Eating disorders are our safest, most acceptable way to commit violence.
My teenaged anorexia moved into bulimia at the end of my senior year of high school. I had won a full scholarship to Tulane University, so my family and I drove down to New Orleans to check out the school. The pressure on me had built to a breaking point:
- getting into the right college
- finding money for college
- not having friends
- not having boyfriends
- father not loving me
- staying skeletally thin so I would look on the outside the way I felt on the inside, so the world could see something bad happened here.
And there was more. Anorexics obsess about food — they don’t eat it, so they think about it and talk about it and cook it and encourage others to eat it. In New Orleans, the pressure met with all the food and the obsessing about food, and instead of eating as little as possible — I binged. I binged so hard and so thoroughly — on po-boys and beignets and jambalya and whatever came my way — and then I had to sit with that, all that. I had to sit with the fact of being nourished, which wasn’t who I was. So I forced myself to throw up for the first time.
It happened again probably the next day. Then maybe a week later. Then a few days after that. Then, like all addictions, it became a daily habit. Within months, it was multiple times a day. Very soon I was praying to God to help me stop.
I threw up every day for a year and a half.
I popped a blood vessel in my left eye from the pressure of constant vomiting. The white of my eye was blood red for a month. I liked it. I looked brutal. I looked brutalized. I looked on the outside the way I felt on the inside: used, worn out, beat up, violently ill. Abandoned. I was 18.
The summer between high school and my freshman year at Princeton, I babysat for this woman in my hometown whom I really looked up to. She had this energy that I admired — tough, confident, brave, bold, earnest. One day we sat in her kitchen, and she talked about how tough it is to be a woman. She said something like “I even used to have that bulimia thing, where you make yourself throw up.”
I don’t know whether she knew about me or not, but she must have seen I was struggling. With something. I felt ashamed.
My bulimia continued through my entire freshman year of college and through the following summer. It’s difficult to find places to binge and throw up multiple times a day on a college campus, but when you’re that addicted, you find ways. All addicts do.
I lost my gag reflex and resorted to more and more violent ways to purge. Sticking handles, butter knives, anything that would fit down my throat. I drank hydrogen peroxide for a few weeks, because the vet told us to give that to our dogs to make them throw up after they drank poison.
Once I had eaten a ton of spaghetti, and when I threw it up, the noodles hung out of my throat. I had to pull them out.
I started throwing up flecks of blood. I didn’t know how to stop. Virtually every session ended with me lying face down on the bathroom floor beside the toilet, eyes watery from the violence, mouth raw, wiping saliva and vomit from my chin with toilet paper or the back of my arm, praying to God to help me never to do this again. Begging God to never let me do this again.
Hours later I would do it again.
The binge/purge cycle is something no one fully understands, but here’s an attempt: you use too much of something that feels good (food or something else) to stuff down anxiety or despair or any unbearable thoughts or feelings. The harder, faster or more violent you stuff these feelings down, the harder and faster the recoil, which is when you need to purge. You’ve binged, and suddenly you’re sitting there with an unbearably stuffed gut — the very feeling you’ve spent most of your life avoiding, which is what lead to a bingeing mind-set to begin with. You think the food is the feelings, the fullness is the problem — if only you hadn’t binged, you wouldn’t be feeling this badly. If you get rid of it, it’ll all go away. So you purge, and for a little while, you do feel much better. The uncomfortable fullness is suddenly gone. You experience a sense of clearing, euphoria from purging — a release. All those feelings you tamped down with the food are gone now, as if the food was a sponge, and it all came up. But you’re still you, and the disquiet gathers again soon, depending on how quickly you’re cycling.
Here’s how it ended: my family began to realize what I was doing. Together with my boyfriend and my sister, they held a kind of intervention and said I wasn’t allowed to go back to college unless I got professional help for my eating disorder. My mom was very upset because she knew someone who died of bulimia — it has one of the highest death rates of any mental disease. They all watched me around the clock. I called the school and made arrangements to start the eating disorders recovery program the next week. I haven’t thrown up again since that day. I had problems with binge-eating and a disordered relationship with food for years afterwards, but I didn’t throw up again. I just kept repeating the stuffing down of the cycle, without any of the joy of release. What kept me from purging again was I knew I was an addict: I knew once I started down that road again, I wouldn’t be able to stop. One drink for an alcoholic is the end, and one purge is another year in the toilet. Seeing my mom cry about how she didn’t want me to die was enough to sober me up.
Eating disorders are about wanting to be skinny, but not in the way you think. I had a father who didn’t love me and who always told me I was too fat, I was just like my mother whom he had left. My sister was wiry and tomboyish, and I was slow and feminine. He loved my sister, or felt affection for her. Because she was like him. So it is about love. But not just about love. It’s about identity, who you are. If you see yourself as fast and capable and competent and lovable, but your body looks like the opposite of all those things, you feel compelled to change that. But it’s more than that, too. If you’ve been violated, there’s no way to change what happened but to change your body. There are more reasons.
When I got back to college, I had an intake session with one of the eating disorders counselors, and I said “I haven’t thrown up in over a week, so I feel really good about that.”
She said “I feel sorry for you.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because now all that stuff you were forcing down is going to come up. Now things are going to get ugly for you.”
And they did.
Some time after that woman I admired told me about her bulimia, I ran into her at a hometown restaurant. I grabbed her kid and held her on my hip, and then I saw her.
Her eyeball was blood red.