I Thought I Was Fat
(My friend "Christine" and I when we were about 16, Panama City Beach)
I've been teaching at Portfolio Center for close to ten years, during which time I have been learning how to help students get the best from themselves. PC students aren't allowed to be content with making pretty pictures or writing clever cell phone ads; they're forced to examine their lives and their histories, to understand their own identity and power, and to face and conquer their fears in order create work that moves and matters. It's a remarkable, life-changing process that I'm privileged to witness again and again.
Even though I know that at the end of their two years in that little concrete box on Bennett Street, they will be stronger and more fully themselves, it's not easy, sometimes, witnessing their metamorphoses. I hear stories that are hard to hear. I'm privy to a lot of pain. I love my students, these young, beautiful, passionate, sensitive people, so my heart breaks for them every day. I don't know if it makes it harder or easier on me that most of their stories are also my own, but I hope it makes things easier for them--that when they see me, they see someone who's been through it already and come out the other side.
These days I'm happy. I love my home and family. I look forward to going to work. I have Fay. I'm not angry, depressed, or shut off. I have pretty good self esteem. I'm not defined by other people. I'm not controlled by alcohol, my own obsessive thoughts, or food. The food thing is a big one.
At any given time at Portfolio Center, we have four or five girls I know for a fact have eating disorders. There's no telling how many there are that I don't know about. These are beautiful, talented, powerful young women who don't realize their power, because for some reason they can't love themselves. I know the hell of that. If someone told me I had to go through everything again, but I could choose one thing to be spared, I'd take the sexual abuse, the alcoholic father, the depression and addiction, the domestic violence, and betrayal, and I'd beg for a pass on the eating disorders.
Nothing is as insidious or difficult to overcome. Nothing rules your life down to the minute the way anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia do. When you have an eating disorder, every day is a lie. I know that drug and alcohol addiction are the same in that regard, but those things you can quit cold turkey. Food is a daily negotiation.
Growing up, my fear of fat was greater than my (OCD) need to count telephone poles while in the car or to pull my hair out or to sleep with the covers pulled tight under my ears every night to keep the vampires from biting me (a fear that lasted until I was a sophomore in college). It was greater than my shame and more brutal than being beaten up. I chose to stay depressed rather than take medication--because of my fear of fat. And yet, in my mind, I was always fat.
I was anorexic at the age of ten. I exercised in front of the TV and counted my peas. I had little rituals to keep myself thin--like only eating popsicles and breaking up a cookie into a hundred pieces to make it last. My best friend in fifth grade was Pam Crawford, who was about three inches shorter than I was and lithe as a gymnast. My goal was to weigh the same as Pam, and I did. My mother had to make my clothes because storebought wouldn't fit.
For years I'd swing back and forth between starving and binge eating, and around 15 I became bulimic. By my junior year in high school I was making and eating big stacks of pancakes at midnight and throwing them up. It was a mild case, though, compared to what would happen later in college, when I was 18-19. I became the stereotype, the girl who ate a dozen donuts in the car while she sat in the drive-thru line at Burger King. The girl who told the checkout clerk at the grocery store she was having a party when she really planned to eat all the Doritos, Nutter Butters, and candy corn herself.
I couldn't stop. I resolved and prayed; I made deals with god; I threatened myself, made promises to myself, and pleaded with myself. Nothing worked.
I ended up in the hospital with kidney trouble, the result of running 60 miles a week, puking my guts out, staying dehydrated. I was out of commission for a month, during which time I couldn't exercise and was afraid to eat. After that month, I went right back to it.
I'll never forget the day I quit binging and purging. I was still in school in Athens and had just moved from the main house I lived in with two guy friends into one of the tiny basement apartments in that house. It was the first time I'd ever lived by myself. I had so much fun decorating it, a cross between gypsy and granola. I planned to celebrate night one by baking a big batch of brownies in my new kitchen and eating them in bed. They were cooling on the top of the stove when I suddenly decided I wasn't going to eat them after all--that I was done. I wasn't going to continue damaging my stomach, esophagus, and kidneys; eroding the enamel off my teeth; aging my skin; bursting vessels in my eyes; living this lie; dying this slow death.
I threw the brownies in the trash and gave up sweets, my trigger, for good. Just like that. It was as though someone (God, my better self?) had flipped a switch. I still don't understand how it happened. I wish I did, because I'd make it happen for these girls I know.
I was liberated from that particular cycle of binge/purge that sucked my energy (and money!). That wasn't the end of my food and body image issues altogether. I've struggled since. I continue to be pretty regimented about what I eat, but I feel like an idiot, not a prisoner. I can laugh at myself.
I was 35, turning into the parking lot at work, the moment it occurred to me that I'd spent my whole life worrying about what I looked like to the world (imagining how I looked through the eyes of others) rather than looking out at the world though my eyes. I decided then to change that. I would start looking at the world, DOING more, becoming more. I would find better uses for my time and energy than making sure my earrings matched my sweater. I was going to stop letting my day be ruined by 116 instead of 115 on the scales.
That was almost ten years ago. I've been improving slowly ever since.