To Bulimia and Back
Summary: Short biography of my eating disorder and recovery.
When I was 12, I started “watching my weight” which meant counting calories and worrying that I was fat. I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t skinny and when I was 13, I decided to go on this diet that my friend’s mother recommended. (It was the 9-Day Miracle Diet from Good Housekeeping, I believe. Does anybody remember it?) The diet entailed fasting for four days on weak orange-ade, then eating plain chicken for five more days. That an adult would sanction this for a child shows how crazy people were about losing weight. My jeans were falling off at the end and I got lots of compliments, but food never tasted so good and I could NOT stop eating. I gained back the weight and more.
It didn’t help that my parents were divorcing at the time. Other kids were joining sports and clubs but I dealt with my parents’ divorce by coming home and having Afternoon Snack. From a friend, I had learned how crazy you could go with food when the parents weren’t there. She showed me how to put brown sugar on piece after piece of buttered toast, and I did that alone for hours. Of course I gained weight and felt terrible. Girls in my town were admired for their looks first, and any other accomplishments second. I was failing on both counts.
After 8 months of bingeing followed by trying various new diets, my mom handed me her Weight Watchers cookbook. With a solemn voice, she told me many women had solved their weight problems with this book. I sensed it was a kind of bible and that I was being initiated into a secret of womanhood that would help me with my biggest problem. I followed everything it said and also started jogging. By the end of the summer, I had lost 15 pounds. Then I joined field hockey and lost 10 more. I was thrilled and everybody else seemed to be also, even my grandmother, who had been my one source of unconditional love.
But at the Acme supermarket in town, they made these powdered donuts filled with chocolate creme. Not cream, creme. One night, sick of the skim milk and Sweet ’n Low that served as my treat (not kidding), I succumbed to the donuts. I probably had more than one and less than three but I felt desperate not to gain back the weight that had so ruined my lovability the year before. I had read in a book that you could stick your finger down your throat to make yourself throw up and that’s exactly what I did. My eyes watering, my throat a little scratched from the fingernail, I was amazed to find that I felt free of guilt almost instantly. I don’t think I thought I would ever do it again, but that moment began 4 years of a spiral that threatened my life and took the life of my unborn children by ruining my fertility.
Let’s skip ahead, over the years of eating an entire sweet potato pie, of dismantling my boss’s gingerbread house and consuming the candy, then lying about it, over my double life of appearing to have it all together while bowing over the toilet nightly, telling no one. Let’s get to the part where it got so bad that I had to either handle the problem or give my life over to the disease. Fortunately, enough love had somehow gotten in that I chose the former. I started to read anything I could get my hands on that helped me make sense of the crazy things I did - and thought. I learned that the demon that made me punish my body was a mix of feelings and thoughts that lived in me, over which I could take control if I faced it head on. With the help of wise teachers and counselors in my twenties, that is what I did.
It did not occur to me to eat and exercise with love as the motivator. I knew that was a good idea, but too much had happened in my life that had translated into self-hatred. I had to understand this hatred before I could eat and exercise in a way that wasn’t punishing. It took a long time, but I knew that the other path, the path of hatred, was only going to destroy me so I practiced and practiced until self-love became my home station, and the hatred was the exception.
I hope it’s not as severe for you as my bout with bulimia, but if you struggle with your weight and your body, you may have a milder version of what I had, and the ways I got out of it might be useful for you. These are the practices I did that promoted me to love myself and have positive experiences with exercise and eating:
1. I found a teacher (counselor) who saw the best in me and showed me how to do that for myself.
2. I learned how to stop my self-hating thoughts and feelings. Related to no. 1, above, I undid the knot of painful feelings inside that had been translated into concerns about my weight.
3. Using what I was learning about my basic lovability as a human being, I adjusted my motivation to exercise from losing weight to one of feeling the vitality and enjoyment of movement.
4. I learned how to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full, instead of either not stopping, or stopping when I had reached my calorie or carb limit. Eating became a source of enjoyment, satisfaction and energy, instead of a source of numbing out or feeling like a failure.
5. I paid close attention to people who did not hate their bodies, absorbing what they said and did and how they talked to themselves.
6. I accepted my body as it was and realized I was doing the best I could, instead of imposing a tough standard on myself.
Power to you! Enjoy becoming free.
Sheira Kahn and Molly McGee (https://journeytomybestself.com/) work together to help women eat and exercise in a loving way. Sheira Kahn is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach with an online practice and an office in Alameda, CA. She is co-author of The Erasing ED Treatment Manual, available on Amazon. She teaches in the UC Berkeley Extension Certificate Program for Eating and Weight Disorders.