I have to admit I’m not very excited about this particular chapter, both this chapter of the book and this chapter in my life. The only reason I’m sharing the details of it is because I think it will help other people overcome their own battles with emotional eating. I’ve referenced my past issue with an eating disorder previously, but up to this point I’ve refrained from the painful, gory details of it all.
I had bulimia for four years, off and on from the time I was 15 years old until 19. I began having dalliances with bulimia towards the end of my freshmen year of high school. I got some “advice” from an older teammate about how to make myself throw up if I ever over ate by swallowing ketchup. Her theory was that if you take a couple of spoonfuls of ketchup, it’s easier for your body to throw that up before it gets to the actual food in your stomach. It was an easy way to teach your body to regurgitate food, and easy to throw up ketchup. This sounds completing disgusting, because, well; it is. As I would be eating delicious food, I knew that I would have to pay for it by eating a couple of spoonfuls of straight ketchup to begin throwing up all that food so I wouldn’t get fat. Being fat would be terrible for gymnastics. Never mind that binging and purging wasn’t terrible for my health and therefore my gymnastics too.
This behavior was completely opposite of my true physical appearance. I was 5’8″ and 140 lbs of lean muscle. I was so lean that I didn’t have enough body fat to even start my period until I was 14. Even then, I only had it twice and then didn’t have it for another 6 months. This was before I ever started messing around with bulimia. The fact that I didn’t start my period until later wasn’t because of an eating disorder, it was just my natural state at the time. Before this disordered eating took root, I had complete freedom as it pertained to food. I ate whatever I wanted and basically never over ate on anything. I did what is now known as intuitive eating, which in a nutshell is eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied. It’s not genius. It’s completely innate. The number on the scale did freak me out because I was a good 30 pounds heavier than my teammates, never mind that I was 6″-8″ taller than them. I never thought I was fat then.
I think disordered eating became solidified for me when I attended gymnastics camp the summer after my freshmen year at what was then my dream university. This was the university I wanted to attend by earning a gymnastics scholarship. It was my number one choice at the time. I was eating lunch with that university’s assistant coach and we were discussing weight. As I was eating a bowl of ice cream he asked me what I weighed. I told him 145. He had a look of utter shock on his face! He then flippantly uttered these haunting words, “Oh. That’s too much. I mean, you look good, but that number on the scale is way too high. The head coach isn’t going to like that.” I am repeating this incongruous statement now again for clarity. He said, “I mean, you look good, but that number on the scale is way too high.”
Looking at that statement as an adult I would’ve fought back and with an incredulous look on my face said something such as, “Those stupid words that just came out of your mouth couldn’t make less sense. You just said there’s nothing wrong with the way I look but the number on the scale is too high. It’s high because I have muscle and a lot of it. Muscle helps me do gymnastics. You’re an idiot.” Even better I may have truthfully added, “You’re also a dick.” Of course that’s not how I responded. I was fearful and was willing to do anything to earn his, and especially the head coach’s, approval of me. I wanted to attend that school and earn a scholarship. My eating immediately changed. I started to go hungry and enact all of these insanely restrictive rules. None of which worked long term because I was growing and I was also doing 3-4 hours of physically strenuous activity four to six days per week. I would be too hungry to follow the rules. When I would cave into the natural, physical hunger it was no holds barred.
My struggle with body image didn’t have one starting point, rather it was a series of events over a year or two that culminated into what would become a Herculean problem that ruled my life. That statement from that coach at that particular time in my life was certainly one of the big events that not only planted a bad seed but allowed it to take root.
A binge was terrible. It was something I felt as if I couldn’t control and had a life of it’s own. It was disgusting. Shoveling food in my mouth, not even tasting it, let alone enjoying it. All the while a binge would go on I was completed filled with self-loathing. Every cell of my body was filled with self-loathing. I would say to myself, “You’re a slob. You’re fat. Look at you! You can’t even control yourself at all. How do you ever think you can make it in gymnastics. You’re not good enough. You’re fat. Look at all of that food you just gorged yourself on. What is wrong with you?!” Then the shame would set in. The shame and embarrassment consumed me. “What if everyone or even anyone ever knew what you are doing? You’re going to get found out.” The shame was immense. Then the fear would set in. The fear of getting “even fatter” would then drive me to the toilet to vomit it all up.
It hurt. Throwing up food violently hurt. My throat would hurt from jamming my finger down it. It would hurt from the food chunks that were ejected. It would hurt from the acid which was certainly consuming my insides. Bulimia is such an embarrassing disease. People, and almost no one knew I was bulimic, would just casually talk about vomiting from naturally being sick for instance and say things like, “I couldn’t imagine that people actually make themselves throw up on purpose. Even when I’m really sick with the flu I do anything to avoid throwing up.” This only enhanced my shame. Just like everyone else, I of course thought throwing up was awful and completely nasty. I hated it. I just didn’t know what to do with all of my feelings and didn’t know how to eat nutritiously to control my weight. Food wasn’t something to be enjoyed, that was for others. The skinny, naturally tiny people like my teammates could enjoy food. They deserved it. I wasn’t like them. For me, food was to be controlled. It was to be manipulated so I could achieve the body of my dreams and therefore the life of my dreams. Everything in my life would be perfect if I could be skinny and tiny.
My brother knew. One day he heard me making myself throw up. I didn’t know he was home and went to the bathroom in the basement to hide and go throw up after I ate too much carmel corn. Too much then was classified in my mind as any. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat any treat type of food. I felt like I blew my diet if I’d eat any of the forbidden food so today would be the last day of eating caramel corn and I would just eat the whole bag. My brother told my mom in front of me that he heard me throwing up. She asked me if it were true. I told her yes but I’d never do it again. She didn’t press for more. That was the last we spoke of it. Ever. I never got any help when I lived under their roof.
My mom was a denial expert. She was raised by an alcoholic father and an enabling mother. She married an alcoholic and became an enabler just like her mother that modeled that behavior. I don’t think she maliciously didn’t get me help. I think she just had so many problems to deal with, she couldn’t bother with helping me. She couldn’t face that it was even a problem. After all, if her star athlete, model student had problems, it would mean that she had problems, and that just wasn’t allowed. At this time my Dad’s drinking had escalated. He wasn’t home very much and when he was you didn’t want to be around him anyway. He was scary. He was mean and the only way to survive was to get out of the house as much as possible. My parents lost their business and our sole source of income. We had no money. The only way I could continue to do gymnastics was the gym where I trained cut us a break and I taught classes to pay for my team fees.
I had an excess of negative feelings. I was certainly not allowed to discuss it with my family. I felt very alone. Food was always there but I had a tumultuous, abusive relationship with it.
It wasn’t like every single day I binged and purged constantly for four years. It ebbed and flowed. I was busy. I didn’t always have a lot of time to feed my addiction. Some days were better than others. If I was happy and having fun, I wouldn’t binge. Although, there were certainly days when I didn’t eat all day.
One particular week of my junior year, I didn’t consume any food for four days except two plain tortillas and one 2 liter of this product called Diet Squirt per day. This particular soft drink had vitamins in it. I reasoned it would make up for the vitamins I was losing by not eating. This was smack dab in the beginning of state qualifying time for gymnastics. Of course I lost weight and thus I considered it completely successful. However, the dramatic weight loss that far too many people complimented me on, thereby encouraging it, was followed up by a total collapse of my system. I got very sick with the flu and had a terrible fever. I missed an entire week of school and 10 days of practice and forced myself to the first qualifier. I would have periods of time like this, not eating all day all the while going to school all day and practicing gymnastics for three to four hours.
Looking back at all of this and it’s a wonder I didn’t die. I don’t mean that casually. How I survived is a miracle. I wasn’t just starving and binge/purging and going to school and being sedentary. I was in this compromised health state and doing GYMNASTICS! You know, those death defying stunts you see in the Olympics. Although I was never at that level, I was still doing some amazing stuff. Flipping off of the high bar 9 feet in the air, doing aerial cartwheels on a four inch wide balance beam four feet in the air, flipping and twisting off of the beam, let alone floor routines. Completing a full floor routine with tumbling is like sprinting at your absolutely quickest rate while you’re flipping and twisting upwards of eight feet in the air. And…oh yeah…you have to land, preferably on your feet. It requires an enormous amount of energy and focus. Gymnastics is an extremely dangerous sport and I was routinely doing something (binging, purging and alternately starving myself) that by itself was extremely dangerous to my health.
It’s terrifying to think about how much I endured back in high school and early college. Mostly though, it makes me very sad. Sad that I suffered so utterly. Sad that there are so many people all over the world suffering from emotional eating and it’s effects. I work with people everyday that struggle, not with bulimia per se, but definitely emotional eating. I’m here to say that there is so much hope. The past life I just described is so far removed from my daily thought processes now that it seems incomprehensible that I used to live like this. Just as bulimia didn’t start for me in an instant, it didn’t end for me in an instant either. Rather it was a series of epiphanies, good influences from some great people around me and ultimately, decisions on my part that ended it for good. For good indeed.