The Eight Year Old Who Couldn’t Eat

In fourth grade, I stopped eating. I was terrified of throwing up, so I stopped eating altogether…. mostly. I was never hospitalized, but I started to severely limit my daily intake of food. The sight of food made me queasy, even foods I loved. I was stuck in a perpetual state of nausea, especially when I left my house and went to school.

The logic was beyond me. I had thrown up before. It was never pleasant, but it usually didn’t last too long and didn’t happen very often, either. Not a big deal, right? But suddenly, and without warning, the thought of vomiting began to petrify me.

My parents were terrified that I would starve myself to death.

My teachers had no idea how to help, either. At school, I stopped attending gym class. I was convinced that any and all physical exertion would cause me puke my guts out, which I was doing everything in my power to prevent.

I was sent to the school counselor during my lunch period some days. I remember the day he gave me a chart to track my daily food intake with smiley face stickers. Even as a fourth grader, I found his advice to be juvenile. I knew what I was experiencing wasn’t normal, but I did not understand why the school officials were making a big deal out of it. Eating was easier at home, anyway, so who cared about lunch time?

I got used to eating lunch in the nurse’s office, under her direct supervision, each day I wasn’t in the counselor’s office. My dad’s advice was to eat my lunch as quickly as I could so that I wouldn’t dwell on my psychosomatic queasiness. That helped immensely. The peace and quiet of the nurse’s office was comforting, as was the knowledge that if I was overcome with a sudden bout of nausea, I was in the best possible place for it to happen, shy of my own home.

In the end, my fear of failure got the best of me. My dad, well aware of my desperation to please authority figures, informed me that continuing to miss gym class would result in a failing mark on my report card. In my naive youth, that was a fate worse than death.

For years, I wondered what went wrong that year. I was just a kid, after all. Then, it hit me: control.

Contrary to popular belief, and like many eating disorders, my starvation was ultimately not about body image.

At the root of the problem was my perceived lack of control over myself. I’m not sure what emotional stressors I was experiencing back then — besides my extreme sensitive to criticism and obsession with exceeding authority figures’ expectations of me, plus a general neuroticism about new sights and sounds and tastes and people — but to vomit unintentionally is a blatant loss of control over your body. I have no doubt that the emotional hurdles I was battling at the time were causing me a great deal of stress back then, but maintaining a sense of control over my own body was the bare minimum that I could keep stable and constant in a daunting, changing world. To have that threatened threw me into quite a tailspin.

Being a kid is hard. I now understand the importance of learning and practicing proactive coping skills from a young age onward, especially as a shy introvert who to this day still turns inward when stressed. As my college advisor liked to say, never underestimate the power of suggestion.

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