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NOTICE ME: My 9-year struggle against anorexia

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Author: Špela Kranjec


During this time, my dad had already remarked about how skinny I looked, but my mum silenced him by saying that all girls are skinny nowadays. And that, luckily, was the end of that conversation. Thank God for my mum! It seemed my dad trusted my mum in matters of weight and figure. Maybe because she was a woman. But it didn’t really matter why – the important thing was that I could continue losing weight. He only backed down one more time before my mum, at least on the subject of anorexia. But that only happened twice, in total. And then never again. Well, one thing at a time.

By October 4, 2006, when we celebrated my mum’s birthday, my daily diet included just cereal with milk for breakfast and an occasional apple in the afternoon. Of course I was hungry on more occasions than I was eating, but I forbade myself from doing so. If I ate more, I would not be losing weight. I hid the rumbling of my stomach from my parents by forcefully clenching my stomach just before it started rumbling. There were evenings when I was so hungry that my stomach rumbled for hours. If we happened to be watching television together, I was willing to clench my stomach for an hour and a half, just so my parents wouldn’t hear the tiniest rumble! The most I did was drink an occasional glass of water, as there were times when even clenching didn’t help.

That afternoon – on my mum’s birthday – was the first time I rejected food openly in front of others – a piece of bread with prosciutto and cheese, because I was afraid I would gain weight. I still feel bad when I remember my dad pleading with me to eat at least one piece. At least one piece of the delicious prosciutto, which I used to love and eat with a thick slice of bread and a generous spread of cream butter. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

DAD: “What happened to that girl who loved a good slice of prosciutto, a piece of cake…? She’s gone.”

Our kitchen, with a nicely set table in the middle, laden with delicacies and surrounded by laughing guests enjoying the meal. There was a chair at the end of the table, and my dad sitting on it. Next to him was another chair, with me on it. Us. Only us in that moment. None of the guests mattered to us – not to me, not to him – it was just us. I was hoping to fool him about why I didn’t want to eat, and he was hoping to be proven wrong – that his daughter didn’t really have an eating disorder. His voice was more subdued than usual. There was concern in his voice. And in his eyes. For the first time in my life I thought I saw that honest concern, which was also indicating the start of a problem that would not be easily resolved. And his eyes were right. My dad was right. As he was many times later. Of course, I never admitted this to him, since teenagers are stubborn by nature and refuse to listen to their parents. Until now. My problem – or our problem – didn’t seem so great that day. No one had yet said aloud that I had anorexia. But how could they, since none of them had any idea about my starvation diet.

In the evening, when all the guests had left, my refusal to eat became the main topic of conversation. A conversation that started as a normal discussion and continued as a quarrel, with each of us arguing our own thing: my dad believed that we urgently needed to seek help, I was strongly against it, assuring him that I do not have an eating disorder, that I can start eating normally whenever I want to, while my mum – hoping that I was being truthful – somehow took my side. Only my younger brother stayed in the kitchen, with a family friend that had known me since the day I was born. They did not interfere in our quarrel. I don’t know what they talked about. Maybe they talked about me, as well. Anyway, it was embarrassing that she heard everything that happened that night! The fight ended with me lying in my bed, next to my mum, crying – at that time I didn’t really know why I was crying – until I fell asleep from exhaustion. I had ruined her birthday!

BROTHER: “Of course, my problems were somewhat different from Špela’s at that time, as I was dealing with completely different things.”

And so, for a time, I won. With a promise to start eating normally, as it never occurred to me for a second that I had anorexia. My parents took me up on my word, while I saw it as just an excuse to buy some time, so that they would forget the whole thing. On the other hand, I actually believed my own words. That day, my dad backed down before my mum for the second and last time: let’s first try it without a doctor.

MUM: “It was hard for me to admit to myself that our Špela had anorexia.”

DAD: “Of course not! It will blow over! How can you not eat? Come on!”

Of course, my parents never forgot. The very next day, they wanted me to eat. In front of them. And you won’t believe this. While I had actually believed, just one day ago, that I could stop starving myself at any time and start eating normally because I did not, in fact, have an eating disorder, when it came to it, I couldn’t do it. It was not as easy and as natural as it was supposed to be. The obsessive thinking about losing weight had already taken hold of me. I was actually afraid of food. I was afraid that food would make me fat. And because of this fear I could not eat. I was actually ill, even though I wasn’t aware of it. Like waking up with a fever in the morning, I had developed an eating disorder. Suddenly, I was no longer capable of eating a normal meal. I became afraid of food. I was afraid of meal times. I was afraid of getting up in the morning, because I knew my parents would want me to eat. One morning, before I got up, my mum, thinking that I was sleeping, mixed sugar in my yoghurt drink to increase its caloric value. But I was awake and heard her. And, as you can imagine, I lost it! How dare she add sugar to my drink?! I was adamant that I wanted a different one, because I was not about to drink that one. I saw my mum barely holding back tears, but I didn’t care. It was her own fault – she shouldn’t have added sugar to my drink! Did she think I was stupid? That I wouldn’t notice?

I was afraid to come home from school, knowing that food would be waiting for me. I was afraid of evenings. Soon, I was afraid of the whole day because my parents made me eat snacks. I would cry during every meal, forcing myself to eat, one piece at a time. I had hoped my crying would make my parents take pity on me, so they would finally leave me alone. While eating, I kept thinking that I would no longer lose weight because of all this food, that I would go back to my old ways and start gaining weight. This made eating even more difficult. Panic was welling up inside me. By the end of a meal I was so full of panic, fear and anxiety that I would lock myself in my room and start exercising. I did sit-ups as if my life depended on it. A hundred sit-ups came and went, another hundred, and I just kept on going, sit-up after sit-up, one calorie after another… This calmed me for a bit. I believed that I had burned all the calories I had eaten by doing sit-ups. Afterwards, I would stay in my room, consoling myself with my guinea pig Maxi. I didn’t want to leave my room because I was afraid of my parents’ reaction. But I only stayed calm until the next meal, when the entire sad affair would repeat itself.

MUM: “I had hoped that the disorder would just disappear if Špela ate. I was truly naive. Never, not even for one second, did it occur to me that Špela could actually fail. I felt powerless, knowing that I could not help her.”

At first, I managed to keep my weight down. This was obvious every day, as my parents made me stand on the scales. In front of them! One time I stepped on the scales while my hair was still wet, and my dad accused me of cheating, saying the scales would show more than I actually weighed. And even though I believed I was keeping my weight down by exercising, it was affected by my starved body yearning for food, as well as the stress and the pressure I was under. My parents gradually started feeling helpless, with no idea of what to do. I still refused to eat, and our home was filled with arguments every day. My mum eventually went to my doctor to ask for advice. Without consulting me! She just went there! Of course, my doctor wanted me to come to her office immediately. As you can guess, this wasn’t to my liking. Naturally, there was another loud argument at home that evening. This time, my dad wouldn’t back down. No one could convince him that medical help wasn’t needed. I didn’t even dare protest, since he really lost it that day – and when that happens, you certainly don’t want to stand in his way. Then again, who would? Even mum had just about had enough of me. Of course, I didn’t like it. What girl suffering from anorexia wants doctors looking over her shoulder, making her eat and, in her mind, making her get fat?! Why the hell did I work so hard to lose weight if it was all for nothing and I was about to get fat again?! In the end, the determination of my parents won and they got the better of their juvenile and sick daughter. It seems to me that, despite my determination and will, there was still a little part of me that allowed others to control me. Or maybe I just realized how helpless I was.

So, the very next day, I found myself sitting and waiting for my doctor in her waiting room. That fact that I had to visit my doctor scared me a bit, and while I waited I even ate a croissant with cottage cheese that my mum bought for me.

Trust me, you don’t want to experience such a talk with your doctor. In addition to my abysmal self-confidence, complete absence of smile on my face, and the fact that at five-foot five I weighed only 81 lbs., I felt that my doctor felt sorry for me, thinking that I was a mental wreck. I still remember the look she gave me. If I visualize it, I still get scared. I don’t know of what exactly, but I become afraid of being abnormal. Because of this look and because she was the one that somehow encouraged my further treatment, I really hated her. I truly disliked her.

You’re probably wondering what happened that day at my doctor’s? While there, I kept saying, constantly, that I can help myself and that I don’t need a specialist for eating disorders. I kept saying this until my mum and my doctor finally caved in, and the doctor suggested that we first try an outpatient treatment. We arranged regular weekly physicals with my doctor. The condition for such treatment, and anything else, was that my weight must first stop decreasing – this was essential – and that it starts increasing in a few weeks. She was adamant that I was too skinny.

I didn’t have any problems with that first condition. Somehow, I was happy to stay at my weight forever. However, I was still afraid of gaining weight. This was my biggest nightmare. And, as it soon turned out, my greatest problem. As I continued to reject food because of this fear, our home was filled with fights and screaming every day. Oh, there was so much arguing during that time! In addition to everything else going on, I hated that we didn’t get along at home as we used to. We never really had normal conversations anymore. My mum and I used to go for long walks, talking for hours and hours, looking at new houses being built in our neighborhood… All that was gone now. Once, I even told her. But she just interrupted me, saying, “Špela, we’ll do that again.” It was obvious that she had no idea why this in particular, with all other things happening, seemed so important to me.

There was no joy in my life. Even though I initially felt – when I started losing weight – that this void started filling up. Once I was diagnosed with anorexia, this void truly showed its ugly face. Even more terrifying than before I started losing weight. It was like a great big black cloud hanging over me. Everything was gray, bringing with it sadness, depression, fights, suffering, and crying. And this cloud didn’t just hang over me, but my entire family as well – over my dad, mum, and brother. One day, my dad told me that he’s afraid to come home from work because he knows what’s there waiting for him. This hurt me deeply. It hurt because I realized I was to blame that he was afraid and reluctant to come home. My mum probably felt the same, but never said it out loud. My brother probably also didn’t like living in a house where three people yelled every day and his sister kept crying and crying. In fact, my dad really scared me that time, and got me thinking that he might not come home one day. And then what? Was I going to be responsible for my family falling apart?!

DAD: “Time goes by… And all this time, arguing, frayed nerves, sadness, tears, visits to doctors and other wonderful people who want to help.”

No one ever went anywhere, we didn’t do anything. Even for New Year’s, we stayed at home because my dad decided that I was too skinny to spend the entire night somewhere outside in the cold! I remember objecting, how much I wanted to go out, at least pretending to be normal. But nothing helped. My parents obviously thought that they couldn’t take me anywhere, in my condition. It was actually true. I really wasn’t normal and we could not pretend that I was. Even if we did pretend, others noticed that I wasn’t normal. My entire family knew of my disorder, but they all tried to pretend like everything was okay when I was around. Only my uncle let something slip once. We were having lunch at my grandparents’. I had been quiet the entire time, when I remembered that I should tell my cousin about my guinea pig. Something unusual had been happening with him. He usually had a voracious appetite, but he had suddenly stopped eating. My uncle overheard our conversation. I still remember his smirk and mocking words: “He took after his owner.” His words floored me, and I couldn’t even get up from the bench I was sitting on. I was so ashamed I just wanted to disappear. So yes, maybe I was better off cooped up at home. Our life practically stopped. We all languished under this cloud: me, wishing that everyone would finally leave me alone, and my parents, who didn’t want to leave me be and were forcing me to… well, to get better.

Ironically, my desire to lose weight arose from my desire for acceptance and improved self-confidence. In truth, losing weight brought me everything but what I really wanted. I was emaciated and obsessed with starving and with eating as little food as possible. I definitely didn’t become popular and full of confidence. People definitely didn’t want to be in my company. Boys didn’t want to go on dates with me. Even people who had previously enjoyed my company backed away.

This sadness of ours, my lack of cooperation, and my parents’ despair was soon noticed by my doctor at weekly physicals. It was hard not to. I was still losing weight, rejecting food, becoming increasingly sad and uncommunicative. My doctor therefore decided to refer me to a psychiatrist, saying that she would know how to help me. First, my parents felt powerless; now, it was my doctor. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I needed the help of a specialist for eating disorders. Obvious to others, of course. Definitely not to me! At that moment, the only thing going through my head was, “To a psychiatrist?! Who do I have to see?! A psychiatrist?! Of course not! As if I’m crazy!” I sure as hell wasn’t going along with it. Even the thought of going to a psychiatrist filled me with dread. A psychiatrist is for crazy people! I am not crazy!

DAD: “All that remained was this bundle of misery, shivering with cold and balled up under a blanket on the bed.”

Once again, my parents had the final say. They believed that a psychiatrist was the right decision.

This just increased my shame. I was ashamed of myself. And that is the worst thing you can do to yourself! At that point, you’re really in trouble. I was walking with my head bowed. I didn’t even remember what was happening in school, I was so distracted. I only knew I somehow passed. My teacher probably had something to do with it, as she cut me some slack. She probably suspected what was going on, even though I never told her anything. I no longer felt comfortable with my mum and dad, who started giving me pitying looks and behaving as if I was a child. Also, they suddenly took over all aspects of my life. I couldn’t make my own decisions about anything. I no longer had a say. My life was no longer mine. I only did what others told me. I was like a puppet on a string. No personality, no soul. And this puppet was forced to go to a psychiatrist. Where lunatics belong, as I saw it. Still, despite doing what my doctor and parents decided and going to the psychiatrist, they couldn’t force me to cooperate. So I didn’t. I decided to resist in any way I could.

I mentioned before that I hated my doctor – well, my psychiatrist soon took this position. Oh yes, I really hated her. I could not stand her. I could not be near her. I could not talk to her. Each time before a therapy session, panic started welling up inside me, bursting forth from within right during our sessions. Of course, where else? It burst out in the form of tears. I cried during every – and I do mean every – session. And afterwards, I thought it was just a waste of time. I felt like we weren’t making any progress.

The last therapy session I had with her was the worst. She gave me a piece of paper and some colored pencils and told me to draw myself, as I saw myself. I really didn’t feel like drawing. I thought it was pointless! What did she think I was going to draw? She saw how I looked, she knew how I felt. As I saw no point in the whole exercise, I quickly doodled a little girl. Out of habit, I drew a smiling face. The psychiatrist immediately asked me if I really feel happy. And this was supposed to be the pinnacle of psychotherapy?! She could see how unhappy I looked! Why is she hassling me about some drawing?! Couldn’t she see that I didn’t feel like drawing?! In my anger, I picked up a pencil and drew a downturned line across the smiling mouth. There! There was my sadness, drawn on paper! I leaned back into my chair and gave her one of those looks: “Is this what you wanted?” In that moment, she realized that we would not, could not, achieve anything. She sent me from her office and called in my parents.

When we drove home later that day, they told me what they discussed. The psychiatrist recommended that they take me to the department for the treatment of eating disorders because she was unable to help me, as I wasn’t willing to give her even the slightest chance. We agreed that I would be given one more chance. The last chance. Well, since I encountered quite a few other psychiatrists in the future – potentially mental?! – let’s call this one Psychiatrist No. 1, so you don’t get confused.

All these events led to even greater despair. Even though I didn’t want to go to a hospital, I wasn’t willing to work with my psychiatrist. I think all this pressure from all sides just made me want to starve even more. As if I didn’t want to break the cycle. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone! Everyone! I know it sounds dumb, and there isn’t a single good reason why I wanted this. At least I don’t see it now. Maybe it had something to do with the attention I so craved before, and was actually getting at that time. But not the kind I wanted. If I had just stopped being so defiant and stubborn, and thought about what I really wanted, things might have been different. As it was, my nightmare continued. At home, all I did was cry, safely rolled up under a blanket on my bed. Everywhere I went, all I did was cry. Tears were streaming down my face constantly. I couldn’t stop them. At that time, tears were my personality. Crying expressed the only emotion I had left. Just a great, deep sadness. A sadness that I saw no way out of. And loneliness. Even though there was always someone hanging over my shoulder, I felt like I was completely alone in this world. As if I didn’t even need to be here. As if the world would continue without me, unchanged. When I now try to remember one single thing I did during that time, I am saddened by the realization that I did nothing at all. I was lifeless. And no one could dispel this sadness – not my parents, not my doctor, and certainly – as it soon became apparent – not my hated Psychiatrist No. 1.

DAD: “There were days that would drive anyone mad. You know you have to help, but don’t know how. What can you do? Just jump into the toilet and flush yourself down the drain? It doesn’t work like that!”

My parents realized that with their lack of knowledge of this particular disorder and with their parental instincts, which were quietly telling them to listen to the pleas of their dear daughter, they couldn’t help me. My doctor was also just a general practitioner, so she didn’t know how to help me. The psychiatrist was also not specialized for treating eating disorders. And to top it all, I didn’t want to work with her. There was no expert around who could pull me out of this mess. We finally accepted this fact. And this became obvious at the next therapy session with my psychiatrist.

In fact, she wouldn’t even see me. Really? What kind of a psychiatrist are you if you duck out when faced with a problem? Only my doctor saw me. She told me that the psychiatrist felt she could not help me and that the time has come for the next step. They both came to the conclusion that it would be best if they referred me to the department for treating eating disorders in the Ljubljana Medical Center. My mum was by my side. That moment, when I heard what my doctor said, was one of the most horrible moments of my life. One that I never want to experience again. That fateful Monday. A day that we had all known was coming, sooner or later. When I heard my doctor’s words, I sank even further into my chair. I was gripped by panic, a thousand thoughts going through my head. I was determined not to go to hospital. I didn’t want to leave my life behind. I didn’t want to miss school. I didn’t want to miss my air rifle practice. And I was so good at it! I kept winning medals. I couldn’t let these things slip through my fingers. I was afraid the world would forget me. That everyone who knew me would realize that they don’t need me in their lives. Actually, this was a completely unreasonable fear, as I was no longer present in the world, except in physical form. Still. When I saw my mum sitting next to me and agreeing with the doctor, how the doctor was already telling her how to get to the Medical Center, and how the nurse was already writing the referral, I realized that I had to do something. So I started sobbing, crying out with the last words of the fight left in me. Realizing that this is it, I panicked. It seemed as if no one even heard me. My words, my actions, didn’t matter anymore. Or maybe, by crying, I confirmed the need for hospitalization. It had already been decided. I finally realized what was happening. Finally, I stopped for a moment. Reigned in my panic, grief, defiance, crying, and faced the truth. They’re taking me to a hospital. I used up all my chances. I used them up by myself, so there was no one else to blame. I refused to understand what everyone had been telling me, warning me, for some time. But now the time had come for me to face the consequences.

DAD: “Diagnosis: anorexia! The word itself is dislikeable, ugly. It is a disorder that you only hear about in passing. And no, it could never happen to you. How naive! The devil slowly slithers under the door into the community you love. You think the gates of hell have opened before you…”

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