I can remember the first time I thought I was fat. It was one of the hottest days of the summer and I was standing in the laundry room of my mom's house, looking out the back door. Two of my friends were playing in a sprinkler out back. I had just put on sunscreen, sandals, and my swimsuit - a two-piece with golden dragonflies embroidered on it. But no matter how badly I wanted to have fun, and no matter how much my mom urged me to play with my friends, I couldn't bear to step outside. "No," I thought to myself. "I can't go, because I'm too fat." I was five years old.
I can remember the first time I thought I was gay. My older brother and I were coloring with chalk on the sidewalk. He wrote the initials of his first middle school girlfriend on the ground. I took a break from drawing flowers and playing hopscotch to follow suit, and I wrote the initials of my crush on the ground. My crush was a girl. I was seven years old.
By fifth grade I was bigger and taller than everyone in my class, and growing quickly. My family could not afford to buy me new clothes; as a temporary solution, I got stuck with my brother's hand-me-downs. It was the late 90s and big, baggy JNCO jeans were in style for teenage boys; not so much for preteen girls. One day, during recess, my teacher called us to take role and file. "Your pants are gay!" someone shouted as I stood in line, while everyone laughed. "How?" I asked. I knew what gay meant and I somehow knew that, somewhere in this world, gay people existed. But I didn't know that it was bad, shameful, or something to be mocked. That day, I learned that it was: "Because they're ugly and they make you look fat." I looked down at my legs and stomach. My heart sank. I began thinking that being gay and being teased for my weight were somehow connected. I still have a vivid image of that day on the playground, and occasionally a flash of my too-long JNCO jeans will pop into my head and bring me back, over a decade later.
I am still trying to bounce back from middle school. As is often heard of those intense formative years, nothing felt fair. My dad was diagnosed with cancer, I lived with my mom and her alcoholic boyfriend, my family was poor, I was a band geek who even the band geeks didn't want to be friends with, I was gay in a redneck town, and last but certainly not least, I firmly believed that I was fat. It was the first time I knew what depression really was, and it wasn't taken seriously. No one believed me. I felt hopeless, and there was nothing I could do about anything.
Shortly after I started high school, I knew I had to be honest with myself and with the people around me: I began coming out as gay. I had a rather cool reception; like my depression, my sexuality was doubted by even those who I considered my closest friends. I needed to be myself and I felt like no one would allow that. I felt trapped and I needed help. I began to learn to distrust myself. People around me had denied my depression and my sexual orientation, and I trusted and believed them rather than trusting in and believing myself. I couldn't convince people to listen to me, and I couldn't change who I was. I was stuck in purgatory.
It was after my freshman year of high school that I realized there was one thing that I could change, while providing a distraction from everything else in my life: my body.
My weight loss was rapid; it disrupted everything in my life, and, at the time, it was a welcome distraction. For the first time in years, my sexual orientation was not at the forefront of my mind. Any sex drive I had vanished and I isolated myself from everyone: my friends, my crushes, my classmates. I thought that losing weight was a way for me to make something change, until I realized that I had lost control of that too. I was hospitalized for the first time during my sophomore year, with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa.
There was someone inside of me who needed to be seen and heard and no one was listening. My eating disorder was about gaining a voice. When I was first admitted into inpatient care, I thought that I had hit the jackpot. It sucked, and I was terrified, but I had seen movies about psych wards, and part of me felt hopeful. I envisioned my family and friends finally coming together, listening to me, and working with me. I thought that I would come out with a profound sense of self; I thought this was the beginning of a new life.
Unable to afford the residential treatment that is so often portrayed in eating disorder memoirs, I was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit that catered to children. I had that familiar feeling of isolation in treatment; the same separation that I felt on the elementary school playground. While I read about my wealthier counterparts participating in equine therapy, taking day trips, expressing themselves through art therapy, and living in residential suites, I was playing board games with little kids and watching the same reruns of cartoons over, and over, and over again. I was gaining the required weight while remaining mentally stagnant.
In therapy, my concerns about my sexuality were often swept under the rug. I wanted to talk about it, but was told to redirect my attention to other things, like focusing on recovery. Because of my age, it was assumed that my eating disorder was caused by supermodels and magazines, so the hospital spent a lot of time and energy addressing an issue that was non-triggering to me. My dad’s cancer was in remission, and because he worked as a maintenance worker on printing presses, every time he came to visit me in the hospital we had a tradition of looking through the tabloids that his company printed. One day, the nurses on the ward pulled him aside and told him to stop bringing in those magazines because they felt that it was fueling my eating disorder. We never looked through those magazines ever again; I lost something that I loved simply because my healthcare professionals would not take me seriously.
Following my discharge I bounced in and out of different levels of care: inpatient to partial hospitalization to inpatient to intensive outpatient to inpatient to partial hospitalization. This continued throughout my high school career and beyond, while I gained and lost large amounts of weight, cycled through a handful of different DSM diagnoses, and took over a dozen different prescribed antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers.
After all of those years, I had no idea who I was. I felt like I had to re-learn every single thing about myself, and I'm still learning today. I was always told that after I recovered, everything else would fall into place. I have since learned that recovery is not its own entity. There are several pieces of recovery that tie in with one another and they all require attention, no matter how unimportant other people may feel those pieces are. Everything plays a role.
I finally found a therapist who believed me. She was a post-doctoral student who, sadly, had to move out of the area to continue her studies. When she left I felt like I had to start all over again, but after having one small taste of what validation felt like, I knew I had to keep the momentum going. She trusted me, and she taught me to try to trust myself too.
It is amazing what happened after that. It wasn't quick and it wasn't overnight. It wasn't a glamorous aha moment like I saw in the movies. It's still a project in the making and I still struggle. But changes are happening, and I've never been more excited to see what the next few years will bring.
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