In the summer of 1994, a trip to visit my aunt and uncle in Wyoming launched my starvation plan into overdrive. It was a summer of freedom with back to back trips keeping me from the watchful eye of my parents.
My cousin Angela and I landed at the Casper, WY airport late in the afternoon.
I was relieved to finally be standing, first because my rear end was asleep and secondly because my cousin’s constantly bouncing knee was driving me crazy. Why had I never thought of that? Fidgeting, moving constantly surely burned more calories. I made a mental not to adopt this habit.
My aunt kept a scale in the kitchen. Not the tiny, counter-top kind for weighing portions of chicken and grams of pasta. At the edge of the island, right in the center of the swirly gray, tile floor was a digital, bathroom scale.
“I just check myself every morning.” My aunt tossed her perfectly bump-styled, blond hair and brushed an imaginary strand from blue eyes. “Depending on the number, I know what I can eat for breakfast. Or, if I’m going to eat breakfast.”
Cheryl turned to Angela and me and sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to have a body like yours’ again.”
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that day it had its eye on my appetite. It’s difficult to stare at a scale and not ask it what you weigh. Angela and I took our turns. While we were visiting it would become our daily practice, too.
I don’t remember what I weighed, but I remember that I was exactly five pounds heavier than my cousin.
“Nice, Angela! You probably stay so thin because you run track.”
Mental note: Start running.
Our bedroom was in the basement. Just before midnight, Angela and I crawled beneath layers of faux fur blankets.
“I’m going to get up and run a couple miles tomorrow,” she told me. “My coach told us to run at least three times a week all summer.”
“I’ll go with you.” Cheryl had set the serve, Angela volleyed and the competition was in play.
The rest of the week, the three of us challenged each other to burn more calories, eat less food and look prettier. I only remember tiny snap shots of the vacation. Angela waking every morning for a run. Me pulling the skin off my chicken and foregoing breakfast. Cheryl nearly in tears because she broke a nail and it was too late to get it fixed the same day.
One week later, I flew home alone. Angela spent the whole summer with her dad and stepmom. But I had learned tricks of the trade. The whole way home, even when the drone of the plane lulled me into a coma, my right knee bounced a steady, obnoxious rhythm. Soon I would be driving my parents mad when my compulsive tapping vibrated the car at stop lights.
I had one week before I left for camp. Suddenly, I was nervous.
“Mom, I’m not sure I really want to go. I’m just so tired after the trip to Wyoming and I just kind of want to be home for a while.”
Mom dumped my dirty clothes bag straight into the washer, added Tide and started the agitator.
“Sweetheart, you have to go now, it’s been paid for. Besides, you had so much fun last year. When you get there you won’t want to come home.”
“But Mom, I’m a little scared about what I’m going to eat. The mess hall isn’t exactly about serving healthy food.”
“What are you talking about?” Mom turned from folding the previous load of white undershirts and socks. “You’ve never worried about that before. You’re healthy and strong. You don’t need to worry about what you eat!”
Mom couldn’t understand. The panic pinching my heart wasn’t normal. I hadn’t felt it before. A swelling anxiety ebbed and flowed like a tide in my chest. One moment, I relaxed and looked forward to fun and friendships at camp. The next, fear surged forward when I remembered biscuits and gravy at breakfast, corn dogs for lunch and spaghetti for dinner. The only solution I could think of was to prepare my body. I’d just have to cut back a little bit before I went to camp.
Eagle Lake is an expansive, sports camp in beautiful Colorado Springs. Days were packed with hiking, canoeing and swimming. Nights were spent singing praise songs, dancing and whispering across bunk beds over the din of crickets. For two brief weeks, I didn’t worry about a workout.
Jenni, my counselor, watched me closely in the mess hall. “Abby, aren’t you going to eat breakfast?”
“I’m not really hungry,” I lied. “But I’m sure I’ll be starving by this afternoon and I’ll eat a big lunch.”
Jenni relented, but I caught her eyes on me again at lunch. Jello, pretzels, unsweet iced tea. I worried she was going to lecture me later, or worse, tell my parents Friday afternoon at commencement. At dinner, I made sure to put a grilled cheese sandwich on my plate. When Jenni got up for seconds, I tipped the second half of my sandwich into the trash.
Exhaustion took over as soon as I got in the car with my parents for the 12 hour drive from Colorado back to Oklahoma. Their hushed voices didn’t register in my subconscious other than to hear my name mentioned a few times. And I felt my mom turn in her seat to watch me.
“Mom, I haven’t had my period this month. I’m worried. ” She was leaning over a monstrous book on her desk in the school room. Slowly, she straightened and slid her glasses off her face. Mom always pulled them off straight forward over her nose, never to the side.
As she swiveled her chair to face me, I noticed The Family Medical Guide on her desk.
“Abby, I want you to step on the scale. You look so thin. I can hardly believe you’re the same girl that left for Wyoming this summer. I’ve been reading about anorexia. One of the side effects is loss of menstruation.”
Mom stood, took my hand and lead me to the master bathroom. I loved Mom’s bathroom. The tub was huge, a rich brown marble. Two sinks were on either end of the long room with the tub in the middle. Both she and my dad had their own tri-paneled mirror. The only hard floor in the bathroom was in the toilet closet, and there sat the scale in the back corner, gathering dust, obviously an afterthought to my mom’s way of thinking.
The toilet closet was truly a tiny closet with barely enough room to sit without your knees pushing the door open. Mom drug the scale to the edge of the carpet and stood leaning against the door to hold it open.
“Step up, Abby.”
My mind flashed back to that afternoon in my aunt’s kitchen. My jean shorts felt looser than they had then and the cups in my bra gapped a little bit more. I worried what Mom would say when she saw the number, if was smaller than three weeks ago. I hesitated.
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted the scale to say. Higher would be good and ease Mom’s mind. But lower was a tantalizing option. How small could I get? The number flashed.
“Abby, you’ve lost 20 lbs. When did this happen? How did this happen?” Mom’s voice shook, more from fear than anger.
I stepped off the scale and looked at her. Excitement and trepidation hummed in my chest. This was something new. I didn‘t know anyone else who had done this. Here was my chance to call my own shots. I didn’t have to be normal or just like everyone else.
“I’m fine, Mom. Really. I’m just thinner.”