Psychiatric wards are places where they take sharp objects and shoelaces from patients. My wife lived in one for two weeks, when doctors feared she was a danger to herself.
The day Meg was admitted, she was 83 pounds, down from a healthy 109 on her 5'1" frame just five months earlier. Driving home from the aerobics class she taught, she had become nauseated and faint and had chest pains. She went to the ER, where they sent her to the psychiatric ward. When I arrived, I was terrified — and relieved. Maybe, finally, doctors could help her in ways I hadn’t been able to. It was the beginning of Meg’s fight to overcome anorexia, and the start of my own to help the woman I love so much.
After my first date with Meg during my freshmen year of college, I came home and told my roommate, “I could see myself marrying her one day.” He wrote those words in his journal, and five and a half years later, read them aloud to the guests at our wedding. Meg became my best friend, someone who laughed at my goofy jokes, knew a lot about the Steelers and was scary smart. After we had our sons, Mikey and Ryan, she floored me all over again as a mother. Our happiness was clearly visible: People would ask me, “What’s your secret?” and I would say, “When you find the right person, everything else is easy.”
But not everything was easy for Meg. Before we had kids, she worked in child advocacy in Washington, D.C., and loved her career — but when my job transfer forced us to move to North Carolina and then to Pittsburgh, where both our families were, Meg became a stay-at-home mom. Living just miles from our parents, she felt she was under constant scrutiny, pressured to be the perfect wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law. I began to understand that beneath my wife’s tough exterior, she was a pleaser.
This desire for perfection extended to Meg’s body. She’d always compared herself to other women, pointing out ones who were thinner. After the birth of our youngest, Ryan, she was determined to lose the last 20 pounds of baby weight. Through dieting and exercise, the pounds came off, and Meg started to wear sexy clothes and exude confidence. When she began teaching and taking daily aerobics classes and cutting out most food, though, even our then five-year-old noticed the difference. “My mom is the queen of salads!” he announced once to a waitress.
I wish I could say that love led me to know what to do. But instead I was cocky. Eating disorders didn’t happen to perfect couples like us. Although I knew she was very thin, I wasn’t able to see that she had a serious disease. I remember bragging to friends that my wife was a hot aerobics instructor.
Wanting to fix things
My arrogance also made me think that I could fix things. As an engineer, I identify an issue and find a solution. “I can handle this,” I told myself. There was, after all, a simple answer: Meg needed to eat more, and I thought I could persuade her to do that. I reasoned that Meg’s job was to get her prescribed calories and readjust her thinking; mine was to take care of the house and kids while she did that. I became superdad: I made dinner for the boys and started cleaning. Every toy was in place, and one dirty sock became a reason to do the laundry.
Since that time, I’ve learned that anorexia does not have an on/off switch. What Meg needed from me was adult interaction and emotional support, not clean clothes. Which is why, under my brilliant strategy, we went from a couple that rarely fought to one that argued all the time about food and the gym.
The more I pushed her to change, the more she pushed back. She tossed the sexy clothes and adopted a uniform of baggy pants and shirts to hide her wasting body from me. We rarely made love. She had so little energy that she’d fall in bed by eight, just after the kids went to sleep. Her allergies flared and her periods stopped. I found myself making excuses for Meg’s gaunt appearance, telling friends and family that she had the flu or another illness.
Our arguments escalated until one night we went out without the kids and I ordered a cheeseburger for her. She refused to touch it. I begged. Finally I said, “If you really love me, you will eat this!” She wouldn’t. I knew she still loved me, but I was devastated. The plate sat there between us, untouched.
To Meg that meal was probably like so many others, with me nagging and her not budging. But to me it marked a milestone. I finally realized that this wasn’t an eating problem. Meg was fighting me as she never had before, and the problem was more than food. The flawless world I’d convinced myself we lived in had spun out of control. We weren’t perfect. And Meg was very, very sick. Two weeks after my failed showdown at the restaurant, I got the call from Meg at the hospital. Doctors said she’d almost had heart failure and that she was in a state of extreme emotional distress.
My own anorexia experience
After Meg was hospitalized and we started weekly group therapy sessions, I went into overdrive to understand what was pushing my wife to shun food. Didn’t Meg see her ribs sticking out or the sad bit of muscle clinging to her butt? Wasn’t she smart enough to know she should just eat more? I wanted to be inside her head, in her skin, to grasp what was doing this to the woman I thought I knew so well.
In these therapy sessions Meg and others talked repeatedly about the feeling of control they got from anorexia. But what did that mean? How could your own mind tell you to starve yourself? How could you feel good about it? When I imagined missing just one meal, let alone most, there was no payoff, nothing that made it worthwhile. I decided that if I was going to truly understand those emotions — and truly help Meg — I needed to feel what she was feeling, so I decided to starve myself.
For more than a week, without telling anyone, I tried to simulate anorexia. In addition to my daily routine of running three miles, I severely limited my calories. I’d have juice and maybe a banana for breakfast and a small salad for dinner. Since Meg and I usually ate separately, she didn’t notice. But I was exhausted and irritable; my head ached constantly. I’d lie in bed at night and think, I am so hungry! How does she do it? How can the voice Meg hears be so powerful?
But by day three, I began hearing the voice too: “Come on, you can do it. Don’t give in. You’re better than that.” When I refused food, I had a sense of victory. The longer I resisted, the more powerful I felt. When Meg was admitted to the hospital, I thought that she had failed and allowed this to happen. Now I understood the seduction of the words in her head, how they could override the most basic human survival instincts. And I saw her as a hero — who had to be incredibly strong in her fight to recover.
I didn’t tell Meg about my experiment for almost a year, but my attitude changed immediately. No longer ashamed because I thought my wife was weak, I got over my need for us to be exalted as perfect. I stopped lying to friends and family that Meg had the flu. As I was more honest, support and encouragement flowed in — our friends didn’t distance themselves or disappear as I’d feared. I became the advocate Meg needed, able to coach others on why they should never mention Meg’s appearance or comment on her food choices. For example, if someone said, “A salad! That won’t be enough!” I would remember times that I’d used those very words, and then I’d explain that pressuring her wouldn’t help and might make things worse. Instead of trying to protect her by denying that there was a problem, I became a speed bump between my wife and the rest of the world.
Ready to get healthy
I had changed, but Meg was still not fully ready. She would make progress, only to face setbacks and lose weight. But then one day in January, after a difficult holiday season, I came home and found the bathroom scale lying in pieces in the driveway. Meg had thrown it out the window.
“What’s going on?” I asked, picking up parts of the scale from the concrete.
“I’m sick of us constantly arguing about this, of everything being about it!” she said. “I must really be sick if this has taken over our lives.”
This was the Meg I had married. She made a decision that day; she was ready to get healthy.
I still have a piece of the scale — it reads 74.5 pounds. It sits in my top drawer, a reminder of all we’ve been through. I’ll never let it go.
After that Meg and I made a deal. I promised that if she would trust me to be her eyes, I would never, ever lie to her about how she looked. Her own brain might deceive her, but she knows that I never will. At times this pledge has meant having to answer every man’s least favorite question: “Do I look fat?” Even though she never does, when a pair of pants or a skirt is not the most flattering, I gently tell her. It’s our agreement to this day and I am humbled by her trust in me.
Meg is back to a healthy size, though she still has setbacks sometimes. While my radar is always up, I told her I would never ask what she weighs, and I don’t. When I do notice a change, I say something like, “I see that you’re struggling and I’m here if you need anything.” We don’t discuss it or turn it into a battle, and she always gets herself back on track.
If you were to meet us today, you’d never know we’d lived through such a problem. We spend a lot of our weekends watching the boys play baseball or hockey. Sometimes I coach as Meg yells encouragement from the stands. Afterward we might all go out for a pizza and, yes, Meg may have a slice, though she still gets a salad, too. I once shouted, “There will be no more salads in this house!” — but now we can laugh about her favorite side order.
We don’t say we’re over anorexia, we say we live with it. Meg can easily spot someone with the disease, and while she’s happy not to be consumed by it any more, she still hears that little voice. Not long ago she told me, “I wonder how some women can keep it up, how they can stay skinny for so long when I couldn’t.”
After she said it, I simply looked at her. Imagine knowing that the person you love more than you ever thought you could love had to fight something so mind-altering. Having faced it myself, even for just a few days, I am left in awe of her bravery. The other day somebody asked me, “You’re crazy about your wife, aren’t you?” All I could say, before I teared up, was, “You have no idea.”