I was seven when I first realized that something was wrong with me. To my shameful horror (and sometimes wicked delight), I’d become a food bandit. I was skilled in the art of sneaking cookies and hiding chocolate under my bed. The fact that my younger sister could eat one bite of anything and leave the rest was some kind of witchcraft. My hunger was the kind that went beyond food—an empty, aching, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. And I continued to feed it, but by fifth grade, my body couldn’t keep up with what I was shoving down. I spent the next ten years in a secret cycle of bingeing and restricting while my weight—not so secretly—began to climb. My last year of high school, I got fed up with being fat. Gleefully, I flung open the lid to Pandora’s box and beheld the world of crash diets and extreme exercise. In three months, I downsized back within acceptable social norms. As my fun reward, boys and pervy old men began harassing me. For the next two years, I maintained a ‘healthy’ weight thanks to a brutal tug of war between my binges and exercise/restrictive eating. By sophomore year of college, I’d completely withdrawn into my illness, isolating and spending 95% of my energy obsessing over my body and food.
Then one morning while my alarm blared in my ears, I found myself frozen in bed. I had to be in class in 45 minutes but a voice was screaming, “No, I won’t go through this again! Not one more god damned day!” All the pressure of trying to be perfect, not only with my body but with school, my music aspirations, friends, and family…it came tumbling down on me like an avalanche. And I lay there buried under the rocks wondering, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Well here’s the punchline—I didn’t even know I had an eating disorder. I’d never lost enough weight to call myself anorexic, and aside from extreme exercise, I’d never purged. At the time, there wasn’t much talk about ED’s that fall outside the well-known ABC’s (Anorexia, Bulimia, and Compulsive Eating) Compulsive eating, I’d heard about maybe once, but in my mind, that was a group for fat ladies retired from the circus.
When I discovered (through a lot of research in books and online) that I did, in fact, have an ED, it was a triumphant revelation because at least now I had a name for the hunger. And the fact that it had a name meant I wasn’t the only one. I didn’t have to carry around my awful, soul-crushing secret anymore, and sweet relief couldn’t come too soon. But getting to that first meeting…you might as well have asked me to hurl myself into an angry volcano. I tried to go and bailed three times before I tiptoed into my first support group while fighting a panic attack. I didn’t say anything, but I’d never been more relieved than when I heard other people speak the words that could have come straight from my own journal. They lied about their eating and exercise to family and friends. They snuck food in the middle of the night, exercised until they nearly passed out, hated their bodies, bought clothes that were too small and used them as a cruel incentive to reach their ‘ideal’ weight. Some had done far worse things than I could imagine of myself: eating out of the garbage, overdosing on diet pills, stealing food from the grocery store. Yet I was assured I could get there if I didn’t start my recovery.
After several years of support groups, here are a couple takeaways. First, those of us with EDs, regardless of the type, have far more in common than we might think. I’ve sat in rooms with enough people to cover the ED spectrum, and the reason we connect is not just because of our body and food troubles. It’s because we speak a common language that goes beyond those symptoms. The language of pain. As we use the tools of recovery to dig down to the roots, we find our ED issues beginning to heal. Secondly, being completely honest, I found some groups to be stronger than others. If a group doesn’t have enough collective recovery, sometimes it can end up feeling like a glorified bitch-fest or worse, an unmanned suicide hotline. I left those rooms feeling like I got ripped off, even though I could usually find at least some small nugget of helpfulness. But I soon learned to move on and keep going back to the groups that truly uplifted me and furthered my recovery. Through support groups, I became part of a healing tribe. I’ll be forever grateful to the ones who spoke the name of my pain before I found the words or a voice of my own.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that for a girl with such a big set of lungs onstage, I was a soft-spoken, people-pleasing, boundary-less kid (a.k.a. ‘nice’ girl). And I didn’t understand why people, especially guys, were so careless with me. Nor did I have a clue who I was underneath my perfect girl persona. If there was a real me in there somewhere, I was sure it was someone awful and that I never wanted to meet her. Luckily, she wasn’t at all what I expected, and I got to know her through the tool of journaling.
I learned about it first in recovery, and then again from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, who advocates for artists to do three pages of handwritten notes every day, or Morning Pages. I love just about everything this woman has written about artists and creative recovery. The pages have become one of my oldest and most valuable rituals. Truthfully, I’m more of an allergic-to-mornings kind of girl, so they sometimes get written in the afternoon or at 3am (technically morning). It still gets the job done.
In the beginning, the pages gave me a place to come totally clean without having to be polite. I’d been a nice girl my whole life, so I ripped through a few dozen unsuspecting notebooks as I spewed out years of backlogged anger, fear, grief, self-doubt, and other not-so-nice feelings. And then something unexpected happened. I discovered a new voice showing up on the page—one that had profound insights to offer, encouragement, and even guidance. It was like a more enlightened, bolder, bad-ass version of myself. These days, I know better than to let too much time go by without putting my pen to the page, lest I forget the powerful woman I am, a.k.a. the real me.
MAKING PEACE WITH FOOD
A major turning point in my recovery came when food and I decided to lower our weapons. We’d been fighting the battle for so long that neither of us could remember how it started. But I was tired and bloody. Food was limping around in confused circles. I think we both knew it was time for a new age.
I’ve grown up in a culture with a strong sense of food morality. Kale and quinoa are friends with the Jedis, while cupcakes and pizza are insidious allies of the Empire. So we feel guilty as hell when we walk the back alleys of high carbs and sugar. And we feel virtuous when we dutifully eat our leafy green rabbit food. But most of us can’t make it without a few rewards or cheat days. (FB posts alone tell us how some people LIVE for cheat days.) Then again, we’ll probably go ahead and punish ourselves tomorrow at the gym.
I read a book ages ago called Fuller Lives, and it was like an answer to a question I hadn’t quite figured out how to ask. I’d been busy focusing on what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to come to an icy and tenuous truce with food. I didn’t want to be afraid or to feel guilty anymore. I didn’t want food to be virtuous or damning because even though it may work for some people, I didn’t want to be a freakin’ food nun. I wanted FREEDOM in a 90’s anthemic, George Michael kind of way! The women who shared their stories in that book showed me it was possible.
Next, I read Intuitive Eating, which was like a roadmap to making lasting peace with food. Don’t get me wrong. Not all foods are healthy, especially eaten by the buttload, which is the basic unit of binge eating. And obviously, some foods don’t work for everyone (yeah, I’m talking to you, Soy.) But making peace is about letting go of the unhealthy emotional attachments we make to certain foods, giving them far too much power (M&M’s need not be a Sith lord). For me, once I was able to take all foods off the forbidden list, they lost that power. And I found myself eating primarily what worked well for my body and enjoying a treat when I truly wanted it. Nothing short of a miracle after years of swinging swords at every edible enemy who crossed my path.
CALLING A TRUCE WITH MY BODY
Making peace with food was one thing, but I used to wonder how I could ever stop hating my body. The way I saw it, my body had only ever humiliated and betrayed me, starting with my imperfect, un-beautiful DNA. Everything about me felt too big: my nose, my front teeth, my size 10 feet, my broad shoulders, and my arch nemesis—my stubbornly un-flat stomach. I used to cut out images from magazines and pin them up on the walls to motivate myself. Not whole bodies, mind you, but individual parts to create a Frankenstein-esque tribute to the ‘perfect’ body. No doubt, people who caught a glimpse of that little freak show thought I was a serial killer.
But how do you begin to mend fences when you can’t even look at the person in the mirror and say one kind word? The path to self-kindness felt like crossing the Great Wall. But even that 5,500-mile journey starts with a small step. The first one I took was to stop buying clothes that were too small for my body. With the frame I’d inherited from my Bohemian grandmother, part of me always knew I would never be a size 2. Not without hacking off a limb. So I bought the size that fit the body I had, and neither I nor the world exploded. Then I got rid of all the too-small clothes comprising 75% of my closet. Until then, I didn’t realize how much I’d been torturing myself with a constant reminder that I was still not thin enough. Shortly after, I read Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, and I forced myself to say something nice when I looked in the mirror. It was hard at first…so much so that I ended up in tears. But slowly, very slowly, something started to shift.
I was beginning to see how I’d used my body as a scapegoat, blaming it for everything that was wrong with my life. I’d clung desperately to the fairytale of being happier, more confident, better at relationships, comfortable in my skin if only I had the perfect body—like some all-purpose magic unicorn dust. But when I got completely honest with myself, I realized I’d been no happier at my ideal weight than I’d been 60 pounds above it. If this was all about the numbers, then something sure as hell didn’t add up. The voice of my ED said it was because I still needed to be thinner. Now that I’d begun recovery, I knew where that path would take me. I had recovering anorexic friends who served as further proof that thin ≠ happy.
I’m continuing to make friends with my body. On my worst days, I honor a standing truce not to bully it because it’s been through enough. Together we’ve endured yo-yo weight gains and losses, tortuous hours of exercise, sexual assault, a pregnancy (and the super scary weight gain and food cravings that come with it!), and frustrating health issues created by ED behaviors. But we’ve also done some pretty cool stuff like hike the Na Pali coast on Kauai, give birth to our hilarious and huge-hearted son, and ride the biggest, fastest rollercoasters we can find. So yeah, my shoulders are broad and my nose isn’t button-cute. But maybe this Bohemian frame is partly responsible for my big singing voice. And it’s my grandmother’s nose, the one that reminds of her every time I smell peonies…just like the ones she grew in her garden every year until she got sick. So I smile at my grandmother’s keepsakes in the mirror, knowing part of her is always with me.
TREATMENT FOR TRAUMA
ED recovery is often complex. As nice as it would be to have a simple, shortcut solution, the journey to wellness is often like walking through a maze. Sometimes we hit the dead end of a setback. Sometimes it feels like we’re just stumbling in circles. But hope lies in the promise of recovery: if we stay the course and move through challenges that may be physiological, psychological, emotional, spiritual or all of the above—then we will break free. The very best book I read about this journey through the maze is Eating in the Light of the Moon.
In the early days of my recovery, I walked the path of food plans, healthy boundaries with exercise (and my evil bathroom scale), sharing my feelings with a group, self-care, and also getting a better handle on what it means to have an ED. All of it was invaluable to my healing, but there came a point several years into the journey when I recognized that I was stuck. I’d do well for long stretches, but then my ED behaviors would slowly creep back in. Even using the tools of recovery didn’t seem to stop the vicious cycle, which felt totally unfair. I bitched about it at group, to my therapist, and in my journals. One day an idea popped up on the page. Maybe I need a new therapist? I’d been working with the same one for three years, and although I’d talked a lot about difficult events in my life which had probably contributed to developing the ED, it always felt like there was a distance between myself and those memories. Almost like I was talking about a stranger. I’d share details of the most traumatic moments of my life with a steady voice and no tears—just numbness.
Something told me I needed to go deeper, so I found a woman who specialized in treating both EDs and trauma. I explained that I felt like I’d been talking in circles for the past three years, and I asked if she could help. Thankfully, this lady knew her stuff. She explained how trauma is stored in a different part of the brain and how often the full memories and emotions can’t be easily accessed through traditional talk therapy. Instead, we began sessions of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and brain-spotting, scientifically proven techniques for helping to process trauma and treat PTSD. (Check out The Body Keeps the Score) I was skeptical at first but willing to try. In my very first session, I experienced more emotion than I had in the previous three years combined. A volcano had erupted, and painful as it was, my body and mind were so grateful to finally let go. Each session left me feeling lighter and freer than I’d been in years.
If there’s one thing I wish I’d known at the beginning of recovery it’s that each person must find his or her own path up the proverbial mountain. We also get to choose our tools of recovery because what works for one might catapult another backward. I believe it’s about connecting with that voice within, whether you call it wisdom, intuition, higher consciousness, spirit, God/Goddess, or even an imaginary purple giraffe named Dave. It makes no difference as long as it guides us to our missing pieces. And bit by bit, we make the journey, moving closer to wholeness. So pretty please take anything you find here that resonates, and for Dave’s sake, leave the rest.