Memoir: I was addicted to starving myself
I grew up in an upper-middle-class Toronto neighbourhood, with a loving family and supportive friends. Despite my privileges, I was always stunted by negative self-esteem. I thought I was too awkward, too cerebral, too different from everyone else. I never believed that my friends genuinely cared about me, and I internalized that insecurity: most nights, I’d lie awake staring at the wall, wishing I could learn to like myself.
As a kid, I gorged on candy and guzzled six juice boxes a night. By the end of high school, I was tired, overweight and worried about my health. I became a vegetarian in the summer of 2010, trading chips and pizza for fruit and salad. The weight came off quickly. When I enrolled in undergrad at Queen’s that fall, I was addicted to dieting—it allowed me to regulate not only my weight but also my self-image. I could control the uncontrollable. After losing 20 pounds, my body naturally plateaued, so I began starving myself. In less than a year, I shrank from 176 pounds to 116.
At first, I didn’t think I could have an eating disorder. Guys didn’t get anorexic, or so I thought. But as the months passed, I realized I was wrong. I also knew it was dangerous, but I figured the rewards justified the risk. If I got sick, I’d have martyred myself for perfection. My eating disorder ritualized pain that I couldn’t otherwise process. I forced myself to surrender to a higher power that I called the Anorexia God. For weeks at a time, I’d subsist on celery and water. My ideal weight was a moving target—I’d reach it, then instantly set a new five-pound goal and fast for days. Sometimes I would stare into restaurant windows to test my willpower. The ability to control my consumption was exhilarating.
My family and friends all pleaded with me to get help. “You’re killing yourself slowly,” my mother would say. “You’re such a smart kid, you should know better,” my father often lamented. I ignored them. The voice in my head was too persuasive. “Maybe I should have some brown rice today,” I’d say to myself. “Don’t even think about it!” the Anorexia God would respond. “We’re building toward something here. You’re too fat right now.”
Eventually, at my parents’ insistence, I agreed to see an occupational therapist. She asked me to write a food log, but keeping an inventory heightened my fear of calories. I quit after only two appointments. A few weeks later, I sought counselling from a spiritual healer a classmate had recommended. “Hi, my naaaame is Jonath-one,” he said in a hushed tone as I walked through his beaded curtain. “Sorry, you said your name is Jonathan?” I replied. “No, it’s actually Jonath-one—like the number one. As in we are all one.” After an hour spent tucked into a bed in a dark room, listening to this guru play the harmonium, I left feeling more hopeless than ever.
By then, I’d been dieting for about eight months. My body was continuously sore. I was too sick to write my exams, too weak to stand for more than a minute at a time and too tired to stay awake during the day. On many nights, I was hunched over the toilet, throwing up blood. Otherwise, I was lying awake, my mind sprinting. Why did I eat that apple? Why did I break my fast? Every lapse made me hate myself more.
I hit rock bottom on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011. While most of my friends were out drinking, I swallowed a bottle of Tylenol in a feeble attempt at suicide. The next morning, I woke up on the dusty carpet of my Kingston apartment, half disappointed to be alive, half relieved. Many of the pills I thought I had swallowed were sprinkled across the floor around me.
I began to see what anorexia was doing to me. I love to laugh, but I couldn’t appreciate humour. I love to read, but books were too challenging. My ribs and pelvis protruded, my skin was pale, and my face was concave. I finally listened to my friends and family when they called or texted me to check in. For the first time in my life, I believed they genuinely cared about me, that I had value. Soon I was eating again, a few hundred calories at a time—first plain chia toast, then chia toast with almond butter, then avocado salad. Every day I had to fight the voice in my head, taunting me with calorie counts—it took months before I was able to shut it out entirely. By the summer after first year, I’d gained back some of the weight I’d lost.
I’m still a vegetarian, but I’m no longer fixated on my weight. I have a girlfriend, Dana, who accepts my past. I love her more than I ever thought was possible. I am starting law school in the fall. And I have regained my sense of humour. I would never want to relive the misery of my anorexia, but it gave me a perspective that I’d always lacked. It allowed me to breathe, to appreciate my good fortune and to stop obsessing over minor setbacks. It gave me the ability to be happy.
Jacob Roth is a writer and a law student at the University of Toronto. He recently completed a book about his experiences with anorexia.
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