Once upon a cigarette, I sat doing homework outside my favourite downtown Denver coffee shop, across from a boy I was trying hard to love. It was freezing that night, but all the seats inside were taken.
“At least we can smoke,” he reasoned as he led the way to the section of seating off the side of the building. We threw our backpacks on a wobbly metal table and attempted to be productive. The lights hanging across the alley were barely bright enough to be of any use, but he reviewed his chemistry notes and I marked up poetry, with each of us treating ourselves to the occasional drag.
The scene reeked more of our unsettled angst than our cigarettes. I’d look around at the murals on the alley walls, throw a half-hearted smile his way and try to focus on my homework. He’d sometimes pull out one earbud to tell me something funny, something that frustrated him or something that he didn’t understand. That was our rhythm.
It wasn’t too long before one of us asked the other if they’d eaten that day, a slice of our lives we’d recently stopped hiding from the other. I don’t remember which one of us brought it up, but I remember our dysfunctional laughter as we both admitted that we hadn’t.
“Coffee counts as a meal, right?” he offered.
“Exactly, and you only need one meal a day,” I said.
“Plus, we smoked.”
“We’re practically gluttons.”
Hollow chuckles at that.
It was unfamiliar, getting to share this part of my life with someone, especially this someone. About a year prior, I’d shown up on his doorstep. It was my first month of college in a state where I knew no one, and I was desperate for human connection. My brother knew this boy’s cousin (or something like that).
I liked him right away. I liked his curly brown hair, his quirky mannerisms and even how his glasses never seemed to rest straight on his face. I spent three hours in his apartment that night, laughing with him and his roommates. He asked me for my number and promised to hang out more.
We spent the next year engaged in an awkward dance between “we’re dating” and “we’re not dating,” with the attempts at being together thwarted by a summer apart, failing communication and the deterioration of our mental health—something neither one of us thought to share with the other.
I once sat on the staircase outside his apartment while being overtaken by a panic attack. If I’d had the courage to ask, he would’ve sat by me until I could breathe again. I could’ve stayed in the apartment instead of rushing out the door at the first hint of anxiety.
I didn’t think he’d know how to handle my crazy. I didn’t think he had any experience with crazy of his own.
But this time was different. I’d already broken his heart. I let him have a month or so to process it, and then weaselled my way back into his life. We resumed our coffee and homework nights, even grabbed dinner a few times.
It was during one of these first attempts at a second try that we discovered our shared struggles. We were sitting in Panera, both struggling to finish a bowl of soup. We chatted over all the shallow things we chatted about. Our new friendship more comfortable than it had been, I found myself confiding in him about an argument with a friend.
“She said something she had no place saying,” I said.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I haven’t been doing well, and she commented on it. We aren’t close enough for that.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t been doing well?”
It took me a few minutes to formulate my response to that, trying to decide if he was going to get the “I’m just overwhelmed from being busy,” or if I could be entirely honest with him.
“I’ve had some mental struggles in the past.” I stopped for a second, not really sure where that came from, surprised I took the honest path. “I was doing better, but the whole eating thing has gotten difficult again.”
“OK, I get that.”
I proceeded to cry in the middle of Panera as he told me his history. I commented here and there, noting the surprising number of similarities we shared. We talked about everything from self-harm to scales. Before I knew it, our “How was your day?” texts were answered with things like “It started with a two-hour panic attack” or “I’ve been throwing up everything I’ve eaten in the past three days.”
He bought me Taco Bell the weekend after Panera. He parked his car in a shabby strip mall parking lot, and we tried our best to eat it. I took a few bites of a quesadilla and then said, “I can’t do it.” I wrapped up the food he bought me and tried not to cry.
“I’m still going strong,” he said, laughing. He lasted three more bites than I did.
Laughing under city lights, as we did on the night we used my lighter on his cheap cigarettes, became one of my favourite things. We could spend hours silently enjoying each other’s company. I began to share with him the things I worried made me too screwed up. He’d smile and say, “Me too.”
It was strange for me, having someone that not only knew but genuinely understood how difficult it was for me to eat. It was especially strange to me that this companion was a boy.
Never toothpick skinny
I grew up with three older brothers who were always eating. Always. If it wasn’t a meal, it was a snack. If it wasn’t a snack, it was a nibble. Whatever it was, it was eating. This never-ending hunger was acceptable since they were male. Culture feeds us this idea that being a man means being a glutton.
No one ever talks about the men with eating disorders. Men think about food and sex. It’s women who are concerned about their weight. So, although he was toothpick-type skinny, it never occurred to me that this brunette boy might face the same fears I do every time he eats a meal.
But I was never toothpick-type skinny, and I never had the courage to call my issue an eating disorder. I was always one of the bigger kids in my classes in school. I grew a lot quicker, so I was taller and heavier than everyone else.
When my Mom took me shopping, we found most of my clothes in the plus-size section. I’d wander through the ‘normal’ section, look at all the cute options skinny girls had, and be angry that I only had limited choices that would fit over my hips. These natural insecurities were reinforced by my brothers.
Their sense of humour revolved around tormenting me, with the best jokes calling attention to how fat I was. My brother one time used me to describe how fat he thought another girl was. “She’s big,” he laughed. “Like there’s Nicole, and then there’s Brandy. You could fit two Nicoles in Brandy.” My other brothers laughed, not realizing that I’d go cry in the bathroom as soon as we got to youth group.
They always thought these comments came across in jest, and I’m sure, from their perspective, it looked that way. But I never heard them that way. All I heard was that I was ugly; I was defective.
If my brothers—boys genetically wired to call me pretty—thought I was fat, what did other boys think? They wouldn’t like me. I began to not like me.
Small things can trigger big spirals
Looking back, it wasn’t the torments or the plus-size clothes that got me. By high school, most of the other kids had grown. I fit in the same size as several girls I knew. We’d often borrow each other’s clothes. My brothers’ humour had also matured by this point, so I was free from insults in that area.
I was free to not think about my body all the time. It was something I should’ve been able to work past. But sometimes, multiple problems jump at you all at once. Sometimes it’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Which came first: depression or anxiety? Sometimes, to avoid one issue you dive headlong into another, almost as if your issues are giving birth to more. Small things can sometimes trigger big spirals.
My small thing was my senior year homecoming dress. It was hot pink with a swooping neckline. The top was incredibly form-fitting, starting to flare about mid-thigh. My friends all assured me that it accented my figure and looked amazing.
I suddenly had to change everything about my body. I wanted to cut the fat off my arms, to pull the rolls off my belly, to be anything other than how big I felt in that moment.
It did accent my figure. It very clearly accented all the things I wanted to change about my body.
I remember putting on the dress and looking in the mirror. I was no stranger to the concept of hating myself, thanks to a long-standing back-and-forth dance with depression. However, I don’t think I’d ever felt it in that sense before. It went past being disappointed in myself. It wasn’t resenting my existence.
I suddenly had to change everything about my body. I wanted to cut the fat off my arms, to pull the rolls off my belly, to be anything other than how big I felt in that moment. I stepped onto the scale, still in the violently pink dress and started to cry. It’s too big. You’re too big. I made a note of my weight in my iPod, promising that I was going to start working out.
My Mom was in the middle of a diet phase during all of this. She’d downloaded an app to help her count calories. It gave her a range for how many she should eat a day in order to lose the weight she wanted.
I downloaded the app onto my iPod that night. I entered my weight and selected the calorie option that would help me lose the most amount of weight in the shortest amount of time. I looked online to find workouts that were supposed to burn fat the fastest. My mom was excited that I’d joined her “getting healthy” project, unaware of how unhealthy this would actually be for me.
I began to enter all my food into the app, surprised at how many calories little snacks had. It took me only a few days to realize which foods had the fewest calories. I started to restrict my eating to those few things, being sure to enter them into the app. The range was helpful, until I started to view the low number as a limit rather than a goal. I needed to eat less than the limit.
Aiming to eat 1500 calories a day turned into trying to eat 1000 calories a day, which turned into only allowing myself 500 calories a day. As I entered the exercises I did every day, I noticed the app cancelled out calories to show how many I’d burned off. A zero-calorie intake became my goal. Negative-calorie days became a high.
Shortly after senior homecoming was over, I began to housesit for a couple from church, spending months living in their house. I was attending the local community college full-time through a program called Running Start. The state of Washington covered the cost of classes, since I was technically still in high school.
I entered this program at the start of junior year, which put me on track to have my Associates of Arts degree at seventeen. My three classes, a full 15-credit load, left me plenty of time to watch the house. I didn’t mind the two small dogs, and I enjoyed the space away from my family. I had a quiet place to work on homework and apply to colleges I was interested in transferring to.
The couple that owned the house was the intimidating ex-military type, but their only real concern was that I sent them pictures of “their girls” every few days. They told me I could do whatever else I wanted to in the house. The Mrs. told me she trusted my judgment and said, “If it’s good enough for a Boogerd, it’s more than good enough for me.” I laughed, ignoring the voice that told me I wasn’t good enough to be a Boogerd.