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Battling Bulimia

Overeating, Binge eating and bulimia: You can conquer this disorder

Talk about your ghosts from the past...As I mentioned in my last blog 'When it's Good to Look Back', this is part II of a long story. It deserves so much more recognition than I can give it primarily due to the fact that there is still little progress on this disorder in the way of a cure and yet there are millions of people suffering. I also hope that I am not losing the respect of my small readership. I will reprint only portions of this article that was published 17 1/2 years ago and will insert my current insights between those portions, marked by an asterisk (*). Please note: You may find some of the following behavior disturbing. I truly laid my cards on the table and didn't hold anything back so be forewarned. Here's how my article started:

Nachos with extra beef and cheese. A one-pound box of Russell Stover chocolates. The family-size caramel Crunch-N-Munch. One liter of Pepsi. That was my breakfast.

Gross? Disgusting? Yes-and if you have a full-blown case of bulimia, as I did, that's exactly how you feel. And helpless, hopeless and insecure. For more than 20 years, this is how I felt during most of my waking moments. I ate all those foods-and then some-on a daily basis. And as I came to learn, I was not alone. Eating disorders affect millions of people- especially women.

*Current statistics state that about 30 million people in the United States alone suffer with eating disorders and that despite the serious risks they pose to one's health-including death-they continue to receive inadequate research funding. Considering that the disorder is rearing its ugly head at an earlier age every year, with 40-60% of school girls age 6-12 now being concerned about their weight, it appears this is rapidly transitioning to an epidemic that will spiral out of control until it gets the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, the causes are myriad and complex with highly individual reasons for falling into this behavior. Check out this statistic: Bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993. Also, this disorder does not recognize class or race and its prevalence is similar among non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians though non-Hispanic whites seem to favor anorexia over other eating disorders.

I was in my early 30's when my binge eating was at its worst. For three months, I had a routine of shopping for my daily supply of binge food, with a typical shopping spree consisting of a dozen doughnuts, nacho fixings, 2 liters of Pepsi, a bag of cookies and at least two or three different kinds of candy. I was petrified that someone I knew would see me purchase all that junk so I would shop in stores miles from my home. I also didn't want store clerks to become familiar with my habit so I went to several different stores.

*This 3-month period started with the loss of my Father, my divorce and my bicycle accident. I was now living alone and there was no one I had to be accountable to. I do not like to mention binge foods because I do not want to trigger someone's binge but I must make an exception for the sake of this blog and honesty. I am amazed at how much energy I put into this destructive behavior. When I say I have given up some of the best of my life to this disorder, this is exactly what I mean.

Over the course of a day, I would eat everything I'd purchased while I sat alone watching TV. If anything was left, I would throw it out and promise that I'd stop tomorrow. I couldn't just throw food in the trash-I'd been known to go through the garbage for food I'd already thrown out-I'd throw it over the backyard fence, in the weeds and dirt, so bugs would attack it and it would be rendered unpalatable. When homes were built behind my house and I could no longer toss left-overs there, I would drive several miles to dispose of it in filthy public receptacles guaranteeing no possibility of retrieval. When 'tomorrow' came and I found myself driving to the store yet again, I became numb, feeling like a passenger in someone else's life. I had this internal discussion with myself as I drove: "Don't do this, Stace. You're ruining your health, you can't fit into your clothes, you're ashamed of your appearance, of your behavior, and you're cutting yourself off from life." These thoughts only made me feel more alone and isolated and I would continue down the road, crying and angry with myself all the way.

*Remember I mentioned in my last blog the firefighter that asked me if I was still dumpster diving? Probably makes more sense now although in reality, I never went dumpster diving. I would take food out of my trash can when it was in a resealable bag that couldn't contract any germs from outside sources and it was always inside other bags as well as I didn't even want the trash collection service to become privy to what I was doing!

I constantly let myself down on the promise that I'd stop, yet as I'd eat that last piece of chocolate, I'd vow again: "You will stop this tomorrow Stace, once and for all." Eventually, I quit making that promise because breaking it only added more stress-and more binge eating. I hated what I was doing to myself-I stopped going out, stopped taking phone calls, wouldn't answer the door, stopped seeing the few friends I had. I wasn't working so there was really no reason to even get out of bed in the morning and I feared that my life would never be more than a constant food fest. I felt so awful and out of shape, but I just couldn't stop the bingeing. I didn't think anyone could understand what I was going through-even I didn't understand it. I just knew that I was full of pain and that when I tried to stop and look at what I was doing, I felt overwhelming anxiety. I couldn't cope with those feelings and food became the Band-Aid I used to cover the wounds. I put on 40 lbs. in those 3 months and God help me, I wanted to die.

I come from a family of addictive personalities: alcoholics, compulsive over-eaters, drug addicts, gamblers, shopaholics. I watched my mother for years as she routinely dealt with stress by overeating. My father would drink. My mother was harsh. She would often tell me that I was a mistake and that the only saving grace for my existence would have been if I'd been born male-I already had a sister and my parents had hoped for a son. She flew into unpredictable rages that I lived in fear of because there was no escape. My father would leave when she became enraged, knowing that if he tried to step in, the fighting would only escalate. Many times our neighbors summoned the police to break up my parent's domestic battles.

I remember being placated with food at an early age. When my Mom felt bad over an especially heated confrontation, she would make irresistible treats that I wasn't normally allowed to have. I would be off sulking somewhere and she would brings these treats as a way to make peace. "Here Stacey," she'd say, "I made you some caramel corn balls. This will make you feel better." She really made the best and I couldn't resist though it was always as if nothing had happened. She would wait until I took a bite and then quietly leave. I learned that accepting the food meant forgiveness. I felt so disappointed with myself for taking the treats, but I also knew it was the only way to have her approval. Meals could be an ordeal as well; my sister and I were expected to eat everything on our plates before we could leave the table. Portions were served for us and I was usually given more than I could eat. Even if I had distaste for a particular food, I had to eat everything or I wouldn't be excused-some nights I sat at the table for hours before my Dad would take pity on me and eat my leftovers. Food became a battleground for me and my mother.

At age 13, I ran away from home and after several months, was caught stealing food in a grocery store and sent to juvenile hall. I was terrified of what would happen when my Mom came to pick me up but she never did. She told authorities I was incorrigible; I became a ward of the court and was sent into foster care. I remained in juvenile hall for 6 months awaiting foster home placement and had a lot of time to feel alone and abandoned. Food became my best friend: I could eat as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted-I could even eat nothing but cookies if I wanted.

Eventually I was placed with a wonderful family, but not knowing how to act when people were good to me, I began to act out and get into trouble. I was moody and withdrawn. Food again became my comfort. Sometimes I would sneak it from the kitchen and when asked where certain foods had gone, I lied.

On the surface, I looked like a healthy kid. I was extremely active, involved in athletics, I wasn't the least bit overweight. No one knew I had a problem with food. I ate normally most of the time and if I overate, I would just make up for it the next day by fasting. All of my friends did that to stay thin and we never questioned it.

I continued to sneak food whenever I could but only when I was certain I could get away with it. I often used my allowance to buy junk food and usually had a hidden stash I could secretly nibble on. I always binged in private and rarely ate my favorite binge foods in public because I was afraid I would eat way too much and someone would catch on to what I was doing.

* This is just a break for me. OMG, I am getting depressed relaying all of this craziness-so much forgotten over time and a place I truly don't like to revisit. At the same time, it is evident to me that everything in this suffering has made me who I am today. Not perfect by far but someone who values truth, honesty, strength, courage and determination and has made it her mission to live with these as her guiding light.

While in college, I worked as an aerobics and fitness instructor and this helped me maintain my weight though every time I encountered disappointments, I turned to food. The greater the importance I placed on a defeat, the greater the amount of food I ate. Fasting for a day no longer had the same effect on maintaining my weight so I forced myself to vomit after a binge. I found this to be extremely uncomfortable and vile and instead began increasing the duration of a fast. One day turned into five days and I would ingest nothing but black coffee. I also became a compulsive over-exerciser and had to work out a minimum of 3-5 hours a day before I could do anything else. The higher the caloric intake of a binge, the longer the workouts became. If I had a 15,000 calorie binge (yes, it was possible for me to eat that much, or more, at a time), I would starve for at least 2 days and work out incessantly. This meant that I would often be up at 4 am. I also weighed myself compulsively, with 10 weigh-ins per day or more! I didn't realize or even care what the numbers meant, so long as I saw them go down I was ecstatic.

I felt trapped inside my behavior, yet I couldn't reach out and tell anyone what was happening. I was far too ashamed and embarrassed. I felt like such a hypocrite, studying to become a physical therapist and working as a fitness instructor while engaging in such health hazard behavior in private.

In my late 20's, I married. I hid my eating behavior from my husband for several years but ultimately confessed to him. I was certain he wouldn't love me any more. Initially, I was relieved by how unaffected he appeared when I told him though this was actually due to his lack of understanding about how serious the problem was for me. I was hoping that by telling someone, I could begin the healing process but quite the opposite occurred. I felt such tremendous despair and couldn't imagine how things could get worse-until I received a call that my father had been hit by a car and was in an ICU in a coma. He died three days later. His death crushed me; while we had a tough go of things when I was a child, we had become very close through the years. I would get up in the morning and try to act as if things were okay: I'd fix breakfast, sit and talk with my husband while he ate but as soon as he left for work, I'd drive to the store and buy obscene amounts of junk food. I spent most of the day in bed, crying and eating junk food. When my husband was due home, I'd get up and try to act as if I'd had a productive day. I envied him his job, his friends, his strength, his non-stop happy and optimistic mood. Within a few months, he came home with divorce papers. I felt like a complete failure.

*My ex was a truly good man. While not the right man for me, he tried very hard to make our marriage work and I must acknowledge that. I put him through so much grief and he took it for almost 7 years, giving me chance after chance to pull my head out of my ass. This is a regret I have-that I broke his heart and he really did nothing to deserve it. I was just super f'd up and not in a position to be a good mate to anyone. I hope that he has found it in his heart to forgive me. And Doug, if by chance you are reading this, the following quote is for you:

For Doug Wolf-I know you tried. I'm sorry...

(I totally understand and I am amazed you stayed as long as you did.)

I resumed my behavior of bingeing and then starving for days while compulsively over-exercising. I'd lift weights for several hours then ride my bike a minimum of 30 miles and as much as 65. While I loved both of these activities, this approach was rapidly taking the fun out of it. One day I was hit by a car and because I wasn't wearing a helmet and went head-first at 40 mph into the side of that car, I seriously injured my head and back. The accident took away my method of purging and I put on 40 lbs. It wasn't so much the weight gain that rocked my world-it was the sense of hopelessness. I had lost weight before and knew I could do it again; I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life in this up-and-down cycle with its corresponding emotional roller-coaster. I had tried every diet, Over-Eaters Anonymous and a very brief stint as an out-patient at a treatment clinic but failing every attempt only increased my hopelessness and low self-esteem. I didn't see a way out.

*I cannot believe that this was my life for so many years. I thought that understanding how this behavior came to be would enable me to undo it. I thought that I just needed the 'right' diet, the right support group, the right fix-it program, the right something. One thing in my favor: through everything, I am NOT a quitter. I cannot stand to fail. I wish I had found my way through the sickness much faster but as I have said, my suffering is my gift. I know there are those of you reading this that cannot help but pass judgment and that is fine. You are entitled to your opinion though I believe so much of judgment comes from the desire to feel better about our own lives and seeing the weakness in others helps us to do just that. A big part of why I think trash reality shows like 'Jerry Springer' are so popular! This is still a problem afflicting millions of people and because the stigma associated with this is tremendous, I believe it will be a long time coming before there is any real progress with eating disorders. We have come to accept alcoholism, drug abuse and other related addictions but somehow we are not accepted with eating disorders. Part of this is that we all need to eat to survive though we don't need alcohol or drugs and when food becomes the addiction, we are viewed as extremely weak because hey-we all must eat but not everyone develops eating disorders. If you are unable to control what goes in your mouth and in what amounts, society shuns you.

People tend to think that bulimia is simply overeating followed by vomiting. It is an emotional disorder, more specifically a control disorder that a person develops as a method of dealing with predominately negative feelings-fear, anger, anxiety, depression. Bulimia is characterized by periods of bingeing and purging. Purging can take many forms: vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics. Bulimics may combine several forms of purging. Because the disorder is related to issues of control (bulimics feel out of control with their eating, their feelings, their lives), purging becomes an attempt to regain control. It often begins with a diet or the desire to lose weight. We live in a society that places far too much emphasis on a person's appearance, with advertisers using this to their advantage. We are led to believe that only thin, beautiful people will know true love, happiness and success. There is more pressure on women to conform to this ideal of beauty which is why women are 5 times more likely than men to develop eating disorders.

Bulimics often suffer from low self-esteem, with irrational or distorted thinking, seeing things as black or white with no middle ground. We over-generalize, especially when we make a mistake, believing that we will never be able to do things differently because of that one mistake. Example: I could eat like a normal person for 3 weeks, fall into a binge-and-purge episode that lasted for just one day and then not count any of the days that had been normal because ultimately, I failed again.

Bulimics have a difficult time dealing with stress because we have never really learned an effective method for dealing with our feelings. You may feel confused by the bulimic's behavior: Why does she continue to engage in behavior that causes her such anguish? This may be the only way she knows how to release pent-up emotion. When a bulimic experiences uncomfortable feelings, she will most likely start obsessing over thoughts of food. These thoughts serve to distract her from the 'real' issues and continue to place the disorder as THE PROBLEM. This perpetuates the bulimic's belief that only the eating behavior needs to change and that life will be perfect once that is resolved. Entire days were spent in horrible preoccupation, obsessing over food while continually thinking things such as "I'm bad. I'm a failure. I'm worthless."

I find it ironic that I now own and operate a successful personal training business. My clients often tell me they wish they looked like me, that they envy my figure and fitness. While many of them know of my issues with bulimia, most have no understanding of my struggles related to appearance and weight.

(This is the hairdo Ellington Darden referred to as a 'comb-over', the one given to me by the makeup artist. Not sure how she determined this was a good look, LOL, and oh, those sad little doe eyes...but-did you notice all my pretty gym equipment?! Med-X and Nautilus all the way!)

Statistics show that one in five people has an eating disorder but in my business, I see food issues so often that I believe it is just a matter of degree. Food has become more than sustenance and is now an integral part of social functions. We use food to celebrate, to reward, to comfort, to punish, to teach. Because of this, most of us grow up with a distorted view of what is healthy when it comes to our diet and eating behaviors. If you know someone who is bulimic, or are bulimic yourself, please seek help. It is unlikely you can heal yourself without assistance. There is nothing more difficult than watching those we love hurt themselves. DO NOT BE JUDGMENTAL; the bulimic knows there is a problem and needs your support and encouragement. This is not a disease like alcoholism-a bulimic needs to learn to eat food without feeling the need to binge, and to eat that food without feeling the need to purge. Friends and family members are not helping the bulimic if they 'police' food intake and try to decide for the bulimic which foods are 'legal' and in what amounts. The bulimic already feels out of control and will resist attempts by others to take control away from her. Resist the temptation to play therapist. Remember that while you may feel frustrated, angry and afraid, the bulimic is much more so, and probably has been for a long time.

* This is where my article ended. I had been in the recovery process about 3 years when I wrote this which by no means is to imply that I did not continue to engage in the behavior. This is not an easy road to recovery and it is not a straight line to wellness. The process began with a lot of work on my internal dialogue and I did have help with that. I'm not sure it is a process that would work for every person suffering with an eating disorder though I do believe it is the best place to start. It does require the ability to self-monitor, even when you slip up. You cannot fall back into the negative self-talk and must be able to develop the strength to talk yourself out of it. There are many different opinions on the time-frame it takes to change a behavior-some say 30, 60, 90 or 100 CONSECUTIVE days of a new behavior to change an old one. I say don't be caught up on the numbers, be more focused on the PROCESS and monitoring your progress. During my first 3 years of recovery, my binge episodes were diminishing dramatically, as was the behavior surrounding a purge after a binge but had I got caught up in thinking about how many days I was able to go without engaging in ANY of the behavior, I would have instead used this as a benchmark of progress and would have then viewed any positive movement forward as not good enough. This would have led to additional inner angst and lack of belief in my ability to succeed.

The 17 1/2 years that have passed since I wrote this article have seen tremendous progress and some backsliding as well. Things that have changed permanently: incessant weighing to now rarely weighing as well as understanding what weight means and how it fluctuates naturally on a daily basis; never starving myself-in fact never purging after I eat more than I should as well as rarely bingeing and when I do binge, it is no big deal (no crazy portions though an indulgence in something I don't keep on the training table); obsession over my looks. Let me clarify permanent change: I have developed self-efficacy (ability to stick to my goals no matter the temptation) and have been there for one full year or longer. This does not mean that I feel 'Home Free' and I do not take this for granted. I know that this is a lifelong challenge for me though the freedom it has brought to my life-to no longer be shackled by a behavior that was so draining-is truly exhilarating. There are episodes that require me to remind myself of the need to cope effectively when stressed and sometimes, this takes tremendous fortitude. That's fine! I now know I can do it. Forty years have passed and yes, I suppose I am a slow learner! I also believe that it is exactly as it was meant to be, that this suffering was meant for me-not because I deserved it, but for the lessons that it has taught me.

Please reach out to me if this resonates with you. I will hold your hand, let you cry on my shoulder, whatever you need. What you DON'T need is to feel alone-you are not! If you want more information on eating disorders, here are a few links:

In closing, I must mention my foster parents Ray and Vicki Kalman, the family that took me in after I ran away from home and became a ward of the court. While our relationship has spanned the years, grown and flourished, you probably don't know how often I think of you and feel grateful for how you held on to me through all my testing, through all my rebellion, through every ounce of drama. You are amazing and I love you dearly.

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