I don’t know her name, but for all intents and purposes, let’s call her Jennifer.
A fleeting glimpse of Jennifer is enough. We exchange a glance for about two seconds before I break away. As if I could ever forget.
Everything about Jennifer—and girls like her—triggers me. I have memorized her gaunt face, protruding cheekbones, hollowed eye sockets, and pronounced collarbones. I see how she piles on the makeup to soften hard angles and mask the perpetual fatigue. I feel the effects of her sleep deprivation: migraines, brain fog, and lightheadedness. I hear the drag in her step and feel sympathy for those bony legs—subject to acute cramps that jolt her awake in the dead of night.
When was the last time she’d had a decent meal and good night’s sleep? Jennifer hasn’t the faintest idea, nor does she care. Hunched over in hunger, her skeletal shoulders flinch defensively everytime someone touches her. Most of all, she harbors an abject hatred for mirrors, unable to recognize or face the monster she’s created. What is happening? Why do I no longer look like me? Can I ever go back?
I may no longer look like Jennifer, but there’s no fooling her. For neither my fleshiness nor her litheness can disguise the fact that we’re two peas in a pod. Branded by our common experience and sporting the same battle scars, we belong to a category of people hardwired to live in our heads and never feel comfortable in our own skin. Right now she’s hiding behind excessive makeup, and me extra layers of fat, but the second our eyes meet, the jig is up.
ED recovery is hard enough without triggers like Jennifer. The way ahead has been paved with frequent indigestion, perpetual abdominal bloat, uneven distribution of regained weight, the vengeance of two years’ worth of PMS, and constant confusion that comes with still thinking I’m a thin person but no longer inhabiting the body of one (and the redundancy of almost two-thirds of my wardrobe). It’s well and good to talk about rebuilding a loving relationship with food and your body, but know this, ED recovery is no walk in the park.
I long to make Jennifer, and all other triggers that threaten to derail my ED recovery, disappear with the wave of a magic wand. So I do that—in my head. I mentally compose a “Trigger Box,” into which go Jennifer and the rest of my “trigger list,” including (but is not limited to): thinspo blogs, celebrity magazines, weighing scales, food labels, calorie-counting apps, cooking, baking, my running shoes and weights, the gym and treadmill, and all “petite”-sized clothes I once starved myself into. The Trigger Box is sealed (and reinforced) with duct tape, and I scribble with a red marker “DO NOT OPEN” before hurling it down the basement, i.e. the deepest recesses of my subconscious.
As Jennifer’s gaze bores into my back, I can feel her desire to reach out and connect, but I refuse to engage. She’s silent but the cacophony of her thoughts is deafening. You busted your ass to be thin, only to throw it all away? How could you? What will you do now?
“Excuse me! Wait!” she calls out, her low, gravely voice stopping me in my tracks.
I have no choice but to turn and look her squarely in the eyes, which are wide with a strange mix of curiosity and fear. “Were you talking to me? How can I help you?”
Jennifer bites her lower lip nervously, before launching into spurts of short sentences. “Yes, you. Thanks for stopping. I’m sorry if this is abrupt. I’ll make this quick. I just wanted to know … what’s recovery like? I mean, what’s it look like?”
“You’re referring to … ?” I mouth the words ‘eating disorder.’
She nods, her eyes fixed intently on mine.
“I don’t know,” I reply, “but I hope that if and when I get there, I can tell you.”
“I don’t wanna do this anymore,” she mutters in a low breath, “but I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Being fat. I could never let myself recover unless someone could assure me a hundred percent I wouldn’t get all plus-sized. D’you know what I mean?”
“I do. But I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything. I don’t even know where this is heading.”
“So you just jumped in? With your eyes closed?” Jennifer asks, incredulous and taken aback. “You’re so brave!”
Am I? Until she mentions it, I hadn’t really thought about how I’d cope if I settled into a post-ED size of anything that fell outside my comfort zone of a US 6/UK 10. Suddenly aware how swiftly I’m edging toward a US 8/UK 12, I feel seized with a newfound fear of the unknown. Gee, thanks, Jennifer.
“I have to go. Can I give you my number? You’ll call me when you get there?” she asks.
We part with awkward smiles, her cell phone number programmed in my mobile as a personal reminder to get better, even if not on Jennifer’s terms.
Does a huge part of me hope my ED recovered size falls within a range that isn’t too hard to accept? Of course. But being called brave is something new. Maybe there’s something to be said about having “jumped in with my eyes closed” and representing a fragment of hope for someone else who’s still contemplating.
And just like that, Jennifer escapes from my Trigger Box.
[to be continued]