Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

photo: Carmen Cusido

When I entered the eating disorders unit of a local hospital as a 13-year-old anorexic patient, the first thing I noticed was that I was one of two Latinas, the other woman a Puerto Rican in her 30s. Other than on television, I'd never seen so many young Caucasian women in my life. 

My parents Magaly and Armando, Cuban exile immigrants, were baffled by my so-called “American disease.” In less than a year, I whittled down from a 105 pounds to a skeletal 60 pounds. During the worst of my illness, two of my molars broke off, my shoulder-length hair began falling out in chunks, and I had frequent dizzy spells. My parents thought I had cancer or another terminal illness, but it took a conversation with my psychiatrist uncle in Cuba to convince them that I had an eating disorder and that I should get specialized treatment for it. That’s how I ended up at the now-defunct eating disorders unit at Saint Clare's Hospital in Boonton, New Jersey.

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On the surface, the other anorexic and bulimic patients and I had very little in common. The majority of them were upper middle class women in their late teens or early 20s from suburban New Jersey. I was a working-class girl living in a predominately Spanish-speaking city that was an hour drive from the hospital. Soon, all our differences became irrelevant. My identity as an anorexic trumped my background as a young Cuban-American from Union City, New Jersey.

I was both amazed and disgusted by the bulimics. I could never imagine binging on large quantities of food and then making myself throw up. One woman remembered her bulimia started on September 16, 1981, but wasn’t clear on the exact date her son was born in May 1992. She only remembered that she rushed to the toiled to vomit an hour or so later because she was afraid the IV fluids would make her “fat.”

Sometimes I’d overhear bulimics discuss what they’d like to binge on (and how to avoid detection while purging). Some of us anorexics would gather to discuss what our “fear foods” were (sweets, fries, or anything that wasn’t fat-free were a few of the items), how to burn more calories, and what was the lowest weight we dropped to. 

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Some of us formed strategic alliances and reached across the eating disorder aisle, especially during breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time. EDU staff monitored every meal, checking at the end to document how much each person ate. If a patient finished “100 percent” of their food, they got certain privileges like going home for a weekend or getting their feeding tubes removed.
Because I was severely malnourished and wasn’t gaining weight fast enough, I was placed on 4,600 calories a day. Naturally, I had to resort to tricks to eat as little as possible, including passing food to the bulimics under the table.

Being a patient in an eating disorder facility sometimes felt like what I imagine a prison to be. Our belongings were searched for contraband: gum, cigarettes, diet pills, or any items that were deemed a danger to ourselves or others. Fellow “inmates” and I would engage in bartering: I’d trade my antidepressants for a few packets of salt (it would help retain water for the morning weigh-ins). The secrecy was exhausting.

After more than three years of hospitalizations that included inpatient and outpatient treatments, I grew tired of anorexia and its false promises of happiness and control. My goal when I first started losing weight was to become satisfied with my body and develop better self-esteem. I wasn't happy with my body because, as anyone who has suffered from anorexia knows, you are never "skinny enough" or "pretty enough," and I definitely did not have good self-esteem.

Those who have overcome eating disorders can understand that weight loss, over-exercising, and controlling food intake is just the surface, to mask the underlying problems that cause people to develop the sickness in the first place.

Gaining weight and learning how to eat healthy were tough. But staying sick was not appealing. Several of the patients at the EDU had quit school, lost their jobs, and broken up with their significant others because they were completely devoted to their eating disorders. I wanted to go to prom, graduate from college, and become a writer. And those incentives were enough to push me on my journey toward recovery.