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1,2,3 breathe, 1,2,3, breathe. Long arms. Cups the hands. Point the toes. Head down. She keep this rhythm, this pace for the next few laps. Until she hits the wall. She lifts her head above the surface of the water, gasping for air.
“Great job Avery!” Her coach exclaims “but next time you should work on using your legs to propel you a bit more.”
She nods, making a mental note of that and pulls herself out of the pool, her thin arms quivering effort. Once out of the pool, she grabs her towel along with her bag and heads out of the door leading to the pool. Once she reaches her car, she lets out a deep breath she didn’t realize that she had been holding in, she lays her head on the wheel in exhaustion and shivers, she had been getting colder and colder despite the warmer spring months approaching.
Avery is now sitting at her dining room table on her computer. She is scrolling through pictures and things to do in Tokyo, excitement rushes through her petite frame as she explores Japan through her laptop. She was dizzy with happiness, comforted by the thought that in just a few months she would be in Tokyo, in the Olympics, doing the thing she loved most. Swimming.
The microwave beeped, signaling that her next battle was about to begin. She pulls the leftover rice and beans from the previous night from the microwave and places it on the table in front of her. She stares at the food, it looks good, it smells good and Avery knows that she has to eat it. But, there will always be that voice in her head telling her that she shouldn’t. Telling her that she doesn’t deserve to eat. Telling her that if she starts eating now that she will never stop. Telling her that this is the one thing that she can control and she can’t start eating again.
But of course, there was the other voice talking to her, telling her that she has to eat, telling her that the only way she will be able to swim better is if she starts eating again. That same voice is telling her that she is strong enough to recover from this disease that has plagued her mind since she was an overweight teenage girl back in middle school.
See that’s the thing, we always hear of people with the angel and the devil on their shoulder talking to them but it’s not always that clear which one is the angel and which one is the devil, when you are blinded by insecurities.
So she sits there, staring into her food, fighting a battle inside of herself but not necessarily wanting to win. “One bite” pleads the responsible swimmer who is overflowing with ambition. “No!” yells the overweight teenager “if you eat now you will never stop! Don’t listen to her.” Avery is torn, but finally she gives in to the responsible swimmer and takes a tiny bite of mexican style rice from her plate. Chew, chew, chew, the warm rice tumbles down her throat.
She grows hot with shame. “Weak!” the voices scream. They torment her, tearing her apart until she finally can’t take it anymore. She shoves the plate of food in the trash and puts the plate in the sink. Anorexia won this time, the voices hush to a whisper, satisfied with their win but they never fully stop, they quiet down when the win at meals but they always come back. They never stop torturing her.
Light headed and dizzy, Avery stumbles toward the bathroom to take a shower. She stares into the mirror at thin, pathetic image that she is presented with, she lifts her arm up to her eye level and examines it. The only word to describe it is bony. Her once strong, muscular arms of swimmer have faded into thin, bony sticks, her finger tips have turned purple from the lack of nutrition and bones in her fingers and wrists stick out. She was shocked by her presentation, “how did I get to this point?” She asked herself, horrified by her own reflection. Just a few months ago she was a strong, healthy, happy swimmer who was excited for life and determined to be the best swimmer she could be. Now she was a mere shadow of the girl she used to be.
The next day, Avery is on the pool deck stretching, the bags under her eyes are extremely visible from the previous sleepless night. “Are you doing alright Avery?” inquires her coach “you don’t look like you are doing to well.” A pang of fear shoots through the tiny girl, with those few words she is filled with panic. “I had some trouble falling asleep last night” she says, playing it off subtly. That wasn’t a complete lie, she had had trouble falling asleep last night, but she couldn’t tell her coach that it was because she was so much pain from hunger she couldn’t distract herself from it and fall asleep. Her coach gives her a wary look and warns her that sleep is essential and she needs to rest up but he doesn’t look completely convinced.
As Avery hops into the pool, she can already tell that today is going to be rough. She is groggy from lack of sleep and left with no energy from lack of food, but she couldn’t do anything about it except for keep swimming. She did her warm up slower than usual and of course, her coach noticed. “Avery!” he yelled “Come on! Pick up that pace! Stay sharp!” Exhaustion coursed through her entire body, she knew she couldn’t keep going like this but she couldn’t stop. She started her workout, it was a pyramid where she swam various lengths of the pool at certain times, she didn’t know if she would be able to make it. Her sore arms ached with every stroke she swam, her head seemed to blur her surroundings, her vision was getting fuzzy and she was running out of energy. Energy, the most essential component that she deprived her body of, energy, the thing that had gotten her to almost the top was running out. The fire that she possessed in her muscles, heart and mind had dwindled to the smallest flame. Then the flame went out.
Avery drifted to the bottom of the pool, her eyes were closed and her mind was blank. She could still hear the faint cries of her coach yelling for help, she was able to make out the words “call” and “ambulance” before everything around her dissolved into darkness.
As her eyelids fluttered open, she saw the sun shining through the window of a hospital room. Avery took a minute processing where she was and what had just happened to her, then it hit her. Her world fell apart in that small time frame it took her to realise, her heart felt as if it had been thrown on the floor like a glass vase and shattered into a million pieces. She threw her head in her hands, the breathtaking pain was too much to bear. How had she done this to herself? She had wrecked her entire career. There was no way her coach would let her compete in the olympics now, she thought hopelessly.
As she miserably sunk back into her bed, a nurse with short black hair almond shaped dark brown eyes entered the hospital room. She was dressed in a white nurses uniform and carried a tray of food with her. Avery sat back up and stared at the food fearfully, her emotions conflicted. She knew that if there was any chance that she could go back to training in time for the olympics she would have to eat, a lot, no more throwing away food when no one was looking, no more drinking so much water that she isn’t hungry anymore. No more starving. But on the other hand, she didn’t even know if she was capable of that anymore. Eating at every meal seemed like it was impossible for her.
The nurse moved part of the bed so a small tray table appeared in front of her, she set the food down and very soft and gently said “You have to eat sweetie.” She stares at the food, it doesn’t look bad, she thinks to herself. She stuck her fork into a pile of spaghetti and swirled it around, trying to get the noodles to stay on the fork. She lifts the fork to her mouth and takes a bite.
A mixture of relief and happiness floods over the nurses face. A wave of achievement washes over Avery but she new it would take a lot more than a bite of noodles to get strong enough for the olympics. Avery finishes the plate and the nurse's eyes grow wide with surprise.
“I thought you would be a little more stubborn” the nurse say
“If I want to be ready for the olympics I have to get stronger and keep training” says Avery determined not to give up her dream.
“About that” the nurse says hesitantly “I don’t know if it’s the best idea to go to the olympics this year.”
Avery stared at her, too shocked to say a word. Her eyes grew as saucers. “What?” She started to say
“It's just that, you are so weak right now and so thin, more training could kill you” she started rambling, Avery stopped listening “you are so fragile, there is no way me or any doctor for that matter is going to let you back into the pool. We have diagnosed you with anemia, dehydroepiandrosterone, bradycardia and pancytopenia Avery. Your health is the most important thing right now”
Not letting me get back in the pool. The words spun around her head like a carnival carousel without actually sinking into her brain. This could not be happening, all the training, all the days in the pool, everything she had worked so hard for was going to be gone. All of her dreams and plans for the future were flying away like migrating butterflies, slipping away from her thin, blue fingertips.
The nurse leaves the room, she wants to give her space because the nurse doesn’t know that that all the space, time or money could ever make up for the words she just uttered. If she couldn’t go to the olympics, then Avery was nothing, she felt like nothing, like the world had suddenly stopped and was being ripped apart piece by piece. If she couldn’t go to the olympics and swim, then there was no point in eating. She just wanted to waste away to nothing just like her swim career, she wanted to starve until her bones would protrude out of her body like a skeleton. Hot tears streamed from Avery’s eyes, then she fell back onto her pillow and sobbed until she drifted back to the land of her dreams.
When she woke up in the cold, white hospital room there was a plate of steaming hot pancakes ready for her consumption, but Avery knew that she was not going to be able to make herself lift the fork to her mouth and the pancakes remained untouched. She hadn’t gotten out of bed since she ended up in the hospital so, she thought that she should give it a try, after all she couldn’t be that weak since was able to keep up in the pool just a few days ago. As she lifted her shaky legs out of the hospital bed and headed toward the bathroom, she could feel the life drained from her aching body. She stood at the bathroom sink and splashed water over her pale face, when she lifted her eyes to face her reflection, she was shocked.
The last time she had looked at herself in the mirror she was so caught up in trying to be thinner and in control, but what she hadn’t realized is that she had completely destroyed her once strong and athletic body. Her hospital gown hung off of her small shoulders appearing huge on her tiny frame. Even though she had gotten more than enough sleep last night, dark purple bags hung under her eyes like bats clinging to a tree. Her skin was dry and her hair was brittle and many clumps were close to falling out. Her cheekbones were hollow. Her ribs and hip bones stuck out of her body like a hungry coyote and a fine layer of hair coated her entire body.
Shaky from what the mirror had shown her Avery sat back down at the hospital bed. She stared at the stack of pancakes in front of her and contemplated what she had just witnessed in the mirror. Now she was faced with a decision, she could save her life and constantly feel as if she was too fat or her thighs to too big and her stomach isn’t flat enough, or she could give up everything and continue to starve.
10 million American women suffer from eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest death rate of all mental illnesses. 5-10% of anorexic people die within 10 years of developing it and 18-20% of people die after 20 years of developing it. Based on these statistics, you can decide which way Avery’s story is going to go but no matter what decision she makes, it is not going to be easy for her. Anorexia is an epidemic that is sweeping our nation and most of it is due to all the magazines and unrealistic media telling us what our bodies should look like instead of just teaching teenagers to love themselves. Do not let yourself become another statistic.