I witnessed a minor car accident this morning and even though both parties and their vehicles escaped nearly entirely unscathed, I adopted the primal fear feelings that I imagine the drivers must have felt. Even after seeing that everyone was fine and both cars were hardly dented, my accelerated heart rate failed to revert to its normal rhythm for quite some time. I’ve previously discussed my tendency to be an empath, and the resultant emotions I take on while talking with or watching someone else’s emotionally-charged experience. Like some type of voodoo doll, I can physically feel the sensations that accompany an injury inflicted on the individual in watching or listening to as he or she recounts the event. These emotional and physical feelings are particularly strong if I care for the person or have also lived through a similar experience myself.
I can still hear the crunch of the front of my car imploding around the street sign and other car I collided with when I mistakenly ran a stop sign just three months after getting my license. Fortunately, the other driver and I only suffered minor cuts and seatbelt and airbag bruises, but both cars were damaged and the accident was completely my fault. It took place just blocks from my high school, where I was hurriedly leaving midday to retrieve an AP Environmental Science assignment I had carelessly left at home. Not only do I have diagnosed ADHD and was not taking medication to treat the symptoms, but I was just a few weeks into my tremendously physiologically and psychologically difficult recovery from anorexia. That was such a trying time in every sense, as my body and brain had been starved of adequate nutrition for eight years and seemed to lack the ability to properly metabolize and make use of the nutrients coming in and regulate appetite. My mom reminds me that in the last year or so of my restrictive anorexia phase, where I was severely ill, mentally, I was delusional at some points and truly struggling to think clearly and normally. I do have memories of that time that collude with that assessment, but I also remember frequent bouts of frightening mental lapses, jumbled thoughts, improper cognitive functioning, and utterly foreign out-of-body-and-mind experiences in the early stages of recovery. Some days, I was so scared about the extent or type of mental malfunction that, when the acute event subsided and my rational thinking and wherewithal returned, I would reflect on the event with genuine worry that I had previously (while starving) ruined my brain. There were moments that I failed to be correctly oriented to person, place, and time. I recall instances where I forgot where I lived, what my name was, and most often, what I was doing and why. The biological drive to obtain and consume food was so pervasive and mentally invasive that it would completely override all other thought processes. When my blood sugar would drop imperceptibly between bouts of rapid “refeeding” (the term used to denote consuming food after significant starvation), my hands would tremble uncontrollably and violently, as if I was bumping along in the back of a pickup truck racing down a dirt road. I ate in such a harried and voracious manner; I simply was unable to satiate the hunger beast inside me. It gnawed at my insides. It screamed to be fed. It would wake me just hours after falling asleep at night and beg me to go downstairs and get a snack. After eating a healthy-sized meal during the day, there would be just a brief window, of maybe 20 minutes, where my stomach, which was unaccustomed to having much in it, would feel overstuffed and then completely starving, as if I hadn’t eaten in days. I’d become overwhelmed with dizziness, weakness, constant headaches, incessant ringing in my ears, and the inability to concentrate.
On the morning I left school to retrieve my forgotten assignment, I had eaten a balanced breakfast, but I could not think clearly by the time it was late morning. I didn’t have mid-morning snacks at school, because eating was discouraged or prohibited in classes and we were accustomed to waiting until lunch break to eat. At that infantile of a stage in my recovery, it seemed biologically necessary to eat more often, yet socially, based on the “rules” at school, I didn’t, and consequently suffered negative ramifications daily. In fact, that AP Environmental Science class I referenced was “C period,” which means that it usually took place late morning before lunch. I distinctly remember this seemingly minor detail because it gravely impacted my learning experience in that class. It was one of the elective courses I was most excited about taking out if all my options during my high school tenure. I took most every science discipline offered over the four years, often taking two full-year courses per grade, but I was particularly interested in environmental science given my love of nature, sustainability, and resource management. However, by the time the fall trimester of my senior year rolled around and I was permitted to enroll, my eating disorder recovery far supplanted even academics as a priority and attention-demanding element. Each day during class the growling in my stomach and denying the scarily strong urge to eat while in class entirely blocked out my ability to listen to my teacher and follow along with the material. I can easily recall holding my stomach, trying to put pressure against it to silence its angry hungry contractions and rumbles. I’d fantasize about the upcoming lunch break and imagine the comfort that filling that empty stomach with usable nutrients would bring. My hands would shake faster and with more visibly alarming vigor. My gums would throb and the high-pitched ringing would drown out even the sound of my own breathing. Physiologically, it was almost like minor panic attacks, characterized by dizziness, accelerated heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, and overall jitteriness. All I wanted was to eat and be held in a tight hug by someone who loved me while they told me I was going to be okay, yet I had pushed most everyone away, had a damaged relationship with even my parents, and had very few remaining close friends, at least whom I was comfortable confiding in so personally. I was lonely and scared, confused as to why now that I was finally eating, I seemed hungrier than ever and displaying more serious signs of malnutrition.
Remembering those days is still painful. It’s also sad to see how badly I needed therapy and other services, perhaps even at school, to help me, but I did not have any of that. Academically, I suffered too. That environmental science course was the only one in my high school career in which I did not earn an A; more importantly, I didn’t learn nearly as much from it as I wanted to because essentially I had to just self-teach myself using my textbook at night. The in-class time was a total waste for me and I missed out on gleaning all of the wisdom and information disseminated from my teacher. Since it was the first class that struggled significantly and fairer rather poorly, it also shook my confidence and extinguished my interest in the material. I started to believe that “healthy, nourished Amber” was an idiot and that only anorexic Amber was smart, but she was gone. This, taken with the much more apparent loss in athletic performance demonstrated by considerably slower race times, cemented in my mind that I had lost my success when I “quit” being anorexic. It’s a gross understatement to say I missed being and feeling successful; I had no idea who I was anymore and was utterly confused and felt betrayed by my changing body. It’s impossible to recount those struggles with this degree of honesty and transparency and not cry, even more than a decade later.
As tough as things are some days for me now with the myriad of issues I’m facing and working through, I am often too harsh of a self-critic, chastising myself for not being “tougher” and for still having unresolved personal issues. In those moments, I think I fail to acknowledge the often-insurmountable challenge of recovering from such a lengthy and severe eating disorder that I was able to beat. By the time I began recovery, I had been anorexic for one year shy of half of my young life. It was essentially the only way I knew how to live and it had crowded out the normal emotional, social, and physical maturation and development that should have occurred over my late childhood and entire adolescence. In a recent conversation with my mom, I told her that in many ways, it felt like my maturity was paused when I first began consciously restricting my intake as a ten-year-old. In the years that followed, I had a lot of catching up and growing up to do, and some of that is still being worked on today!
When I hear two cars collide, even if minor, I feel the fear, panic, and confusion that the drivers feel. I also feel the fear, panic, and confusion that defined those days for me when I carelessly caused an accident. Even though I was fortunate to not cause lasting damage to the other driver or myself, I still carry guilt from that moment and it still substantially impacts my behind-the-wheel confidence. Today, at least, it reminded me of how far I’ve come, what I’ve overcome, and the strength that must be somewhere inside me to have gotten me through.