I have been starving twice in my life.
Once unhealthily. Once healthily.
This may sound strange and backward so allow me to explain.
Unhealthy: t – 5 ½ yrs
The first time I starved, I did not know it. Even though many signs pointed to the fact that I was slowly wasting away, the power of denial was strong enough to keep me blissfully ignorant. Even though I was constantly cold and my clothes no longer fit. Even though I dreamed of food almost nightly but would not eat. Even though my muscles atrophied, I was so weak I almost fainted if I stood up for too long, and my legs screamed in protest going up short flights of stairs. Even though I got sick easily and frequently. And even though I embodied the phrase “skin and bones.” I did not realize I was starving.
Not only was I starving. I was starving myself. Unknowingly. Unconsciously. Unintentionally. I had let an eating disorder take hold of my life. Unbeknownst to me anorexia nervosa had begun to govern my actions. In order to cope I made up excuses for my behaviors, weaving a veil of denial over my own eyes and the eyes of others. I slowly quit eating – first sugar and fat, then grains, and then proteins until I was barely nourishing my body at all. I would slice bread so fine that by the time I pulled out my half sandwich between classes at community college the tomato and mayonnaise would have soaked through the thin layer of scary carbohydrate fibers to make a soggy mess. I would wake in the middle of the night craving the protein bar I’d kept hidden in my backpack for months and gaze at the forbidden chocolate covered almonds taunting me from the top of my desk. Toward the end I could not even feel hunger. I was starving myself.
At times the emptiness would consume me, a feeling of my stomach eating itself from the inside out and a headiness of being high on my last energy stores. I had nothing left to give. Nothing. None. Nada. Zero. I felt fragile, delicate, and weak. Shaky. Unstable. Insignificant. Yet, at the same time I felt powerful and strong. Controlling. Strident. Grasping…to fill a hollowness I could not fill.
I did not recognize these behaviors and feelings as disordered and unhealthy until later. When the denial broke. When I realized I was starving. When I comprehended that I was starving myself to death.
Healthy: t – 2 months
Now, fully recovered from anorexia, I am starving again. But this time it’s different. Instead of starving myself because in some ill way I subconsciously think I don’t deserve sustenance, this time I’m starving myself as a side effect of feeding my soul.
I am currently through-hiking the Colorado Trail with my amazing mother. It is a 485-mile journey and we are two thirds of the way complete. Hiking an average of fifteen miles each day up and down steep mountain passes at high elevation with a 25-40 lb. pack (depending on food and water stores) strapped to my back, means I’m burning more calories than I ever have in my life. Thus, I need to eat more than I ever have in my life. And I am! But, I’m still starving!
Climbing to 12,000 feet once again after beautiful valley camping and a hearty peanut butter oatmeal breakfast all I can do is think about food and that feeling is back. I’m weak and my energy gas tank is flashing on empty. I feel depleted and empty. My stomach gnaws hungrily at nothing and the headiness is not only due to the altitude. My legs protest as I push them up another series of steep switchbacks. But this time I know I’m starving. This time I am aware of the hunger clawing at my insides and I head it; I eat and eat and eat until I feel full.
And then…I hike again! Because now my muscles are not atrophied, but are full of strength. Because now I do not feel faint but instead breathe deeply. Because now I am living fully, filling my heart and soul with mountain bliss. Now, the starving is only a side effect of doing something I love. Now, I am not in denial but fully understand my unique situation. Now, I am filling the hollowness I could not fill before. And thus, this starving is healthy.
Reflecting: t – 0
As I continued my hike across Colorado from Denver to Durango I talked to many other “starving” hikers and reflected on the similarities and differences between my two experiences with starving. Although some of the feelings may have been the same, the differences draw a stark line between the dark world of mental illness and the bright light of living deeply from ones values. When I had anorexia my starving resulted from not nourishing a body I did not love in an attempt to fill a deep emptiness in my soul. When hiking the trail my starving resulted from using a well-nourished body I love greatly in order to fill my soul with joy, peace, and connection. Unintentional depletion of body to punish insecurities vs. intentional exhaustion of body to exalt my being. Unhealthy vs. healthy. While I do not plan on ever starving again, if I do it will only be of the healthy variety.