I am 50 years old. I’ve raised a bunch of fantastic young men. Been married 24 years. I’ve witnessed birth. And death. Travelled in foreign countries. I have several university degrees – across two disciplines – and worked for 36 years, in multiple capacities. I have a house, a car, and a cat. Just like an adult, right? Like a middle-aged woman who’s lived a bit and statistically has a bit more to go.
I also have an eating disorder.
It’s an incongruous label to have at my age. I’m too old to have an eating disorder – I should have arthritis instead. Eating disorders are for young girls – obsessed with physical appearance and being pretty for the boys. Girls who care more about vanity than sanity, and think being fat is a greater tragedy than any of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed – in case you’re wondering). But this perception of the eating disorder demographic feels wrong. I have no doubt most eating disorders have origins in those teen years, but an awful lot of us continue well into our adult years – even middle age apparently – and in my experience, it has absolutely nothing to do with looking pretty for the boys. I can’t speak for anyone else who struggles with any of the many varieties of eating disorders, but for me, every aspect of my existence is coloured by angst around physical appearance, disordered eating behaviours, and my worth as a human being. I will never attain the impossible standard I set for myself.
I have been bulimic, on and off, for 30 years – although I developed anorexic behaviours during a breakdown earlier this year, and was (ludicrously) thrilled to bits. But my disordered eating behaviours began way, way earlier than my 20s. In fact, I have no recollection – whatsoever – of having healthy eating thoughts and behaviours, or positive body image and self-esteem. I’m (supposed to be) all grown up now – so casting blame is pointless – I am old enough to take responsibility for my beliefs and actions. But life is rarely simple. Developing my eating disorder was like a jigsaw – a whole gamut of pieces came together to form disordered thinking and maladaptive behaviours. This is how my personal puzzle evolved.
My physical appearance wasn’t good enough
My mother was a tiny and very beautiful woman – well tiny and beautiful to me. And I was a big baby. A BIG BABY! I weighed in at 10lb 10oz – a big, fat, healthy blob of baby girl. This scared (and disappointed) the living daylights out of her, and for a woman deeply, deeply concerned about physical appearance, a fat baby (and a girl no less!) was not good news. At four weeks old she tried putting a positive spin on my “weight problem”, with her first entry in my baby book:
She has red hair, blue eyes, lashes darkening. Is beautiful now, though all her double chins are marring her beauty at present. We love her though. We will have to slim her down soon, I can see that.
And she spent the rest of her life trying to slim me down one way or the other.
I look “different” to the rest of my family. Mum was petite with brown curls and traditionally beautiful features. Dad, and my two younger siblings, had tall, slim, athletic builds, and jet black hair. I was curvy. I was curvy at birth and I’m curvy now. I was tall, with boobs and hips, and no amount of starvation could ever have given me the Twiggy look my mother so desperately admired. My red hair and pale freckly skin just added to the horror. At 16 after telling me I needed a breast reduction, she said, (and I quote – because the words are etched into my psyche), “If you could just lose a few pounds dear, you’d start to look quite attractive” – translation in my teen brain, not only are you fat, you’re ugly too!
Now don’t get me wrong – my mother had many fantastic, redeeming qualities, and I mourn her death every day of my life. But unfortunately, her concern and fear for my weight and appearance, taught me my value was in aspects of myself that should hold no value. Nothing has changed – I still feel fat and ugly. And despite knowing better, it still seems important to other people. Heart trumps head, every day of the week.
I had a very specific role in our family – as did my siblings – I was responsible. I had to be good, and clever (not too clever – nobody likes a show off), and strong enough to care for everyone, (but for god’s sake don’t show any emotion because nobody has time to deal with all that attention seeking). These lessons weren’t articulated in words, but in actions – in the reinforcement of “correct” behaviours, and the endless criticism of anything considered unacceptable.
So, what does that have to do with an eating disorder?Nobody gets pleasure from binging and purging and starving. Or spending every waking moment thinking about food – feeling horrendous guilt and shame at every morsel that passes their lips and trying to develop strategies to avoid eating altogether. An eating disorder is simply a very bad way of coping. Everyone with an eating disorder, is trying to cope with something and there are common threads for most of us – depression and anxiety, perfectionism, and over-developed sensitivities to name a few. But at the end of the day, the binge-purge-restrict behaviours deaden everything. If you believe in your heart and soul you are not good enough – that your inherent value is in your looks and what you do for others – and if you have been told all your formative years nothing about you is enough – you will find a way to numb that inevitable self-loathing. Some might use alcohol, illicit drugs, sex or gambling. But some people use food – too much or too little. And I’m one of those someones.
As an adult, I control when, where, what and how I eat. But as a child, my mother controlled what I ate (or in her absence my grandmother or sister would step in). Desserts were sometimes forbidden (but not so my skinny siblings). I was expected to finish every bite (think of the starving children in Ethiopia!), but never ask for seconds, overeat or look greedy. Sometimes I was cautioned to diet, while skinnier folk were encouraged to feast. Even eating out was not a freedom – choose a small serve of the healthy option. And reminder – don’t eat dessert, no seconds, and I’m watching you. My eating behaviours always seemed to be noticed – and commented upon.
Positive reinforcement of negative behaviours
If you want a child – or a monkey, or a cat or any kind of teachable animal – to learn to do something, positive reinforcement is a great way to do it! And the strongest positive reinforcement of negative behaviours I experienced, was compliments any and every time I lost weight. Rarely do people ask how weight is lost before they compliment – it usually goes like this: “Wow! You look great! How did you lose the weight?” And it would be a brave young woman indeed who confessed to purging, laxatives and over exercising, in a desperate attempt to fit into society.
The greatest success I attained in losing weight was purging – which started around age 22 for me. I have no recollection of that first time, or why I thought it was a good idea. But I learned very, very quickly that it worked – despite the fact that at that point in time, I was not (and had never really been) overweight. Prior to that I’d lost weight on and off through sensible diets, non-sensible diets, ridiculous diets, unsafe diets, stupid diets, diets in magazines, in books and retold by friends (no google internet searches in the 1980s!) And of course put the weight back on – plus that little bit extra – every time the diet inevitably ended.
Negative reinforcement works too though! Mum offered me money to lose weight (age 12), sent me to weight watchers (age 15 – with a BMI of 21), and pointed out how “large” I was compared to my slender siblings. I had a very skinny friend when I was 12 who always wanted to know what I weighed then laughed at me. I was deeply conscious of being bigger than most of my friends (I was a buxom lass). And I routinely saw my sister praised for her beauty and size, when it was evident I didn’t – and could never – match that success.
In adulthood, I lost weight through much the same means. And gained it back again faster every time. I have gained and lost 35kg several times now. I have yo-yoed my weight so often the string is about to snap… I’ve tried 12 step programs (highly recommend!) and groups and clubs and therapy and everything that internet searches have turned up. Five years ago I resorted to having a gastric lap band put in – as I didn’t believe I would ever successfully lose weight and maintain that weight loss. It was pretty jolly successful – I will admit that! But it also brought a full revival of my previous bulimic behaviours. For me – the lap band became surgical bulimia. And that is the nightmare I am still living. At age 50, I spend most days flipping between binging, purging and restricting.
I am now however, attempting to build my recovery puzzle – and I need a lot of pieces to come together! I am currently under the care of a very fine set of health professionals, and I continue to seek support and information through the internet – sometimes information that helps, and sometimes information that hinders. But I’m still here! I talk to friends and to other people with the same affliction. I keep plugging away in the vain hope that one day I can “eat like a normal person”. I don’t even know what that is…
If you’re out there, developing an eating disorder or firmly entrenched in one, here’s a couple of things I have learned when it comes to that recovery puzzle – and I write these as a reminder for myself to just keep going:
First, change now. Right now! I’ve done this for 50 years – that’s a lot of unlearning! I wish I’d known at 15 what I know at 50 (okay – I’m sure we all wish that!) And if you too have done it for 50 years? Well let’s not make it 51 huh?!
Second, you are not alone. Nothing we ever do in life is so shameful we can’t tell someone. A friend, a colleague, a family member, a health professional, a counselor. Someone! And if that someone lets you down – shame on them! But pick another someone. Silence equals shame – we don’t need more shame.
Next – journal. Write your little heart out as often as you can. If you can’t bring yourself to write, draw. Use pinterest and instagram or whatever the next social media newcomer is. Record, investigate and acknowledge the pain of your journey to date, and the mystery of your story yet to be told.
Finally, keep seeking resources. There are great internet sites all about eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and any other affliction that has led you to a life of such self hatred – go read those sites, as many as possible and remember to always look for the similarities and not the differences. There are also loads of awesome reading materials (I’m currently reading “8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder” – most fantastic written resource I have found so far!) There are support groups (try OA first – it’s free and pretty amazing). Medical professionals. Counselors. Organisations. Heaps of other things no doubt… Keep seeking. Fall over nine times, stand up ten. It is all going to be worth it – so I’ve been told!