Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  


by Kathryn Phelan

Kathryn Phelan is a freelance editor who splits her time between Dublin and London. (Her heart is Irish, but her boyfriend is British.) She prefers to be in constant motion and will book any cheap-enough flight on principle. She should sleep more.


It starts innocently, as these things do: You avoid soda and desserts all summer in preparation for basketball season, because you want to be faster up the court than anyone else. But the restrictions escalate, and soon there’s no oil, no butter, no mayonnaise, no sauce, no dressing, no cheese, no peanut butter, no white bread, no white pasta, nothing fried, no sweets, no snacking. You eat every four hours, and on Wednesdays you have a frozen-yogurt waffle cone. You run to the yogurt shop.


You examine yourself naked in the full-length mirror in your bedroom to mark the changes. Your knees look knobby. Little bruises dot your spine like a string of pearls. The left side of your sternum rises higher than the right, which you had never noticed before. Your thighs don’t touch. You are tall, five-eleven, and your body has new angles. You cannot, you think, be blamed for enjoying the feeling.


You’re sure nothing is wrong, but no one will believe this. The psychiatrist doesn’t believe it. She offers you a chocolate-chip cookie, looking hopeful. Your parents have paid her seventy-five dollars to advise you to “focus on the positive.”

The positive is that in six months you will be eighteen and no longer legally bound to obey your parents. The counseling will stop there. So will their marriage.


People have started offering you desserts in a way they think is casual, saying, “It’s just one bite. It won’t make a difference!” But it does. You can eat certain foods and you cannot eat others, and this is the only way you can feel OK. Losing weight is not the point.

The intensity that has always defined you — that has made you captain of the basketball team, editor-in-chief of your high-school newspaper, Ophelia in the school play — now finds you occupying the full twenty-five minutes of lunch with eating half a sandwich. You chew deliberately, tasting every bite, becoming full. You convince people you have it all under control.

You do have it all under control. Control is exactly the problem.


Research has suggested that starvation over a period of time can rewire brain chemistry, and that these changes can become hereditary. There is a biological advantage to this: if a food shortage is likely to continue over generations, descendants will have a better chance of survival if they instinctively regard food as scarce.

Forty percent of Ireland’s population died in the mid-1800s, in the Great Famine. Men stole food, either to feed their families or in the hope of going to jail, where they were guaranteed bread and porridge every day. The jail was overrun with petty thieves who all had the same idea.

Your great-great-grandfather, John Rooney, survived the famine. He came to Iowa.


The doctor, an eating-disorder specialist, says that 139 pounds, which is within the normal weight range for your height, makes you look emaciated (this is the word he chooses: emaciated).

You tell him you care about being good at basketball, but not about your weight, not about how you look.

Your body is designed to make you eat, he says, and your body usually wins.

You allow him this.

So, Kathryn, he says, tell me: Why do you care about being good at basketball?

You ask, Why do people want to be good at anything? You wish he would engage you on this point, because you have more questions like that. Instead he thinks you are being difficult and makes a note on his chart. You lift your one-liter water bottle and chug.

The good news, he says, is that your heart is fine, and your pulse and circulation. I have no reason to tell you to stop exercising. But you are thinner than most fashion models.

Thanks, you say.

No, he says, I mean, they are too thin. Can you . . . ? he trails off. When he starts again, he tells you that nearly everyone with an eating disorder will relapse. They are diseases you can never lose, just learn to manage. His words will scare you for a long time.

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