You might want to sit down for this one.
It was two days before I was scheduled to depart for my dream job. I was having the time of life, celebrating the fact that I had traded in my Eddie Bauer Assistant Regional Manager name tag for a sharp skirt suit that I’d wear while rubbing elbows with people whose resumes read like former Presidents and Heads of State.
The journey had been long and arduous. When I graduated college with a degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology, I thought that the FBI would be so impressed, they’d knock on my door and ask me how quickly I could pack my bags to be the next Clarice Starling. What followed did not even come close to resembling that pipe dream but eventually (ahem…three years later) I landed the gig that would change my life forever. And that’s how I found myself sitting at that table in North Dallas with all the people that I loved the most.
We took up the largest table in the family-style Italian restaurant. Tonight, we were VIPs. It was our final farewell. In just a couple of days, mom, my dog Harley, my VW bug, and all my worldly belongings would begin the 1300 mile trek from Dallas to Washington D.C.
The food was delicious. There was bruschetta, calamari, pizza, and my very favorite – chicken saltimbocca. All followed by a cheesecake that was divine. I helped myself to all of it.
We laughed and cried and shared memories of all my missteps along the way. They told the same story of when I went batshit crazy with a can of spray paint and decided to repaint my parent’s house at the ripe old age of eight. They are the ones that know me best. They know all of my quirks and foibles…and love me anyway. I was full of pride for my upcoming adventure and joyful to be surrounded by so much love and support.
Then I excused myself to go to the restroom where I “undid” all of that wonderful food I had just enjoyed.
I was 25.
I was confident.
I was hopeful.
I was loved.
I had an eating disorder.
And that, my friends, is the first time I’ve ever said that out loud. Er, in writing. Doesn’t matter. Point is, it’s the first time I’ve given that fact the power of words. Which makes this officially the most terrifying post that I’ve ever written.
I don’t think anyone had the foggiest notion. I worked out all the time, I ate healthy, and I was happy (or was I?). Why in the world would someone like me be plagued by guilt after even the smallest indulgence? I don’t recall when it started but I’m sure it was some time in my early twenties. By the time I moved to DC and was living solo, I had begun to use all the tricks. If you know, you know. If you don’t, maybe I’ll go into some of the details later but for now, let’s just say I became a pro at making a comfy spot for yet another skeleton in my closet.
Bulimic. There, it’s been said. The word is on the page. Any therapist would have easily identified bulimia as my particular brand of eating disorder. They also might have tacked on exercise addiction and occasional anorexia but I’m not one to quibble.
In the 20 years since, it has never occurred to me to talk about this in any formal way – not even when I was in therapy during the separation that preceded my eventual divorce. In the scheme of things, I didn’t look upon this part of my life with any sort of significance. It wasn’t until I stumbled across this fantastic blog that I recalled what I had put my heart, body, and soul through so many years ago. Her situation, or rather disease, was different than mine and yet, there are many parallels. I’ve commented on her blog regularly – she’s a fantastic writer and a great motivator and also posts some fantastic recipes. What’s not to love? But her courage to share her story is really why I’m here today. I don’t think it would have crossed my mind to put this out in the world if I hadn’t found her blog.
They keep us locked in a dark closet if we bury them too deeply. I’ve had my share over the years. BUT this blog and the reason I am so compelled to share things that probably make people wonder if I’m one Lincoln Log short of a cabin is because I don’t want one single other person to have to hurt a second longer than necessary. If there’s anything I can share or impart about my experience that might help someone else, well, I’m willing to show a little emotional skin.
So here I am. Peeling so much of my onion that I’m not sure how much will be left to cook with.
I kept up the habit of purging food for probably a decade, off and on. I wouldn’t say it was all the time or after every meal but when the bulimia light clicked on, I was all in. It didn’t matter if I was at work, a friend’s house, out to dinner or in the master bathroom. I’d find ways to make everything I had just done …go away.
If I dance around the graphic details, it’s because I’m not ready for that yet and perhaps you aren’t either. I know my family and friends read this and, while it was years ago, I really hate the thought of them worrying about me even after all this time.
But this is important. And so I go on.
I did this to myself long enough that my teeth thinned out (you can see the cracks if you shine light behind them), I busted blood vessels in my eyes from the exertion, and I withdrew from social occasions if I thought the temptation would be too strong to eat or I wouldn’t have a place to hide away after. Eating disorders are like an addiction. You spend all your time trying to figure out how to get your next “fix” – it is the most distracting presence in your life that you could ever imagine.
I don’t recall the moment that I stopped. I just know I did.
At some point, I recognized that I was worth more than tears shed over a porcelain throne after eating what many would consider a perfectly healthy meal.
Sitting here today, I think about the timing of it all. The end I mean. The end of this eating disorder. In my mind, it is no coincidence that I stopped destroying myself around the time that my sweet niece hit her teenage years. If there’s one thing I want to do right, it is to be a good influence in the lives of the people that I love – particularly the younguns. I adore that girl…and her charming brother too (as well as my other nephews but if I try to count all my familial blessings, we’ll be here all day).
I think it must have occurred to me that I could not offer sage advice or words to live by if I was not practicing the same kind of self care. So, subconsiously, to avoid being a hypocrite and to secure my place in her life as a positive influence, I opted out of damaging myself any further. At least, that’s what I think I did. Like I said, the timing is fuzzy. Everything is fuzzy when you’re constantly in a battle with food.
I have no children of my own but I have witnessed the successes of my niece and nephews from afar. I’ve seen them slip a time or two as well and nothing breaks my heart more than being unable to sprinkle some magical fairy dust and make it all better. I worry about a new teenage presence in my life too. The world is so challenging now – there are so many dangers lurking around every corner. So many people who do their best to make them feel less-than. What can I do to protect them? I am not sure I can, to be honest. We all have our journeys and we have to go through them, sometimes without a safety net.
But, I know this. I know it in my soul when I hear myself say the things we hate to hear ourselves say as adults. You know what I am talking about. I am officially at that age where every other sentence is, “I’ve been there. When I was you’re age….” I wish I could shake them. I wish I could take them by their shoulders and say, LISTEN TO ME! I am not that tv cliche mom! I am a real person who has been through some shit! This is the truth! These are the facts! If you continue to battle with your body, you will lose. You MUST treasure yourself over all others!
I know…I know with all my heart that this must have been how my mom felt all those years ago. I am sure now, that she must have struggled with how to get through to me. The truth is, when I was a teenager (like all other teenagers), I thought my way was the right way and there wasn’t a single thing that anyone over 25 could tell me that was valuable in the slightest. It is maddening when you learn that you are becoming your parents. Maddening but also, oddly profound and some sort of universal sign that we are all grown up. It also occurs to me that she DID get through to me…it just took a while. So, mom, I hope that’s some sort of comfort. Shoulder shrug.
We carry these weights as women. Men carry them too but the prevaling sufferer of eating disorders and severe body image issues? That would be us, ladies. We carry them and we simply are too wrapped up in our own minds to let anyone help with sustaining the weight of it all. It is very very difficult to have come this far, learned so many lessons the hard way and feel like I am completely incapable of getting through to others who are going through similar issues.
But I’m not incapable. WE are not helpless when it comes to supporting people we love through difficult times. The thing is, the support and “help” we can offer may not come in a traditional form. If you scroll way up (yes, I know this is getting long. So be it.), you’ll see where I referenced “the end of the eating disorder”. You also might note that the end did not come through some recognition by my family or friends or a staged intervention. What happened is that, one day, I realized that what I was doing to MYSELF would be a disappointment to OTHERS. I realized that I would break people’s hearts and shatter their vision of the person they knew if I couldn’t find a way to be healthy. I wanted to be a good influence MORE than I wanted to be in control of food.
And that’s what worked for me.
It’s different in every circumstance, I’m sure.
But, if you’re trying to find a way to get through to someone who you suspect or know has an eating disorder, I have found some good resources. I also know this, you can’t blame yourself and you have to remember that, in the process of loving someone through an eating disorder, addiction, or any other disease, you can’t get so wrapped up in them that you hurt yourself in the process. It’s largely pointless anyway since eating disorders (and addictions) are 99% about control and your attempts to insert yourself in the process will almost certainly result in a battle of wills – that you will lose. So, it’s probably better to be a steady and consistent (and loving!) presence in their lives. Round up the available tools out there, offer support, express concern, shelve judgment and pray.
And for one final plug of the Beauty Beyond Bones Blog, take a look at this post. It probably captures best that moment when we first start to heal. It also explains (again) why I’m here today, telling you all of this. You CANNOT heal from a hurt without first NAMING the lie. To put that in perspective, I would be a foolish person to think myself worthy of passing on any wisdom if I didn’t first tell you that I lied for YEARS about having an eating disorder. I lied to myself about the why (which I’ll get to in a later post, I promise) and to others about its existence. What truly amplifies that I have grown is my ability to share this with you all. So, I’ll echo my friend from Beauty Beyond Bones – to beat the disease you have to name the lie, discredit the lie, and replace it with the truth.
This is my truth. Are you living yours?
Therapy and more formal options are also available and education is free so there’s no excuse not to be armed with as much information as possible.
Good article on how to start the conversation.
Tips for supporting someone with an eating disorder.