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 a doctor or a therapist. I am simply telling you my story.
Just in case you’re tuning in for the first time, here are some of the basics again before I continue my story.
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 second 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 more 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.
First of all, thank you for all of the supportive comments, emails, facebook messages, etc. that I received on my last post. I was prepared for backlash because I realize that this type of thing can sometimes come across as a “woe is me” cry for attention. Let me be clear: the point of telling you this story is not to make you feel sorry for me. It is not to place blame on anyone. It is not to make everyone think I’ve had a tough life, because by all accounts, I haven’t. I just want you to know, unless you are one of those readers who suffers along with me, a tiny sliver of what goes on in the mind of an eating disorder patient. Clearly, everyone thus far has understood this series for what it is, and I cannot thank you enough.
Last you read, I was preparing to transfer to the University of Maryland with a shiny new set of guidelines to keep me healthy: a nutritionist, a psychiatrist, group therapy, individual therapy, and weekly weigh-ins. Failure to comply with my treatment program meant I was getting sent back home. I was beyond excited to start school at Maryland, a place where I knew no one. I was fortunate enough to be able to move right into my new sorority chapter’s house, which happened to have an extra spot open. I didn’t know if I’d like them and I didn’t know if they’d like me, but I figured in a house of 40 girls, I’d get along with someone. I had no idea they’d become my best friends, but I’ll save you my melodramatic sorority love song for later.
I know that I went to Maryland with the best of intentions of getting better – or at least, I think I did. It’s hard to say what happened along the way. That first semester was very confusing for me, because I simultaneously found so much acceptance (Omg, everyone here is shaped like a normal human being! They’re wearing real clothes! It’s a miracle!) and felt so loved while also hating myself so much and slipping further down into extreme bulimia. I spent more than my fair share of time at the bar, to say the least. In between, I also went to therapy – a lot. I wish I could tell you it helped, but at that time, I was not in a place to heal. I remember one conversation with my individual therapist very vividly. She asked me if I knew about the dangers of eating disorders and what I was doing to my body. “Yes, of course,” I said, and proceeded to list the many life threatening effects they can have. “And I also know that throwing up just makes you appear heavier because all the blood rushes to your head and makes your face appear bloated, which entirely defeats the purpose.” “So why do you do it?” she asked. I had no answer. I just knew I had to. Purging relieved all my anxiety, or so I thought, and made me feel like I was in control. It was the ultimate way to relieve stress. Of course, living in a house with 40 girls and communal bathrooms, it was a constant challenge not to get caught, so I just got smarter. I threw up in the shower, turned on the shower and went into the bathroom stall so people couldn’t hear me, left faucets running – anything to keep my secret. Everything that went down came back up, proving the law of gravity wrong. I threw up dozens of times a day.
During this time, I was also in group therapy. I truly believe this was one of the most damaging things I did to myself during the recovery process. As much as I loved the girls in my group, there was a steady undercurrent of competition that couldn’t be denied. Although we were forbidden from talking about calories or weight in specific numbers for fear of triggering someone else, the group ultimately served as the environment where I learned my greatest tricks to conceal my behavior, some of which served me well for many years down the road. While I believe in the idea of group therapy in general, I think the phase at which a patient enters it is extremely important. I was nowhere near recovered enough at that time to listen to what was being said. Because eating disorders are so much about control and “having willpower” (although that’s not really what it is), hearing stories of other people who sound more “successful” than you only reinforces the idea that you’re not good enough, you’re too fat, you’re not trying hard enough, etc. It’s such a vicious cycle.
The University of Maryland is right on the Washington D.C. beltway, and I remember driving around and around that beltway at all hours of the night. It’s about 60 miles, round trip. I had horrible insomnia at this time and rarely slept, so I would just drive around and around and cry. I thought about crashing my car into the construction barriers constantly lining the road, but I was terrified of hurting someone else in the process. I made a half-hearted attempt to kill myself while drunk one night by swallowing a whole bottle of Advil and crossing my fingers. I woke up the next morning just fine. It was like I wanted to die but was too depressed to even bother to make the effort to kill myself. Kind of weird, looking back.
I entered into a relationship around this time with a guy I knew from back in Miami who seemed like a very steadying force in my life. The universe constantly seemed to be spinning out of control, and I was ashamed of myself all the time. He was this big, powerful guy who cared and listened to me and thought I was absolutely flawless just the way I was. He had it all together, I thought, aside from being very overweight. He was older than me, a leader in the Greek community, someone I admired. Surely he could put the pieces back together for me. We dated long distance until he graduated a semester later and moved to Maryland. I was doing a little better, trying to get a handle on myself so he wouldn’t have to be with someone so broken. We started living together and quickly got engaged right after my 21st birthday. What I didn’t realize before we moved in together was that he had many of his own issues – again, not to be enumerated here. I was afraid for my safety every day and again, found more and more ways to get out of the house, occupy my time. I switched majors during my senior year, worked full time, and commuted an hour each way to college and still graduated from college a year early. And I started restricting again and throwing up what little I did eat. My weight dropped again, but my fiance was so busy in his own head that he never noticed. I finally got the courage to leave him, took my dog, and never looked back. (By the way, he is a really great guy now. We all have our demons. I’m very proud of the person he has become.)
My 21 year old self was now living with a total stranger thanks to Roommates.com (no worries, she was totally legit) and out on my own for the first time in my life, so what did I do? Panicked. Got sicker. Started dating my personal trainer, who is now referred to as my ex-husband. There is nothing I can say about that relationship on this blog. The emotional turmoil, constant stress, and trauma nearly killed me multiple times. I went to therapist after therapist and took every kind of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication I could get my hands on in hopes of numbing the pain. I was a shell of the person I am now, as anyone who knew me during that time can attest, and in addition to restricting and purging, I now added cutting to the list of ridiculous behaviors I used to cope with pain. I still have the scars on my left arm, and they’re a reminder of how far I’ve come. At this time, I got a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for “warrior” on my wrist. (Yes, I know it actually says “warrior” and not “smelly asshole.” I asked a Chinese person to read it.) The tattoo is flawed because of the scars I have from burning myself with cigarettes, but it served an important function – every time I thought about hurting myself, I would look down and be reminded that the greatest battle I’m fighting is against myself, every day. And I can’t stop fighting.
I remember going home one time, I guess maybe over Christmas, and we had just eaten dinner. By this point my parents, and especially my mother, had realized that this wasn’t a phase and it wasn’t going away. My mother did her best to try and understand and ask how I was doing, but for a long time, she was never quite able to say what was wrong with me. I wasn’t “anorexic” or “bulimic” and I didn’t have an “eating disorder.” “Are you still on your diet?” she would ask. Or, “are you still doing that throwing up thing?” I know she did not mean to intentionally trivialize the seriousness of what I was dealing with, but sometimes it felt that way. To this day, people’s discomfort talking about eating disorders is something that fuels me to write, because what no one realizes is how insignificant and unimportant that type of language can make someone suffering feel. That’s another blog post for another day, though. Anyway, in a valiant effort to keep me from throwing up my dinner, my mother would watch me like a hawk and try to distract me after meals by going on walks with me, playing games, whatever. In general, this is a pretty good strategy, but one night, I felt like I had eaten the whole world and was even more desperate than usual to throw up. It literally felt like I was going to crawl out of my own skin, I was so anxious. She sat on my bed with me and I just cried and cried, shaking and wailing and panicking about how to get this food out. Eventually, she left and I threw up, of course, but that day sticks with me even now. That rising sense of panic, that overwhelming feeling to do something, anything, to make myself feel better in every situation is my biggest problem.
You see, somewhere along the way, my eating disorder started to have very little to do with food and everything to do with coping with what was going on with my life. Through all of this, I maintained a 3.8 GPA and graduated college a year earlier, with honors. I got my first and second jobs, bought my first house, and generally appeared to succeed in every area of life I set my mind to (Except picking relationships, obviously. I mean, really. God.). From the outside looking in, I had it all together. Inside, I was a wreck. I hated myself and my behavior, and I genuinely wanted to get better but simultaneously didn’t know how and couldn’t seem to make myself learn. Every therapist I went to (7 in total before this last one) failed to get through to me. I couldn’t connect. I’d do better for a couple weeks, a month, maybe even a couple months would go by where I’d only throw up a couple times a week. When you’re in the habit of throwing up everything you eat every day, that’s a huge accomplishment, and many times, I was proud of myself. I considered myself recovered, even though I realize now that I wasn’t. Questions of how I was doing (my mom can say bulimia just fine now – it’s a process for both of us :)) were met with “fine” because in my mind, I was fine.
As my marriage deteriorated, so did I. I had run off and on from time to time, but this time I picked it back up and took it seriously. It wasn’t really intended as a means of weight loss; I really just wanted to be out of my house as much as humanly possible. Unfortunately, at that time, running was a trigger for me. “I bet I could run faster if I weighed less,” I thought. I started following Weight Watchers and dropped a bunch of weight again. I was a vegetarian at this point and terrible at getting in the protein and nutrients I needed from food. My running progressed and I ran my first marathon. I got a stress fracture in my hip just 2 weeks later, and the doctors would later discover it was from malnutrition. Duh.
Can’t run anymore while I recover? No problem. I’ll keep defying gravity. Everything that goes down must come up. It went on and on. I threw up in the bathroom at work, in public restrooms, in restaurants, in fast food cups in my car while driving. Into plastic grocery bags I carried everywhere in case I couldn’t get to a bathroom. Into sinks, into showers, into bushes. Nothing was off limits if I was anxious enough, and nothing calmed me down faster than emptying my stomach. The relief was almost palpable. All of a sudden, for a moment, I had control again. I could do anything.
It was actually during this time that I began to exhibit some of the binging behaviors associated with bulimia. Generally, bulimia is defined by episodes of binging (eating a vast quantity of food in a short period of time) followed by episodes of purging. I never really binged in my early years – I would just throw up my normal meals. Later on, if I was distressed but hadn’t eaten in awhile, I would start to binge to make myself feel full and like I needed to throw up so that I could release the stress. I learned what foods came back up the easiest (ice cream, vegetables, potatoes) and which ones were the hardest (bread, meat). I learned to fill my stomach with as much fluid as possible first. It became a science to me, just one more way to excel, one more way to prove to everyone that I was the best at anything I decided to do.
Of course, by this point, my eating disorder was not a secret. My family and close friends knew, any boyfriend I had knew, and they made valiant efforts to keep tabs on me. Sometimes I considered myself to do pretty well. I would get on a pretty good recovery kick and then get overconfident and start becoming less vigilant about correcting my damaging thoughts and watching my behaviors. Before I even knew what had happened, I would relapse again, just as sick as ever. One step forward, two steps back, over and over and over.
I guess you probably want to know where I am today, right? I know you’re all waiting for the happy ending.
There isn’t one.
You see, I’ve learned a lot in the 11+ years I’ve been fighting this disease. I’ve seen a lot of therapists, read a lot of books, and spent hours and hours doing research. I am nothing if not thorough. And what I’ve realized is that every day, there is a battle. Every meal, every glance in the mirror is a tiny war. Immediately, I hear Ed first. “You’re absolutely disgusting. That muffin top alone is enough to make AJ break up with you.” Then, I have to kick Danielle and tell her to fight back. “Muffin top? Those jeans buttoned just fine, and AJ just told you you’re hot 5 minutes ago. Shut up, Ed.” I literally have to constantly remind myself that it’s ok and everything is fine, but Ed always speaks first. Always. He tells me I ate too much, or that I have to throw up right now or I’m going to weigh 600 pounds when I wake up, or that I’m worthless and ugly. He tells me that no one could ever love someone as flawed as me. How much energy I have to fight back depends on the day.
Until a few months ago, I wasn’t doing very well. About the same as always – some days/weeks/months good, most bad. I expressed my fears to my therapist about how I might never be normal and never be able to stop, about how I would set a bad example for my future kids, stuff like that. I told her AJ deserved better, and she agreed. She asked me when I planned to get better, and I told her I would get better before I had kids. Her response was the most valuable thing anyone has ever said to me. “Danielle, what do you think is going to happen when you decide to have kids? You think you’re just going to wake up one day and be like ‘Well shit, I’m pregnant, guess that’s the end of that?’ No. That’s not going to happen. If you do that, you will fail. You have to practice. You have to look at every day from now until then as a warm up, a rehearsal for when you get married again or when you have kids. Dedicate each day of recovery to your future, and remember that you’ll fail along the way. But practice makes perfect.”
And you know what? She was right. (Side note: I’m obviously SUPER PISSED she had to go and commit insurance fraud because seriously, she changed my life.) It hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t just expect to get better one day. I’m not going to grow out of it. This is here to stay if I let it stay. So now, I practice. Every single day, I practice, but I am far from perfect. Every day is a fight, but just like my tattoo says, I’m a warrior, right? I am not sure I believe just yet that I deserve to be better or that I’m worth being better, but I’m working on it, so for right now, I focus on someone who I know deserves it, and that’s AJ. I’ve always dated people with more problems than me because I never believed anyone worth having would want to be with me. Well, I was wrong. His faith in me gives me just a little tiny bit of faith in myself, so for now, I practice for him. I practice for my family, who has loved me every step of the way and has never given up hope, even if they didn’t always know the right thing to say. I practice for my friends, because their lives would be toooooooootally boring without my stories. And I practice for you guys, because I refuse to be another statistic and I have a platform now that can make a difference in people’s lives, and if there is one thing I insist on, it is excellence. So I’m going to be excellent at changing how people see eating disorders, teaching others how to help us, and spreading awareness. This is so much bigger than me.
It’s about defying gravity.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about what recovery looks like for me today and what I’m doing now to get better. Here’s a general outline of posts I’ve got coming up, so let me know if there’s anything missing that you’d like to see covered. I reserve the right to change the order of these at the slightest whim.
Part 3: What an average day of recovery looks like/steps an ED patient can take now to get better
Part 4: Back to basics. The types of eating disorders, symptoms, effects, and statistics that will shock you.
Part 5: What it’s all about – common misconceptions about eating disorders and what drives them
Part 6: “Say what?” What to say and what not to say to someone who is suffering