I used to call myself genetic leftover. I thought that I had all the bad physical features from my family that my brother and sister never had. When I was 13, I taped a piece of loose-leaf paper onto my gigantic dresser mirror that said “DON’T EAT!” in furious black sharpie handwriting. I was 5’3″ and probably 115 pounds. I thought I was fat. I come from a Czech and Italian family that eats and cooks a lot – and Lord bless their souls they each have the speediest metabolism. When I was a kid we ate a lot, we cooked in huge quantities, and always had a ton of food around. Being in an active sports family though, we were all thin.
When I spent time at friends’ houses eating with their families, I realized that they, together, ate what one person in my family would. But when you’re a kid you can usually eat whatever you want and if you run around enough you’d never know the difference… It wasn’t until I was older did I begin to realize that my body had boundaries, and it became incongruent with my mind.
I don’t know how things ended up like this. A million things throughout my life got me here, but I can’t put my finger on any one major thing. It’s no one’s fault. It just happened.
My parents have an interesting contribution to the predicament I’ve found myself in, but there’s no blame to shed on them. When I was in middle school, the delightful time frame known as puberty happened and shortly thereafter I discovered makeup to disguise my acne. My mom helped me out with this. What colors to use on my eyes, how to blow dry my hair. Normal Mom stuff, the things that make them beam with happiness watching their little girls grow up. The thing is, I don’t remember a single morning that my mom has ever left the house without makeup. I don’t know why, because she is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. Sure I’m bias, but it’s the truth. Her beauty on the outside matches the inside. Only recently, after I established my problem, did I begin to recount why she couldn’t, because now I have to ask myself the same question.
Why does it take me hours to get ready? Yes, you heard that correctly, hours. How did these obsessive rituals develop? I can barely remember mornings flying out the door with wet hair and not a scrap of make up on. Surely I was a kid at that point. Jealousy is something I shun, but I truly envy a grown woman who can take a 5 minute shower, brush her teeth, throw on some clothes, and be on her way out. The envy is in the carelessness of that. Notice how I didn’t mention if she looks “good” when she leaves or not. She does this all in maybe 15 minutes, and she doesn’t care if she looks perfect. She knows, in the truth of all truths, that perfection doesn’t exist. She knows that beauty is from the light in her eyes, the warmth of her smile, the honesty of her words.
I wonder how things would be different if my father had told me these things when I was growing up. He’s now admitted to being a womanizer most of his life, but that doesn’t even begin to sum it up. He objectified women every day, casually. I doubt he knew what he was doing. But kids are dangerously impressionable, aren’t they? I remember when I was in seventh grade, my dad sat me down on the couch in the front room and gave me a different kind of talk. A talk that shouldn’t have come from him; he was my hero and maybe he had good intentions, but it broke my heart in half: He told me I needed to lose weight. I was at the pinnacle of my tumultuous puberty journey, my hips were widening, pretty standard changes. I could say I was chubby, but no. I wasn’t. I was just an average size, but I wasn’t thin enough I guess. He poured out a supermarket bag full of power/protein bars and encouraged me to ride the stationary bike in the basement. A man who could talk straight for hours without getting winded, he went on and on, while my brother and sister hid behind the banister of the staircase and listened intently to the whole thing. Repression became a powerful tool for me, so I tuned it out as best as I could. I didn’t say a word, and I lied when he asked me if I was mad or upset. Then he left the room and I cried, harder than I could, harder than I ever had.
Then I tried to forget about it, but I didn’t. And it was just another little moment that added to this collective build-up of awful shit.
I had an unstable grasp of what a healthy body image should be, when I needed it the most. Today my sister is my role model, but in a different way than she was when we were younger. Now she’s 27 (four years older than me), and she’s never been more “free,” and that’s what makes her my role model. She’s comfortable, she’s confident, she stays true to herself. She can let go in ways I’m terrified of. The times that are the worst, I think of her and know that I can do what she does someday – live with strength and resiliency to face my fears. I couldn’t recognize this until after she left home. When we were younger, we were often inseparable. As a kid I struggled with all the negative attention that she would get from people about her appearance, because I was protective and it made me angry how people would treat her. I know that this molded me in a way. I am not very trusting of the intentions of men because society told me that all they want is sex. I fear them in this sense.
And society tells me that, as a woman, who I am is secondary to how I look. If I am not beautiful enough, no one will listen to what I have to say. How pretty I am is more relevant than what I am good at and what I can do. Maybe strangers don’t care that I write, paint, want to be a psychologist, and care about the world. I want to be remembered for what I have to say and what I believe, and I feel as though people won’t care if I’m less attractive. The media tells me that I’m only good for my body and here’s how it is supposed to look. Everywhere I turn in our consumer-driven, food-obsessed, egocentric, materialistic, image-based, sexist, body-focused society, I struggle. “Hollywood” takes no mercy in pointing out and candidly criticizing every minor detail of someone and spitting out scarring insults. As a culture, we lack empathy. We lack genuineness. And so my trained mind tells me that if I’m ugly, I don’t matter. It’s fucked.
Well it became catastrophically more fucked last year. I got out of a five year relationship and moved/transferred schools to get over him. When you let your self-perception become dictated by one person who you believe is your soulmate, you have to start over when it ends. Through his eyes I was perfect, and as we grew up together I relied on him to feel good about myself. So when he was gone I had to do it by myself, but I didn’t know how. I started drinking a lot, because it was the easiest thing to do and I was discovering it for the first time. Drinking made me not care about anything, and that felt liberating. I was looking for the easiest possible way not to hurt. Not to remind myself that the person I couldn’t live without for 5 years was out of my life. Not to readjust to moving to a new city. Not to hear my dad tell me that he might have cancer and that he would rather kill himself than have us see him suffer. Not to hate the way I looked when I stared in the mirror. All of it.
I felt no hesitation or pain when I was drunk, just that floating feeling or artificial bliss, physically and mentally. I’m shocked I didn’t fail any of my classes; one time I got drunk for 9 days straight. I drank so much that I stopped getting my period for months. There are drunken nights I can only remember in snapshots, times I did stupid things, times I wish never happened. But if they hadn’t, I never would’ve stopped. I thank God every day that I didn’t die, it’s a miracle.
Since I was living basically alone for the first time (I had roommates off and on but we had differing schedules and habits), I started eating a lot along with that. It made me feel better. Now I’d coin this as compulsive, emotional, or binge eating. Getting food after bar close was an innocent start. But it grew. I’d go to the grocery store with a dangerous purpose, and have entire containers of something, or huge meals from fast food drive-thru’s, even if I wasn’t super hungry. I didn’t think it through, or know why I was doing it at the time.
I started to gain a little bit of weight, obviously, and this scared me. I was petrified of being anything but unreasonably thin. I tried to get the drinking under control and eased up decently on the eating. When I wasn’t overeating though, I usually wasn’t eating at all. Often only a few hundred calories a day. My diet was all or nothing. Not eating for long periods of time gave me this sick pride. Starving myself felt just as good as overeating did. As a result, these extremes made my weight yo-yo constantly. The fluctuations weren’t severe enough for anyone to have a clue.
Spring was over, and at the start of Summer I moved into an apartment near campus with my lifelong best friend. We set out to have the best summer of our lives, and made plans to go camping, swimming, exercising, road tripping, to concerts, etc. It was going to be unforgettable. But she ended up getting really sick. It started out with recurring, excruciating urinary tract infections, then a kidney infection. Her life unraveled quickly with her recurrent illness. She was in a rollercoaster of a tumultuous relationship, and she was discovering some things she’d been repressing that happened to her. Then she had a nervous breakdown. She had just graduated with a social work degree and had never had any mental health issues before in her whole life. She completely lost touch with reality and with herself. Completely delusional and unstable, her thoughts were psychotic and anything she said made no sense. As a psychology major, I knew what I was seeing, though I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was or when it would stop. I prepared myself, partially with techniques I’d use a future counselor and also because she was my soulmate sister, I was going to do anything I could to help her be okay again. I went into a mode where I felt apt to deal with every up and down, every screaming match, sobbing session, whatever it was, I tried to make myself a stable, safe force for her.
She had two major breakdowns, and the second one happened a week or two into Fall semester. I could tell that things were going to be even worse. Over the course of the summer, she had lost about 40 pounds (5’10 at an already healthy weight). That week in September it spiraled out of control in just a few days, starting on a Wednesday. In psychology we term it as “manic” behavior. Her thoughts were racing, she couldn’t sit still, she was ranting on and on about grandiose plans and bottomless topics that jumped around, misunderstood. She was laughing hysterically at one moment, crying violently the next. On Saturday morning I was leaving to go to work, and I stopped into her room to check on her. She had been awake the entire night, and was just lying in bed tensely as I came in. She’d heard what sounded like loud firecrackers outside the apartment all night. She didn’t believe me that I hadn’t heard anything (even though I was up very late), and as she furiously rattled off names, she demanded that I tell her who was doing it, because she thought we were in danger. Then she stopped talking suddenly and with wild frantic eyes, after a minute, she was startled by my presence and said, “Is this real?”
At that point I called into work, and immediately called her mom. We loaded up my Saturn and headed home, to Wausau, where we’re from. She barely said a word the entire time. After we got to her house she was yelling at me about something, then she went to sleep and I drove back to Eau Claire like a zombie. She ended up getting diagnosed with Acute Dementia and began getting the necessary medical treatment.
While this was happening, throughout the summer and until she moved back home that day, I was strong for her. I was strong for her because that’s what we’d always done for each other. I did everything I could to take care of her. The summer was gone and over before we knew it, and it was the worst one of our entire lives.
When I got back I didn’t know what to do. I was exhausted and drained and confused. And somehow, around this time is when I first started making myself throw up. The first time was on my 22nd birthday, a day before what would’ve been my anniversary with the person I wasn’t over, the person I was going to marry.
I knew I was lost. I barely ate, and when I did, I was throwing up afterward. I had just had some of the worst times of my life throughout the previous year, and I didn’t know how to get better. So I withdrew from my classes and went to California to stay with my sister for a while. She was the first person I told, and she took care of me like no one else could. It was like rehab for me, a time for me to clear my head and learn how to be healthy. She supported me, and I promised her I’d stop.
I got strong and felt different. I felt like I’d changed being there, and so I made a plan. I bought a ticket to go back to Eau Claire and made a list of goals. One of them was to finish school. Four undergrad schools in four years, not to mention time I’d taken off. I wanted it done. I wanted my degree and I wanted my life to begin.
I got back around Thanksgiving, and would spend weeks feeling great. I practiced yoga routinely, I wasn’t drinking too much. But I still was obsessed with being thin. Fitting into my high school jeans. Wanting to wear a swim suit the following summer. I hated my body, I hated the idea of having sex again, or even getting close to someone. Getting close to someone, literally and figuratively, was the most daunting thing in the world. I couldn’t dare open up to someone, even if I tried. Nothing terrified me more than being vulnerable. Being exposed, in every sense of the word.
I didn’t understand why how I felt about who I was inside didn’t match what I felt on the outside. I know exactly who I am, I love myself. I love my personality, I am proud of what I accomplish and how much I’ve overcome throughout my life. I’m sure of my future. I know that I’m beautiful in my heart. But it halts there. I refused to believe that someone would accept me over and under the surface – I couldn’t trust them.
One Saturday in December, my usual, reckless group planned on going out. I worked an 8 hour closing shift then was going to go straight out. I didn’t eat the entire day. I immediately started chugging fruit juice with mostly vodka, and since I didn’t have a high tolerance anymore, it went right through me… then came back up. I spent the rest of the night volatilely puking uncontrollably. After a while I was just dry heaving. I likely had alcohol poisoning. I could barely stand. Everything I saw was spinning. A guy I was getting close to was taking care of me the whole night. The next morning as I picked at the eggs he cooked me, we talked about what happened. He found out that I hadn’t eaten, and about what had been going on the last few months. Between that and the rest of the shit we were both dealing with, he disappeared. He saw me at my worst and then he was out the door (well, I was since it was his house). I was crushed. I hadn’t felt those feelings in years, and it was a shock that I was allowing myself to.
I knew someday it would make sense.
So over the next two months things were up and down. I would again spend weeks eating well, not bingeing or purging. School was enjoyable. I was working on my book, dating here and there, barely drinking. I felt okay. Then one weekend it all came crashing down. I must have had too much on my mind. I had the worst binge and purge ever in my entire life. I ate thousands and thousands of calories uncontrollably in a 3-4 day period. I threw up as much as I could. I was crying to God begging him to help it end. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t.
As I went to bed, I decided the next day that it was over, as I had many times before and likely will many times again. But I knew that something was going to be different when I woke up. I went to my first counseling appointment and spilled my guts (no pun intended). Then I joined a gym. Not to lose weight anymore, but to feel strong and confident in my body. I used to believe that when you look good, you feel good. Now I know the opposite to be true. When you feel good, you look good. It starts in your heart and radiates out. I knew that even though I would have to make choices all day every day of my life about food (we can’t escape or avoid it, we need it for survival), I could do it. I made a promise to myself. I realized that it didn’t have to be like this forever. And I had to change everything. My life, and what goes on around me.
To leave the poison behind, the stuff in me that I used to take out in the worst ways. Pain I’ve felt in my life has only made the joy I feel even bigger. If I never went through anything bad, I wouldn’t understand anything. I certainly wouldn’t plan on being a counselor. The only thing that all my mistakes have led me to is lessons. Today I forgive myself for them.
There will be a day when I can leave my house in 15 minutes. There will be a day when I can wear a swim suit again, but it won’t be because I have the “best” body. It’ll just be because I’m going swimming. There will be a day that I’ll let a guy take me out to dinner and be okay with eating in front of him. There will be a day that I tell my daughter about makeup, but maybe I won’t be wearing much when I do. There will be a day where I work with adolescents and help them see the difference between being healthy and being thin. There will be a day that I choose not to be around someone who would ever treat me differently based on how I look. That day I will realize my flaws aren’t flaws. There will be a day I finally see perfection as a myth. There will be a day that I’m healthy, and it will be followed by thousands and thousands more.
There will be a day when I no longer have an eating disorder.