Raising an Eating Disorder

When I got any sort of clarity about the origins of my eating disorders, I realized they started off pretty early in my life. Now, I don’t blame anyone on what I did as an adult; that’s on me.  But I was given some pretty twisted information about food and eating from a young age.  I look back at photos of me when I was five to seven years old, and there was nothing fat about me.  My mom, however, felt the need to make me ‘diet’ lunches…I never had PB & Js, or even bread very often. Never had junk food or desserts unless it was a holiday or birthday.  I was restricted externally.  The messages were that food was something to be feared, and appearances are so much more important than health.  Those messages stuck. It’s what I knew.

When I was in high school, my mom was never more invested in what I was doing than when I was on a diet. Yes, she drove me to figure skating lessons (and other activities, mostly at church)- but she also required that I weighed a specific weight before she’d take me (actually quite random as she drummed it up in her head). If I didn’t weigh the ‘right’ amount, I’d run the neighborhood to sweat it off.  I was told that one container of yogurt had sufficient calories to equal a lunch. Eating more than that was rather gluttonous.  Shame on me for wanting more. At age fifteen.  I remember making ‘pizza’ out of flour and water (wouldn’t be noticed ‘missing’), ketchup, and dried oregano… I was hungry after school, and that’s what was available if I hadn’t had the chance to sneak off on my bike and hoard things from the nearby grocery store and drug store.  I’d pack things in my socks and pants to sneak them to my room. Not ‘bad’ stuff- usually dried fruit and crackers more often than candy. My babysitting money was quite handy for that. If I went to the mall, I was allowed a huge pickle for a treat. Nothing ‘good’.

But when I was on a verbalized ‘diet’, mom was all ears. And the wallet opened in a heartbeat for the latest fad.  She’d fork over whatever I needed for all the eggs and grapefruit required to follow a ‘diet’ that would put me into ketosis, drop about 15 pounds in two weeks, and leave me feeling like I’d been cut down by a backhoe. But, I’d lose weight…what could possibly be more important than that?

In the summer of 1981, the summer before my freshman year at the University of Ilinois-Urbana-Champaign, I decided I needed to get rid of some ‘fluffy’ weight before heading off to college. It so happened I would be working at a church camp as a nature counselor, and have absolutely nobody telling me what I could or couldn’t eat. Perfect !   I arrived for the staff orientation with methylcellulose tablets that blew up when I’d chew them up and follow with water (to feel full), some over the counter diet pills (that have since been removed from the market because of cardiac issues), and my trusty scale. I was primed.  And then I met a bulimic anorexic who was very glad to give me tips on losing weight, including the use of laxatives. I’d repeatedly been given laxatives as a child (with very embarrassing results for which I was blamed; who gives adult doses of laxatives to their kid and then sends them to school?), so didn’t figure that would be too hard. I never did get the hang of puking. Not my thing, thank God. I tried, but even when I was sick I didn’t throw up…went something like 15 years without throwing up.

The first week, I lost 17 pounds. I remember one staff member who had been on a biking camp week coming back and not recognizing me. I didn’t see much difference, except my jeans were falling off. I called mom, who was thrilled (no alarm at how fast I was losing weight at all), and she sent up a pair of suspenders ‘until I knew what size I’d actually need’.  Within five weeks, I’d lost about forty pounds… 4-0 pounds.  And I was hoodwinked by a slave master called anorexia. People at camp tried to talk to me, but I was still doing my job, so there wasn’t much to be done, except express concern.

When I got to the U of I, I was an obvious ‘problem’ very quickly.  In late August in Central Illinois, it is hot and humid.  I was bopping around the dorm floor wearing six pairs of socks and my winter coat. When I was ‘tattled’ on to the resident advisor, she and the residence hall advisor could still feel ‘cool’ through my socks. They called an ambulance. I was mad. I was also kept overnight at the university health center, and had to talk to a shrink before returning to the dorm. The diagnosis was given- anorexia nervosa. They used the criteria in vogue at the time; I wouldn’t have fit into the DSM-IV criteria as it requires a specific weight, which, in my opinion, leaves many people out there still suffering because they’re not ‘sick enough’; they still die.

I had to go to counseling or be sent home then.  OK, so I had to show up at some therapist’s office once a week.  Whatever.  I still don’t know if that poor woman ever knew if I spoke any more English than “I don’t know”.

And I didn’t know. I had no insight whatsoever as to why I was self-destructing.  To me, I was just trying to get to a ‘decent’ weight.  My goal weight was less than 80  pounds… was that a problem?  I didn’t think so, and didn’t understand why anybody else thought that was an issue. My body, my goal, my business. For the most part, I just avoided people. My roommate moved out because I was too quiet… And at 135 pounds, my ribs stuck out; I’m built funny. My dorm neighbor would wince when she saw me in my skating leotard on my way to the campus rink. Losing another 50+ pounds wouldn’t have worked- but I didn’t see the problem. That was a problem.

And food… I avoided food.  My usual Monday thru Friday ‘menu’ was four ‘meals’ of ten laxative tablets and a 16 ounce bottle of Diet Rite soda.  IF I got snagged into showing up for dinner, I’d eat 1/2 of a baked potato, and then run the twelve flights of stairs to my room. For my PE class, I ran to attendance, and then ran back to the dorm as my personal activity plan. (I got a ‘B’- not good, but I was starting to fall apart).  On weekends, the hunger finally got me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me into an eating frenzy that could include two tubes of Pringles, a pint of dip, a pint of ice cream, a package of cheese (8 ounce), candy, and when I was really desperate, going into the floor trash room and picking the cheese out of the pizza boxes left from Friday and Saturday nights. I never got caught, and I honestly don’t think I would have stopped if I had. I may have been more careful, but when the binges hit, there was no stopping them.

Eventually, I couldn’t function in a school setting, and was extremely depressed at my falling grades. My therapist decided early the next semester that staying in school was no longer an option; I was sent to a psych hospital, as eating disorder patients were back then. There was no specialized treatment, so I was in with the raging schizophrenics and wet-rag bipolars in their ‘down’ phases. There was the one guy who did somersaults down the hallway for 30-40 minutes at a time in a manic phase (geez, made my head spin to watch him).  And the girl who screamed an unearthly scream in the ‘quiet room’. That sound was incredibly disturbing, and disturbed all who heard her. I ‘just’ didn’t want to eat…and I kept company with some serious psych patients. At least it was a private hospital, which helped a lot, but it was no spa-setting like they have now.

I wasn’t a nice patient. Oh, sure, I was ‘nice’….but I didn’t like the rules.  It was figured out fairly quickly that I’d only eat a percentage of my meal tray…so they ordered double portions. That was easy to fix- just trade name cards with the guy getting salads that would make Bugs Bunny shake with excitement. No problem, and the salad guy wasn’t complaining…until we got caught.  Then there was the canned supplement drink that was something between Kaopectate and a really old milkshake. The potted plants didn’t seem to mind them, so I was glad to share.  Until I got caught.  I could run in place in my room every evening, and not be seen for a couple of hours at a time…until I got caught.  I ended up having to spend 24/7 in the ‘day room’ and have someone parked outside the door if I needed to use the bathroom.  That sucked. SO I started being more ‘compliant’.

The staff was actually very nice to me; I was the youngest on the adult unit, and just missed being sent to the adolescent floor for two very simple and ‘lucky’ reasons- I’d turned 18 three months earlier at the U of I, and I was past high school.  Otherwise, I would have been in with the kids who sounded like the poster children for birth control. Oy. Lucky break.  I did manage to go about two weeks with no food after a period of being ‘good enough’ to have less monitoring.  Evidently, the ‘smell’ of starvation was pretty bad, and I was parked in front of the nurses’ station and given toast and juice to get some carbohydrates back into me and perk me up a bit. I was past arguing with them. Bad sign.

At any rate, I was there for months. That’s how it was done back then.  I still had no insight, and wouldn’t until I was several years older, and seeing a therapist after being raped.  I got ‘better enough’ to enroll in nursing school, though I was still on supplements, and my lab work frequently showed  protein deficiencies.  But I was stable ‘enough’.  I was at least acknowledging that there was a problem, and I needed to get it together if I wanted any sort of life at all, and I did.  I wanted to move away from Illinois after graduating from nursing school.

And I did. And my eating disorder moved with me.

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