Editor’s Note: If you have experienced an eating disorder, the following story may potentially be triggering. You can contact Crisis Text Line by texting NEDA to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S.
Mary Kate’s Story
I was young once. Some people would probably consider me to still be so because I’m eighteen, but I believe that being “young” or “old” doesn’t have to correlate with the amount of time you’ve been on the planet as it makes another lap around the sun. Age may be measured numerically, but the mind truly ages on its own thanks to experience. We fight dragons, we win wars, and we learn lessons. Our mind ages with the occurring; we have no control.
We don’t remember much of our younger years. We’re toddlers, exploring and learning and trying to figure out where our existence falls within the realm of this world. We grasp at water streaming from faucets and soon figure out we cannot catch the molecules, and that’s already stressful enough. It’s enough to distress anyone. I figured out quickly, thanks to a prodigious intelligence, that my fingers didn’t have the power to control water from the kitchen sink. That was the beginning of my growth in wisdom.
I was three when Ed first spoke to me. As a kid in dance class, you’re expecting to learn the simple maneuvers that’ll allow you to gracefully leap across the stage or to pirouette away from the problems lingering outside the studio. Dance teaches you much about life. However, the battle began for me inside the studio, with the reflection of a tall, strong, tutu-ed, curious three-year-old cocking her head, soft chocolate baby hair falling to the left side of her youthful cheeks.
“Why are you so ugly? Why are you different?”
Naturally, my naivety didn’t know what to make of that intrusion. What could it? I was young then. So, in an act of naivety, I continued dancing. It’s what we all do; we continue dancing, even if we are winded. It’s just human nature — tired means weak. At that age, I didn't understand how to pause. There was too much to learn.
I was suspended from preschool. Being a child with immense giftedness (I began reading Harry Potter at 4 years of age), I was obviously smart. My intelligence was light years above the norm, and I knew that. Naturally, I felt superior, and I used that sense of godliness to my advantage: smashing kids’ heads into walls, biting them, cutting them with scissors, defying my teachers and parents, mouthing off to them, and being disrespectful in general. Hindsight is 20/20, so looking back after knowing what I know now of my personality, things explained themselves (not that there’s an excuse for slamming kids’ heads into walls).
There are a few vivid memories I have of my eating disorder as an older child. Wincing as I passed in front of a mirror for fear of witnessing bulging thighs and a protruding stomach, stuffing parts of my arms deeper into my shirtsleeves, and stretching my neck forward in pictures to avoid the dreaded double chin were parts of my daily routine. I’d stand in front of the mirror for hours, hearing the repeated march of a growing Ed instructing me to pinch and stretch the innocence from my skin. Half-moon echoes helped me (with assistance from Ed) to try and imagine myself with the long, thin, and lean body shape of a Victoria’s Secret angel. My appetite grew voracious, and I was a growing child, so I ate. Ed, however, did not shrink. I was twelve, and Ed was stronger. The appetite I was praised for as a kid became much more noticeable thanks to his evil, negative words, doing little to boost my self-concept. While I was fairly capable of hiding these words from my family, I was even more successful in suppressing my worries. I turned my energy outward, lashing out or obsessing or controlling or hurting the ones I loved most. Ironically and thankfully, the control you think you’ve got with Ed in your corner isn’t real.
At fifteen, a volleyball accident violently tore every ligament apart in my left ankle. Stormy anger raged underneath my skin, for Ed knew that I was no longer able to exercise. Naturally, he punished me for it. “Well, you’ve screwed yourself up this much, so might as well keep it up. You’ll hate yourself even more, and I’ve already decided that’s all you deserve.” So, as soon as that ankle healed, I was moving. Ed’s voice played over and over and backwards and forwards in my head, and I was his victim. I was strung up by my demons as a frail breath of the life I was losing, nothing but a puppet subject to Ed, the ropes leaving lasting scars around my shoulders, and I didn’t care. I was losing, and Ed was happy.
The first known panic attack occurred in March of 2017. It was the first time I encountered an emergency room, and my dad had dragged his screaming, writhing mess of a daughter there late one night. Youth decayed. Once the first one occurred, I began having more. On average, the day consisted of six panic attacks (give or take a few). It was after these occurrences that I began my first real therapeutic experience. I didn’t want any other panic attacks to cripple me as they mercilessly and repeatedly did. Medicine was off-limits, as my parents did not see the need when cognitive therapy was available, and I listened. I worked hard in therapy, but as we know, medicine and therapy work best together — they are never as effective on their own.
Meanwhile, Ed had been weaseling his way deeper and deeper into my mind. Over the summer, I became weak. I felt strong, as brutally continuous exercise had made me so, but it was too late to reverse. My body had already begun its slow deterioration. I remember wearing sweatshirts in the Bahamas because the lack of natural insulation did not prepare me for the winds that lashed at my body. I hated it. I hated my body so much that I began to destroy it. I tore at it, beat it, and pummeled it into the dirt I believed I was made of. Life poured from my arms, legs, and soul, and I was void of color and positivity. Both eyes lost their light. My bones shrank, my brain lost intelligence and energy, and that chocolate hair, which was so often complimented, swirled down the drain.
One day at volleyball practice, I passed out. My coach shoved food in my face, repeating, “You have to eat. You have to eat,” over and over, and Ed knew which buttons to press. He manned the controls that flipped goggles over my eyes, turning my coach into an enemy. So, through me, Ed scoffed at my coach, spitting, “You’re kidding, right? I don’t eat that crap. You wouldn’t catch me dead with that in my stomach.” I was unable to play for the rest of my senior year. Not only was a bully living through me at practice, but my body still weakened by the minute. No longer did I have the stamina to keep up with the fast-paced nature of volleyball, and my small bones shook from pressure.
After a game one night, I chose to ride home with my dad. We have taken many drives together, talking about random experiences and deeply-rooted things. He is truly my best friend. I seized control of the joystick from Ed, and with the small amount of strength I had left to muster, I told Daddy that I had a problem.
Two weeks later, I wound up in the doctor’s office. My periods had not come in three months, and I originally had sought help for that issue. However, when I told my doctor how food had controlled me so violently, the realization came. The amenorrhea was linked to none other than Ed. He kicked back in his chair, hands behind his head, and smirked. I told her that I didn’t want to have an eating disorder.
“I’d be concerned if I were you.”
On September 27th, 2017, the formal battle with Ed began. Instead of enjoying my senior year, a seventeen year old was dying. I fought, though, because I was tough, even with withering bones and wrinkled skin. The sparing energy I had left was filled by appointment after appointment after panic attack after OCD flare-up after depressive episode after pushed-away meal after calorie limit after food log after fight with Mama after violent cries and tantrums after abuse from Ed and my boyfriend and food after appointment. As a result, I remember little of my senior year, as it was devoted to Ed. He drove me to exhaustion from the simplistic basics of life, such as walking, thinking, and speaking. I was gone; in my place was a shell.
In November, after a failed intensive outpatient program, I was recommended by my therapist for admittance to Veritas Collaborative in Durham, North Carolina. Of course, at that point, I was scared. Ed programmed me to fear and anger rippling through me, but somewhere inside, Mary Kate knew that the answer was Veritas. What we didn’t know at the time, however, was just how deep Ed’s damage had crept into my being.
Paperwork takes forever. The intake work was overwhelming at times, and questions about how Ed was controlling my life were suddenly presented to me in black and white. I wasn’t able to send everything to Veritas until January due to the nature of hospitals, and in order to complete the paperwork, I was required to obtain bloodwork and an EKG, a test designed to measure the rhythms of the heart.
A few months ago, I had mentioned to my dad, a chest surgeon, that my heart rate was inconsistent and slow. However, we did not think too much of it as I was in “extreme physical shape” and seemed to be functioning in a normal manner those months ago. However, when the results printed out, my suddenly and simply human father sharply sucked in breath. EXTREME BRADYCARDIA branded itself into the minds of both of us, and I was immediately transferred to the emergency room at Athens Regional. I lost touch with reality. Things blurred in my perception as Ed frantically pushed every button he could think of on my control panel, resulting in a loss of my senses and my understanding of the world around me. IV’s and sharps and constant portable heart monitors and electrical leads and whirring, beeping machines traumatized me, and Ed kicked back yet again and laughed at the bruised and battered machine he controlled. “Pathetic little girl, you are no match for me.”
Athens Regional did not have the proper care for me, so in an ambulance, I arrived at Scottish Rite, a much larger hospital in Atlanta. It would become my home for three-and-a-half weeks. As I could no longer walk without assistance, a bright yellow fall risk bracelet was wrapped around my arm, and I was bedridden. My heart rate and blood pressure were significantly lowering. 25 beats per minute became the march of my life, and I was walking among the trumpets and the drums and Ed, the conductor. He waved his arms in time with the tired heart, as he loved to slow dance; the slower the heart rate, the more beautiful the song.
I was determined to recover. I hated the hospital, I hated not having the ability to walk, and I hated not feeling the sunlight on my shoulders. In some internal cavern, the soul of the girl who was once independent enough to defy her parents was screaming, cracking her throat, and pleading that she needed help. The stubbornness manifested, but Ed twisted it around, as usual. Because of his new scheme, I clung to the idea that I could refeed by myself. The weeks blurred together, and Ed tricked me into thinking I didn’t need the tube, for the tube meant defeat. I refused the idea of possible defeat for as long as I humanely could before the Tuesday afternoon when my nurse walked in, shook my shoulders, and pleaded.
“You need to accept this procedure, or you have a week and a half at best.”
Pause, beat, exhale.
You have a week and a half at best.
You have a week and a half, at best.
Week and a half.
This did not sink in until the plastic tether to my life raft slithered down my esophagus.
The most difficult decision I have had to make in my short, youth-stripped eighteen years was to accept that tether. The soul, the fight, that drive to defy authority surfaced for the first time in years. My reasoning for defiance was as such: if I live, I have the ability to fight and conquer the leech in my mind, the parasite to my existence, the fern disguising the mental illnesses, the roots of the oak slowly growing, dying, and losing. But, if the oak dies, I die. Then, no one wins. My mind, my oak, would wither and shrink and I would cease to be living. Ed would cease to exist, but so would I. At least if I choose to live, I will have a chance. I had a week and a half at best to make this decision, and I chose to defy.
So yes, I was young once, but presently, I am not. I’m not done here yet, either. Diagnoses have been made, for Ed can no longer mask them, and it’s been extremely helpful to link my past to the formation of those tree-like pathways Ed loved and cared for over the fifteen years after he first spoke. Borderline personality explains the underlying meaning of my need for validation and the extreme emotions, PTSD can be attributed to trauma associated with my childhood, the hospital, and abuse from my now ex-boyfriend, and major depression of unipolar type created the current treatment plan I am receiving. I am cutting back the branches. I am pruning and growing and fostering and learning to love a new kind of tree, my own Tree of Life, my own glimmer of hope flickering through the leaves. Looking at the dappled oak, I promised not to destroy my body again after July 31st, 2018. But look, let’s take the poetry out for a minute.
Here’s the bottom line. I said it once, and I’m saying it again; I am not done here yet. There’s too much to live for. When I look out the window, I long to feel the sun on my shoulders and dance in the leaves and grow as a sunflower in the fall, an enigma. A work of art, a masterpiece, a living breathing thing, a home for a life, a memory and a dream, a metaphor and a paradox, juxtapositioning and merging into a complexly drawn one-line image of a distant candle. I am old now, and I am wise and creative and insightful and persistent. I will not let my struggles blow these virtues out.
So now, warriors, I am speaking directly to you. You have more to offer this world than you can imagine. Stars bow to you, for you are a universe unfortunately trapped in a metaphysical being. Let the light of your stars shine, and be that candle for others to see. These breaths you take are precious, for we are always guaranteed an exhale, but never an inhale — staring death in the face has taught me so. Make the most of each one. With each inhale, embrace gratitude, for “you belong to you,” as my dad calmly assured me as I writhed with the march of my demons one night. You are here, you are now, you are powerful.
A final thought: be grateful. Be so grateful. Be so grateful that you are not done here yet. Keep going, fighting dragons, winning wars, learning lessons, and breathing. Inhale, exhale, pause, beat, inhale again.
Written by Mary Kate Morris