I Had an Eating Disorder

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Photo Credit: HealthMadeEasy.com

My topic for this post is one I’ve never before offered to an audience—because it always felt too embarrassing. However, it is a topic that affects too many females (a couple whom I know and care about very much) for me to keep it buried.

I once heard a pastor say that every addiction is an attempt to numb pain. In my case, bulimia was just that. I wanted to bury the pain of depression and a life that had turned sour. It all began one night in 2004 while I was “convalescing” in my first-ever single apartment.

At age nineteen, I had just been released from a mental hospital for depression and a suicide attempt. If not trying to kill myself anymore was any indication of healing, then I guess I was. However, I still thought about killing myself plenty. When not otherwise occupied, I dwelled on death constantly, even looking up quotes about the benefits of suicide and writing them down. This obsession was so great that I had to either find something to numb the pain, or act on the obsession. I found a painkiller. Food. But then, because I also had dangerously low self-esteem that hinged on how closely I measured up to pop culture’s standard of beauty, I needed a way to undo the calories my binging sessions wracked up. I began to purge.

How could someone who is not miserable at the core of her being engage in a behavior as messed up as deliberately overeating and then throwing up? And doing this repeatedly, and with a measure of enjoyment, as if it added benefit to life?

I never planned to start binging and purging, but when life brought me to the breaking point, calling forth all my hidden insecurities, it became easy to do. I had seen some television movies on anorexia and bulimia before; I had even read some novels on the topic in high school, and I remember a lot of other girls in my class reading them, too. You see, even girls who don’t engage in one of these eating disorders are very conscious of them. Most teenage girls, at some point or other, if not throughout their entire teen years, become self-conscious of, or even obsessed with, their bodies. Without even realizing why or how they become so aware of their bodies, teen girls learn to place body in the forefront of their minds; I would dare say they award the body such importance that it becomes powerful enough to either make their lives miserable, if found wanting in some way, or to make life worth living, if they “measure up.”

And the really crappy thing about it is that a lot of teen girls—at least the kind of teen girl I was—don’t feel comfortable talking about this deep pain, so they suffer with it silently. I certainly never made a big thing out of my mammoth feelings of inferiority, but I carried them with me everywhere throughout junior high, high school, and beyond. The times when I did say something about those feelings, I remember being shrugged off or shushed with some simplistic statement like, “You’re not fat,” or, “Oh, you have nothing to worry about.” I don’t remember anyone ever slowing down or taking time to ask me why I felt that way, or what were the deeper issues behind those feelings.

I wonder: Had I mentioned that “I hate myself” or “I think I’m worthless,” would that have gotten more attention? Because these were the real, root issues.

As it was, I couldn’t see the root issues back then–and neither could anyone else. Maybe that’s why being too heavy, or being unattractive, felt like a fate worse than death. When you’ve reduced your expectations for life down to nil, but you’ve agreed to stay alive for other people (but not for yourself), it doesn’t seem such a bad thing to huddle over the toilet seat shoving the handle of your toothbrush at the back of your throat, until you feel the contraction of your throat muscles, the heaving of your stomach, the hot acid of bile as you throw up every last bit of food you enjoyed eating just minutes before.

How can I explain it but to say that since I didn’t have an inner reason to live for myself, life was reduced to outward appearances. If I could get a little joy out of a binge, and then erase the evidence with a purge–that was okay. At least, it was something to do.

Sick as it sounds, this practice was to become a routine for me for the next couple of years. Like my depression, it was to become another dirty little secret. Not until I started getting to the roots—or the underlying negative thoughts—of my behaviors did they start to resolve.

In this post, however, I do not attempt to resolve the problem. I would just ask my readers to think more deeply about what really constitutes an eating disorder. If you are suffering from one, please know that there are issues you need to deal with beyond the behavior. If you are approached by someone with an eating disorder—i.e., they confide in you about an eating disorder or related body insecurities—please don’t shrug them off; the first and greatest service you can do is to listen to her. Try to understand what is going on beneath the behavior. Validate her feelings. And then offer support for getting help.

Note: If you are curious to read why and how I stopped binging and purging, stick around for my series: “My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story.” For more on the power of thoughts, see my post, “Are Your Roots Showing?”

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On Pulling Weeds and Planting Seeds (My Life as a Metaphor)

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My husband planting our garden in 2011 (the same time I was working on photography techniques for the journalism class I taught). Of the family, he’s always been the gardener. But this year I seem to be coming around.

I like writing to my roots, or the metaphor I’ve chosen to guide my blog, because it suggests a narrative that deepens as I go. It means that I don’t have to start with all the deep stuff first, but that I can move more gently to the sources of pain, and the sources of me.

Who says I have to go deep, you may ask? Well, definitely not pop culture or social media, which is oh so surface level.

It’s me (“It is I,” for my fellow English majors) who has chosen to go deep, because I write to heal myself and to help others. I choose to work gradually to my roots of pain and self-protection, because that’s how healing has to happen, and after healing, recovery. Recovery of our dreams, goals, and our true identities. We must take gradual steps.

As we do, we can unmask lies we’ve had about ourselves to finally embrace who we are meant to be. And that’s the point of the blog.

But before I chose Writing to my Roots, I planned to call this endeavor The Before Thirty Project, because that’s how it started. Originally this “project” included two goals in the last months before I turned thirty. Little did I know that these goals would expand as my writing took me deeper, little by little, to my roots—both pleasant and painful. Today I finish a series of three posts on a topic that I used to shun like the unwanted appendage I imagined it to be. Then, back to other topics I’m more comfortable with. I promise.

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When I first vaguely conceived of my project at age twenty-five, I had two goals in mind: earning my master’s degree and publishing a book. It was probably my incessant talking about these grandiose goals, in fact, that had my high school students so frequently asking, “Are you ever going to have kids?”

The junior and senior girls would look at me in disbelief when I shrugged, “Probably not.”

For some of them, having kids was the goal of life.

But when they said things like this, I was the one fighting back disbelief.

Really girls? I thought. What was so glamorous and good about having babies?

Of course, being in a high school environment where numerous girls got pregnant each year, it was easy to disparage their dreamy looks and words. Terrible! We teachers said. Teenage girls getting pregnant! What a waste! What unnecessary hardship!

For a teenage mom, of course, it is an unnecessary hardship. To this day I would never advocate teen girls—or any female who is not married—getting pregnant.

But once a girl finishes high school…once she gets married…

Until recently, I still couldn’t advocate it. Not for myself. And honestly, not for anyone else. As my twenty-something girlfriends got pregnant one by one, it felt as if they were betraying me, one by one. How selfish, I know.

Because I couldn’t have this happiness (rather, couldn’t understand it as happiness), they shouldn’t either. Really, I would be doing us all a favor to save us from the inevitable heartache that must come with kids.

For seven years I told myself I didn’t want kids. Too much risk. Too much time that could be better spent elsewhere. Why risk such a hefty investment when you didn’t know what you were going to get? Never mind potential birth defects. What about angry children who decided to write you off because you screwed up their lives?

Today I can look back at sentiments like these more objectively. They don’t seem normal, or rational, or healthy, like I once stubbornly insisted they were. (My husband would just give me that same look I got from my girl students: You’re messed up.)

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Maybe it was a problem with the kind of kid I had become over the years. Bitter. Angry. Sad. Detached.

I was not bringing any particular blessings to my parents’ lives. I had moved so far away from them that it was not strange to go almost a year between visits. At various points, I had barricaded myself from contact. Didn’t want a lot of contact, because contact hurt. It just all hurt so much—family visits, photo albums, phantom memories—that why would I ever want to perpetuate it?

Through writing and other miracles, God has taken me to a place where I’ve realized none of my self-protections can keep me safe or healthy. More than indicating a kind of logic, all my excuses, denials, and exercises in becoming numb indicate a sad existence. The guardedness (to the degree that I’ve had it) is not laudable; it’s lamentable. Would that we women could be smart about our choices—with healthy boundaries that keep us from getting pregnant when we shouldn’t (right, Kim Kardashian?)—but that allow us to be open to any possibility, should God suggest it to us.

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After eight years of marriage, He has suggested it. And now I’m open. At this point, a baby could definitely be part of the “before thirty project,” if God wants it to be. That is to say, I’ve removed the barriers. I can conceive of getting pregnant. It’s up to God if I really will conceive. But if not, I’m okay with that, too. My being open to the possibility is the real growth—more meaningful than a baby bump could ever be.

Whew. Now that I’ve made some real progress with this root, I’m putting it to rest for awhile. (I’ll let you know if anything develops.)

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