The Gift of Memory

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“You don’t remember…” My mother used to say. “You blocked us out…you don’t remember what it was like.”

Oh, I remember…

I remember feeling blindly trapped. I could hear everything my concerned family members said, yet the words didn’t seem to sink in. It was as if there was a filter inside my brain that selected exactly what it wanted to hear and pushed all the other rational thoughts right on out the exit door. While in the lowest of lows, the Eating Disorder (“ED”) voice won the battle over and over again. But I DO remember…

I remember looking at myself in the mirror along with all the other dancers in my ballet class. Some were short; some were tall; some were overweight; some were underweight. I remember the comments from others that were perhaps better left unsaid…

“So-and-so has gained some weight…”
“Doesn’t she look a little heavier than last time we saw her?”
“Look at that girl! She’s so skinny!”

Just like any other typical 12-year-old girl approaching those confusing teenage years, I did admittedly look at others around me and envied attributes that I considered myself to be lacking. I compared myself to other girls and never really did love my physical appearance. Growing up, I was abnormally tall for my age, which translated wonderfully to the basketball court, yet created feelings of self-consciousness around my smaller friends and classmates. At the same time, I embraced the tomboy lifestyle and valued my athletic ability. I accepted the fact that my outward state was “just how God made me,” yet felt unhappily complacent in my skin. Enlightened now with a clearer humbled perspective, I realize guiltily how I once failed to view myself with His eyes.

I remember back when I first started to become intrigued by conscious eating. Throughout elementary school I was truly a great eater, and because I was an athlete, I always had an appetite. Our family followed a balanced lifestyle including both limited fast food and healthy choices. As a growing child, there wasn’t ever any sincere restriction put on my food intake; rather, I was taught to enjoy meals and I demonstrated an understanding that certain “treats” were considered privileges which simply were to be consumed less frequently than other foods. With this balanced lifestyle, I was the girl who would take pleasure on these special occasions with unlimited donuts for breakfast at sleepovers,  copious slices of pizza on Friday movie nights, large frozen Icees from the local gas station, and gigantic bowls of ice cream for dessert on a daily basis. I never struggled with my weight; I simply enjoyed indulgences available to me as would any other kid immersed in American society during that time. Then as I began the arduous transition into 6th grade, something slowly began to change…

The overflowing bowls of ice cream were the first to go. I remember conversing with other new friends in my gym class about how they had given up dessert. At the time, I remember thinking, “What a stupid idea! Dessert is the best part of dinner!”

But these girls were popular. These girls were skinny…

“I guess I could give this a try,” I thought. Thus began my gradual period of deliberate restriction.

From there it was basically a snowball effect. I suddenly became curious about everything that I put into my mouth. Without any knowledge of nutrition whatsoever, I had no idea that a single calorie even existed. I viewed foods as simply “good” or “bad.” I would ask my parents questions before cautiously consuming foods which previously had been some of my favorites: “Is this good for you?” I would inquire. Their answers were usually hesitant, but real. Still, I ended up just making conclusions myself and started simply cutting back on my entire food intake in general. My best friend at the time didn’t eat breakfast. I remember spending the night at her house and being hungry the next morning, but I still turned down breakfast because she did, convincing myself I didn’t need it…The time would pass quickly since we were together… I could last until 11:00 for lunch.

Unfortunately, that close friendship slowly began to draw apart. Times change, and people change, both which are merely expected aspects of life. But I wasn’t familiar with this snippet of wisdom at the time, and I didn’t know what I had done to cause this difficult shift. Along with the stressful transition of middle school, for the first pivotal time in my life, I was faced with the reality of something I couldn’t control. Subconsciously, I withdrew socially, and soon discovered the satisfying outlet of exercise and diet. Intentionally, I focused strongly on these two areas and felt a false sense of security: a filling for the empty void; activity to occupy the time; accomplishment to counteract the agonizing feeling of failure–all interconnected factors that I felt I could control.

Ironically, my perfectionist personality was not in my favor this time. My diligence, determination, and desire never to settle for less than my best all suddenly teamed up against me. The intentional restriction continued…I first started off by asking for different items to be packed in my lunchbox. Next I requested for fewer items to be packed. Soon, I secretly began throwing half of its contents away.

I was constantly hungry but learned to ignore it. I still looked forward to mealtimes like lunch and supper because it was my allotted time to eat, given my new undercover ambitions. Every night around 6pm I would eagerly ask what was on the menu for dinner. I would sleep in on weekends and watch TV until close to 11:00–the earliest time I deemed acceptable to eat lunch. But even then I made sure I adhered to the summer calendar I had crafted for myself and had taped to my bedroom door: a to-do list of daily duties for me to check off consistently to hold myself accountable. The top priority on this checklist list just happened to be “E” for “Exercise.”

With my solid sports background, getting adequate exercise was something I never had to think twice about. Playing sports was my main hobby, and I enjoyed it because I was good at it. I had quite the skills archive from years and years of attending soccer, basketball, baseball and swimming practices. With the influence of these drills I began to put together different training routines for myself. I would pair different movements together, enthralled by the clever combinations that left me fatigued and out of breath. The endorphins soon became what I lived off of…the feeling of active muscles and heart-pumping adrenaline literally fueled my inner being. I couldn’t seem to get enough. What was once a joyful hobby soon became an addictive obsession. With all the confusion with relationships and heavy workload from school, it was also my perfect go-to stress reliever. To fuel the fire, I began receiving compliments on my physique after I started my restriction experiment. I liked not being the “biggest” girl in the room for once. I actually felt like I was finally fitting in, or at least standing out for something I was proud of. It was all the more reason to keep on pushing. Or so I thought…

I thought I was doing the right thing. As your straight-A student, teacher’s pet, stoic, innocent, eldest child, I always sought to do the right thing. The thought of getting in trouble or letting others down was devastating to me. If an adult even slightly raised their voice in my direction, a sturdy lump would rise in my throat. Harmful, selfish thoughts were just not in my nature.

The debilitating consequences of my actions were completely unintentional, yet completely self-inflicted. I thought I was becoming healthier. I thought that decreasing my food intake and increasing my activity would make me a better athlete. I thought my sports performance was improving. I liked that I was thinner and was now capable of turning down “unhealthy” snacks. With all the hype of rising childhood obesity, I thought I was embracing the ideal preventative lifestyle. I thought if I didn’t keep doing what I was doing, I would get fat. That determined persistent 12-year-old athlete wasn’t about to let that happen.

Fast forward a few months and the snowball effect had progressed into an avalanche. All of my attempts and intentional efforts to control this area of my life had finally caught up to me. My daily regimen of filling all my time with one activity to another, paired with my dominant obsessive scrutinizing behavior, began to move into the driver’s seat. Toning ball, jump rope, basketball, soccer, scooter, rollerblades, and finally a bike ride with a quick stop for a smoothie on the way home–my first “meal” of the day. I thought I had a handle on it all; I thought I was successfully regaining control of my life. When in reality, the eating disorder had discreetly crept in. The sickly disease had seeped into my being, and taking advantage of my ignorance, was now controlling me.

Even sitting here now as I type, reliving both vivid and foggy scenes from my little adolescent lens, I remember…

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I remember always feeling cold and not being able to get warm. I remember riding home in the back of a family friend’s convertible on a sunny 60-degree afternoon, resulting in a shivering aftermath that even three thermal blankets weren’t sufficient in soothing.

I remember crying in regretful anxiousness at 9:00 at night because I had let an entire day pass without engaging in heart-pumping physical activity. I remember bundling up in 5 layers and ear warmers just so I could go outside our house and run laps back and forth in the dark, while my dad watched patiently from the driveway.

I remember my first temper tantrum over food…after a long day full of nonstop soccer games, I reluctantly refused to touch an Arby’s roast beef sandwich. Instead of adhering to my run-down active body, the convenient refueling source ended up getting smushed in frustration before we even got out of the car.

I remember the first time that when I attempted to jump rope, my feet, feeling like bricks, wouldn’t lift off the ground–my tiny atrophied muscles, tiredly depleted, had eaten up every ounce of energy they had left.

I remember chasing after the soccer ball in what felt like slow motion. The sought-after speed and strength had been completely stripped away. No matter how fast I pumped my stride, the ball seemed to roll farther and farther beyond my reach.

I remember the outfits I resorted to wearing most often. These outfits were particular ones that I felt “fit” in…outfits which, contrary to some anorexics, were purposely chosen to emphasize my thinness, rather than cover it, so I could constantly check and ensure my bony status.

I remember the taste of the thick chalky nutrition shakes I was forced to guzzle down, along with cartons and cartons of orange juice and yogurt drinks…all served as quick and easy liquified calories. I remember eyeballing the piles of unappetizing meat on my plate, measured out to the ounce in attempts to combat the protein and caloric deficiency…thankful for the array of b-b-q sauces and mustards lined up on standby around my placemat to help mask the gritty texture.

I remember the waves of exhaustion after dinner…hunched over on the ground while hugging my swollen belly, knowing my body needed the food, but not necessarily choosing it. I remember my parents holding me close, telling me how proud they were that I had finished every last bite.

I remember feeling embarrassed while eating meals in public, and even around my little brother. Here I was, the eldest child, and was supposed to be setting a positive example. Instead, I was the one arguing with my parents about a stupid plate of food, while he escaped the unnecessary
yelling back in his room.

I remember sitting in the car with my dad after a long discouraging doctor’s visit, with the fears of losing my fitness creeping in. I remember sobbing over all my hard work, all of my beloved sports, my favorite hobby in the whole wide world, being stolen right from my hands. I slouched hopelessly begging between heaving sobs that after this was all over, my Daddy would help me get back in shape.

I remember the look of concern on my mother’s face as she sat patiently on the floor with me beside my bed, pleading for me to listen. I remember telling her that she didn’t need to worry, and that I was going to be ok. I did not believe the severity of my condition which seemed to burden those most dear to me. Yet even so, I felt the pain and hurt that she was feeling for me, which was worse than my own suffering. I remember sensing the caring responsibility in her gentle desperate eyes. I remember telling my sweet mommy that she didn’t need to cry.

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I remember all of these things distinctly, yet for so long I kept them buried and tucked away. I didn’t want to bother anyone with my memories, although I knew they would never really disappear. I embrace this gift of memory, which is a gift that often serves as both a blessing and a curse. I am capable of reliving in detail certain aspects of that time in my life which I don’t necessarily wish to ever have to relive. But I can look back at these rocky times and see the growth. I can see the healing, I can see the perseverance, and I can see the merciful love. Even when I considered myself “better,” I still had a long road of learning ahead. And I’m still learning each and every day. My reliable memory has recently been in my favor as I attempt to recollect past thoughts and feelings to share with the world. Hopefully in these attempts comes promising peace as you read in this very moment.

Sometimes memories hurt. But over time, memories also heal. If it weren’t for these vivid memories, and ability to hold on to experiences and emotion, I wouldn’t have been able to reflect and recognize the positive strides. Without truly remembering where I was before, I wouldn’t be able to rightly rejoice in where I am today. Without the gift of memory, I wouldn’t have the honor of being able to recall all the relapses, all the hardships, all the frustration, but most importantly, all of the saving grace.

Yes, I remember…all the struggles, all the confusion, and all the pain. But I also remember all the breakthroughs, all the victories, and the return of joy. I remember the encouragement that came from promising progress, the establishment of new healthy goals, and the restoration of strength. I remember the conflicting feelings and beneficial relief with words and self-expression. I remember who I was before, and who I am inside. I remember the impeccable journey…I remember the sustainable truth.

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