I wasn’t supposed to have an eating disorder. It was just that little thing that became a bigger thing and then the only thing. For a long time I simplified it, calling it disordered eating. A bad habit, not a disease.
But come each morning, I would strip my clothes, adjust the spanking white scale on the pink tile and weigh myself. Never satisfied with the number on the scale, I skirted food, danced in the shadows of restriction and counted calories fluidly. One candy, five calories, one grape, two calories.
I was seeing a therapist for depression, but somehow my weight and food was a common theme of our sessions. I would brush it away; arguing, rationalizing and even gaining a pound to prove her worries wrong. Then losing two pounds, proving my worries right.
She suggested I see an internist, and when a medical scan showed I had osteoporosis, I got scared. I was 29. I started seeing a nutritionist. I began keeping a food diary and struggled to follow healthy meal plans. Later still, I joined Anorexic Bulimic Anonymous. I was inspired to change. I stopped weighing myself. Food became less threatening. I was hopeful and proud.
And then I became pregnant.
I was surprised and ecstatic, unlike my husband, therapist or doctor. Indignant, I muffled the naysayers, celebrated the miracle, and thought about ice cream and pickles, burgers and fries.
Taunting the forbidden, mouthwatering danger spurred me on. Were hot dogs really this delicious 15 years ago? Gorging like a speed eater I went for another hot dog. And another. Then it was ice cream, and later still, onion rings. Cinnamon buns were a lip-smacking climax and frothing hot chocolate made the world a better place. Food was good and safe. Numbers didn’t matter.
I don’t know when the panic set in, but suddenly it was there.
The numbers started to matter. It crept up stealthily and surely. “Ditch the starch,” I thought. “Cinnamon buns aren’t all that great anyhow. “But my pregnant self didn’t think so. She ate, ate, and ate some more.
The baby was the size of a grape but my clothing were a bag full of grapes tight. I was frantic. Why the hell can’t I stop eating? I despaired — desperate to euthanize this caloric packrat.
I starting looking into stool softeners. My obstetrician mentioned one that is relatively safe for the occasional use during pregnancy, so I took them. Every day. I ate prunes for breakfast, took my lunch without swallowing and had a dinner of fat-free cookies. I pulled all stops, bent on outsmarting this greedy palate. Then one day, it suddenly it happened. I lost my appetite and stopped eating. I was back in the game. I was in control.
I didn’t gain anymore. The baby was the size of a cantaloupe; my weight stalled. The baby got stronger, bigger. My weight remained. I went for my 20-week sonogram and was thrilled. A girl — a healthy baby girl. I relaxed, confident in the healthy baby girl I was carrying.
I counted calories, cursed heartburn and lost a mini pound. They were worried, the doctor, the therapist, the husband.
“Your baby needs food,” they would tell me, “She relies on you for nutrition,” my therapist pressed. But I knew she was going to be all right. I was fat, the baby had all my fat to feed off of.
At 12 pounds above my pre-pregnancy weight, I was bedeviled with hysterics. I reckoned the average baby of 8 pounds and obsessed over the extra four. Why did I gain so much? A victim of societal gibberish I reasoned. Cravings were a pregnancy justification to pig out, and I fell for it.
I yo-yoed with two pounds, up and down, down and up. I was too big to walk, too big to breathe. The baby kicked too hard, the sciatica was too much. In the mirror, I didn’t see a pregnant woman, I saw a fat, fat, fat person. And I hated her. I wanted my old despised body back. I wanted this pregnancy to end yesterday.
I know I said I wanted this all to end, but I didn’t really. I was not ready to have a baby when labor started unexpectedly at 35 weeks. Soon, there were a whole lot of people in the room. Too many. I hated doctor’s hairy chest, hated the fruity perfume of the red-haired nurse, and damn, those contractions!
The contractions were coming faster, they felt like an overdose of laxatives. I thought I could handle it, I knew the pain, but I asked for epidural anyhow. An hour into labor the doctor said, “You are six centimeters dilated,” but five minutes later, I felt a pressing urge to bear down and push. I panicked and refused to push – “I am not ready to have this baby!!” She came anyhow. Easily, smoothly and simply.
I heard her feisty cry before I opened my eyes. She was small. Pink and healthy, I thought. But the doctor didn’t hand her over to me. Instead, the red-haired nurse snatched her to do the things you do to newborn babies after their first breath. I labored through the weak contraction of the placenta when my husband softly wished me mazel tov. I looked past him, past his fear, past his tears, and past the nurse with the red hair. I was looking for my baby.
Agitated, I started crying, “I want my baby.” I said to the nurse who removed the epidural catheter. “They took her from me. They took away my baby.” She was compassionate, I could tell. I saw her urge the nurse to bring me my baby, and finally, I got to see my baby little girl for the first time.
She was wrapped tightly, like a gift in a box. I wanted to tell her something profound, poetic, but all I could say was “Hi,” and hope it was enough. I wondered what I was supposed to say, what was I to feel? I so badly wanted to get it right, but my heart and brain felt swaddled as tight as the little gift in my arm.
It wasn’t enough time, it wasn’t even little time, before a nurse with blonde curly hair and a hot pink iwatch on her wrist, took her from me. “Just for observation, honey. Standard procedure for preterm babies,” she called out, swiping at her iwatch with a tight frown. I watched helplessly as they loaded my baby girl into a monster prison of a crib with just two small holes for contact.
I was alone when it finally dawned on me: I did this to her. I purged her. In that moment, I knew, with shocking pain, that I was the most awful mother in the entire world. I sat, alone, on a strange bed on the 21st floor and my world stopped. I sat there, willing tears that wouldn’t come.
It wasn’t long before my parents arrived, my mother bringing hot meatballs and spaghetti and a sinfully cute onesie. It has been hours since I last ate. While my husband took them to the NICU I carefully wrapped the meatballs in napkins and dumped them.
It was late when the last visitor finally left, and I took a hot shower. How could I have done this to her, I thought to myself. I wanted to see her, hold her, but I didn’t know if I should. Did I even deserve to love her? When I saw her though, I knew that it didn’t matter what I thought. I already loved her. She looked so fragile, like an experiment at a lab study; attached to beeping cords with a stickered chest. She looked relieved.
It was early morning on what was supposed to be discharge day, two days after she was born, when the pediatrician on rounds told me she wouldn’t be coming home with me. “She is not ready to leave. She won’t eat,” he said plainly. I looked at him, disbelieving, searching wildly for an exit I could run to with my baby girl.
“What do you mean she won’t eat? Why won’t she eat?” I questioned the doctor. “Oh it’s normal for premature babies, some babies need a bit more time. Don’t worry, she will be home soon enough.”
I was angry. Angry at the doctor, the hospital and the cold food tray. Angry at my husband, for not insisting she be released. Angry at my therapist, for not reassuring me that it wasn’t my fault. But it was, wasn’t it? Restricting. Not eating. Practically a birthright.
I went home. Alone.
The next morning I woke up in heavy sweat. My milk had come in — milk for a baby who wouldn’t eat.
At 8 a.m., I dressed in my pre-pregnancy clothes, and made my way to the room that never sleeps. The bright lights, the beeping, the chatter, not exactly conducive for rehabilitation and recovery, I thought, as I was buzzed in.
A nurse was checking my daughter’s temperature and greeted me with a bright smile. I had come just in time for the 10 a.m. feeding. I was cautious, picking up my baby, this tiny stranger with colorful cords. I was terrified, scared shitless that she didn’t want me to hold her.
A nurse casually showed me how to maneuver the wires without setting off the alarms. I tried to feed her a bottle, but she was conked out, purring a teeny tiny hum only I could hear. I was near tears at her blatant rejection. Over the next several hours the same scene repeated again and again. By 7 p.m. the doctor ordered a feeding tube. At 10 p.m. I went home, alone, after an exhausting eleven hours of chair arrest.
The next morning, I took an early train to the hospital. My baby was four days old, and she needed me. The trains were noisy. I suddenly felt faint. What if I were to pass out and wouldn’t show up? I needed to fight for myself so I could fight for her, I realized. I needed to show up as her mommy, because no one else could.
I had to step up to the plate and be her mom. Taking care of her left little room for my self-centered deprecation. The lights went on and it was action. In the NICU, I started listening to what the doctors were saying and did my own research as well. I learned when to give her a break and when to push her a bit more. I learned to do tube feedings and the meaning of each beep.
Progress was incredibly slow. One feeding would be progressive and the next two feeding dead-ends. Most of the hours I spent sitting, holding her and thinking. I wondered what taking better care of myself would look like, when it hit me. This zen goddess in my arms, how would I want her to treat herself?
I knew that every time I was hurting myself, I was hurting her mommy. I wanted to hold on to the shame, the reminder that I was an awful person. But it was easy to feel compassion for my baby, for what she deserved in a mother. So I showed up each morning, counting her calories and urging her on. We were fighting the same fight, she and I.
She was a quick study, a feisty fighter, my little girl. It was on May 14, Mother’s Day, when it all changed. She woke up early in the morning, alert and curious, and ate an entire two-ounce bottle. And then three hours later she did it again. And then again. There was no stopping her! She was coming home.
The doctors wanted to wait 36 hours of full feedings before discharging her. My husband reinstalled the car seat and polished his shoes. I went home, laid out her little onesie with the cute bunny hat and kissed the plush teddy bear in her empty crib. After 16 days in the NICU, my baby was coming home.
And so was I.
Editor’s Note: Due to the extreme sensitivity of the subject matter, the writer is publishing under a pen name.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
You can find other educational mental health resources here.