This week has been National Eating Disorder Awareness Week—something I just learned about a couple days ago (thanks Facebook friends!). I promised myself I wouldn’t let the week pass by without adding to the much-needed conversation. So here we go. With a tight deadline, this will be raw and graphic—but that’s the reality of an eating disorder.
My decade of disordered eating was the 80s. It started off in subtle and “innocent” ways—my sister’s friend remarking that I was getting a bit “husky,” or competing with a friend to get under 100 pounds and fit into size zero 501s. Someone bought me a little pocket book (the ones you get near the cashier at the grocery store) with pages and pages of charts listing calorie counts for common foods. I quickly memorized most of it so I could do on-the-spot calculations throughout the day. And, of course, figure out just how much I needed to run to burn off all those cottage-cheese-and-egg-whites-and-carrots calories.
Things got more serious when I went off to college at the ripe age of 15. I spent a summer college program there eating 400-500 calories a day, and getting the first attention I’d ever had from the opposite sex—a 22-year-old Don-Johnson lookalike with incredible pecs and a deep tan. “Your body is almost perfect,” he told me more than once, “you’d be amazing if you just worked more on your abs. See that little roll right there on your stomach?” (I weighed 98 pounds at the time).
That fall, as a 16-year-old college freshman away from home for the first time, I gained a couple pounds. Couldn’t get the raw carrots and egg whites in the college cafeteria. “Don” lost interest, and I was distraught and alone. My far-too-young brain went into self-destruction mode. “If he doesn’t want me, I’ll make sure no one else will,” I remember saying to myself.
A switch flipped. My body suddenly demanded all the food I’d deprived it of for months and years. Jumbo packages of Reese’s cups. Large pizzas. Half a dozen donuts. Entire packages of granola bars (quite painful to digest, I might add). On Valentine’s Day I bought myself a pound of chocolates, pretending that “Don” had given them to me as I ate the whole box in one sitting.
What to do? My college identity—brand-new to me–was the pretty, skinny smart girl, yet now I had what felt like the most shameful addiction ever. I’d learned from a high school friend about throwing up, so I tried it. That’s when I learned I have very little gag reflex (and a great reluctance to vomit). I’d sit over the trash can in my dorm room for an hour or more, trying to throw up until tears streamed down my face and my throat stung with the effort. Nothing. So I’d sit and cry on my bed, propped up with pillows to try to ease the discomfort of my bloated stomach.
I tried massive doses of laxatives, for one very unpleasant week. That wasn’t going to work for me either, especially in a shared dormitory bathroom.
So, between the pizzas and the donuts and the granola bars I snuck into my dorm room, and the late-night raids I made on the shared refrigerator, I gained weight. Not your average freshman 15, either. By the end of that school year I’d gained 50 pounds. In nine months I went from 98 pounds to 150. The pain was more than emotional—the skin on my thighs felt like it would burst. My digestive system was chronically overtaxed. I was exhausted, I couldn’t catch my breath, and my knees hurt. All I thought about—day, night, even in my dreams, was food. Oh, and how to get skinny again.
And you know what? No one mentioned a thing. No one asked me if I was okay, no one mentioned my change in appearance. Not a single friend, teacher, or family member.
But then, I wouldn’t have known what to say if anyone had ventured a conversation. You “just didn’t talk about those things” then. Few people even knew the term eating disorder—and if we did, we only knew that Karen Carpenter had died in some mysterious way related to dieting. I didn’t even learn that eating disorders were a “thing” (that affected other people too) until I was a junior in college and did some basic (pre-internet) research on it. I found a total of three articles in women’s magazines and wrote a paper on my own experiences, “outing” myself to a professor I trusted. There weren’t any resources to help me then, but she was at least sympathetic. And she gave me an A on the paper. That was an important first step. (I still have that paper, 30 years later.)
During my late teens and early twenties, I settled into a “routine” obsession with food. I developed my rituals of binging (batch of raw brownie batter, boxes of Chinese takeout (hey, it has veggies, right?)) interspersed with days of fasting and earnest plans for exotic crash diets the 80s is so infamous for. I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to feel hungry. Or pleasantly full. I didn’t feel much at all, actually.
Somehow—I’m not really sure how—the whole thing got old over the years. Tiring. Boring. Then at 25, I left a toxic job and a toxic relationship. I went home—home for the first time since I was 15–to live with my dad and stepmom and go to grad school.
I was finally ready to “stop the insanity,” to put this decade of tortured relationships with food and myself behind me. Ten years–what felt like an entire lost decade–was quite enough.
I shared some of my story with my stepmom and asked, bluntly, for her help. “I don’t know how to feed myself—can you just feed me, so I don’t have to think about it?” And she did. Healthy food but not “diet food.” Nurturing food, around a family dining table, that fed my soul.
Things got better, quickly. It felt like I really closed the door on a painful decade. I got married, finished my PhD, taught college English and had two lovely boys.
Today I’m 50, and those ten terrible years seem pretty far away. I eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full. I exercise to have fun and feel strong, not to burn calories. I think about food in terms of what I like and what I don’t like, not in terms of “good” and “bad.” I only find out what I weigh when I go to the doctor.
But I still talk about those years, regularly. What was once my deepest awful secret is now a thing I bring up even in conversations with people I don’t know well. It’s a conscious choice I make. Talking about my struggles with food was central to my healing, and I feel an obligation to keep the conversation open to the many, many other women and men who are still struggling—to de-stigmatize the experience, let them know they’re not alone, and let them know they can recover.
Because of my sharing, I’ve been approached by dozens of young women and men in need of help. When I taught at Stanford and lived in a large freshman dorm, I made it a point to talk about my eating disorder (and a range of other classic life mistakes I made in college) in every “beginning-of-the-year” dorm speech. I wanted each student to know that I was human, had struggled too, and that they could come talk to me without fear of judgment.
And they did come. Each year that I lived in the dorm, at least five students came to me to talk about their own eating disorders. Some just needed to tell someone who would understand and identify with them; some I referred on to counselors for professional support; some took a leave of absence so they could focus on healing. It wasn’t an instant solution, and I’m not sure I helped them all. But I hope our conversations helped at least a few of them, somewhat.
I don’t pretend that I’m completely “over” having an eating disorder, as if it never happened to me. While I don’t struggle over food very often, I do sometimes have nightmares that take me right back into those dark places. My body bears far more stretch marks from that period than it does from two pregnancies.
I’m absolutely a different person than I would be if I hadn’t experienced an eating disorder. I don’t see that as a “bad” thing, though—I’m more humble than I would have been, more compassionate, and much more aware of how sensitive many people are about food, their bodies and their appearance.
And I’m much more willing to talk. About real things. It’s kind of what I do for a living now. Because I know from experience that simply sharing your story can change your life.
That’s my story. What’s yours?