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The widow maker. A term most of us associate with a middle-aged man who has a major coronary and leaves behind his wife and children. It comes out of nowhere. No warning. No “Hey man. Pay the fuck attention or I’m going to kill you.” signal. In my life, this term has a different meaning. Over the past two years, I have danced with this widow maker. Not once. Not twice. More times than I can or want to count. And no matter how many people tried to warn me, I basically gave them the finger. I would roll my eyes. Dismiss their concern. Disappear for days hoping they’d leave me the fuck alone. I was so invested in my anorexia that I couldn’t see what was so obvious to everyone else…I was dying. As you have read, I typically write these posts from a perspective that many anorexics can relate to. I tell “our story”. But this post, while many will be able to relate to it, will be about me. The inside scoop on my dance with the devil and the damage I did and have done to my body. It will be an account of the silent killers of the anorexia…the ones that I can recover from…and the ones that will haunt me forever.
Read more: Anorexia in the Mirror
27 – The number of years I have battled anorexia. Over half of my life. It’s the longest relationship I have ever had. Longest commitment. Granted, there were years when it was dormant. Hidden. But always just below the surface waiting to strike when I felt I needed to be protected. In those 27 years, I have relapsed 5 times. What defines a relapse you ask? For me, it is defined as my anorexia reaching the point that I require intense medical intervention. This latest relapse that began 2 years ago, is by far the worst in my anorexic career and the closest to death I have ever been.
I have decided to walk you through this journey in 2 parts. This post will describe “what happens”. Part 2 will go into “why it happens”. You’re thinking…. “Duh Michelle. We all took health in high school. We know that the organs fail and you are at risk for a heart attack. You don’t need to explain what happens.” Oh, but I do. Because just like the widow maker lies in silence, so do many other pieces of the anorexic body meltdown that only I would know and have experienced. It’s important that you understand the “what” or you’ll never understand the “why”.
July 6, 2015. I heard a voice I hadn’t heard for over 5 years. “Let me take care of you.” And so, it began. The entrance into this hell that I’m desperately trying to pull myself out of. Not going to lie. I welcomed this familiar voice. And as hard as it is to admit, I made the VERY conscious decision to listen to her again. The why behind this decision will come next post. The “what happened to the Michelle I knew” started with that first day of not eating.
Read more: Heart and Brain in Sync
It takes about 3 days for my body to register “Hey, we’re doing that anorexia thing again” and get to work. Most of you have dieted. Day 1 isn’t bad. Day 2 you’re hanging on. Day 3 you are STARVING. That “starving feeling” is what motivates me to keep going. In Part 2, I will walk you through how I do this. My formula for surviving week one of the “training”. Maybe. Not sure I am ready to reveal all my secrets just yet. But what I will do is share with you what happened to my body from then until now.
To the outside world, it just looked like I was losing a few pounds. Shedding my “winter cuddles”. Getting into shape. Eating healthier. Roll with those people. Roll with it! But what was happening internally for me was excruciating. Most of what you will read next may not be typical for all anorexics. But because I have dicked around with anorexia so long, my body responses are fine-tuned and “explosive” compared to others who have only battled with this for a few years. The first week of starving for me is like a cleanse on overdrive. It’s all or nothing. Full restricting or it won’t work. What happens inside goes something like this. My stomach aches. Screams. Begs me to put something, anything in my body. Sometimes I think it is its way of saying “here the fuck we go again” and trying to intervene. How do I respond? I tie a string so tight around my neck that it makes it impossible to swallow anything but water. How the fuck does no one notice? I wear a scarf. Those of you that have worked with me will remember my collection of scarfs. Now you know why. It does keep me from eating but also starts the process of severe dehydration that will plague me for a very very long time. If I took you step by step through my physical journey, you’d be reading this forever. So, I will give you the highlights.
My stomach gets used to no food after about 7 days. But then my muscles are “on fire”. All nutrients are being pulled from them to keep things working. For me, it’s my legs. Because as a runner, it is where my greatest muscle mass is. It’s like the pain from running stairs for an hour in the fall for basketball practice after doing jack shit all summer. AWFUL! By midday, I would need at least 2000 mg Advil (soon to be my new best friend) and an ice pack for each leg.
Next comes my body’s inability to regulate temperature. My body temperature typically runs about 96 when starving. Earlier this year it hit an all-time low of 94. I haven’t felt my hands or feet for over a year. After a while, I just become accustomed to being cold. You will find me using my seat warmers and heat in my car even when it is 90 degrees out. You rarely will see me without a long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt on. And if I do try to dress “normal”, I will wear large sunglasses to hide the tears from how PAINFULLY cold I am. I am not only cold to the touch. When I am THAT cold, it is excruciatingly painful to be touched.
Here is what may get gross. But a reality for me as an anorexic. My muscles hurt. I am freezing. And I get to grow FUR all over my body. There is a fancy name for it… “lanugo”. But it essentially means that you grow fine white hair EVERYWHERE. Even on your fucking face! What woman doesn’t love a 5:00 shadow! It is my body’s way of trying to keep me warm. It’s really fucking attractive. I am reduced to stealing Derrick’s razor and shaving cream and hiding in the shower to “shave”. Little does anyone know where and why I must shave? Here is the irony. I grow this damn fine hair all over BUT the hair on my head starts to fall out. In chunks! I mean seriously. If hair is going to fall out, I could think of other places that I would prefer! My hair falls out as if I had chemo. It’s why my hair is kept short. And why I color it often. The “layering” and “highlights” help to hide the fact that anorexia is making me BALD. My eyelashes also fall out so I hide behind my glasses. I got my eyebrows tattooed so I can hide the fact I don’t have those either. Good thing I chewed my fingernails as a kid because I can blame my brittle and broken fingernails on that. I already feel self-conscious about my body. Add all this and it becomes a host of reasons Ana can use to rationalize starving to death.
Read more: Heart Failure and Everyday Fight
My muscles hurt. I’m frozen. I am turning into an ape with no hair on my head or eyelashes. But it doesn’t end here. If this is happening on the outside, imagine what is happening on the inside. Maybe I’ll start from the top and work my way down.
My brain. Anorexia steals the gray matter of your brain. Scans done on anorexics early in
recovery show that about 1/5th of their gray matter has been dissolved by Ana. AND it’ll take over 5 years in full recovery to rebuild what can be rebuilt of that gray matter. Basically, everything shrinks in your brain except those pieces that are trying to keep your organs and muscles working. With no gray matter, my life is fuzzy. I cannot concentrate. I have NO short-term memory. It got so bad a few months ago that I couldn’t spell my name or remember my address (I’ve lived in the same house for 17 years). Words would be in my brain and when I opened my mouth nothing was coming out. I spoke in ½ sentences and if you didn’t know me you would assume that I had suffered a brain injury. Well, I guess I had. Just self-induced.
Next my lungs. Lungs? Yep. Lungs. Anorexia doesn’t discriminate. It takes ALL parts of my body. As my lungs shrink, it is painful to breathe. I can’t get enough oxygen and often my oxygen level gets dangerously low. Because I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, I would pass out often. On average, 5 times a day. There were times last summer where I couldn’t breathe. It was like I had asthma. I couldn’t lay down or I would gasp for air. I also developed a HORRENDOUS cough. It was the only way to clear my lungs so I wouldn’t drown in my own fluid since they were so weak. I sounded like I had COPD. I would cough. Gasp for air. A cough again. And the cycle would repeat over and over until enough fluid was cleared from my lungs and I was able to move.
I know I said I’d go in order but I’m going to skip over my heart and save it for last. Stomach. That’s easy. It shrinks. Mine was the size of a golf ball. Pretty self-explanatory how that would impact me. Next would then be my liver. It is constantly swollen. Some days better than others. It often swells to the point you can see it bulge out of my side. And holy fuck it is sore! All the Advil I pump through my body has killed it. It’s a fatty organ that can recover. But only with the consistent intake.
My kidneys. Oh, my kidneys. At one point last year the discussion was about dialysis or losing a kidney. They had just stopped working. Had deteriorated to the point that they were done. Did you know that low kidney function makes you breathe wreak? BAD! You could kill a horse with one whiff. My back was killing me. I could barely sit up. But if I didn’t my liver would push against my front and I’d curl over with that pain. So even though I wasn’t supposed to take pain relievers, I did. Would just depend on what organ was worse that day. Advil if my I was having a good kidney day. Tylenol if it was a good liver day.
Next winding road is my innards (as my granny calls them). This is also simple math. If you don’t eat or eat very little, your intestines have nothing to do. And like any muscle, it stops working. Colon too. Anorexics don’t poop. Sounds obvious but also dangerous. Because of 1. Toxins build up in my body because my liver can’t purify them and my innards can’t exit them 2. Unless you have a BM regularly those muscles go dormant…AND start to die. Portions of my small intestine had started down this path. It is slowly recovering but not very long ago I wasn’t far from the reality of a colostomy bag. At 39. Fucking anorexia.
Another fun fact. Your female parts stop working. Anorexia is linked to infertility. No biggie for me there. However, you stop having your period. Period. (Bad pun…but sorta funny 😊) I haven’t had to deal with Aunt Flo for 18 months. When your body drops below a certain weight, it thinks you’ve returned to your pre-teen years and stops thinking you need a system flush monthly. Honestly, there are parts of this that don’t suck. BUT…for me…it can cause early menopause which can create a whole host of other issues…including an increased risk of ovarian and breast cancer.
Other things that are royally fucked up are my tendons, ligaments, and bones. They all shrink. And get brittle. I have the bone density of someone in their 80s. They are extremely brittle. So much so that I broke two ribs from coughing when I had my “spring cold”. The muscles holding my hips in place have deteriorated. My ACL and MCL are haters. I can barely hold a chiropractic adjustment for more than a week because of the muscle deterioration I have.
Read more: My Experience Through my Eating Disorder
Last but not least, my heart. Oh, how I love my heart. It takes a beating and keeps on ticking. If I die from anorexia, it will be because my heart gives out. It must work 80x harder than average because of the lack of protein and other nutrients I withhold from it. Yet it keeps pumping. But it can only work so hard. The veins in my hands protrude as a way to show me that it’s working too hard and needs rest. When it gets tired, it cannot pump blood to all my extremities and I lose feeling in my arms and legs and become paralyzed. My hands turn blue. My feet. My lips. It cannot pump oxygen throughout my body so cells are dying. It has to take my pulse and blood pressure way down to keep me alive. 90/40 was my normal BP. Pulse of 42. Working. Just barely. If I moved too fast, it would skip a beat and I would fall to the floor. If I was lucky, I wouldn’t pass out. Most times I did. Hypotension/arrhythmia. Those are the fancy words that just say……my fucking heart is working overtime and at some point, is going to give me the finger. There is a chance every single night that I may fall asleep and my heart will go to rest for good. This is the anorexia widow maker. The organ that is unselfish. It’s the last to take nutrients. The last to slow down. It works to make sure everything else is kept alive. But there is only so much it can take too. And even though I may look “fine” on the outside, my heart tells a different story. It begs me every day to not let it die. And whether it gets fed largely depends on what is louder…. its beat…or Ana.
That is my “what”. How I have slowly destroyed my body by refusing to feed it. If I can consistently get sufficient nutrients for an extended period of time, some of these pieces will bounce back. Some never will. There is damage to my vital organs, my bones, and certain muscles that I can NEVER repair. As you read all this I imagine you are saying, “Why the fuck wouldn’t you get help so that you don’t destroy your body? Why would you do this to yourself? Aren’t you afraid to die?” All great questions….and my answers won’t make a lick of sense. At least not until you can understand this part of my relationship with anorexia. How it convinces me to destroy me. Deceives me. Lies to me. And why I continue to dance with the devil and tempt the widow maker.