Good morning! I’m linking up with Amanda at Running With Spoons today to share a bit of what’s been on my mind. Lately, I’ve been thinking about memories. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about which memories stick with us, and which fade away or are never fully formed in the first place. This post is kind of a doozy, so get comfy, y’all.
When my friend was visiting for Thanksgiving, there were several occasions when she mentioned things we had done during her last visit, about a year and a half ago. She visited between my return from working at summer camp and my short-lived residency in Indiana, before I moved home to work on recovery. This was a time in my life when I was incredibly sick, losing weight continually and feeling entirely consumed by my eating disorder. Although I know that my brain wasn’t functioning at full capacity at that time, I was still surprised to find that there were things she remembered from her visit that I have no recollection of whatsoever. I remember things that happened years ago more clearly than I remember those few days when she was visiting.
I have only experienced a similarly unsettling absence of memory one other time in my life. When I was in high school, I was hospitalized with viral encephalitis. Essentially, that means that my brain swelled up because of a viral infection. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and I have zero memories from that time. I’ve heard stories of me doing things like screaming, “Tape my legs down!”, asking for a chapter of carrots, and making high-pitched siren sounds for hours on end, but I don’t remember one minute from those weeks of sickness. After I had recovered, I asked my neurologist why there was such a substantial lapse in my memory. He explained to me that the brain sometimes ceases memory production when it is under a great deal of stress. To put it simply, memory-making falls to the back burner as things like basic survival take center stage.
In comparing the sickness of encephalitis with the sickness of my eating disorder, I am struck by the similarities. Maybe, when anorexia had me most in its grips, my brain was using its energy to carry out basic functions as best it could rather than focusing on memory formation, much like it had when I had encephalitis.
There is one primary difference between my lack of memories with encephalitis and my lack of memories with an eating disorder, however: I do remember parts of my eating disorder. I may not remember much of the day-to-day things, but I remember the very worst parts in vivid detail. The moments when I was at my lowest low are the ones that are stored on a reel in my mind, playing back for me from time to time. It’s as if my brain clings to these memories as a form of self-preservation, as if it knows that I need to remember some things in order to continue surviving. Perhaps, if I remember how bad life was when I was sickest, I will save myself from ever going there again.
I remember sitting in an airplane on my way to Scotland last summer, hunger gnawing at my gut like a dog with a bone, and eating a few of the peanuts given to me by a surly flight attendant pushing a creaky, narrow snack cart. I remember throwing the rest of the peanuts on the floor, convinced that the package’s nutrition panel, claiming to contain only 45 calories, was a lie. Surely my packet of peanuts contained more than that. After I had eaten a peanut or two, I remember lying to myself as I tracked my calories, recording that I had eaten 55 calories worth of peanuts, just in case.
I remember taking a bag of mini pretzels from the snack tray on its next trip around and adding that bag to my collection of food hoarded but rarely consumed. Later that evening, I let myself eat two of the pretzels before I drifted off to sleep. I remember my disorder whispering hotly in my ear, telling me that those two pretzels had to have amounted to at least 50 calories. I remember letting the hard, salty twists dissolve in my mouth, feeling each crumb and calorie descend into the pit of my stomach.
I remember driving from Colorado to Montana after working at summer camp, where my disorder had taken full advantage of my isolation from friends and family by plummeting me deep into the depths of sickness. I remember having my diminutive lunch packed with me so that I could stop as little as possible, stopping at gas stations only to stock up on packages of gum and diet soda. I remember hearing warnings of a hail storm coming through and choosing to continue driving directly into the storm, in a frenzied panic to get home. I remember pulling over to the side of the road as hail pelted my car and shattered my rear driver’s side window, curling up under a fleece blanket and praying through my tears as I heard rocks and shards of glass hit my suitcase and bathroom scale in the backseat. I remember spending that night in a hotel, beaten down after calling a tow truck and taping up the gaping hole where my window had been only hours before. I remember eating little more than lettuce for dinner and allowing myself to eat a third of a complimentary cookie provided by the hotel before bed, shamefully letting the other half drop to the bottom of the hotel garbage can.
I remember riding my bike for an hour in the cold, dark Indiana fog each and every morning. I remember the forceful rules of my eating disorder as I rode echoing in my head, reminding me to push myself harder, to bike faster, lest I get lazy. I remember listening to Pandora on my phone while I rode, Sail by AWOLNATION pounding against my ear drums. I remember hearing the lyric, “Maybe I should kill myself,” and thinking it didn’t sound like such a bad suggestion.
I remember standing on the scale in the psychiatrist’s office, my back turned because I was not allowed to see the number. I remember the feeling of burns on both of my ankles through my tights and leg warmers as I stood on the scale, burns caused by using exercise bands too forcefully against my skin. I remember the feeling of my bones that day, my collar bones pushing against my pale complexion as if they wanted to break free. I could relate to the desire. I remember my clothes hanging off of me as if I were a sickly mannequin. In some ways, I was a mannequin. I was a representation of humanity, but I was no longer fully human. I remember my tattered hair sticking out around my angular features as I listened to the psychiatrist tell me what I already knew: I needed to move home if I was going to get better.
More than a year down the road, those memories stand out in my mind as if they happened mere moments ago. I remember the clothing that I wore, the sounds, smells, and tastes of those days. Whether or not it is true, I choose to believe that my brain held on to these memories for a reason. I believe that the pain of these memories reminds me of how sick I was, how far I have come, and how undeniably worth the struggle recovery is.
These reminders can be soul-wrenchingly painful, but I am grateful for them. Although it sends chills down my spine, I am grateful that I remember standing in the psychiatrist’s office whenever I wear leg warmers. I am grateful that the song Sail still reminds me of the deep, crushing depression of anorexia. I am grateful that I remember the feeling of one peanut sitting in my stomach, being dissolved too rapidly by digestion. I am grateful for these things because they keep me in pursuit of recovery. Unlike my experience with encephalitis, I do have a choice between the sickness of anorexia and the path to health, and the hardest memories assist me in making the right choice.
I hold on to these memories because it can still be hard for me to accept how sick I truly was. It is still hard for me to remember that I didn’t just diet a little bit too much. I was very, very sick. And if the memories don’t suffice to remind me of that, I always have pictures.
In the first picture, taken in the most miserable days of my disorder, I look lifeless. I was lifeless. In the second, taken on Thanksgiving of this year, I look vibrant. I look alive. If remembering the hardest times and looking at the saddest pictures help me continue pursuing life, I am glad that I am able to do so.