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October 27, 2010

The Hunger: A True Story of Anorexia

woman in bikini on beach

The woman pictured is not the author.

Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield/VII

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The next morning, when I tried to get up from my desk after Spanish class, I collapsed. The nun who was my teacher peeled me off the floor, and with her help, I was able to stand, then limp, but it seemed clear my left leg was paralyzed from the knee down. My father took me to my pediatrician, who told me I was so bony that I'd pinched an important nerve simply by crossing my right leg over the left. I'd probably be able to regain feeling — eventually — but only if I gained weight, he said.

As we drove home in my father's red pickup truck, he cried in front of me for the first time since my mother's funeral. He recounted a story about watching his 6-year-old brother die of lockjaw on Christmas Day, less than a week after stepping on a rusty nail. My father's parents were so devastated, his mother barely got out of bed for a year. He'd worried his father would drown himself in the tide off the coast of western Ireland, where they lived. "I'm not sure I'd be able to live with it if I lost you too," my father told me.

I felt sorry for him for going through all that as a little boy, and I knew he was only trying to get me to eat, but the way he put it annoyed me. He made it sound like my suffering was significant not because I was in pain, but because it made his life more miserable.

A couple of weeks later, my father took me to see a New York City eating-disorders specialist, Joseph Silverman. He was a bald man with a maroon silk bow tie that bloomed at the top of his lab coat. Sitting across from him in his fancy office, I felt underdressed in my school uniform, and embarrassed by my father in his jeans and work boots.

"You're in terrible shape," Silverman said after examining me. "I've seen a lot of bad patients, but never anyone whose leg has gone out like yours." I nodded, hoping he wouldn't notice how pleased I was. Being the worst patient meant I was the best at losing. It meant I was tough and in control.

"I'm sure you're happy to hear you're one of the worst cases," he continued, like a mind reader. "But keep it up and more important parts of your body will give out. Your kidneys. Your heart. And I don't have to tell you what happens to people whose hearts stop."

"What — they have heart attacks?"

He nodded. "And some of them die." Only when he said that did I realize death was what I'd been gunning for all along. Of course, the idea of not being alive was terrifying — but at the same time, I wasn't sure I deserved to live.

Fat tears tripped down my face.

Silverman pushed a box of tissues toward me. "Your father is here today because he thinks I can save you," he said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my father pull himself forward toward the desk. "I'd give up my life for her, doctor. Whatever it takes."

Silverman looked at me. "Do you want to get better?"

I paused. "I used to like what was happening to me," I began shakily. "But now I'm scared I'll never be able to stop until . . ." I couldn't say it. "I do want to get better."

After four months I was discharged from the children's ward of Columbia Presbyterian. I weighed 100 pounds, and my leg had improved so much that you wouldn't notice my limp unless you were looking for it.

But it was another 10 years before I got all the feeling back in my foot, and even today, I'm still waiting to emerge from the emotional numbness. Now I realize that, more than anything, losing weight was an attempt to starve certain feelings — of depression and abandonment and worthlessness — before they could destroy me. It was a way to train myself not to care much about anyone else — like my father, whose anger I didn't have any power over, and my mother, who disappeared without giving me a chance to say good-bye — and to focus entirely on the one thing I could control: the size of my body. I became my own parent.

I'm grateful that my real parent, my father, came to my rescue. I wouldn't have made it through without him. But our relationship still isn't easy for me — no close relationship ever has been. Since I left home, I've never truly depended on anyone. I have a hard time staying with any boyfriend for more than three months: I refuse to get intimate with people I might end up losing. And although I don't hide what I eat anymore, I do hide my emotional needs from the men I date.

It seems like there's still so far to go before I'll feel "normal." I'm always worried that I'm not attractive enough, smart enough, young enough, successful enough for someone to love me.

Finally, though, I do feel thin enough.

Maura Kelly's essay is adapted from the anthology Going Hungry (Anchor Books), in bookstores this September.

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