18 years ago I found myself drawn to a light switch.
Turning the lights on and off became an ordeal as every room’s light switch hypnotized me into gliding my fingers across it, pressing my fingertips against the smooth plastic until it satisfied me.
A similar undertaking occurred with door knobs. I felt the intense need to wrap my hands tightly around the knob, releasing it and then grasping it again. I did this until the tightness in my stomach dissolved, until I felt calm enough to walk away.
Around the same time, intrusive thoughts infiltrated my mind. They began as the mispronunciation of words in my inner dialogue, mispronunciations that I could not correct. I used all of my force to edit the articulation of vowels and consonants in my mind, mouthing the words to myself over and over, but I often failed. My own mind had banned me from controlling my thoughts.
My intrusive thoughts soon escalated into repulsive images. While on vacation in New York City I envisioned myself jumping in front of subway trains. At school, I pictured myself screaming profanities in the middle of conversations with friends. At home, I grew terrified of snapping in the middle of the night and murdering my family.
I convinced myself that I was “insane” and that no one else experienced “crazy” thoughts like mine. I went to great lengths to prevent them from coming to fruition, telling my mom that I was having nightmares so that I could sleep with her every night for three years. I also developed a skin picking disorder, which caused me to spend hours picking at my hairline until it was covered in fresh blood and scabs. I was terrified of myself, but I swore myself to secrecy. The last thing I wanted was to end up in a mental asylum. If only someone would have told me that my intrusive thoughts and compulsions were not a sign of psychopathy, but rather a nasty flavor of OCD.
Upon entering my sophomore year of high school, the majority of my most distressing OCD symptoms mutated when a new monster entered my life.
This monster made its official entrance in December 2008 when my family and I spent the winter break in New York City, which had become a holiday tradition of sorts. My previous holidays in the Big Apple had been spent agonizing over what I believed to be my impending suicide by subway train, but that year I had different concerns. I spent every waking and sleeping moment dreaming about food, planning what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, but I did very little eating.
Over the Christmas weekend, we stayed at our friends’ vacation home in the Pocono Mountains, which was a two-hour drive from Manhattan. On Christmas morning, I awoke from a disturbed sleep, discerning the sound of my family’s laughter in the dining room. I rose from my bed and trudged to the dining room, where I caught a momentary glance of my father’s kind eyes and my mother’s sparkling smile. My vision went black before I could even say “good morning.” I heard a heavy thud as my body hit the floor.
By a miracle of God or by luck, my head missed the edge of a china cabinet by a few inches. I convinced my family to let this fainting incident slide, chalking it up to a common case of orthostatic hypotension.
Upon my return home to Texas, I was no longer the “foreseeing, sagacious, versatile, sharp, mindful” animal that Cicero called a human. The monster transformed me into a different breed, which experienced life through a dark and feverish lens, seesawing between a sense of futility and aimless ambition. Like any youth, I had goals of being admired, loved and accepted; I had dreams of achieving control and of being the best, but my mind’s thoughts convinced me that I would never ever attain these things. I tried to silence my thoughts the only way that I knew how: compulsions.
This time my compulsions took the form of exercise obsessions, calorie fixations and social avoidance. I developed compulsive fidgeting, exercise rituals and other involuntary acts to burn calories all day. While I barely passed my math class, I excelled at totaling calorie counts, adding them up and multiplying the numbers in my head. I rejected social invitations and in the rare cases that I did say yes, I collapsed into a panic if the social occasion involved food.
One evening when I was 16, my friends and I went to eat dinner at Jason’s Deli. After we ordered our food, we sat down at a table in the center of the restaurant and waited for our meals. As we waited, my chest began to feel tight and my breathing shortened. I noticed dozens of beady, gleaming eyes from the tables on all sides of me; they were staring at me, watching me, judging me. When the Jason’s Deli employee placed my sandwich in front me, I lost it. I cried hysterically as I realized that Death had arrived to take me as his prisoner. The lights dimmed, my vision went dark, my heart hammered against my chest, my hands trembled, my mouth watered, my legs went numb. I wanted to ask for help but the terror of sensing my legs flipping over my head paralyzed me. I was falling backward and I became detached from reality.
When I came to my senses, I was sitting in an ambulance with a kind EMT helping me calm my breathing. As you may have guessed, I did not die at Jason’s Deli that night, but rather experienced my first panic attack — all in response to a sandwich.
Before my doctor diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa, I thought that eating disorders were lifestyle choices for the vain and privileged. Never in a million years did I imagine that an eating disorder would impact my life and become yet another obsession, another compulsion, another source of anxiety.
Now that I am 23 and I have been in recovery for almost eight years, anorexia no longer dominates my life, but the me of now and the me of then still share a great deal in common. I can now order sandwiches, buttery white bread, chicken wings, french fries, sugary cocktails and any other calorie source that you can imagine without succumbing to panic attacks, but I still often suffer gut-wrenching anxiety as a result of my food choices and eating habits. I limit my workouts to three times per week, but I still feel anxious during those four days of the week when I don’t go to the gym. Even though I have not yet recovered with a capital ‘D’, I have made such impressive progress that I can send my eating disorder scurrying around in fear because I no longer restrict my food intake or surrender to food rules. But now that I manage my eating disorder, several of my OCD symptoms are back with a vengeance.
For me, anorexia replaced OCD and OCD replaced anorexia. Both of these disorders serve similar purposes: they help me cope with and block out my feelings, emotions and worries. They numb me and preoccupy me. My brain is wired to ruminate and obsess about a panini I ate hours ago or about a light switch instead of thinking about what is truly bothering me — the inordinate amount of school work that I have due and the fact that I will not be satisfied with anything less than an A; the fact that I don’t know what career path I want to pursue and I put far too much pressure on myself; the health of my 91-year-old grandmother, my father who has a cyst in his cerebellum and suffers from recurrent infections, or my brother who has cerebral palsy. I often struggle to pinpoint and identify the exact source of my anxiety, but I can always be certain about one thing: it isnever about the panini or the light switch.