Running on Empty

The fall of 1981 was one of isolation, hopelessness, and being totally overwhelmed.  I was supposed to be having a wonderful time as a freshman at the University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign campus.  I was 17 years old when I got there, and had become seriously anorexic the summer before when working as a nature counselor at a summer church camp I loved.  I wasn’t super skinny, but my mind was a total eating disorder trap.  Every thought included how to avoid eating, how to ‘get rid’ of food (I used laxatives- 10 of them 4 times a day), and how to avoid being noticed.  I bombed that last one pretty quickly.

My roommate and I didn’t last long. She thought I was too quiet, and requested to move out (which she did).  Looking back, I can’t blame her; watching someone self-destruct and be so consumed by the eating disorder had to be miserable for her.  We both had double rooms to ourselves- which just meant more isolation for me.  Outside of classes, I spent a lot of time walking around campus, or taking the bus to various parts of town, and just walking.  When I was in the dorm, I’d look out of my 12th floor window, and follow the lights of cars as they drove through the countryside at night.  I played a Christian radio station for comfort, and just wondered if I’d get better.  Then I’d get scared that ‘getting better’ meant eating, and I’d fall back into the ‘starvation’ mode with even more determination.  Other than the background music, and the fighting in my head, most nights were eerily quiet.  Those who know the insulating effect of heavy snow, and how it mutes most sound, will understand what my head ‘sounded like’ for the many months I was there.

I’m not sure how I lasted as long as I did.  My weight was relatively stable, but the starving/bingeing/purging patterns were also how I was ‘living’.  I’d take 10 laxatives at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime with a 16 ounce glass bottle of Diet Rite cola.  If I ‘had’ to be seen eating at dinner (only meal where I’d be noticed- missing, eating, or acting weird), I’d have an apple or half of a baked potato. That would trigger intense guilt, and I’d run up the 12 flights of stairs to my room.  Then I’d get homework done, and go back to watching the lights of the cars in the night.

When I did try to get to sleep, it was another battle.  There were many nights when I’d watch one specific star as it moved across the sky out of my window.  Many times, I’d get up to go to the bathroom (spent a lot of time in there with 40 laxatives per day), and pass out before I could get back to my room.  I’d be sent out by ambulance, rehydrated, and sent back to the dorm.  They’d lecture me about how unhealthy eating disorders were, and I’d nod, then go back to my crazy routine.

What stands out the most from that semester, besides being so sick, were those nights of such ‘silence’ as I watched those car lights (and occasional police car’s red flashes ) move across the view I had from that 12th floor dorm room.  I’d wonder what those people were doing, and if they were in their own living hell.  I’d wonder if I’d ever get out of the mess in my head.  I’d wonder why I couldn’t just snap out of it and eat, without the blinding feeling of guilt for having fed myself.  It was like I was punishing myself for existing and having human requirements to survive.  But I had no good reason why.  I’d been born there (and placed for adoption), but the starvation (and diet contests) had been brewing for a few years- so the whole adoption/birthplace thing didn’t really pan out.  My mom had been constantly on me about my weight (when I wasn’t fat).  Maybe I just picked up where she left off.  I don’t know.  I eventually did ‘click’ with the explanation given by Peggy Claude Pierre- that the ‘negative mind’ was the one in control during eating disorders, and refused to allow the anorexic/bulimic to tolerate self-care and survival.

But those nights were so muffled and eerie.  I won’t ever forget those.  Or how scared I was.  And alone.  I had several people looking after me from their assigned ‘roles’ (therapist, resident director, resident advisor, and several dorm-mates), but nobody understood.  They each tried to help in some way, but I was on my own, with something I couldn’t handle. I refused to tell my parents (I saw that as failure, which wasn’t allowed).  So I tried to just keep going… but how long could I go on fumes?  Many days I had fewer than 300 calories.  When I binged, it was a disgusting amount of food, but it possibly gave me enough of a ‘boost’ to keep going. Laxatives don’t remove food; they remove water- so some nutrients got in… but I was running on empty, and running OUT of time.

And it was so, so quiet when I looked out at the world from that 12th floor dorm room window.

University of IllinoisOctober 1981

University of Illinois
October 1981

Eating Disorders and Suicide

This time of year stirs up memories of my first year at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana campus).  I’d arrived there with anorexia well entrenched, after losing 45 pounds in about 6 weeks while working at a church summer camp as  a nature counselor.  I didn’t want to get to college ‘fat’.  And I didn’t (though I thought I was grotesquely huge), but I was already a slave to the eating disorder (ED) voice in my head that made eating absolute hell.  People who haven’t crossed the line to an actual eating disorder don’t get it. I don’t expect them to- and I’m thankful they don’t know what it’s like to have a war in their heads over the number of curds of cottage cheese that are ‘acceptable’.  Yeah- it gets pretty weird.

By the beginning of the Spring semester, and returning from Christmas break, I was a mess. Being home for the holidays had been very difficult- I’d done what I could to avoid being around family by working at the University during a missions conference (‘Urbana ’81’).  Ironically, I worked in the food service area. But I had to be at home at some point (and in Florida with my parents for Christmas itself- that was a battle I lost).  Trying to hide an active eating disorder and starving/purging isn’t easy- and caused even more havoc in my mind.  I didn’t return to school at all well.  I’ve never been clinically depressed unless I’ve been starving/malnourished.  And I was a mess when I got back to my dorm.

I’d been seeing a therapist since I had arrived on campus the fall of 1981, as my resident director, resident assistant, and dorm-mates had found me wearing 6 pairs of socks and a winter coat in late August in central Illinois… humidity with the heat was probably stifling- but I was freezing.  The RD could actually feel the cold coming through the socks. SO she called 911 and I was hauled off. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa the next morning, and ‘ordered’ to start therapy or leave school.  I had no clue what to think about therapy, but I knew that going home wasn’t an option. It would mean I’d failed.  SO I went to therapy.

That therapist ( a very nice youngish woman) probably never heard me say much more than “I don’t know”- and I didn’t !  I had absolutely no insight, and no clue what could have gone on in my past to lead to the eating disorder.  By the Spring semester of 1982, I was really falling apart, and had a plan to kill myself.  My roommate had moved out long before (because I was too QUIET !!), so I could be isolated for quite a while before anybody would have noticed I’d been missing.  I had planned to take the tranquilizers (Thorazine- supposed to chill me out enough that I didn’t care if I ate) I’d been given at the university health system pharmacy,  and lock myself in my room, IN my closet (with the keys), and just wait.   I’d become fairly resigned to the idea that I wasn’t going to  live all that long with the anorexia (which had included periodic bingeing at that point, and daily purging via 40 laxatives spread out throughout the day), so it was more about just dealing with the inevitable.  I didn’t really want to die– I just didn’t know how to get out of the ED.  I felt trapped, overwhelmed, ashamed, and hopeless.

The emotional pain had hit the tipping point.  For some reason (like wanting to live maybe?), I spilled my guts to my therapist, who promptly had me escorted to the university health system (via the University Fire Department….. subtle), where I stayed until arrangements could be made to have me shipped to Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, IL.   It was a nut house.  Back then, there were no eating disorder ‘treatment centers’… if you had a nutty problem, you went to the nut house. That in and of itself was terrifying, but I was even more afraid of facing my parents- and being a disappointment- so a longtime adult friend and her daughter (former babysitter) came to get me…once the blizzard passed, some 3-4 days later.  The therapist and health center folks had wanted me out of there much sooner, but the weather was a big problem.  So, I waited at the health center ‘hospital’ as dorm friends came and went, both trying to cheer me up and also to say goodbye.

Suicide  attempt averted. That time. The next fall, I returned to the university, and the pressure build-up was almost instantaneous.  More on that later….