This is part one of three. Parts two and three will be published in the coming weeks as I continue my story.
My twitter bio asked me to define myself in less than 160 characters. It’s challenging in a way that forces you to distill your life–who you believe yourself to be–into a few clever and creative phrases. I’ve written bios for employers websites, for by lines in magazines and those always seem easier: you mention your qualifications, accomplishments and maybe a few hobbies. Still not comprehensive, but easier than 160 characters. My twitter bio says that I am a wife, a mom, a runner, a sister, a friend. It doesn’t mention the fact that I taught high school English for four years or that teaching was my second choice and becoming a Registered Dietitian was my first. It doesn’t tell you that I am the second oldest of four kids or that I was home schooled until eighth grade or that I was the captain of my high school basketball team. Or that I lived in Arizona for four years. Or that I love strawberry shortcake. Or that I’ve been married for eight years to an amazing man who loves, supports and challenges me all at the same time. And it certainly doesn’t tell you that for 9 years I was bulimic.
I love that I am able to say I “was” which means that I no longer “am.” In this case, using the past tense means FREEDOM. I AM no longer bulimic. It doesn’t make it in to my bio because I never wanted to be defined by it (OK, and it’s embarrassing). I always believed that I could be completely free, even when the struggle seemed more than I could bear I had hope. Even though I did not want to be defined by a disordered behavior, I cannot deny that the struggle against it has been significant in shaping who I am today.
I’ve waited. Wanting to share my path to freedom, for my own sake so I don’t forget and for the sake of others who want so badly to stop saying “I am” and be free to say “I was.”
I am free, and have been for three years. There were times when I didn’t believe that I’d ever be able to say that. Life with bulimia is a complicated cycle of obsession, deception, guilt, isolation, depression, denial, helplessness, anger and resolve. It is in a nutshell, hell-on-earth. Its easy in the midst of that cycle to loose all hope–to believe that there is now way out. But there was something in me: a belief that I was not made to be this way, that life wasn’t meant to be lived in a self-destructive cycle.
I was originally diagnosed with anorexia in 2001, shortly after completing my first semester at Syracuse University. But my disordered thinking and eating had started a few years before that in high school. I was aware that I was heavier than the girls around me (I’d been aware of that since I was ten or eleven when I was made fun of for being “fat” and “slow”) but something about the social pressures of high school made me think I need to DO something about it. If I am skinny I’ll be comfortable in my own skin, I thought. I began to eliminate entire food groups: I became a vegetarian, I told people I didn’t “like” certain foods to avoid eating them, I eliminated all fat, I counted calories, I did “extra” exercises in addition to playing school sports. By my senior year I was skipping lunch completely. Even though I lost weight, my perception of myself did not change: in my mind I was still the “fat girl.”
I looked to college as a chance to “reinvent” myself, to transform everything I didn’t like about myself, to become what I wasn’t: shy to outgoing, loser to popular, rejected to desirable, fat to enviably skinny, failure to success. My perfectionistic and competitive personality fanned the flames of these desires and drove me to a place where it became not just an objective, but an obsession. Through the fall of my freshman year I methodically executed my weight-loss by restricting my intake and exercising compulsively. Weekly weigh-ins yielded results, but I was never satisfied. My perception of myself did not change: in my mind I was still the “fat girl.”
Such is the nature of eating disorders, they distort reality; it is the only way an unhealthy, self-destructive habit can exist in a human body that is wired to survive. One of the most frustrating things to anyone suffering from any kind of eating disorder is the inability to accurately describe the obsessive thoughts that continuously race through your head. There is not rest. A constant barrage of lies attack you day and night (I used to have anxiety dreams that I had eaten large quantities of food and was unable to purge. I’d wake up in a panic and would have to convince myself it was all a dream.) The lies start as small thoughts: doubts and fears that take root. As you give them voice and space in your mind they begin to influence your actions. Those actions become habits and the voice of the lie grows louder and seems to have more credibility, so you begin to believe. You allow it to guide you, it begins to shape the way you think, the way you act, the way you live. And finally when it has penetrated every aspect of your life it blinds you to reality and becomes your identity: I AM bulimic. Because it feels like you are trapped. It feels like you will never escape the raging thoughts that guide the actions that make you restrict or binge and purge. It feels like you will never be free.
Thankfully, I am daughter to a “no-nonsense” mom who believes in freedom. She came into my bedroom on Christmas Eve while I was home on break and said with grace and love and a hug: “There is something wrong. I’m worried. You need to tell me, cause I’m afraid you’re going to die.” Those words were a release. I knew I was in trouble. I knew that the obsessive thinking, the sleepless nights, the irregular heart beats were signs of an eating disorder: I was a nutrition science major at Syracuse, studying to be a Registered Dietitian. I knew. And I was scared. So I told my mom everything and we got help.
For me help was transferring to the University of New Hampshire (15 minutes from home), changing my major (to English) and intensive outpatient treatment. Four days a week I was in to see the nurse, a therapist and participate in group sessions. I made the choice to change: to reject the lie, to let go of control and begin the search for the truth. I ate what they told me, I drank the Ensure shakes they told me to drink and as hard as it was I stopped running when they told me I couldn’t. (During my freshman year of college I began to fall in love with running, it was the only time when those obsessive voices seemed to quiet and I felt most like myself. Did I push myself to run, even when I didn’t have the energy too just so I could loose weight? Yes. Did I use running in an unhealthy way? Yes. But did it help me find a place where I felt free? Yes.)
It feels as I write this that I am glossing over some of the most difficult and painful months of my life. Though I recognized that I needed help and initially made the choice to change the obsessive, distorted thinking was so deeply imbedded in my mind it felt as if there was a constant battle between the two ways of thinking. On one hand I wanted to change–I wanted to be free but on the other hand I feared letting go–I feared becoming fat, becoming a failure, becoming all the things I’d set out to leave behind. I can remember at one point throwing a yogurt (a “scheduled” snack) across the kitchen: revolted by the very thought that I would “allow” myself to eat it, when I’d already had “too many calories” for the day. Or one afternoon where lay on my bedroom floor, writhing not in physical pain but in mental aguish, so torn between what I knew to be right and what I wanted to do.
On the outside it looked like I was recovering and progressing perfectly: I’d gained weight, my complexion was no longer ashy and sullen, and the fine hair that had grown all over my body was gone (people suffering from anorexia often grow Lanugo a fine layer of hair, its purpose is to help retain body heat). Of course a driven, competitive, Type-A perfectionist would have a recovery that looked “perfect.” But on the inside I had such a long way to go. I wasn’t letting go completely. I was still hanging on to control. And that is how the bulimia started…
**In these posts I do not provide specific details regarding how much weight I lost or gained. Those these details seem relevant, I do not believe them to be helpful. I do however share pictures to emphasize how distorted my thinking was.
To go to Part Two click HERE.