Pulling back the curtain and letting you see the (wo)man behind the Wizard of Oz is not an easy step for me. Owning my story, especially the part in which I developed an eating disorder, is truthfully, one of the hardest things I have ever faced. I say this having lived through two Category 4+ hurricanes, one of which resulted in losing all of my belongings, so please trust that is not an exaggeration.
My truth is no longer something I choose to hide. I choose to embrace it and share the lessons I have learned from it in hope of helping others who feel they are facing these struggles alone.
You are NOT alone.
Relief was the feeling that came over me the first time I binged and purged, the latter of which took place in the bathroom of my college dorm freshman year. The rush of endorphins to my brain was a welcomed escape from the uncertainty and insecurity surrounding me at the time. However, this high would unleash a demon that would haunt me for over a decade.
College was something I had looked forward to for years. I anticipated it would be my moment to shine. I wasn’t the most popular in high school, but I also wasn’t a social outcast. The area in which I excelled was academics. So, adolescent me assumed that getting into an academically prestigious school would allow me the opportunity to finally fit in – not just pretend to fit in so the masses would not question whether or not I belonged. I arrived at my alma mater in my rose colored glasses (in the form of Ray Bans I blew some graduation money on), ready to take on the world.
That energetic optimism quickly dwindled, as I felt once again that I didn’t measure up to various circles of friends I attempted to fit in with. The first month it was the hippie crew who went to jam band festivals once a month and smoked weed after every class. I bought some festival chic clothes and despite hating the feeling of being high, I partook for fear of being labeled a square. Once it occurred to me that this was not working out that well, I transitioned to the socialites. I did not come from money so although I enjoyed their company, it wasn’t possible to keep up with this group’s attire, activities and lifestyle in general. I felt like the poor, unfashionable loser that they took pity upon. They did not actually think that, but it was just another case of me going to the worst possible scenario. This is where I lived and breathed at 18.
Suffice it to say I didn’t know who I was, what my values were, or what I wanted in life. I drifted from one group to the next, hoping someone or something external would help to define me. Subsequently, I was unable to determine where I fit in because that required sitting back, being myself, and seeing with who I truly connected. That scared the sh*t out of me.
The first time it happened was in December. Finding myself gorging on Chinese takeout while cramming for finals was not out of the norm for a weekday evening, but this time I took it too far. I felt physically ill and uncomfortable but I kept eating as if each lift of the fork was a running stride away from my emotions. Alone… take a bite. Unloved… swallow. Weak… another bite. Invisible… swallow. I felt tears forming but I blinked rapidly as I continued to eat and eat, petrified of actually feeling my way through these dark emotions. Finally, in a moment that felt almost out-of-body, I ran to the bathroom and threw everything up. It felt cathartic. It felt freeing. It felt like the ugliness inside me was gone. If only I knew then how temporary that relief was. I would quickly behave like an addict, waiting for my next hit of dopamine and endorphins after an emotionally driven binge.
I should note that the root of my eating disorder was planted long before I ever went to college, but this is when the monster growing inside me reared its ugly head. I binged and purged almost daily, my weight fluctuated, my grades slipped, I slept poorly and I began to acquire debt from all the food I was buying. This went on for almost a year.
During a long Thanksgiving weekend with my family, my secret was exposed. My cousin had picked up on my pattern of going to the bathroom almost immediately after eating. To this day, I am eternally grateful for having someone in my life who cared more about my well-being than they did about the potential negative consequences of rocking the boat. She shared her concerns, and my parents confronted me about the issue shortly after they witnessed the pattern for themselves.
I will never forget the look on my mom’s face when she stood outside my bathroom waiting for me. It was my childhood home and suddenly I felt completely unprotected and unsafe. I felt like Cinderella at the moment when the glass carriage turns back into a pumpkin and the beautiful gown transforms into tattered rags. My image was discovered for what it was: a mirage. Smoke and mirrors.
My mom cried, my dad paced back and forth. The threats of pulling me out of school began streaming out, and my defenses flew up. “I can handle it,” “I’ll take care of it,” “You don’t pay for school so you can’t control me,” “This is MY life”… a few of the reactions I remember spouting. The whole conversation is a blur, but the end result was me driving back to college after New Year’s with no idea how to tackle my eating disorder.
Ridding my apartment of junk food was my first logical step, but this did not eliminate the urge to drive to Wendy’s or max out my school meal card at the student union. I needed to find another coping mechanism to turn to when my stress and anxiety were through the roof. It felt like trying to break a cycle made of steel with will power made of feathers. Exam week, break ups (if you can call no longer talking to someone you flirted with for a couple months in Psych a break up… slightly neurotic 19 year old me did), and going home to face my family during school breaks all triggered an episode, if not multiple.
I wish I could say the issue ended after college or once I stopped purging every single day. As I got older I developed more self-control, but the stress got worse as the stakes got higher. The threat of losing your job when you’re 100% financially dependent on yourself is a little more stress inducing than getting a C on a quiz. I went on to have anywhere from 2-30 incidents per year. I lied about my progress during this time for fear of more judgment, threats, and worst of all, shame.
I don’t consider sporadic episodes, no matter how infrequent, a sign of being healed. I don’t think anyone who wants to be healthy and free from the physical and emotional shackles of an eating disorder, should.
My turning point came when I also decided to face my dependence on external validation. The two are intertwined in so many ways that I couldn’t cling to one while conquering the other. There I was… 30 years old, sleeping under my parents’ roof, scared to check my bank statements, and avoiding my reality at all costs. I needed my friend to tell me that I was brave. I needed to believe in myself, what I was capable of, and what I was worth.
I made a choice to put my health first because if I didn’t have that, what’s the point?
I needed a little push when I started, motivation that would keep me going when I felt the temptation to turn to my self-destructive habit. This led me to doing some research. For someone who Googled the most ridiculous topics for hours, I had not so subtly avoided the one subject matter I was not ready to face. Within minutes of my search, I was horrified. I was already well aware of the threat of early menopause and facial disfigurement. These gave me pause, but the reality of potential infertility and even DEATH certainly woke me up to what I was doing to myself.
Our time on Earth is not a dress rehearsal, and I was playing Russian Roulette with that time.
The mountain ahead of me was the preliminary need to heal mentally and emotionally before I had any hope of controlling the physical coping mechanism. I had to build a solid foundation to stand on when as I learned to work through the negative emotions, develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety and ultimately take control of the disorder.
I will share the ways in which I worked on my mental and emotional state which allowed me to end my struggle with ED once and for all. It took hard work to build my emotional muscle. Strength takes time. It takes effort. But every moment of strain and discomfort is worth it.
The first step was owning my problem and deciding to take control. I had allowed myself to be in the passenger seat of a car I should have been driving, that car being my life. Letting go was frightening and seemed excruciatingly daunting at the outset. I gained weight, I was forced to feel my emotions and face long buried issues that I had worked tirelessly to suppress. However, choosing to live, making the choice and knowing intrinsically that I had the power to heal, is what I know will ultimately keep me on an evolutionary path of healing.
I will not just survive anymore. I will LIVE with purpose and I will thrive.