- I’m Cuban-American and grew up in New Jersey. My anorexia prompted my friends to call me white.
- When I was 13, I was admitted to an eating-disorder facility.
- I ended with a tube up my nose and a 4,600-calories-a-day diet to help me regain weight.
Until I was admitted to an eating-disorder facility in suburban New Jersey at age 13, I had seldomly met white people my age. I usually saw white people in positions of authority, like the Catholic nuns or teachers at my parochial schools or my dentist. But when my weight dipped to a dangerous 60 pounds — down from 110 in a year — and I was hospitalized, I realized how different I was from kids my age.
Many of my Latina peers in my working-class town of Union City, New Jersey, dismissed my anorexia as a “rich girl’s disease.” Some accused me of betraying my race by trying to be white.
The irony, though, is that anorexia 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 bull’s-eye for bullies throughout grade school.
I was sent to a facility to deal with my disordered eating
The eating-disorder facility where I lived for close to a year shifted from feeling like a prison to being an exclusive social club. Though my mother took early retirement because of health issues, she worked as a teacher for many years, and her health insurance was better than most. That’s how I was accepted as an in-patient at such a nice hospital.
Until my stay at the hospital, I’d never slept over at a friend’s house or gone to summer camp. Though the hospital was about an hour’s drive away in suburban New Jersey, it felt like a million miles away in terms of cultural differences.
Most of the teen girls and women I saw were white and at least a few years older. Until then, I had primarily interacted with fellow Cuban American kids during summers in Miami or children from various Hispanic backgrounds in Union City.
The day I entered the inpatient unit, my mom befriended a Puerto Rican woman. We were in front of the nurse’s station with my father when the smiling 30-something woman walked by.
The older woman was there for a binge-eating disorder and had mentioned to my mom 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 a fellow Latina who could watch over me, I was silently furious but too weak to walk or talk.
I wanted to scream at mom for intruding — asking the woman to be a de facto caretaker and not giving me any choice. My mind was consumed with my quest to remain skinny, even if I died. I assumed I’d become fat by association by sitting with the overweight Puerto Rican mom.
I became friends with white women
After lunch, I met my roommate, a 17-year-old fair-skinned brunette from rural New Jersey. While most other girls her age are eager to choose a college from among their acceptance letters or get ready for prom, as I imagined I’d be doing in a few years, this teenager proudly stated she hadn’t had her period in two years. She’d been in and out of hospitals and seemed enamored 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, and then instructed me to hold my pee before weigh-ins in the morning. She also gave pointers on hiding food on your plate to make it seem like you’re eating more and how to sneak food to the bulimics or binge eaters.
Soon, my identification with anorexia overshadowed race and class. Whenever we didn’t break for mealtimes or group-therapy sessions, the other patients and I would swap tips and tricks.
Soon, the staff noticed that I was easily influenced by my 17-year-old roommate and decided to pair me up with another person.
I was paired with another Latina
The only similarities between me and my second roommate were our skin tones and ages. She was also 13 and of Mexican heritage, but she didn’t speak Spanish. Unlike me — a child who was always respectful to adults — she seemed angry at the world and herself, as evidenced by her past self-inflicted cut marks and cursing out the nursing staff repeatedly.
My initial alliance with her was one of convenience and self-preservation. During our monitored mealtimes, where staff walked around each table to see what and how much we were eating, I’d find a way to sneak food under the table to hand off to my roommate. It would appear as though I were eating more, and she would find a way to purge somewhere.
But the dietitian placed me on a meal plan that consisted of 4,600 calories a day as a way to help restore me to a healthy weight sooner. The medical team there, including a clinician, psychiatrist, dietitian, medical doctors, and others, decided it was time for more drastic measures: a nasogastric tube that went from my nose to my stomach and would be connected to an IV-like bag attached to the pole. Inside the bag was a milky Ensure-like substance meant to supplement whatever calories I wasn’t eating naturally. My parents consented to the nasogastric tube since I was near death.
After a full year at the residential hospital and two additional years of outpatient treatment, I eventually recovered.
In the 25 years since my life-altering bout with anorexia, I’ve learned that my identity went beyond my eating disorder and working-class background. Since then, I’ve also learned that recovery meant unlearning many 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 is working on a memoir about grief and loss titled “Never Talk About Castro and Other Rules My Cuban Parents Taught Me.”