submitted by Cathleen
About a month ago I had an experience that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago. I had brunch. You know, that festive meal between breakfast and lunch that people tend to eat on weekends. It’s a noun, it’s a verb. It’s brunch! If you were a diner at another table, you would not have noticed anything extraordinary. Five people sitting at a table talking and laughing, occasionally getting up to revisit the buffet. But what was different for me was that I was fully present at that meal. I was sitting there, I was listening, I was talking. I was eating foods I had chosen from a room-size buffet that were healthy and delicious, with a few indulgent treats thrown in. And when I was full, I stopped eating. I kept talking, enjoying the companionship of my friends. Everything was in balance. I was not worrying about what I had eaten (was it too much or too little?), what I didn’t eat (would I regret not tasting this or that?), I wasn’t feeling deprived, I wasn’t thinking about when I could eat next, I didn’t calculate what caloric or stomach-expanding impact this meal was having on my physical body, I wasn’t worrying about other people judging what I had eaten. Whew. That’s a lot of worries. No wonder brunch used to be such a terrifying prospect. In the past, this checklist of worries and anxieties kept me from being present and enjoying any and all meals. Well, it was bigger than that. It kept me from enjoying life. It nearly took my life. But that’s kind of melodramatic. Let’s just say this is the story of how I learned to eat brunch again.
I’ve been in recovery from anorexia and bulimia for about fifteen years. It all began the summer after my freshman year in college. Well, of course, the causes were in place well before that, but I’ll get to that in a minute. That summer my orthodontist decided that my wisdom teeth were on a crash course with the neat row of teeth he had straightened with two years of braces. These invaders had to come out. So in June I went into the hospital and had them extracted. I was under general anesthesia and after the surgery I heard that my teeth were pretty impacted and that they had to work really hard to get those suckers out. And the battle showed on my face. Swollen chipmunk cheeks, bruising. It took about two months for the swelling to go down. And all summer I couldn’t chew solid food. I remember a lot of tomato soup, gumming grilled cheese sandwiches and lots of ice cream. With no intent on my part, my weight began to drop. When I returned to college in the fall of my sophomore year, I had lost the famed Freshman Fifteen and then some. And even though I could chew solid food again, I began restricting. At the time, I didn’t call it anorexia. No one did, not even the doctor at the college health clinic who declared me healthy at my annual track team checkup, even though I was clearly underweight.
What happened? The aforementioned wisdom teeth were like a fuse to a stick of dynamite. What lit the fuse was a combination of fuels both present and past.
One match for the fuse was when I got back to school, I started to get a lot of compliments from people – that I looked good, did I lose weight – stuff like that – which I remember thinking was odd, as I had always been tall and thin, thanks wholly to genetics inherited from my tall and thin mother. If people were complimenting me on losing weight, did that mean I had needed to lose it? The idea of dieting or being overweight had honestly never crossed my mind – before then.
Society played a role, but I believe the big triggers were from my past. I grew up in a rural community in Maine and going to college, several states away from home, in a “big city,” in a high-powered Ivy League environment was a shock. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in an ocean. Add that to my innate Type A overachieving personality, and I imploded. My sense of self had been built on my scholastic and academic achievements in high school. Now what I was in the “Big Leagues” and everyone around me was as talented, if not more so, I lost myself. I wish I could say I rose to the occasion, faced my fears and fought for my place in this new world. Instead, I retreated inward and anorexia was my pathway.
Why did I fall apart so quickly? One reason was that I did not grow up with a sense of who I truly was. I thought my identity and self worth resided in the sports trophies on the shelf and the straight A’s on the report card - external things. My problem began when I stopped winning the trophies and stopped getting the A’s, I had no way to I define myself. My parents who are wonderful and amazing but also flawed people, never helped me figure out what was great about me on the inside. They were distant people, uninvolved in their kids’ lives. Their philosophy was, and is, that independence makes you strong. They never applauded my successes and they never commented on my failures. That was their way of saying they loved me no matter what. But they didn’t help me figure out what I liked to do, what I enjoyed, what my strengths and weaknesses were, what my own unique qualities were. They didn’t come to my track meets, my theatre debut. I believe they thought their cold detachment was in my best interest, but the result was that it left me without a sense of my identity, apart from my external achievements.
Also, I learned as I became an adult, that there is a history of alcoholism and depression and my family. Perhaps this made me genetically predisposed for some form of self-destructive behavior. More fuel for the fire.
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but by starving myself down to a stick, I was trying to do two things – two things that seem completely opposed. One: I was trying to reduce myself to nothing, take up no space, to be unseen, invisible. I didn’t know who I was, I was completely lost at college – so I just tried to literally disappear. At the same time, the physical impact of the disease screamed to the world: Look at me! Help me!
The message was twofold and my feelings were conflicted as well. When I was anorexic, part of me felt powerful, strong, vibrant, alive. I was in control, I had discipline, I was making powerful decisions for myself. But part of me could see that I was weak, trembling. I was having heart arrhythmias, my period had stopped. I was dying.
Fast forward to the end of school. I stopped running track because my performance suffered due to my low weight. I isolated myself from my classmates and holed up in the library studying as much as possible and eating as little as possible. It sounds miserable and it was.
Even though I had my eating disorder in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it felt like the Dark Ages in terms of awareness. You’ll remember the college doctor who told me I was healthy when I was dangerously underweight. Our school did not have any counseling services for eating disorders. A few friends gently tried to tell me something was wrong. But being just kids themselves, they didn’t’ know what to do. I remember my roommate throwing her Russian vocabulary book across the room at me in frustration – the problem seemed beyond words - in any language. Another friend who had recovered from an eating disorder gave me a stack of self-help books and told me it was too hard to deal with me and that she couldn’t be my friend until I got better. That hurt too but it didn’t move me to change.
I didn’t lose many friends actually, because I didn’t have many to begin with. I missed a great formative part of my life – from the ages of 19-25 I kept company with an eating disorder, not friends or family. The only friends I have from college are the people I met before my eating disorder kicked in. After that, I isolated and made no new friends. I don’t go to college reunions today because I don’t know anyone.
Two adults reached out – my track coach who saw what was happening and required that I meet a certain weight in order to be allowed to practice. This was a pragmatic and effective strategy, for a while. It kept my weight stable and it began to melt my heart. Someone heard my cry for help! Just the act of checking in with someone who cared was a life preserver at that time in my life. My coach even called my parents and told them something was wrong – but they didn’t know what to do, so her alert fell on deaf ears. A concerned aunt dragged me to a nutritionist – but I wasn’t ready to change, so nothing did.
Reflecting back on these people who tried to crack the walls, I’m moved by their bravery and love. I’m grateful for their efforts and for listening to the message my body was trying to communicate – help me! But I truly don’t know if anyone could have made a difference back then. All the love in the world would not change my mindset. My recovery was something I could only do myself.
So if a friend or family member is struggling with this disease, be there for them, tell them things they may not want to hear, buy them books they’ll never read, take them to specialists. They will thank you for this in the future. Knowing someone is there makes a big difference, but it may not cure the disease. They need to do that for themselves.
Once out of school the disease morphed from anorexia to bulimia. I would spend the next four years secretively binging and purging. In an odd way this shift was a blessing, a twisted graduation present of sorts. For me, the change in behaviors was a wake up call. Starving myself was an exercise in not doing. Not eating, not being seen, not living. Anorexia felt monastic, monk like, ascetic. By comparison, bulimia felt like a Shakespearian theatre production. The props were food, the stage was the bathroom, I needed to choreograph my entrances and exits, dancing around my roommates. It was exhausting. Also the change in behaviors – from restricting to binging made my eating disorder seem more real to me – my addled brain registered a difference between skipping dinner and throwing up over a toilet. If I hadn’t turned that corner, ironically, I might not be here today.
Bulimia felt different than anorexia. The feeling of strength and invincibility was replaced with fear. Fear of people finding out, fear of not having control over what I ate, fear that was I was doing was not healthy and being unable to stop. Anorexia was an outward cry for help. When no one listened to that, I guess I tried to talk to myself – bulimia was more of an inward message.
In 1989, I had had enough. I was sick of being isolated, sick of being along, sick of being scared, just plain sick. I called an eating disorder support organization and got a list of therapists in the area. How did I make that call? You hear the stories of people getting superhuman strength to lift a car of someone trapped under it. Making that first call felt like lifting a car of myself. Something I had to do, something that I didn’t know I could do, I didn’t know if I had the strength to do it, and yet, I did it.
But if I analyze it further, it wasn’t such a superhuman feat. Because we are all just people, you and me, and if I could do it, trust me, you can too. It was the culmination of a lot of little steps. I finally looked at the books my friend had gave me in college (the previously mentioned friend who couldn’t watch me self destruct and had to walk away – the happy ending is she is a friend again and one of my oldest and dearest.) They suggested therapy as a possible solution. That planted a seed. The media was talking more and more about eating disorders – maybe what was going on with me had a name, maybe it was a real thing and not just my own private hell. Small awakenings, small awarenesses that there was another way of living. And I wanted it.
I met with three therapists. And after the third interview, I knew I had found someone I could work with. How I found her was a matter of persistence, luck and instinct. The first two people I met didn’t “click” for various reasons. But the third person I met with seemed warm, smart, concerned, calm - not panicked or alarmed (outwardly at least.) I credit that therapist with saving my life. Our work began with food charts and taking tiny baby steps in learning how to feed myself again and to deal with the emotions that food served to cover up for me.
Normalizing my eating was our first task. It was clear this was not going to be a quick or easy fix. We worked on practicing recognizing when I wanted to binge and instead of acting on it right away I tried to sit with my feelings. Just thirty seconds at first. Thirty seconds grew to a minute. Then to five minutes. That grew to taking a walk in the neighborhood when I wanted to binge. Incrementally and over the course of a year the episodes of binging decreased.
My recovery felt like climbing up a very slick icy slope with flat soled tennis shoes. Looking up the mountain, the way up seemed like an impossibly long and steep distance to cover. Trying to climb up, I’d struggle for a foothold on the glass-like surface, and then slide right back down to the bottom.
But after slipping a lot, and being honest with my therapist about my lapses, eventually those footholds at the bottom of the slope got more solid and the grooves became deeper after trying to step in the same place so many times. Slowly, very slowly, I climbed higher on the hard won steps at the bottom of the mountain. It took two years of hard work, but with my therapist’s help, I reined in the destructive behaviors of my eating disorder.
Walking was my great salvation. One of my favorite places to walk was Mount Auburn cemetery. The landscape, the beauty and the trees took me out of the swirling thoughts in my head. Nature always does that for me. I didn’t choose it consciously, but when I think about it now, when I was walking in the cemetery, I was literally treading in the place between life and death. Surrounded by headstones on one side and lush greenery on the other, I had a foot in both worlds, and on those long walks, I ultimately chose to be among the living, not the dead.
Once my eating was normalized, then the work was to deal with what those behaviors were covering up. The irony is that one of the purposes of my eating disorder was to cover up my feelings and emotions. But the work I was doing with my therapist was precisely to uncover those feelings – which triggered eating disorder behaviors to cover them up. Quite a Catch-22.
I remember one session talking with my therapist and she asked me who I was, what I was at the center, at the core. At her invitation, I looked. And what I found was nothing. Just a big, black, deep, dark infinite hole. An abyss of emptiness. I was no one. I had no identity, no personality, nothing I was good at. I could not find one molecule of self love. As you can imagine, this felt pretty awful. I believe this was the rock bottom moment of the whole experience, even more than the physical impact of my eating disorder. I was doing such a great job destroying my physical self because I couldn’t find anything worth saving on the inside.
Where do you go when you think you are nothing? The answer is, you have to go up because you can’t go any farther down. I worked with my therapist to rediscover myself, to learn all those things I should have learned as a kid – who I am, what are my strengths, my weaknesses, where I stop and the world begins, what they call boundary issues.
Discovering who I was started with acknowledging simple things like: I like feeling summer sun on my face. I like to be in nature. Animals make me happy. These were true when I was a kid, they are true now. The key for me was sorting out what I liked and not letting what other people liked or what I thought people wanted me to like enter into the equation.
Next up was owning my emotions – sometimes I am sad, sometimes I am mad, sometimes I am happy – I learned how to sit with those feelings, not push them down. I’ve been at this recovery thing for fifteen years, asked myself a lot of questions and explored a lot of the dark corners of my psyche, but in the end it still boils to answering the same key questions: who am I, what do I like, what am I feeling? When I get in touch with those answers, then I know I’m tapping into my authentic, true self.
What has taken the place of my eating disorder? The disorder was about disengagement from my family, my friends, from my emotions and myself. Now that I’m not pushing those things away, they fill my world. I understand my family dynamics more and while I chose not to communicate with my family for a time during my recovery, now I participate in the family enthusiastically. But my eyes are wide open. I don’t look for things they can’t give. I accept them for who they are. I cherish the deep friendships I have. And I experience my emotions more fully now. I can cry at McDonalds commercials. At a wedding, for get it. At the end of every episode of Grey’s Anatomy I need a tissue at hand. I try to fully inhabit my emotions from happiness to sadness, even anxiety and anger. While it’s scary, I understand that running from emotions is removing myself from life.
My relationship with my body has shifted as well. I was an athlete before this all began. I did use exercise during my eating disorder in an unhealthy and at times obsessive way, but perhaps because I knew the joy of physical exercise before my eating disorder, I was able to find my way back to exercising in a healthy way. I run regularly, I’ve competed in 10K road races and even a marathon. Recently I’ve discovered yoga. Practicing yoga has brought me into my body in a way I’ve never experienced it. Yoga puts you 100% in your body – and parts of your body you never knew you had! I have one teacher who is fond of saying while we are in a complicated balancing pose, what is your inner left heel doing? At which point just thinking about my left inner heel, I lose my concentration and fall over. Yoga teaches me that balance (and I’m talking literally and metaphorically here) is difficult and you have to try and fall, and try again, and when can balance comfortably, push it a bit, explore where you are at, look for your left inner heel and fall, and by this process grow. Yoga also teaches you to focus on yourself. In a roomful of people who are twisting themselves into pretzels, yoga tells you to look inward, to not compare yourself to others but to figure out where you need to be by consulting your own internal compass. And by tapping into your own North Pole, the yoga has tremendous mental benefits – clarity, focus, equanimity. I am constantly translating lessons I learn “on the mat” as yogis are fond of saying, into effective ways of coping with the world.
What I’ve learned about myself as a result of my eating disorder is that I am a strong person. I was a strong person, but I forgot, and climbing out of the pit of my eating disorder reminded me of that. In a way, it is like being reborn. I was watching a piece on TV recently about soldiers with brain injuries who have had to relearn how to walk. One guy used to be a rock climber, he went to Iraq, was paralyzed in an accident and after months of painful physical therapy, was elated because he moved his foot forward one inch. I wondered how could a man who used to scale sheer rock faces find joy in moving his leg an inch? But I know, there is something about relearning how to walk, to live, to eat, to love AGAIN that sharpens your appreciation of those things. The old adage, you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it. Well I’m grateful that I know what I have, because I lost it for a while. I wish you health and strength on your journeys.