Continued from Eating Disorders Part 1.
I get a lot of letters from people who ask me how I stopped eating all the food and throwing it up. Most of the time I say "I just did" and leave it at that because it's true.
As I worked my recovery from addiction to alcohol, pot, and cigarettes, I didn't have the intention to quit bulimia. I don't know why exactly. Maybe because it had been around so long I thought it was a lost cause; probably because it felt secondary to the things that were so obviously killing me. When you're holding a gun to your own head, you're not worried whether or not you might have cancer.
But bulimia was the most loathsome of the addictions, at least from where I sit today and how it feels in my body, and whether I consciously knew it at the time, it was one of the reasons I had to stop drinking. It was one thing to clean up the evidence of an alcohol binge, and it was another thing to clean up an alcohol-fueled food binge. There are few things more shameful than going to use the toilet and finding a noodle stuck to the side of the bowl, few things more insidious than a kitchen counter stacked with the equivalent of dishes it would take to serve a Thanksgiving meal when it had only been me eating. Watching reruns of Mad Men, witnessing an out-of-work Don Draper drink his way through a day in his apartment alone, I am stunned that he only had one box of Ritz crackers to clean up. I think, If only my drinking had been so tidy.
The first night I went out as a non-drinker, in October 2012, I stopped at a liquor store in North Beach. I was basking in the glory of making it out of the bar scene intact, the whole world was mine, and I deserved to celebrate. With ice cream. I remember looking at the calories on the back of that carton of Lemon Cookie, doing the math of what would have been my caloric intake had I been drinking, and for the first time in my post-pubescent life, feeling like I could afford to eat a fucking pint of ice cream. And I did just that. I ate all of it, and because in my mind I had just saved myself some 600 calories, I didn't throw it back up.
I stopped drinking for good in April 2013. It's hard to think back on those early days of sobriety and remember what it was like to eat food. I do know that when I quit drinking, I had lost the ability to spend an entire day or days binging and purging, because I could no longer inebriate myself enough to handle it (and by "handle it" I mean not handle it). I know that early sobriety was like waking up to a dream, and that I was happy and free and full of wonder and life, and that I was losing more weight than I was gaining without effort. I know I ate my way through that first trip to Italy without puking one thing up, and I know that I was drinking so much coffee that food was an afterthought, and I know that I subsisted on pastries and Haribo. But I also know I was still bulimic sometimes and I wanted to not be, the same as I know I was still addicted to pot and cigarettes and wanted to not be.
I started to work with a medical doctor in July of 2013. She was a friend, and also trained in amino acid therapy as well as EFT, and I saw her for an hour a week for the better part of a year. Together, she and I uncovered that the primary driving force of my addictions (then coffee, sugar, pot, cigarettes, and bulimia) was an intense desire to numb the fuck out. This wasn't really a surprise, but there was something epiphanic about understanding the things I was using the most were like a cashmere anesthetic. I can still hear her say "you like numbing treats" and remember thinking fuck yes I do.
She started me on the Diet Cure protocols for depleted brain chemistry, unstable blood sugar, food addictions, and hormonal imbalances. Which is another way of saying she started me on a supplement protocol that cost 300 dollars a month and required me to swallow over 60 pills a day.
I spent three to four months on the protocol. I couldn't keep anything down but the pills and I puked all the time, mostly in inconvenient places, like in front of people, during yoga, and on public transportation. I lost a lot of weight, and I gained a lot of energy, and everything I had seemingly ever wanted when it came to food and my relationship with it was happening. Except I hated it, because I looked old and tired, and I missed wanting to eat food, and I was sick of keeping a white tub around my apartment to catch my puke.
When I came off the protocol, things didn't entirely normalize with eating, but also, something about not having a choice about the throwing up had made things distinctly different for me: I didn't want to throw up anymore. I didn't want to have my face in a toilet ever again. And so it was that as my appetite began to return to me, I stopped taking for granted the fact that I wanted to eat, and stopped taking for granted how healthy it was to consume food and let it pass out the other end, like God intended. And it was from this place that I made a pact with myself to never puke again. I was done with bulimia, and being done with bulimia meant that I could binge, but similar to my Never Questioning The Decision about quitting alcohol, I would Never Question The Decision about sticking something down my throat to relieve my psychosis around food and weight and worthiness, to still my anxiety, to control my life or the myriad other reasons we purge after eating.
I stopped making myself vomit in December 2013. I was 8 months sober from alcohol, and just a few weeks shy of quitting cigarettes and pot. When all was said and done, it had taken me 16 years - or half of my life - to quit.
It sounds almost simple. Truly, it does. It sounds like all one needs to do is take some pills, or make a decision to not vomit, or just stop drinking and then voila! Bulimia free! But that's not it. That's not even close to it.
Quitting puking was just that. I stopped puking. It got me out of the place where I would tell myself I'd just keep these two pints of Hagen Daaz in the freezer like normal people and eat them over a few weeks, knowing full well they'd be on their way to the sewage treatment plant by the time Scandal was over. It put an end to the idea that I could order more than one item of food from GrubHub, or buy a Super-sized meal at the McDonalds. In other words, it got me to be real with myself because there was no longer an easy button at the end of the meal or the carton or the bag. It removed the idea of eating food as a thing you could do-over, try again, reverse, and it made eating a complete and final act.
What quitting puking didn’t end was this:
- Noticing in my face when my cheekbones aren't as prominent as they were a week ago.
- Hating the way my belly feels when it rolls over onto my pelvis, or the way it hangs off to the side when I'm laying in bed.
- Not being able to diet without becoming an extremist.
- Hating what it feels like when my ass/thighs/calves are hugged tighter by my jeans.
- Basing my worth on the number on the scale.
- Looking at other women and comparing their bodies to my own, and judging our respective worth this way.
- Looking at old pictures of me when I was 10-20 pounds lighter, and feeling like I'm less because I can't keep that up anymore.
- The need to buy only size-26 jeans, even though I'm a 27.
- Noticing when my thighs curve out beyond my hip bones and the extent to which they do as compared to last week/month/year.
- Eating to numb out or deal with my emotions.
- Noticing the skin and fat that lives just above my knee caps, and beating myself up for it not being muscle.
- Even worse, still hearing my ex-boyfriend's voice as he skimmed the Us Weekly with me that one time and made wretching noises over Demi Moore's knees, and thinking what he'd say if he saw what mine have become.
- My feelings about myself changing based on how "good" I've been with food.
- Thinking that other people like Lena Dunham can pull off a curvy body, but I can't because I'm different and I'll be loved/respected/desired less.
- Using food as a motivator.
- My inability to look at someone like Alexa Chung and not feel like I a) might evaporate b) am a monster c) need to go to the gym d) all of the above.
- Finding my worth despite the package it's contained in, or separating my worth from its physical container.
- General neurosis around food.
- General neurosis around body.
- A million other things.
This isn't to say those things are as extreme as they once were, or that this is a list of how I currently feel today or what I currently deal with today. Today, I'm a badass boss who thinks the world of herself, and loves the fact that she's not perfect and never will be, who makes her own almond milk (full disclosure the almond milk thing just started last week), eats pretty normally, doesn't diet, is okay with hating her knees. Today, I'm someone who can *sorta* look at Alexa Chung without going all postal on myself.
The reason I have never answered - or wanted to answer - how exactly it was that I got past bulimia is because what I really think I'm being asked is how the fuck I got over being a woman 21st-century western society. And to that, I have no real answer. But, I have come a long way. And I have learned so much. And food does not rule me, nor does the need to expunge it from my body before it hits my intestinal tract, and so I do think I have something to share that may be of some value.
The next (and last) post in the series is going to be a very long list + resources of what I think were the most important things I did to help myself not just with bulimia, but also with body image, re-inhabiting my body, physical health, eating food, and - most importantly - being a woman who lives in a society that has told us our bodies are not ours, and that "pretty is the rent we pay to exist."