In the midst of recent chaos, I found myself thinking, helpfully: I feel fat. Am I getting fat? Then there were nights when a handful of Junior Mints failed to do their job of soothing me. New thought: Shit, I’m using food to medicate anxiety.
While I’ve had a great deal of recovery from bulimia/anorexia, and I can often joke about my relationship with food, there was a time when there was nothing funny about the stuff I was doing with food.
Today I am sharing an essay about my early recovery from an eating disorder. It reminds me what real problems are: killing myself with food by purging every day. That’s a problem I used to have. It was a big one. Remembering a precarious time in 1992 helps me get in touch with reality: Having boxes to unpack in a new home isn’t a problem; it’s a luxury– one that could be snatched from my hands if I don’t remember who I am, where I come from, and what my diseased thinking around food could do if I don’t stay close to my recovery.
* * *
I stared at the ceiling of my dorm room.
I thought about my schedule for the next day. Sundays were usually relaxing, but finals were about to start so we’d be camped out in the library with half the school. I had been relying on a steady diet of Hot Tamales, Diet Coke and purging to get me through for months. Now all of that was off the table.
No one knew I had gone to the meeting. I was scared to tell anyone just in case it didn’t do any good. My parents and best friends had figured out that I was getting really weird about food; they suspected the worst, and they were right.
For years I summoned every ounce of willpower to control the bingeing and purging, but my reserves could no longer bring full 24-hours of relief from the cycle. The week before I went to my first meeting I fainted in the shower after trying to throw up a chocolate muffin. I believed that if those 12-step meetings didn’t work I would probably die like a junkie, except instead of heroin and needles I would be surrounded by snacks from a vending machine and lots of wrappers.
I turned on my side and stared at the wall. In the darkened room I could make out the picture on the wall. I could see an outline of myself with my sorority sisters—my silver hoop earrings and the letter shirt I wore on the day we pledged. It was supposed to be a happy day. I’d been invited in—my name was on the stationary engraved in gold and blue letters. That was just over a year before and even though I couldn’t see in the dark, I remembered how my eyes looked that day. I passed as a normal college girl, but my eyes betrayed me to anyone looking closely. They were puffy around the edges and there was a sadness that was usually mistaken for shyness.
Right after I got my invitation to join the sorority, we were assigned “big sisters” from the class above us. It was a tradition to spend the night at the house altogether. My big sis, a sweet girl from my all-girls high school in Dallas, drove me to my dorm to grab what I needed for the overnight.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, leaving her to idle in the parking lot while I ran up to my room. I was supposed to be packing a bag with a contact lens case, some deodorant and something to sleep in. But, first I stuffed my mouth full of as many pretzels and crackers as I could. I thought about going for the popcorn, but the kernels hurt my throat when they came back up.
As that the picture was snapped later that afternoon, I was obsessing about how many calories I had digested during the binge. Did I get it all out?
Now in the dark, I wondered how different I would have looked if I had started going to 12-step meetings years ago.
I flipped again and stared at the ceiling. Had I really introduced myself to everyone as “Christie, a bulimic”? The details of the meeting swirled in my head. It had seemed like an utterly unremarkable way to spend an hour until the woman next to me started talking. “I used to drive around at night eating until I was sick,” she explained, “but I don’t do that anymore.” As I heard her tell her story, I realized that I had actually gone a few minutes without thinking about food for the first time in years.
For years my bulimia had been gaining strength like a hurricane that starts as a colored smudge on the radar way off in Atlantic Ocean, but eventually gains speed and destroys entire coastal cities. Areas of my life were slowly being picked off by bulimia’s high winds. There was no dating, very few friends—all of that replaced by piles of secrets about food. My energy was devoted to food—where to get it, how to eat it secretly and how to throw it up. I knew every bathroom on campus.
But some part of me—brain, soul, spirit—came to a standstill during the meeting.
“Do you have any questions?” A young woman with kind eyes asked me when the meeting was over. I was overwhelmed and afraid that the buzzing would start again as soon as I got in my car alone.
“I’m just wondering what I should eat. . . ” I sputtered out what sounded like half-statement and half-question. I’d betrayed my biggest secret: a devastating ignorance about the most basic of human functions.
“We suggest that you eat three meals a day,” she said simply, handing me her number on a piece of notebook paper. “Call me before you throw up again.”
“That’s it?” I asked, feeling the panic rise, wondering what I would do when the obsession started again.
“Come to meetings.”
After the meeting I shocked myself by not bingeing even though I was alone and my food stash was right there. I didn’t let myself hope that my new-found freedom would last or that I would never find myself again on my knees before the toilet coaxing food from my gut to the bowl.
I felt sleep coming, at last. I reached my hand up to the shelf above my bed and felt the piece of paper that had the nice lady’s number on it. I planned to call if I wanted to throw up.
As for what to eat tomorrow, I decided to start with breakfast and then take it from there.