From Adversity to Activism; Carolyn’s Eating Disorder Story (adapted from, “Your Dieting Daughter”)
Having done my share of dieting and having been through an eating disorder myself has been a major advantage and asset to my success as a therapist helping others with weight, body image, or eating issues. I understand these issues in a very personal way.
At 14 years old, 5' 4" and 135 pounds I went on a diet. I always knew there was something better out there for me. I knew I had a certain strength and willpower that would really show up somewhere. I was the girl who read her chemistry book with a flashlight on the school bus headed to and from the basketball game. I was the only teenager who preferred to have my mother drive me certain places so I could study in the car.
At that time I was also learning that beauty would get you everywhere. I felt tough and strong and smart on the inside and showed it, but plain, even ugly, and unnoticed on the outside. I excelled academically, got into student government and drama, even became the school mascot, but none of that was enough.
I decided I was finally going to do it; I would be the one, among all my friends, who would lose weight. And so diet I did. I was proud of myself, my mother was proud of me. My friends asked, "How did you do it, what diet did you go on?", "You look so good" they said admiringly. These comments helped me continue and then something just snapped. It seemed easy. I felt determined. I had a goal to work towards, a tangible reward, and a constant task to occupy me. In those adolescent days with few goals, confused values, and feelings of purposelessness, dieting gave me a curious strength. I would always tell myself, "You don't need this tortilla chip or that cookie, or a bite of her candy bar." I reasoned,” These things will always be around, you can have them later if you want.” Later took a long time to come.
My friends tried to get me to eat or break my diet: “Come on it's my birthday," "Just this once for me." "But if you had a lot of friends, this meant all the time. If one were going to be tough and strong, the rule had to be, “Never break the rules.” I almost lost some friends over it. In the beginning I think they were mostly jealous of my perceived willpower, but eventually they were confused, frightened, and saddened by it.
I didn't see it coming. They didn't see it coming. Nobody saw it coming. At that time, only a handful even knew what it was. And so I left for college, at about 115 pounds. I was 20 lbs. lighter and twenty times more screwed up than I or anyone knew.
By this time, there was a self-defined mandate imprinted on my brain of "allowable," "watchouts," "rarelys," and "strictly forbidden" foods. But it didn't seem odd to me. Soon my thoughts, day and night, became obsessed with weight and food and controlling them both.
"I'm worried about you,” people kept saying. I loved the comments. It all proved I was thin. I couldn't really see it myself. I can't remember ever really looking too thin - even at 79 pounds, with repeated warnings from my friends and my doctor, cessation of menstruation, and wearing size 1 pants.
Emotionally, I don't ever remember feeling thin enough to let go and eat a meal or a piece of cake. I always "watched it." I was always on guard, constantly reprimanding myself for slight mishaps or an over extension of my allotted calorie intake. I once even tried to throw-up after eating some forbidden food. Lucky for me, I couldn’t do it. It didn't matter to me that I couldn't take a bath because I was so bony it hurt to sit in the tub. It didn't bother me that when I slept on my side I had to put a pillow between my knees because the bones had no padding and hurt without it. It didn't make much difference that I was so cold all the time to the point of turning blue and that my hair was falling out. I was thin, and being thin seemed more important than anything else. Now I know it was much more than that.
I thought the people who were worried about me were all exaggerating. So what if I sometimes became depressed and tearful, it had nothing to do with my weight; as far as that was concerned, I actually felt fine. I jogged and exercised every day. I did 205 sit-ups every night. The extra 5 were in case I did a few sloppy ones along the way. Looking back to that time and at my clients now, I am amazed at the power of mind over matter and at what the human body can endure.
On visits home, I took comments like, "What do they feed you at school?" as compliments. I took pride in eating less than anyone around me. I never wanted to be second best in anything, especially dieting. I was proving that losing weight was something I was good at, best at, admired for. People often asked me, "How did you do it?” or commented, "I'd like to follow you around and eat what you eat for a while." I thought to myself, “If they only knew.” What they didn't see was my obsession with food. While everyone thought I was doing "without food" and had conquered our society’s obsession with food, I was one of the worst offenders.
The truth was that I would wake up in the morning and worry about how I was going to avoid breakfast. I obsessed about what the dining hall was serving. I checked the menu every week and memorized it. I couldn't stand it when other people passed up food. I'd think, "What a waste, I'd eat if I could." I never thought I could. I felt so obsessed by food that I knew I could never let up on my control over my eating because if I did eat, I would never be able to stop. I would end up obese and disgusting.
I dreaded school parties or picnics. I dreaded visits from friends. I dreaded dealing with food when I went home. I dreaded going out to dinner. I dreaded Birthday parties and holidays, all because I had to psyche myself up for "not eating" and for dealing with others who might pressure me to eat. All of these were potential situations for my demise or a breakdown; that is, eating too much.
I had an inner voice, another part of me living inside my head. This part plotted out the day's food allowance and automatically calculated calories of anything edible. This part of me always told me I didn't need this or that food item, and if I ignored it, I was punished with guilt and stomach aches and tears and eating even less food for a while and doing more exercise. I have found this voice to be universal in people who have eating disorders, and I have come to regard it as the voice of the person’s eating disorder self. It is not something outside of the person but more like an internal critic that develops over time. A large part of my work with eating disorder clients is helping them identify their “eating disorder self”, and then strengthen their healthy self, so it can challenge the eating disorder and get back in control. For more information on this see Key 2 in my book, “8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder.”
My eating disorder self made me put my bike on the hardest gear so I would have to work hard for what could have been an easy fun ride. It told me I had to swim laps whenever I got in a swimming pool; to merely play in the pool was to be lazy. It made me keep running till I reached six miles, or the lake or the dorm or whatever goal was determined difficult enough for me. My eating disorder self, made me say No, when I wanted to say Yes, study when I wanted to play, starve myself almost to death when all I really wanted to do was to eat, to live, and to be happy.
It took seven years, but I recovered. I am recovered from the desire to be thin at any cost, from the need to be perfect, and from the illusion that what I look like is more important than who I am. Recovery takes time; it is a process. I did not wake up one day and realize “I am recovered”. It was more a sense of looking back and realizing that something very terrible was gone and something more true and whole had taken its place. It would be false and misleading to say that as a female in this society I do not have my share of body image issues. These days it has more to do with the aging process, since it is hard not to be self-conscious of aging in a culture where young girls are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages and made to look much older than they are, while older women are pressured to do whatever they can to look younger and younger, such that the most popular mother/daughter ads are where you can’t tell them apart. But I shall leave this discussion for future writing.
I am recovered. I do not follow a meal plan, nor am I a perfect eater, (whatever that is). I do have preferences, for example, I don’t like red meat or dark chocolate. I eat whatever I want according to my appetite, my knowledge of nutrition, and my desire. I call my way of eating, “Conscious Eating”, and describe it in Chapter 12 of Your Dieting Daughter, which is called, “So You Want To Go On A Diet”. “Conscious Eating” means I know enough about food to be conscious of getting enough protein, nutrient rich vegetables and fat, but I can also eat pizza, French fries, and cookies. If I want to eat ice cream in my bubble bath at night or have a piece of cake for breakfast, I can do so consciously, guilt free. I also exercise but I don’t even call it that, I prefer to say that I use my body in ways that I enjoy. I go hiking or do yoga or walk on the beach. NO LONGER are any of my choices driven by the desire to minimize calories, burn fat, or lose weight. I no longer betray myself, or my body, in the pursuit of thinness or need for control. This is why I say; I am “recovered”.
In 2006, I formally defined what I mean by “recovered” in my book, “100 Questions and Answers About Eating Disorders”. I have since realized that if we could teach children right from the beginning what it takes to live their lives according to my definition of being “recovered,” they would not develop body image or eating problems in the first place. So I have adapted the definition of being recovered and put it in the context of what is important to teach all humans:
Accept your natural body size and shape and do not have a self- destructive relationship with food or exercise. Let food and weight take a proper perspective in your life, and know that what you weigh is not more important than who you are; in fact, actual numbers are of little or no importance at all. Do not compromise your health or betray your soul to look a certain way, wear a certain size, or reach a certain number on the scale. Do not use food or eating behaviors to deal with, distract from, or cope with problems.”
Long ago I made peace with food and with myself. It is with cultural forces, the dieting mindset and “brainwashed” minds that I now do my battling. My life’s work is to help others find their own healthy way.