The world goes by my cage and never sees me.— RANDALL JARRELL (1914–1965), American poet
From my journal, April 2000:
Let me tell you about my life inside the thin cage. It is a dark place with little food, little social interaction, and little freedom. Everything is off-limits. Everything is based on performance. If I don’t perform well or look good, then I am not good. I am not allowed to enjoy a piece of cake or a slice of pizza because if I do, tomorrow I will wake up fat. I don’t get much social interaction because I scare off any would-be friends out of my fear of letting them get too close to me. I exist on water and a few carefully planned meals every day. And coffee—lots of coffee. And Diet Coke, of course. When I walk into a room, I throw off an intimidating vibe so as to ensure that potential threats to my insecurity (that is, nice people) keep their distance. Other women pick up on the vibe and treat me coldly—something I don’t really want but have caused to happen by my behavior.
Daily I complain to my long-suffering husband…“My butt is bigger today, isn’t it?” “My stomach didn’t look like this last month, did it?” “Are you sure I’m not fat?” “I feel so gross… How can you love me?” It’s a wonder he does, but he does.
I ’m grouchy all the time and am constantly aware of my cruel nature toward people I wish I could be nicer to.
Since everything is about performance and appearance, a bad hair day can truly ruin me. If my performance ever slips, I am suddenly in the precarious position of losing my value to the world. Going anywhere and meeting anyone requires that I look my best, for people may not like me if they don’t think I’m attractive and thin. I have a hard time sleeping at night. More than anything, I’m alone.
How the Story Began
As a young girl, I don’t recall ever being unhappy with my body. Even though both of my parents admit to being very weight conscious, I don’t remember either of them ever giving me a reason to doubt that my body was just fine. In fact, we didn’t even talk about the body types of us kids. Looking back I find this curious, especially because my mother recently told me that she had been quite concerned about my weight when I was a child. As a toddler, I had been significantly chubbier than my older sister, Karen, and Mom was worried that I would end up being fat, as she had been as a young girl.
As I progressed from toddler age to my preteen years, I was still not stick thin, but no one would have called me fat or even chunky. I was “normal.” When I entered my teens, I quickly lost my baby fat and began liking the way I looked in clothes. Like most girls, once in a while I would worry that I had gained a little weight, so I’d go on a diet for a day or so. I’ve come across some of my diet logs from those days and have been quite amused to read entries such as “ice cream—two scoops,” “granola cereal—one bowl,” and “one hot dog.”
Little did I imagine that these foods we re loaded with fat and probably were not the best choices when trying to lose weight. But I was blissfully innocent, and my diets we re few and far between.
It was during my teen years that I first learned about disordered eating up close and personal. My mother, who had battled her weight since childhood, had been on one diet after another all her life. Following a brief flirtation with bulimia soon after I was born, she spent many years in what she would call an inactive state before once again succumbing to a life-altering eating disorder. As an educated and curious woman, Mom kept detailed accounts of her struggles in the hope that she could discover the key to freedom from this demon. One day while snooping through her things, I came across several of these journals, and so, long before I would ever struggle with this problem myself, I had the opportunity to enter the mind of someone with an eating disorder.
And it scared me.
My First Weight Gain
At the age of sixteen I graduated early from my small Christian high school in Brighton, Michigan, and moved to Dallas to attend a Bible college just south of the big city. Since the school was quite conservative, my parents seemed to feel that I would be fine leaving home so young. I was, of course, quite proud to be on my own; I considered myself to be terribly independent and mature for my age.
Little did I know that I was entering what would prove to be some of the most difficult years of my life. First, there was the fact that three days after registration I was hauled into the dean’s office, where I was nervously told, “We had no idea you were so young!” and was threatened with being sent home. After some consideration (another sixteen-year-old had been allowed to attend a few years earlier, and my birth date had been clearly stated on my application), it was agreed that I could stay, but under terms of probation until I turned eighteen.
To make matters worse, the college’s singing group, which had been my entire reason for attending the school, understandably did not want to take a sixteen-year-old girl with them as they toured the country.
With all the turmoil of my freshman year, during that first semester in Dallas, I put on weight for the first time in my life. For some reason, I seemed to be the only one in the dark about the whole Freshman Fifteen phenomenon, a realization that frustrated me greatly once I joined the club. Looking back now I can see that a lot of factors contributed to my weight gain, not the least of which was the fact that I didn’t know the first thing about cooking. With a few dollars in my pocket, I headed out to buy whatever was easy, cheap, and different from the menu I had grown up with. Add to this the stress of adjusting to living in an adult world, and eating took on new meaning and purpose for me.
Having never worried about my weight before, it didn’t strike me that what (and how much) I was eating might turn into unwanted weight gain. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I realized I was in trouble. I was trying on clothes at The Limited when suddenly my reflection in the three-way mirror caused me to recoil in horror. “What’s that? ” I gasped. It appeared that I had some extra growth happening around my middle. As I investigated more closely, turning this way and that, I realized with shock and terror that I seemed to be growing an extra butt, just above where my current one had once resided in beauty and, most important, solitude. What is happening?I cried. It took me a little while to understand the problem—I was gaining weight. Still in denial, I headed for my apartment to weigh myself. The scale confirmed what the mirror had jeeringly suggested: I had gained about fifteen pounds.
I was devastated. Here I was, facing the fact that life had unexpectedly turned me on my ear in nearly every way imaginable. And with just a few we e k s to go before Christmas vacation, I panicked. I can’t go home like this, I thought. What will they all think of me? I just couldn’t imagine having nothing positive to re p o rt to my family. Nothing had gone right so far, and now I felt fat for the first time in my life.
So I did what any logical girl does. I headed for the diet books and frantically searched for one that promised quick results. Then a friend told me about her success with a grapefruit diet, and I decided that this might be just the ticket. After all, I had a few weeks, and with this diet you we re supposed to lose ten pounds in two weeks. Anxiously, I peeled my first grapefruit, determined to stick it out until I reached my goal. “I like grapefruit,” I told myself.
After about a day of this, my insides we re on fire, and even my intense fear of fat wasn’t strong enough to keep me on my regimen. So I ate something, which triggered several days of binging and only made matters worse. Suffice it to say, I was still carrying the extra unwanted pounds when I walked off the plane to meet my family for the holiday season. I felt like a failure. I felt fat. I felt unattractive. I felt as though I had lost my edge. And I vowed to do some-thing about it.
Flirting with the Dark Side
Looking back I realize that no one even noticed my weight gain that Christmas. I can remember making excuses about it, but no one seemed concerned except me. I wish I could have believed them, but I didn’t. I knew I liked being slim, and the idea of losing that status terrified me. After the holidays I felt even worse. I had pigged out on all the Christmas goodies and was now more than fifteen pounds over my college-entry weight —a number that had been indelibly marked in my brain as the goal I had to attain at any cost.
When I arrived back on campus, I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted the weight to be gone as unexpectedly as it had arrived, but I was quickly coming to understand that I was going to have to fight for this change. I yo-yoed for several months—a typical pattern of success, failure, success. Even so, by the end of the school year I was feeling pretty good, having lost about half of the initial weight I had gained. But my struggles were far from over.
That summer I moved in with my friends Mike and D’Onna who lived in North Dallas. One day, intent on proving my value to the household, I worked laboriously for about seven hours in the hot Texas sun, removing twigs, branches , and tangled underbrush from the long-neglected pool area. Little did I know that the “weeds” I was pulling we re actually poison oak! The next day, puffy-faced and wheezing, I was hauled into the emergency room, where I was pre-scribed prednisone (a steroid) to bring the intense rash under control. When I got back from the hospital, I popped the pills and did my usual weigh-in. T h e scale confirmed that my efforts we re paying off: I had lost another pound. Just eight more to go and I would be at my precollege weight!
That night I felt I deserved to eat. I was miserable from my rash and had only had a salad for lunch, so I reasoned that it would be okay to eat just a little. Cautiously, I ate one of D’Onna’s famous chocolate-chip cookies, telling myself, “This is all you get!” when suddenly my brain started buzzing. An overwhelming desire for food seemed to take control of me, and I headed for the well-stocked pantry to survey my options. By the end of the evening, I had eaten so much that my stomach ached. Frustrated at my lack of self-control and scared that all my efforts we re now wasted, I clicked into excuse mode, telling myself that since I had already blown it, I may as well make the most of the weekend.
On Monday, resolved to get back on the program, I nervously stepped onto the scale, and my deepest fears we re confirmed: Oh no! I had gained ten pounds! It didn’t seem possible! Had I really eaten that much? What I didn’t realize at the time was that the prednisone was making me retain water, which had a significant impact on the numbers I saw on the scale.
This alarming increase totally freaked me out and triggered a binge that seemed to continue for the rest of the summer.
A n o r e x i a
At the end of the summer, I reentered college at my heaviest weight so far. I was miserable and somehow found the determination to stop binging. It was then that I entered into anorexia for the first time.
During my third semester at school, I ate only Malt-O-Meal, three times a day. Each time it had to be cooked in the same pot, eaten with the same spoon, and sweetened with just two packets of Equal. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was behaving like a textbook anorexic. Had I been aware of the danger of my actions though, I wouldn’t have cared—I was now losing weight rapidly. By Christmas, I was exactly at my precollege weight, though my body seemed to look different somehow. I soon realized that my natural muscle tone had been replaced with fatty cellulite as a result of the binging and rapid weight loss. This frustrated me, but I consoled myself, thinking that if I could lose just a little more, I’d once again be happy with my body.
This active anorexic stage was a tough one. I became incredibly isolated. I could not bring myself to make eye contact with others, and I avoided the social interaction I so desperately needed. I was chronically fatigued, which caused me to take naps on the job, where I worked for the on-campus painting department. ( No one found out, thankfully, though my boss did wonder why it took so long for me to complete projects.)
I grew content in my starvation, proud to see my body shrink. I even saw it as a positive side effect that I no longer had periods. How nice not to have to bother with that,I thought. But even though I was happy with my weight loss, I was still unhappy with my body. That Christmas my family was a little concerned.
My weight had plummeted considerably since my last visit. At meal-times I would just push food around on the plate; I even bought my own Malt-O-Meal so I could continue my routine. It’s strange to me now that no one really got in my face about it—though I don’t know if it would have done any good anyway.
B u l i m i a
A few months after Christmas, I entered the break room between classes and passed by the doughnut table. Those look so good, I thought to myself, as I did nearly every day. Hmmm, I wonder if I could have just one? After all, I have lost a significant amount of weight, and it wouldn’t even hurt me if I gained a pound — I could just lose it again.
So I reasoned myself into purchasing the heavenly treat. As I ate it, my pleasure was immense. See , I told myself. You deserve this. You can handle this. My taste buds seemed to pop in delight at the unexpected flavor. I ate faster and faster, and then the sugar hit my brain, a rush more intense than anything I had experienced before. I was energized. I was scared. I wanted another doughnut. I needed it NOW.
So I purchased another, and this time I paced myself. You don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, do you? the voice inside my head reminded me. I finished the doughnut and walked away, proud of myself for having the discipline to eat just two. I’ll make up for it by skipping dinner tonight. And I did.
A few days later it was my roommate’s birthday. Ever since eating those doughnuts, all I could think about we re sweets, which is probably why I decided to make some brownies for her birthday. I bought the most delectable brownie mix I could find and set off for home to bake them. As I mixed the ingredients, I toyed with the idea of giving myself just a little taste. Convinced I could handle it, I stuck my finger in the bowl and gave it a lick. Wow! The batter was so good. But you can’t eat mor e , I told myself and dutifully put the brownies in the oven to bake. When they came out, I told myself I should try just one to make sure that they we re done. It was delicious. Just one more ,I thought as I wolfed another down.
Before I knew what was happening, I had eaten half the pan. Now I was really concerned. I knew that this was not good, especially coming on the heels of my forbidden doughnuts from the other day. In slowly rising terror, I considered my options and decided that throwing up was probably my best bet. Quick, easy, and convenient , I thought. So I headed to the toilet and stuck my finger down my throat. Nothing happened. I didn’t seem to have the right technique. Stubbornly I continued trying until it finally worked. As the brownies came up, images of my mother’s journals flashed into my mind, and chillingly I realized I was on the threshold of wreaking incredible havoc in my life. This was quite sobering.
My flirtation with purging did not last long. Wise to the inherent danger, I never let myself get good at throwing up. I tried laxatives a few times, but they made me so sick that I just couldn’t take it. The sugar from my frequent over-eating was taking its toll on me though, and I no longer had the power to resist the binges that we re happening with alarming regularity.
The Binge-Starve Cycle
Once I was determined not to throw up or use laxatives, the only way to compensate for my binges was to try to offset them with periods of restraint. This was only slightly less traumatic a lifestyle than purging had been, as I constantly felt trapped in a vicious cycle of either eating too much or not enough. There is no way to effectively lose weight in this state, and I soon found myself growing even heavier than I had been the summer before. “When will this cycle stop?” I cried out. I even called the mother of a friend of mine who had been admitted to a treatment facility. As I cried on the phone with her, I found myself wishing I could be checked in someplace where someone would just take all the food away so I couldn’t hurt myself anymore. But I didn’t have the funds for this, and I didn’t want to delay graduating from college, so I didn’t pursue it.
For over a year I continued this type of eating. I settled in at about twenty-eight pounds heavier than I wished to be and lingered there for a while. I somehow stopped the more intense binging but continued eating more than I needed to.
Later that year I was finally invited to join my school’s singing group and left on a three-month tour. I wasn’t binging anymore, but I hated my body. I felt very heavy in the uniform I wore on stage, and I was constantly comparing my-self to other thinner girls. I also grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of control I had over what I ate. Since I didn’t have any money with which to buy my ow n food, I was limited to the meals that we re provided for us. These we re usually high in fat—pizza, lasagna, fried chicken. Somewhere along the way I resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t get away from the food, and I just went for broke, figuring I’d fix the problem when I finally returned home.
Then one day on tour, I reached a turning point. I forced myself to look in the mirror and face the truth about my body. Painfully, I turned myself so that I could see eve ry angle. I was devastated. I felt completely trapped in a body that looked increasingly different than it had just a year earlier. This body wasn’t me. I knew that I needed to cut back on the amounts I was eating. I decided that if I did something about it, I would never have to look any larger than I did at this moment . It was then that I decided to start dieting, gradually, one meal at a time. Why rush ? I told myself. It’s never worked before.
And as I finally learned how to control my appetite, I wandered into what became for me a normal way of life—constant or chronic dieting.