B E E N  T H E R E:  E A T I N G  D I S O R D E R S

"When food becomes your drug of choice."

March 1998

At age eight Barbara's world started falling apart. Her parents split up and an adult friend of the family began sexually abusing her. With no one to turn to she turned inside and started using food to "numb" away all of her feelings. She developed an eating disorder to survive, but it wasn't until she opened the locked box of those long hidden feelings and was finally able to express them, that she began to recover. Now at 27, Barbara looks for ways to continue the healing process and to help others by sharing her experiences and insights.

The InSite: How did your eating disorder start?

Barbara: When I was eight years old, on top of the fact that my parents were going through a separation and eventually a divorce a few years later, I was sexually abused by my grandmother's boyfriend. I felt like I stopped living. I became very quiet. I stopped expressing myself. I became very fearful and secretive. I didn't want anyone to know what was happening to me. With the abuse, in connection with my parents' separation and all the craziness that occurred during that time, I felt very much out of control.

TI: I have heard that people with eating disorders have a need to control their lives, but instead, they control the amount of food they eat or do not eat. In that way, at least, they control their bodies. Was that true for you?

Barbara: I think that's part of it, but for me I needed to take the focus off of the abuse that was happening, and the emotions and fears I had around my parents' separation.

TI: Clearly you were dealing with some very heavy situations. That's quite an emotional burden for a little kid.

Barbara: Absolutely! There's a lot of talk about family and pressure from friends [in the development of eating disorders]. Maybe athletics. Now there's also attention being placed on cultural factors. The one thing I find lacking is the discussion of childhood traumas, especially sexual abuse. It's very good for me to talk about it, because I haven't and it's important for my own healing to discuss it. Perhaps someone [with this experience] will be able to connect a little bit more.

TI: Sexual abuse is a control and power thing on the part of the abuser and fear and intimidation is used to keep the victim silent. Since you obviously weren't talking to anyone about what was happening, did anyone notice changes in your behavior?

Barbara: What I remember, what I thought at the time, was that no one cared enough to notice what was going on. The abuse was going on right in front of them at times and no one noticed. Perhaps the adults in my life at that time would tell a different story. I don't know. I do know that my mother used to say, "Oh, we're going to go to Grandma's house today." And I wouldn't want to go. That was a signal to her that something was wrong because I loved to go to my grandma's house.

The abuse was going on right in front of them
...and no one noticed.

TI: So you sent a signal something was wrong, but your mom didn't follow up on it?

Barbara: She did, but only after this man who abused me had cornered a female cousin of mine who is four years older than me. My cousin had an awareness of what was appropriate and what was not. When he cornered her and tried to kiss her she automatically ran to her mom and told her what happened. My aunt called everyone in the family and said, "You need to talk to your kids and see if this happened (to them)." That's how it was discovered. It was pried out of me. I wasn't ready to let go of that.

TI: That must have been incredibly painful for you to talk about!

Barbara: Yes! There was a huge amount of guilt and shame. I believed there was something wrong with me. I was different. I trusted this man. He was my friend. What did he do? I didn't understand what was happening. Yet I couldn't go to anyone and ask.

TI: What happened when you told your mom?

Barbara: She started crying and I started crying hysterically after a while because I was angry at her for making her tell me but also relieved at the same time. I specifically remember saying to her, "Don't tell Dad." That was my biggest fear at the time. I didn't want him to know. Anyone else she could tell.

TI: What were you afraid would happen if your father found out?

Barbara: That my father wouldn't love me anymore. Or that he'd leave. I was the only daughter. Or as he put it, his favorite daughter. My mother lost the relationship she had with my dad and I didn't want that to happen to me.

TI: How long were you holding on to this terrible secret without telling anyone?

Barbara: I don't remember exactly. Though it seemed to go on for a long time.

TI: What happened after you told about the abuse?

Barbara: I think there was some disbelief that this could happen. My mom, aunts and uncles wouldn't let me out of their sight. I don't know what happened to the man who abused me. There are stories. I think the family had a talk with him. He quickly left and was never heard from again. I thought my mom told my dad about the abuse right away but I found out years later that my dad wasn't told about the abuse until after this man was long gone. My therapist at the time told both of my parents not to talk to me about the abuse unless I brought up the subject first. I never brought it up, so we never talked about it. The abuse remained a secret.

TI: Did you resume the close relationship you had with your grandmother?

Barbara: Yes, that came back! Because once he was gone there was no fear of going to her house and spending the night there. I felt free to do that again.

TI: What happened next in relation to your body and food?

Barbara: I just did not feel safe in my body. I felt, "If he could abuse me, anyone can." And, not that I wanted anything bad to happen to my brothers, I was also wondering, "Well, why didn't he do anything to my brothers?" Because they're boys and I'm a girl and I'm different. Both of my parents placed a great deal of value on their physical appearance. My dad worked out like crazy, at that time he was a weight lifter. He would get angry if he had to miss a workout and was careful about what he ate. In an Italian family where just about everyone was overweight, my mom was the exception. My mom was born thin and remained thin. Her hair was always just right. She had the make-up, the clothes. She used to go on diets and weigh her food on Weight Watcher's scales. When she got upset, especially after the separation, she would eat vanilla ice cream and cry into the ice cream. Just sit there with the half gallon, eating it and eating it. And then I'd see her not eat the next day or not eat very much or stress out about eating. I was in that environment. I was witnessing my mom experiencing difficult things about being a woman. I thought, "If it's this bad [for me now] gosh, look at my mom! She's completely upset all the time." Part of me did not want to grow up and become a woman. I don't want to blame my parents. I was given mixed messages from them and the other adults around me. I know my parents loved me, they were just dealing with a lot of their own issues as well.

I just did not feel safe in my body.

TI: Sounds like you didn't have any positive role models. Weren't there any women in your life who were comfortable being women?

Barbara: Not that I remember. That was a problem. Especially when it came to starting my period. All I heard was, "Oh, you're going to gain ten pounds every week before you start your period! You're going to have pain. You're not going to be able to do certain things." There's always negativity about being a woman. "Girls don't do that..." Things I wanted to do. Or things I wanted to say. Or ways I wanted to dress. I always felt that it wasn't appropriate. [I remember] my mom suggesting it was time for us to go out and buy me bra. I remember yelling at her, "NO!" Running down the hallway, slamming the door and locking myself in my room. I wanted nothing to do with it. I'd rather hide the fact that my breasts were developing.

TI: Did you have any girlfriends you were close with at this time?

Barbara: I had close friends in elementary school but never discussed the changes in my body with them. When my family moved to Sacramento, I left all my friends behind and started 8th grade knowing no one. So I didn't have any close friends. At that age I was competitive in gymnastics and so for me, developing into a woman was also a hindrance in gymnastics. A lot of the girls were really young, really talented...

There's always negativity about being a woman.

TI: And really small, right?

Barbara: No hips. No bras. No nothing! Because they were kids. They had an easier time doing certain tricks and were chosen to do special events that the older kids, such as myself, were not chosen for. We had these "springboards" made for different weight categories. For 100 pounds and less there was one board, which almost everyone used. Then there was a special board for 100 pounds and up. One girl on our team was fully developed as a woman, but she was about 14 years old. She needed to use the board for 100 pounds and up. Every time it was her turn, the coach had to make a special trip [to get the board]. There was giggling from the other girls. "She needs the 'heavy' board." I also remember being fitted for a new leotard andß having to go weigh myself. At that point I think I was 101 pounds. I never weighed 100 pounds before so I freaked out. I went downstairs and the mothers of the other girls [who helped out] asked me what my weight was. I said, "98." I was so incredibly praised for still weighing less than 100 pounds. Of course, I didn't weight less than 100 pounds but that's what I told them.

TI: What was your relationship with food during this time?

Barbara: If I took all this food in my room and ate it really fast there was a strange sense of this calming that came over me. Even when it was so rushed and frantic - I had to eat everything right then and there and not let anyone know about it. There was a sense of calmness that would rush over me and I'd feel okay. I'd almost feel numb. Over time the numbness wasn't as effective as it once was. Once I actually started to make myself throw up that really made me numb. And after so many times it would pretty much relax me to [the point] where I couldn't do anything. I wouldn't feel anything physically. And mentally and emotionally I wasn't there either. I was just like a shell of a person. I didn't have to deal with anything. Everything would just get pushed aside until the next time and then it would resurface and go through the binge and purge cycle again.

If I took all this food...and ate it really fast...a strange sense of calming ...came over me.

TI: It sounds like you were using food as a drug.

Barbara: Yeah! [Laughing] I used it to numb myself and get rid of emotions I wasn't able to deal with or I didn't think were "appropriate." I would push it down with food.

TI: When did the throwing up start?

Barbara: The first time I tried to make myself throw up I was 11 years old. But I wasn't successful 'til age 18. I remember I threw up and then I cried and at that moment I thought, "Okay. What the hell did I just do?" I thought it was stupid and that I would never do that again. That's not what happened! I played this game with myself that I could handle this. "This is just something I do every now and then. It's no big deal." Rather quickly it began to escalate. The thing I thought I had control over became something I felt I had to do all the time. It was in control and I was not.

TI: When did you realize you were in trouble?

Barbara: When the only thing that I could think of was the next time I could eat, what I would eat, how I was going to hide things from the rest of my family and after I moved out [to go to college] how was I going to hide things from my roommates. I could not get these thoughts out of my mind and I dropped out of college for a full year. I realized that I couldn't focus on anything [else].

TI: Were you talking to any counselors during this time?

Barbara: I called the health center at school and told them I wanted to come in a speak with a counselor. You go in for your first appointment, which is only about a half hour long, and you basically tell someone your life story. You never see this person again because they refer you to someone else. In my case, I wasn't referred to a counselor but an eating disorders support group on campus. Before you can participate in the support group you have to meet with the therapist who runs the group. I went in the speak with her and by that time I had educated myself to the point [that I knew] by eating junk food all the time [even if you throw up afterwards], some of it will be absorbed [by your body.]. So I switched from eating junk food to eating healthy food. Basically I would eat vegetables and throw up vegetables. I remember this counselor asking me what I binged on and I said, "Vegetables." And she said "I don't think you have an eating disorder." From that moment on I shut out everything she said and I just waited for time to pass so I could leave the office. When a person comes to you and says, "I eat a large amount of food and I make myself throw up. I'm obsessed with this. I do it all the time." And the response is, "I don't think you have an eating disorder." There's something wrong with that!

TI: She thought because you were talking about broccoli and not chocolate chip cookies you didn't have an eating disorder?!

Barbara: Exactly!! Because I was focusing on healthy food instead of junk food, I was technically not bulimic. So I got really pissed off and I never went back there again. In fact, I was so angry, I avoided talking to anybody. I wouldn't go see anyone else because I automatically assumed everyone was going to think like that. That I wasn't going to find someone who was going to help me.

TI: I'd think a trained professional would be able to recognize the symptoms of an eating disorder. I guess you just didn't fit into her "picture."

Barbara: People have clear cut ideas about eating disorders. You are either anorexic, and you do this. Or you are bulimic, and you do this. Or you're an overeater and you do this. But for me, when I was younger, what do I say was my problem? I don't know. Because I had patterns of bulimia, but I didn't throw up. I exercised it off or I starved the next day, which would be anorexia. I have a difficult time explaining this to people. They'd like to fit me into a neat little category, but I don't fit.

TI: What all those disorders have in common is using a relationship with food to gain some control over an otherwise, out-of-control life.

Barbara: Yes! It was also a way for me to hide how I was feeling, because I actually numbed myself. Because if I wasn't feeling anything I wouldn't have to deal with it. I became very obsessive and controlling. I had to control everything. Everything in my room had to be a certain way. God forbid if anyone goes in my room I'd have a fit, because something would be out of place. All kinds of little things like that.

It also was a way for me to hide how I was feeling, because I actually numbed myself.

TI: Were you having any health problems?

Barbara: For a lot of bulimics, their weight doesn't necessarily reflect that they're bulimic. You can be any size and weight and be bulimic. But for me, I lost weight and was very thin. My energy was really low. I started to get more cavities. The dentist told me the enamel had worn thin on my teeth [from the stomach acid in my mouth].

TI: Any other health problems?

Barbara: I had soreness on my sides and in my back. At the base of my rib cage. It's like when you're really sick and you cough all the time. Your muscles get sore. And it's the same kind of thing [when you throw up a lot.] My voice was hoarse all the time. The glands in my face swelled up. I had real dark circles under my eyes. I had a general sense of not feeling good at all. But I pretended that I was just fine.

TI: What finally happened that caused you to get some real help?

Barbara: The day I decided that I could no longer continue to be bulimic, the day that I actually reached out and told someone was actually a real frightening experience. I was home alone and...I went crazy. And I ate and I threw up and I did this repeatedly. I don't remember exactly how many times... maybe about five times. I collapsed onto the floor and I was shaking so violently. My heart was beating really irregularly. It would beat fast and then it wouldn't beat, then it would beat really fast again. I felt like I couldn't move and get up off that floor. And I thought that I was going to die. And I just sat there with that feeling. "No one's here. No one's going to find me for hours. And I did this to myself."

TI: It sounds so lonely and scary.

Barbara: Yeah. It was awful. And then after just laying there in silence I started to cry. When I was strong enough to cry I was strong enough to get up and walk into my room. Had my roommates been home I would have told them, but they weren't. Surprisingly enough, I called my mom. I sat on the phone with her for about half an hour just shaking and trembling and crying not able to say anything. She knew it was me on the phone but she didn't know what was going on. I was finally able to explain to her what had happened that night. And she said, "Are you telling me that you're bulimic?" And I didn't answer. Then she repeated the question and I answered "Yes." That was my first step. But what people don't understand is that it takes time. And people [who cared about me] thought that because I reached out and told them I was bulimic that I was ready to completely change. They gave me information and advice I never asked for and questioned my behavior all the time. I know they were just trying to help but they were not helping. I just grew more and more angry and kept how I was feeling locked inside.

I just grew more and more angry and kept how I was feeling locked inside.

TI: And only you can decide when you are ready to take the next step.

Barbara: Exactly, but it took them some time to realize that. The reason I even went to therapy was for everyone else. To shut everyone else up. I don't think I was going for me. I wasn't serious about it. I wasn't honest with my answers to questions. [When I was asked a question in group] I didn't think through things, I just blurted out some answer I thought was appropriate. The turning point came when I realized I needed to do it for myself. That's when things changed. My relationship with myself and with them (my friends and family) changed, when I made the decision to take care of myself for me. That I was ready to do this. That I was strong enough. That I could do this. And that I could no longer continue with my old pattern.

TI: What was the first step after making that decision?

Barbara: I began to take my recovery seriously. And I began to faithfully go to my support group meetings. I got back into school. But I think what I did on a daily basis was give myself credit for not bingeing when I ate a meal and not making myself throw up after eating it. Before that I only focused on the negative. On what I hadn't done. On what I had done wrong.

TI: And when you stopped bingeing and purging, did you start gaining weight, and how did you feel about that?

Barbara: Stopping bingeing and purging doesn't happen right away. It takes tiny little steps towards stopping completely. I would maybe stop for a day and then go back to bingeing and purging. Then the spaces [without bingeing and purging] got farther and farther apart. And then I'd go a week or so. Then the irrational thoughts would come in of "I'm gaining weight." I've never gained a lot of weight, but obviously once I started keeping food down I gained weight. My clothes were always big on me and I noticed they weren't as big and I struggled with that. Or I would start experiencing a particular emotion or a sense of dissatisfaction with an event that happened or blaming myself for something I had no control over. And the only way I knew how to handle that was to eat and throw up. Because for so long that's what I had been doing and it numbed me and I didn't have to deal with it. Well, eventually what helped was finding people I could trust and talking things through.

Stopping bingeing and purging doesn't happen right away.

TI: So you found a support group that you liked?

Barbara: Yes! It was great to walk into a group and know that I wasn't going to hurt anyone's feelings. I didn't have to protect a relationships I had with any of them. I could talk about whatever I wanted to and leave. It was a helpful environment for me to be in. And some of these people would be honest with me about stuff. They would tell me straight out what was going on because they had been through it. I created a network [of friends who I trusted and who I could talk to]. If something was wrong I forced myself to verbalize it or write it down, if no one was around. That helped me. Because internalizing it just perpetuates the problem. And if I internalize it, I'm not dealing with the problem and that makes it easier for me to go back to being bulimic.

TI: How long was this road to recovery?

Barbara: I still consider myself "in recovery." I am recovered but I'm still healing myself. I still have a lot of issues with my body and my relationships with other people. The actual recovery, stopping the cycle of bingeing and purging, that seemed to take forever, but it didn't. Maybe it took about eight months. At the beginning it was moment to moment. The thoughts of food and bingeing and purging and self-hatred and things swirled around in my head every moment of the day. And when I would get through half a day [without bingeing and purging] I was all right. There were days when I would make it through the day and there would be some event in the evening that I'd get really upset about and I'd beat myself up about and then go on a serious binge and purge for a couple of days. But then there were other times, when I thought about what I was doing. Rather than just doing it, I thought about it. And I worked on thinking positively and not negatively. I gained strength from that. And in that strength I found the ability to stop for a little while longer. Slowly the gap between the last time I binged and purged got a little wider. And then I'd get to a month! And that was huge! And maybe I'd have one day when I'd go back, but then I'd snap right back into it [the positive way of dealing with emotions] and I'd go another month [without bingeing and purging].

I am recovered but I'm still healing myself.

TI: So the norm became "not doing it."

Barbara: Exactly! And at that point I was so determined not to do it any more. I realized how awful it was. How destructive and devastating it was to me and what it was doing to people around me. I was really missing out on so much of life. Living is more than just a physical state of being. It's actually experiencing life. Enjoying life. Appreciating time with friends. Relaxing and being comfortable. When I wasn't living I would think back and say "I'm not living." And what do I want to do? "I want to live!"

TI: I'm glad that you do! You seem like the kind of person who has a lot to live for and a lot to contribute to others. You know, eating disorders are a problem for lots of people, especially teen girls and women. What would you say to them, looking back on what you've learned, that might help in what they are going through right now?

Barbara: What's important to remember is that an eating disorder can be brewing for a long time and not surface 'til years later. All that time it's brewing, the eating disorder is being developed and nurtured. So the time comes when you want to stop and recover, some people expect it to stop right away. The thing is, you may have been living this way for ten, fifteen years. You can't reverse [that much] of your way of being in a day. It can be done but it's going to take time. Give yourself the time to go through that. It's tough, but it's possible.  

I was really missing out on so much life. Living is more than just a physical state of being. It's actually experiencing life. Enjoying life. Appreciating time with friends. When I wasn't living I would think back and say "I'm not living." And what do I want to do? I want to live!



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