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I stood at the edge of the acting studio, my bare arms covered in a thin layer of sweat, as my drama-school classmates hurried outside.
Our movement teacher, a dancer and stage-combat specialist, was locking the props closet. I took a big gulp and tried to weight my fluttering heart back down into my chest.
“Can I tell you something?”
She nodded. I took a deep breath.
“I have an eating disorder.”
My wretched secret, mine alone for almost a decade, was finally out of my mouth.
I was not in the habit of telling my secrets. I had lied my way through kids’ games like truth or dare, and any other opportunities for intimacy.
My exacting father had often accused me of being too thin, and then of being sick, but this was the first time I had ever spoken those words out loud, admitted I had a problem. It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I was 21.
“But you’re not in any danger now, right?”
As I watched her assess my body against her own measuring stick, I felt my courage die and my fledgling voice stick hard in my throat.
My BMI, at 17.7, was eight points below the healthy minimum of 18.5. But within our circle of dancers and actors, where the prevailing aesthetic skews toward wispy bodies, her narrowed eyes were clocking me as too fat for an eating disorder.
Without such telltale signs as stick legs and lanugo (fine hairs covering the skin), why should she believe I had been dealing with subclinical anorexia for years? I had become very good at hiding it.
I was mortified by her reaction. The idea that I might be a disappointment to her, a whining nuisance she would have to deal with, got the better of me.
“Right. No danger now.”
I remember smiling and nodding while a kind of hollow, numb feeling settled into my bones.
After that first attempt to speak up, I continued to restrict food, abetted by a severe food allergy and the blind conviction that being skinny was a career imperative for an actor.
When I was 13, a talent agent had told me no one would ever hire me if I weighed more than 120 pounds. It was a well-intentioned message and I took it to heart. I also craved the possibility of control in a capricious industry.
The paradox was that in order to believably embody a real human character, as opposed to a doll, I would have to live, breathe and acknowledge imperfection, and play the very appetites that make us human. You can’t ever be sure you got it right – unless you win an Oscar.
Rather than focusing on the messier aspects of my craft, which require self-acceptance and a willingness to experience the present moment in front of an audience, I concentrated on the clean, concrete task of losing weight. I despaired as my nascent career dissolved. In an ironic twist, I was once nominated for a regional acting award for playing a doll.
Restricting food helped me to cope. I needed to feel a sense of control and mastery, and my body was all I had to work with. I became an expert at maintaining a not-quite-healthy weight, making it seem effortless and natural to my friends while secretly obsessing about diet and exercising like a fiend to balance the calorie budget.
I have lived with this compulsion so long that it’s like the tattoo I got at 19 – I sometimes forget that it’s there.
But it is always in the background, even when my loving husband, whose passion is to experiment in the kitchen and share his culinary creations, is feeding my body and soul, or when a dear, compassionate colleague reminds me to eat lunch when I’ve “forgotten.”
At a play-writing workshop recently, I unexpectedly found myself staring down the barrel of that old familiar gun after years of denial.
One of the first writing exercises was to list three things at which we were expert. For me, this was a diabolical question: I’ve never felt good enough at anything. Finally, I picked up my pen and wrote “anorexia nervosa.” It has been with me longer than my oldest friends. I am acquainted with it more intimately.
Healing is an ongoing process. Even now, at 38, I have moments of weakness. I am not recovered, I am in remission.
My mind still has the propensity, when challenged with a life change or stress, to spin tornadoes of anxiety and fixate with unholy terror on my diet and the shape of my body.
Sometimes it keeps me from spending time with friends or doing things I am passionate about. But now that I’m anchored by a regular yoga and meditation practice, that happens less often.
I believe in the power of stories, so I have started writing a play about a woman who wants more than anything to be light. I am hoping that sharing it will make others who are subclinical in their eating disorder discover they are not alone. Perhaps they will accept they have a problem earlier, heal earlier, and stop wasting their beautiful lives away.
And I am not in any danger. Not now.
Lisa Jeans lives in Vancouver.