Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What we are talking about when we talk about living with eating disorders

"Return: The Turning Point" was painted in the first year of my recovery from bulimia and anorexia. My blog isn't specifically about eating disorders, but I do mention my experience with them from time to time. This post and accompanying slideshow are inspired by Nicole who has been recovering from bulimia and anorexia for 18 months. Her blog shows that recovery from eating disorders is possible, and that it is not an easy road for any of us. Each of us has a different story, but we all have much in common in recovery as we find peace with food and with ourselves. Nicole's photos from her years of living with eating disorders and her recovery inspired me to put this slideshow together. I believe I may have been born with an eating disorder. 

 My perception is that eating disorders are not about what a person weighs but about a person's difficult relationship with food. When I was a baby, my first word was not "mama" or "dada." My first word was "cookie." I was what was called a "picky eater." It has occurred to me that it is likely that my mother gave me cookies because they were something that I would eat. I recall that many foods made me feel like vomiting, but I was always told to "at least take a bite." I remember my grandmother commenting to my mother when I was about 3 years old that I was "spoiled" because I wouldn't eat an egg she had cooked for me. My mother would give me only the yolk, because egg whites made me gag. I have many early childhood memories of craving sugar, of sneaking food, of hiding food, and of having adults force me to eat foods that made me gag. I clearly remember being photographed at 2 years old in the first photo in the slideshow. My perception of myself at 2 years old, while that photo was being taken, was that I was a "bad" girl. I tried so hard to be a "good" girl but just couldn't meet the expectation. "Bad" girls were spanked, and I didn't want to be spanked. 

I went on my first "diet" when I was 10 years old. I was not overweight, just taller than my peers and weighed more than anyone else in my 5th grade class, except for one friend who was shorter than I was and noticeably overweight. We went on a diet together. She ate only 1 apple and a cup of coffee a day and lost weight, and returned to normal eating as far as I knew, and didn't regain the weight. I wonder, though, if she went on suffer from eating disorders. Girls aren't overweight at 10 years old for no reason. I didn't lose any weight at that time because I couldn't stay on a diet. At 12 years old, I looked as if I were 16 years old. I kept trying one diet or another, thinking I was overweight. I wasn't. My weight would go up and down about 5 pounds. I became bulimic when I was 17 years old. My goal, beginning at age 17, was to lose 20 pounds. I did that once in 1970, becoming a borderline anorexic but returned to being a bulimic at a normal weight. 

When I was 21 years old, my boyfriend teased me that I had a "double chin." I vowed to lose weight and get rid of that "double chin." My dieting, binging and vomiting, continued throughout my 20s and early 30s. As you can see in the slideshow, my face and neck became swollen after throwing up regularly. I thought the swelling was "fat," and that only made me more convinced that I needed to keep throwing up to lose weight. Going back to college at age 30 made the bulimia worse. At 35 years old, I began to descend into anorexia again. 

At 37 years old, I met a group of women who were recovering from eating disorders. I was at a normal weight, the same weight I had been at 17 years old. Most of the women were noticeably overweight. There was one woman, bulimic and anorexic, who had stopped throwing up six months previously and was at a normal weight. She was my role model as I began my recovery from bulimia and anorexia. When I look through the photos in the slideshow, the change in me that began when I was 37 years old still astonishes me. I did not go through eating disorder treatment. I did not take any of the prescription medications that are routinely prescribed to people with eating disorders. 

What happened was that I had a role model for recovery, and I completely stopped eating trigger foods, i.e., any food that I couldn't stop eating once I started eating it. Alcohol was one of those foods. I could stop at one drink, but then I could not stop eating from the craving that the alcohol caused. That craving is a classic sign of a real alcoholic. Nobody told me to stop eating trigger foods. It was my decision. I found that there were plenty of foods that I loved that didn't trigger craving. I found that I could eat much more food than I had ever eaten since I was 10 years old, and I didn't gain weight. 

My 50s were difficult years for reasons besides eating disorders. PTSD from the Vietnam War era caught up with me, and my sense of well-being was shaken to the core. I don't think I would have survived those years if I had been dealing with an active eating disorder. A friend of mine who had an active eating disorder during those years suffered a disabling stroke as a result. 

The last photo shows how I look now. I look 62 years old and am grateful to have good health and nearly 25 years of freedom from something that took over my life for 27 years. I doubt that anyone can recover from eating disorders in isolation. Nicole is hosting a blog that gives those of us with eating disorders a place to visit and know that we are not alone. I am much older than most of the visitors to Nicole's blog, but I can relate to much of what they say about themselves and their experiences. In 1987, I was fortunate to find a small group of people in recovery in Bellingham. Those people were the key to my recovery. With Nicole's blog, one of many groups of people is forming on the internet to share diverse experiences with eating disorders and to share recovery. 

My creative energy is going into writing this post today. I've been working on this since about 5 a.m., and it is after 1 o'clock now. It took some time to scan the old photos from a photo album, crop them, and then to create a slideshow on Flickr. In this photo, I'm holding my hair up to see what I look like that way. I usually wear it down, or I wear a hat. I like being 62 years old, even on the days that are challenging. May all bulimics and anorexics be relieved of suffering.


Anonymous said...

I'm learning so much about life with an eating disorder from Nicole's blog. I very much admire the honesty with which you both tell your stories. It is very encouraging for those people who suffer today.

Thank you for stopping by my blog!


The Solitary Walker said...

I too admire and appreciate your honesty, am.

At the risk of sounding a little objectively clinical here, the whole subject of eating — and the customs, rituals, cultures, etiquettes, psychologies, pleasures, pains and embarrassments associated with it — I find absolutely fascinating. Though I suspect 'fascinating' is hardly the first word that comes to mind from someone suffering from a chronic eating disorder, so apologies if I seem to be riding roughshod over anyone's feelings here. I do have someone within my own family with a long-term eating disorder, so I do know the repercussions.

Thanks for this intimate and informative post — and for the photo!

Unknown said...

wow. it's early afternoon on a wednesday, and i am so very moved, so very respectful, so very much in awe.

snap snap snap (in a coffee shop, 1960s sort of way), showing my extreme, heartfelt gratitude for an artist who has spoken, having demonstrated her beautiful life's work.

thank you for including me in your journey. i am preparing a "re-blog" of this article, and i expect to publish it on thursday. you are a very beautiful woman, exbulimic at that, and i am so very honoured to have crossed your beautiful brain and heart during your composition of this beautiful post. thank you. you are SUCH an inspiration. and now i am smiling. xxx

Ruth said...

I, too, am moved and deeply affected by your story, am. You are beautiful and resplendent; your spirit really glows through the photos, your treatment of them, the story itself. What you have created out of your pain is beauty, and this is an inspiration. I am sorry, very sorry, for your pain, however. Thank you for telling about it, for showing me who you are.

It's lovely to meet you (via Robert).

Anonymous said...

Such poignancy and pain; beauty and recovery. Quite moving documentation of your struggle. In each photo, I see someone determined to claim herself. There is a lot of pain, but incredible strength as well.

am said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for commenting on my blog! I have learned so much from the commenters on Nicole's blog, both those with eating disorders and those who are learning about this from the perspective of those who have eating disorders.

Solitary Walker -- It is fascinating to me, too. I am finding Nicole's forum to be a refreshing living resource for anyone who has an eating disorder or has a family member or friend with an eating disorder.

Nicole -- I can't thank you enough for the work you are doing to bring light to a subject that has been too long in the hands of well-meaning professionals. After reading the comments on your blog (and by following links to other blogs) about what happened to so many young women who have been in and out of eating disorder treatment centers, I am grateful that treatment centers didn't exist in 1987 when I needed help for bulimia and anorexia.

There must be some eating disorder treatment centers that don't force a bulimic or anorexic person to eat foods that are unhealthy for them, and so I don't want to bad-mouth all those professionals who are trying to understand and help us.

It was my experience, though, that what helped me most was talking with an ex-bulimic, asking what she did, and figuring out what I could to stop in my own way. Completely bypassing expensive eating disorder treatment worked for me.

"To each his own / It's all unknown."
(Bob Dylan)

am said...

Ruth -- Thanks for visiting, Ruth! I've appreciated your comments at Robert's blog for some time now.

The way I look at it is that the worst part of my life is over. The pain of that time is in the past. I am grateful to have found a way out.

robin andrea -- Thank you always for your way of seeing.