Mostly, we drove into the city every weekend, did drugs, and drank bottles of Carlo Rossi in parking lots (we delighted in naming ourselves the "Rossi Posse"), and dated older boys who said mean things while we pretended not to know they were sleeping with other girls--all activities that, we were certain, took more guts and insight than any one of those basketball players or drama geeks could fathom. This is all pretty typical teenage angst, I guess, but Erin and I had one masochistic habit that really did set us apart from the rest of our peers: Together, we cultivated an eating disorder.
As freshmen, we started running together, and were surprised by our ability to run farther and harder than anyone we knew; we were certain we now possessed something everyone else would want. Oh, we were modest about it; pretending we didn't care if anyone else knew. We never bragged about it except one day maybe at lunch--"Oh yeah, when Erin and I were out running, this crazy thing happened" And for us this skill was akin to drinking a whole bottle of tequila in one night or shrugging off some guy who dumped us. We were made of steel.
The eating started around the same time the running did. We developed a strange affinity for baking. We loved yellow box cakes with chocolate frosting, and we had our favorite chocolate-chip recipe that involved a certain kind of chip and a special way of grinding up oats in Erin's mother's Cuisinart. Erin's mom eventually quit buying the baking supplies because it got so expensive, so we had to buy them ourselves--CDs, dope, tequila, chocolate chips, and powdered sugar. This is what we blew our money on.
One day we made, and ate, a whole wedding cake; three layers that didn't require any food coloring so it almost looked inedible, it was so white. Then we started ordering two or three meals at a time at our favorite Mexican restaurant, all of which we would consume in one sitting. We had rituals: Go to school, go to soccer practice, go to the restaurant, go home and bake a batch of cookies, and then run 10 miles, literally. It was binge and purge, the purging in the form of running.
But it all started with starvation: If we could make it through the day without eating, and then run seven miles after school, well then we'd be all the tougher for it. Food was something everyone else needed, but if we could just eradicate it from our bodies then we'd be one step closer to not needing anyone except each other. Together, Erin and I were each others' only measure of emotional and social control.
Inevitably, after two days of eating rice cakes and water, we gave in and ate whatever we wanted--I think that's when we ate that first cake. But we were so ashamed. We hated that cake for making us weaker, and we had to rid the whole kitchen of any evidence. Only the two of us knew how vulnerable we'd been for just a moment, and we were there to purge each other of our mutual guilt. Of course, we did other things too. We took laxatives, made ourselves throw up. A common weekend practice would be to bake, run, and then make sure that we drank enough to insure vomiting by the end of the night.
It sounds weird, but the main idea, binge and purge, is actually status quo in most eating disorders. Though the media seems to fixate on the two most common eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, there are literally hundreds of ways people express these conditions, and most involve a combination of binging and purging.
SUDDENLY, THAT SUMMER
Most people who've never had an eating disorder think it's a life-threatening condition. It obviously can be, as evidenced by people who've spent years in treatment facilities working on their body image. I knew a girl in college who had to leave school for a year because of her severe anorexia, and she still doesn't look right--those knobby elbows and knees, and her hair and skin so gray.
Cases like hers are clearly more exciting to the American public, and have led to a perception that the disease is exclusively the product of the desire to be thin. The American Anorexia Bulimia Association implies that the disease can be explained away by one cause: "In a society where thinness is equated with success and happiness, nearly every American woman, man, and child has suffered at one time or another from issues of weight, body shape, and self-image," says their website.
This seems extremely over-simplified to me. For Erin and I, though our appearance was certainly a factor, it was only secondary to how much we could control and distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world. We thought if we could just set ourselves apart, we wouldn't need that dumb town, or the people in it. We were sure there was a better place somewhere, anywhere else; if we could just run that distance, we thought we just might make it to graduation.
"I think a lot of eating disorders are about having control," Kathryn Weymouth-Skinner, a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders, recently explained to me. "People feel out of control in the rest of their lives, so they pick this one thing they can completely regulate." Anorexia is usually much harder to cure than Bulimia. About 30 percent of people who have anorexia recover fully. Thirty percent will have it for their entire lives, and 30 percent will die. I never needed any professional help to recover.
The truth is, I never thought much about it. Eating and running were just another vice, one that made me feel better when life sucked. Like that time on the Fourth of July when I went to pick up my then-boyfriend at the pool where he worked as a lifeguard, and found him talking to that girl. Then we had to hang out at her house while my boyfriend got really drunk, and I watched, sober, while he asked her how she liked work, how she liked college, how she liked working with him at the pool, could she work with him on Saturday? Erin tried to make me feel better--she might as well have been dating him herself, she spent so much time with the two of us that summer. "We don't know why he does that," she told me. "But you just need to forget about it because, when he's not acting like this, he's great. We know that." The next day, we ran 10 miles in 90-degree weather, totally hung over.
In retrospect, I think one of the reasons our habit was so easy to maintain was that everyone supported me. Everyone seemed to really admire my "discipline." My friends' parents said things to them like, "That Katia, she's going places." My coaches loved my cross-country times, the local paper wrote a story about us when we ran our first marathon and placed fifth and sixth (Erin was about 10 seconds ahead of me) in our age category. It was a much more rewarding vice than, say, substance abuse.
The most ironic incident came at graduation when I was voted "Biggest Health Nut" by my senior class. There was a picture of me in the yearbook eating a carrot. And I never really got that thin, either--I'm 5'3" and weighed 110 at my lightest. I looked good, I figured. And so did everyone else.
But summer ended, and Erin and I went to different colleges, and my problems changed. I liked school, stopped dating jerks (mostly), and suddenly I didn't have time to run every day because I had to study all the time, and I didn't have access to a kitchen so I couldn't bake, and we had to eat in the dining hall It just wasn't convenient anymore, but more importantly, it wasn't necessary.
Even so, it took years to establish a normal eating schedule. To this day I hardly eat anything without automatically guessing the number of calories, if not looking at the back of the package. I still go running when I get upset, and of course eating, I'm convinced, will always equal some amount of guilt. But even though I can't eradicate these vices from my life, I indulge in them slowly, over time. Rationally.
Erin and I are still best friends, but we have what I imagine is a more "normal" friendship. She lives with her boyfriend, I live with a roommate. We meet and have lunch (usually ordering just one meal each), and sometimes we go for weeks without talking. Sometimes we laugh about it, when we remember the time we flew to Big Sur to run that marathon and hitched a ride to the starting line with that really nerdy guy who owned the computer store called Mart's Computer Mart; or how drunk we got the night before on that coconut rum. I still can't drink the stuff.
I cried when she "turned one" at that meeting (AA jargon for earning one year of sobriety). I cried again on my birthday when she gave me her favorite piece from her printmaking class; a giant, framed portrait of an insect. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, a daddy longlegs or a mosquito maybe. You can't really tell what it is, unless she explains it; you'd probably never realize it's an insect, because insects are supposed to be so ugly. But the print is beautiful.