Thursday, July 12, 2012
ED Talks #12: Recounting Bulimia--Anonymous
This is the first time I have tried to pinpoint the length of time I had an eating disorder. I believe it was at least two years because I remember that the day I watched Princess Diana’s wedding I was already suffering with the habit. The day I heard Karen Carpenter died of complications of an eating disorder was the first time I became aware it was a dangerous practice. It was the first time I had the thought that I should stop. Up until that time I thought I was the only one in the world who did it. I thought I made it up. I did not suspect it was dangerous at all. I didn’t even know it had a name. Bulimia.
I remember the exact day I started on the road to the habit of bulimia. Once, when I over ate ice cream and then bent over, some came back up my throat. At that time I had been feeling guiltily disappointed about everything I ate after negative attention had been drawn to my body for the first time. Between the summer of my 5th and 6th grade years I grew from a little girl’s size 14-16 body to a 5’8” size 9 frame. My miniscule ballet teacher noticed and told me, and another girl, that we were too “big” to go enpointe with the rest of the tiny class. This had been my heart’s desire since I was five and first started lessons. Until that day, I cannot remember having consciously thought about the size of my body before. Then, soon after, my tiny grandma came to visit and pinched a roll of fat on my side, saying, “What is that?” with a laugh. She talked about what I was eating and exercise, and that was a pivotal moment. All of a sudden I was picking myself apart standing naked in front of full length mirrors, noticing all that was not skin and bone. So the day of the ice cream I thought, “Hey, I can just throw this up, and it is like I never ate it.”. Like it never happened. A quick, lazy fix to what I thought was a problem of being “too fat”. I never ever had to gag myself. My natural reflex just worked easily.
Too easily. Soon it would come up anytime, anywhere. I was aware when, where, what, and how much I was going to eat at all times. I was aware of where all bathrooms were located wherever I went. I knew all the ways to get it to flush, and how to do it silently. I chose to eat things that were easy to throw up. I threw up in the toilet, sink, shower, and outside. Anywhere no one would notice. I ate huge amounts of food that I never tasted. I remember going to a buffet once, and after several trips to the restroom, wondering how no one noticed. My family was really struggling financially at this time, and I can remember the guilt of eating so much food, just to waste it. I thought of my mom and dad and how hard they worked, but I cared more that it would make me skinny. It must have been such a hardship on my family.
Ironically, I never lost weight being bulimic. My face became puffy from swollen glands, and I actually gained weight- probably because I was still a growing young girl and my body was in starvation mode. I can remember my frustration and anger and humiliation when I couldn’t shop in the 5-7-9 shop at the mall anymore because I was now a size 11.
Two events prompted me to try to stop. The first was when, after attempting to just quit, I realized it was a habit. I looked into the mirror and thought, I cannot be still doing this when I am a mother- what kind of example would that be to my children? I was in junior high. The second event happened after I had convinced myself that bulimia was nowhere near as dangerous as anorexia, and that I would be fine. I was visiting my aunt and her family during summer break when she called everyone in to the dining room for dinner. I stood up to go in and the next thing I remember is lying on the floor in the kitchen looking up into everyone’s questioning faces. No one pressed the issue when I said I was fine, and must have just gotten up too fast. It was never mentioned again, because our family never talked about things. It was then I became aware that the head rushes and blackouts I had been having might not be normal. This was the point where I decided seriously that I needed to stop, NOW.
I was exhausted all the time. I don’t know how I made it through school. I fell asleep in class. I remember it coming up in my throat in class, at church, everywhere, and just swallowing it back down if it wasn’t a convenient time. I was used to the taste. I am sure I had extremely bad breath, but was oblivious to the fact. My fingernails were all peeling and weak, and my hair changed and was very dry. My gums bled profusely and I had sores in my mouth. I never suspected any of this might be an effect of what I was doing. I just thought it was normal.
I was still trying to quit. I was asked by a science teacher to do a report on refined sugar. I loved researching and writing this report, and he asked the class to give up refined sugar in everything for two weeks. I did it and for the first time I felt good-disciplined-in control. I looked for sugar in everything- even minute amounts in bread. I was successful for those two weeks. Then I heard a statistic that if you did something for 28 days it would become a habit.
This was the beginning of my success. I went cold turkey giving up bulimia. I gave in to the habit several times, but each time I would start the 28 days over. I have always prayed. I have always known there was someone listening to my prayers. I knew God did not want me to do this any longer, and that if I asked Him, He would help me. I prayed- I begged Him for help. The help came not with a magical cure, but on the day I realized that it was my own choice. That I could make the choice to break this habit. But it would be one day at a time. After struggling with the decision to stop each time I ate something, I realized that I had already made the decision to stop and that I didn’t have to make it each time. I remember the exact day I ate ice cream and chose not to throw it up. It was a HUGE physical, mental, emotional and spiritual struggle. It had been such an easy thing to throw up. It was so hard to finally take responsibility for what I was putting into my mouth. It was so hard to imagine it staying there, and traveling my body. But when I did it, I was freed. I finally knew I could conquer bulimia completely.
Here was a pivotal moment. I could have easily become anorexic. Addictions are easy to replace with other addictions, unless you replace it with a positive habit. I did not know this at the time, and was doing it completely on my own because I was ashamed to tell anyone and I had no clue I could get help. When I realized I could have self-control I went on to give up chocolate completely, and became obsessive about avoiding fat and sugar. I read everything I could find on eating healthfully and exercising. There was a fine line of balance where I became obsessed with eating healthfully and running and exercising. I was not bulimic, but I still had an unhealthy body image and was obsessed with it and food in a different way. I drove my family nuts because this was not a secret obsession like the bulimia. I wanted everyone to know and do what I was doing. I can remember telling a good friend not to dip her carrots in salad dressing because it had fat in it. I knew I couldn’t throw up anymore, and I still had a huge fear of taking something into my body that would cause it to be “fat”.
Bulimia is an addiction. Everyone struggles with different temptations. What tempts someone else may never be a problem for me, and bulimia may never be a temptation for them, but we overcome addictions in similar ways. My goal, as I grew up and continued to educate myself, was to be able to eat all things I enjoyed in moderation. I realized that my body was a gift from God. It was a tool that if I took care of, could be used to do much good work in the world. I remember learning to taste food again. Being so amazed at the miracle of it. I remember eating an orange, biting one cell at a time and being amazed at the burst of juice and flavor in something so tiny.
The end of my senior in high school was the first time I met someone who admitted they struggled with bulimia. She confided in me during a P.E. class, and I shared my struggle with her. I shared all my limited knowledge of how deadly it was and how I kicked the habit. I instantly cared for this girl. I thought of my young, teenage self and said what I would have told myself if I could go back in time. Coincidentally, her mother was a ballet teacher, but she had her father’s body. She was beautiful and valuable and interesting. I hypocritically told her to go tell her family, which she did, and I was grateful to hear she received help.
During my first semester of college I met a girl who was recovering from an eating disorder. She was under a doctor’s care, and her mother was helping her. I learned from her to sit down for three healthful meals a day. I had not done this since I started the habit of bulimia. I didn’t have much money for food. I copied her and usually lived on oatmeal or cereal or toast with skim milk for breakfast. A bagel or sandwich and veggie or fruit in my purse for lunch between classes. A potato or rice or soup with veggies for dinner. I ran everywhere. I used the weight room for the first time and loved feeling muscles develop under my skin. I loved how I felt. I still had a very mixed up view of my body.
I was married before I became completely comfortable with my body. For some reason I was lucky to marry a man who liked my body just the way it was. I was scared when I became pregnant that he would feel differently, but he didn’t. I was afraid I would throw up with morning sickness and the whole hellish cycle would begin again, but for some reason I was lucky, and did not. I remember standing naked in front of a full length mirror the day I realized that my body was a tool and that for the first time I was eating for someone else’s health. I was given the gift of liking my body for the first time in years. This was the first time I consciously chose not to care anymore about my body size. Just about my health. I concentrated on choosing food that would nourish someone else’s pin size brain, heart, and body. I wanted that baby to feel it was perfect, just the way it was. I was responsible and eating for unselfish reasons.
I was ignorant to the fact that bulimia ate away at my tooth enamel and caused deadly imbalances in my body. I was pregnant with my second baby when a doctor first noticed I had heart issues. He had me wear a Holter monitor for a day, concerned my heart would not be able to handle the pregnancy. Afraid, I made sure I was completely inactive that day. Finding nothing, he figured it was a fluke and planned no follow up. I still have those issues, today. When I was 28 a dentist first commented on my tooth damage. He told me it looked as if I had previously burned my gums and that the enamel was worn away. He was puzzling so much about it that after he brought his assistant and others in to look, I asked if it could have been caused by bulimia when I was a teenager. All of them looked surprised, but a light went on in his eyes as he agreed, and he promptly changed the subject as the others all quickly left the room. I have noticed that people who have suffered, or love someone who have suffered with this eating disorder desire to talk about it with others who have struggled. But people who haven’t usually want to avoid the subject.
If I could go back in time, I would tell my teenage self that I was normal. To switch ballet troupes and become a dancer! Teenagers are so ego-centric by nature. I would tell myself to look around(not at air-brushed magazine models) and see that everyone has differently shaped bodies. To serve and volunteer and get my mind off myself. To remember that I am a daughter of God, and everyone else is also His son or daughter. I can remember being shocked and so angry at my ballet teacher when a few years after her comment I saw a 6’, large framed ballerina, enpointe. I realized she had not told me the truth, just her opinion. And when my grandma, as an 85 year old, was still dieting, I realized how skewed her view of her body was. I loved Jamie Lee Curtis’s brave magazine spread of herself, a few years ago, without makeup and photo touch up.
Dana, your last question made me laugh. “What disordered eating do you still struggle with?” I avoid the candy aisle at the store. If I don’t see it, it isn’t a temptation. I have a big family, so there is no chance to be left alone with a quart of ice cream-which I am sure I could polish off in a sitting if it was a flavor I really liked! However, my weakness is cheesecake. Really delicious, high quality, New York cheesecake. If it is my fridge, which is rare because my family is not a fan, I can finish a whole one by myself over a period of a week, savoring each and every bite, with no guilt. I am sure there must be something disordered about that!
I still do not enjoy shopping for, or wearing swimsuits, but I bite the bullet and do it. I love swimming more than I hate being in a swimsuit, so I do it. When at the store with my best friend last week, she asked me if I wanted a candy bar. I had to mentally force myself to stop the old “fat” tape that started playing in my brain. I loved enjoying that time (and candy bar!) with my friend. I cannot keep a scale or full length mirror in my house, or I find myself obsessing. These are truly not problems compared to the delayed physical issues I have with my teeth and my heart because of bulimia as a teenager. I wish I could go back and educate myself sooner. Thanks for asking, Dana.