The letter Jacki Monaco wrote was fraught with emotion:
"Dear food," it began.
"You have given me a reason to live, a cotton candy cloud to land on, a spaghetti pool to swim in, a sweet and sometimes sour pat on the back after long days. You have been my dearest friend and my most painful enemy. My love, my hate, my utter confusion."
It's a letter Monaco still has, though she penned it nearly two years ago at a weight loss retreat. She reads it when she's angry or upset and is starting to think, again, that food can fix whatever is bothering her.
"I was married to food for so long," she said. "That was the only relationship that mattered to me. Every food has its own story."
There's the salad she ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner that tells the story of her summer of starvation. There's the box of Golden Oreos that got her through the aftermath of her college roommate's death. There's the pizza she used to order from the restaurant across the street, the one she could eat by herself in under an hour, with a bowl of pasta on the side and a large piece of cake for dessert.
"Roller coaster" doesn't even begin to describe Monaco's struggle with her weight. It's a struggle she's learned to accept -- even embrace -- as an important part of her past.
"I don't think people go through huge obstacles to amount to nothing," she said.
At 5 feet 5 inches tall, Monaco kept active with sports in high school, and her weight hovered around 150 pounds. When she wanted to drop a few, she hit the gym with friends. It was fun, casual and never a major focus in her teenage years.
In fall 2007, she headed to Emmanuel College in Boston. The dreaded "freshman 15" crept up on her, and when she headed home for the summer, Monaco decided to fight the weight gain by counting calories.
The first day, she ate sandwiches, pita chips and vegetables. But full, healthy meals soon turned into tiny salads. After a couple weeks, Monaco was limiting herself to only 800 calories a day. (Experts warn against eating less than 1,200 calories a day because it sends your body into starvation mode.) One day a week, she binged, allowing herself to eat whatever she wanted as a reward.
One night after downing a hamburger, a chicken sandwich and some fries, she attempted to throw up her food for the first time. "I was scared of having all those calories in my body," she remembered. "I didn't know what to do to get rid of them."
But bulimia didn't "suit" her body, she said. "I just wanted the act of eating."
Over the summer, Monaco lost more than 30 pounds. She got tons of compliments from her classmates, who couldn't believe she'd dropped so much weight in such a short amount of time.
She weighed her 127-pound body daily and wrote down everything she ate. She even brought her own salad dressing to the dining hall to make sure she knew exactly how many calories she was consuming. Monaco ran four miles a day, six days a week, and spent an additional hour at the gym doing weights.
"It became an obsession," she said. "Did I do good today or bad today? It was always all or nothing."
It was an odd time in her life. In between salads, she remembers sneaking to the grocery store to buy cake and then eating it in the bathroom of her dorm so her friends wouldn't see. "I cared very much how other people thought of me."
A tragic accident
On the morning of St. Patrick's Day 2009, Monaco got a call. Her roommate had been killed in an accident after hanging out with friends the night before.
"It broke me," she said, refusing to talk about the death even now.
For days, Monaco couldn't eat. Then one afternoon she asked her boyfriend to pick up some Golden Oreos and a box of Toaster Strudels. The carbs comforted her. "I thought, 'This helped. This feels good. I don't have to think right now about what happened,' " she said.
She started using food to cope with her pain and then blaming herself for using food to cope -- although it's unlikely she knew she was doing so at the time. She felt depressed and guilty, and food simply made her feel better.
When her boyfriend of a year and half broke up with her shortly after her roommate's death, she went to the grocery store and bought bags of chips and several boxes of crackers. In the months that followed, she forgot all about the lean proteins and vegetables that used to make up her diet.
Monaco's mom and dad were concerned about her but didn't realize food was becoming an issue, she says. Before her junior year, they moved her into a new apartment because she was nervous about sharing space with someone again. But living alone just enabled Monaco to binge without worrying about people looking over her shoulder. She started to ignore calls from friends and threw herself into her schoolwork.