a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content warning: disordered eating, body image, and suicidal thoughts]
A skeleton stared at me through the glass. Its eyes were sunken in, cratered by a deep blue. They watered. Its cheekbones were sharp, plump cheeks sucked away into nothing. Its lips were tinted purple, the corners settled in a frown. They quivered. Its skin was dull and pulled tight, showing each minuscule wrinkle. Goosebumps rose on its narrow arms, causing it to shiver against an imaginary breeze. Exhaustion weighed the skeleton down. The skeleton’s head struggled to stay up, bobbing on the too thin neck against its knobby, protruding shoulders. It clenched the edge of the bathroom counter weakly with blue tipped fingers. The skeleton’s eyes met mine through the glass, a tear sliding down the stretched, grey skin. It was lifeless. It was me.
Two years ago, I was a skeleton. I was a person trapped inside a body that did not want me anymore, and I had been ready to give up the fight. I was a skeleton who wanted to stop living because it meant it would all be over; yet, I was a skeleton who faced Death and walked away living. When I had thought the world had gone black, hope flickered in the distance waiting for me. I had let my candle flicker out, but my family had relit the small wick and guarded the little flame from any more dangerous winds.
It started with an unfamiliar ache lashing across either side of my stomach. The pain would come and go randomly after I ate. It was unwelcoming, but nothing my flame couldn’t handle. A week of being uncomfortable after eating turned into two weeks, then three, and then a month. After the first week, I had connected the dots. Food was hurting me. I had stopped wanting to eat, and my family began to worry.
I knew I had to eat and would force what little food I could into my mouth despite the stabbing pain, nausea, and swelling that inevitably followed. It was hard to tell at first that my body was destroying itself. I was still able to go about my day only hungrier than usual. I looked healthy on the outside, but that would soon change.
Each day another pound was lost and another rib would appear. I remember waking up each morning feeling lighter, weaker. I didn’t have many pounds to lose before it became dangerous. My energy drained no matter how tightly I tried to turn off the knob. The pants that had once fit perfectly now bagged at the waist. The shirts that had once been fashionably big now swallowed me whole.
My family took me to doctor after doctor after doctor. Each of them claimed I was fine, that it was all in my head, and I would get better the sooner I started eating again. What they did not understand was that it hurt. I wanted to eat more than anything, but my stomach would thrash and kick the moment I swallowed, either sending the food right back up or letting it burn until I regretted ever taking a bite. My body was turning against me, and I was trapped.
The eyes of the people I loved were constantly full of worry and sorrow. Their eyebrows would furrow with concern and their lips would press together as they looked at me curled up in bed with four blankets struggling to breathe or as I hobbled the ten steps to the bathroom. I was no longer someone full of life. I was a person fighting to stay alive. I had become a walking ghost, a burden and constant reminder in the back of their thoughts.
I remember staring at myself in the mirror horrified. I could count each rib. I could see each curve of my hip bones —- the cushion that had once been there vanishing overnight. I was repulsed by the idea of touching my body, afraid of the unfamiliarity. I could not even recognize my own eyes. I knew I was not the skeleton staring back at me in the mirror, yet with each agonizingly painful day, I started to believe I was. My body was frail, and I was starting to believe I was too.
I wanted it to end. I wanted to stop fighting. I had let the pain and agony blow out my candle and had been content with letting it stay that way. I did not want to be a burden on my family anymore; they deserved lives where they would not have to worry. I was ready to die. I could sense Death lurking in every room. He was watching me, and I was waiting for him to take my hand and pull me away. I had accepted that this was the end. I had stopped fighting.
With each month there were more doctors, new medical procedures. But each doctor was the same as the last, and each test came back saying I was fine. Nobody knew what was wrong, and even though I had given up, my family had not.
I remember waking up from a procedure with my mother’s hand in my right and father’s in my left. My father was patting my hair saying he was proud of me. He had looked at me with those eyes, the ones full of worry and sorrow. The doctor then entered the room, a grim look on his face. My mother asked if they had found the problem, and he had shaken his head, stating that everything had looked normal. His eyes found mine, full of worry and sorrow. The last thing I had expected was for my father to stand up and say, “If this was your daughter, what would you do? She’s…” His voice cracked. His hand wiped his face. My mother rubbed circles with her thumb along my hand. I looked between them, theirs and the doctor’s words muffled. My own eyes started to water. My mother wiped my tear away and said, “We’ll find out what’s wrong. You can do this.”
They had faith in me when I had lost my own. They were not giving up on me, so I would not give up on them. I would not leave them if I did not have to, so I started to fight again. I had wandered far from my candle of hope, losing it in the darkness and doom, but once they lit it, I was able to fight my way back to it. They ignited a flicker of hope, pulling me out of the dark and giving me the drive to push on no matter how painful.
I had thought I had been in the battle alone, but I was far from it. Each one of them fought: my mother advocating for me left and right on the phone, in the doctor’s office, and at my bedside; my father combating the sadness that had taken over me to try and make me laugh; my brother concealing his own issues and giving up activities in order to stay at my side. My family was watching me die before their eyes, yet they wore smiles and went out of their way to make sure I was laughing and okay. I was a walking, breathing skeleton, yet they treated me as if I was anything but.
I hoped to live for them because I could not leave them behind.
A couple of weeks later, the problem was found: Addison’s Disease. My adrenal glands had shut down, and it had taken eight months for anyone to even consider that to be a possibility. One pill let me eat again. One pill allowed me to gain back all the weight I had lost. One pill had given me my life back. I would have never made it to discover that one pill if it were not for my family. Without that flicker of hope, I would have left willingly, trapped in a body I couldn’t recognize.
Two years ago, I had been ready to die, but my family had reignited my sense of hope. They had been there for me when I thought I was lost, and they continue to stay by my side today. It took two months for my body to return to its regular weight, and another month for ten more healthy pounds to add on. The effects of that life-saving pill changed my body, and although it saved me, I would struggle with yet another change. The moment I started to gain back the weight I had lost, my body went into protection mode. The weight attached to my middle in order to refuel the organs that had been neglected for eight months. Even though my body’s proportions were awkward in this initial stage, I was proud of the weight I was starting to gain because it meant I was a step closer to recovering, but I couldn’t help the fear that came with the rising number on the scale.
Each morning I woke up heavier and stronger, yet I found myself still staring in the mirror at someone I didn’t know. Even though one pill saved my life, it would forever leave me worrying about the scale. When I hit my target weight during the second month of recovery, I was ecstatic and relieved that I would finally be able to stop checking the scale. But as the weeks went by, I would still wake up heavier. My body was, once again, unfamiliar. The clothes that once swallowed me whole were now skin tight. I was happy to be alive, but my ever changing body was constantly in the back of my mind. I found myself repeating movements I had been accustomed to during those eight treacherous months, but instead of hiding my bones, I was hiding my extra curves. I would stand in front of the mirror pushing at the puffy cheeks. My candle was starting to flicker out again, and this time my family could not say what I needed to hear.
Selfishly, I wanted to hear that I looked the way I had before this nightmare had started. But I was not the same. My family continued to be there for me and tell me how proud they were, but I could not help but think they were lying.
I had survived, yet I was still fighting and a part of me was still dying.
I would put on a smile and hide my insecurities to not worry my family, but with each fake smile, a wind would brush across my candle’s flame. I had only been a few steps away from returning to my former place in the dark when another gentle soul came to protect my dying flame.
It was my fourth monthly checkup since my recovery began, and I was dreading the inevitable weigh in. I stepped on the scale. The number had risen. I put on a smile even though my mind swarmed with perilous thoughts. My nurses congratulated me, some even running up to give me a hug. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. I should have been happy because I had survived and this new number was only proof of that, but I was scared. The worry must have shown on my face because my favorite nurse, who had been with me through the entire journey, came over and patted my shoulder. She gave me a gentle, warm smile and said, “You came in here as a girl, and now you’re a woman. You’ve transformed.”
I didn’t know how much I needed to hear those words until they were said. It was not a clarification that I was the same or a repeated praise I had grown used to hearing. It was a new perspective —- a flicker of hope.
Today, when I look in the mirror, I see myself. I see a woman who has faced Death and walked away with pride. I no longer see a skeleton or extra weight. I see me, puffy cheeks and all. My family reignited and protected my flame when I needed it most, and my nurse made sure their flicker of hope did not go to waste. Their care and protection saved me from the dark, and with each passing day, I remind myself of their strength. When a wind brushes against my candle, I remember that I am not alone.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.