I came across an old photo album in my closet the other day. In two seconds, I was distracted, flipping through the pages and laughing at hairstyles that were courtesy of a bad perm and half a can of Aqua Net. “The kids would love this,” I said to myself, wondering why I hadn’t stored it in the living room with the rest of our albums. I saw the last two pages–the pictures of me at fourteen–and I remembered.
That year a devastating storm swept through my life. First, I watched my dad almost die in front of me, and two weeks later, I had to leave him in Thailand and return to my boarding school in Malaysia, wondering if I’d ever see him alive again. During my previous years at that school, I was blessed with kind and loving dorm parents. But this particular year, my first year of high school, I was put in a dorm with an emotionally abusive couple. Meanwhile, my older sister had lost some weight, and the entire school seemed to be talking about how good she looked, to be worshiping her.
And just like that, it all made sense: I would lose some weight. Then everyone would love me, too.
The problem was I didn’t have any weight to lose.
Hunger in my belly gave me a certain high. It was like an assurance that in the midst of a whole lot of craziness, I was doing something right. If I ate to the point of being full, I panicked. And so my weight dropped fast.
Then a friend made a stupid comment about not believing there was such a thing as “too skinny.” The skin over the vertebrae on my back was raw from all the sit-ups I did on the hard floor of my dorm room, but nothing had changed for me. And so, I reasoned, maybe I needed to do more.
Around that time, my mom, deeply concerned about what I was saying in the letters I sent home, came for a visit and took the pictures that are now in that photo album. I should have already known there was such a thing as “too skinny.” All the proportions in the photographs are wrong, like something drawn by a preschooler. My wrists were sticks, and my head looked weirdly large for my body. In one photo, I wore a sleeveless shirt, and my shoulder bones jutted out as sharp corners instead of gently sloping curves, barely covered by my skin.
It’s nothing short of alarming for me to see the photographs now, even knowing the rest of the story. But what positively freezes my heart as I look at those pictures is this: I didn’t stop there.
Three weeks later, my mom returned to the boarding school, this time to take me home to Thailand. And still, I didn’t stop. My parents took me to a psychiatrist who instructed me to “just drink some peanut butter milkshakes!” But anxiety choked my throat every time I tried. A few months after that, I ended up at a hospital in northern California, barely more than a skeleton. I spent twenty-six days in the hospital, being taught how to eat again and lying in bed as my heart did crazy things. I prayed it wouldn’t stop.
Here’s something I know: I’m good at hurting myself.
One day last July, I woke up with symptoms of a UTI. The timing could not have been worse. We had just completed our second around-the-world move during the pandemic to South Korea and were staying at a hotel in Seoul, trying to figure out where to live and where to send our kids to school.
“I’m afraid I have a UTI,” I told my husband.
“Oh no! You need to go to a doctor!” he said.
“No,” I shook my head. “I don’t even know how I’d go about that. I mean, where would I go? Plus, we’re way too busy right now. I don’t have time.” We knew no one in Seoul except a couple of my husband’s male colleagues. “I can probably make it go away with some cranberry juice pills or something.”
“Just go to the doctor,” he repeated.
I shook my head stubbornly. “I’ll be fine.”
For over two weeks, I guzzled water and cranberry juice and did every home remedy my internet research offered. I didn’t have a fever, and the pain wasn’t really that bad as long as I took Tylenol and ibuprofen, especially at night so that I could sleep. I went apartment-hunting and took the kids to their new school for placement tests and bought them clothes and household items for our new place and made several trips to the hotel pool to fight off boredom and loneliness–all, as I saw it, forward motion. Progress. Then, the morning we moved into our new apartment, I had a pain in my right side, just below my ribs. I popped more ibuprofen and kept moving. Whatever the pain was, this definitely wasn’t the time for it.
Two days later, I felt terrible. Walking home from the supermarket, I thought I was going to faint. I made it home, then collapsed on the couch and slept for an hour. When I woke up, everything in my body hurt despite the pain relievers I’d taken. I took my temperature and found it was high. Both of my sides ached now, and even without formal medical training, I knew what it all added up to: a kidney infection.
“You could actually die from this!” my husband told me with panic in his voice. “You have to go to the doctor!” He was right, and I felt terrible–sick, yes, but also ashamed by my own stubborn belief that it was okay to ignore pain.
A few phone calls later, I had an appointment at the international clinic.
The doctor looked at the screen, studying the results of my CT scan. She winced. “Oh, this is bad, very bad.” I silently prayed she wouldn’t hospitalize me. Thankfully she didn’t. But before I left her office, she said, “I know you just moved, but please listen. You. Need. Rest. Take your medicine, drink lots of water, and REST.”
I’m not the kind of person who likes to lie around, but for once, I obeyed the doctor, even when it drove me crazy. I lay still as my activity tracker buzzed my wrist, reminding me I was far behind what I typically did in a day. For the first time I can remember, I told myself, “It’s okay. You’re broken right now. You can rest.”
But I still have so much to learn.
One day, a couple of months after my kidney infection, I sat on the floor of my bathroom to do a home pedicure. As I wiped the polish off my big toe, I saw a huge purple blotch. It looked like it should have hurt, but it didn’t at all. For a few seconds, I considered searching, “painless purple blotch on toenail,” but I worried that I might find something that said, “Two weeks to live.” Just then I remembered, though. A couple of weeks earlier, since my last home pedi, I’d accidentally dropped a jar of salsa from the top shelf of the fridge onto my toe. I recalled hopping around in pain and thinking lots of curse words, but then… I’d just completely forgotten about it?!
Here’s what I hope: that I learn to be kinder to myself.
In February, I called my parents.
“You know what today is?” I asked.
Mom paused, then gave a little gasp and said, “Twenty-nine years.”
“Yep!” I replied. Twenty-nine years since I’d walked out of that hospital.
There’s a big difference between “healthy enough not to die” and “healed.” It still took several months for my period to return, one of the hallmark signs I was once again a “normal” weight. A couple of years after that, I finally stopped tallying all the calories I’d consumed as I lay in bed at the end of each day, trying to determine if the final sum meant I was “good” or not.
But even knowing how far I’ve come, there are days when I only hear the worst things that have been said to me. Or when I’ve seen one too many photos of chiseled bodies on Instagram or the workout videos I do. I want to give thanks for the healthy body in the mirror, the one that carried and fed five babies, that is strong and can face intense challenges. But instead, I critique. One friend raves about a new diet she’s started while another talks about the weight she’s dropped by intermittent fasting.
And sometimes it’s too much. Even when I know better, I hear the whisper in my heart: “Maybe you should try that too.”
The world won’t understand that there will always be certain doors I need to keep closed, certain rules I must keep, no matter how long it’s been. I only weigh myself at the doctor’s office and never fast even for my faith, remembering too well that “high” I got from hunger. I’ve learned that discipline doesn’t always look like deprivation. Sometimes it looks like teaching yourself to scroll quickly past the Before and Afters, or even hitting “Mute”, “Hide,” or “Unfollow.” It means changing the subject in conversations or distancing yourself from certain people. Rest isn’t necessarily laziness; sometimes it’s the acknowledgment of pain and the space for healing.
But also, kindness is a gift not just for others but for ourselves–an invitation to live and enjoy, even when it means accepting less than perfection.
Joy Nicholas is a mother to five kids who range in age from 7 to 22. She grew up moving all over the world and currently lives in Seoul where she is writing her first book, a memoir. You can catch more of her adventures and misadventures on Instagram at @justyouraveragejoy and through her newsletter joynicholas.substack.com.