Hello, My Name is Dennett and I am an Anorexic

I was 19; the year was 1973. The pocket of my jeans held my last $100 as I drove 1,500 miles from Maine to Florida in my 1968 Toyota Corona crowded with every item I owned.

Most of the $100 went to rent a mobile home and turn on my utilities. Since I was a young girl living alone in an unfamiliar city, I adopted a dog from the local humane society for $5, which included a small bag of dog food.

I arrived on a Thursday and started my new job on Monday. I would make $1.80 per hour on the evening shift at a semiconductor company, and my first paycheck was three weeks away. I had $10 to last 21 days.

In 1973, Campbell’s Soup sold for five cans for $1, so I bought 15 of tomato, my favorite, and an 80-cent quart of milk because I like my tomato soup creamy. Tuna was three for $1, so six were added to my grocery cart, topped off with a 30-cent loaf of bread. The bag of dog food that came with Chibbe was too small to get him through the three weeks, so I bought 12 cans of dog food for $1.20. I also found a local orange grove that sold a half-gallon of fresh-squeezed juice for 50-cents. I would buy two before I received my first paycheck, as well as another quart of milk. Total spent for groceries and dog food: $9.10. That left me with 90-cents to cover gas. Fortunately, I lived less than a mile from my job and gas was cheap in those days.

Each day for three weeks, I ate one meal consisting of a bowl of tomato soup (half a can) and half a tuna sandwich (one-third of a can and one slice of bread). I drank a 6-oz cup of fresh orange juice in the morning and before bed. If I woke up hungry during the night, I drank another small glass of liquid oranges.

By the end of the three weeks, my clothes were loose. Two years before, my father told someone my ass was as big as the side of a barn, so the weight loss was a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Although I waited three weeks, my first paycheck was for two weeks of work, and since the rent and utility bills would be due before the next payday, I needed to hold onto most of my cash. Another trip to the grocery store and orange grove to purchase the same items, but this time I included a bag of dry dog food. I continued on my tomato soup/tuna/orange juice diet for another two weeks.

Once I was getting a check bi-weekly, I could afford more food. But, I did not want more food. I rarely thought about eating anymore and never felt hungry. In fact, some days I ate just tomato soup or only half a tuna sandwich. My clothes were almost falling off of me. Why buy food? I would rather save money for new clothes!

As time passed, I began eating more but not much more. For my dinner at work, I might indulge in an ice cream sandwich from one of the vending machines lining the breakroom wall, or I may just have black coffee. As I tired of tomato soup and tuna sandwiches, I substituted other foods like a tomato sandwich with a piece of cheese or a plain baked potato.

As I made friends with my co-workers, I joined them after work at a local late-night hangout — a sandwich shop that served beer and wine called Rick’s Treehouse, so named because a living tree grew through the floor in the center of the round bar and up through the ceiling. I guess it was a 70’s thing.

At Rick’s, I allowed myself one or two beers and a handful of whatever free treats were on the bar counter. Occasionally, I shared a sandwich with someone. If I ate, I was sure to spend an at least an hour playing pool or foosball to work off the extra food.

I did not count, notice, or care about calories. But, I was acutely aware of eating more than my new idea of normal and looked for ways to burn off what I was sure would rapidly transform into the pounds I did not want back.

Several months passed. I was the thinnest I’d been since junior high but still was not nearly as slender as many women I knew, and anyone looking at me would probably say I could stand to lose a few pounds more. Honestly, I didn’t think much about my weight or food. In fact, I often forgot to eat — for days. I never felt hungry, so eating slipped my mind like forgetting to clean a dryer’s lint filter.

My mouth was forgetting how to chew and my throat how to swallow. As time passed, most of what I consumed was soft or liquid. I could not swallow a pill. Even a small aspirin left me gagging uncontrollably.

Just before my year anniversary in Florida, the dizziness and fainting spells began. First, I would get dizzy whenever I stood up after reclining or sitting. But the wooziness passed quickly, and I went about my business. These spells went on for three or four months. Then, the fainting started.

My first passing-out experience was on a Saturday after falling asleep while reading on my sofa. A co-worker stopped by and knocked on my front door. I imagine I was startled and rose rapidly although I remember nothing. Diane later told me I opened the door and just stood there with a distant look in my eyes before falling backward to the floor. Fortunately, two of Diane’s brothers were in her car, and they helped move me to the sofa. Their faces were the first things I saw as I came to several minutes later. Other than a few bruises, I was fine.

Another time, I was sitting on the sill of an unscreened third-floor window waiting for the professor of my electronics course to arrive. A fellow student noticed my body swaying slightly. When I did not respond to my name, he ran to the window, catching me before I fell to the ground. Still, I did not associate the dizziness to my restrictive diet.

The scariest of all fainting spells happened when I was driving. I was just leaving a traffic light at an intersection that had a street coming from the left but not the right. I was accelerating, perhaps going five miles an hour, when I lost consciousness and swerved onto the wide right shoulder of the road. It had rained recently leaving the ground mucky enough to stop my car but not embed it in mud. Again, I was not injured but more shaken up than before, enough so that it occurred to me that I was iron-deficient.

Since pills were impossible for me to swallow, I started taking Geritol, a high potency liquid vitamin with iron that I remembered as a major advertiser on the old Lawrence Welk television show. It worked. Within ten days, my dizziness disappeared, fainting spells stopped and, surprisingly, my appetite returned — slowly.

After nearly starving myself for more than a year, even small amounts of food packed on the pounds. I gained ten pounds quickly, then leveled off, not gaining more until after I married eighteen months later.

From Wikipedia:
“Anorexia nervosa, often referred to simply as anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by a low weight, fear of gaining weight, a strong desire to be thin, and food restriction. Many people with anorexia see themselves as overweight even though they are in fact underweight. If asked they usually deny they have a problem with low weight. Often they weigh themselves frequently, eat only small amounts, and only eat certain foods. Some will exercise excessively, force themselves to vomit, or use laxatives to produce weight loss. Complications may include osteoporosis, infertility and heart damage, among others. Women will often stop having menstrual periods.”

Anorexia was medically diagnosed in 1870 but was recognized long before in 1684. However, it did not start to become known to the general public until 1974. I did not know of the word until 1977.

After marrying, my weight ballooned. Within two years, I weighed more than ever, even though I was eating regular, well-balanced meals. I attempted several fad diets that were popular in the late 70’s and 80’s — the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, and the Scarsdale diet, to name a few. Each was as disgusting as the other, and none of them worked past the first week or two.

In 1985, I joined a small gym in a small town near my rural home. The proprietor of the gym, Annemarie, evaluated me sternly and gave me a sheet of paper with the details of a 1,200 calorie a day diet. I started the diet and worked out at her gym for 90 minutes three times a week. I hated the exercise, thought I was dying, and wished I would die. Every inch of my body screamed with pain, but I kept going.

After two weeks, my first weigh-in revealed that I had — wait for it — 

Yes, I GAINED two pounds. I cried — big, splashy tears.

I was faithful to Annemarie’s regimented diet that contained few foods I enjoyed. I worked out religiously. How was it possible I gained two pounds?

Annamarie gave me the yada-yada speech about gaining muscle and muscle weighs more than fat, but she did not even seem to believe what she was saying. She too was perplexed at my weight gain and hinted that I might not have been as faithful to the diet as I claimed. She was wrong. One thing certain about me, once I commit to something, anything, my dedication is 100 percent. Trying to spur some weight loss, she trimmed my daily calories to 1,100 and added a couple of aerobic exercises to my routine.

Two weeks later, another weigh-in. I lost — yeah — one pound.

One measly, lousy, effing pound!

I was still a pound more than when I started at the gym four weeks earlier. Part of me wanted to give up, but a bigger part of me wanted to beat my overweight body into submission.

Against Annamarie’s advice, I cut my calories to 1,000. After two weeks, I was only down 1.5 pounds — a half pound less than I weighed when I began the dieting and exercising debacle. Dammit, I was going to win this war no matter what it took. Annemarie refused to sanction anything less than 1,100 calories a day, so I was on my own.

Chop, chop, I cut down my calories to 900 a day and upped my exercise an additional 30 minutes a week. I started losing more, but never over two pounds a week and often less.

Chop, chop to 800 calories. Annemarie would not allow me to workout at her gym for more time than five hours a week, so I began my weekday mornings with a 20-minute walk.

Unlike my not-eating experience of the 70’s, I counted every, single calorie I put in my mouth. If I chewed a piece of gum, I noted five calories in my food journal. If I took a small taste of anything, I estimated the calories and wrote them down.

Every — single — calorie — for — four — years.

That little food notebook and a book listing foods and calories went with me everywhere.

When my weight loss hit plateaus, I decreased my calories and upped my exercise until I was losing again. In addition to the five hours at the gym and the 20-minute daily walk, I added Dancing to the Oldies with Richard Simmons three times a week, fifteen minutes of daily ab and butt crunches with some woman on TV whose name I don’t recall, and getting up at 2 AM each night/morning to do 30-minutes of leg and arm exercises while watching country music videos. Yes, folks, I did set my alarm, and I did get up to workout at 2 AM, then went back to bed. My then husband was a heavy sleeper and never knew. But, had he known, he wouldn’t have cared.

By the end of this bout of anorexia, my daily calorie count was down to 400 per day during the week and 500 on weekends. In all, I lost sixty-three pounds but still did not reach the original goal weight of 130 pounds set by Annemarie four years earlier. My weight snagged at 136 and would not go lower no matter how much I worked out or how little I ate. Even after losing sixty-three pounds I felt like a failure. A big, fat failure.

Dizzy spells returned, and I passed out a few times, once resulting in a back injury, but nothing bad enough to change my routine until I caught the flu in early November 1989.

Because my body was too depleted to fight a serious illness, I became bedridden and weak, getting worse each day. My husband insisted I go to my doctor who hadn’t seen me in the past four years. Dr. Little commented on my extreme weight loss but didn’t inquire as to how I lost the weight. He was also perplexed as to why I was so weak, but never suspected it was due to near starvation. He asked no questions. He gave me some drugs and sent me home with a diet to help restore my strength. The diet consisted of 1,500 calories a day — a number that horrified me. I threw it in the trash but retrieved it three days later when my physical condition was noticeably worse. I promised myself I would follow the diet just long enough to get well.

Getting well took longer than I expected. By the time I considered myself “healed” and ready to resume my extreme dieting and exercising, I was chosen to manage the computerizing of the office where I worked. Soon I was working 65 hours a week with no time for dieting, exercise, and meticulous calorie-counting. The computer age saved me from full-blown, uncontrollable anorexia.

As before, I immediately began gaining weight. By the time my computerizing work project ended, I was ten pounds heavier. I tried to get back into exercising, but could never regain the passion I had for it previously. I worked out now and then during the year before Annemarie retired and closed her gym. I flirted with dieting, trying unsuccessfully to lose weight without working out. Soon I was twenty pounds heavier. As my marriage deteriorated a few years later, the number on my scale grew larger and larger, along with my body.

In the following years, I tried on several occasions to diet sensibly, but my mind can’t do sensible when it comes to food restriction. Trying to monitor my eating even slightly triggers my anorexic tendencies and I have to back off.

Most addictions require you stay away from a substance — alcohol, drugs, tobacco — to recover. With anorexia, the addiction is not the substance but the avoidance of the substance, food, often coupled with the overindulgence in physical exercise. It is a two-edged sword. To work toward recovery, you must indulge in that which you avoided and avoid that which you indulged.

I was lucky to stop starving and over-exercising before the need of treatments, hospitalization, or therapy. I cannot address the different types of treatments for anorexia or give recommendations because life itself forced me into recovery. Although, in retrospect, I wish I had gone into therapy.

I simply want to hold up a warning sign that says STOP.

STOP before the dieting and exercising get out of control.

STOP before you are sick.

STOP before you need medical intervention.

STOP before you die.

If you can’t stop, and it isn’t easy to stop, ask for help — NOW — before it’s too late.

I am older and a little wiser now. My health means more than my weight. Besides, my current husband would hit the road if I ate and exercised the way I did in the 80's! He once saw a photo of me at 136 pounds and said I was a cadaver — to me, I was still a little chubby.

These days, I am conscious of what I eat and make small, cautious adjustments from time to time. I have lost and gained over recent years, ending up thirty pounds less that I was when I left my previous husband more than thirteen years ago. I attribute most of that to happiness and turning 50 (What a freeing age 50 is!), certainly not diet or exercise. Exercising can easily become an addiction for me, so I limit myself to walking, usually with my husband and dogs.

I am heavier than I should be but healthy. My doctor is not concerned about my weight, and my husband likes me as I am. I am still learning to accept that “happy me” is more important than “thin me” and am always aware that I am, and will always be, in recovery.

I am also allowing myself to enjoy good food, slow walks, and LIFE.

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