I noticed that he’d gotten frightfully thin. School had been out for a few weeks and he hadn’t been up to much, just hanging out and playing on the PlayStation. One day, I was washing dishes and noticed when he got up to use the restroom that his clothes, which he had been on the verge of outgrowing just a month or two prior, were hanging off of him.
I had him get on the scale and I was shocked by the number: 98 pounds. Nine months prior, he’d been about 125, but a bout of strep throat that had presented as a tummy bug had caused him to lose a fair amount of weight that he’d never put back on. We went to the doctor, who was mildly concerned, but not alarmed. Several blood and poo tests later, he was declared medically healthy.
I’ve been watching him for more than two years now. He just turned 14. He should be taller by now, but he’s inches shorter than his peers, who tell him he looks like a stick. He still wears kids’ sizes. This morning, he weighed 98 pounds.
Mornings are the hardest. There are days when he can’t manage more than two or three bites of poached eggs, a bite or two of a Z Bar. There are days when I nag him mercilessly to eat, something, anything, but he won’t do it. I quiz him every day: What did you have for lunch? Did you eat it all? How many cookies did you have? What did you drink?
We’ve tried eliminating dairy and gluten. After-school smoothies with extra peanut butter. Nothing’s helped. He’s very private about his body; when I’ve caught a glimpse here and there over the summer I’ve been shocked by how similar he looks to the people in those photos from half a century ago.
Sometimes, he eats so much, I don’t know where it goes. He will eat an entire dinner, then snack for the rest of the night. When my daughter was a baby and went to daycare while I was in class, she’d refuse to take a bottle. Then she’d nurse for what felt like hours when we got home. They called it reverse cycling. This feels like a more fraught version of that.
Other times, he’ll come up with excuses for why he’s not finishing that meatball sub (“the bread is weird”) or slice of pizza (“I don’t like the crust”) or homemade ramen with smoked pork from the farmer’s market that cost $13 for half a pound (“it’s too smoky”). Last week, I caught him hiding half of his uneaten lunch in the trash can. I was livid. And then I was terrified, because I know the signs. I called the doctor. We went in this morning and the nurse was stricken when she weighed him. The doctor walked into the exam room and said, “It’s time for you to see someone.”
I cried on the drive home. It’s a cruel and ironic inheritance, this eating disorder.
My mom used to watch my food intake. When I was in junior high, one of my friends mentioned offhand that I’d eaten a Kit-Kat bar after school that day. My mom grounded me. When I was in high school, she put me on a diet of 10 grams of fat per day. I didn’t eat peanut butter for a year because it had too much fat. On my 25th birthday, she took me shopping for clothes, because I’d been on Fen-Phen for a few months and had lost about 25 pounds. I caught a glimpse of her in the changing-room mirror, her face a rictus of disgust and disapproval. In the car, she told me that she’d pay for me to go to Weight Watchers to lose the rest of the weight. I broke down crying and told her that when she criticized me and my weight, it made me want to kill myself.
She never bothered me about my weight again.
My mom was born in 1952. She was a chubby teen, and battled her weight until she died. She and I would go on power walks, and she would say things like “I was bad, I ate breakfast today.” She was a product of her time, Twiggy was the ideal, and a size 8 was fat.
I don’t restrict my food in front of my kids. I’ve lost weight slowly over time, and try to model healthy exercise and eating habits. I avoid saying things like, “Ugh, I’m so fat,” in front of them. I let them eat whatever they want, within reason, but also remind them when they’re going for their second or third dessert of the day that maybe putting on the brakes and making a different choice would be a good idea. I have worked really hard not to pass on my dysfunctional relationship with food, eating, and the body on to them.
And yet. He’s been 98 pounds for two years.
And yet. He’s hiding his uneaten food from me.
And yet. He’s probably anorexic.
The reasons behind his restricting are his own, not influenced by social media or the desire to look a certain way. And we’re working on it. He’s inhaling some chicken tacos right now, after a long day at marching band camp. But I can’t help thinking about how cruel it is that despite my best efforts, I’ve not been able to slingshot us out of a tortured relationship with food and eating. It’s almost as though it’s a curse, with each generation living an ever-more-painful and twisted version of the same malady.