I don’t remember when I decided to take diet pills. It was a few years after I came home from my first semester of college and my cousin kindly informed me that I hadn’t gained that much weight. And it was certainly a long time after a boyfriend bought me a pair of jeans that were two sizes too small and said he was surprised I couldn’t fit into them. And it was definitely well after I’d tried a handful of diets and detoxes and trendy exercise programs (everything from tae-bo to yoga) in order to lose weight because long ago I’d been programmed to believe thinner was better.
I’d read the warning that came with the pills. The packaging warned of nausea, sleeplessness, racing heartbeat, and, in the most extreme cases, cardiac distress and death. I read the warnings and decided they were serious side effects, but not really serious for me. I was young and healthy and had never had a heart issue in my life.
I remember the day I felt the first rush of a too-fast heartbeat pounding through my chest. I was on a bus, heading home from work. Surrounded by strangers, I thought only of those diet pills and the warning printed on the box as the first threads of panic took hold.
But then my racing heartbeat receded, and I told myself that must mean the pills were working. I was young and invincible and my heart was just fine.
For two months, I took the pills religiously, even once repurchasing my depleted supply, despite the racing heartbeat and the constant nausea and all the warnings that I believed could only apply to other people.
Then, a high school friend who I hadn’t seen in years died in his sleep. The call came from a devastated mutual friend who broke the news with the same undiluted shock I was slowly beginning to feel. He couldn’t die. He was only twenty-five. We were only twenty-five. But he had died and the cause was determined to be an undiagnosed heart condition. It was a tragedy, pure and simple.
And also a wake-up call.
Because youth did not make me invincible. Having no pre-existing conditions did not make me immune to disaster. And what happens only to those elusive others had happened to someone in my orbit. Suddenly “other people” weren’t just vague, imaginary persons, but real life young adults who laughed at the biology teacher’s bad jokes and drove too fast through high school parking lots, and who had hopes and dreams and lives that showed up on my Facebook feed. Other people were also “my people,” and were also me.
In an instant, the racing heartbeat and nausea I’d been experiencing weren’t just evidence that the pills were working, but evidence that the warnings were meant for everyone, including me. Taking these pills could kill me. I could die, because it wasn’t just “other” people who died. I realized right then that life and health weren’t guaranteed and I was potentially destroying my health and sacrificing my life, just to be smaller. It wasn’t worth it. The price was too high, and the benefit too small, and I didn’t want to be the next friend whose name was whispered in between sobs and gasping breaths.
That night, I tossed the diet pills in the trash. I have to admit, in the moment, my hand hovering over the trash can, I hesitated. Maybe, for a split-second, some part of me still thought being thinner was worth risking my life. But then I released my grip on the pills and walked away. Being thinner wasn’t worth death, or even permanent damage to my heart.
I wish I could also say in that moment, I walked away from the diet pills and the idea of my “goal weight.” But I didn’t. I wish I could say from that day on I never thought about my weight again. But I did—for too many years, the idea of being thinner consumed me and fad diets ruled my life and it took me a long time to understand all of those were dangerous to my health, too. I wish, also, that I could say the moment I heard the news about my friend was the wake-up call I needed to finally ditch diet culture, because I didn’t need to make myself smaller, because my time and energy were better spent on new ideas and big dreams rather than on how best to fit into someone else’s idea of me. But again, I didn’t. Throwing the diet pills away was only the first step on a very long journey.
I don’t remember the day I started taking diet pills—though I’m sure it was a day when I felt unhappy and discouraged and desperate to get some control over my life, if only by taking control of my weight. But I do remember the day I stopped taking diet pills—because it was the first day I chose my health over my weight, and the day I realized that life is precious and tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to anyone.