My heart is pounding in my ears as I type this. I don’t know why since I don’t have to write about my struggle with bulimia; rather, I want to write about my struggle with bulimia. Now that I am on the other side, I feel like I can share what I’ve learned and try to inspire others to free themselves from the shackles of disordered eating. Before you close out this web page because you think this article has nothing to do with you, this isn’t intended just for those who have had official eating disorders. If you have struggled with your body image, dieted, felt fat or ugly, or determined your value based on the numbers on the scale, please keep reading.
One night my Sophomore year of college, I went to the “Munchie Mart” in the basement of my dorm at Vanderbilt with my roommates and we all bought those yummy pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. After such an indulgence, I decided I simply wouldn’t eat the next day so that I wouldn’t gain weight. That’s how it began. It was like flipping a switch. I became anorexic. I know now it was a way to manage the unbearable stress of my Dad’s unjust incarceration.
Becoming anorexic was sort of an obvious addiction for me. I was a good kid so I wasn’t going to try some illegal drug other than alcohol. I was (am, although far less so) type A and anorexia fits very well with that personality type. And food had always been a focal point in my family. My parents and several sisters were always dieting. Our bodies were praised when they were thin; they seemed to be a symbol of our worth. So many women equate losing weight with being valuable, worthy, lovable and beautiful and gaining weight with being a failure, worthless, unlovable, and ugly.
I remember being self-conscious about my body for the first time in 4th grade when my teacher did a beginning-of-the-year weigh-in so that she could show us how much we had grown over the year. I was tall and a little chubby and was so embarrassed that I was already 100 pounds. In high school, I remember praying at night asking God to give me the self-control to be anorexic for just a little while because all the people who were once anorexic were still thin even after they recovered.
Back at college, once I felt hungry enough, I’d allow myself to eat, but I put all sorts of rules in place about what and how and when I could eat. Most days, I wouldn’t allow myself to eat anything until after 5 PM, and then it was only a bowl of plain oatmeal. Other days it was only pretzels or fat free yogurt. I also took up running. My roommates were all on the track and cross country teams and I would run with them as often as I could stand it. The pounds dropped incredibly quickly. When I went home for Fall break that year, I received all sorts of compliments on how great I looked and how impressed everyone was with my running. I didn’t feel pretty, but at least I was thinner and people were complimenting me.
After many months of severely restricted eating and strenuous exercising, my body was screaming for food. I don’t remember the specifics, but I eventually ate in a panicked frenzy, a survival move that my brain was making on my behalf. I felt so uncomfortable and full that the anxiety felt unbearable, and I attempted to vomit afterwards. It took a few tries before I was successful, but once I figured out how, it became easy. I’d eat what I wanted and then throw it up. I was so thankful to not be deprived of food anymore, but after purging, my body would still be hungry so it would set me up for another binge and purge.
This lasted through my Sophomore and Junior years of college. I didn’t cry a single time during those two years; I also didn’t have a good belly laugh either. The bulimia had completely numbed me out to all feelings. I remember going to have labs done in the Student Health Center because I had read that anorexics and bulimics were at risk for having heart attacks, especially when certain electrolytes were low in the blood. Sadly, it became a challenge for me to see how low I could get those numbers while still keeping up my grades, dating, going out at night, and running.
At this point, my Dad had been released from prison and I had assumed all along that my reliance upon bulimia would just go away when he came home. While his release was a joyful celebration, the bulimia unfortunately had become an ingrained behavior, really the only way I knew to cope with stress at that point.
While most bulimics tend to be a little overweight, I was a really good bulimic. I dropped from an appropriate-for-my-body size 10 to a size 2. I still felt like the ugly duckling but at least my body finally looked like many of the other girls at Vanderbilt. I may have fit in more in college, but it became obvious to my family that I was very sick. When I came home for the summer after my Junior year, my sweet sister met me at my car to help me unpack my stuff. Her jaw dropped and she burst into tears. She couldn’t believe how I had wasted away. I unsuccessfully tried to suppress a grin (because I had been so successful in losing weight), but I felt sorry for my sister who looked so sad.
I think she said, “What the hell happened to you?!” I had been dreading this moment of coming clean; I’d been denying that I had an eating disorder and had been attributing the weight loss to training for a marathon, but I let her behind the curtain and told her the truth. She said I needed to tell our Mom right away, which I did. Everyone looked at me with the same sad, concerned look, but I got a high from that look. It made me soar. It meant I was skinny.
That summer I had weekly appointments with an Eating Disorder therapist and a clinical nutritionist, and I was invited on the trip of a lifetime, an all-expenses paid trip to Italy. I told everyone I was making progress in therapy, which was true in terms of my emotional progress, although none of the eating disorder behaviors were improving. My parents hesitantly let me go on the trip, and by the time I got back from Italy, a few weeks before I was supposed to go back to school for my Senior year, my 5′ 9″ frame was down to 115 pounds, in a size 0. I was twenty years old and 15 pounds heavier than I had been in the 4th grade.
My parents told me that I need to go to an inpatient Eating Disorder Treatment Program. I absolutely refused. I said I’d do anything they wanted me to do as long as I didn’t have to be hospitalized. It was a psychiatric hospital for goodness sake and I wasn’t crazy! My Mom said that I couldn’t go back to Vanderbilt if I didn’t check myself into treatment. I said defiantly that if that was the case then I was going to check myself in the next day, be out in a few days, and be back in Nashville with my roommates and pick up what was supposed to be the greatest year of my life!
I don’t remember the day-to-day details of my hospitalization. I do know that I was told I’d only be there a couple of days and I ended up needing to be there for over a month. I do know that I made up for the years of not crying those first two days. We had morning weigh-in, as well as our blood pressure and temperature taken. We were weighed in backwards so we couldn’t see how much we weighed. If we didn’t put on the prescribed amount of weight each day we had to be pushed around in a wheel chair to conserve calories. The two times I had to sit in the wheel chair I was elated because it meant I hadn’t gained “a ton of weight” the day before. It was as surreal as you’d imagine. We were observed using the restroom and showering to make sure we didn’t vomit. Over that month, I put on about 40 pounds.
Despite my “I will do anything as long as I can go back to school next semester” desperation that inspired me to check myself into the hospital, I had enough sense to realize that putting myself right back into the setting where my eating disorder had begun and flourished was a sure set-up for failure. I took the next semester off of school and lived with my newly married sister and brother-in-law and continued outpatient treatment. (Only now that I’m married do I really appreciate their selflessness in having me in their home!)
Before going back to school to begin my Senior year, I cut my long, red curly hair really short and wore non-prescription glasses with dark black frames in hopes that it would distract my classmates from noticing how much weight I had gained. :) When I went back for the Spring semester I slid back into some of my old behaviors from time to time, but my weight was steady and I was seeing a therapist there to keep me accountable. I moved to Washington, D.C. for an internship as my last semester of school, and it was then that my “maintenance bulimia” began.
And it continued until last year, 2014, fifteen years after it began. This is the part that lots of my close family and friends didn’t know. Many of them thought that my struggle with eating disorder behaviors ended with my hospitalization. But it didn’t. Over the years, I would talk about having a hard day with my “body image issues” and I thought my family and friends could read between the lines, but apparently I was too cryptic for them to grasp the weight of what I was trying to tell them.
What I mean by “maintenance bulimia” is that from the outside, I looked fine. My weight was stable. I was energetic, appeared healthy, ate well, indulged now and again, but I still managed my anxiety by purging…but only a little. I’d eat a normal amount or maybe just past the point of being comfortably full and then throw up some of it. I know it sounds weird and probably gross and I’m so scared of being judged by those reading this, but I just know God is pushing me to write about this now, today, after years of contemplating this article.
What happened last year is that several people close to me had unbelievably stressful things happen to them and I wanted to be with them in their heartache. To deal with the stress, the bulimia became more frequent and I was scared, knowing it was bad enough that I could easily justify being hospitalized again, even though I was at a healthy weight. I went into outpatient treatment with a wonderful Eating Disorders therapist and a Clinical Nutritionist, and I slugged it out. This time my parents weren’t footing the bill. This time I had a husband and 4 kids. The stakes were too high to watch myself slide back into hospitalization.
The turning point for me was hearing my nutritionist speak with admiration about one of her other clients who “was working really hard, making real progress, having a few slip ups here and there, but really making forward progress.” I wanted her to say that about to me to her other clients! So I told her I would do whatever it took to get to that point. At that same visit, I expressed my concern about passing on my body image issues to my daughter. My nutritionist gave me a book by Ellyn Satter called Managing Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. In reading that book and her other one called Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family I learned far more about feeding myself than about my feeding my children. The main thing I took home from those books was that the only people who struggle with overeating are those who restrict what they eat. So if I wanted to stop overeating and feeling the need to purge, I needed to stop restricting. I committed there and then that I would never restrict my food intake again. (I wrote a summary of the first two chapters of Managing Your Child’s Weight here if you want a preview of the book. After reading it you will see how I learned so much about myself. It really is remarkable!)
Wanting to be one of my nutritionist’s success stories and reading Satter’s books in particular changed everything. I wanted to be rid of the eating disorder even if it meant being a plus-sized woman. I didn’t want to be rid of the eating disorder but still somehow find a way to be skinny for the very first time in my adult life. I resolved to have nerves of steel, to tolerate whatever weight gain came, to endure the lingering looks from the pre-school Moms in carpool line wondering if I was newly pregnant or had just “let myself go.” I told myself over and again that I would not die from anxiety even if it felt like it, that if I felt full, that that feeling would eventually go away and I would be hungry again. I know that last part sounds obvious, but being full sent my anxiety through the roof!
And the weight gain did come. Shockingly, I was underweight for my God-given body even though I already felt so big at that weight. I thought for sure my weight wouldn’t change and that I would just kick the bulimia and be healthy, but that was just wishful thinking. I look at my family, my Mom and sisters, and we are strong, solid women. We are not willowy or waify. I look at my daughter who is beginning to develop and she is strong and solid, not waify. This strong, solid body is the body that God has given me to do His work. That is what keeps me going. That is why I have written with a window marker on my bedroom mirror to remind every morning that I need to continue to have nerves of steel: “This is the body God has given me to do the work that He has set before me today.”
I share this because I know others struggle with their bodies. You may not be bulimic or anorexic, but you may base your worth by the numbers on the scale or the number on the tag in your pants. Get rid of the scale! Cut off the tag! Buy clothes that fit you and get rid of the ones that don’t! You are worthy and valuable simply because you have been created by a loving God! And to those of you who have had children, be kind to your body. It is the body of a woman, not the body of a teenager. Each pregnancy stretch mark is a testament to the sacrifice you made for your children. And no matter what your body looks like or how you feel about it, keep lovingly feeding yourself food that you like that nourishes you. Take the time to make food for yourself. Don’t eat your kids leftovers anymore. You are worthy of your own meal of grown-up food!
I still struggle mightily with my body image, especially since having put on weight while having nerves of steel this last year, but I want to leave a legacy of courage and strength to my children. I don’t want to be thin and miserable. I want to have the body God gave me, whatever that looks like, and be radiant with joy from within.
And you know what? When I tell others about my weight gain over this past year, most people look shocked and say they can’t tell. Now, they may be lying, and the disordered part of me reeeeally believes they are. But if you let go of the control and beating up of your body, let your body land where it may, know that you are worthy no matter what, and buy clothes that you feel beautiful in along the way, most people can’t tell that you’ve put on weight. But they can tell that you are radiating joy!
I have so much more I could share, tidbits that have helped me through this last year, resources (people, websites, apps, books) that have carried me along the way, but I have broken every rule on blog post length at this point. Thanks for reading and please know that, through the grace of God and with nerves of steel, the shackles of disordered eating and distorted body image can be broken!