I was admitted to an eating disorder facility at 13, I weighed 60 lbs.
- I’m Cuban-American and grew up in New Jersey. My anorexia made my friends call me white.
- When I was 13, I was admitted to an eating disorder treatment center.
- I ended up with a nose tube and a 4,600 calorie a day diet to help me regain the weight.
Until I was admitted to an eating disorder facility in suburban New Jersey at age 13, I had rarely encountered white people my age. I usually saw white people in positions of authority, like the Catholic nuns or the teachers in my parochial schools or my dentist. But when my weight dropped to 60 pounds – from 110 in a year – and I was hospitalized, I realized how different I was from kids my age.
Many of my Latino peers in my working-class town of Union City, New Jersey, dismissed my anorexia as a “rich girl disease.” Some have accused me of betraying my race by trying to be white.
The irony, however, is that anorexia has transcended race and class. Restricting certain foods or starving myself for hours made me feel like I finally belonged and had friends after being the constant target of bullies throughout elementary school.
I was sent to a facility to treat my eating disorder
The eating disorder facility where I lived for nearly a year went from feeling like a prison to an exclusive social club. Although my mother took early retirement due to health issues, she worked as a teacher for many years and her health insurance was better than most. This is how I was accepted as an inpatient in such a beautiful hospital.
Until my stay in the hospital, I had never stayed at a friend’s house or been to a summer camp. Although the hospital was about an hour away in suburban New Jersey, it felt like a million miles away in terms of cultural differences.
Most of the teenage girls and women I saw were white and at least a few years older. Until then, I had mostly interacted with other Cuban-American kids during summers in Miami or with kids from various Hispanic backgrounds in Union City.
The day I walked into the inpatient unit, my mother befriended a Puerto Rican woman. We were in front of the infirmary with my father when the smiling thirty-something passed.
The older woman was there for binge eating disorder and had mentioned to my mother that she had a daughter who was a year younger than me. While my mom focused on the similarities and looked visibly relieved to find another Latina who could watch over me, I was quietly furious but too weak to walk or talk.
I wanted to yell at Mom for her intrusion – asking the woman to be a de facto babysitter and not giving me a choice. My mind was consumed with my quest to stay lean even if I died. I assumed that I would become fat by association sitting with the overweight Puerto Rican mother.
I made friends with white women
After lunch, I met my roommate, a fair-skinned 17-year-old brunette from rural New Jersey. While most other girls her age can’t wait to pick college from their acceptance letters or get ready for prom like I imagined I would be in a few years, this teenager proudly declared that she hadn’t had her period for two years. . She had been in and out of hospitals and seemed in love with anorexia. She was one of the first to teach me “tricks” to help cheat the system.
“You’re allowed to drink up to two cups of water before bed,” the brunette said, then asked me to hold my pee before morning weigh-ins. She also gave tips on how to hide food on your plate to make it look like you are eating more and how to give food to bulimics or binge eaters.
Soon my identification with anorexia eclipsed race and class. Whenever we weren’t taking breaks for meals or group therapy sessions, the other patients and I were swapping tips and tricks.
Soon the staff noticed that I was easily swayed by my 17 year old roommate and decided to pair me up with another person.
I was paired up with another Latina
The only similarities between me and my second roommate were our skin tones and our ages. She was also 13 years old and of Mexican descent, but she did not speak Spanish. Unlike me – a child who has always been respectful to adults – she seemed angry with the world and with herself, as evidenced by her self-inflicted cut marks in the past and her repeated insults at nursing staff.
My initial covenant with her was one of convenience and self-preservation. During our supervised meals, where the staff circled each table to see what and how much we were eating, I found a way to slip food under the table to hand to my roommate. Looks like I was eating more, and she would find a way to purge somewhere.
But the dietitian put me on a meal plan that consisted of 4,600 calories a day as a way to help me get back to a healthy weight sooner. The medical team on site, including a clinician, psychiatrist, dietician, doctors and others, decided it was time for more drastic measures: a nasogastric tube that ran from my nose to my stomach and would be connected to an IV type bag attached to the pole. Inside the bag was a milky substance similar to Ensure meant to supplement the calories I wasn’t eating naturally. My parents consented to the nasogastric tube since I was near death.
After a full year in the residential hospital and two more years of outpatient treatment, I finally recovered.
In the 25 years since my life-altering episode of anorexia, I’ve learned that my identity goes beyond my eating disorder and my working-class background. Since then, I have also learned that recovery means unlearning many of the harmful cultural messages about weight and food that I received from both my Cuban family and my American upbringing.
Carmen Cusido is a Cuban-American writer based in northern New Jersey. She’s working on a memoir about grief and loss called “Never Talk About Castro and Other Rules My Cuban Parents Taught Me.”