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October 27, 2010

The Hunger: A True Story of Anorexia

When Maura Kelly's mother died and her family came unglued, she found a way to cope — but it nearly killed her too.

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The woman pictured is not the author.

Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield/VII

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It was in the eight grade — four years after my mother died — that I first remember becoming unhappy with my body. Every night, after brushing my teeth and squeezing some blackheads, I'd look in the mirror and pound on my abdomen with my fists. Although I know now that it was just an early sign of puberty, I was disgusted by the way my belly had begun to protrude under the band of my underwear. So I got the idea to make it disappear by losing five pounds, then 10, and then 15. Pretty soon I was addicted to losing.

It's a control thing, doctors say, and in my case that was all too true: I needed to organize a world that had been thrown into chaos after my mother died. Her death had come as a complete shock to me; she'd never told me she had cancer, or that she was dying. And with her sudden disappearance, all the things that I'd trusted as absolutes — all the other foundations of my life — began to crumble.

I couldn't believe in God anymore, not when I'd been such an incredibly dedicated little Catholic and all I got in return was a vicious punishment. What kind of system was that? I couldn't believe in my earthly father, a construction-working Irish immigrant who'd become angry, depressed, and dysfunctional — a sad version of the charismatic and fun-loving dad I once knew. I couldn't believe in my own worth anymore, either. Catholicism had set some deep grooves in my soul, and even if I'd rationally given up on God, it was impossible to free myself from the magical thinking that goes along with religious zealotry: Deep down, I thought I must be damned if my mother had been taken away from me. Flawed, cursed, worthless. That was me.

Dieting became a way of imposing an external value system on my flesh: If I could control myself enough to lose another pound, I was that much closer to good. I hoped I could redeem myself.

That Fall, I started my freshman year at an all-girls Catholic high school, and kept chiseling away at myself, trying to purify my soul through the transformation of my body. By October, I was subsisting on almost nothing — about 250 calories a day. I'm amazed I had the energy to get up and go to school every day, let alone keep up with varsity soccer practice. But despite how uncomfortable my body was — I was exhausted and freezing because I had no body fat — my mind felt better than ever. If dieting was my new religion, I was on my way to becoming a saint.

The skinnier I got, the harder it was to keep the adults around me from noticing, although I did everything I could to hide my body. I'd spend lunch hour in the library. I'd change for soccer practice in the bathroom, instead of in the locker room with everyone else. I'd wear extra layers under my school uniform and baggy clothes at home — not that they did much to quell my father's growing suspicions.

He and I seemed to do nothing but scream at each other. Our fights almost always reduced me to sobs — which just induced him to get louder. "Why are you crying? I wish I could cry," he'd taunt. "But what would happen to us if I lay down and cried? This family would fall apart!" I'd despise myself for being a baby, but the more I hated myself, the harder it was to stop my tears.

Our fights often began over the news headlines, like abortion and capital punishment. On the surface, those clashes were political: I was a budding liberal and he was a Reagan-loving Republican. But I think I was also arguing that I deserved to have control over my body, and by extension, my mind. I wanted to be free of that miserable house, and the deadly gloom that had descended on it, and my own depression.

As I continued to wither, my father kept on shouting, but he also began to cajole. "Please eat," he'd say. "For me? A little food's not going to hurt you." As satisfying as it was to hear him plead, the better pleasure was knowing that I finally had the power I wanted — over my body, and over him.

So I stopped caring about what he thought, focusing instead on living up to my own standards of starvation. As long as I concentrated on them, I didn't have time to dwell on anything else — not when my head was so full of caloric calculations, and my body so empty.

By November, things started happening that I couldn't cover up with clothes or lies. My feet had gotten so thin that my soccer cleats had cut holes into the skin around my ankles; after several weeks, the resulting sores got so bad that I started to hobble. One day, when I could barely walk, my coach called me over. "You look terrible out there — like a drunk with two broken feet," she said, forcing a laugh. "What's going on?"

I made some excuse, but she had me sit out the rest of practice.

When I got home that afternoon, my coach had left a message for my father on our answering machine. "Could you please call me as soon as you can?" her recorded voice said. I erased it.


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