It would be easy to make a laundry list of all the reasons why I developed anorexia.
First, I was (and still am to an extent) a perfectionist. I remember revising English essays once, twice, no five times before turning them in. And even then, the papers still weren’t “good enough.” Appearance wise my clothes had to be JUST SO, and if my hair was up in a ponytail there could be no stray whisps dangling about. Even just thinking about how many times I’d redo my bun or re-iron my skirts makes my head sore.
Second, I had a very loving mother and father, but they had high expectations for their one and only daughter. Thankfully my parents never pressured me to get all A’s in high school, a feat that was near impossible considering I went to a highly competitive institution that churned out engineers and scientists who eventually worked for NASA (true story). But what my parents didn’t say I HAD to do academically (get all A’s), they instead had expectations for me to excel in some other area, namely music. I played the oboe since the seventh grade, and while I was first chair in the state’s youth symphony, deep down I didn’t think I was that great. But darn those expectations. I nonetheless felt the pressure to live up to the title of “talented musician” and constantly worried what mom and dad would say if I ended up failing in music.
Those two huge reasons coupled with OCD tendencies (as a 8 year old it took me 10 minutes to leave the house because I had to make sure the towels were all in line on the bathroom rack before I left) created a perfect storm for the one event that triggered my anorexia: my mother finding out she had stage 3 ovarian cancer and given a month or so to live.
As a teenager about to embark on her senior year of high school, this news was numbing. I remember my dad and I were in California when we got the news–I was at an oboe camp where I was embarrassing myself by butchering the most beautiful Vaughn Williams concertos because, well, I was a nervous 17 year old who was having to perform in front of a room filled with professional musicians. Yeah, nothing like a bit of squeaking and cracking of notes to break whatever self-confidence I had left. So when my aunt telephoned the lodge my dad and I were staying at, saying that mom was going to emergency surgery the following day, my first thought was of relief because obviously, we had to go back to Hawaii to be with mom. All I knew was that I wouldn’t have to get up in front of those judges and oboists and make more of a fool of myself again. My next thought then turned to the future. Would my mother be alive to see me graduate? Or get married? Have a child?
It was at that moment, when the fear of uncertainty and loss hit, that tears started to roll down my chin, and a deep sob from within my stomach emerged as a mournful cry. My dad, a frowned expression on his face, glanced at me and said the words years later he apologized for uttering:
Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
But I needed to. I needed the tears to wet my cheeks, for my eyes to be red and to curl up in a ball on the bed. I later learned in therapy that the grieving process is necessary for individuals to cope with traumatic life events, and my dad telling me NOT to cry basically symbolized that showing emotion of any kind was a weakness, and that I had to maintain that “perfect” persona that was already eating away at my inner self.
At the time I didn’t realize all of this insight. Instead I wiped my nose, took a deep breath, and didn’t share another tear until two years later when I returned home from college weighing 88 pounds and on the verge of dying myself.