by Allison Arnold
When describing how her depression began, Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her book Prozac Nation, refers to a scene in The Sun Also Rises where Mike Campbell describes going bankrupt, “gradually and then suddenly.”
I read The Sun Also Rises about a year after I was discharged from the adolescent psychiatric ward. That was nine years ago.
It’s my favorite book, and I often find myself reading it when I feel myself beginning to sink. I don’t know why.
My grandfather and I used to sit at a picnic table slicing watermelon into rings, chopping them in half, and nibbling at them until it was just the rind, resembling a thin crescent moon. We would spit the seeds out into a bucket while telling each other stories.
He moved in with us after my grandmother died and when he began deteriorating from cancer. I was a sophomore in high school, trying to find my way. In grade school I had obsessive-compulsive disorder to the point I would wash my hands until they bled. In middle school, I was sent to a therapist for depression. And in high school the mix of anxiety and depression boiling up in my blood for fifteen years, erupted into chaos.
One night my mom made dinner, and I remember feeling good about the fact that I went to bed slightly hungry.
At Thanksgiving, I remember feeling confident wearing a new outfit my mom bought me because many of my clothes were too big. I said the dinner prayer and tears fell down my grandfather’s face.
I began obsessing over food. I would eat a piece of fruit and a granola bar at lunch. I would obsess over what was for dinner. If I ate too much I would break down.
The thing is, I was never consumed by my body image or weight, and all of a sudden I was a 15-year-old throwing tantrums, terrified of getting fat for eating a bite too much, or feeling full.
While the lack of calories and nutrients in my body made me highly irrational, I recall knowing that I was thin, even too thin. It was the feeling of control that kept me going, only intensifying my fits if I slipped up. One of the last days before my grandfather died in the hospital, I had a near meltdown when the family was ordering sandwiches for lunch. When they decided to stop his treatment, I remember holding his hand and I promised him I would take care of myself.
He died in February, a month later I turned 16 and a couple weeks after, at 72 pounds, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with depression and anorexia nervosa. I agreed to go, but not at first. Admitting something was wrong and healing were both things I also needed to control.
But when I saw the terror in my mother’s face as she received a phone call telling her that if I continued living this way I could end up dead, a switch flipped in my brain. And that’s something I do know.
My parents weren’t the only ones tired and terrified of my tantrums and rages of anger, but I was. I wanted things to be fixed. I didn’t want to die. At that moment, I would do anything to take away both my pain and that of my parents, and the one thing I had to give up in order for that to happen was control.
Within a few hours I went from independent to having someone stand outside the door while I went to the bathroom and having a nurse jab my veins every morning before dawn to check my blood. In some way, giving up all my independence was the most independent, powerful thing I could do.
Throughout my therapy sessions, I made the staff know that I was there because I wanted to be there, and because I truly wanted to get better. I know doctors trained to treat patients with mental and behavioral disorders have to question you, but I truly did. I wanted my life back, my life before everything spun out of control.
As nutrients began to fill my body, I began to see clearly. The use of food that was once being used to kill me, was now my drug to clarity.
My treatment eventually progressed to outpatient and then I was fully released. I had doctors and dieticians in place to help me carry out my recovery. At times I would still struggle with food, but the real struggle was learning to separate behaviors from emotions.
While I no longer struggle with an eating disorder, anxiety and depression still bubble up at times, but I’ve learned how to cope. They, along with the perfect, but unfortunate series of events, are the only explanation for what erupted.
Eating disorders, from anorexia to bulimia to binge eating, aren’t one size fits all. They present themselves in various ways, stemming from a variety of triggers, emotions and traumas; never at once, but creeping in until they consume you. The one common thread is that they never quite make sense, but all involve food, and using it as a means to enforce some level of control, in a world where you can’t.
Today it would never cross my mind to starve myself of food, which makes looking back and trying to figure out what happened, all the more perplexing. What I do know is that I’m thankful; thankful to be sitting here today simply thinking about it.
Q&A with Allison and her mother, Christina Arnold
Allison Arnold: When was it that you noticed I had a problem with eating?
Christina Arnold: You started to get really particular about your food and portions and constantly asking what we were going to eat. After you would eat something you would question did you eat too much, was it going to make you fat. You started to constantly obsess about that. I think the first time that I really noticed was when you had that sweetheart dance and I took you to look at dresses. You got some dresses and you were trying them on and all of a sudden I started crying because I realized how gaunt you were and how thin you had gotten, so I think it really clicked with me, the severity of what was going on with you.
AA: What was it like for you as a parent?
CA: Oh my gosh, I still think about that and it was the most devastating thing to go through with you as a parent because I was afraid for you, I was just terrified. To this day it was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to deal with as a parent with you. It was heartbreaking because I knew I couldn’t fix it, but that I had to help you fix it.
AA:What advice would you give to other parents that may be experiencing similar things?
CA: Don’t ignore any of those warning signs or symptoms, to keep close to your kids, and I’m not just saying girls, I’m saying boys too. I think a lot of times it’s just associated with girls and young women, but it’s males as well. Don’t be afraid to talk about it and don’t be afraid to seek and support help before it escalates.
AA: What are some of the warning signs?
CA: The anxiety around eating, portions, what you’re going to wear, how you look, those kinds of things, just a noticeable difference in behaviors.
AA: Given my history with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, which more or less morphed into an eating disorder, what signs outside of body image would you say to look out for?
CA: You were always a very intelligent child and very bright and so I think often with gifted children, come many challenges as well, that quest to be perfect, to always be number one. You were always very driven to do your best and succeed academically. As a parent I think when your kids are really driven, that you really have to keep track of what they’re doing and how they’re balancing things, because that anxiety and quest for perfection is all about control and eating disorders and anorexia, as you know, are focused on control. When you can’t control other things in your life, you turn to what you can control.