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Anorexia – An Insider’s Story
When people hear the word anorexia, they think of a person who is very thin. That image is correct. The physical side is noticeable; however, the emotional side that is most painful is rarely seen.
What is anorexia nervosa? It is an eating disorder where a person starves themselves. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, the mortality rate of anorexic women is 12 times higher than the death rate from all causes in women 18 – 24 years old.
There are many reasons for self-induced malnutrition; low self-esteem, a loss of control over one’s life, and depression are just a few. A story from someone who has been there, gives an insider’s account of what it’s like to be anorexic, and why it happened to them.
Ashlee Starr* was outgoing and vivacious. At 23, she had many friends, worked as a certified nursing assistant, and participated in various work-related events. She was newly divorced when she ran into an old friend, Roy, whom she met three years earlier at a restaurant where he worked as a cook. Roy was also divorced, and was eight months older than Ashlee. A week after reconnecting, Roy and Ashlee started dating.
Two months later, Roy asked Ashlee to marry him. She explained that she wanted to stay single for a while, and he said he didn’t want to lose her. He told her if she didn’t marry him, he would stop seeing her. She felt pressured and uneasy about his words, but she fell in love. She liked being with him, he was good to her, and she didn’t want their relationship to end, so she said yes.
Fifteen minutes into the wedding ceremony, Roy became verbally abusive. He screamed at Ashlee relentlessly. He whistled to a woman walking down the street. For the rest of the ride back, Ashlee curled up in the passenger seat of the car, hoping that Roy was just short-tempered because of the heat.
When they returned home, her happy life as she knew it was over. Roy was continuously emotionally abused. He put her down in private, and mocked and humiliated her in front of other people. He made fun of the way she walked and talked. He told her she was worthless, and he didn’t know why he married her. Nothing she did was ever good enough for him.
Since Roy was unemployed and his only income was unemployment compensation, Ashlee worked two full-time jobs to help pay the bills. When she asked how his job search was going, he informed her that he did not have to work. He criticized her and insisted that she was not pulling her weight in her relationship. None of this made sense to Ashlee as she was doing more than her share by working and taking care of her family. He began to forbid her to see her friends. He limited the time she spent with her family. He played her and her family members against each other. His abuse had also become physical, and during one of his outbursts he hit her for going to her doctor for a medical condition instead of asking him for help. His physical abuse escalated, and he often beat her, sometimes sending her to the hospital.
Ashlee’s life dissolved in complete misery. After five months of marriage, she told Roy that she wanted a divorce. A week before her announcement, he received a job offer from a friend in a neighboring state. He begged her not to leave and wanted a divorce instead. She agreed, feeling confident that the time they spent apart would help their marriage.
Roy packed a few things and left. For three months, he visited Ashlee on weekends, wooing her by being kind, loving and caring. He told her that he had done a lot of thinking and promised that he would never hit or yell at her again. With the changes he appeared to have made, she decided to give him another chance. Against the wishes of her friends and family, she moved out of state with him.
At first things seemed to be looking up. For several weeks life between them was good. One day while cleaning, Ashlee found pornographic magazines hidden in cupboards. When she asked Roy about the magazines, he became belligerent and told her it was none of her business. His behavior gradually worsened. She didn’t know what to do. Her family and friends were hundreds of miles away, and she was in a strange city with a man who terrified her. His suffocating grip on her tightened, and she had a little freedom.
Life got worse
During the next four years, Ashlee was not allowed to have any friends that Roy did not select and approve. Again he was physically and mentally abused her, and he did not let her forget that he was the boss. The few visits he was allowed to have with her family, he spoke angrily to her for a few days afterwards. He often threatened to kill her if she did not do exactly as he directed.
Ashlee had lost control of her life. As a relief from stress, she started exercising daily. What started as the only joy in her life became an obsession. Her workouts were three times a day for two hours. If she missed a workout, she became frantic. She became obsessed with what she ate, cutting her portions to less than a child could eat. She weighed herself several times a day.
At one time, Ashlee only ate one-eighth of her meal. When her weight went down, Roy accused her of losing weight for other men, and of having sexual affairs. He followed her to work and constantly spied on her. The more he screamed and hurled accusations at her, the more she retreated into herself.
People concerned about Ashlee urged her to gain some weight. She was down to 108 lbs, her cheeks were sunken, her eyes were dull, her hair was brittle, and she was exhausted. Her shoulders, ribs and hip bones were clearly visible, and she could not sleep on either side because it was painful. However, she felt that she was overweight and needed to lose more weight. Her life followed that course for more than two years.
The turning point
The turning point in Ashlee’s life came when Shelly, a friend of hers and Roy’s, moved in with them. Shelly was nine years younger than the couple, and with her there was a welcome change for Ashlee. After Shelly had lived with her for two months, she noticed that Roy and Shelly were spending a lot of time together. She observed secret glances between them, and heard the private jokes they shared. The attraction between them was obvious. He forbade her to go anywhere with him, but he always took Shelly with him. Eventually, Shelly revealed that she and Roy planned her death.
Ashlee was scared, and knew that if she wanted to stay alive, she had to do something fast to get out of her dire situation. Since Roy threatened to destroy her and kill her family if she ever tried to leave him, she did the only thing she could do – she sedated him. After he fell asleep, she loaded her car with what she could get into it and fled home to her family.
Roy immediately began harassing Ashlee and her family by phone. Undeterred by his threats, her father took the reins. After a few weeks of settling down and relaxing from the heavy stress, her health began to improve. She no longer felt the need to control her food intake so strictly, and she was able to enjoy her father’s home cooked meals. She felt safe, and she began to gain weight. Her outlook on life gradually improved. She had the support of her family and friends, and within a year she was working at a job she enjoyed. She divorced Roy and continued to rebuild her life.
Twenty-six years later, Ashlee is able to look back on that time period with the wisdom of an adult who has self-respect and high self-esteem. “In hindsight, I could have seen what happened when Roy was offended as soon as we got married,” she says. “I know now that I became anorexic as a result of the loss of control over my life and the abuse I lived. The only thing I had control over was what and how much I put in my mouth. t die.” It took her several years to overcome the emotional damage of her marriage to Roy, and she vowed never to cause any kind of event that would cause her to become anorexic again.
So far she hasn’t.
* Name changed at the request of the interviewee.
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