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A Doll's House

| This is the 526th story of Our Life Logs |


“Oh my god. I have bulimia face. Again,” I muttered, poking myself in front of my mirror. “Bulimia face” meant my face looked puffy from purging and it was probably more apparent than ever I had an eating disorder. There was no doubt my secret would be found out soon. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. But it did. Let me tell you how I got here.

I was born in 1996 in Ohio and raised there in a doll’s house, I used to think. Pretty little dolls in a pretty, clean dollhouse. I felt like we were a charming, disarmingly normal-seeming family until you looked a little closer and the image cracked, the imperfections shining through.

In actuality, I had a neglectful, absent father, and a doting, work-from-home mother. My family is made up of immigrants, so I heard French, Arabic, and Italian along with English growing up, so I always felt different from my peers.

Aside from my mother being a single, working, non-religious mother who was liberal in a fairly conservative town and my father never being around to show love, I was battling with my own demons, removing the perfect doll-like image. Besides the cultural differences, I discovered I also had a learning disability and that I was bisexual. Maybe it was because of all those things piled on that I realized, subconsciously, I could not . . . be who they might become in high school. Not popular, not attractive, not academically smart, or driven. And certainly not neurotypical and straight.

It was hard for me to accept what made me different. I wanted to change everything about myself and my life. I wanted some control over my life, but the more I grew up, the more I was hurtling towards chaos and disorganization. I never realized that searching for that control would put me in danger.

It all started during my freshman year of high school. I decided to become vegan with my mom because I was against the meat industry and how animals were treated before they were killed. I had a lot of noble intentions, but they quickly fell away, unnoticed. 

That same year, I went to a week-long, overnight summer camp. We were doing a lot of (honestly, really fun) physical activity because it was a Survivor–themed week at the camp. Naturally, all that exercise helped me to discover my newly-defined cheekbones. Who knew I had ‘em? And who knew my tummy could get so flat in just a week? Not me. I smiled nonstop. Thus, the idea of what-I-could-look-like began to take shape and as my desire to maintain the new body image lingered, I made a friend. I didn’t quite realize she was there yet, but ED (my eating disorder) was creeping in. 

Further into high school, I found that I couldn’t connect to anything emotionally. My depressive disorder made it impossible. I was constantly short-tempered and on the lookout for something to do that was stupid and engaging. 

That was when the Eating Disorder started to make her appearance. She promised to fulfill some of my desires if I just did this, just did that. I wouldn’t have to sacrifice much—just what I didn’t like about myself. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice to begin with. I’m like your fairy godmother, but better, because I won’t leave you alone ever. I was glad. The things asked of me didn’t seem horrid at all. 

And ED was right: she didn’t leave me alone. Not ever. 

My depression caused me to wake up late for school already, but it was also so I could have an excuse every morning for why I couldn’t have breakfast. Lunch meant my class inherited the privilege of having an hour instead of thirty minutes, and I would always have a small cup of coffee for lunch. Caffeine made me feel jittery and suppressed my appetite. 

Because I lived a block away from high school, I walked to and from school every day. The short distance was a blessing to me. I didn’t have a license or a car, so I just had another excuse to fit more exercise into my day. 

By the time I was a senior, I was three years deep into my eating disorder. 

At home, my mom would ask me, “What did you eat for lunch?” 

And I would say, “spaghetti” or “a burrito” like a lying liar. 

She knows, ma chérie, ED murmured to me. She knows why you’re losing weight and she knows you don’t have the money to pay for a school lunch every day. If ED were a person, she’d be standing chest to my back, arms exactly over mine, hands holding my wrists to my side. She’d have her head against mine or her mouth against my ear. You need to do better. You need to be calm. Eat some oyster crackers tomorrow and less dinner. Purge the rest of it. 

When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, I swear I could almost see what ED would look like if it were a person, and she was sexy, the kind of person I dreamed of being. A girl of indeterminable age who had red and black lips, long hair, large eyes. She was perfect: she had a respectable university major. She maintained her goal weight. She went to parties, was on the Dean’s List, had her work published. ED was popular. She went to ridiculous places like a Florida beach for spring break and was trilingual.

Maybe I was an absolute masochist, but I delighted in doing at-home exercises to lose weight. I binged and purged and restricted. I’d walk to the little downtown area of my suburb on weekends because it was two miles away and I needed to burn all the calories I could. I made lists of why I deserved to meet my goal weight. Things to do instead of eating. Why I didn’t need to eat. All the things I could do and clothes I could wear once I was slender because I would have “earned” those activities, those clothes. As if the money would appear in my bank account and a friend group was something I could will into existence through sheer force. 

ED was me, but not me. I glorified my eating disorder so much that I didn’t even see it as a problem or self-destructive. It was a lifestyle. It was a diet. It was hard work. Being thin meant everything would fall into place. Because of my dedication and my sacrifices would make it happen. 

At the end of high school, I was convinced I hadn’t been pushing myself hard enough. My weight hadn’t changed that much. I was still eating dinner with my mom and I had to figure out how to get out of it. My stomach wasn’t flat enough. I’d been wasting too much time on Tumblr instead of working out. I felt ashamed. It was like ED was trying so hard to help me and I was practically throwing her gift back into her face. 

Things would be better at university, I told myself. I’d work over the summer to save up money and fantasized about what my uni life would be like. I’d have money to buy myself non-food treats. I’d have a cute group of friends. We’d work out together. We’d take pictures together. I could finally live out all my favorite coming of age tropes in my favorite books, the ones I’d never been able to do in high school. Things would be darling. 

Things were not so darling at college. 

I ate little. My hair sometimes fell out and my nails hurt when I held a pencil or typed. My memory was so foggy I couldn’t remember much. I drifted; I didn’t like where I had ended up socially and thus, felt isolated again. I yo-yoed between restricting and exercising, to binging and purging. Sometimes the purging wasn’t even self-induced vomiting. It was just an excessive amount of exercise over a week. 

Things got worse when I turned nineteen. That was when my grandfather died. It was like realizing that reality wasn’t what I dreamed at all. The past five years of my eating disorder hadn’t been enough for ED: I’d given her my time, my body, my spirit, and it still wasn’t enough for how ravenous she was. 

By this point, I could admit I had a problem—I even posted on Facebook about my disordered eating. I hoped that if I said everything out loud, things would snap back like a rubber band. I thought I could conquer her. I had to find a balance, somehow.

After graduating from university, I wanted to find a balance or make a change, but I simply didn’t know how to do it. Then fate came to me one day while I was having lunch with my Nona at a wine and cheese shop.

A woman walked in asking to buy a bottle of wine. She wanted to know if the owner would like to donate to an auction she was helping to organize. The proceeds would go to helping transgender teens. I thought then how strange it was that she was supportive of that community. How my first love had been trans too. A coincidence, I thought, brushing it off. 

Then I overheard her talking about how she helped at an eating recovery center. 

I don’t know what was remarkable about this conversation Nona and I were overhearing. She wasn’t speaking to us. There were plenty of people like this woman, probably. But I finally broke down. I knew I’d never get another opportunity like this. Because it finally hit me: I’d listened to ED for nine years and where had it gotten me? I’d morphed into some horrid person I didn’t recognize. And what’s more, ED hadn’t held up her end of the bargain. I’d not gotten published ten-fold as she had promised. I never got to be popular, wear cute clothes, be amazing and larger than life. I’d turned into a shell and there was nothing waiting for me on the other side.

So, when she had a moment, I walked up to the woman and told her bluntly, “I have an eating disorder. I need help. I’m ready to recover. Please help me. Please.” She hugged me while I cried then gave me the business card of the recovery center. She told me I was brave, and her encouragement was enough to get me to call for help and go to the center for treatment. 

Recovery is not a straight line, but rarely anything is. I slipped up a lot over the summer, but the two months I spent at the center were transformative. I was allowed to cry. I spoke about how tricky ED was. How she’d lied to me for so long and how foolish I felt for listening to her.

I don’t necessarily regret how things turned out. I’m very much the kind of person who needs to experience hitting rock-bottom before I can really internalize the lesson I need to learn. I do wish, though, that I’d had someone in my corner to tell me that whatever you do in service of your eating disorder is never going to be enough for it. And you know what? That’s okay. I learned that you don’t need to be enough for anybody but yourself. You’re beautiful enough for yourself. You’re strong enough, smart enough, funny enough, creative and compassionate enough. This life is yours, not ED’s, to live. You don’t need to be more than who you are. 

 This is the story of Cecily Keynes

Cecily is in her very early twenties and a college graduate. Born in 1996, she’s struggled with an eating disorder for almost half her life. As she grew older, her eating disorder grew worse, but she got better at hiding both it and her disordered behavior. She finally received the care she needed in mid-2019 and hasn’t looked back since beginning her recovery. Cecily broke her leg in January this year, so she’s spent the past six months recovering from the break. She has also been focused on regaining mobility in her leg and ankle. Cecily loves playwriting and hiking. She is looking forward to submitting her plays to competitions or festivals.

This story first touched our hearts on April 28, 2020.

| Writer: Cecily Keynes | Editor: Colleen Walker |
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