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Eating Disorders Aren't Just for the Young: Anorexia Killed My Grandmother

My grandma's entire lifelong battle with anorexia upends the stereotype that eating disorders affect only the very young and impressionable.

My grandmother, Flossie, died from anorexia in her 70s, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how many little things are ingrained in me from this experience of loving someone so much who did not love herself.  I’ve never actually had an eating disorder, but I operate in one of two extremes, either always eating healthily -- all. the. time. -- or eating whatever I want under the guise of not wanting to be like the suffering women in my family, all the while hating myself for it. 

Flossie decided she would quit eating altogether early in the summer before my junior year of college. What followed was a violent process for something that occurred almost entirely in her bed and at a snail’s pace. She starved to death a few days before my 21st birthday at the end of September.

My grandpa, Hesh, was a wreck and worked furiously to undo what had been a lifetime in the making. Her sister once told my mom, Ellie, on one of their epic phone conversations that Flossie was anorexic since age 13. I highly doubt Janet used the word anorexic, as it wasn’t plainly stated, even in my house with my psychiatrist father, until long after I’d figured it out. By then it was an irreversible fact of all of our lives.

This is not to say that no one had acknowledged Flossie’s slow death; my dad reminded her in moments of crisis in his frank way that this would kill her and that she needed help. This would result in silent periods between the two of them and not much else. Doctors over the years insisted she drink Ensure and Gatorade but those things never stuck because she knew the consequences. Flossie had been fixing to starve herself for many, many years, like an athlete in training, and the time had come.  

I suppose the ending was fitting, but that doesn’t mean I understand it, or that I can stop thinking about it, and writing about it. It defines me and contributes to the way I see myself more than any other part of my history. I am a woman from Philadelphia; I am Jewish but do not believe in God; I have a great deal of experience with other people’s eating disorders.

Flossie and Hesh helped raise me from their house two doors down. There were portion controlled snacks and Flossie as fridge keeper. Also poker nights and mock trials, and Melba toasts, and a general celebration of most everything about me. It wasn’t all about the food and neither was Flossie. 

Her entire life should dispel the notion that eating disorders only befall the very young and impressionable. She didn’t care what anybody thought of her, but eating and any scenario that glorified doing so was totally repulsive to her. I have never met someone more openly disgusted by the very fact of other people’s eating, nor have I encountered a person willing to express her disdain for fat and overweight people without abandon like Flossie did.

And despite all that, a good deal of my weekends as a kid took place in the food court at the Cherry Hill Mall watching her dissect mall sushi with a knife and fork. It would take this woman 45 minutes to eat the contents of a sushi roll and the seaweed, meticulously avoiding the rice, all the while keeping watch on how much I was eating of that Cinnabon, or Chik-Fil-A chicken salad on saltines (mmmmm).  

 My grandmother was not a happy person. I think it is safe to say, though, that individual moments conjured in her something akin to happiness, short lived as they were. I think she felt happy being my play partner when I was little—my dolls are still eerily displayed on glass shelves in my room there—or when she watched me speak at my high school graduation. She did smile then. But jovial and lighthearted do not describe my grandmother. Flossie usually wore all black, often referred to herself as a fat pig, frequently discussed doomsday, and actually choked on the few occasions I ever saw her laugh. Her laughter became a phlegmy cough, her body rejecting it. She was atypical and I really wouldn’t have preferred it any other way. Her life made her tough. 

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