Anxiety as a Contributing Factor
I had always been a shy child, but my social anxiety became unbearable in middle school. I couldn’t raise my hand in class even if I knew 100% that I knew the answer. If I had to read out loud, even a paragraph, I would spend the entire class dreading when it would be my turn to read, to the point that I could barely breathe. I couldn’t think straight. My face burned. My whole body shook. For the rest of the day ALL I could think about was how I sounded reading that paragraph. I could think of nothing else. It makes no sense looking back and sounds very silly, but I literally could not function. When called on at random in class, I’d lose my voice, turn bright red, and experience previously mentioned symptoms. I was very comfortable with my core group of friends, but anyone outside of that group of friends I would react to as if they were ready to crucify me. I couldn’t hold conversation with anyone who was not someone I’d have a sleepover with to save my life. I quit cheerleading, gymnastics, and softball to avoid being in social settings with peers because I didn’t know how to talk to them, felt bullied by some of them, and became very insecure in my own abilities. It was odd, though, because I was so normal and comfortable with my close friends, my parents, and my stepparents. If it was a peer, a teacher, or even my grandparents, however, talking was a terribly frightening thing. Gaining weight was a terribly frightening thing. Being noticed was a terribly frightening thing. Things out of my control made me so angry that I’d feel sick. I didn’t know how to properly express my anger, however, because I was too scared to appear out of control. I’d either hold it all in or explode around my parents.
I had a lot of trouble with my father’s 3rd wife, who would send me very mixed signals. One day she would tell me how pretty or talented or smart I was, the next she would tell me I was a terrible drama queen or she would simply ignore me. I wanted her approval terribly, so when I’d go to my dad’s house and she’d just lock herself away from me, I would feel so confused. So yes, I would act dramatically. I would cry. I would yell. I started avoiding my father, mostly because I was uncomfortable being a young woman with someone to whom I’d always been a little girl; but I would try my hardest to gain the affections of my step mom. The issues with my stepmother went far deeper than is expressed here and I do believe my eating disorder became full throttle as I attempted to deal with this situation in my home life.
Trigger Warning: The Early Behaviors and Family Life
Around 14 or 15 I began exercising in my room or I’d sneak downstairs at night and walk laps around my kitchen. I decided to ‘eat healthier’ although my idea of healthy was ‘eat less’. I didn’t want to feel the fabric of my pants. I had lost my identity as being ‘little’ because I was no longer the ‘short one’. I felt like I needed to fit in to the mold of being ‘little’ because I thought it was what was expected of me. I began skipping breakfast. I’d make my own dinner and eat it separately from my mother and her boyfriend [whom we lived with]. Sometimes I’d go all day without eating and then just eat one big meal before bed. I didn’t think it was weird. I just thought I was ‘being healther’.
I’d go out for walks or jogs at night because I didn’t want to be seen exercising because I suppose that, somewhere in the depths of my mind, I knew that what I was doing wasn’t normal. When my mom would tell me it was too late and too dark to go for a run or walk, sometimes I’d sneak out. If she caught me, I’d wait until she went to bed and then I would go downstairs and do 10 sets of 100 jumping jacks, crunches until my stomach hurt, pushups, and walk as many laps around the downstairs as I could until my legs vibrated.
I began to weigh myself obsessively. This was a difficult task because the scale was in my mom and her boyfriend’s room, so I’d have to wait for them to leave the house. If they were downstairs, I’d tiptoe in to the room. I’d step on the scale 3-5 times in a row just to see if it changed. I’d repeat this behavior throughout the day. I became obsessed with the number on the scale and if it went up even 1/10th of a pound, I would punish myself with more exercise or less food.
For parents, I was not a fun teenager to deal with. Everything stressed me out. I cried often. If I got really mad, I’d just refuse to eat. For some reason I thought it was a great way of saying, ‘I’m angry’ to my parents. I didn’t realize I was not only hurting them, but I was hurting myself. I also felt so powerful and in control when I didn’t eat.
Back to my stepmother: by my senior year of high school, my stepmother had been hospitalized at least 7 times for suicide attempts and was diagnosed with some form of bipolar disorder, though we’re still not sure if that was an accurate diagnosis. I’d visit her in the psychiatric hospital. When she was home her mood would swing from incredibly kind to incredibly unstable. One hour she was my best friend, the next she’d break down sobbing because she couldn’t find a pair of scissors or she’d begin yelling at my dad because I was watching television on a Sunday morning. Going to my dad’s house felt like walking on broken glass because I never knew which side of her personality to expect. All I wanted was for her to like me, but I didn’t know what normal activity I could or could not do at that house because it might send her in to hysterics.
Comfort in Animals
What is the relevance of this? Well, to put it simply: I believe the easiest way for me to deal with this seemingly out of control situation was to find my own control. I couldn’t control whether my step mother would be nice to my father and I, or whether she’d be happy or sad in any given moment, but I could control my weird food habits. My exercising “in secret” increased. Sometimes I’d go for days without anything but fruit and then reward myself with 2 bowls of cereal after I had restricted myself from food for what I deemed to be long enough.
The very last time I saw my stepmother was in the ER, after an attempted overdose. Earlier in that week she had told me that she had hated me since I was 12, but now she liked me. She thought she was complimenting me. I had no idea what to make of that sentiment. She was hospitalized after the attempted overdose and later announced she wanted a divorce from my father and never said goodbye to me. At the same time, my mother and her boyfriend of over 10 years separated. The divorce proceedings began when I was a sophomore in college and they were very messy. I was far away from home and felt helpless. I felt like all of the structure I had known growing up was disappearing. I have no idea where my (ex)stepmother is today, or how she is doing. I hated her for a long time, but I now understand that she was very sick and how she acted had nothing to do with me and that I hadn’t actually done anything to cause her behavior. I still dream about her sometimes.
Growing Up Alex: College and the After Years will be posted on Monday 3/31/2014. Make sure to follow the blog to receive an e-mail for when it’s posted or follow it on Bloglovin‘!