Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia, by Harriet Brown
Imagine that you’re standing in a bakery. Not just any bakery—the best bakery in Paris, its windows fogged, crowded with people who jostle for space in front of its long glass cases. The room is fragrant and you can’t take your eyes off the rows of cinnamon rolls and croissants, iced petits fours, flaky napoleons and elephant ears.
And you’re hungry. In fact, you’re starving. Hunger is a tornado whirling in your chest, a bottomless vortex at your core. Hunger is a tiger sharpening its claws on your tender insides. You stand in front of the glass cases, trying to swallow, but your throat is dry and your stomach clenches and contracts.
You want more than anything to lick the side of an éclair, swirl the custard and chocolate against your tongue. You dream about biting off the end of a cruller, feeling the give of the spongy dough, the brief molecular friction of the glaze against your teeth, flooding your mouth with sweetness. The woman beside you reaches into a white paper bag, pulls out a hunk of sourdough roll. You see the little puff of steam that flares from its soft center. You breathe in the warm yeasty smell it gives off. She pops it into her mouth and chews and you chew along with her. You can almost taste the bread she’s eating. Almost.
But you can’t, not really, because how long has it been since you’ve tasted bread? A month? A year? An eternity. And though your stomach grinds against your backbone and your cheeks are hollow, though the tiger flays your belly, you can’t eat. You want to, you have to, but your fear is greater than your hunger. Because when you do—when you choke down a spoonful of plain yogurt, five pretzel sticks, a grape—that’s when the voice in your head starts up, a whisper, a cajoling sigh: You don’t need to eat, you’re strong, so strong. That’s right. Good girl.
Soon the whisper is a hiss filling the center of your head: You don’t deserve to eat. You’re weak, unworthy. You are disgusting. You don’t deserve to live. You, you, you. The voice is a drumbeat, a howl, a knife sunk in your gut, twisting. It knows what you’re thinking. It knows everything you do. It has always been inside you and it always will be. The more you try to block it out, the louder it becomes, until it’s screaming in your ear: You’re fat. You’re a fat pig. You make everyone sick. No one loves you and no one ever will. You don’t deserve to be loved. You’ve sinned and now you must be punished.
So you don’t eat, though food is all you think about. Though all day long, wherever you are—doing homework, sitting with friends, trying to sleep—part of you is standing in the bakery, mesmerized with hunger and with fear, the voice growling and rumbling. You have to stand there, your insides in shreds, empty of everything but your own longing. There will be no bread for you, no warm, buttery pastries. There’s only the pitiless voice inside your head, high-pitched, insistent, insidious. There’s only you, more alone than you’ve ever been. You, growing smaller and frailer. You, with nowhere else to go.
The voice is part of you now, your friend and your tormentor. You can’t fight it and you don’t want to. You’re not so strong, after all. You can’t take it and you can’t get away. You don’t deserve to live. You want to die.
This is what it feels like to have anorexia.
I’ve never had anorexia, but I’ve lived with it. I’ve observed it closely in someone I love: my oldest daughter, Kitty, who was 14 when she got sick. I watched as the upbeat, affectionate, empathetic girl I knew became furious and irrational, withdrawn and depressed, obsessed with food but unable to eat. I saw her writhe in terror, heard her beg my husband and me for help and then, in the same breath, shriek that we were trying to poison her, to make her fat, to kill her. I heard a voice I did not recognize come out of her mouth, saw her face changed beyond knowing. I held her in my arms and felt the arc of every rib, counted the bones in her elbows, saw her breastbone press out through the paper-thin skin of her chest. I felt her body shake and knew that whatever comfort I offered it wasn’t enough, it was nothing in the face of the thing that was stripping the flesh from her bones and the light from her eyes.
I had no idea anorexia was like that.
Learn more about the book at harrietbrown.com.