Sunday, November 10, 2013

13 Years out...My Recovery From An Eating Disorder

My mom was the one who figured it out. That seems to be the way a lot of the time -  moms just know things. My teeth were the giveaway. During summer break after my freshman year at Cal, mom had made an appointment for my yearly dental exam, and I came back with 9 new cavities. She'd noticed some suspicious things before - making big meals, long trips to the bathroom, fluctuating weight, crazy emotional outbursts, but before the trip to the dentist, nothing was too out of the ordinary for an 18 year old girl. But that one did it. Massive tooth decay is one of the biggest indicators of bulimia, and I was deep in the throes of that awful eating disorder.
image from factsheet on bulimia

Mom immediately confronted me with what she suspected, started following me around, keeping an eye on what I ate and trying to convince me to go to therapy. I refused, thinking that it wasn't that big of a deal to stop. After all, it'd only been 6 months...maybe 8...actually, I couldn't remember then, and still don't, exactly how quickly I fell into disordered eating once I left my parents house, but I think it was pretty quickly.

I had been living in a boarding house for girls at the time, on Haste St. in Berkeley, right at the edge of Frat Row. The house was generally considered a training ground for sororities, and boy, did the ladies there act like it. I'd never considered half of the grooming habits they had, nor the amount of shopping that many did, and I definitely couldn't keep up with the partying and flirtations. There was a smaller contingent of women there who weren't interested in the greek life, and probably would have been excellent friends had I been smarter about life in general, but I wasn't. I aspired to the beauty of the sorority types, with their perfect skin and expensive wardrobe, and most of all their thin toned bodies.
The White House in Berkeley

I signed up almost immediately for the campus athletic center and worked out there frequently, hating every second of it. I often ate nothing but salad in front of others, which left me feeling hungry all the time, so I kept a stash of cookies and chips and other snacks in the closet of my 4-person room, and would lock myself in there and eat and eat and eat...and of course, gain weight and feel ashamed. At some point I realized that if I just vomited everything up, the weight gain part would be solved! It felt like enlightenment - I could have my cake, but not have to actually eat it! What began as a once-a-week type of deal quickly turned into an all encompassing way of life, with control of food being at the center. I started smoking, trading myself a cigarette or two for a meal. I woke up thinking about food - literally. I would be thinking about what I planned to eat for dinner even before I realized I was awake. Occasionally I thought about getting help, mostly at moments when my addiction to purging landed me in awful dirty public bathrooms, but I was sure that purging was the only thing that was going to give me a chance to fit in, and getting help meant stopping, so I never did.
Getting ready to go out at The White House, in the body I felt was too fat

Until, of course, that summer, when mom took it on herself to get me well. She knew, though I didn't, that it would be a much tougher road to walk than just "stopping." I managed alright over the summer, when I was at home and away from my biggest insecurities, but once I went back to school in the fall, I fell apart. Without my coping mechanisms (awful though they may have been), I was a wreck. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat (but I couldn't not eat), I couldn't bring myself to socialize, I just laid in bed and cried, or stared off into space, wishing for the oblivion of sleep but not finding peace there was the hardest time I've ever experienced in my life, still to this day. About a month into my sophomore year, I finally begged for help, and within 24 hours, my mom was there with me. She took me to a psychiatrist on my 19th birthday, and I started the antidepressants that probably saved my life that very day. The best, and worst, birthday present I could have gotten.

Mom helped me find a therapist as well, a wonderful woman named Allison who taught me how to talk, how to listen to myself, and how to finally just be me. Of course, we had to give 4 or 5 awful therapists a trial run, which just made things worse, but unfortunately, that seems to be how it goes - I don't know anyone who has found their perfect match straight off the bat. We tried support groups, too, but those felt more like the "thinspo" stuff you see now on the internet - a bunch of people shaming each other and sharing secrets about how to hide an eating disorder, so Allison and Paxil it was. Allison taught me how to purge in a different, healthy way - through writing, and through talking out my feelings. Over the course of the year and a half I saw her, we worked through many of my darkest demons - fear of abandonment, of not meeting high expectations, or not being pretty enough or cool enough or good enough to deserve love. All the things that so many women struggle with, but don't know how to manage.

My diary..entry dated 2/7/2000

I, of course, fought with relapses into disordered eating, and replaced one bad habit with others. For years, I would calm my post-meal nausea with cigarettes, rationalizing it by saying that at least the cigarettes weren't going to kill me now the way that bulimia would have. I lost most of my friends in my struggle, because trying to keep a secret this big makes you pretty antisocial, and therapy requires opening up old wounds, which doesn't make it easy to be rational or empathetic to others. I tried several fad diets to keep my weight down, and briefly flirted with the idea of financing some secret plastic surgeries, or getting myself a prescription for appetite suppressants...but luckily, I always turned to someone I trusted before doing so. Often, it was my mother, but nearly as often, I told Ross. He was a rock through all of it. We met about 4 months before I started my recovery, and he stuck with me through the depression and craziness that followed.

I'm not sure exactly when I really truly felt "recovered." It definitely wasn't before the day that my psychiatrist told me I could stop taking Paxil, without mentioning that it can causes severe withdrawal if you don't phase it out, and I ended up in the ER. It wasn't before I left Cal to transfer to SDSU, and I definitely was still fighting the good fight when Ross and I broke up. I battled with bulimia during the flu (is it ok to go throw up, or am I going to slide back?), when too drunk (same thing), at weddings with buffets (how much food is too much? Am I still hungry? Or do I just want it because there's so much?) But at some point, it moved from the front of my thoughts to the back, and then finally to that place where I only struggle on the worst of days, and even then, I have confidence that I'll get through anything without purging. I was able to find myself beautiful in many different ways - when I got my back tattoo, the first time I dyed my hair dark, wearing vintage dresses to teach in my own classroom, being blond in Italy, doing nude self-portraits. I worried that pregnancy would bring this all back up for me, and in some ways it did - I was nauseous for months, and hungry for even longer. But I also loved my body, and what it was creating, and so it didn't matter so much.

Fat and Happy

I'd recovered, as much as you ever can from something as difficult as an eating disorder, and I thank the universe every day for my mother, who knew how to lead me out of those woods. I'll never be without the scars of my choices and my illness - I've had 30+ fillings and will likely need dentures much younger than most, and I destroyed my esophagus, so I have to take medication daily so that digestion isn't painful. But those things now serve as daily reminders to me of what could have been, and of how grateful I am to be my mother's daughter.

Mom and me, happy as can be

Today, I am thankful for my mother (obviously), old photo albums, my husband's innate ability to know where things like old photo albums are, pancakes, and the blanket we have on the couch that my mom crocheted out of Ross' and my handfasting scarf.


  1. Hello, just found your blog through NaBloPoMo! Thank you so much for sharing your story- you can give hope to moms whose daughters go through the same thing and I think, as bloggers, we can do a great deal of good by sharing problems and struggles! Good luck with #NaBloPoMo!

    1. Thanks Olga! I hope someone gets hope from this - I know the whole thing makes me feel very hopeful, not just that I can recover from almost anything, but that others can too.

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  3. I am sure it took courage to open on a blog about this, well done! Please keep the posts coming.

  4. I applaud you and appreciate your frankness. In addition to the strength you must now feel as a parent and "recovered", you contribute to others' potential for understanding their own appetite demons. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Julie, I sure hope you're right! It's a hard thing to be open about, but the more open I am, the more other young people might get to know that there's a light at the end of that awful tunnel.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I know it took a lot of courage to write it, then edit it, and then to publish it! You are amazing. This one brought me to tears, seeing what it took to stop the vicious cycle (awesome Mommy love), and that you never, ever gave up. Girl, you walk that talk! xoxo

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  7. My mom is bulimic and even after gastric bypass surgery still struggles with it. I applaud your mom for being such a rock for you. I haven't struggled with an eating disorder, but I have struggled with other things and I was never taught how to see myself in a realistic light (my mom didn't know how). I am so glad things got better for you! Thanks for sharing.

  8. A lesson about where true beauty comes from...we all have it and sometimes we just have to search for it. With the support of our loved ones, we can all find it.