by Jeannine Amico
“Watch her” my dad instructed to my brother and to a group of my friends who would be sharing a dinner table with me that night. I learned my dad said this when one of the girls confronted me after dinner. “Why did your dad tell us to tell him if you didn't eat anything?” Mortified, I resorted to a tactic I had picked up along the way: make a joke about it. “Wowww! Can't turn food down at my house without someone thinking you have an eating disorder!” She bought it. I was twelve years old and this was the summer after my 8th grade year.
In high school, one of my favorite classes was 9th grade health. Perhaps it was because my teacher, Mr. Hickey, was very animated and enthusiastic during his lessons. Or perhaps it was because we talked about all things that intrigued me: drugs, alcohol, the human body, and psychological issues (including eating disorders.) “A trigger may be someone calling you fat” he said “and everyone with an eating disorder has been triggered in some way.” Naturally, I reflected. I couldn't quite put my finger on HOW this all started; who/what planted this body-obsessed seed into my brain that quickly started manipulating my every move. The seed turned out to be a weed--with never ending roots and the strongest will to live.
One of the (unintentional) roles I played in my household was “the handful that you were never to take your eyes off of.” At least that's one way it has been described to me. I could run, bike, or swim for hours upon hours without ever getting tired. I was always talking, asking far too many questions, and constantly needing to be engaged in something. My mood was always extreme; happy wasn’t just happy and sad wasn’t just sad. My happy was very loud and my sad was….very angry. I was very sensitive and emotional. Growing up in the 90s, Ritalin had a spotlight on it and I was the poster child for why they needed to produce it in the first place. I remember clearly at my yearly physical in 6th grade my doctor pushing the idea of medicating me as my “inability to sit still” is getting in the way of me learning at school. I also remember that being the first time I saw my dad scared shitless. My parents went back and forth with the idea before making any decisions- they even asked me how I felt about it. It’s odd that I remember this detail but to help you understand where I was cognitively, my response was “I don’t mind! This means I get to go to the nurses office before lunch! Yes, I want to go on the medicine.” (how embarrassing)
The medicine did its job alright. I was still Jeannine, with the same personality, hobbies and interests, but someone had turned my knob from 11 down to about a 5. Oh, and I picked up some weird shit, too. For example, I would pace up and down the hallway and all through my bedroom, I’d spin in circles on our computer chair, or I’d sit on the couch and pick at my hair (and then pull it out…even more embarrassing.) Once I would start up on one of these cycles, it would be nearly impossible for me to pull myself away from it. I can’t say for sure if these habits were a direct result from being on the meds, but one thing I can say Ritalin was responsible for was its ability to completely eliminate any appetite I had. Never in my life was I overweight or “chubby.” Before starting my prescribed dose, I was anywhere between 115-120 lbs and fairly tall compared to my peers. So when I started losing weight a few months in, it showed.
“Jeannine, you look so skinny!”
“Are you losing weight?”
“”I wish I was as skinny as you are!”
And that was that. My trigger wasn’t someone telling me I was fat, it was them telling me I looked skinny. Prior to these comments, I don't recall having any interest in how my body looked. I just wanted to play. I wanted to binge-eat junk food with my brother while we watched our favorite movies for the umpteenth time. I wanted my dad to ask us “for dinner tonight, you guys want Lugia’s?” and for us to go completely ape shit with joy; no second thought to the amount of calories that would put me over for the day. Those days went by way too fast and I would often become angry at “the weed” for who it turned me into and for feeling as though it stole these days away from me far too soon.
Over the next 15 years, I was in a constant battle with myself. My obsession for staying skinny navigated my every move and I lied to anyone who ever asked me about my eating habits. Worst of all, I put my parents through complete hell. I felt as though I had it under control like most people feel when they are addicted to something. And that’s exactly what this was: an addiction. I was enslaved to this. Head says I look fat today? “Okay, boss! No meals for three days then!” On the days of no meals, I would eat things like 1 small bag of potato chips and maybe a small package of candy. I would give my lunch money to my friends and come home to tell my dad I had doubles of whatever it was they had that day. If I didn't give my money away, I saved it for a pack of cigarettes; I once overheard kids saying how smoking “keeps you skinny.” I even ate baby food (fruit only) thinking that it would pass through me faster. Strangely I felt proud and looked at days like these as accomplishments-like I had some crazy willpower that no-one else had and it made me feel good to be good at something. On the other hand, I also felt like a total crazy person.
Again, I was an active kid. I played different sports and was always outside. However, exercise for reason, such a weight loss, became a part of my life senior year. By this point, the people closest to me knew what I was up to and I would frequently make myself the butt of a joke because it made it easier for me and the people around me who had to witness this shit show. By doing this, I learned I wasn’t alone and didn't feel so crazy anymore.
Nevertheless, I always enjoyed working out and found it very therapeutic; the bonus was how it transformed the way my body looked. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I found the last root, pulled that shit out, poured weed killer all over it, and then put a tarp on top to smother it. How did I do this? In short, I owe it to my boyfriend who scared the living shit out of me with nothing but the truth. “Dude, you’re going to destroy your heart and you very well may not be able to have kids with all the shit you’ve done to your body.” Change didn’t happen right away, but hearing that got the ball rolling and shortly thereafter, I shifted my view on food and exercise entirely. I began researching and indulging myself in articles, videos, documentaries, and whatever I could get my hands on to learn more about nutrition and how to properly fuel my body for healthy exercise. Around this time I was also a nursing student so in conjunction to the nutrition research I was doing, I was learning how various parts of the body responds to proper intake (food) and output (exercise.) And just as important, how it responds to poor intake and output. It clicked somewhere that food wasn't some tool to use for punishment or a tool for pleasure...it was simply fuel. Once I started looking at food itself differently, that's when I started to see my anxiety over a meal disappear. The gym, track, pavement, woods, playgrounds, or anywhere I can fit a workout in became a hobby again as I stopped looking at it as a chore to stay skinny. Also, I noted that I got the most out of my body when I started putting “the good gas” into my tank. Nutrition really is the king of results.
Today I sit comfortably between 125-132 lbs. My weight fluctuates with what training I may be more focused on at the time because like I said, working out is not a chore for me anymore, it's just something I do because I love it. So I rotate through my favorites: weight lifting, boxing, running, and calisthenics. These all produce different body types and I've come to love each and every one of them. All require willpower, dedication, hard work, and passion. And after a workout, while I catch my breath after giving it my all, is something I really am proud of.