Each New Year’s Eve for four decades, I made a solemn promise to myself that I was done with my bulimia. Done. I swore it. Never again. I would march all my cookies and donuts to the dumpster and toss them in, waving at the flying Chips Ahoy and Krispy Kreme chocolate-covered creme-filled.
THAT’S IT. I’M DONE.
In all sincerity, I would stride back into my house believing that the next day I would be a new person. Problem solved.
Within a day I’d be salvaging my stash out of the dumpster — what I could salvage — after all, who can afford to toss sixty bucks’ worth of food? Every year I would do this over and over again, my face burning with shame, unable to stop myself.
Ask anyone who has ever had an addiction. Some version of this will ring true. What will do to get what we want boggles the mind.
What’s different about my story is that I had an eating disorder for nearly forty years.
Anorexia Has Been Around a Long Time
For those of us in our sixties, anorexia, bulimia and other related eating disorders were virtually unknown. If we developed a strange habit of starving ourselves or bingeing and purging back in our twenties, we worked diligently to hide it. A few famous figures such as Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, suffered from anorexia. Blixen died weighing barely 63 lbs. She famously refused to eat anything but oysters and grapes on her visit to America in 1959.
The first symptoms reported of bulimia were by Pierre Janet in the early 1900s. However purging was considered a common medical practice and the Romans often used it to clear the way for gorging more food.
It wasn’t until 1979 that female students in America were discovered to be overeating and purging that the disorder began to receive notoriety. By that time, I’d been anorexic and/or bulimic for more than three years.
Why On Earth Do You do THAT with Food?
For decades, I sought help. When I began seeing counselors or psychiatrists, they had no familiarity with the disease. Some mocked me outright, asking me with undisguised horror, “Why on earth to you do THAT with food?” To say the least, this exacerbated my shame, and feelings of hopelessness.
I knew what was happening to my body and my teeth. I spent untold hours in agony at the dentists’ offices. Intellectually, I was perfectly aware of the damage. However, as with many compulsive behaviors, I couldn’t stop. Eating disorders aren’t issues you can reason with, any more than you can reason with a drug or alcohol addition. In this case, knowledge isn’t power. It becomes a further source of shame, as I watched myself sneak packages of Vienna Fingers and Oreos into friends’ houses so that I could secretly gorge. I carried a spoon to help the process. It tore up my throat, but the only thing that mattered was cleaning out my stomach. We all have our sick, secret systems. Mine involved a great deal of pain. Not enough to make me stop.
When Relief Finally Comes
For the first three decades of this battle there were no clinics or twelve step programs to help me end my love-hate relationship with food. By my late 50s, not an age that most think of people with eating disorders, I was still struggling. In 2011, I finally walked away from a table full of cookies when on an extended trip to Thailand. Never looked back. Not once since then have I had a single compulsion to either starve myself or binge.
I honestly have no idea what happened. One day I was just done with it. Not before it cost me all my teeth, plenty of relationships, and nearly four decades of my life hiding behind closed doors.
We’re Not Alone
Over the last decade, more women in their sixties and older have begun seeking treatment for eating disorders. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Many are still in denial, a fact that tracks with this age group and our difficulty with the shame. Many have either dealt with it for years, some had recovered and it reoccurred, and some develop the disorder later in life. The truth is that it’s far more widespread than we actually know. Older women are just as susceptible to the unfair, airbrushed images as young people are.
What’s even more troubling is that eating disorders are on the rise with males, including boys as young as eight. Some forty percent of binge-eating disorders are among men. That’s not the only issue that is affecting men and boys. A body dysmorphic issue called “Bigorexia” now haunts boys and men who are obsessed with having muscles like super heroes. Grown men are now leaving Christmas dinner to either work off calories right away, or they are constantly trying to build bigger bodies.
The Cost to All of Us
Each of us has to deal with these issues in our own unique way. There is now an entire industry built around the eating disorders from twelve step programs to long term care facilities. Sadly, there’s a lot of money to be made in treating these illnesses, which are on the rise across more demographics than ever before. Thirty million people in the US suffer from eating disorders, with about one person an hour dying from one. It’s the most deadly of any mental illness. I can speak for that- I was close to suicide many times. One in five deaths is by suicide.
Body dysmorphia begins uniquely with every one of us. As a child I wasn’t bombarded with images of perfect, airbrushed women. I was raped in the military. Eating disorders were the result. It’s not uncommon. What is common is body shaming. Being overwhelmed with images of level of perfection that simply doesn’t exist. Most models who pose for magazine photos don’t even recognize themselves after the airbrusher is done lengthening their bodies, slimming their legs, trimming their waists. Famous people have no blemishes or wrinkles until you see them in person. The constant, insane message is perfection at all costs. And people are paying with their lives to look like something that belongs in a Marvel Comic book.
What We Can Do
These days I participate on threads where women athletes bring up these issues. I am brutally frank about my own experience, the costs, and the reason for hope. Sometimes being open about your journey is remarkably healing. When we are willing to discuss our experiences, others learn that there is an end. I disagree with the notion that you’re always recovering. That reasoning creates an addiction to treatment, which means you’re never out of the orbit or the conversation about this sickness. Plenty of people with addictions heal them forever. With other options, learning about healthy body image, learning how to eat with joy, people can heal. It’s not easy. It can take years. But it’s possible. We can stop staring at false photos of people who simply don’t exist. We can understand that our value isn’t wrapped up solely in our bodies. We are each born with a unique body type, and the issue isn’t perfection. It’s a well body for the life we live. Teaching our kids and giving those we care about positive messages about their value- not about how they look physically- can go a long way towards derailing a potential disorder.
The best thing we can do for anyone we love is be aware of the symptoms (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms) and be mindful of how we speak about food, about body image. And be supportive. Above all, be supportive. Get those you love to help as soon as possible. Today help is everywhere, but it begins at home, where we can feed each other words of love and respect rather than disapproval. That’s where prevention begins, and healing can happen.