Lying In Weight
I suffered from anorexia nervosa as a teenager. You may have heard that before. You may be like me. I fell into that cadre of teens in the 1980’s, who followed the Jane Fonda doctrine of compulsive fitness. Ever the overachiever, I starved and exercised as well as I, a premed major, earned straight-A’s. My freshman year of college ended in catastrophe as I came home on a break at 5’4” and 89 pounds. My parents intervened and, for four years, I rode my bike weekly from my dorm room at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio to my therapist’s office in Hyde Park. I graduated at a normal weight and so felt that the eating disorder had gone away.
But I was wrong.
It seems that I have done what many others who suffered eating disorders have: gotten well enough to evade diagnosis but not to the extent to feel eating disorder-free. In writing this book, I have learned that there is a name for our condition: "subclinical" eating disorders. I suspect that a fair number of you fit into this category, far more than that the millions of adult women who have full-blown eating disorders later in their lives.
What subclinical can mean is this: I have always maintained a low weight (105-110 pounds) through constant dieting and exercise. I became a vegetarian and ran triathlons in graduate school, while earning my Ph.D. in molecular biology. Later, I had to undergo fertility treatment in order to get pregnant, because I had never menstruated at any point in my life without the help of medication. By the seventh month of my pregnancy, I had only gained seven pounds. And so my gynecologist warned to me to quit work as a medical reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a job I loved. I did so and gave birth to a healthy 6-pound, 9-ounce girl. But soon after, I separated from my husband and embarked on a four-year bitter divorce. In the midst of these stresses, I plummeted to 100 pounds, less than I weighed before conceiving. I suffered intense post-partum depression.
At this point, I understood that the eating disorder had never really left me. Still I denied it, as do most women that I have talked to in writing my new book, "Lying in Weight: the Hidden Epidemic of Eating Disorders in Adult Women." (Harper Collins, May 2007). For us who have undergone recovery at least once, an eating disorder is past tense: I had an eating disorder. But these diseases seem to linger, at least in some form, and the severity of their expression seems to match the level of stress and transition that we experience through our lifespan.
I learned that eating disorders are not a line, with sickness on one side and health on the other. Whereas society holds a myth that recovery from these diseases is like jumping over that line. Instead, we know that eating disorders lie on a spectrum, with hospitalization and death on one end and emotional liberation in all eating on the other.
My acceptance came during a conversation that I related in the introduction of the book. After I left the Chicago Tribune on maternity leave, I did not return. Instead, I freelanced as a medical and science journalist for many technical and popular magazines, including Science, Self and Child. I won a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at Harvard and MIT. Having coffee one morning with a Knight colleague, I learned that I was not alone in struggling with a beast that has taken hold of my psyche. My friend had suffered a full relapse to bulimia nervosa after the birth of her first child. In the same circumstance, she had returned to her disease, totally, while I returned, partially. Aren't we the same, in some way? Aren't we all, the "we" who have suffered from an eating disorder of any kind?
With the intent of finding out what and if people like me were prone to relapse, I wrote the book. It follows a collective woman as she journeys through the lifespan -- marriage, pregnancy, parenting, mid and late life -- with an eating disorder, its remnants, and related “food issues.” The book contains state-of-the-art medical research and so offers more than a collective memoir, rather a resource of information as to what is happening, why, and what you can do.
Since there are 35 women interviewed in the book, you may identify more with others than me. Some have more graphic stories, while others are more benign. Whatever piece you take away from this work, I hope it helps you in your own journey toward recovery.
12 April 2007