TRIGGER WARNING: This essay contains material that may be triggering to those who are in recovery from an eating disorder. If you have already read this article and have been triggered, support is available ~ NEDA Helpline: (800)-931-2237.
"The Perfectly White Dresser" by Katin Sarner is an award winning personal essay about her own experience in recovery from an eating disorder.
The Perfectly White Dresser
The tires turned left into the driveway, just as my mind turned right. I never thought that I would have to pull up to another house, or rather facility, with luggage in the back of my car, ready to be unpacked into the perfectly white dresser. The perfectly white dresser recycled by dozens of girls with one thing in common: a parasite that has driven them far enough into misery that they must stay locked up in its drawers, subdued, away from the harmful society that is primarily to blame for their destructive race to perfection. The perfectly white dresser that has been used time after time, as girls move in and out of its arduous containment. They unpack their clothes, meant to fit an altered version of themselves, into the dresser’s perfectly white drawers. Weeks later, pounds later, they take out what is left of their too-small clothing and throw them into their suitcase. Most of their pants have already been confiscated from their possession, as they cannot slide past the hips of their revitalized bodies. They dread coming home to even more perfectly white drawers filled with clothing that will no longer be able to conceal their new life; a life in recovery from an eating disorder.
There I was, about to face the perfectly white dresser once again. I looked behind me, towards the long and curvy road we had just ventured. I wanted to run along the black pavement until the soles of my feet fell off, revealing my white bones. Yet, I could not escape; I had already made the choice just two weeks, and six pounds, prior to return to my world of safety and familiarity: my eating disorder. My mind danced through the mountains and valleys it possessed as I looked up to the sight of birds flying high above the grey edifice. The property resembled the set of a Hollywood chick-flick: a magnificent residence on the hillsides of the Santa Monica Mountains, surrounded by emerald trees, packs of deer, and a great blue lake just steps away. However, this was no movie. It was a warzone. Six girls at a time constantly fighting against their enemy, although, sometimes their mind confuses them as to who the real enemy is: food or the eating disorder?
I thought to myself: Why did I do this again? I was fully aware of my decisions. I knew my behavior was a form of slow and painful suicide. Yet, that never stopped me from laying that first shirt down in the corner of the perfectly white dresser. In my mind, it was the same dresser every time. It followed me from house to house; body to body; pound to pound. I could never escape the drawers of the dresser. My body was restricted so tightly in the drawers that everything except my white bones spewed through every crack of repression.
Ten months prior to turning left into the driveway in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was introduced to the perfectly white dresser for the very first time. My mother walked into Room 414 with nothing but sorrow in her eyes. She carried a duffle bag and the pillow from my room at home. So different from the desolate, ghastly room in which I now resided. I asked her if she could help me change out of my clothes from school that day; a pair of jeans I kept pulling up to keep from falling down, my favorite orange top, and my mother’s old khaki jacket. Just hours before, I was in second period English taking my first essay test of the year. I was taking notes in Algebra One. I had even achieved my best mile time yet in PE. I never would have thought I would be getting ready for bed in a white, sterile hospital room with no one except my mother and the slow, inconsistent peaks and valleys of my heart rate monitor.
As I lifted my shirt over my head, my mother clenched her jaw. She didn’t realize I had noticed her meager shift. What is she thinking? Does she think I’m fat? Does she think I don’t look like I have Anorexia? Or does she think I’m skinny? If she doesn’t think I’m skinny I’ll just lose more weight right after I get out of this hospital. But if she thinks I’m skinny, it would make me so happy. Of course I would need to be even skinnier though...
My school clothes were now nothing but a mere pile by my feet, as was the person who put them on that morning. The innocent girl who walked into her second week of freshman year earlier that day was gone. I was no longer a “normal” teenager, I was a fifteen year old who went to the lengths of self-starvation to fit into the dangerous world of high school.
Growing up, I was the one kid who stood five inches taller than everyone else in our kindergarten class picture. The boys couldn’t twirl me in sixth grade cotillion because I was too tall to duck under their arms. I didn’t get the lead role in my eighth grade spring musical because I was so much taller than all the leading guys. My whole life, I was told that I took up too much space in this world. My mind twisted and rebuilt that recognition into, “I am too big, and big means fat.” Therefore, I found the fastest way to shrink my body before high school started: restricting my food intake.
When my grandfather passed away a year or so before my diagnosis, I didn’t have an appetite for months. As a result, I didn’t eat as much as growing teenager needs, and lost a fair amount of weight during the summer before eighth grade. When school started that year, one of my teachers stopped me and said, “Wow, look at you! You lost weight! Good for you!” Losing weight came with positive reinforcement, and it wasn’t even that hard to eat just a little less.
The rest of my eighth grade year came and left, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks of middle school that my mind flipped into a compulsive beast. Our class was taking a trip to the East Coast during the first week of summer. We would need to pack a swimsuit for a trip to the waterpark. I needed to be skinny by then; I couldn’t embarrass myself at the waterpark in front off all my peers. In addition to cutting out sugar, carbs, and anything deemed “unhealthy” by society, I decided to never eat until I was full. I started going on runs after school and doing sit ups in the darkness of my room while my parents thought I was asleep. I weighed myself every morning and night and noticed with pleasure that I had dropped a few pounds during the weeks leading up to eighth grade graduation. Once the trip started, I spiraled out of control; I practically stopped eating all together. My body was fueled daily by only a banana, Diet Coke, and a Luna Bar throughout our trip. The first item on my agenda after arriving home was to step on the navy blue, metallic scale in the corner of my parents bedroom. As I looked down at the numbers displayed on the cold screen, my heart jumped in excitement. My plan worked; I lost a large amount of weight during a trip that only lasted nine days. Looking back now, I don’t even remember half of the trip. My only mementos include longing for a bite of New York’s finest ice cream but sipping ice water instead.
As the hours passed, the phone calls began. I was getting tired of overhearing the calls to aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches. Time after time, I heard my mother's voice repeat with pain, “It’s Anorexia…” I knew we had to tell the people closest to me the truth, but each time she said the diagnosis out loud, I felt a stab to the heart. I was causing so many people pain by my own self-destructive behaviors. I felt guilty.
My mind drifted back. I was in the seventh grade. My mother and I were going to see Beauty and the Beast at the Pantages Theater. It was a present for my thirteenth birthday. As we found our seats, my mother made a comment about the woman sitting to my right.
“My god,” she said. “She’s so thin, she must be Anorexic. Can you believe someone would do that to themselves?”
That was the only education I received about eating disorders until I was rushed to the hospital moments after my doctor told me I had one. Did my mother think I was being selfish? I didn’t mean to hurt anyone else… I just wanted to be skinny. I later found out that my mother was wrong: not everyone who is at a lower body weight is Anorexic, and not everyone who has Anorexia is underweight. Eating disorders do not discriminate.
I pressed the red call button next to my bed. The sound of the key rattled down the sterile hallway long before the woman in navy blue scrubs stepped into my room. The nurse helped me get up and walked me to the wood door on the side of my white room. She pulled the key out of her pocket and twisted the lock. I walked into the restroom but left the door open behind me. I had lost the privilege of privacy, of trust. It didn’t matter that purging was never my choice of weapon; being alone anywhere was too much freedom for someone with an eating disorder. No one, not even myself, could tell the difference between my eating disorder and my soul. One was a manipulative antagonist, and the other was a naive young girl caught in the unrealistic expectations of society. As I walked out of the bathroom, I looked at the perfectly white dresser and thought to myself, “I just wanted to be skinny…”
I crossed paths with the perfectly white dresser various times after my first hospital stay. In fact, the perfectly white dresser and I became quite close. It followed me from my first residential eating disorder treatment center to my last, and even makes surprise appearances in my own bedroom every so often.
I stood there, in room two, deciding which symetric drawer to pick. Finally, I placed my purple long sleeve shirt directly in the corner of the second drawer from the top. I felt like a robot on auto-pilot; my body was in the present moment but my mind in a completely different world. I couldn’t quite process that I was stuck in a house, hours away from home, with three other girls battling the same condition that I faced, at my first residential treatment center.
It had been a long day, to say the least. My family took me down to the car from my hospital room in a wheelchair labeled with big, white letters, “Pediatrics.” We drove for what seemed like an eternity until pulling up to a plain, strange looking house in the middle of a secluded community. No ordinary person would know that this “house” was rather a “facility” if it wasn’t for the the white box labeled “LabCorp” hanging from the front door, used to collect our weekly insufficient blood samples. The inside of the dwelling, however, was a battlefield. At each meal and snack, the three other girls and I went to war. We sat down at the long, wooden table, knowing that we were expected to consume the very enemy which lay on our plates in front of us: food.
About six months following my departure from that residential facility, I decided to surrender to the drawers of the perfectly white dresser. I didn't want to fight back anymore, so I opened its drawers and slid right in. I had just been discharged from the hospital for the third time, and was at yet another residential treatment center. I could not endure the pain of looking at the body in which my doctors had forced to grow larger. I was no longer clinically underweight, my heart rate was no longer considered bradycardic, and my period had returned after a year of absence. I was getting healthier. My disordered mind interpreted “healthy” as “fat.” I wanted to look “sick” again, because “sick” meant “skinny.” During the beginning of my stay, I put effort into getting better; I wanted to reunite with the life I had lost. Yet, it seemed as though, despite the therapists I met, the coping skills I learned, the nutrition groups I participated in, nothing was working. I still despised my body. I decided to refuse all my meals. At first, I did this because I wanted to lose all of the weight that had been mandatory to gain, but deep down I knew that would never be possible. There were too many doctors monitoring my medical status for me to get away with losing more than a single pound. The truth was that my eating disorder convinced me I would never get better. Medically, I may have been progressing, but in my mind, I was deteriorating. The more I tried, the more I failed. I finally thought to myself one day, “If there is no hope of ever getting better, then why put myself through the pain of trying?” My plan was to starve myself until my heart stopped beating. I wanted, I needed, to be the “best” anorexic. People reminded me of the life I was slowly losing: high school, volleyball, eventually a family of my own. But what is that all worth if I was fat? Nothing.
On a sunny day in August 2018, the drawers of the dresser cracked under the intense pressure of pure inspiration. I had been living at a new treatment center all summer. I was making progress, but I didn’t believe that I could, genuinely, recover. It seemed impossible that I would eventually be relieved of my vicious obsession with food, calories, and exercise. I felt like all of this treatment was for nothing. In my mind, returning to my eating disorder was inevitable, as that was what my pattern over the past year had proven: Everytime I built up the strength to fight my eating disorder, she fought back harder.
There were only two other girls in the house at that time. The three of us had bonded over the past few weeks as we were facing our most difficult struggles together 24/7. We laughed together, we cried together, and, most importantly, we ate together. We knew each other better than ourselves, which was both a blessing and a curse: Eating disorders may present with food restriction, but secretly feed off of comparison.
The house was quiet as it was a Sunday evening; only a nurse, CNA, and a therapist were there with the three of us. As the girls and I sat in the living room waiting for dinner to be ready, the familiar face of a strong woman we immensely respected sat down and told us the story of how she burnt down her perfectly white dresser. I suddenly felt a flare ignited inside of me. She had gone through what I was going through. She knew exactly what it was like to be so afraid of food that every cell in your body feels like it will explode at any minute. She knew the battle, the obsession, and the fear. She had gone through all of it, yet there she was, sitting right in front of me, having overcome the constant scream of an eating disorder. She was happy. A novel thought popped into my head: Maybe I could be happy one day, too.
In that moment, I lit a flame to the perfectly white dresser. I always had the matchbox in my hand, but I finally was confident in knowing what needed to be done. I didn’t need its drawers anymore; I was inspired. Before that instant, I did not know that the perfectly white dresser could eventually deteriorate into a mere gathering of black ashes. However, I was warned: burning down the dresser would take a lot of work. I had only just then lit the flame; but that was a vital start to a new chapter of my recovery.
Today, over a year after I set the perfectly white dresser on fire, it is still burning. Every so often I get frightened by its raving flames and pour water over it, but I subsequently remind myself of my hopes and dreams, causing the passionate fire to reignite. Two years ago today, I was just a shell of myself, devoting my life to counting calories, running for miles, and stepping on scales. A year ago today, I had just discharged my fifth and final residential treatment center with the motivation I so deeply needed. Today, I am in my junior year of high school, and I am healthy, determined, passionate, and continuously fighting against my heinous eating disorder.
I cannot wait until the day the perfectly white dresser is nothing but a pile of ash, but that day is in the distant future. I still want my eating disorder back when life becomes hectic; it helps me regain a sense of control, relief, and power. Nonetheless, returning to those white drawers would mean sacrificing the new, hope-filled life I have created for myself. I am not willing to give up my happiness for a body that will never meet the standards of my eating disorder, which is why I stand here today, staring at the perfectly white dresser as the flames grow stronger while my passion burns brighter than my fears.