“Max, are you done with your drawing?” I asked. “It’s time to go.” It was June, and I was working as an arts and crafts counselor at a summer camp. Today was my day with the youngest group, the four year olds.
“Okay,” he said. He dropped the marker and pushed the paper to me. “I made a drawing of you,” he said. “You can see it’s you because of the smile.”
He had drawn a round gingerbread-like person with a big grin across the face. Six months later, it’s still in my collection of favorite things—a symbol of how far I’ve come. If you had told me four years ago that I could be recognized by my smile, I don’t know if I would have believed you. Back then, I didn’t think I could ever love my body, or myself.
Four years ago, I was struggling with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS—the most common, and deadliest, eating disorder. It began in my first year of high school with skipping breakfast, then lunch. The hunger kept me up at night, letting me work on my homework so I could be the straight-A student I wanted to be. When I woke up in the morning, so hungry I could almost faint, it made me feel powerful. I felt like I was in control of a life that sometimes felt impossible to manage.
I would go to school and my hunger would build up all day. By the time I came home, I would eat anything I could find—bread, stale tacos, leftover pasta. The foods I binged on were nutritionally empty; I avoided food that would nourish me because it felt more permanent, somehow. The binges only happened a few times a week, but I would use them to justify skipping my meals again the next day. It turned into a cycle that I couldn’t escape: starve, binge, starve, starve, binge. I was always cold and always hungry, and my hands trembled constantly. I sometimes felt like I was about to pass out in class. But I always stayed around the same weight, and because I never dipped below the “healthy weight range,” I never imagined I could have an eating disorder.
Then, one day when I was 17, I had a wake-up call.
I was sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office, looking at a bowl of mints. I wanted to reach out and take one, when I thought, “If I take one of those, I’ll kill myself.”
In that second, I realized how unhealthy my eating had become. So when my counselor sat down with me, instead of talking about college or my recent heartbreak, I told her about my problems with food. Once I began, the words spilled out of me and everything started to come together. As I finally acknowledged my behavior out loud, I realized for the first time that I might have an eating disorder.