The mask I wear: part 1


Kelli Lafferty

Staff writer, Meileen Arroyo, shares her experience with Anorexia Nervosa.

By Meileen Arroyo, Staff Writer

Content warning: This story contains sensitive topics that may be emotionally triggering for some. Topics include eating disorders, eating behaviors, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempt. If you are currently struggling with mental health and feel as if this story will induce negative thoughts and behaviors please click out for your own well-being. My intention is not to glorify eating disorders. I am solely sharing my own experience. 

    “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.” 

    “You’re taking up the whole space.”

    “No guy will ever like you, they want someone prettier.”

    “She weighs like 300 pounds.”

    These were the types of comments I grew up hearing all throughout elementary and middle school. As a 10 year old girl, these comments didn’t hurt me. For all I knew, I was a simple girl who cared more about the lives of fictional Disney characters than body weight, appearance, clothing size, or boys. However, middle school came around and this all changed. I was suddenly surrounded by girls smaller than me saying they felt “fat” while looking at themselves in the locker room mirror. One by one the comments started to cut deeper, leaving life-long marks. 

    July 2020 was the month I met a distant family member. This was also the birth month of Shadow: the negative, destructive, dangerous, and evil voice in my head. This particular family member came to stay with my family and I for two days. During those two days, I heard them make fatphobic comments towards people on their social media page. They labeled foods as “good” and “bad” based on how many carbs, sugar, and calories they contained. They praised their own body and looked down upon bigger bodies. They went for a run every morning and emphasized that exercise, especially cardio, is good for weight loss. One morning, they took me out on a run and I remember being jealous of their running stamina. My competitive side got activated and all I wanted was to run a greater distance than them without stopping. They had a very one sided way of viewing the world and slowly their ways started to rub off on me. A part of me thought that they wanted me to lose weight because they were telling me all of these things personally in the times we were alone. No one really knows how much of an impact people’s comments can have on a person until they witness the boiling point. 

    I took this family member’s advice and started cutting out sugary foods. Soon, I stopped eating bread, rice, and tortillas. The foods I used to love became my enemy. I started to categorize “bad foods” based on the number of calories they contained. Milk, yogurt, mangos, avocados, sour cream, cereal, eggs, red meat, and many more foods were added to my “bad” list. When all foods were perfectly categorized in either a “good” or “bad” group, I moved on to portion control. My sacred rules during dinner consisted of absolutely no second servings and no 100% meal completion. I always had to leave one thing on the plate no matter how small it was, to me or at least to shadow, it meant the less I consumed the better. Surprisingly, I found comfort in engaging in all of these behaviors. It gave me an odd sense of fulfillment during a time of world wide emergency and isolation. Within a short period of time, I began to notice that my clothes started to have a looser fit on me. I stood in front of the mirror wearing my once tight summer shorts that now needed a belt to stay on. I wondered if my reflection was a true depiction of what I looked like to others or if it was a make-believe image I constructed in my mind. My summer shorts became the measurement of how much weight I had lost or had to keep losing. What you’re about to read next is a passage taken from one of my journal entries. 

     Monday – July 20, 2020

     My parents think I’m anorexic, especially my mom. She said she’s been noticing that my pants have recently been very loose on me but she’s taken it too far. She says that I don’t eat and that I carry my bottle of water around with me so it can fill me up instead of actually eating real food. This all started today, she pointed out that my pajama shirt looked really big on me and she began to accuse me of having bulimia. She told me that she didn’t want a daughter who was anorexic. She told my dad that I wasn’t eating. Again, she repeated that I was anorexic and I yelled at her that I do eat and that I wasn’t anorexic. My dad just kinda stood there. He kept looking at me with pity.

     I’ve been doing workout videos when I’m home alone. I haven’t told [my mom] about it or even my sister. Maybe that’s why I’m losing weight, not because I starve myself. 

     – M

    My sophomore year was spent online. For the most part, this saved me from unnecessary comments about “how different I looked” or the little food I consumed. However, online school only made me more isolated from my friends. No one could see my visual cry for help. All they saw was a blue sky icon and occasionally a fake smile plastered on my face. Through the months of September to December, the urge to engage in these disordered behaviors slowly grew stronger. I counted my daily calorie intake, exercised 3+ hours a day, weighed myself constantly, and spent hours pinching and measuring my body. It felt as if I lost control of everything in my life and the only thing that brought me a sense of happiness was the growling pit in my stomach. My eating disorder became my main focus. I was determined to keep winning. 170…160…145…130…120…the number on the scale went down but what I saw in the mirror stayed the same. I saw the same person I was before the weight loss. The fat girl. The ugly girl. The girl no one would ever like. My hatred towards myself only grew stronger and the restrictions and rules only started to increase. I turned into a compulsive liar. Lying about what I ate, throwing food away, secretly exercising, skipping snacks, and lying about my internal feelings. I only cared about myself that I was blind to all the pain I caused my family, especially my mom. Arguments about food and the harm I was doing to my body were a part of my everyday life. My mom constantly expressed her worry and frustration with me. At the time, I didn’t realize the fear my mom faced everyday, but now I realize the stress my eating disorder caused not just my mom but my dad and sister as well. Every parent expects to raise a moody teenager but never prepares to witness their child starve themselves to the brink of death. Eating disorders don’t only affect the person dealing with one but they affect everyone around them. My mom, dad, and sister felt the burden and weight of my eating disorder. My mom, Maylene Moreno, and my sister, Jessica Arroyo, shared how my eating disorder affected their mental well-being. 

     “Me afectó mucho. Porque como mamá yo pensé que estaba haciendo bien mi trabajo y me di cuenta que no estaba haciendo bien mi trabajo. Pensé que todo estaba bien y me di cuenta que estaba muy equivocada,” Moreno said. “Me cuestioné mucho mi trabajo como mamá. Y al mismo tiempo me pregunté – qué es lo que yo hice mal para que pasara todo esto. Porque las cosas llegaron a este extremo.”

    “I had to keep an eye out on the things that I said and I felt like I had to be on high alert when I was with you. I had to make sure that under my watch you were eating. If I didn’t pay attention to how much you were eating or [reminded] you of your snacks, I felt like if it were to escalate more I would be to blame because I didn’t keep an eye on you,” Arroyo said. Mentally it affected me pretty hard because it was [difficult] to realize that something was wrong or that we weren’t there to support you. It was hard to process that something so impactful could happen to you. Maybe we could’ve found other ways to prevent it from getting to that certain point. [I felt like] I wasn’t there for you as a sister, so you could feel like you could trust me and talk to me.”

    As my body weight decreased, my hair started falling out, my skin went pale and dry, I couldn’t walk more than 30 minutes without feeling dizzy, I lost my hunger cues, I was easily irritable, my depression and anxiety worsened, I had no energy, my mind was constantly thinking about food and my body, and I lost my period. All these symptoms and compulsive behaviors were signals about something greater than just depression. These were signs that my body was shutting down and saving itself from using excess energy. These were symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa but because my body weight and BMI was “normal” and I didn’t fit into the “underweight” category of Anorexia, I went two years without receiving a proper diagnosis. Not only did I have societal standards that invalidated my eating disorder, but I also had family members praise me for my weight loss. I had rarely received compliments about my physical appearance before I lost the weight but now almost 60 pounds lighter, I was bombarded with comments about how skinny and different I looked, how beautiful I was, and questions surrounding my workout routine and the food I was eating. The combination of the strict diagnosis criteria for eating disorders and the praise from my family only made the inside voice, shadow, stronger. 

    Wednesday – February 17, 2021

    I want to keep going. Every time I don’t eat a snack I feel proud. When I’m dizzy I feel a sense of accomplishment. Hunger means I am doing good. Fullness is a sign of failure. How can I get better if doctors are denying I have a problem. How can I get better if I’m at a healthy weight? 

    – M

    Starting the new year, 2021, my mom made the decision to enroll me in therapy. Prior to January 2021, I had never experienced talk therapy before. The only thing I knew about therapy was that you sit on a couch for an hour and talk to a complete stranger about your feelings. The idea of talking to someone about my life absolutely scared me. I’ve never been good at expressing how I feel vocally, I always turn to paper and pencil instead of my voice. Shadow hated the idea of receiving help, however, the real me yearned to be seen and heard. Shadow loved winning and so did I. Everyday was an internal battle between my two identities. My therapist, X, had the same attitude and personality as my mom. By going to therapy, I thought I would have a break from my family life but instead talking to X was like talking to my mom. We got absolutely nowhere with our conversations. A couple of therapy sessions in, I knew that talking to X wouldn’t be helpful and from there I thought of therapy as a “waste of time.” My relationship with my therapist was sort of like “tough love.” The effectiveness of the tough love approach was beneficial in some situations. There were times where our sessions were truly eye opening and I understood the greater effect of my problems, however, most of the times our sessions would leave me feeling mentally drained and end up increasing my negative thoughts about myself. This only made me reject the help I was receiving even more.

    I loathed my mom’s decision to enroll me in therapy. It felt as if my mom was ruining my plan, my life, my relationship with my best friend, shadow. I didn’t want to get better, I didn’t want to talk to someone about my problems, I didn’t want to acknowledge that I needed help. In my eyes, everything was fine but through a mother’s eyes the scene is different. My mom reached a point where she didn’t know how to help me or deal with the fact her own daughter was committing acts of self-harm daily, by denying her body the right to eat. So instead she turned to professional help, hoping someone could help her daughter. 

    “Yo le pedí ayuda a Jessica y a tu papa y ninguno de los dos me hicieron caso. Yo como madre sabía que tenías un problema. Por que tu a mi no me podías engañar. Tal vez no me lo decías pero yo sabía que tenías un problema. Entonces yo tenía que actuar,” Moreno said. “Yo tenía que ayudarte, yo tenía que hacer algo. Y fue entonces que tomé la decisión. Porque si no te ibas a morir. Se va a morir Meileen o va a pasar algo más extremo y tengo que hacer algo para ayudarla porque si no quien lo va hacer.”

    A month into my therapy journey, I reached my breaking point. I hated being filled with positive coping mechanisms, conversations surrounding my trauma, EMDR therapy, and feeling like the dumbest person alive while talking to my therapist. Every time I sat down on that couch in that tiny cold office, I was reminded of all the pain I caused my family.  I was reminded of how much of a “burden” I was to everyone around me. I was reminded of how much I didn’t deserve the help I was receiving. I was reminded of the terrible person I had become. I also hated the idea of losing that only thing I cared about, my eating disorder. Shadow became my identity, my life, my best friend. This was the part in my life where the idea of death seemed better than the idea of living a life without Shadow. My depression got worse during this time. Every time I came home from therapy, I would lock myself in my room and cry for hours. Eating, hygiene, and physical activity disappeared from my top priorities and were replaced with sleeping and isolation. (**Content warning: The following part of this paragraph will contain mention of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt, and self harm. If this is a touchy subject for you please scroll to the next paragraph.) In the beginning of February 2021, I was ready to say my goodbyes to my loved ones. Life had gotten too hard for me to navigate and the voice in my head telling me to “end my life” had gotten much stronger. I made a suicide plan. I wrote a letter to my sister, mom, and dad explaining all the apologies I never vocalized because of my ego. I stole a bottle of Tylenol from the medicine cabinet and stored it in my room. Leading up to the day, I regularly got urges to act on my suicidal thoughts. The voices would tell me to sneak out in the middle of the night and stand out in the street until I got run over or to jump off the nearest bridge. Finally, when my sister and parents were at work and I was left home alone I set up the letter and grabbed the pills. When I was about 6 pills in I felt a sense of guilt – what am I doing? Why am I doing this? Yes, the idea of death seemed like the only way out but dying meant that I wouldn’t get to graduate, go to college, turn 18, experience my sister’s future wedding, move to a big city when I’m older. I wouldn’t be able to see my friends achieve their goals. I wouldn’t be able to experience the things I want to experience. I truly believed I experienced a miracle. I stopped myself from continuing, I tore the letter into shreds, I cried, I screamed, I put this event behind me and never told my family about it until a year later.

    The next year consisted of weekly therapy and nutrition sessions. Even though I still wasn’t fully 100% committed to receiving help and getting better, I still tried my best to keep going. After my suicide attempt, I realized that I actually didn’t want to die. I just wanted all these negative thoughts to disappear. I was tired of having fights with my family, isolating myself from my friends. I was tired of the life I had created for myself. However, the only way out was recovery and the thought of recovery scared me immensely. I was scared of letting go of my smaller body, my dangerous coping mechanisms, my best friend, my Shadow. Around March of 2022, after a full year of therapy, my therapist made the decision to let me go as a patient. I remember her telling me that she couldn’t give me the type of help I needed and that keeping me as a patient would hinder my growth. She gave me a list of resources for my future therapy journey and wished me the best in my path of recovery. She guided my mom and I to the place that would change my mindset on recovery and impact my life greatly.

    If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder here are links to possible resources you can use. Please remember that you are not alone. If you would like to speak out and share your experience with eating disorders feel free to contact me through email: [email protected] or Instagram: @meileen_arroyo 

Part 2 of this story will be posted soon. Thank you for reading!

988 Sucide & Crisis Lifeline

NEDA Eating Disorder Helpline

ANAD Free Eating Disorder Peer Support Groups

Oregon YouthLine

Identity and Eating Disorders

How to Tell Someone You Have an Eating Disorder

Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder