The year was 1993. I was a senior in high school. I had thoroughly enjoyed all four years of my high school career. Throughout high school, I had been involved in cheerleading, swimming, band, choir, and the spring musicals. I had great friends, and although I was far from being one of the most popular kids in school (I was one of those who just sort of walked through the halls un-noticed by most people except for my good friends), we had great times together. I was one of the "good kids". I didn't party, didn't break curfew, had friends who were like me in those aspects. The closest thing we ever did to being considered "bad" was toilet papering our crushes lawns and stalking their houses doing drive-bys over and over again to possibly get a glimpse of the poor unsuspecting schmuck. I was a "comfortable" teenager; greatly looking forward to the upcoming adventure I was to embark on the upcoming fall: college. All my life, I had looked forward to college. My cousins and I used to play college together, turning our houses and bedrooms into dorms and dorm rooms. I had visions of what my life would be like at college; on my own, doing my own thing, carving a future out for myself. The pictures in my mind of what college would be like were painted in large part by my mom who had told me many stories of the time that she spent in college; the great friends she made, the things she did, the activities she was involved in.
The plan was to go to the Nazarene college in Bethany, Oklahoma. I had family there, had spent time there in the summers visiting my cousins; and that is where my mom went to college. I was familiar with the town, familiar with the college campus, and because of the time I spent there in the summers with my cousins, I knew a few people. I knew that I was headed for the adventure of a lifetime. And I couldn't wait. The application was submitted, accepted, and dorm arrangements were made. Now all I had to do was wait....
Second semester of my senior year was in full swing. Rehearsals for the spring musical, "The Music Man" were beginning. Chamber Singers (the choir I was in) were performing up to two times a day at various locations. I was working part time after school at KFC. Needless to say, I was a busy senior. And I was enjoying it. I was also dating someone who I worked with at KFC (much to the chagrin of my parents who were less than pleased about it....ironically, I ended up marrying this guys best friend 10 years later....).
As the semester wore on, and summer was fast approaching, I noticed that my Chamber Singers dress was fitting a little more snugly than it had before. The aforementioned boyfriend also once made a comment about me being "squishy" when he was hugging me. This could be attributed to the fact that I worked at KFC and constantly snacked on the less than healthy, albeit very tasty, food that we made there. Regardless of the reason, I wanted to go to college healthy and aware of my food choices so that I would not fall victim to the dreaded "freshman fifteen".
My mom, being a "chronic weight watcher" had all the stuff necessary for me to learn how to eat; not necessarily lose weight, but just learn how to make smart choices where food is concerned. So, I pulled out all of her old Weight Watchers materials and began to use the program. I learned how many carbs were "OK" per day, how many proteins, veggies, fruits and fats....a word I had truly learned to fear and hate. Also allotted were optional calories which came in the form of salad dressing, candy, gum, etc. Yes....optional calories could be used on gum. No longer would I stick a piece of gum without calculating how many of my precious optional calories I was using.
Within the first week, I had lost seven pounds. It wasn't necessarily my intention, but since it had happened, I wasn't disappointed. My chamber singers dress fit well again, and my snug fitting jeans weren't quite so snug.
Week after week, I continued to lose weight. I could no longer go to restaurants without carrying my precious cheat book that showed me how many carbs, proteins, etc....each potential food item contained. If what I wanted to order was not listed, or I couldn't figure it out with certainty, I wouldn't order it. Eating out became a chore rather than a pleasure. Something to fear, rather than enjoy.
Once I hit a certain weight, my mom told me I needed to start using the tools to maintain my weight, not continue losing. But this meant increasing my daily allotment to which I had become so used to, and also (in my mind) meant gaining weight back, rather than maintaining it. It was a risk I was unwilling to take. In fact, the more pressure I got to increase to maintain, the lower I went in my daily portions. It became something I could control that no one else could....what I didn't realize, was that I was losing control...
As the summer continued, and the days got closer to packing up and moving hundreds of miles away from the only home I had every known, fear began to set in. At the time, I didn't realize that it was fear. I continued to maintain the illusion of excitement over "flying the coop". Over the course of the summer, I had gone from weighing about 125 lbs (a very healthy weight for someone who is 5 feet 5 inches tall) to weighing around 100 lbs by the end of the summer. My diet consisted of salads with a single tablespoon of fat free Italian dressing (which counted as 5 optional calories) and baby carrots for snack. I would frequent the grocery store almost every day to get a 2 lb bag of baby carrots and munch on those when the need to eat something hit me. After leaving the grocery store, I would go through the Drive-Thru at McDonalds and buy a large Diet Coke. It was the middle of the summer, yet I was cold all of the time. I can specifically remember one instance when I was going to the grocery store where I felt like I was in a daze; I was dressed in very baggy jeans (that two months ago had been too tight) and a sweatshirt and I still felt cold.
My friendships began to suffer. I no longer communicated with any of my friends from high school. Something within me had lost the ability to enjoy life and just be. Every day activities made me nervous and stressed out. I was most comfortable sitting at home watching TV and the clock counting down the hours until the next meal time arrived. Would it be something I could tolerate? Would the meal "calculate" within what I was still allotted for the day? I filled myself up on diet soda because it made me feel "full" yet it wasn't giving me any dreaded calories or fat.
Finally, the time came to pack up and leave for college. I remember one Sunday morning sitting in church with my mom and a feeling of great anxiety and depression overcame me. I wrote my mom a note that said something like, "I have been excited for college for so long. I feel like I should be excited, but I just feel depressed." I couldn't grasp why I was feeling this way. I wanted to be excited so badly. But all I felt was sa black cloud hanging over my head.
The day arrived to leave for school. The drive was about 12 hours. I don't remember much about the drive out there, except for the fact that when you're on the road, there aren't many options for eating except stopping at fast-food restaurants. Suffice it to say, at this point, fast food was not an option for me. Unless I wanted a salad. But the only type of "safe salads" you can get a fast food restaurant are side salads, and even then, they didn't have the right type of dressing.
When I arrived at school, orientation involved all sorts of "getting to know you" activities. I got right in there and put myself out there and made some friends right away. I was bound and determined to make this work for me. My roommate situation wasn't ideal. I spent most of my time I had made with girls from other floors. I got right in there, and did my best to be brave when my parents left me and headed back home.
The cafeteria at school was not fun for me. I stuck to half sandwiches with tiny amounts of meat, or cereal. I wasn't able to use my scales to see how much meat I was eating, or see the calorie count on the bread I was consuming. So rather than risk that I was eating more than I should, I quit going to the cafeteria.
Within about two weeks of arriving at college, I got very ill. I had no energy and I couldn't concentrate. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. My grandmother, who lived just a few blocks from campus took me to the doctor, and after some blood tests it was determined that I had mono. Arrangements were made for my parents to come back and pick me up and take me home immediately. I was torn. I desperately wanted to go home where I felt safe and secure again, but at the same time, I felt like a failure for not being able to do what all of the other 18 year olds were doing; succeeding and having fun at college. I so badly wanted to stay and feel "normal" again. But I had to go home.
My dad came and picked me up. The day I left school was bittersweet. Even if I did get to come back later, would it be the same? Everyone else will have already made friends. I would be behind. Could I come back recovered and still have the great college experience I so longed for?
The remainder of the semester, I spent most of the time laying on the couch at my parent's house. They began the task of nursing me back to health. They got in touch with a well-known nutritionist in our area and I began seeing her once or twice a week. My mom asked me to trust her and let her prepare things for me to eat and trust that she wouldn't give me anything that made me fat. I told her that I would try, but when the first morning I was home she gave me an English muffin with peanut butter and honey on it, I panicked. That was two breads, two proteins, two fats and my entire allottment of optional calories for the day. That one little breakfast contained everything I allowed myself for the day at that point. How was I going to do this?!
It was difficult being back home for me; not only because of the failure I felt I was, but because it was blatantly obvious that my brother was not thrilled at the prospect. He was a junior in high school and I'm fairly confident was happy to be the only child for awhile. Not to mention that my parents were investing so much of their time and effort on me. I sometimes have blamed myself for the path he went down due to my illness.
As fall and winter came, I began to regain some health. My nutritionist told me that if I was able to gain to 110 lbs by the end of the semester, she would feel comfortable allowing me to go back to school second semester. I actually even got a part time job at TCBY after I had recovered from mono. It was in my plans to go back in January. And I did. But there was more difficulty to come....
My precious daughter, Kristen, is a survivor. In fact, our whole family could be classified as such. We went through at least ten years of really tough stuff.
We were a very normal, everyday family for many years. Often DC and I would comment on the serious trials of other families and wonder why we had been spared such trauma. We marveled at the faith and stamina of some couples we knew who had stuck together through thick and very thin.
We had our usual squabbles with and between the kids; life wasn't always smooth with Kristen and me. The high school years weren't as much fun as the earlier years had been.
Kristen's senior year was a very busy one and we didn't see a lot of each other. Work, school, church, extracurricular activities kept her in a whirl. She seemed to be a very beautiful, happy, well-adjusted young woman on her way to college. The only blip on our screen was the young man she mentioned, and she is telling the whole truth when she says we did not approve. Some of the things she shared with us about his past did not bode well for her future. Frankly, I'm surprised she told us some of the things she did, unless she did it for shock value. She was also very stubborn.
As I mentioned in my most recent post, I have always been concerned about my weight. I often wonder if I modeled too much concern in front of her and set her up for this journey. I wonder if I was too strict, if I was too controlling, if I was too much of a "helicopter" mom.
I very vaguely remember Kristen asking me about my Weight Watchers program I was doing at the time. I shared the literature with her, thinking that if she felt she needed to lose a few pounds, this would be the best way to do it. At that time, the program started with a week of only 900 calories per day. Seems crazy now, but that's what they did that year. It was called Jump Start, if I recall. From there, you added calories each week until you reached a point where you continued to lose weight, but weren't starving yourself. When I realized she had begun the Jump Start week, but never went up in points, I became alarmed. She adopted the philosophy that if 900 calories was good, 800 was better! I could not convince her of the danger. She wasn't going to classes, but was looking to me for guidance. Only she wasn't taking my advice.
I was a delegate to our denomination's international convention that summer in July. I remember as if it were yesterday the call that came to my hotel room after a great day with delegates from around the globe. My world changed that moment when I heard her quavery voice coming across the miles from Colorado to Indianapolis, "Mom, I'm scared. I don't know what to eat." I turned to a statue at that moment. I could not believe what I was hearing. I had no idea things were as bad as they were. I'm learning some of these things for the first time as I read her posts.
I had first heard of anorexia years before. Of course Karen Carpenter's death brought it to the public's attention in a dramatic way. I do recall that when I first heard of it they said it mostly hit upper middle class young girls who were highly motivated and somewhat perfectionist. I thought at the time that she was a good candidate. Never in my worst nightmare did I envision the future with this insidious disease.
I told her I couldn't do anything from those many miles away, but we would tackle it the minute I got home the next Monday. My first call was to the school nurse I worked with in the middle school. She tried to help, but we learned there just wasn't much help in Northern Colorado at that time. Nobody knew what to do about this serious situation. We tried some family counseling, but it was a dismal failure. We spent the rest of the summer wondering what in the world to do.
I knew in my gut that Kristen should not be going to college. But she kept insisting that she really wanted to and needed to, so we packed her belongings and headed for Oklahoma. My memories of college were so wonderful, and that was what I wanted for her. To have her at my alma mater had been a dream for many years. This dream come true soon turned into a nightmare. The horrendous traffic jam we sat in before we got through Denver was a harbinger of things to come!
We got her moved into the 4th floor of the dorm on a hot, muggy August afternoon. Her roommate was pretty weird. I didn't have a good feeling about any of it. I'll never forget seeing her walk across campus to meet us for breakfast that Sunday morning - she looked like a walking Bosnian refugee to me, just skin and bones. How had this happened to my beautiful, healthy baby?
DC and I headed home that afternoon with heavy hearts. We knew she was not well and should not be there. We took turns crying all the way home - one of us would stop and the other one would start. I'll never forget stopping in Hays, Kansas to spend the night, ordering a pizza brought to the room because we were too physically and emotionally spent to go out to a restaurant.
The call from my mom telling us about the mono was just another blow. As we looked on it later, we realized that the anorexia lowered her resistance, which brought on the mono, which caused her to feel even less like eating than before. It was a vicious cycle. I had just begun my job at the university, so could not take time off to go with DC to pick her up - only two weeks after leaving her there. Thank God my parents were there, because I don't know what she would have done without them.
I had no time built up that I could stay home with her. I would leave her lying on the couch and head for my new job. I so clearly remember packing a small cooler with "safe" foods that I thought she could force herself to eat. She didn't do very well. As she mentioned, her brother wasn't very happy to have her home, and he began to withdraw from the family, which is another story in and of itself.
I went to the university library and checked out every book I could find on the subject of anorexia nervosa. I devoured them, and can remember typing up long passages (I wonder what I did with them). Most of them blamed the mom. Most of them said it was incurable. I chose to believe the one that I found called It's Not Your Fault. This one also said it could be overcome. It saved my sanity.
She did improve, began to eat a bit more, and was able to work a few hours a week - ironically at TCBY. I guess that was good, because you could get fat-free, sugar-free yogurt there. She mentioned that she was cold all the time, and this was winter! But it got her out of the house and back into a semblance of life. Fritz, our little dachshund, that I memorialized a few weeks ago, became her constant companion with unconditional love. Talk about animal assisted therapy!
TO BE CONTINUED.