by: Jonah M. Lefholtz
Note: Contains possible eating disorder triggers.
A fourteen year old girl, having no way of controlling the chaos in her life, doesn’t eat. What little eating goes on, goes on in private, when the parents aren’t looking, when the brother is crying, when Mom is busy watching episodes of “The Other Side” or “Northern Exposure” and thinking delusional thoughts about aliens and abductions, and the demons inhabiting the step-father’s body, and where they’d move next, maybe Alaska? (“But Mom, it’s not really filmed in Alaska,” I had to tell her.) Secret eating, to keep up the act, to not die completely, to stay in control of something.
Only a few foods were safe to eat, and there was no rhyme or reason, it wasn’t about weight at first, it was about holding onto the reins, it was about hanging on for dear life. Entenmann’s made little, individually boxed, blueberry pies. For some reason those were okay to eat, and my mother would buy 8 of them at the time, and not pay attention to the fact that my stomach always hurt when food was being served or made, but the little pies disappeared steadily. I ate them in secret. Malt-O-Meal was ok to eat, it was gentle on my stomach, which was quickly losing its lining, digesting itself from the inside out.
We were on move eight out of 18. It was 1995 and we were in Columbia, MO and I couldn’t take it anymore. There were so many, already too many, new schools and I was always the new kid, an odd duck at that. Puberty was setting in; a puberty that was making my body betray me with its changes and its iminent menstruation on the horizon — what little stability I had, shakily derived from my fucked up family, had disappeared. My stepdad was a ghostly figure that worked the night shift at a truck stop and by day played Doom on the computer for hours on end. I was depressed, I wanted to die, I’d just come out to myself, for real, for sure, as liking girls. Jill Sobule sang about kissing a girl and liking it and the song made me feel weird inside, the way kd lang’s shadowed silhouette made me feel when I watched her video for “Constant Craving” back when I was 11, and the way my best friend made me feel when I was 12. I told nobody. Instead I lay in bed, wasting away, feeling my heart skip beats (literally, not figuratively) because my body was slowly dying. I got down to 80 lbs. I was 5’4”.
I fell down the stairs one day, towards the beginning of my self-imposed endurance trial, before I stopped eating almost all together. I was already weak and dizzy, already thin, already checked out of my changing body. I broke my arm. The ambulance came. “It’s severely triangulated,” they said. I was in shock, I couldn’t feel my legs; I couldn’t feel anything, I didn’t want to, and I secretly hoped that my back was broken and somehow it would kill me. All I got was some morphine and a cast, light blue, that kept my arm bent at the elbow for six months. Later, for three more months, I would get a purple cast that stopped before my elbow. I still remember the feeling of the morphine being pushed through my body with each beat of my heart, I could feel my body and I was floating, and suddenly I didn’t care and finally, I wasn’t hurting.
Four months into the first cast: “The bones aren’t healing. She needs to eat, she’s not getting enough nutrition for the bones to mend.” This made my mother crazy. She berated the doctor for his incompetence, tell him that I had a stomach condition, not an eating disorder. She took me to numerous doctors for my “stomach problems” after I started to throw up bile and sometimes retched violently, with nothing coming up. I had stopped eating solid foods and would only take liquids, making my bowel movements sound like urination. The gastroenterologists all told her the same thing, this was no virus, no bacterial infection, this was her child starving herself. Doctors with concern on their faces would have a word with me, behind closed doors, out of my mother’s ear shot. “Is everything ok at home?”
Everything was fine. Just fine. It was fine that my heart was skipping beats sometimes, it was fine that my mother took me out of school because I was “sick,” it was fine that I didn’t get out of bed for days and I didn’t shower and I cried all the time. It wasn’t a big deal that I wouldn’t eat and that I was afraid to leave the house. It was fine. It was okay that my hair was falling out. It was fine that I spent hours curled up on the bathroom floor, sometimes faking sick, so that I could be alone and terrified which somehow felt better than being overwhelmed with my mother’s odd bedside manner, which was embellished with “poor baby”s and promises that we’d find out what was wrong with me, while simultaneously ignoring what was really going on. Home was fine.
Eventually I was diagnosed with Gastritis, if only to shut my mom up. I was prescribed a sticky, sweet syrup that I had to drink by the cupful to regenerate my stomach lining and prescription strength Pepcid, to quiet my violent, starved stomach. I hated eating, but I also hated the cast that was on my arm for nine months, and I was costing my parents thousands of dollars in doctor’s bills. I gave in. I ate. Bland foods: instant mashed potatoes, peanut butter sandwiches, bread and butter. I managed to gain 20 pounds before we moved again, this time to Chillicothe, MO where I met my first girlfriend towards the end of that 14th year, who made me feel protected and loved. Elizabeth noticed my sharp angles, my bony hips and protruding ribcage.
Later, much later, in life I finally gave it its rightful name: Anorexia.
It still rears its ugly head sometimes, when my life feels out of control. It makes me want to see my hipbones fully defined. It makes me tell you that I’m not hungry. Well, I’m not, not really. That sort of hunger – the kind that lasts and lasts, that’s self-imposed and self-harming – it becomes nothing. Just another manifestation felt by the body. I can’t let myself get too skinny these days, because I’ll focus on getting skinnier. I’ll weigh myself every day, after every meal, so I know exactly how much the food I consume weighs. In my adult life, I have never owned a scale. Sometimes I still have to make myself eat, and sometimes I’ll eat high in calorie foods so I don’t have to eat as much. I hate the feeling of being full. I still have trouble swallowing food, when I’m anxious or stressed out. Seventeen years have passed and it has never fully gone away.
I know now, that part of the eating disorder was caused by my changing body – since transitioning to male I have had fewer flare-ups. I like my body now, more or less, as long as I don’t think too much about it. The other part is straight out of a psychology textbook. I had to be in control of something, and all I had at age 14 that really belonged to me was my body. It’s a big deal and I was never the same afterward. It probably stunted my growth. Now I can control it instead of it controlling me, but there’s a fine line between being conscious of it enough not to let it pull me back under, and being too conscious of it, so much that it consumes me.
Jonah M. Lefholtz is a student and care-taker in Chicago, IL. He recently came out as a femme male and his life is better for it! He likes spending time with his family and friends, has two cats, and appreciates complexity.