The rules under which I lived during most of sophomore year are called, in social and clinical terms, an “eating disorder.” It’s a jarring convergence of terms. Even stranger is the fact that the girl writing those rules was me. Me — normal, a student at Stanford — not a psycho nutcase with a sensational/irrelevant story. That situation belonged to cliché reality TV show stars, who were crazy and self-obsessed. This is our human penchant for being in denial: we see clearly the absurdities of others and rarely in ourselves. Because, yes, it was undoubtedly me, less than two years ago, forcing myself into a highly self-destructive mental structure. Yet all that time, I proudly thought I was in control, and that was a big part of the problem.
In most students’ post-freshman year dorm life, social regularity becomes more self-directed. We have more autonomy in who we see every day and who knows our daily business (which itself can be a major adjustment at the beginning of sophomore year). Fewer people are around to see how we eat. Now, that’s a side note, of course, except that it creates the space for someone trying to escape being observed as eating differently than before. And I began eating very purposefully different. I ate exactly every three hours, which dictated when I woke up each morning.
When my eating scheduled was forced to change, I ignored a traditional lunch or dinner. I could only eat apples or pears between meals. I ate only raw vegetables at dinner, especially those with supposed “negative” calories. I could not drink water at meals, for it diluted digestive acids. I went to the gym with a precisely-timed formula for offsetting food intake. At almost all moments, my mind was concerned with what I was eating, and what I was not eating. These were absolutes.
It sounds insane to me now, but at that time, recalling every ingested ingredient each day and awaiting the scale’s report each week made sense. I was aware of growing more particular, but it was sunny outside, my classes were awesome, I still smiled and life still felt sunny. I didn’t register that my entire day was mentally spent on food or the sustained issues cropping up in my body. Indeed, I had mastered the arts of health and self-discipline. “Disorder” would be the last word I’d use to describe my orderly life. So only now do I see how ironic that word is.
The specificity of an “eating disorder” for many is sourced from a much more general psychological condition: the desire to have control. It’s an innate human trait. We want that sensation, and we often use tangible materials to attain it. Depending on our different personalities and contexts, though, our objects of choice vary widely. My own fixation settled on food and appearance, but for others it’s a grade, a relationship, reputation or tomorrow’s schedule. I think people have a tendency to create security where we can, in reaction to all of the places where we cannot. We intend the best for ourselves, really, but it’s easy to start sacrificing things we didn’t mean to.
In logic and rationale, we will admit we can’t take anything in this material world for granted. But in the most irrational depth of our hearts — the part that truly drives how we live — we’re desperate to prove ourselves wrong. That dissonance is exactly where we trap ourselves in crisis. We still strive for self-dependence and certainty when those things keep breaking down despite us.
My relationship with God is my reality check. To some, this is called “using religion as the preferred coping mechanism” (at least, that’s what I used to say). But the more I learn about what Christ said, and the more I see of humanity in action, my faith in the supposedly impossible simply grows stronger. I’ve noticed how human standards for right and wrong and okay are just so, so messy — they keep foiling us. I wreak havoc on myself and others the more I try to take over, and it’s horrible. There’s a more popular religion, based on self-worship and perfection, that doesn’t make sense to me anymore. We want the last word, control of the day, thinking that that is freedom. But is it, really? I didn’t find freedom there. I believe freedom is somewhere else — a much different, less tangible place.
Many of us seek order in well-disguised disorders, some more extreme than others. A lot of us are dealing with uncertainty in very internalized, painful ways. So, I thought I’d write this column in light of all that. (I was kind of nervous; this column has been cooking mentally for weeks.) Hopefully, my experience can mean something more out here, maybe to you.
Who’da thunk it? Nina talks in other, non-column ways, too. If you don’t see her around in person, email her at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu. Until we meet again next Monday.