Friday, May 30, 2014

On Overcoming Bulimia

For six years, between 1996-2002, I struggled with anorexia and bulimia. Six to ten times a day I would binge and purge - meaning, I would consume copious amounts of food in a short period of time and then violently vomit the food up. I kept nothing down. When I was hungry, I would eat and eat and then throw up. 

This was very time-consuming and I did virtually nothing else during this time period. I was a ballet dancer up until I was 16, dancing up to 8 hours a day in my efforts to become a professional dancer. I eventually lost so much weight (90 pounds at 5'7") that I had no energy to do anything, much less succumb to the excruciating physical demands of ballet. But after I quit ballet, I felt I had "nothing" else to live or work towards and my eating disorder eventually got even worse. 

So I went to college early, starting my classes in English and Philosophy at 16. I had hoped if I couldn't be a dancer, I could at least get my degree early and find a new purpose.  Instead, I merely found my addiction easier to hide behind closed doors and open books. I didn't graduate early. Quitting ballet had no effect on my self-image. The damage was done, the results hideous, and yet I persisted in allowing this self-destructive rage to overcome and rule my life.

I had no friends during this time period and found it difficult to socialize in college because of the age difference and because of the massive secret I was hiding. Who wants to talk about bulimia? Who eats and throws up? That's disgusting. Smoking, alcohol, drugs - now those are conversations people will have. But eating disorders leaves everyone in a deafeningly silent lurch of abhorrence and confusion. It is poorly understood and rarely talked about.

Which is why I am bringing this up. To start the conversation, to reach out to others who are still struggling. I eventually overcame this addiction through years of waning my habit. From ten times a day, to once a day, once a week to once a month. I literally got down to once a year (the last year I "suffered" from it) when I finally "woke up" and realized I had the power to stop completely. I was disgusted with myself, and in a wonderful relationship. I no longer had the desire to jeopardize my health nor my future with my soon-to-be husband with this truly revolting habit.

And it is revolting. Any bulimic will tell you that. Do you know what it is like to eat two boxes of cereal in one sitting, under 15 minutes, and then viciously hurl that entire amount into the toilet, vomit splashing on your face? I got so good at contracting my stomach muscles that I didn't need fingers down my throat.  I got so good at getting everything out that I would step out of the bathroom starving, and fifteen to twenty minutes later, would be at it again. 

Do you know what it is like to have your entire family hate you for binging on their food? For years my younger siblings despised me for stealing their Tasty Cakes and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When my parents finally stopped buying those foods, I just would steal a car in the middle of the night (and I didn't get my driver's license until 21, mind you) and go to a 24-hour convenience store with a stolen credit card and buy cookies and donuts and milk. I would come home, binge and purge, binge and purge until the food was gone and the sun came up. 

The amount of self-loathing that is involved is off the charts. You have to really hate yourself in order to use food to try and kill yourself. Yes, I was also extremely suicidal during these years and when blood and acids came up through my mouth and nose, I knew that I would be okay, because being dead was surely a better alternative than what I was going through.

But I made it. I learned to love myself enough to care of myself WITH food. I was also unable to afford the addiction, as I could easily consume $40-50 worth of cereal in a day.  I gradually lost interest in my food-centered suicidal drive and became obsessed with living a "normal" life that for years was so impossible. Once I got a taste of that "normalcy" I wanted more. And more. And more. Bulimia became antithetical to my new life and I enjoyed my independence from a hell I had known for so long.

Everyone's story is different. I hope that others will share theirs. I am inspired by those who have recovered and am learning how to be proud of myself for overcoming something that seemed so very, very insurmountable at the time. I honestly didn't think I could ever quit and was certain (and hopeful) that I would die from it. Instead, I survived and now must help others to survive as well. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Body Image

I measure my thighs no less than twice a day. I step on the scale 3-4 times or more, watching every ounce gained or lost. I am trying desperately to lose that last ten pounds I know I need to in order to be the "skinny girl" I was.

I used to field comments all day long on my thinness, but after my baby was born, that all stopped. I gained 50 pounds and struggled with losing 20 more after, only to settle in at 10 pounds heavier than before I got pregnant.

I scour the internet for pics of women my height and weight, constantly comparing myself to others, trying to assess just how "fat" I am and what I really look like to other people. Did I gain that much weight? Do I really look that much different? Who am I, really, and why does weight have so much to do with my sense of self-worth?

I know for a fact that I am not "fat," however, I am not model-thin either. I come in at 22% body fat for my athletic 5'7" frame. It is considered "Ideal" (not "Thin"), "Fit" and not actually "Athletic." But I want to be skinny, I want to be told I am skinny, I want people to buy me the right size clothes when they gift me them, not getting me size large or whatever because they think I am fat.

I am obsessed. I know that I am, and I am secretly hoping this obsession will get me to my goal weight, wherein I can stop obsessing and start focusing on other things, right? Like my art studio, which I haven't worked in for nearly two months. Or organizing my house. Or actually even exercising (which I loathe). But I can't. I just want to watch my thighs go from 22" to 19" overnight and my waist from 29" to 26." And the only way I know how to do that is by dieting.

But not like when I was 16 and anorexic. Yes, this body image complex comes with a history, this obsession has roots in my adolescence and my 6-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. I spent years starving and vomiting my way to ever-elusive goal weights and a body I would never have. I have big bones and tons of muscle that I would gladly change for the waif-like shapelessness of a typical supermodel, even now. But it's not healthy. And I know it.

So why do I insist on trying to re-adopt the known ways of dysfunction in order to achieve what I know can never be? Pure psychosis, I tell you. I want to be loved for being skinny and looking like a model, not for my brain or talents, but for something incredibly vain and superficial. I don't even know why I insist on allowing this thinking to control me. It is a compulsive addiction. And I am not alone, as the 10-20 million Americans with eating disorders can tell you.

I am confused and I know it. I want to be clear on my body image. I want to be able to say with confidence that I am fit, that I am okay, that I know I was skinnier in my youth, but as a 34 year old with a 4 year old daughter, I look pretty good.

But most of all, I want it to not matter at all. I want to not waste precious blog space with my ramblings on a topic far less important than mercy killings in Pakistan or the fact that domestic violence kills more women than smoking, heart disease and terrorist attacks combined. THESE are important issues to obsess over. But I remain vain, petty, and easy to hate for posting on such a ridiculously pointless topic.

So I apologize. I also extend my gratitude for this space allowing me to explore the complexities of my own body image issues, in the context of a society where women are encouraged to despise their natural state in order to be impossibly thin.

I just read an article by Allison Epstein, found here: on why she is a body-image activist. One of the reasons she lists, other than 108 million Americans being on a diet, is the 470% increase between 2006-07 of pro-eating disorder websites. She receives hate mail for being a body image activist because it's "not important."

But it is. When 20 million or more people risk their lives to be thin, when body hatred consumes the daily lives of countless millions of others, affecting their work, relationships, and mental health, does that not profoundly affect society at some level? So kudos to you, Ms. Epstein and your activism. Your article stirred me to action, leading me to start a conversation with myself on my own remnants of disorder and self hatred.

All I know is that have to stop hating my body. For the sake of my daughter's self image, for the sake of my mental wellness, for the sake of society at large. We need a major shift in our thinking. And it starts with each one of us body-hating-shaming women AND men learning how to love themselves, even if through rambling, ultimately pointless blog-sharing.