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

April 1997

When Stephanie was 17 she decided that her weight was the cause of her all of her problems. That's when she became anorexic. For the next seven years she tried to destroy her body until she realized that if she didn't get help she would die. At 27, Stephanie is now healthy, happily married, and the mother of a 2 year old son. She does public speaking about her experiences with eating disorders.

The InSite: What kind of eating disorder did you have?

Stephanie: Basically bulimia. I think of bulimia and compulsive overeating as going hand in hand. I have had some anorexic behavior but for the most part it's been bulimia.

TI: When did the behavior first start developing?

Stephanie: I think I was about 17 years old. Looking back now I know that I had problems with food way before that. My parents were divorced. I was about 6 or 7. My parents were really young. My mom was working. My brother and I were kind of "latch-key" kids from a very early age. She had friends and she started doing socializing and stuff and my brother and I were always kinda "in the wings." We didn't see much of my dad. He was a police officer. He worked nights. They were both young and they had other priorities. I started using food, you know, for comfort. We didn't have a whole lot of food, at least not the good stuff that everybody else had at school. So I started overeating things that were bad for me... candy, Cokes, and then it started with protein, you know like meats and stuff like that. In the end I overate anything and everything I could get my hands on.

TI: So did you have a weight problem in high school?

Stephanie: Surprisingly, no. But I'm very tall. I'm almost six feet and I grew very fast. So I could eat a lot of this food and not have it show up, until my senior year when I started to gain some weight. I certainly wasn't what anyone would call "obese." But I was a big girl. I can't remember not feeling like I was "too big." I went to college when I was 17, and I went to a lot of the fraternity parties, drinking and things like that. And then I got heavy. I was close to 200 pounds.

"Oh, my God, I'm fat!"
...that's the reason I wasn't happy...
If I got thin it would be different.

TI: What kind of feelings did that bring up for you?

Stephanie: There was one moment when I was walking across a parking garage and saw my reflection in a tinted car window and the first thought was "Oh, my God, I'm fat!" I felt horrible, awful. I was ashamed of how big I was. And I had been going through kind of a rough period and wasn't happy, or at least I hadn't been at that point. I don't know what it was or how it was communicated to me, but it just became obvious at that very moment that I was fat and that's the reason I wasn't happy... why things weren't going the way I wanted them to go. If I got thin it would be different. And boom! It was that very moment that I thought "I need to diet."

TI: What happened then?

Stephanie: Well, that's when my anorexic behavior started. I started eating less and less. And then I started exercising compulsively... constantly. I went way beyond what was healthy for me. I would run until my body broke down, and I would have diarrhea or I would throw up. One time I even fainted. I wasn't being very safe about exercising, and I also wasn't being very safe about the amount of calories I was taking in.

TI: So you probably lost weight?

Stephanie: I lost a ton of weight real fast. I got down to 125 pounds. I lost about 75 pounds in about three months.

TI: Any other physical effects?

Stephanie: I was freezing cold all the time. My mom bought me a portable heater for my room because the heat in the house wasn't enough. I would take a hot, hot shower, put on a ton of clothes and run to my bedroom, which I had been heating up, and get under about six blankets to go to sleep at night because I was freezing cold all the time. I remember having a lot of stomach aches, but that was just pure hunger. I would eat lunch and that would be my only meal of the day.

TI: Did anybody notice you had lost all this weight?

Stephanie: Yeah, my mom noticed that I was losing weight but she just thought I was dieting and running. She didn't think anything of it. She wasn't overly observant, and I think that kinda perpetuated my disease.

I got thin and my life actually got worse!

TI: So you thought if you got thin you'd be happier. What happened?

Stephanie: Nothing. I got thin and my life actually got worse! Because I became hyper aware of my body image where I wasn't to this degree before. Every time I looked in the mirror now I was seeing where I needed to "improve," where I needed to lose more fat. Every time I put on my clothes I was so anxious. Are they going to be loose? Are they going to be tight? How are they going to fit?

TI: Did you weigh yourself a lot?

Stephanie: I weighed myself every day... a couple of times. I worked at a police department up in their office, and they had a sort of gym changing area downstairs with one of those doctor scales. So I was on that every day. And that would sort of dictate what kind of mood I was going to be in. If I dropped a pound (I was losing a pound a day at least)... there was this euphoric feeling. But if I maintained or I gained... it was horrible.

TI: Did you ever say to yourself "I wonder if I am anorexic?"

Stephanie: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I was working at a police department with a lot of young males. I was getting a lot of attention. It was all of a sudden, "Hey, you lost a lot of weight. You look good!" There was this one guy from the fire department who used to call me "Annie Anorexia" and laugh about it. That was kind of a joke, but I wasn't anorexic as far as I was concerned. I mean, those were skinny people!

I tried to eat a little bit, but I couldn't!
It was such a total loss of control...

TI: What was the moment when you said, "I really have a problem. I need some help."

Stephanie: Well it wasn't until the bulimia started. You know, I hit a point where I couldn't not  eat anymore. My body was starving. I think that is a critical moment for a lot of girls. You either fall deep into the anorexia to where a lot of them don't come out. Or you do what I did and you can't go any further, and you start binging. I tried to eat a little bit, but I couldn't! It was such a total loss of control... Just unable to stop myself, and then a panic would set in because of all the food I just consumed in a very short amount of time. Then I started taking tons of laxatives and caffeine and diet pills. I actually didn't start throwing up 'til later. 'Cause I knew that if I started throwing up I was bulimic. So I did everything but... including crystal methamphetamine and cocaine to not eat.

TI: What was the beginning of the end of all that for you?

Stephanie: I went through seven years of this cycle of horrible living. My end was kinda like... I had been up for five or six days, and I was taking all these drugs and I still couldn't stop myself from eating! And I worked at a radio station at the time, and I happened to flip through this public service announcement that said "If you think you might have trouble with food give us a call and maybe we can help." And I thought "You know what? Maybe there is something really wrong with you. And maybe you should try to find out what it is."

"Dad, I'm taking all these pills all the time and I can't stop."
...He told me to "Knock it off!"

TI: And other than the fireman who was teasing you, you got no feedback from anyone that you might need some help?

Stephanie: None. Actually one time... I would buy those giant boxes of Ex-Lax and I would take 30 pills at a time. I was sleeping on the floor in the bathroom because I had no control of my bowels. And my mom never noticed. I took the laxatives to my dad. He's very body image conscious and he works out all the time, and I said, "Dad, I'm taking all these pills all the time and I can't stop." And he yelled at me. He told me to "Knock it off!" and he took them away from me, and he left the room.

TI: As if it was within your control to stop?

Stephanie: Right! "Oh, 'Stop' Is that what I'm supposed to do? Gee I didn't I think of that!"  That was the only time I ever tried to let anyone know what was going on. Most people never knew.

TI: So what happened when you made that phone call to the place you read about at the radio station?

Stephanie: It got uglier. I went down to see Marcie (a counselor). I was still high on crank. And it took about a week or two before I was willing to stop that and actually trust her. She told me later that she didn't know if I was going to make it or not. She said, "I saw you standing on a fence, and I didn't know if I could make you fall my way." She didn't suggest moving in or living there (at the treatment house) because she thought that might scare me off. She's probably right. But I went every night after work. To groups and to meet with the nutritionist.

TI: What kind of people did you meet there in the groups?

Stephanie: I met some good friends. Most of the women in the group were compulsive overeaters. But I could really relate. Especially to have some older women to talk to because my mother freaked out when I told her that Marcie had said I was bulimic but that I could get help. So I was doing this on my own. I couldn't eat around my mother. She couldn't handle it. And my dad and I didn't talk for about two months. My dad is a police officer so I told him that I'm doing crank and everything to not eat. That I have a problem and I'm telling you to let you know that this is going on, and that I'm taking care of my problem. And he got very upset and he yelled at me told me that I was a screw-up.

I wonder if someone would
have talked to me...

TI: It was incredibly brave of you to do this on your own with no support like that.

Stephanie: I know that now. I must have had some shred of self-worth and that really kind of came through. This is why I talk to high school kids. I don't know if I do any good or not, but I wonder if someone would have talked to me... I know I have this ability to care about myself and maybe it would have come out before I did all this damage.

TI: What was it like at the treatment facility?

Stephanie: I was in two groups. One was for chemical dependency (which I definitely had a problem with at that point). And the other was for people with eating disorders. The chemical dependency group started out with two girls and eight or nine men. Then the other girl dropped out so it ended up being just me and a bunch of guys which was actually good 'cause I could get a male perspective on a lot of things.

TI: And you were giving them a female perspective too!

Stephanie: Yeah, right! Exactly. And the other group for eating disorders was strictly women, and once my 3 or 4 months was up in the chemical dependency group I didn't feel the need to stay on, but I stayed on in the eating disorders group for years. In fact I keep in contact with a couple of the women in there because it was really a place where I could... well nobody thought you were nuts! Not being able to stop eating. Everybody was open. They were sharing on a deeper level. You could come to them and just talk about anything, and they wouldn't say you were crazy. They wouldn't say, "No, you're not fat and shut up!" No one denied you anything that you were going through.

...they became the "family problem."
...what everyone focused on
instead of the real problems.

TI: In all the stories that people shared in that group, what would you say were the common threads?

Stephanie: A lot of the women, did what I did. I was kind of my mother's care taker. There was a lot of over developed sense of responsibility. Taking on adult roles within the family. A lot of pressure that you just don't know how to handle any other way. And for some of women that I know that have had overeating disorders, they became the "family problem." They were heavy as children. They became what everyone focused on instead of the real problems. Sexual abuse was a common problem. And some physical abuse. A lot of it was just basically emotional abuse. Being left alone. Being treated like your thoughts didn't matter. In my case my parents were both pretty verbally abusive. To the children and to each other.

TI: It sounds like the parents are trying to control the kids and the kids fight back by overeating.

Stephanie: Yeah! A lot of these women would say that people would hide food from them. So for them it was "You're not going to tell me how to eat." Or in the case of anorexics, "You're not going to make me eat!" It's a control issue in many respects. You may make me do this or do that. Or say this to me or do this to me, but only I can put stuff in my body or not put stuff in my body. And part of the problem is that we as a culture have gotten so out of touch with what is healthy. In my opinion sugar is just as powerful a drug as anything else.

TI: So it's not just changing this eating behavior. Don't you also need to feel like you have control in your life in general so you don't have to be stuck over-controlling this one area?

Stephanie: Absolutely. In our group, someone would come in with something that had happened to them at home or at work, and Marcie would first help us understand how we felt. She'd say "When someone says this to you how does that make you feel inside? And who was it in your life that used to make you feel that way?" That's sort of the process. It's slow. But it's very powerful when something finally connects, and you can take that out of there and can apply some of the principles when you're dealing with everybody.

It was such a huge relief... to actually hear someone talk about themselves and it's you that they're talking about.

TI: Do you remember a time when you were in that group when something major clicked into place for you?

Stephanie: It was something another girl was sharing. She was another bulimic, and she had had a binge and purge [overeating episode followed by throwing up]. She was just sharing what led up to the binge and what led up to the purge, and it was like someone was describing me!  And I started to cry. It was such a huge relief... to actually hear someone talk about themselves and it's you that they're talking about. Really I felt like I wasn't alone anymore. And I felt... okay I'm really not nuts and my experience is really not just a one of a kind thing. And that was huge. Because it's so lonely. And you're so ashamed of yourself with the bulimia. But you can kind of maintain a "normal" weight (even though you're not doing it safely). So you can hide bulimia. It's not like anorexia or compulsive overeating where you "wear" it.

TI: If you could say something to someone who is going through this, what would it be?

Stephanie: Listen, I hear there's some stuff going on. I haven't found that my looks have anything to do with how happy I am. I hear that you are in pain. I'm here if you want to talk to me. I'm here if you want my help. But you can't really force anybody to go into therapy or do these things if they're not ready or they don't want to. You can just let them know that you are there for them and that you will listen to them and you won't laugh at them. I'd say, "I don't think you're crazy, but the eating is only a symptom of the real pain."

I'd say, "I don't think you're crazy, but the eating is only a symptom of the real pain."

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