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Peel It Back
My stomach aches. I feel like I’ve swallowed a knife. When I try to stand, the knife presses against my abdomen. It’s a nasty threat—a warning that almost coaxes me back into my seat. I grimace as I trek towards the fridge; travelling ten feet shouldn’t be this hard. Barren shelves greet me, occupied by only a half-empty carton of coffee creamer, a bag of lettuce, and two plastic pudding cups. Bile burns in my throat, and not because I’m not hungry. I reach for a pudding cup. Don’t worry. They’re sugar-free. My fingers tremble dejectedly as I try to peel the foil away. Tears sting my eyes when I can’t will myself to pull any harder. Exhaustion suddenly racks my body, sluggishness swallows my head, and angry fatigue plagues my bones. The pudding cup tumbles to the ground, and my nerves go numb.
When my dad pulls out old photo albums, my throat constricts. Dread unfurls in my lungs and I can hardly breathe. He opens the album labeled “Family Camping Trips” and flips to a faded picture. A spunky ten-year-old me stares back, and I want to smile. She’s wearing hiking shoes, and her face is flushed with exertion. Round baby fat clings to her cheeks, and a roly-poly tummy peeks out from her shirt. She’s glowing. She’s absolutely beautiful.
My dad points to her and laughs. “Look how fat you used to be, buddy! I bet you’re glad you thinned out.”
I don’t want to smile anymore.
He cards farther into the album and stops on another photo. The person in the photo has my face, my hair, my eyes, but I can’t recognize her. Or rather, I don’t want to.
I was 13 in this photo, and I couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. I could count my ribs and each vertebra of my spine in a mirror. My stomach caved inward, and my hipbones jutted from my skin. My complexion had deteriorated from a healthy red to a sickly pale. My body belonged to a corpse, not a teenage girl. Climbing a flight of stairs left me clawing for air, as if I’d run a marathon. I could hardly lift my leg to climb into the school bus. Eating became a process that consumed my thoughts. On good days, I allowed myself a single meal. Maybe. Most of the time, though, I just snacked. “Snacked” as in taking-tiny-bites-of-food-that-wouldn’t-even-satisfy-a-rabbit snacked. I learned to arrange my food during family meals, to make it seem as if I ate my share. I sifted through bread baskets at restaurants, pushed and picked at salads, and eventually nothing appeared appetizing. Not even pudding, my favorite dessert.
My whole life felt like a pudding cup. A pudding cup that I didn’t have the strength to open. Waking up every day was a chore—the world around me shifted and warped into a perpetual pudding miasma. Everything became sticky, murky, and impossible to move through. Sitting in class at school, I was afraid to look at the walls. I worried they would melt away into a sugary pool and flood the room. People’s words morphed into spoons. They jammed into the pudding and rattled the plastic cup, and I found myself running from the spoons.
“I haven’t seen you eat for days—what’s wrong?”
“You’re skeletal! Please, please, eat something.”
“You need to eat.”
I vehemently denied my illness. I told myself I didn’t need help, didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be scooped up. I didn’t want others to peel back the foil on the cup and see what I’d become.
Often, I made the excuse that all teenagers felt insecure—that all teenagers battled eating problems and body image issues. I knew my struggle wasn’t unique, and that I wasn’t writhing through the pudding alone; so many of my peers discussed eating disorders like the evening weather. Beyond the words of my concerned friends, I could hear jokes and insensitive quips dance along the swirls of my syrupy reality.
“You forgot to eat breakfast? Haha, are you trying out anorexia?”
“You’re worried about gaining weight? Just go throw up.”
Feeding into these words made everything easier to swallow—or rather, easier to not swallow at all. I stood behind the pudding as a barrier. I ignored the reality that eating disorders kill relentlessly, and that only about half of their victims tend to recover. The reality that I could die stayed buried in the back of my mind.
I lied to myself for two years. The pudding thickened and thickened until I saw the face of a friend through the foggy sludge. Her eyes sunk into her skull, and her fingers more resembled candy floss than appendages. Even though I could see her, she was so far away, consumed by the miasma as I was. I couldn't reach for her, couldn’t pull her from her prison and tell her she wasn’t alone. I didn’t have the strength. Watching someone else waste away forced me to realize the position I was in. Forced me to realize that the pudding would swallow me whole and crush my body to nothing.
The path to recovery almost suffocated me. Learning to eat again was only half the battle. Even when I found the power to scale the walls of the pudding cup, I quickly found it wasn’t the end. When I pulled myself out of my viscous miasma, remnants still hugged my body. No matter how much I scrubbed, I couldn’t wash myself clean. Almost six years later, I’m still not quite where I should be. I eat three meals a day and can indulge in snacks and desserts, but sticky guilt always lingers in my chest.
The pudding acts as a reminder. It reminds me of how I remained petrified for years, unmoving, afraid. But it also reminds me of how far I’ve come, even though I’m not all the way there yet. I can peel back the foil with my own strength, my own hands. My nerves no longer feel numb, and I like to think I can smile again.