upon returning to my abandoned car, I noticed a large dent on the front fender which had not been there before. Horrified, I tossed and turned through several sleepless nights until one morning, I impulsively and frenetically began jotting down a list of everything that was wrong about my life—beginning with, “Eating disorder is COMPLETELY out of control.” Once finished, I looked it over and decided I was ready to work on almost all of the listed issues with a good psychologist. The sole exception was the eating disorder. It had taken on an insidious life of its own, and I had actually lost control to it.
A few years earlier when my illness was active but concealed, I’d done an internet search for treatment in the Asheville area and learned of a residential facility called Tapestry House in Brevard. It struck my interest only briefly, but never left the back of my mind. That morning, I visited the website again, which displayed a cascading background of the Blue Ridge mountains I’d once considered home, and felt a comfort settle over me. Paradisiacal though Colorado was, I realized I couldn’t really live in paradise if I hated being in my own skin. I needed a big change. Several deep breaths later, I caved and dialed the number on their contact page. The executive director returned my voicemail almost immediately, and we began to discuss bed availability.
It took almost three months before things really and noticeably transformed. My weight was slow to stabilize, and I was on thrice-daily Ensures for most of my time there. More importantly, I remembered what it was like to manage live emotions; physical nourishment brought back feelings I’d been trying to kill since age 17, and were overwhelming at first. However, I learned that being healthy meant experiencing joy, too. I found genuine bonds with the other residents and staff who became both my surrogate family and unconditional support blanket. As often as we shared tears and tension, there were just as many instances of side-splitting laughter and giddiness, sensations I’d completely forgotten. Eventually, my body began to fill out and I even felt grateful for my new shape and curves. Yet, I remained intensely hurt over J. He had finally called after catching wind of what had happened to offer friendship and support, only to withdraw it a few weeks later, citing “confused feelings” that he did not wish to confront. Shortly after I responded by severing contact with him, word got around that he had a new girlfriend.
Around this same time in my treatment, Tapestry received its first set of twins. Hallie and Annie had just graduated from high school, both battling anorexia. Still, the two of them were more distinct than alike; Hallie was bubbly and intense, while Annie was the more reserved of the two. She and I were paired as roommates during one of my worst weeks at the house, when I cried and raged around the clock over J.’s betrayal. She put her arms around me and whispered that she understood, because her break-up the previous year catalyzed her own disorder.
“Did he leave you, too?” I asked.
Impassively, she replied, “Oh yeah.”
I felt for her, but I’d heard it all before from other female allies who had “been there.” Truthfully, I was tired of hearing retrospectives. That same day in group therapy, the clinical director of Tapestry, Sadie, asked Annie to share what brought her there. She spoke in a deadpan tone as she explained how the depression following her rejection drove her to take longer runs. She found she liked the feeling of running on empty, taking in less food as she increased distances; thinness was a blessed distraction, until her doctor threatened hospitalization.
Sadie turned to me and asked me if I could relate. Unlike Annie, I blubbered into a tissue as I recalled the relief of replacing the thoughts of J. with my eating disorder—something that would never reject or abandon me as long as I clung to it—and how much I missed my old fallback at that moment. All of a sudden, Annie folded over. With her hands in her face, she shuddered and began to sob silently.
Something changed. I’ve learned in treatment that there’s no light bulb that instantly illuminates and elucidates everything; rather, mental clarity seems to occur in a series of clicks. Seeing Annie break down was one of the loudest clicks I was to hear at Tapestry. By then, the consolatory words, hugs, and bits of advice from people who had toughed this out before were innumerable, but not yet had I encountered someone who, beyond simply understanding the pain, was right there with me. When we finally got a chance to hug, we did not let go for a long time.
Despite our differences—Annie, a diligent high school cheerleader and artist who ironically struggled to express herself, and me, a self-proclaimed loudmouth hippy pushing 30—that event immediately drew us together in a unique camaraderie. I needled Annie when she tried to duck out on “scary” foods in the kitchen, and she sat with me as I burned pictures from my former relationship in the backyard fire pit. We even wrote impact letters to each others’ exes; in my efforts to practice self-containment, my letter to her ex-boyfriend was one of formal disapproval, while Annie’s letter to J. allowed her to verbalize levels of anger she usually suppressed. One night, as we shared a piece of cake for a late snack—not because we had to, but because we wanted to—it dawned on me that I would not have my new friend and her goofy laugh if not for what we’d both endured over the past year. In Annie, I found not only a kindred spirit, but a chance to make meaning out of something that was hitherto one big mess.
By the end of my stay at Tapestry, I was almost ready to move along with life. Because I had the option of completing my few remaining graduate courses online, I made the difficult decision to move back to North Carolina. Two of my longtime friends from high school, who had since married each other and bought their first house, convinced me to move to their home and acre and a half of land in Durham. The mountains had already harkened me to remain somewhat close to Tapestry and my acquired community there, should the need for extra help arise. My only self-expectation beyond completing my degree was to keep healing and go from there. Annie and I promised to continue keeping each other afloat as my transition began and she entered her first year of college, knowing now how well we collaborate on facing challenges.
There remains much work for me to do individually, namely learning to separate self-worth from relationships and developing new responses to distress besides defaulting to my eating disorder. However, despite everything, the most devastating period of my life may ultimately become one of the most valuable ones, because it will forever inform me as to how to reframe trying times as strength training. And, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I’d like to see it serve as a beam to someone else who has lost their torch, and to prove that sometimes it takes life falling to pieces before it can fall into place.
Laura Eshelman is a 2008 graduate of UNC Asheville and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice from UC Denver, with a prospective graduation date in spring, 2013. She lives in Durham with her friends Ryan and Cassandra, and their cat Bella.