When I was 13 years old, I lied to my parents in order to attend a party. The boy I was crazy about had asked me to go, and I felt grown-up and sophisticated to be invited. But as the party became wilder and more teenagers drank to excess, my happy evening turned into horror. I got separated from my friends and wound up getting raped.
I was a perfectionist, a smart girl with all the answers. Now I felt stupid and ashamed. Unable to bear the thought of classmates whispering behind my back, I hid the rape from everyone. Ultimately, I convinced myself that it didn't even matter.
But perfectionism, shame, and secrets are a vicious combination. I felt too nervous to eat. Then, as classmates started complimenting my thin appearance, I began to see my weight loss as an empowering lifestyle choice. Before the year was out, I developed a case of anorexia nervosa so severe that it would almost end my life twice.
At the time, I wasn't thinking about the future. All I was trying to do was survive. But now I wish I could visit my teenage self and explain what that weight-loss "lifestyle" would cost her. Here's what I live with every day because of my anorexia:
A greatly diminished sense of smell and taste. The acid from years of purging cost me many taste buds and most of my sense of smell. The way food tastes when you have a bad cold is the way my food tastes all the time. Chocolate is just oily. Bananas are a spongy, flavourless mass. Yoghurt is like cold slime, and ice cream is like icy slime. I tend to cook with much too much garlic or lemon just so I'll have something to taste.
The bones of an old woman. I take calcium supplements every day to combat serious osteoporosis. In spite of that, my brittle bones still break easily. I've chipped my cheekbone and my hip and cracked my wrist. I've broken ribs, toes, and a finger. That's a bad problem to have at the end of life, but it's a worse problem to have in your twenties.
The threat of infertility. My husband and I dream of having children, but we don't know if that dream will come true. Starvation during my teenage years kept my hips from reaching their adult width and damaged my reproductive system. I've already had three miscarriages, and obstetricians have told me that I'll need to spend most of a successful pregnancy on full bed rest. One doctor told me I will be risking my life if I try to carry a child to term.
A crippled immune system. I used to spend three weeks a month battling through colds, stomach upsets, fever, or flu. My health has improved; now I only spend one to two weeks a month fighting through illness. If I had realized when I was a teenager how badly this would impact my chosen career as a nurse, I might have reached out for help sooner.
Impaired memory and poor sleep. The nervous system pays its own price for poor nutrition. I struggle to fall asleep and suffer from frequent nightmares. I have to take daily anti-anxiety medication to help my neurotransmitters function effectively.
Constant pain. The malnutrition of my anorexia nervosa has caused scoliosis so severe that an X-ray technician described my spine as a spiral staircase. My joints are weak and dislocate so easily that I can never go swimming again; in fact, I've become adept at popping my own left shoulder back into its socket. Vitamin deficiencies caused cracks in my cartilage, leading to chest pain from chronic costochondritis that ranges from dull to heart-attack-worthy. The damage to my stomach valve causes frequent heartburn, and even though I've spent years in recovery on extra vitamins and supplements, my blood vessels still break so easily that my bra sometimes causes bruising.
The reality is that anorexia nervosa's severe weight loss doesn't just make the body lose "weight." It forces the body to give up its plan of building healthy nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and organs. I began the struggle of recovery in 2009, but the consequences of years of self-abuse still linger.
I have accepted the fact that I may never recover enough to feel comfortable again. Instead, I live for the times when my pain level is only a three or four out of 10. Still, I'm one of the lucky ones. Twenty-four of my anorexic friends have lost their fight. They're already dead.
Note to teenage self: Don't live with the pain and the shame. Reach out. Admit you have a problem. Get help.
Elena Vanishing, A Memoir, Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle
Published by Chronicle Books
19 May 2015 £11.99