when the perfect girl falls

a personal essay

The “perfect girl” was cold.

It was debilitating, gut-wrenching, corpse-like, freezing cold- and yet, it was a blistering July day on the beach.

Her fingers were pale, weak, frail. They seemed to transfer a thin layer of ice onto anything they set their bone-like extremities upon. 

But at least they felt something

The rest of her was not as fortunate. 

I was numb, I was a zombie. I could feel nothing, my brain was so malnourished. There was no joy left in life— I was not living, but just barely surviving. Nothing was ever warm; even my vision had a tint of icy blue. I couldn’t tolerate loud noises, sharp sounds, prolonged clamour. I couldn’t tolerate life

I was a living embodiment of anorexia.

The media does not portray eating disorders accurately. They glorify them, mask them in appealing labels of “healthy eating” and “nutritional diets” and “great exercises to boost your calorie expenditure”. 

What they don’t show is a hospitalized teenage girl with a heart rate below 35 BPMs, missing a quarter of her sophomore year. What they don’t show is blood getting drawn twice a day, covering her arms with bruises. What they don’t show is her being wheeled in a wheelchair, too low in weight to be permitted to walk. What they don’t show is the trauma she now has, the information she wishes she never knew.  

I was the “perfect girl”. Blonde, blue-eyed, tall, straight A’s, intelligent, kind. I was the ideal daughter, the flawless elder sister to a developmentally delayed younger brother. 

And so I repressed my emotions, my anxieties. I pushed them off, telling myself to be the consummate automaton I thought was expected of me. “They have other things to deal with,” I told myself, “they shouldn’t be bothered by my issues”.  

And then, I cracked. 

Like delicate porcelain striking against the sharp needle of life, like an egg shattering against concrete. My mask of perfection dropped, my bubble of safety popped.

The “perfect girl” fell— and she fell hard

I was in the hospital for six days, and a residential facility for eight weeks. During that time, I found out more about myself than I could have ever imagined.

But most importantly, I found out that I wasn’t the “perfect girl” I once knew. In fact, I realized that no one was a “perfect” anything at all. 

At first, I denied it, pushing it away. It was possible to be perfect, I insisted, and I would become it once more. I failed to notice it was the very imperfections themselves that constitute the beauty of the whole.

As I progressed in treatment, I realized how absurd my former beliefs were. I started to recognize the innate faults in everyone around me, and how these faults serve to enhance, rather than diminish, our intrinsic value. 

The “perfect girl” finally realized that it was okay to make a mistake- nay, she realized it was advantageous to make a mistake. For a mistake allows one to learn. If you live life perfectly, you are not really living; you are simply a shadow, an emotionless robot. Life is about mistakes. It is about learning, about improving upon yourself. It is about becoming stronger after you fall. 

When I was finally weight-restored and discharged from residential treatment in late October, I had never felt more euphoric. I had been through absolute terror and fear, but the results were ethereal. After not being able to see the outside world for so long, I was enraptured in absolutely everything. The changing leaves, the heavenly weather, my darling friends and school- I was intoxicated with pure love for the reality around me. My first day back at school was one of the happiest days of my life; I was blissful, rhapsodic even. I had never felt so elated before.

It took me darkness— quite frankly, hell—to see the paradise that life is. No one cares for how perfect you are, no one worries over your appearance. A mistake should not be scolded, but instead rejoiced over. 

On that wonderful Monday, a “perfect girl” had died. And yet, I was not upset in the slightest. “Good riddance,” I thought. 

The girl’s “perfect” skeletal figure, her “perfect” emotional coldness, her “perfect” standardized test scores— these are only the scattered remnants of a forlorn life, left to flutter in the wind; rather, a fallacious, sad excuse for a life. 

Her grave is left unattended, overgrown with weeds and ivy. Ironically, it has more life now than it ever did when it was a part of me. 

Calories (A Poem)

Calories

A curse word.

The word. 

Flung so carelessly about, precariously perched atop their tongues, 

Ready to pounce on you unsuspectingly, to sink its controlling teeth into your veins, 

Filling your joyous bloodstream with silencing darkness.


“Come on, ladies, work it! Pump those arms!” 

You sweat, water trailing down your temple,

You feel strong, you feel warm, you feel powerful,

You are grateful for your body and everything it does.

And then

“Just a little more! We’ve gotta work off the calories from that whipped cream!”

Your arms drop. 

Your veins fill with darkness,

The exercise is no longer fun; it is work, 

Tireless, unabating control.


“OMG, you guys should try this new snack!”

You happily take a piece,

Your chest inflates with immeasurable pride-

You are flexible with yourself,

You are spontaneous,

You feel the fear, but do it anyway. 

And then

“They’re only 45 calories!” 

Your glance falls to the floor.

The stone-cold darkness prevails once more.

… “Oh, and they’re also fat-free.”

Another biting sting,

A merciless punch to the gut.


“Guys, look at that stir-fry bowl. It looks good!”

You fill with hope, 

Hope that someone is free from the disordered grasps of rigidity,

Hope that they will not say the word.

And then

“Woah, it’s 800 calories! What the hell, that’s almost half the amount you should consume in a day.”

It was false hope.

You can’t take it anymore,

Lead pulses through your veins,

Weighing them down,

Down,

Freezing them.

A thin sheet of ice covers your skin.


Your lungs suffer.

The air is completely pushed out,

Not a single drop remaining.

Your happy balloon is popped,

Popped with a single word. 

The word. 

Calories

Update/Quasi-Recovery

Apologies for my extended absence! I’ve been really caught up with life, and living it to its fullest. I have been so joyful, so confident in myself, and so grateful for everything. Thank you family, friends, and peers, for being such amazing influences! I love you more than anything; I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by these beautiful people. 

I’ve done things recently that my middle school self had never dreamt of doing. I haven’t been afraid to speak up in classes and discussions to voice my own opinions. I haven’t let my false perceptions of myself deceive me. I even asked someone to a dance! These things all seem rather straightforward to some people, but for someone who has struggled with social anxiety, they are huge leaps. I am, very simply put, in love with life

What is my point in saying this? 

Although I am so happy with where I am right now, it doesn’t mean I’m not struggling with certain things. Near the beginning of the holidays, I was really scared of challenging my eating disorder. My life seemed so good that I didn’t want to disrupt it with anything fear-inducing. I wanted to stay in a sort of “quasi-recovery”. However, this state of half-recovery is a very dangerous place to be in; for one, it can very easily lead to a relapse. Your ED can creep in before you realize it, and in very subtle and unnoticeable ways. Quasi-recovery is not fighting your disorder, but rather coming to a compromise with it, which is not the goal. It isn’t really fully living. You do not want to make peace with your ED- you want to defy it, barrel at it with the very last reserve of strength you have. You cannot keep certain parts of your disorder if you want to truly be free from its toxic grasp. In order to fully recover, you must go all-in. Challenge every single ED behavior, no matter how small. Do exposures whenever you can. Actively work to fight urges. Don’t overwork yourself; take as much time as you need. Just make sure you are doing the absolute best you possibly can.  

For me, structure was vital. In order to complete certain challenges, I had to sit down and plan them out with a family member or friend. This may seem unnatural at first, especially to the person you are doing the challenges with; however, I promise it will come much more naturally if you continue completing them. I hadn’t imagined ever willingly wanting to have this one specific fear food, but through multiple planned (and some spontaneous!) exposures to it, I progressed immensely. I recently had some of it very naturally and intuitively, without any second thoughts. This, to me, is a huge improvement! It goes to show that doing uncomfortable things and truly pushing yourself to your full potential yields unmistakable advancement.

Anyways, this was my short update/motivation! I hope you have a wonderful day! 🙂

My Thoughts on Body Image

I’m willing to bet that all of you, regardless of whether you’ve had an eating disorder or not, have struggled with negative body image at least once in your life. How did you respond to it? Did you just ignore it, did you have anxiety, did you wallow in its burdening effects? 

For me, bad body image contributed to my eating disorder’s development, but it wasn’t the only cause. However, it was the prevailing reason as to why I continued acting on eating disorder symptoms; it exacerbated everything, and was its worst at the height of my eating disorder

Think about this.

The point at which my body image was at an all-time low was when my weight was its smallest and I was actively partaking in symptoms. 

Even when I was doing everything my eating disorder wanted, and my body was extremely thin and emaciated, my body image was still terrible and my body dysmorphia was worse than ever before. 

Nothing is ever enough for your eating disorder; it keeps wanting more, more, until you eventually meet your demise. It is never satisfied until you are dead. Therefore, it is futile to pursue the goal of changing your body in order to feel better about yourself; this tactic does not change your underlying issues, like low self-confidence or body dysmorphia. The only way to truly feel better about your body is accepting it for what it is, and all it does for you, without trying to negatively alter or change it. 

(I am in no way saying not to exercise or work out- in fact, I love exercising! It allows me to release my stress and makes me feel strong. However, make sure it does not become obsessive, and always question your motives for doing it– if it doesn’t make you feel good and is just fueling the ED, then I’d recommend to stay away from it until your mindset improves)

I found that after I had restored my weight, my body image was so much better- even though I had gained body mass! It seems counter-intuitive and strange, but once you start actually nourishing your body and giving your brain fuel, the positive body image comes much more naturally. 

However, a heads-up is that anxiety will have a huge spike when your weight reaches 90% or so of your ideal body weight. This increase is shown in the graph pictured below:

This is when your body image will probably be its absolute worse. However, you must keep pushing through, for once you get past that barrier, the anxiety decreases dramatically.

My recommendation for dealing with negative body image is to first restore weight if need be, or to fuel your body properly; even if your BMI is not underweight, you still need to make sure you are getting the proper amount and type of food you need! Your brain cannot make rational decisions if you don’t do this. I know it is excruciatingly hard for many people, but I believe in you! This is a vital step in the process!

Once you pass this point, begin working on body neutrality. It is extremely hard to go from hate to full-blown acceptance, so take small steps towards body neutrality before you move on to love. 

TIPS FOR B A D B O D Y I M A G E DAYS :

  • Think of your body in terms of its individual parts, and try to name at least one thing each of those parts do for you that is completely unrelated to its appearance (ex. My arms allow me to hug my friends, my legs help me dance)
  • Record the positive aspects; write down at least 3 things you love about your body!
  • DON’T COMPARE. Just don’t. Everyone is different, and in all aspects; their bone structure is different, their genetics are different, their personalities are different. We as human beings are all unique in our own ways, and instead of feeling bad about this, we should appreciate its inherent beauty. Every single person on this Earth is stunning in their own way- what’s not to love about that?
  • Create small reminders. I love taping little notes all around my work-space and on items I use frequently; they usually have a quote I adore or a calming drawing. It may seem silly, but it really works! I have attached some of my own examples below:

I hope you appreciated this post about body image! I will probably be posting more about this, as it is a rather broad field and I have a lot of thoughts on it. 🙂

“Sit with it!”

Something I’ve always struggled with is comparing myself to my peers, whether it be my intelligence, my character, my appearance, or a plethora of other things. Before my eating disorder manifested itself, I kind of repressed those feelings, not dealing with- or even acknowledging- them. My eating disorder was a way to numb those feelings even further; it gave me a sense of pride, and blocked out my hidden insecurities with its fake “shield” of safety. The thing is, the freedom from these unpleasant emotions was only temporary- soon after they would return, even scarier and more unbearable than before. 
Once I got to Renfrew, the main message I kept hearing over and over again was sit with it
Sit with it.
Sit with the discomfort, sit with the scary sentiments- for if you are patient enough, they will pass by. After all, most eating disorders stem from not wanting to feel certain emotions; they are a way to weaken the emotions’ strength so you don’t have to deal with the discomfort of fully experiencing them. What Renfrew taught me is that there is a “natural arc of emotion”, a picture of which I have attached here:

The x-axis displays time, and the y-axis displays emotional intensity. Its main message is that when a situation occurs to illicit a certain emotion, that emotion will rise, peak, and eventually go back down naturally- if we allow it to. However, if the emotion feels very unbearable, some people may act on maladaptive emotion-driven behaviors (EDBs) to try and numb the experience (examples are restricting, compulsively exercising, etc.) The point at which the emotion reaches its peak is portrayed on the graph with the text box titled “avoidance”; this is when most people go through with EDBs.

However, this is not a good course of action, as it only will strengthen the emotion the next time you experience it. It also reinforces the idea that the emotions you are experiencing are negative, or “bad”- when in reality, no emotions are inherently “bad”. They all serve a purpose, like reminding you that you need to do something, or letting you know an event occurred that may not be satisfactory or pleasant. Thus, the only way to fight the urge to act on maladaptive EDBs and truly combat your eating disorder is to sit with the emotions. You can do this by acknowledging the feeling and your resistance towards it, and then trying to let go of that resistance and tolerate the feeling (easier said than done, I know!) Doing little activities that bring you joy, like painting or reading, may help- just make sure they aren’t avoidance behaviors (behaviors that distract you from actually feeling the emotion).  

So, this was my little post about dealing with uncomfortable emotions! I hope it helped you 🙂

Welcome!

There is no magic cure, no making it go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.

— Laurie Halse Anderson

As said on the homepage, I am Maria Hromcenco, a 10th-grader and recovering anorexic. Please subscribe to get notifications for my posts! They will cover various topics, including advice for parents and friends, ways I deal with body image, and many other tips I found to have helped (and continue to help) me a lot. 🙂

My Story

This post offers a lot of details/numbers, symptom use, and warning signs, so if you are easily triggered please click on another post to read!

Before I can really offer any advice, I must first share my story. 

BACKGROUND

Middle school was very rough for me, since most of my close friends had gone to different schools, and the academics were not challenging at all. During these three years I was very socially anxious and not confident in myself; I missed out on numerous opportunities because of this. I also had slight OCD, having compulsions to do things a certain number of times; however, this wasn’t serious. Finally, I started at a new, more academically-advanced school my first year of high school. It was where one of my closest friends had gone to the year before, and so I decided to try it out as well. It was (and still is) INCREDIBLE!!! I absolutely adore the academics there- I was finally stimulated and interested. The school is very small, so I got to know everyone intimately, and formed strong bonds with people that I now call my very best friends. However, there was still an underlying layer of shyness and very low self-esteem. The body-image part did not present itself as much as the low confidence in myself and my abilities did, though. But, for the most part, freshman year was truly a blissful experience. It thus came as a surprise when my eating disorder appeared.

THE BEGINNING

It all began late April/early May of 2019, during a vacation to Disney World with my family. I remember being very self-conscious about myself and my physical appearance on that trip, even though I looked completely and perfectly fine. I started thinking about the calories listed on menus for the first time in my life; I even remember crying to my mom about feeling guilty for having had pizza. This was not normal teenage behavior, but I didn’t think much of it. When we got back home, I started having more of these abnormal thoughts. It started off innocently enough: I’m just trying to be “healthy”, I’m getting rid of extra/unnecessary sugar, that’s all; I’m going to start eating more organic, whole foods; I’m going to exercise more. Although on the surface this reasoning seems perfectly fine, it quickly escalated into rigid rules and an unhealthy relationship with food. If you notice this happening to yourself or a loved one, PLEASE keep an eye out for them and make sure it doesn’t turn into a strict rule that must be followed. I suddenly found myself checking the calories on the back of every single food product available; it turned into this sort of sick game of “which granola has the least calories?” “Which salsa has 3 calories instead of 5?” and so on. I could no longer eat before 7 AM or after 7 PM without feeling very guilty. My list of foods to avoid kept growing and growing, and if I was able to skip a meal or eat a little less I was overwhelmed with pride and a sense of strong will-power. Each time the number on the scale dropped, I felt more intelligent, more powerful, more cunning. 

WARNING SIGNS

The thing is, this had never been an issue before- I was always on the slimmer side, I loved food, I was relatively neutral towards my body. I guess this was all a manifestation of pushed-down social anxiety, stress about school and grades, my confidence in myself, body image, and that slight OCD. All of these, although not defining factors, make an individual much more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. If either you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, look out for them and make sure it doesn’t escalate into anything serious. I strongly encourage getting therapy!

END OF THE YEAR/ACADEMICS

By the end of the school year, it had gotten really bad. I clearly recall coming in to school to take my AP US History exam, and being so malnourished and fatigued I could barely think. We had a break in the middle of it for lunch; my lunch was a singular hard-boiled egg. The amazing thing is, I still managed to get a 5 on that exam. I simply cannot imagine what could have happened to my academics if my eating disorder had started earlier in the year. This clearly shows the toll eating disorders have on your brain; even if you do not have anorexia specifically, an eating disorder still distracts your brain and denies it the proper nutrients it needs to think properly. Losing your capabilities to learn and question is NOT WORTH IT.

OUR MISTAKE

Now, at the beginning of summer, my mom finally realized something was very wrong. She took me to the doctor’s for a regular check-in, and got the news that I was terribly underweight- 91 pounds for a growing 5’5 girl. The doctor gave us a week for me to get my weight back up, and if that didn’t happen he’d recommend an eating disorder facility. Both my mom and I were so terrified of this news, since we had never dealt with mental illnesses before, much less something as severe as an eating disorder. I don’t think either of us really accepted the doctor’s diagnosis; we simply could not believe that such a thing was happening to me. That was our mistake. We came in the next week with my weight the same, if not lower; nonetheless, we completely disregarded the doctor’s recommendations, not wanting to think that it was that bad. Our family had made plans for the summer that we really did not want to cancel, and we just didn’t want to admit that I had anything wrong with me. Looking back on it now, I really wish we had sought treatment as early as possible. Even if none of us wanted it to be real, had I gone to treatment at the beginning of the summer it would have spared us so many tears and misery.  Please listen to specialists’ advice; going on trips and participating in life is not a good choice if you are really only semi-living.

SYMPTOMS

So, we continued on, my weight getting lower and lower by the day. I was miserable, tired, AND FREEZING. I remember having to sit outside in the blazing heat to try and get just a little warm, but it would never help. My fingers were freezing and purple, and my vision was always tinted with a shade of blue. I was exhausted all the time, and yet I still compulsively exercised and tried to be as active as possible. I couldn’t think clearly, I was always depressed and miserable. Nothing brought me joy. I was constantly thinking about food; everything revolved around it and planning the next meal. Whenever I went out, all I could see was restaurants and food-related shops. It was a miserable excuse for a life.  My fifteenth birthday on June 20th was quite possibly the worst birthday I have ever had. I had a photo-shoot as a present, in which I looked like a physically-drained skeleton; the photographer had to photo-shop the blue out of my hands and arms, and my face had so little fat that my cheek bones were on full- and not very appealing- display. Afterwards, I had a breakdown over food and a devastating argument with my dad at a restaurant. What was supposed to be an amazing day ended with tears, anger, shame, and fear.

OUR CONTINUED MISTAKES

Soon after this I went to a 10-day trip to Europe with my school; it was an incredible experience, but I was so tired and malnourished that I barely could enjoy it. We did so much walking and touring, but I couldn’t even eat the meals they gave us, thus denying my body of nutrients it badly needed. When I got back home from the trip my weight was at 85 pounds. This was absolutely terrifying for my entire family; this wasn’t a joke anymore, it was a matter of life or death.

Unfortunately, we still did not get help. We lived vicariously, through terrible arguments and negotiations; we went to all the places we had planned to go, like the beach (where I threw away food whenever I could, was self-conscious about wearing a bathing suit, and could not swim in the water because I was too cold), and Canada to visit my aunt (where I argued with my family constantly, wasted food that my aunt had spent her hard-earned money on, and had to bring packed food everywhere I went because eating at restaurants was too scary). I kid you not, this was literal hell. If we had just gone to a treatment facility at the beginning of the summer like our pediatrician had recommended, I could have much more fulfilling and happy vacations. However, I really did not want to believe I had anything wrong with me. I was very adamant about my actions being “healthy”; even by the end of the summer, I was in denial. My point here is, acknowledge the warning signs, don’t try to deny the illness, and seek treatment as soon as possible.

BEGINNING OF TREATMENT (finally!)

After those terrible, terrible experiences, during which I was so undernourished that I was never happy or energetic, we went home. My mom had scheduled an appointment with an outpatient facility (the lowest level of care) earlier in the summer, and their first available slot was for August 20th. So, on August 20th, we went to the hospital, expecting a magic cure that would help. Instead, we were informed that I was at an astonishingly low weight of 81 pounds, and was transferred immediately to inpatient (the highest level of care); I was brought to the cardiology department by wheelchair. I was in extreme danger of a heart attack, with my heart beat below 35.

 I had stood on death’s door step. 

This experience of having to lay in a hospital bed all day; of clutching my mom in the middle of the night when the heart monitor beeped to inform me my heart beat was below 30 (my dad had stayed home to take care of my little brother); of being wheeled around in a wheelchair- all of this truly shook me to the core. I will never be able to forget those six days of unremitting fear. 

Finally, after 6 days, my heart rate was high enough to be able to transfer me directly to Renfrew’s residential facility via an ambulance. There are five levels at Renfrew, level 1 being the lowest and level 5 the highest. Most people with a stable or close-to-stable weight come into residential at level 3; I came in at level 1, bound to a wheelchair. For two weeks, I was on strict bedrest, unable to move or go to groups. After those 2 weeks of torture, I was finally able to do things. I made absolutely amazing friends, and went to therapy for the first time in my entire life. The average stay for residential is 4-6 weeks, but I was there for 8 because of my weight. However, even though it was incredibly painful and heart-breaking to sit in a strange, unreal place, knowing that the real world is going on right beyond the “speed bump” (there is a speed bump that marks the spot residents can’t go beyond), I am so glad I got to be able to stay there as long as I did. I was able to get all the way to level 5, F.O. (the highest level of dining), and T-stage (the highest level of group-therapy). I really got the full-blown experience, and was so affected by the whole process that I have an overflowing level of motivation and confidence in myself. Thank you, Renfrew, for saving my life.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH DAY-PROGRAM

After that I went to day-program for one week, then IOP for another. Both of these were not very useful for me, because a lot of the groups were essentially the same as- if not less beneficial than- residential’s. The stages of recovery others were at were not very similar to my own. My experience with day-program was that it was more laid-back, less structured, and generally quite repetitive. I felt it was not benefiting me. Thus, my parents discharged me from day-treatment, and we moved to outpatient. However, I highly encourage you to try day-program if you are looking for some kind of treatment, as it is a good segue into therapy and has a very welcoming community! It is truly a great resource, with a nutritionist and therapist built in. It simply did not work out as well for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t help you!

GRATEFULNESS 🙂

My first day back at school was probably one of the best days in my entire life. After all that therapy, I finally felt confident in myself; coming back with such a healthy mindset was an incredible relief. I simply cannot express in words how overwhelmingly grateful I was that day; I was grateful for being able to use my legs, grateful for being warm, grateful for being able to see the changing leaves. I had not expected to cry, but when I left the car and looked back at my mom we both burst into tears. I walked into school to sign in at the sign-in sheet, and saw my entire group of friends waiting there for me. I let my tears flow out like a broken dam; my heart was so full for them, for my teachers, for my darling school! When I got to my first class, physics, I could not stop smiling– I was able to learn new, fascinating material, in a real life classroom! Something I value so much is knowledge and learning new things, and my eating disorder took that away from me by not giving my brain the nutrients it needs to function. That fateful Monday morning, I was able to take one step closer towards getting rid of my disorder for good. I was overjoyed to finally be around the people I love most, and be able to actually live life to its absolute fullest after “half living” for such a long time. With my eating disorder, I may have been happy, but I was never JOYFUL. That day,  I was able to very distinctly tell the difference between the two.

This is a shout out to my friends, who have supported me since day one, faithfully coming to visit me in a place that may seem very intimidating from an outsider’s point of view. I love you guys so much, from our never-ending Instagram chats, to our numerous inside jokes, to our easy-going conversations, to just being able to be my authentic myself around you. I love you 🙂

And thank you, Mama, Papa, Misha (my little brother), Babushka (my grandma), and Ruthie (my cat). Thank you for being patient; thank you for never losing faith. Thank you for taking time out of your hectic days to see me, thank you for religiously coming to family therapy. Thank you. I am forever indebted to you for all the trauma I put you through, and I hope that one day I will be able to repay you somehow. 

I love you. And the adventure continues…