My name is Jeffrey Holmes, and I have a story to tell that people need to hear. In the autumn of 2012, I entered West Chester University as an English BSED with the aspirations of becoming a Mr. Holmes to a class of students that needed to know their Shakespeare and their Dante. I ate at the Lawrence Dining Hall, and I studied at the library whenever I had work that needed to be done. On the surface, I was merely another college student, much like the people that I hope are reading these words right now. However, there was a clincher: my body weight, upon entering West Chester, was a standard 175 lbs for a person of my height. The start of my sophomore year, this past fall, I had dipped to a mere 125 lbs. Instead of beating around the bush, allow me to address this directly: after the substantial loss of roughly fifty pounds, I became a victim of anorexia nervosa.
By definition, anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder in which the patient intentionally restricts their food intake, maintains an abnormal diet, and obsessess over their figure. In many cases, the person with anorexia also develops bodily dysmorphic disorder, in which all perceptions of the body become distorted and inaccurate and are exacerbated by mirrors. According to ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders, over half of American teen girls and one-third of American teen boys use unhealthy methods to control their body weight, such as skipping meals, crash dieting, or using laxatives at same point in their adolescence. Additionally, anorexia ranks as the third most common mental illness among these adolescents. Perhaps what is most alarming is this: out of the 24 million Americans that suffer from my disorder, only 10 percent receive treatment. Those malefic stirrings of isolation are what bring me to addressing this matter in front of my entire school, exposing myself on what is one of the most vulnerable and naked levels possible. I do not want anyone else to feel like this is a struggle they have to face alone.
The actual process of developing anorexia is unique to each case, so allow me to explain what happened to me. Unrelated to this condition, a car accident I was in resulted in chronic back pain. This past summer, I worked a job in retail that aggravated this pain which led to me being unable to work out. No more running, no more basketball; my body could not handle it in conjunction with my job. This instilled a fear in me that I would gain more weight and become obese, much like the middle school incarnation of myself. So, to counteract this, I started restricting food. Restrictions turned into skipped meals, and skipped meals turned into days without food. My stomach had physically shrunk. My roommate at the time tried to get me to eat more, throwing fully-portioned meals at me, but my body rejected it, my stomach being unable to maintain much at a given time. The process taking place inside of my mind, however, was far less human.
I had broken mankind’s instinct of eating to live. I could sit down at a dinner table with my roommate and his family this past summer, or I could sit down with my friends at West Chester. The actual motion of reaching down with a hand to carry food and liquid to the mouth was so effortless, carried with the kind of finesse I had never paid mind to before. Eating is such a natural action for people that it felt like no one even noticed the trepidation in my eyes and the tremors of my hand as I reached down to try to carry a bit of something to my mouth. I was unable to stomach normal-sized portions of food, and questions of, “why haven’t you finished your rice, Jeff? Isn’t rice your favorite?” led to gauche moments I was far from prepared to deal with. To appease my friends and avoid awkwardness, I would force myself to stomach a full meal, but going three days without eating anything prior meant I would not have the stomach for whatever I was putting into myself. Then came the excuses to go the bathroom. “I didn’t go once I finished my shift. My food got my hands sticky, so I need to wash them.” At first, so many people just went with it. Despite the darkening of my mood and the change in my demeanor moving into mealtime, no one suspected that I had an eating disorder. People had noticed my body had lost weight, but my clothes were too baggy at this point to reveal that I was literally wasting away under my shirt and pants. Those closest to me latched onto what was going on once I worsened. My moods went from unpredictable to essentially nonexistent. I would either lash out at the most trivial situations, or I would have zero reaction to what was considerably severe. By now, the month is October, and I finally found the courage to tell someone that I might be having a problem.
My roommate at West Chester was the first person to know. I had enough of a grasp on my emotions to pull myself together and ask for a modicum of his time to confess, “I have an eating disorder, and I need help.” I threw a burden on him that neither of us knew how to deal with. It seems to be a common conception that men do not get eating disorders. Men are too strong to be affected by the images seen on a magazine or in a television to feel the need to conform to them. This mold of a stoic, unfaltering man may go on in American culture, but whatever he was, I wasn’t. I was here, in a parking lot, confessing to my best friend that I had been letting my body rot.
The next major event in this story happened a little over a week after this confession. After nearly a week of ingesting nothing, I was sent from this school to the Chester County Hospital emergency room. My muscles were atrophying. An intravenous was shooting electrolytes and vitamins into my body. I spent five hours taking questions of “why do you want to kill yourself?” juxtaposed with the more logical “when was the last time you ate?” I didn’t really answer most of these. It was more of a groan and the shifting of hazy eyes. It didn’t occur to me that day, but the truth was as follows: I was dying. A boy of 19, not even at the halfway point of his college career was dying, ready to leave his friends and his sister behind. I’m beyond appalled knowing that low point wasn’t the convincing factor for me to finally start seeing a specialist.
Life went on, somehow. I passed my classes that semester, somehow. The start of this current semester, my three closest friends chose to sit down with me inside one of the dormitories one afternoon. With the heaviest tears in his eyes, my roommate, in the middle of these three, looked at me and said, “I’ve already lost before. I’m not losing another.” Everyone that I cared about was being directly affected by the neglect I had shown my body. People that I loved were hurt. The single best friend I had was in front of me, crying that he wasn’t going to get to hang on to me for much longer. Flashes of being inside the emergency room were in my mind’s eye once more, and it finally clicked: I was dying.
Later that week, I found a doctor specializing in eating disorder therapy in Exton. Every session was far from any expectation: there was less unpacking of the physical and more of the mental. What broke my train of thought and my instinct to reject food? Why did I lose perception of my body? Details spared, I learned more about my upbringing and how it shapes the person I am to some degree. I began to realize exactly to what degree my self-loathing was, and how my lack of self-love created self-inhibition.
That brings me to the present. There is no happy ending because this story is far from over. My longest streak of eating two meals a day, which is my current goal, is seven weeks. That doesn’t mean I didn’t relapse and went a day without eating and a day with only a single meal over a week ago. I’m not celebrating a victory because I’m genuinely scared of my own mortality. Victories or losses aside, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own reasons for deciding to fight against my condition. I have people that love me, and I’ll be damned if I don’t love them with all my heart. I have goals, just like any other college student. But the one lesson that anorexia has taught me is that I value myself.
In rejecting death, this organic sense of purpose had finally developed. Today, I want to experience life. There are people I have yet to meet, and friends I have yet to make. There are books I haven’t read and songs I haven’t written yet. Most importantly, I need to tell not just one person or two people; I need to tell everyone. I have support, not everyone does. I have a specialist, and someone to take me there every two weeks. Not everyone has this, and I shudder at the mere thought that there are thousands upon thousands of people on this planet living with an eating disorder that are all by themselves. If you are reading this and you feel like I do, you don’t have to feel alone. People at the counseling center on campus are here to talk to; my specialist is a counselor in Exton. ANAD’s website is simply anad.org. My email is listed at the end of this article, go ahead, and reach out to me. I want you to read this and learn that the quality of your life can improve. You might even be able to get better one day! Look at me, I got close enough to dying to finally start living.
Jeffrey Holmes is a second-year student majoring in English with a minor in ethnic studies. He can be reached at JH791223@wcupa.edu.