Chapter 15 – Tonya
“No one is immune from addiction; it afflicts people of all ages, races, classes, and professions.” – Patrick J. Kennedy
It has been so long since I last binged or purged that I don’t remember exactly when this was. I couldn’t have been older than 29 the last time I forced myself to vomit. However, it was an addiction that lasted off and on for close to fifteen years. I always considered myself and was considered by others to be anorexic, but I struggled with bulimia from time to time as well. Oddly, I could go several months or even years without purging, only to relapse unexpectedly.
I always tried to keep my purging in check. I never purged more than a few times a week even at my worst. It seemed I was stuck in all-or-nothing habits, taking days off and binging or running and training and eating smaller amounts. My binges were never extreme. I've read about people consuming well over 4,500 calories in a single binge session, and while I could down quite a bit of food during a binge, I never approached these enormous quantities. However, I was so afraid of gaining weight that even a little too much was loads too much in my mind. This fear of fat went much deeper than being afraid of the weight itself. Becoming fat or even gaining weight represented being unaccepted. It translated into failure in my mind, and I believed that it set a person up for instant ridicule and criticism. In spite of my great fears about my body expanding, there were times when I did outright binge.
My favorite binge food was ice cream – ice cream with anything, really: cereal, peanut butter, pretzels, cookies or chocolate chips. Ice cream went down easily and also came up easily. Another food I tended to binge on was cereal. I was often afraid of getting caught throwing up, so when the need to purge would come over me, I would grab my running shoes and head to the trails. I lived a short jog from a large network of mountain trails, so it was easy to find a tree to take cover behind so I could vomit in secret. The jog leading to these secret spots I found where I could throw up would upset my stomach and this made purging easier as well. Initially it was hard to make myself throw up. I had to stick my finger down my throat, which made my eyes water and my throat burn. But over time I could just lean over, press my arm against my stomach and make nearly anything come up.
During this time it was hard to manage my diet. I ate relatively healthy foods when I wasn’t binging and continued to train hard. Even though I didn’t purge on a daily basis, the binge-purge cycle was nearly impossible to break. Even in the throes of it, I could go a week or two without purging, but would always eventually slip again
For many reasons, binging and purging is one of the hardest addictions to give up. The pure satisfaction of stuffing the stomach with forbidden rich foods combined with the rush of feel-good chemicals to the brain after a purge is nearly impossible to overcome. Many people binge and purge as a way to deal with stress or to avoid uncomfortable feelings. As with any addiction, It’s a momentary escape from reality. Though I eventually quit the cycle, the temptation haunted me for years. It was only after the fifth year into recovery that I noticed that the temptation, even under extreme stress, was completely gone. I have met many women who have had bulimia, some of them now recovered and some still struggling.
In 2005, not long after I was at a more stable weight, I was running on the trails near my house and met a woman named Tonya. I introduced myself, and we ran together for a while. I would never have guessed that this bright, inviting woman had a dark battle with an eating disorder in her past. To me she came across as a successful mother and career woman. Tonya offered me some excerpts from her past and her views on how she started to recover. I was shocked to know that during her darkest periods, she had used Ipecac to induce vomiting. It was only when she was pregnant that she was able to fully address her bulimia. As is often the case, those of us with eating disorders are more willing to stop certain behaviors in order to prevent harm to others. Eventually we learn that it’s okay to be kind to ourselves, too. Before Tonya reached a healthier point in her life, she captured her despair in her journal entries, offering insight into the depression and overwhelming feelings she continually dealt with during those hard times. It’s amazing to see how strong and confident she comes across now when reading the following, an account of her life in her own words and bits of her personal journal while she was struggling:
I had an eating disorder for fifteen years, twenty if you count the years I continued to relapse. Somehow, through it all, I finished college and graduate school, traveled abroad and kept jobs. I think the severity and length of my illness had to do with my secrecy. When I finally opened up to receiving help, I found the wrong help and fell into another addiction. Finally, in my thirties becoming a mother helped me break free of addiction and I sought therapy to piece together my broken self-esteem.
I dieted to lose weight between age 11 and 13. The pediatrician discovered my weight loss and found I was anemic so he told my mother to give me milkshakes and iron-fortified cereal. Once my mother became interested in my eating, I became secretive. When I was 12 years old and weighed 80 pounds, I wanted to lose weight without anyone noticing. I was proud of my self-control.
August 3, 1978
“Mommy keeps telling me I haven’t been seeing enough of my friends lately. I don’t care. Sometimes I feel trapped when I play with a friend, because I realize there probably isn’t anything better to do. Today she mentioned it so I called Lynn. (She said she’d call me tomorrow.) She couldn’t play, but Francine came over and we went swimming.
Many people keep telling me “you’ve gained some weight there, Huh?” I haven’t noticed any visible change since the Dr. told me to eat more. I don’t want to look fat at all! I want to lose the weight I gained but I don’t want anyone to know. If people notice I gained weight they may also notice if I lose it.”
By high school, repeated diet failures led me to binging, which led to a pitiful self-esteem. I was hopeful and optimistic when I fasted, exercised, or took laxatives. I could lose 5 pounds in a week and feel wonderful, then gain it all back and feel rotten. My weight fluctuated from 115 to 145. When I first read about bulimia, I disregarded the disease. I thought purging was a great idea and I succumbed. Bulimia was different from anorexia because I completely lost control of my eating. I had a diagnosable and treatable problem, but I kept it a secret.
When I went to college I was finally free of the watchful eyes of my parents and had the freedom to totally give into my dark desires to binge and purge. When most students left for fall break my freshman year, I stayed behind in the dorm. I tried to lock myself in my room with no food in an attempt to gain control over my binging. Over the years, with unlimited food in the dining halls, I became severely bulimic. I was binging and puking twice a day and sometimes more. I felt like I had ruined my life and wished someone would save me from myself.
My first attempt to get professional help failed. I let out my secret in an eating disorders support group. I admitted that during my bulimic episodes I turned into a zombie and completely shut out reality. I would walk in a trance to various dining halls where I hoped not to be seen by anyone I knew. I found corner seats and hid embarrassing amounts of food behind the college paper. My mind was numb as I ate. Then in a panicked state, I roamed from bathroom to bathroom seeking privacy. I learned I wasn’t alone in this behavior! I imagine the other girl-zombies wandered the campus every evening like I did. We respected each other’s privacy since we couldn’t help each other. All I learned from the support group was that Ipecac could induce vomiting.
March 3, 1987
I’ve discovered a miracle drug. It’s so good I might die from it.
In 15 minutes the foul-tasting almondy syrup will coat the walls of my stomach, completely surrounding the partially chewed up crap that I inhaled at the co-op. And Pow, I will feel it in my throat. I’m waiting patiently, calm. I know this shit is reliable. I’ll puke up my guts! I feel it coming on.
When I graduated college I moved to Colorado. I found an alcoholic and manic-depressive but very intelligent boyfriend. He was 13 years older and had five kids in another state. The relationship was sick but I finally had someone whom I could speak openly to about my dark secret. He loved me and accepted everything about me, including my bulimia. I could tell him how painful it was to have to rush off to work with hard pieces of toast up my nose from puking and he would sympathize. It even became a toast-up-the-nose loving joke between us. This intimacy was the first step in my recovery. I binged and purged less frequently. Unfortunately, I replaced my own out-of-control feelings with the chaos and abuse of a sick partner.
I met another alcoholic when I was 28 and once again, there was never a dull moment. He was handsome and charming, and full of anger from an unfair childhood. When I told him about my eating disorder, he didn’t comprehend it or care. By this time it didn’t matter that he didn’t understand – my eating disorder wasn’t so important anymore. I had new problems. I was pregnant, we were broke and he was bouncing checks to buy beer. I knew this wasn’t the way my life was supposed to unfold, but my self-esteem was still the pits. While I understood that I couldn’t control his alcoholic rages, I wondered how this man had so much control over me.
Like my boyfriend’s love helped me break free from bulimia, my infant son helped me break free from my second neurosis – codependency. Alcohol and babies don’t mix. It was a matter of survival.
I saw a therapist when I was in my early thirties. I confessed to occasional bulimic episodes in which I felt extreme maternal guilt. The therapist predicted that I’d grow out of my eating disorder. I grew into other things so that my eating disorder is a smaller part of who I am.
There was a time when I visualized myself recovered from my eating disorder: I would have a perfect, healthy, athletic body that looks good in a bikini. People would look at me and see a healthy person who has no problem with weight or body image. People would wish they had my eating habits when they’d watch me take healthy portions of all the right foods – and stop when I’m full.
I can’t say recovery had too much to do with conquering food and achieving bodily health. Rather healthier eating was a consequence of regaining the parts of myself that didn’t have to do with food or my body. I took pride in parenting, took a new interest in relationships, and made some accomplishments in my career. I even looked back on some of my accomplishments of the past and appreciated who I was. I had a lot of endurance! I am very sad that I wasted so much time and energy in my life, but I hope I’m a more empathetic person as a result. Bulimics experience emotional extremes. At good times I believe these extremes make me live fuller and deeper. I developed ways to release my emotions without throwing up. For one thing, I run.
Yesterday a friend lamented over a former boyfriend who always shopped and cooked for her. “It was wonderful,” she said. She likes a man who cooks. I said very naturally, that I have an eating disorder and wouldn’t want a man who cooked for me because I’d feel stressed out by the obligation to eat the food he made. I’m happy my boyfriend is not a cook or big into food.
I have my idiosyncrasies. For example, I won’t eat doughnuts because that was a binge food and I eat cheese and crackers late at night when I want that comfort. I think the boyfriend conversation yesterday is a real statement about my recovery. Saying I have an eating disorder isn’t hard for me. It’s no longer a dark secret. I’m not ashamed.
Like Tonya, I have my peculiarities with food that seem to have lessened over time. However, I am aware now that these are normal. Even the most grounded human beings occasionally eat for comfort or avoid certain foods. Sometimes there is a fine line between what is considered normal and what is considered pathological behavior. With more people developing orthorexia, that line can be difficult to define. Orthorexia is a condition in which a person becomes overly focused on eating foods perceived to be pure, clean or healthy. The obsession can be taken too far and develop into a case of anorexia. For me, the answer lies in that which supports my health. If an odd behavior is interfering with my well-being, general health or happiness, it’s time for a change. When I notice that I’m overly focused on food or my weight, I have to ask myself what’s underneath it. What stress or emotion is at the root of causing me to obsess again? Once the feeling or emotion is addressed, it’s easier to let go of the obsession.
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