Eating Disorder Stories: Jessica (Bulimia)
“I was always a high achiever”
I often spend time thinking about why and how this happens to us- how does that number on the scale, that extra inch of flesh on the thighs, become the one and only measure of our self-worth? What makes us violate ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally for the sake of being “thin”?
Let me tell you my story. I thought that I had recovered from bulimia for a short while with therapy (close to a year), but it has started again, and I am facing a recovery process that seems almost insurmountable at times.
I have never been really overweight. Actually, I haven’t really grown much in any direction since I was about 14. I am 5 feet tall and weigh about 114 pounds. I wear a size 6 petite. As with many women with eating disorders, my problem had less to do with weight and more to do with the impossible standards I set for myself. If I happen to lose 5 pounds, then I will not accept weighing anything higher than 109, and if I lose more weight….well, you can see where this is headed. Nothing is ever good enough. Please trust me when I tell you, the eating disorder is always a manifestation of something else.
No one would ever suspect that I have been battling with bulimia since I was about 16 (I am now 24), unless I told them. There are a few trusted people in my life who I have confided in. The rest….well let’s just say that I have become (and I’m sure you all know exactly what I’m talking about) a great master of the cover-up. Frequently used excuses for my swollen eyes and face after eating a meal in a restaurant with friends include “oh, these damn contact lenses have been giving me SO much trouble lately”, and “I think that fish may have been a little undercooked, I’m not feeling so well”. I have a master’s degree in microbiology, so I can actually give specific reasons why the fish may have made me sick, thus increasing my credibility. But enough humor.
I was always a high achiever. In high school, I was known as “the girl who could do everything” and “most likely to succeed”. People were always telling me how lucky I was- but I never really saw it that way. I still don’t. My view of myself is always in terms of what I am not, what I haven’t accomplished- a sum of my failures, instead of a sum of my successes.
The bulimia started somewhere in the beginning of high school, but my preoccupation with weight started a few years before that. My concern with weight was (and I think this is true for most people) really a sum of other people’s influences, most notably my mother’s. I think that weight, appearance, and overall self-worth was an issue that troubled my mother for most of her life, so she was determined out of love to prevent that from happening with me (she was, as long as I can remember, 5 feet tall and about 105 pounds). Unfortunately, this “determination” took the form of severe criticism when clothes shopping (“Look at your thighs. You are a pretty young girl and you shouldn’t be walking around with thighs like that”), at the dinner table (“you must really be hungry to have another spoonful of rice”), and at the worst times, making me weigh myself in front of her when I told her I didn’t think I had gained any weight. Much to my chagrin, my extended family still jokes about the portions my mother used to dole out for me at Thanksgiving dinner (enough food to fill a thimble).
In the beginning, I kept my weight in control by running and restricting foods. Running 6 times a week didn’t seem like something abnormal to me- my father was a marathon runner (at age 52 he still continues to run races, kayak, bike, etc.). I still don’t think there is anything wrong with running 5-6 times a week- if you do it to empower yourself, to relieve stress, to improve your overall state of mind. Exercising just to burn calories only serves to drain your energy away.
So I lost some weight- maybe I was down to about 107. But you can’t live on rice cakes and cottage cheese, and steamed broccoli forever. I found myself really, really craving cake and cookies, and other “forbidden” foods. And for good reason- we all need to have a cookie now and then!! But the minute that cookie passed through my lips, the guilt, the self-criticism, and the fear would kick in. “Oh my God, I am going to weigh 109 tomorrow if I keep eating these cookies.” “How can you do this, you pig?” I would ask myself. “You worked so hard to lose the weight, and now you’re just going to throw it all away because you’re lazy and you have no self-control?”
I still hear that voice now. That’s when the bulimia began. It was the only way to relieve the anxiety of digesting that cookie. I can’t say that in high school I ever vomited a meal that was worth more than 500 calories. Again, it had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with me.
I started college that fall at my first-choice school, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. Looking back, going there was wonderful for my academic career but impending doom for my eating disorder. Hopkins is a very rigorous place where students are hyper-motivated and held to very, very high standards (can you see where this is going?). People are so competitive about getting A’s, either to secure professional school admissions or prestigious international internships, that it is considered respectable to spend every Friday night in the library studying (yuck!). Looking back on those years make me very, very sad. I see a bright and wonderful girl weighed down by vicious self-criticism. Sometimes it surprises me that I managed to get through my classes alone considering all the energy lost to bulimia and weight-obsession.
I finally realized that I needed help five years later, shortly before my master’s program. It was at a time in my life when I was very anxious about the present and the future. I had just completed an unsuccessful round of applications to medical school and was dealing with a very stressful personal relationship. My mother was not happy about the fact that I would not be attending medical school the following fall, and it seemed like all our conversations centered around this fact.
Anyway, I was at a retreat in the mountains of West Virginia with my new classmates and professors in my graduate department. It should have been a joyous time, a time to meet new people and find out about the exciting research that my future mentors and advisors were doing. Instead, I spent most of the time worrying about my caloric intake-since I had little to no “control” over what food we were served at the lodge (“You mean you don’t have egg-beaters here?”). Instead of sitting around the fireplace with my new friends, playing games and telling our life stories, I was hunched over the toilet, unable to expel those last stubborn morsels of food. When I woke up the next morning, my eyes were swollen and my skin had tiny red spots from where the blood vessels had broken under the pressure of so much vomiting. I knew I needed help. I wanted my life back.
So I began counseling at a center that, in retrospect, focused more on the pathology of the eating disorder itself, and less on the overall place of the disorder in my life and my way of thinking. Of course, the counseling would have been much more helpful if I had allowed it to do so, if I had allowed myself to let go of the patterns of thinking that got me there in the first place. I forced my way of thinking onto the therapy, instead of opening myself up and letting go. With this in mind, I can easily figure out why I am still struggling.
I’ve learned an important lesson. Though the physical manifestations of an eating disorder might taper or disappear (vomiting, using laxatives, restriction, etc.)- if the disordered thinking remains, than the disorder remains. I thought I was all-better because the vomiting had stopped. I lied to my therapist about the fact that I still weighed myself every day and did not stick to the “normal diet” that they prescribed for me. I’m sure you all feel the same way when you look at that “normal diet”- how can I possibly eat like that! I’m sure to gain weight! I kept telling myself that I didn’t have to stick to everything my therapist told me because, after all, nobody knows me better than me.
One year has passed since that time, and I have once again realized that I need help. This time, it’s not from the physical discomfort of vomiting all the time. This past Saturday, I woke up and realized what a beautiful day it was. I was looking forward to the fun weekend ahead, time to spend outside walking around Washington, DC with my partner (who, God bless him, has been so wonderfully supportive) and enjoying life. I felt like I could do anything and be anything.
Then I stepped on the scale.
“117! How could this be?” (I happened to be at the peak of menses at the time) “I can’t wear any of my clothes now!”
“How can we go out to dinner with our friends when I need to get back on a diet?”
“How could I let myself turn back into a disgusting fat pig again?”
The horrible things I say to myself over and over and over and over and over again, until they are so ingrained in my self-perception that I can’t see the truth anymore.
WE ALL OWE IT TO OURSELVES TO SET OURSELVES FREE!
As an apotheosis, I would really like to recommend a book that has changed my perception of myself, as a strong, feminine spirit. It is called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and it is written by a truly wonderful physician and healer, Dr. Christiane Northrup. I guarantee that this book will help you change the way you think and feel about yourself-for the positive. One of her favorite teaching models is a slide comparing the anatomy of men’s and women’s bathing suits. The women’s bathing suit has several arrows pointing to it, indicating those features that “slim the tummy”, “lift the rear”, “lengthen the torso”, “pad the bust”, and “cinch the waist”. The only notable feature of the men’s bathing suit is the waistband, which serves to “hold the suit up”. It helps to realize that many of our struggles are rooted in our society-and that we owe it to our daughters and granddaughters to break this cycle.
One of Dr. Northup’s fabulous exercises to improving self-esteem is to look at yourself in the mirror everyday (I know it sounds a little hokey!) and say “I accept myself AS I AM, RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT”. The first few times I did this, that voice in my head would say “but you can’t accept yourself. There’s an extra 3 pounds on your ass”. My goal for recovery is to learn where those voices are coming from- and TUNE THEM OUT.
And just remember: