Ohio Portrait no. 207

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The summer after I graduated from high school, I regained all the weight that my eating disordered behavior had lost me, and then some.

I didn’t decide to get better. I did absolutely zero kinds of emotional or psychological work on myself to arrive at healing. There was no breaking point where I found myself puking up blood with my knees turning blue against the pavement; I did not drop so much weight that I fainted all the time or that my heart stopped.

My bleeding got irregular, sure, and I was cold and tired all the time, and I got too drunk too quickly, and there was fuzz on my stomach like silk on an ear of corn and some girls were talking about me with concern — but there was no big momentous realization. I never decided what I was doing was untenable.

I told myself that when I went away to college, I would not let the Freshman Fifteen happen to me. I would simply refuse to buy new clothes. If my old clothes did not fit, I would just starve until they did. It seemed like a perfectly simple and rigorous plan that only the utterly weak and foolhardy could fail at, like budgeting before you’ve known actual poverty. My friend Katie and I both committed to staying thin using that logic. We bought almost-too-tight pants to keep us honest and spent hours walking the neighborhood and the mall.

But then something changed. It was not a cognitive change, not at all. I still wanted to be thin and lithe, with narrow hips and boyish, birdlike shoulders. I never saw my wishes as ridiculous or dangerous then. But my body apparently did. It puts its foot down and refused to keep starving itself.

I started working as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool. I relished the opportunity to exercise while on the clock. The neighborhood was small and quiet, and that summer was especially chilly. I took every shift I could manage, and even opened the pool up on frigid 60 degree days, because I knew it meant I could exercise. There were a few neighborhood girls and an older boy with a crush on me who might wander in, dip their toes in the water, chat, and then slink off, but mostly I’d be left to my own devices. I played NPR and bobbed up and down for hours, wasting away as many calories as I could.

My mom drove down to the pool in the evening with charcoal-black burgers dolloped with blue cheese. We ate together at one of the pool’s patio tables and listened to my Gnarls Barkley record on the pool sound system. My mom must have been thrilled to see me eating. She’d gotten used to my day-long fasts and late-night cereal binges; the only time she saw me cook was when I roasted vegetables in gunky coating of vegetable oil spray and spices that gave me bad gas.

I was happy to eat those burgers. After years of being a shoplifting, lying, school skipping shithead, my mother and I had finally reconciled. We got along like old friends, like a divorced couple still filled with love, like an adult child and a parent who has learned how to let go. My mom was never the insistent type. Love is not insistent. Or so our pastor used to say.

On my days off, and in my free time, I biked up and down the long roads abutting the corn fields and along the jagged green line of the Metroparks. I went all the way to the west side of cleveland and peed in a nature reserve bathroom, filled my water bottle, and turned back. I logged 15, 20 miles easily, and then collapsed on the living room carpet with a container of hummus and a bag of veggies.

I was exercising more than I had ever exercised, and I was eating like I had never eaten, not even before the disorder. I swam, I biked, I walked, I cleaned the pool; I ate huge loaves of bread and dried, sugary dates, and hummus, and carrots, and cauliflower. At restaurants, I ordered cheesy potato skins and onion rings. At night I would coat apple slices with thick daubs of Nutella and go to bed lying on my belly, full almost to discomfort, but not quite.

Something had thrown my body into high gear. I was alive in a way I’d never been before. My legs thickened and strengthened; they could carry me anywhere. My ass curved outward and took on a plumpness and strength. My arms were not twigs, or not too twiggy anyway. My belly pushed against the button of my jeans, but I could kind of flex it. I felt formidable and capable. I kept active, but for once in my life, it wasn’t to lose weight or change who I was.

I’d never had the physical presence that I wanted. I envied my skinny BMX biker ex-boyfriend and the way his abs and happy trail peaked out of his henley shirt, and detested my inability to do hundreds of sit-ups per night like he did. I envied my sister’s effortless boniness and the flatness of her stomach. I envied my debate partner Erik and his jutting shoulder blades and protruding ribs and slender hips. I wanted to be like 2D from Gorillaz, all gangly arms and spaced apart legs and dark, thoughtless eyes. I wanted to be like Natalie Portman post V for Vendetta: all fluffy, downy short hair and stick arms.

But suddenly I didn’t hate myself anymore. I could tell I was gaining weight, I could feel it in my clothes, but there was no negative valence to the changes. I was strong. I knew there was nothing else I could be doing — I was exercising all the time. I could feel my body getting stronger and more impressive and I didn’t mind the way my thighs squooshed out when I sat down in the passenger’s seat of Katie’s car. I worried what she thought. But I didn’t think anything negative about it.

It was the heaviest I had ever been, even to this day, and the best I ever felt about myself. My hair was short, super-duper short, cut by my own hand to a length and style that only old women complimented. I was thoroughly tan and my legs were strong like a mule’s. I was thick with muscle and fat and my body was active and hungry. I loved to eat all the time and it never made me feel disgusting or guilty or selfish.

I was brimming from my toes to my crown with excitement for the future. Soon I would go away to OSU and study psychology and make dozens and dozens of interesting rebellious friends, or so I thought. I wrote every night on the porch and posted my ramblings to my internet friend Erich’s blog, Dangerous Intersection. I rode up and down the street listening to Kanye and Sufjan Stevens and The Go! Team and imagined the brilliant psychologist writer I would become. And I loved myself. It wasn’t just the future me I was grasping at. I was full of love for the present me, and I knew I would become something fantastic.

It was the happiest I ever felt. Of course that state of being wasn’t any more sustainable than the tortured exercise bulimia that came before it. But it does give me hope. Living up to the spirit of that kid version of me kept me alive for years. I wanted to live up to the wishes of that tan, dirty-footed, thick-legged, hungry, curious child. I feel awful for the ways I squandered their energy and efforts. I wished I had maintained their independence, their self-love, their spark. I thought maybe they were gone for good.

But every now and then, I find myself lying on my stomach, reading a book, eating a marshmallow dipped in peanut butter, and I can remember how being that child felt.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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