My memoir begins at my college graduation ceremony, when I admonished myself for failing to feel the exuberance that such a day should elicit. I observed, as if from far away, excitement all around me. I was about to graduate with honors and a degree in theater. But how will I pursue acting when I weigh a mere 69 pounds?
My story then jumps back to kindergarten, where I was punished regularly. No one seemed to notice how unusually troubled and angry I was at only five years old.
I spiraled downward into the creepy depths of anorexia nervosa, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, I was bullied relentlessly. By eight years old I was restricting food and studying late into the night in order to get perfect grades. I became obsessed with even numbers and exhibited bizarre compulsive rituals, like repeating everything I said, and exhaling whenever I walked through a doorway.
My self-destructive behaviors were a desperate attempt to gain control in a world I perceived as chaotic and terrifying. As I grew to hate myself more and more, these behaviors also served to satisfy my need for punishment. I had no words to communicate what I was feeling, since I couldn’t understand it myself.
My cries for help went unanswered by my parents and teachers, until at eleven years old I ran away and was physically forced back home by the police. I was hospitalized and told it was to protect me from injuring myself.
After that, my parents tried sending me to several different psychotherapists, each one worse than the last. Dr. Argyles always put his smelly feet up on the coffee table and took personal calls during our sessions. Dr. Discipline was convinced that all my problems were due to a lack of parental discipline.
I threw nightly temper tantrums and often tried hurting myself ―cutting my fingers, banging my head into a wall, and suffocating myself with a pillow. I wanted the physical pain to dull the agony I was feeling inside. It didn’t.
I felt as though a war had broken out in my head―an endless battle between good and evil, healthy and sick, and life and death. The healthy part of me wanted to fight the sickness that had invaded my mind, but that monster grew stronger and rational Rachel lost her footing.
My despair erupted in hatred towards the people who loved me most. My big sister, Valerie, was obese, which disgusted me. I refused to speak to her for over a year. I also turned on my Dad, especially after he hit me to try to stop me from running away.
But there was a single bright spot in my life, and it shone like a spotlight. I found joy on the stage, performing in school and community theater musicals. On stage, I could take a break from my miserable self and become someone else―someone better.
I saw a bulging belly when I looked in the mirror, and I fantasized about cutting out my stomach with one of my mom’s large kitchen knives. My starvation was a gradual process fueled by anger and fear, and driven by willpower. I was rewarded with a sense of comfort and security as my body mass was slowly replaced with emptiness. I wanted to become invisible, but at the same time I was desperate for someone to see how badly I was hurting.
The second time I ran away, it was the middle of the night and I wore only a t-shirt. I sat in the school parking lot and fantasized about being murdered and discovered the next morning in a pool of blood.
In college, I grew increasingly isolated as I wasted away. I studied obsessively and starred in many shows, but my roommate, Samantha, watched in horror as I became skeletal.
My recovery process began after junior year when my doctor sent me to the hospital despite my crying and pleading to let me go home. The reader joins me as I struggle to gain weight against my will, only to suffer relapses and be hospitalized again.
I was born healthy and grew up in a comfortable home with a loving family. So what could have caused me to develop a deadly mental illness at such an early age? The answer is as complex as the disorder itself. It took a combination of genetics, heredity, parental influence, society, environment, and circumstance to create the morbidly anorexic girl I became.
I give a detailed inside view of the fascinating and flawed recovery process, both in the hospital and out, being force-fed 4,000 calories a day, and the interesting tricks my fellow patients used to try to “beat the system.”
Throughout, I struggled with the decision of whether to end my life or fight my way through recovery and risk finding out what was on the other side. I also made unlikely friends along the way, including a six-year-old boy with a fatal illness.
It was a surprise even to myself that, after putting some pounds back on and spending all that time in recovery, I still had not recovered. Gaining weight did not erase the underlying issues that caused me to starve myself in the first place. My anorexia never stopped fighting for control over my body. It wasn’t until I had gained enough weight for my brain to function properly that the real battle began.
It took a devastating break-up with my first boyfriend, in our Harlem apartment, to realize that I needed to truly recover if I were ever to have a chance at life. Would moving back in with my parents, pursuing my acting career, and trying online dating help me win this battle once and for all?
The part of me that longed to live, to pursue my acting career, to find some happiness in life, had to finally face up to the anorexia that had long since become my identity. It was an identity that could easily kill me, but at least it was familiar and reliable. If I wasn’t anorexic, then who was I? And did I want to find out?
Targeted Age Group:: 16-50
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Several years ago, I made a quick decision to begin scribbling down my story. I wasn't sure why at the time, though it was partially an attempt to make sense of my turbulent past, and a quest for catharsis. But in retrospect, I believe what compelled me to write was the frustration over feeling misunderstood with regards to my illness. I was driven by a burning need to cut through all the misconceptions and assumptions surrounding anorexia, and reveal the complexity and seriousness of this mental disorder.
Self-starvation does not define anorexia, but is merely a symptom, albeit a deadly one. An eating disorder is a beast that resides deep within, destroying a person slowly from the inside out. Research has shed light on anorexia, but studies cannot accurately depict an individual's mind as she struggles with her disorder. What is going through her head when she decides to stop eating, to study compulsively, to shut out her family and friends, to injure herself, and to live in isolation? My book reveals it all.
What can you do when a person you love is withering away right before your eyes? It is essential to understand the mind of the sufferer in order to know how to help. We must resist the impulse to go with our gut, because our instincts are often misguided when it comes to this issue.
If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder or is a concerned parent, is anxious about weight and dieting, has an addiction, or wants to learn more about the mystery of how an eating disorder develops and the multifaceted and complex road to recovery, I urge you to read my story. And please never hesitate to contact me with your thoughts or questions.
Hungry for Life by Rachel Richards
With all the other four-year-olds gone, the Montessori school classroom was vast and empty, a ghost town sitting in contrast to its usual warm activity. Captive in the Naughty Chair, I had nothing to do but stare at the faded blue carpet as all the other children played outside in the sun. It was late fall on Long Island. Not so late that the weather was too cold, but late enough that all the leaves had browned and rained down from the trees, begging to be raked into a big crunchy pile and then jumped in. I wished it could always stay warm. I couldn’t stand the long cold winters with the shortened daylight hours. I hated wearing long sleeves and pants. I felt much prettier in short sleeves and dresses.
On picture day at school, my mom put me in a beautiful floral long-sleeved dress and instructed me not to roll my sleeves up for the photo, as was my tendency.
“Please,” I begged.
“No. It looks silly with the sleeves rolled up.”
“Okay,” I reluctantly agreed.
The photo was framed and proudly displayed in the den of our five-story split-level house in Wantagh. I saw it every day, that adorable little girl bright-eyed and grinning, clutching a Winnie-the-Pooh book, dressed in a pretty floral dress with the sleeves rolled up.
Mom and I spent most of our time together cuddling, laughing, playing, and being silly. She often filled my weekends and vacations from school with trips to the beach, movies, amusement parks, and children’s theater productions at Westbury Music Hall. When I woke up on non-school mornings, I loved to go upstairs to my parents’ bedroom and snuggle down with them in the queen-sized bed. Mom and I would take turns drawing letters on each other’s backs with our fingers and the recipient would have to figure out what letter it was. When we got up, my mom would make something yummy for breakfast. My favorite was rainbow pancakes. The magic ingredient was rainbow sprinkles, which melted into the pancakes making swirls of bright colors. Mom always thought of cool things like that.
Riding in the car with Mom was always fun. She would put kids’ music tapes into the Cadillac’s cassette player and we’d sing along. Every time we approached a tunnel, we counted “one, two, three,” and then “weeeee” as we drove through. She was always making me laugh.
“Oh no,” she’d tease, “you have a hole in your belly!”
“That’s just my belly button, Mommy.”
I squealed as she bumped me up and down on my bed, and giggled when she playfully chided me for eating the holes in my Swiss cheese.
She even entertained the other kids in my school. One of my classmates had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I got invited only because the birthday girl’s mother made her invite the whole class. When everyone was eating pizza, my mother asked if anyone wanted soda. A bunch of kids raised their hands and she said, “Okay, then. Open your mouths.” She then proceeded to waltz around the table and pour a few drops of soda into each child’s mouth from a two-liter bottle. Most of the kids spit it right back out, laughing.
“Noodles, Noodles, Applesauce,” one of several of my mom’s original compositions, was sung frequently at the Moses household, comprised of me, my parents, older sister Valerie, and younger sister Alice. In summertime, my mom often took Alice and me to the public swimming pool and whirled us around in the water as we squealed with delight and begged for more.
Growing up in upper-middle class Wantagh, Long Island in the 1980s certainly had its perks. Big house, big backyard, big swing set built from scratch by my very handy father, tons of parks, beaches, playgrounds, and New York City only a 50-minute train ride away. But for all its wealth, beauty, and entertainment, it utterly lacked diversity. Everyone was white and well-off with 2.5 children and two cars in the driveway. At Christmas, every house shone bright with gaudy arrays of mismatching decorations, except for the strip of houses on Chestnut Drive, which instead displayed electric menorahs in the windows. We were one of the few Jewish families not living on Chestnut drive. Instead, our house was a dark shadow among the blinding Christmas lights adorning all the neighboring homes on our street. We were only an hour away from a bustling sea of diversity, but when we did venture into New York City, we never went beyond the theater district. An overpriced lunch, a Broadway show, and we were on the train headed back to Wantagh.
“Why do some people have black skin?” three-year-old Alice asked me, her wise elder by two years. I suppose she had seen a black person on television or in a book. Her question reminded me of a children’s book my mother often read to us at bedtime. It was about a white dog with black spots, but when he got dirty, he became a black dog with white spots. All was set right in the end when the dog had a bath.
Always wanting to have the answers, I confidently told my sister, “That’s just dirt. It washes away when they take their baths.” Alice brought this enlightening conversation to my mother, who immediately set me straight.
Despite my ignorance, I received a healthy dose of praise for even minor accomplishments. I became interested in arts and crafts at a very young age, and my mom bought me all kinds of cool art supplies and kits.
“Mommy, Mommy! I painted you a flower!”
Mom had a big smile. “I love it!” And up it went on the fridge with my other eight nearly identical works of art.
My dad was a CPA and worked long hours. Still, he never missed a school play, recital, or Girl Scout Father-Daughter square dance, and he attended all with enthusiasm and pride. During tax season, he often came home after I’d gone to bed. The car headlights shining through my window and the rumble of the garage door often woke me. But the disturbance was comforting. I fell back to sleep contented knowing Dad was home.
The rest of year, when my dad came home at his more usual 7:00 p.m., I would jump up as soon as I heard the garage. I was usually playing in the kitchen while my mom cooked dinner.
“Daddy’s home!” I’d throw my arms around him before he had a chance to put down his briefcase.
“Oh!” he’d say, feigning surprise, “it’s my little dream.”
Many nights, after dinner, Alice and I would hop onto Dad’s lap and he would tell us some absurd story he made up off the top of his head, like the one about the horse that went girl-back riding. Our favorite, though, was a classic―Goldilocks and the Three Bears, to which my dad added his own hilarious spin. In his story, we met Goldilocks’ mother, Mrs. Locks, but the father had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The real punch was the moral of the story: “Never go into the forest without the proper weapon.”
But now I was not on Dad’s lap in the safety and comfort of my home. I was at nursery school, alone and unloved. Perhaps I should have listened to my dad’s silly moral. I was not prepared for the challenges I would face at school. I had nothing to defend myself against strict teachers and cruel children. And so my fate was that of Goldilocks―I got caught.
I swung my legs back and forth and wondered how much longer I had to wait before the children came back in from recess. I could hear squealing and laughter coming from the playground. I tried to picture it, but it had been so long since I’d been in the playground that I could barely remember what it looked like. As I swung my legs, I imagined I was swinging. On the swings I was flying, the wind blowing through my long dark hair that my mother meticulously washed and brushed only to have me come home after school with it ratty and full of knots. But once again, I was stuck inside, bored. I was the only one who ever got left behind. Even the teachers were nowhere to be seen.
I grew angry as I bounced up and down on the plastic blue chair, my suppressed energy bubbling over. I was angry at the other children laughing and having fun, at the teachers who yelled at me and made me stay inside, and most of all at myself. I was a bad girl. I didn’t mean to be bad, but somehow I was always getting into trouble. Other children knew how to follow the rules, but something was terribly wrong with me. I didn’t deserve recess.
My mom didn’t know my dirty secret. She told me I was a good girl. She kissed and hugged and tickled me. She bought me more toys than I could play with and read me books before bed. I must have been a very good actress – otherwise how could my mom not see my anger and pain? What would she say if she found out that I acted against everything she taught me? That I cheated and lied and stole? That I was difficult, violent even? The fact was, I was rotten to the core. My teachers knew it, my classmates knew it, and I knew it. Staying in from recess was crummy, but the overwhelming guilt of potentially disappointing my doting mother loomed as a far worse punishment.
Finally the children filed back in, windblown and dirty, with crunchy leaves sticking to their hair and clothes. Once everyone was seated and quiet, the teachers began distributing snacks. Mrs. Sharp, as always, chanted in her nasal voice, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Meaning don’t put back food you’ve already taken to exchange it for a tastier looking bit you missed seeing the first time. All the children got what they got and began to eat. Except me. I got nothing and instead tried not to look too jealous as I watched everyone else gobble up their snacks.
Earlier in the day, I had spotted a whole tray filled with my favorite snack, celery sticks filled with peanut butter. The tray was in the back corner of the classroom high up on a shelf that I could only reach if I stood on my toes. It was meant to sit there until afternoon snack time. My mouth watered. No one would notice if I just grabbed one, would they? I confided in my best friend, Angela.
“I’m gonna take one!” I told her.
“You’re not supposed to. You’ll get in trouble,” she warned me.
“No I won’t,” I explained. “No one will see.” I grabbed a delicious stalk of celery overflowing with gooey peanut butter and I gobbled it up.
“I’m telling,” said Angela, and stormed off with her blond curls and chubby cheeks.
“No, please don’t,” I begged. But she ran to Mrs. Sharp and told anyway.
“Rachel, did you steal a snack?” Mrs. Sharp towered over me, tall and skinny with a bush of hair sticking out of her head like a Chia Pet.
“No,” I shook my head.
“Open your mouth,” ordered Mrs. Sharp. “Stick out your tongue!”
Trembling, I did at I was told.
“No snack for you today!” She stomped off. Angela just stood there and watched the whole thing, all high and mighty and good.
That’s not all I stole. There was also old Principal Harmon’s pink pencil. Mr. Harmon was gentle and kind, but inexplicably owned the only pink colored pencil in the school, which he kept in his desk drawer. Pink was all the girls’ favorite color. Mine was green, but that was because I was messed up. I couldn’t tell the other girls my secret. “Green?” they’d probably say, “That’s for boys. Are you a boy?” If a girl wanted to color with the prized pink pencil, she had to get special permission and then return it promptly when finished. One day I decided I had to have that pencil. If I could get that pencil, then I would be the winner. The compulsion became irresistible. So, when no one was looking, I snatched it out of the principal’s dented and rusty metal desk drawer. This time, no one knew. Not even Angela―I had learned she was a terrible accomplice with a blabbermouth. And no one ever found out. I took the pencil home and hid it inside a drawer in my bedroom desk. My father had built that desk. It was supposed to be for his good little girl, not for the miserable thief I’d become. I thought that stupid pencil would make me happy. Instead, I was overwhelmed with guilt.
But I was in too deep to do anything about it now.
The next day, Mr. Harmon was out of character. “Quiet everyone!” he yelled. “I want you all to sit down. I have a very important question. My pink pencil is missing from my desk.” There were audible gasps.
“Who took it?” Silence.
“Whoever took my pink pencil, stand up right now!”
Heads spun around as the children scanned the classroom for any sign of the criminal. I pretended to do the same, but I was shaking in my seat. I couldn’t stand up. Not in front of all these people. I would be in so much trouble! My mother would be so ashamed of me. So, I just sat there, in that horrendous silence, as the fire slowly died in poor old Mr. Harmon.
“All right,” he said slumping his shoulders.
Gradually, children began to talk and play and that dreadful moment was thankfully over. I should have been relieved, but I felt awful. I had committed a terrible crime. I had broken Mr. Harmon’s heart. It didn’t matter that no one knew. God knew I was bad and would punish me.
Years later, when I was nine, my mother told me Mr. Harmon had passed away. I broke down because I never confessed or apologized for stealing his pencil. He had probably died sad and it was all my fault. And now he was dead and there was nothing I could do to make it right.
My days as a kindergarten rebel didn’t end with the pink pencil. There was that time I finally got the light blue chair. I never got the light blue chair. All the other chairs were dark blue and everyone wanted the one that was light blue. But I was stupid. I got up just for a minute, to get some crayons. When I came back, another girl was sitting in my chair, triumphant and happy as could be. It was that tall skinny girl with an ugly short haircut. She would not get away with this!
“Hey! That’s MY chair,” I yelled, and pulled it right out from under her. She landed hard on the floor, head swaying in small circles and eyes glassy. Another enemy made, another recess wasted inside by myself, staring at the speckled blue carpet.
At least I had Angela, my best and only friend. Or so I had thought. One afternoon during free play, Angela was coloring with a group of four other girls.
“Can I color too?” I asked timidly.
“No! It’s just for OUR group,” one of the girls hissed. I looked at Angela to speak up for me, but she frowned and stared at her coloring book. Some best friend, huh? Angela’s rejection woke up the monster inside of me. She’d been mean to me before, but this time she took it too far. I could feel the rage bubbling up from my gut, and before I knew what I was doing, I thrust forward and shoved Angela with all my might. Both the chair and Angela, who was on the chunky side, toppled to the floor with a thud.
“I’m telling!” said another girl in the group. But just as this girl started to march off to find Mrs. Sharp, I grabbed a fistful of her long shiny hair and yanked as hard as I could. This caught her by surprise and she paused momentarily to glare back at me before running off. I looked down to find a clump of long auburn hairs tangled in my fingers.
As my rage turned to fear, I stood paralyzed and friendless. Day after day I was teased or ignored. Girls at school pointed at me and whispered to each other. “Why are you wearing a He-Man shirt? That’s a boy shirt,” they’d tease. “Why are you washing your desk again? Do you have cooties or something? Ha ha! Rachel has cooties!” Boys occasionally laughed at me but more often didn’t seem to know I existed. Except for that time I mooned a group of boys. I just dropped my pants and wiggled my bare ass right at them. They laughed! The attention felt so good. “Do it again,” they chortled. So I did. They must have thought I was so cool. Of course, one of the girls saw my strip show and told on me and that was the end of that. The boys went back to ignoring me and I went back to being my awful self.
But now, the one person who played with me, who held my hand, and who usually stuck by my side had turned on me to join my rank of enemies. And why wouldn’t she? There were so many of them, but only one of me. I wasn’t worth it. Angela and the others ran to catch up with the auburn-haired girl and I was left feeling more alone than ever.
I’d really gone and done it this time. I WISHED the teachers simply kept me in from recess. But, instead, they did the most horrible thing they could do: they called my mother to come pick me up. I sat in the corner, safely distanced from potential victims. I fidgeted and waited for my mother to arrive. It was over. Now she would know. She’d finally realize how bad I was. She’d know I was mean and rotten and no good. What if she never forgave me? What if she stopped loving me?
Mom arrived fuming, her eyes glaring and face so contorted she was almost unrecognizable.
“Let’s go,” she barked in an unfamiliar voice.
She hurried me into the car and drove me home without a word. Once in our house, she slapped me hard on my bottom. My head spun and my rear end stung, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the pain of knowing my mother had just spanked me for the first time.
“Go to your room,” she roared. Defeated, I dragged myself upstairs to my room where I cried and cried.
When she let me out of my room for dinner, her face was still hard and she barely spoke a word. This continued into the following day, but by night the mother I knew had resurfaced. Except something had changed. My mother had spanked me. Would she do it again? Would our relationship be tainted now that she knew I was trouble? And if I was no longer Mom’s sweet, innocent baby girl, then who was I?
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