Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Letter to my journey with an eating disorder

This is my contribution for the Letters to my Body initiative at BlogHer.

Dear Body, you know this story well...

I have such warm memories of you from my childhood. From my first tentative steps as a toddler to hours spent climbing in trees. You flew with me over the high bar during Field Day, where I earned my first ribbon--an accomplishment for a girl who wasn't tall. You sailed me over the vault in gymnastics, back then called "the horse." I went skiing with you at 13, where I broke my leg and learned how to rise above the pain on the 2 1/2 hour drive to the nearest hospital. You swam gracefully with me through the days of water ballet. And I remember the feel of my body sinking into a serve on the tennis court or dipping low for a backhand, seeing the ball rocket over the net. Life was pretty good with you. And then I became an adolescent...

At first it was exciting. The budding of breasts, sweet curve to my hips. Finally you came through! All those months of wishing and hoping that you would develop ...while watching so many other girls, seeming so advanced, ahead of me. I remember that first day of school, the beginning of 9th grade, walking across the courtyard in my red polka-dot dress. A couple of boys from my class were sitting on a bench. One of them, whom I had had a crush on said, "Wow, JCK has really changed over the summer!" And suddenly the idea of you being desired became important to me.

Then came high school with all the insecurities that can follow. An abrupt move from Beirut, Lebanon and a small American school that I adored to a huge public school in New Jersey to live for a time with my cousins. I handled change pretty well, but this was ...challenging. Mom had packed my trunk with a wardrobe for school of knee length pleated skirts and knee socks. My first day at public school was painful. I didn’t look like anyone else and blending in wasn’t working. I was up against blue jeans and polyester shirts, mood rings and pooka shell chokers. It was 1975. Knee socks were NOT in vogue.

Another move, this time to Atlanta, and I began again at yet another school. The year was 1976.“Charlie’s Angels” was all the rage. And what about "Ms. Magazine?" It was a confusing time. Peer pressure and ignorance won out. Feathered hair. Curling irons and layers of makeup. You endowed me with buck teeth and straight hair. So, soon I was blessed with new braces and hair that wouldn’t feather back without a heavy dose of Aqua Net. 15 years old. Tenth grade. This time the knee length pleated skirts and knee socks were uniforms for a private school. I think of my love affair with you and sugar beginning then, yet it had started earlier...

From the moment my grandfather “accidentally” dipped my bare foot into my birthday cake on my 1st birthday it seems that sugar would play a part in my life with you. I spent many a happy time at my grandparents’ apartment outside New York City. My taste buds were heightened there. Cocktail hour for the grownups meant ginger ale for the kids - something we weren’t allowed to have at our house. Then there was the candy drawer. It had two hinge pulls and they rattled. No matter how slowly you opened the drawer, the rattling always gave you away. After supper, my grandfather would ask us what candy we would like to choose out of the drawer. It was hard to decide. There were all sorts of licorice wheels, hard candies, gum drops and small chocolate bars. When I was about four or five, I was showing off my new somersaulting talent and two candy bars rolled out of my pockets onto the carpet. “What have you got there, JCK?,” my grandfather asked. “I don’t know, Grandfather,” I said - eyes open wide, astonishment (I hoped) reflected there. The lying about you had begun.

I knew early on that I wanted to be an actress. I was in my first play at 8 years old. Wherever we moved, there was always a drama club, and I was welcomed. I loved being characters that were different than me, and making people laugh. It filled the emptiness that seemed to only grow with each passing year. Then there was that thing called stage fright. Incredible. All consuming. I would be in such a state of anxiety, before going onstage, that I thought I would vomit. But, I kept going back for more. And I didn't vomit, then...

It was while I was doing Cecily, in The Importance of Being Earnest, that I remember you and I diving headlong into the late night binges. Stuffing myself with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies at 2am, the sugar high helped me fall into a delicious, dreamless slumber. This continued through high school and into my early 20's. Binging became our friend. I lived for it. And it was very specific. If I wanted it, I made sure I had to have it. Immediately. One day, without a car, I took the public bus five miles in order to get a dozen doughnuts, finishing them all on the bus ride back to my apartment.

My mother and stepfather were social workers at a private psychiatric hospital. I got a job there as a psychiatric assistant. I was 20 and was working primarily on the adolescent unit with kids from 14-18 years old. I loved to spend time with the bulimics and anorectics. They fascinated me. I too, had been obsessed for some time now with my weight and food, but had not succeeded in controlling my huge appetite for either one. You, body, had become my enemy.

To support myself as an aspiring actress, I began waiting tables. The emptiness was now an abyss. During this time, I found tremendous power in dressing you seductively. The wild party girl was a role I could play. I was doing more acting off the stage than on. I couldn’t get hurt anymore if I was a tough girl... I convinced myself. I wanted to be numb. To not feel anything. Going out to bars with girlfriends, flirting with men, I swelled with "the power" that I could smile at a man across the bar and five minutes later he would be buying me a drink. Beer followed by shots of tequila. Nothing was better than shooting the tequila and not letting anyone see me shudder. I was tough under all that lace. (It was the 80's!) My best friend Tracy and I joked that she taught me how to shoot tequila and I taught her how to wear lace.

I loved using you to shock people. I looked innocent, but I was really a bad, bad girl and I would show everyone how bad I was. After closing down the bar there was always The Saint, the club that stayed open all night. There amongst the transvestites and drag queens I felt very safe. I went alone when I couldn’t talk any of my friends into going with me. The guy I was dating at the time thought the place was too freaky. I knew the bouncer, the bar tender from my acting class who looked like Tom Cruise from the dark side, and I hung out with some of the drag queens before they went onstage to perform in the back room. Walking out the door at 6am to the sound of birds chirping and light outside was always surreal. One night the discovery of a cut on the outside of my wrist, deep, unnoticed until I put my hands on the steering wheel. No idea how I got it. Many nights arriving home and not remembering the drive. But, at least I hadn’t binged! Someone above was looking out for me.

Sometimes I was exhausted from carrying on the pretense of the party girl and would leave the bars to stop and load up on my binge foods. 24 hour grocery stores were amazing! I would have to concentrate really hard on not wobbling in my high heels under all those bright lights. Now was when I wanted you, body, to be invisible. A bit difficult when you are wearing “HELLO!! I’M HERE!!” kind of clothes. The grocery store was usually empty, except for a few other lonely souls shopping at 3am. I wouldn’t be able to wait and would raid the barrels of caramels and yogurt covered raisin clusters. I knew it was stealing, but figured if someone caught me I would just offer to pay for it or make up some elaborate story about my blood sugar. I was good at that. Making up stories. Filling up my basket with a chocolate layer cake, bags of candy to eat on the way home, and a pint of vanilla ice cream, I’d make my way over to the lone cashier. The trick-- to engage the check-out person very quickly with conversation about how you’ve got the girlfriends over and they all have the munchies. That way, you don’t get the raised eyebrows or even someone confronting you directly about your interesting grocery selection. I wanted to feel numb, sedated and sugar always calmed. Sliding down my throat and releasing into my body, the feeling immediate....I could breathe again.

When I wasn't dieting, I was devouring books on eating disorders and binging: Sugar Blues, The Obsession: Reflections on the tyranny of slenderness...

After work, I grew adept at darting unseen into the restaurant cooler at the end of the night and stealing whole cheesecakes and tarts, slipping them into my large purse. I could barely get out of the parking lot without stuffing large handfuls in my mouth on the long drive back home. Always filled with self loathing after a binge, I would throw away what I couldn’t finish... determined to start a crash diet the next day. I rarely made it to the next afternoon without fishing out my leftovers out of the day’s garbage. The whole cycle would begin again.

I started going to O.A. meetings, lost weight and tried to look within you. But, as my emotions began surfacing, I felt out of control and I added purging to my repertoire. I was terrified of gaining the weight back and purging, although not perfect, was a solution. I learned to buy binge foods that would come up easily. No one knew except you, body...

Then I read a book that changed my life. Feeding the Hungry Heart by Geneen Roth. I stopped dieting. I started eating whatever I craved, rather than keeping foods on the forbidden list. This helped as the deprivation cycle that I put myself through always led to binging. It took a lot of inner work and readjusting my thinking about you, but my binging and purging days have been over now for 15 years. I wish I could say how I stopped - what it was that changed me. Surely more than just reading a book. I think, perhaps, I finally saw what I was doing to you, body, and had just had enough. Now, food has become something to enjoy. I never diet. Dieting was a way of punishing you.

It is difficult to look back on these memories - to have them resurface and to feel them go through me again. I continually work on forgiving myself for my past. I feel that I have made peace with myself and with you, my body. I have no regrets, even for the most painful or humiliating times. After all without my past, I would not be the woman who I am today, and I like her. As I look at my precious daughter, I know that I will teach my daughter to honor her body and her mind. Hopefully she will not make the same mistakes I did. Part of me is terrified she will. The world today is even crazier with the assault of the media on young women and their body image.

How do I feel about you now that I'm 46? On the best days, I feel pretty good. This body has taken me on quite a journey and I know we have more travels ahead. I still eat too much chocolate, but that is O.K. I accept it and I enjoy it. I don't own a scale. When my clothes feel tight, I eat a little less. My weight has remained stable for quite a few years. I am always on a quest to be healthier, and I don't move you as often as I'd like. I want to do yoga and be more toned, and I will get to it...I hope. Most of all, I'd like to honor your lushness, the parts of you that aren't perfect -whatever "perfect" is, and your ability to keep finding more energy when I've worn you out. Thank you, Body! You have put up with much self-abuse, and yet you are still here to tell the tale...


Note: Motherscribe is on hiatus for a few days. Out of town for a family wedding. No internet access. Good for the body!

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  1. I know you won't see this for a few days, but I just had to tell you how much I admire you for writing this. Your honesty is so powerful.

    I'm glad you've learned to treat your body well now. It's a lesson we could all learn.

  2. Wow---thank you so much for sharing. I pray somewhere a mom in a bad body relationship reads this and it truly speaks to her.
    Your daughter is so lucky to have such a strong role model!

  3. I'm familiar with the struggle, and feel lucky to be more at peace now.

    (I was hospitalized in 1987, when I was 16. I had a relapse in my early 20s.)

    I've been on prednisone all year, and I am bigger now than I was pregnant. Yet. Somehow when I look at my daughter I get that I want to be her champion, and not obsess over these things.

    Powerful post; it's got me thinking.

  4. Been there myself. Sometimes the desire to purge STILL tempts me, 12 years later.


  5. Thank you for writing this post, JCK.

  6. This was just bare truth. Beautifully written. Have a great time at the wedding! You'll be missed around here.

  7. I admire your courage in writing about such a sensitive issue. Have you ever thought about speaking to middle school or high school girls about the subject? I feel sorry for young girls in today's society, because they are bombarded by images of "perfection" constantly and made to feel inadequate.

  8. What an amazing journey.

    Have a good time...

  9. just wanted to say thank you and congratulations for writing this letter.

    All of us can learn from each other, so thank you (again) for sharing yourself.

  10. Wow - thanks for a brave and moving post.

  11. What an honest and insightful post. It's a good reminder that we should be kind to ourselves.

  12. wonderful, jck.

    this was so thoughtful and honest.

    thanks for writing it.

  13. I love you because of your honesty. Why is it that sometimes it isn't until we have our own daughters that we really become brave enough to love ourselves as we really are - for their sake?

  14. Wow, you totally captured me on this one. I love it how you wrote it as if talking directly to your body.

    I have someon very dear to me who has battled an eating disorder for quite some time. Any advice what I should/shouldn't do as a friend?


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