This month, IU Bloomington held its annual Body Image Week. And it got me to thinking, maybe all the skinny little girls who tried to pep-talk me in HPER should see what the face of real body issues looks like. My name isn’t important. What IS significant is my age: twenty. Because I have had bulimia for the last twelve years. You can do the math.
I can still remember that day in the second grade when Nikki – a Pop Warner cheerleader and popular even then with the boys – brought up weight at the after-school program we attended. Just a wisp of a thing, she announced that SHE didn’t have a weight problem… insinuating that I did.
For the record, Nikki remained a size zero for the rest of our days in school. Had anyone warned me about heredity, bone size, height or BMI, maybe my sick way of life could have been halted. What the hell is wrong with our educational system?
That night I went home to my favorite main course of fried chicken, and there was chocolate ice cream for dessert. And for the first time, I was ashamed to have eaten. In an attempt to prevent worsening my “weight problem”, I went outside to our circle driveway, surrounded by the tall hedges and walnut trees, and ran until I vomited.
In less than three hours, my life had changed forever. I just didn’t know it yet.
While I was an entirely normal-sized child at the outset, by the time I was eleven I was obsessed – with eating, with not eating, with disorders and calories. My little habit disappeared for two short summers, as I struggled instead to avoid consuming food for as long as I could stand it each day. By evening, I was famished, and would wolf down everything I could hold.
That was the beginning of my REAL weight problem.
I should inform you that I was not some girl who came from a home with no love, or failed at anything. I was an only child, Supreme Overachiever, eventually beautiful and always near the top of my class. People with Type A personalities traditionally go the anorexia route.
I guess that means starvation was the one thing I ever failed at in those days. Go figure.
At the age of thirteen, I was also a size thirteen. And I became obsessed with the number 135 – the number on the scale. I flinched if it budged one millimeter past, and as I was weighing myself up to six times daily, I was perpetually twitching. I was ashamed of my appearance, despite the fact that my jeans were the latest from Tommy Hilfiger. What did it matter, if I was a size Huge?
Fourteen brought with it exercise bulimia – and the first heart palpitations. Tae-Bo became my religion, and Billy Blanks was my prophet. (I still think he’s a badass.) At first I lost weight – success! – but as I was pleased with my results, I rewarded with food. The usual self-loathing always ensued. And thus, I stood in front of the bathroom sink and willed it to return as my sacrifice to the porcelain gods.
I should note what I defined as “eating too much” back then: one half of a plain turkey sandwich and a granola bar. How much punishment for such a transgression, you ask? Between four and ten times after every meal. It really depended on whether I’d also poured a serving of Cheez-Its as a side dish.
Amidst the turmoil of my dirty little secret, I had pride. I never had to stick a single thing down my throat to induce this. No toothbrush, no finger. Sheer concentration. When I announced this during a discussion with my physician recently, I knew my face betrayed my lack of shame in this accomplishment – because I saw the horror on hers.
Moving on with the story.
A couple other life-changing moments came about that year. The first was the controversy surround the Terry Schiavo case. She had been a vegetable for nearly a decade, most likely attributable to her own bulimia. At the same time, my heart experienced its first palpitations.
For the first time, I was scared. And I decided to quit.
During those weeks, rumors were circulating around my high school that I was making myself puke, even during class hours. They were entirely true, but as far as I was concerned also behind the times. I was reported to school officials. Over my protestations that I was healing, I was informed that they were calling my mother. Assholes. I mean, I appreciated the concern, but really? Now? As you can imagine, the conversation was oh-so-pleasant that night at dinner.
I joined color guard during my fifteenth summer, and lost fifteen pounds, below even the magic 135. For much of the next two years, vomiting and I had a casual relationship. I reverted on bad days. But I looked good, and was popular, so I did not hear the siren call of the sink’s edge quite as often.
One good thing came of my obsession: I could recognize it in others. One girl in the guard with me, Amy, sought my advice at a sleepover for the girls when I was a junior. But she didn’t want to know how to quit. She wanted to know how to do it quickly and quietly, with control. Listening to her eagerness gave me the chills. Was I truly that proficient? (Apparently so, as my mother had no idea it was still a problem until last week.) I begged Amy to not damage herself, to be happy with how gorgeous she already was. All I received by way of a reply was a stubborn look I had seen before - in the mirror.
At the age of eighteen, I graduated and relocated to college. This was the period when I discovered laxatives. You see, an unfortunate side effect of my habit is poor digestion. But this was one addiction I was afraid to develop. I did my best to use them sparingly, as they were stimulant variety. My attitude would later change.
During my sophomore year, I fell out of love with my then-boyfriend and in love with a man who hated the pain I caused him. When he decided he had had enough of my indecision, he cut off all contact with me – and thus I ran to my frenemy, food. I had never binged before. Purged constantly, but never truly binged. Now I gorged as if trying to take in all the food I had previously expelled. After every single bottle of Coke and package of Bagel Bites, I wallowed in self-hated. And then I puked my goddamn guts out, with just as much violence as I had years earlier.
I made a couple half-hearted attempts at therapy. I convinced myself that it was pointless, so I dropped it.
In those worst six months, I gained ten pounds. When I finally went home for the summer, I lost some of the weight naturally, and was happy. It was also the period when my physician told me about Miralax. All natural, no side effects. She said she didn’t care if I drank the stuff twice daily. So I took her at face value, and began abusing it on my “fat days”.
That fall, it finally caught up with me. I had had occasional heart palpitations for years; hell, half the time it was the only thing that could scare me straight. But that time was different. It went on not for a few minutes, but for over an hour. I couldn’t breathe. My roommate drove me to the hospital, and despite the EKG, blood and urine tests, they diagnosed nothing.
After that, I would attempt my usual runs, and every time I STOPPED the treadmill I felt instantly ill. Not before, not during, just after my workouts. Gagging, nausea, lightheadedness, and palpitations all became common. Once everything before my eyes went black and I begged my mother to keep speaking so that I wouldn’t hit my head on the concrete floor. I stopped exercising altogether, except for a couple games of racquetball each week. I have put on twenty pounds in the past year, and I am deeply unhappy about it, especially in the last month.
I fought the eat-everything-in-sight-then-get-rid-of-it urge for as long as I could. Everyone’s resistance gives out in the end, I suppose. Mine certainly has.
I have been out of the bulimia closet for six years. It has made no difference. I am fully aware that I need help. Last week, I sought it. I told the truth. Immediately I was EKG’d again, had multiple blood pressure and pulse readings taken, and was scheduled for a treadmill stress test the following morning along with an ultrasound. The technicians refused to spell out my results. Apparently, that’s my doctor’s job. I am currently awaiting her call.
Psychiatry or plain old Overeaters Anonymous meetings are in my future. The doctor also mentioned that I will probably get to wear an event (heart) monitor for a little while. I can’t wait to explain THAT to my boy the first time I take off my shirt and the thing is strapped to my chest. He’s one of the few people close to me who are unaware.
I am hoping against hope that this is not something I have done to myself. I pray that this is some disorder entirely unrelated to my internal mutilation. If I’m truly lucky, they’ll come back and say it’s all in my head. But it’s not.
No one should know such misery at their own hands. I am no better than cutters, burners, anorexics. If you have never had an eating disorder, then you do not get to talk about positive body image. You’ve never known a negative one.
I am a bulimic. Not for much longer.