Friday, May 08, 2009
Guest post: One woman's story
This moving guest post, written by a 36-year-old reader, expresses vividly one young woman's slide into disordered eating and then an eating disorder. Her story involves a family that unwittingly triggered her ED. For every family like this, there are many others who do not value their children's thinness above all, and who don't contribute to pathology. So while I don't agree with her conclusion that "It's hard to have an eating disorder without the support of family and friends," I know from my own family's experience just how much validation and--as she points out--admiration comes your way just for being thin. Many of us don't realize we're validating pathological behaviors. I hope this will be a wake-up call for some.
A few months before my younger sister's wedding, she jokingly challenged my older sister and I to lose weight. My younger sister is very petite. She has always been very skinny. My parents (especially my mother) adore her.
At the time I was going through a spiritual crisis and felt a loss of control. I decided to go on a calorie-counting diet. I felt I couldn't control other things in my life. But I COULD control what I ate, and I could control how much I weighed.
It started fairly healthy. I bought a food scale and allowed myself the minimum amount of calories that experts recommend. My feeling is I'd get to my goal weight for the wedding, and when that was done I'd go off the diet.
I started off this diet as someone who has never really been overweight. I just wasn't thin like my sister. My weight was within the recommended ranges.
By the time the wedding came around I was thin. My parents were so proud. My dad even made comments in private about how he thought my beauty overshadowed the bride's. I received so much attention. I felt so proud. One of my parent's friend's kept praising me about my amazing willpower. One aunt did express concern. She said I looked too thin. I remember loving this attention.
At the wedding, I ate...a LOT. After weighing myself I realized that I couldn't just go off the diet. All the weight would come back. I'd have to stay on the diet for life. I told myself that was fine. I'd go on breaks sometimes and eat what I want.
My life and happiness became centered on these breaks which usually occurred on holidays and trips. Food became the center of my life. Nothing else could really excite me or make me happy. I'd spend hours and hours looking at restaurant and food websites.
Meanwhile, I kept wanting to lose more weight. Soon I came to the point where my weight at my sister's wedding seemed fat to me.
I don't think I had a body image distortion problem. I knew I was thin. I didn't look in the mirror and see a fat person. I saw a beautifully thin person. (Now though I look back at these photos and I AM thinner than I imagined).
The wedding had been in May. By Thanksgiving, I was underweight. My birthday was around this time and has a gift my mom took me shopping. She was so proud of my weight loss--bought me clothes to show it off.
At Thanksgiving, I opened my presents. Everyone wanted me to try the clothes on. Even though I was underweight, they had bought me clothes that were still tight. I could wear them, but I knew if I gained a little weight, I could no longer wear them.
I wasn't a teenager during all this. I was a mother with a four year old son and an aunt with two nieces. I think a part of me knew I had a problem, but another part of me denied that. I remember seeing someone horribly thin jogging and thinking. I am NOT like her. I'm okay.
I didn't want to die and leave my child an orphan. I told myself I was fine. I told myself there was a difference between eating disorders and strict healthy dieting. But I think a small part of me knew I was fooling myself. Maybe? I'm actually not sure.
The dieting continued. The numbers on the scale got lower.
During the beginning of the dieting, I had begun walking. I'd put my son in a stroller and do a long walk everyday. (or almost every day) My parents were very impressed with this. I received a lot of praise. Eventually, I bought a pedometer and made outrageous rules about how much I'd have to walk each day. I'd do this by never sitting down. I'd just walk and walk around the house--constantly. I remember having guests over and wanting them to leave because I was too embarrassed to obsessively walk in front of them. I felt they were intruding on my walking time.
I made rules for myself such as you can't eat another piece of food until you walk a certain amount of steps.
I started wanting to take more breaks from the diet. I made rules that if I was at a certain weight I could do this. I started drinking herbal laxative teas in hopes that this would make me lose those extra pounds. I didn't have much luck. My system was so slow at that point. I stopped having daily bowel movements.
About a year and a half after it all started, I received comments on my Livejournal blog from an anonymous stranger. An LJ friend had recovered from an eating disorder and was disturbed by my constant public recording of my weight. She approached another ED friend and they gave me a mini-intervention. She said it seemed like I had an eating disorder. She talked about my issues of control. And she scolded me for recording my weight. She said all this might be a trigger for someone.
I was furious and disgusted with her.
A few months later my sister (the thin one) approached me about the eating disorder. I actually don't remember my response. I can't remember if I denied it, or if by this time I knew I had a problem.
Eventually though I got over it.
I put away the scale (food and body). I stopped wearing a pedometer.
I stopped dieting.
I was disturbed to find myself quickly returning to my old weight, but I have grown to be mostly okay with it.
I have taken the scale back out, but I never weigh myself more than once a day. I also NEVER punish or reward myself based on my weight. I accept the number and realize there are so many things about myself that are much more important.
For the most part, I'm happy with myself.
I'm no longer obsessed with food. I like to eat, but it's definitely not the center of my happiness. My husband is a bit of a foodie and I actually get bored now when he starts going on and on about food.
I have had setbacks. My husband's friend went on a diet where you fast every other day. I read about it, decided it was safe, and tried it too. I lost a few pounds, but found myself obsessing about food again. I decided this was unhealthy and quit after a few weeks.
Every so often I have days/nights where my self-esteem sinks very low...usually caused by some interpersonal conflict. I get very depressed and feel worthless. I make a vow that in the morning I'm going to go back to strict dieting. I think this is less about being thin though and more about feeling self-destructive and needing a sense of control.
Fortunately, in the morning I usually come to my senses and eat normally.
When I first came to terms with my eating disorder--around the spring of 2007, I emailed my family about all of it. I told them about how I now know I had an eating disorder and I'm going to stop the negative behaviors. I expected to get sympathy, concern, and kudos for wanting to overcome my problem. That is not what happened. One of my brother-in-laws didn't believe I had a disorder and told me that. He told me I was just very dedicated. That's all it was. I put my mind to something... a goal and I achieve it. During the ED times, he'd frequently ask me how much weight I had lost. He was so impressed and gave me a lot of attention over this.
My dad showed no concern or regret for what happened to me. He merely scolded me for confessing that I had not gone to certain family outings because I had wanted to avoid food. (in the beginning I was one of those who would happily watch other people eat--even make huge desserts for others, while I ate a piece of fruit or nothing. But later this became harder for me and I sometimes avoided social events so I wouldn't have to jealously watch other people eat). Family togetherness is very important to my dad and he was horrified that I'd choose not to be with family.
After getting the email, I had shocking encounters with my family. Although I told them I was no longer dieting, they still sometimes acted as if I were At one time, we had some kind of celebration that involved cake. My BIL said not to worry. He had fruit for me! Even after I told them my problem and that I'm not on a diet any longer, he went out to get a special meal for me. I was horrified and hurt. I felt they were trying to push me back to the diet.
Another time, we were all about to have cake. My mother turned to me and said something like "Are you going to have some, or are you dieting?"
I was so disgusted that they'd say these things knowing I had an eating disorder. I would think they'd be HAPPY to see me eating.
For the past two years, I have resented their reaction...but I resent a lot about my family. For some reason, the past few weeks I've been thinking about it and wondering why they didn't give me more support.
My mom is on the Jenny Craig diet. I saw her eating a JC cake, and started thinking maybe I should go back to dieting. Maybe this one would work for me because it doesn't involve counting. I know it would be dangerous for me to do any diet where numbers are involved.
I brought it up to her in the car. I asked if she thought it was an okay diet for someone who has an eating disorder. I confess that I think I wanted to see her reaction to the eating disorder thing. After that email, we had never discussed the issue. I guess I wanted to see what she thought.
Well, I found out. She told me she didn't think I had an eating disorder. She says almost everyone goes through yo-yo dieting and if I had an eating disorder probably most women do. She asked...isn't it just as bad to keep eating and gaining weight. Isn't that a disorder?
I told her I'd rather be a few pounds overweight than have an eating disorder again.
I basically then learned she feels to have an eating disorder you have to be in the hospital close to death. She feels because I was never officially diagnosed by a doctor, and was able to gain the weight back on my own, I never had a problem in the first place. I think to her what I did back then was GOOD. The bad thing I'm doing is now--not being thin anymore.
It is really hard to struggle with something, overcome it the best that you can, and then be told you never had a problem in the first place.
I think eating disorders are unique in that instead of getting sympathy and concern....you get admiration.
When I got home from being with my mother, I cried on my husband's shoulder. We talked about the past and how neither of us knew I had a problem back then. I think he feels some guilt. He saw some old pictures of me and realized how thin I had been. He hadn't realize it back then. Then he told me about his friend (the same one who went on the fasting diet). He told me he's concerned with her because she has stopped eating. She is now a very low clothes size. She's in an emotionally abusive relationship. Her boyfriend said something like "I usually date women who are thinner than you." My husband's friend has major relationship and self-esteem issues. She obviously has serious problems. But despite knowing all this, there's this small part of me that's jealous of her. There's a small part of me that admires her.
Anyway, that's my story.
From my experience, I think family members play a big role in eating disorders. I may be going too far in saying this, but my motto is "It's hard to have an eating disorder without the support of family and friends."
I can imagine it's worse for teenagers who actually live with parents. But as an adult, I have a very troubling co-dependent relationship with my parents. They live close by and we see them frequently.
If I had advice for family and friends of people who are dieting, it would be this:
1. Know the signs of an eating disorder and know when your relative/friend is going too far.
2. Do NOT make big deals about someone's weight loss. Do not give them extra attention over this. Find other things to praise them about.
3. Do not point out that a dieting person is eating. Don't say things like "Oh, I can't believe you're eating that" or "Are you off your diet?"
4. Do not praise them for their willpower. Don't praise them for their excessive exercising or their ability to eat an apple while everyone else eats a huge sundae.
5. Do not take them shopping to award them for their weight loss. If parents do this, they should at least buy things that are a little big so the person can grow into them. Do not buy things as small as possible--giving person idea they MUST stay at this weight.
I know ultimately I'm responsible for my own health. It was my fault I had these problems and it's up to me not to return to them. But I do think certain family situations contribute to these problems. For me, it was having a family that highly values thinness, fashion, and beauty.
As a teenager and young adult, I wrote multiple novels and screenplays. My parents gave me much more attention and praise for the weight loss.
Having a skinny sibling who is clearly the favorite also contributed to that. I felt if I got down to her weight, they'd love me like they love her. And in some ways, it did work.
You know ....I think about what contributed to my recovery. I want to say it was the Livejournal visitor or my sister. But you know who probably made me come to my senses. JK Rowling. On her website, (http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/extrastuff_view.cfm?id=22) she has a great essay about eating disorders. I'm a huge fan of hers and I think reading that helped me realize I was doing a bad thing not just to myself but to my son and nieces.
I started thinking what kind of message am I sending to these two little girls. They already have one very skinny aunt. What if they have two? And what if one of them is constantly dieting and exercising?
When you have an eating disorder, you're not only hurting yourself. You're hurting anyone who might see you as a role model. It's great to be a role model, but be one for something that's great. Don't be one for self-destructive behavior.