A Personal Essay
This is a story about friendship.
In early August 2014, I fainted inside an Indian restaurant on Devon Avenue. I had eaten one piece of naan. It was the most I had eaten in three days.
I have become, more or less, an expert fainter. I get really hot; flushed, a fever-ish type heat. It radiates from within me, rushes across my skin. I feel like I’m on fire. I get really nauseated. I want to be violently ill, to give into the sickness and move through it to the other side. And then I get lightheaded. That’s when I know I’m about to lose consciousness.
The feeling hit me while sitting at that Indian restaurant with a few friends. I was wearing a maxi dress because I was too bloated to even fit into my fat pants. I was too bloated because I had barely eaten anything in days, and my body was retaining all the water I was drinking as a means of survival. I had a stressful couple of weeks, and I turned to an old friend of mine to cope. It’s a friend I have known for years. A friend that has been through more with me than any of the company sitting at the dinner table that night. It was The Hunger.
I had been doing well. I had gone 361 days without fainting. Four days short of one full year. One. Full. Year. I was disappointed in myself for letting life get to me again. I was ashamed for not being able to be stressed out and still eat. I had almost gone a full year eating well enough to at least not-faint, but I did not.
I can’t tell you the exact date when I first met The Hunger, but I know it was sometime during the winter of 2006-2007. I can tell you I was 13. I can tell you that I had mono. I can tell you the doctors told me that I would lose my appetite and subsequently lose weight. But I didn’t.
I had always been an active kid. I played sports and didn’t care about what I ate because I burned it all off anyway. But having mono drains you of your energy, and so I spent a large portion of the beginning of 2007 holed up in my bed being a surly 13 year old. For a while, all I ate was soup, but once I had enough strength to chew again, I just ate.
When you’re bored, you eat.
I was bored and so I ate.
When all you do is sit around and eat all day, you tend to put on some pounds. I did.
And then I panicked. I’d been thin and fit my whole life. What was this?
I was scared and concerned about my expanding waistline and unable to exercise because of the mono so I did what makes sense to a 13 year old: I just stopped eating.
It was hard at first. I had to pretend I wasn’t hungry. I would push my food around a plate or tell people I had just recently eaten. I would watch everyone else eat food carelessly while I sat and silently counted the calories I just couldn’t burn. I would go to bed starving, in physical pain from the hunger. I would just close my eyes, grit my teeth, do my best to ignore the aches and growls from my stomach and wait for sleep to come. I felt scared and alone. And I would wake up even hungrier.
It was hell. But I don’t know what else to do so I stuck with it.
Next, my body went into starvation mode. I ate just a couple hundred calories a day, and that’s only so people wouldn’t catch on. When you’re new, it’s harder to hide. When you’re new, your body betrays you even more. It stores whatever you give it as fat. It notices the starvation and prepares for the future.
Then, it all drops. You body starts feeding off what it has stored. And you lose weight. You’re still hungry all the time, but you get better at it. You learn to chew ice because it mimics the chewing of actual food that you wish you were doing. You drink water because it fills you up.
And then one day, you just aren’t as uncomfortable being hungry anymore. You’ve gotten used to it. You body has learned not to expect much. It has learned that you will not feed it any more than you currently are. It has noticed you do not respond to the signs of its unhappiness so it stops fighting against your mentality. It accepts your anorexia.
And, just like that, The Hunger is no longer your enemy. The Hunger has become your friend.
It can be easy to forget to eat. Whether you’re busy or distracted, sometimes eating just doesn’t happen. Before you realize, it can be the late afternoon, you haven’t eaten all day and you don’t want to ruin your appetite for dinner so you have a snack. That’s normal. That happens.
When an anorexic makes it all the way through the day without even thinking of eating, we’re proud. It makes us smile. We’ve gotten better at this self-destructive game. It’s shameful, but to not even think about food until the afternoon is an accomplishment. Food controls you when you’re in the midst of an eating disorder. It preoccupies your thoughts. The body dysmorphia swallows you whole. You’re in a constant battle with your need for sustenance and your need to be in control of your body; your need to be thin.
One of the most messed up parts is that somewhere in the past seven years, I became comforted by the feeling of The Hunger. That comfort is what makes it such a good friend.
More recently, I have committed myself to trying to live a healthy life. I know that eating is not just feeding; it’s nourishing, fueling. I appreciate my body and what it can do. I want to treat my body right. But it’s not easy to eat. It is easy to fall back into the trap. It’s easy to skip a meal or two when I’m stressed out. It makes me feel in control. I know it’s not good. But I catch myself thinking, “If I can’t have [whatever] going well, at least I’ll be thin.”
And that’s bad. That’s a bad thing to think.
But I think it.
Sometimes, being hungry takes me back to being a kid, tucked in to my childhood bed. Warm and safe. That’s where it all started. That’s where I first became friends with The Hunger. Since then, The Hunger has been with me. The Hunger is always there when I’m scared or mourning or stressed or heartbroken or feeling out of control. The Hunger is dependable. The Hunger will always come. It always has. And for as long as I keep allowing it, it always will.
Even though The Hunger has been a reliable friend, our relationship is toxic. I understand that. I understand that I need to let it go, but the goodbye does not come easy. The Hunger and I have been together for a long time. Even though our relationship has been off and on, the ability to flip the switch back on again is entirely in my hands. And sometimes, I just cannot resist the feeling of power flipping that switch gives me.
I let The Hunger back in recently, and now I will have to work harder to keep it out. I will try to eat better and more consistently. I will try to turn to real friends for solace. Perhaps then I will be able to celebrate a full year without turning back to my old friend.
Maybe then I can cut my ties with The Hunger.
Lauren Murray is an Ohio native and Loyola Chicago undergrad. She loves puns and hates the Oxford comma. Some people think she loves baseball too much; she emphatically disagrees. You can read her musings on feminism, sports and the rest of life at lauren-murray.com.