When I was first hospitalized for anorexia, my doctor said to me, “Julie, you are obviously in a lot of pain. Why don’t you try using your voice instead of your body to tell me that you are hurting, to tell me what you need?” This baffled me at that time—I didn’t need anything. I didn’t need even the basics of food, sleep, or attention. No, I wasn’t hurting—I was Super Girl. I could do unfathomable things that others could not.
I could go for days without food or sleep.
I could still get good grades and do quality work.
I could take care of everything without ever having to ask for help.
It was like having superpowers. Except, instead of making me invincible, these powers almost killed me.
I was first diagnosed with anorexia at 12 years old. Beyond the blurriness of the many years that malnutrition has created, I only recall the origins of the illness in terms of what is written on my medical charts: I had lost my appetite, lost weight, and stopped getting my period only 6 months after I first got it. The social worker at school noticed the change in me physically, as well as the fact that my grades were dropping quickly because I could no longer concentrate. I was taken to the doctor for a check-up, but I figured it would be no big deal. Super Girl can’t die, right?
Wrong. In fact, I almost died several times. Now, constantly chanting like a lyric in my head, is a list conditions I deal with on a daily basis due thanks to almost 13 years of struggling with anorexia and bulimia: poor circulation, dehydration, acid reflux, edema, electrolyte imbalance, chronic lightheaded/dizziness, osteoporosis, anemia, chronic anxiety, panic that resembles actual heart attacks…
The list goes on. Because I could not speak my pain, my body showed it, and this list is the response to my body’s cries.
That’s not all. Running (literally) on empty takes a toll. You feel weak from not eating, weak for giving in to food, weak for and from purging, and, most of all, you feel weak because you are not as invincible as you thought.
You will watch your hair thin, as more of it falls out each day. You will watch the horror on your parents’ faces as they observe you slowly deteriorating. You will listen to them fight over whose fault your eating disorder was and how the hell this ever happened.
There’s more. You will lose the ability to think. You will lose your body slowly, yes, but the scarier part will be when you begin to lose your mind. Words don’t exist to describe the horror I felt when I first realized it was happening. I had been sick for over a decade but was still seeking help; I was sitting in my dietitian’s office trying to explain something to her, and while what I was saying is a blurred memory, the look on her face is vivid in my mind because of how it truly terrified me. It was a look of panic as she slowly said to me, “Julie…you aren’t making any sense.”
What? No, surely she just didn’t understand what I was saying.
This terrified me more than anything—take my body, I remember thinking, but please do not take my mind. I needed my mind. Without it my powers were useless.
My superpowers were failing me, just like my organs were failing my body. Through various forms of treatment I realized that I had been asking for help all along by starving my body. It worked, for a while. It’s easy for people to tell that you are in pain and that you need help when you are starving to death. But that’s the easy part. The difficulty in using your body to tell people that you’re hurting lies in the translation. Using your body to show people your pain becomes a dangerous cycle. What happens if you recover and your body “looks” healthy again? How will you speak then?
It starts small. In the past, starvation was the only way I knew how to avoid and/or express my feelings. Instead of telling, I was showing because I could not find the voice to speak. Now, if I’m angry or scared or sad, I might actually get the courage call someone and say, “I am so angry and here is why. I feel like I don’t deserve to be angry or that I am a bad person for being angry. I feel like my anger is going to consume me, and I want to take it out on myself because I don’t know how else to get rid of it.”
Years later, I look back and realize that my doctor was right. Not only did I have needs, but I also needed my needs to be met. I was hurting, and I needed comfort, understanding, and human connection. Back then, I was terrified of using my voice to ask for ask for anything, or to even admit that I had needs at all. Who did I think I was? How dare I think that I deserve the time or attention from another person? How dare I be large enough to take up space in the world, space that could be for someone else, surely someone more important?
I have a voice for a reason: to speak up for myself and for others when they need help finding theirs. The realization and acceptance that yes, I am important, my needs do matter, and taking care of myself makes me able to better care for others—that’s the real power. I have the opportunity to be a real hero in this life, and I will use not my body, but my voice to do so.