I have been writing this blog for over a year now, and I pride myself on being extremely candid and open. I try to be completely honest with you, my readers, because I value honesty above all else in others (Being lied to for an entire relationship will do that to you. I’m not bitter, it’s fine.). That being said, there is one area in which I have not been open about on this blog, and I feel like now is the right time to address it. In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you my 11-year battle with what I would probably call my best friend and my worst enemy – my eating disorder.
Maybe you’re shocked. Maybe you’re not. Take a moment to regroup or get another brownie, since that’s what we all do when watching the Biggest Loser (don’t even try to act like you don’t) and this is along the same lines.
You might be asking “why now?” There are a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time, but it never seemed right until a few weeks ago. Spreading awareness and understanding of the seriousness of eating disorders is extremely important to me, but I normally do it on a one on one basis. Second, I am about to have major surgery (February 19th, by the way) that is going to impact my eating habits forever and there is a lot of psychological stuff that comes along with that, and I’m trying to work through it. I have hinted at my body image issues on the blog before, but never really gone into depth. While on a business trip to Charleston recently for work, I stopped in for lunch at my favorite local burrito place, where I am a regular and know the owners. I had just finished running with Amanda, so I was wearing a tank top and shorts. This is the conversation that transpired:
Burrito guy : “You look great!”
Me: “Thanks! Can you add just a little bit of ranch dressing, please?” Side note: he always makes my burrito and knows what a tiny amount I was talking about.
Burrito guy: Puts extra ranch on. Stares at me daring me to challenge him. Smirks.
Me: “You know that’s too much, haha!”
Burrito guy: “Yeah, I know, but we gotta put a little more meat on those bones!”
Me: “Actually, I’m trying to lose meat, so let’s not.”
Burrito guy: “Are you kidding? What are you, anorexic or something?”
Having heard things like this my whole life, I have trained myself to remain calm and not overreact. People joke about things all the time. Breathe.
Me: fake laughing “Clearly not, but you shouldn’t joke about things like that. Anorexia is serious!”
Burrito guy: “Yeah no shit you’re not anorexic, I make you a giant burrito every day!”
Burrito guy #2: “Hahahahaha that’s right, because she’s bulimic!” Both burrito guys laugh hysterically.
That’s when my face fell. It occurred to me that so few people understand eating disorders: what they are, what causes them, how they’re treated, and most importantly, how serious they are. We hear jokes about them all the time. You see a picture of an anorexic girl or a skinny model and think “oh, just give her a cheeseburger and she’ll be fine!” I’m not going to go into all of those topics today, because this is a series of blogs, meaning I can’t wait to leave you glued to your seats for those details in future posts. For today, I’m just going to tell you my story, because that is the one I know best. First, some basics.
Who is Ed? Ed is a “name” that some eating disorder patients give to their illness to try and personify the disease in an attempt to give us something tangible to fight back against. ED = Eating Disorder, get it?
What this post is about: I’m going to tell you my story and describe my battle with anorexia and bulimia. This post will cover the first half of the 11+ years I’ve spent struggling with my eating disorder.
What this post is not about: This post is not about blaming anyone. It’s also not about the symptoms, types of eating disorders, etc – none of the technical stuff. I’m not going to go in depth into my thought process right now. That will come in a later post in this series. I figure you need to hear what I have to say before you care about any of that, since most people cannot even fathom living this way. We’ll get to the technical bits, the recovery process, etc – today is just the background info.
What I’m looking for from you: An open mind. That’s it. I expect you to be disgusted, sad, angry, amazed, intrigued, sympathetic – whatever. I’ve felt all those emotions and I understand that you will too. I hope that this blog series will help you understand even a little bit more about someone you know (because statistically, there is someone you know) that is dealing with these same issues.
Disclaimer: This is a series of posts about my experiences with anorexia and bulimia. Many of the things I discuss could be extremely triggering if you are dealing with an eating disorder, so please read at your own risk. I am not an doctor or a therapist. I am simply telling you my story.
I’m your stereotypical eating disorder patient. White female, upper-middle class upbringing, Type-A personality, all of that. I grew up in a sheltered little world where pretty much everyone was smart, everyone’s family had money, and everyone was destined for greatness, or so our parents would have us believe. My parents were no different, and I grew up knowing that I was capable of being anything I wanted to be, and I had a duty to the world to live up to my potential – whatever that means. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew I was going to do it and be something special. Nothing conceited or narcissistic about it; in my mind, these were facts. My parents were pretty strict with my brother and me growing up. We had a tight limit on the amount of tv we were allowed to watch and the shows were carefully screened. We had an 8 pm bed time through elementary school unless we were reading books (great for me, but my brother fell asleep every night at precisely 8:01 pm). We were only allowed to play educational computer games, but those were the only ones I liked anyway. Play time was outside, and we had chores, and dinner was healthy and eaten as a family every night. Piano lessons were a requirement beginning for me at age three and a half, and practice was mandatory. My parents were determined to give my brother and me the advantages that they didn’t have, and I was used to the structured environment.
My parents are thin, and my extended family generally is as well. There was an emphasis on maintaining a healthy weight, getting plenty of exercise, and eating healthy food, but not overly so. Like any middle-aged woman, my mother was concerned about her appearance and her weight, and as an overly observational child, comments she made seemed to stick with me longer than they maybe should have. “Every brownie you eat will stick straight to your thighs!” She drank Slim-Fast shakes and did occasional diets to keep her weight where she wanted it. I heard a lot that she weighed 107 pounds when she got married, a number which meant nothing to me when I was 10 and everything when I was 16. I personally didn’t weigh over 100 pounds until I was 16, which was very difficult for me to accept at the time. I was a very skinny kid, but healthy and normal, I guess. Just scrawny.
The steep decline started when I began going to church when I was about 15 in an attempt to quell my overwhelming fear of death and eternity (another post for another day), and in my not-so-religious family, this wasn’t a huge hit. My parents were on the edge of ok with it, even if they found it a bit odd, but that all changed when I met my high school boyfriend on a missions trip for church. Suddenly, I was hanging out with his very religious family, spending all my time at church, bible study, and the rest of it, and my parents thought it was weird at least, and cult behavior at worst. It was a Methodist church, for the record, but my parents are very vigilant about such things. This new focus caused a great deal of friction in my life at home and especially in my head, with my parents pulling me one way and my new boyfriend-slash-omg-the-like-total-love-of-my-16-year-old-life-SWOON and his friends and family pulling me the other. I had two very controlling entities clashing and I felt like I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions for myself without receiving backlash from one side or another. Whether this was actually true or not, I don’t know. I just know I felt helpless.
It’s hard to remember how it started at first. I was disturbed by what was going on in my life and disturbed by the fact that I suddenly weighed 100 whole pounds and climbing, and I was depressed. I guess I felt like the hunger I felt echoed the hollowness inside me, so I cut my calories back tremendously. I didn’t have a method for it back then; I just didn’t eat much. I’d move food around on my plate, throw my lunch away at school, and I was never much of a breakfast eater anyway. Each pound I lost was a ringing little victory in my mind, and every piece of food that I didn’t eat made me feel like I had power over my own life. I also got a sick satisfaction from people noticing how thin I was. My high school history teacher called me out of class after seeing my jeans hanging off my very prominent hip bones and asked me if I was ok. I told her I had pneumonia. A girl I barely knew at the time told me that she had suffered from an eating disorder and knew the signs when she saw them – I told her I had been really sick and not able to eat for a few months. All of these comments just told me I was on the right track.
I will not go into much detail about any of my relationships, but my relationship with my high school boyfriend was one that disturbed even his family and friends, which maybe should have been a sign. He was a year older than me, a football and baseball player, and I fell head over heels in love with him in the way only teenagers can fall. He was everything to me and he could do no wrong in my eyes. His own parents expressed concern over the way he ordered me around and warned me that he was unequivocally selfish, but they loved me and loved that I was with him. His friends couldn’t believe the way I put up with him, but they loved him in their own way too, and they loved us together. When he went off to college, I did a little bit better because he wasn’t around as much to dictate my free time. I reconnected with some of my friends and still saw him almost every weekend and counted down the days until I could be at the University of Miami with him.
When I got there, it was a living nightmare. He had a drinking problem so serious that his fraternity approached me about it. (Seriously, take a moment to process that. I mean, really.) Our relationship deteriorated every day and I looked for ways to fill up my time so I wouldn’t have to be around him. I joined a sorority and then every other club I could find. And I stopped eating. My daily food intake consisted of one 280-calorie Subway sub each day that I spent two hours in the gym working off. My weight plummeted and I began to get sores on my body from where my bones rubbed together. Walking through campus, I remember wondering why everyone was staring at me, so I asked my boyfriend. He said “It’s because you look like a fucking skeleton and you’re disgusting.” I somehow felt so bad and couldn’t have been more pleased at the same time. The size 00 jeans stopped fitting, so I switched to kids’ clothes. Eventually, my college roommate sat me down. “I know what you’re doing,” she said, “and I’m going to tell your mother if you don’t start eating.” “Ok,” I thought. “Challenge accepted.”
I had heard about bulimia long ago, of course. Everyone had. I have to say that it didn’t really make sense to me as a fairly logical person. You eat a whole bunch of food and then throw it up or take laxatives to flush it out? That doesn’t make any damn sense. Why not just not eat to begin with? Well, once the jig was up and my roommate was threatening me, it was the obvious solution. I would just eat a normal amount and then throw it up. It would be like it never happened. Maybe it would be even better because I could still feel like ate but not have any of the effects! WHY didn’t I think of this before? So that’s what I did. Everything that went down my throat came back up. I became a true expert at not only throwing up, but throwing up quietly. Of course, my roommate and dorm friends weren’t dumb and figured out where I was going, so they would follow me to the bathroom and try and wait me out, but there is no waiting out someone who is that sick. I wasn’t even particularly disgusted with myself – I was kind of impressed. “Look how smart I am! I have everyone fooled!” Right. The strange thing about purging is that it isn’t as effective as you’d think. Having been so deprived for so long, every calorie I consumed stuck to my body in the oddest places – my knees got fat, and my wrists seemed bigger. Everything was disjointed and out of whack, and even though I was still able to continue my compulsions, I wasn’t getting the same results. It made me even more insane.
Over the summer, at a conference I attended at the University of Maryland for Greek leaders, I found myself confessing my eating disorder to a group of total strangers as we were asked about the biggest challenges in our lives. It felt good to say out loud the pain I felt inside, and I left that conference with a new resolve to break up with my boyfriend for good, transfer schools, and maybe get some help with that pesky eating disorder that had been plaguing me.
When I got home, I broke up with my boyfriend for good. Then, I told my parents that I thought I might need some help. It’s hard to tell if they believed me at the time. I don’t think they understood the true depth of how sick I really was, but what parent wants to believe their child is intentionally harming themselves despite knowing the risks? See, I knew that what I was doing was dangerous and not normal. I knew how sad I was, and I knew I didn’t want to live that way forever. I had heard enough times that I had a problem, and I knew those people were right. Although part of my brain knew I was sick, part didn’t care. I found the routine very comforting. So my parents took me to the Renfrew Center, which is an eating disorder treatment center that has installations around the country. I was lucky enough to have one practically in my back yard, and I began going their for treatment. I got described my first antidepressants and my first diagnosis – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). At the time, there was no diagnosis for someone who was anorexic but also purged their food without the binging behaviors associated with bulimia. I had symptoms of both that I had combined to make a delightful little eating disorder cocktail that fit my lifestyle. My parents were in complete denial by this point. When told that I would probably be fighting this disorder my entire life, as most patients do, my dad said very matter of factly: “No way. She’ll be fine in 6 months.” I don’t know if it was denial, optimism, or a foolish amount of faith in me, but they didn’t want to see me for what I was back then. I have my own theories as to why, but I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that every parent wants their kid to be healthy, happy, and normal. I was none of those things, and that’s hard to swallow when you’ve spent the better part of your life working hard to give your kid everything. I can’t say I blame them.
I decided to transfer to the University of Maryland to get away from my boyfriend and a fresh new start away from all the perceived perfect bodies I saw at Miami. My father was none too pleased about the decision – I had a full scholarship to Miami and Maryland was an out of state school that offered me some scholarship money, but nowhere near as much as Miami. I didn’t care. I started working 3 jobs to save money and swore I would take out loans if I had to. My father is someone who appreciates both hard work and stubbornness, and I had both, so eventually he relented and I got my wish. Of course, the whole summer I was in treatment but panicking about what the fall would bring, so the problems continued. I threw up everything I ate, and I began to only eat white foods – apples, white rice, and yogurt – for reasons I can’t entirely explain. My fellow lifeguards made fun of me while
becoming increasingly horrified admiring how thin I got.
Before transferring to Maryland, my parents and I made a deal. I had a nutritionist, group therapy, and individual therapy, and a psychiatrist, and I had to go to all of them and weigh in each week or they’d pull me out of school. “Good,” I thought, “another challenge. I like challenges.”