My Eating Disordered Life – How It All Began

My disordered eating journey began in the early days of 1994 following an appointment with our family doctor. I’d just been discharged from a three-month stint in Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children (our family doctor, a Mason, sponsored me) where I had a wooden leg made following the amputation of my right leg and pelvis to bone cancer a year earlier. I was twelve.

My mom and I were there to show him the new leg and thank him for his generosity. He looked things over pleased with the leg, but bothered by the weight I’d gained since he last saw me. I’d been more than skinny before the surgery (cancer will do that to a girl) and, during the three months away, I guess I put on some padding. My clothes still fit, and no one else had commented that my body size had increased. The wooden leg fit, but because of the way I had to tighten a thick fiberglass bucket around my waist (with wide, leather straps and buckles) so I could keep the leg on and take steps, a roll of flesh poured out between my growing breasts and the solid rim of the bucket. It may have been that roll that prompted our family doc to recommend a thousand-calorie diet – so I could lose a little weight and avoid gaining more, which he feared would make it impossible for me to walk in the fifteen-pound steel and wood “leg.”

He gave us a sheet with sample meals, foods to avoid, and healthy foods to eat regularly. Even though I was disappointed in the wooden leg (I was sure the replacement would be an exact replica of my old skin-and-bones leg minus the painful cancer), I felt I had to excel at using it, so after hearing that weight gain might prevent me from walking I took to the diet like a zealot. If a thousand calories was good, eight hundred, even five hundred, would most certainly be better. Soon I was eating a few bites of pot roast and lots of lettuce most days. I lost weight, my lowest weight was around 85 pounds, had irregular menses, but managed to function well on fewer and fewer calories all through high school. I was thin, but no one commented. My mother and I fought about how little I ate, but we disagreed on most everything during those years and I had no interest in pleasing her. At least not on the outside. I did, however, want to be seen as smart and well-adjusted to my “situation” (I was NOT disabled, crippled, handicapped and if anyone suggested otherwise, I’d just push harder to prove them wrong). I also wanted to be seen as pretty, and had dreams of being a model and a tap-dancer, but was successful in pushing those and any other seemingly impossible desires way down into the pit of my gut. I deprived them of my attention, just like I deprived my body of food. I had the makings of a very good eating-disordered young woman – skilled at denial, unrelenting, and determined to be in control.

Things began to change during my first few days in college. My roommate was a cute, thin blonde with a body made for cut-off short shorts and skimpy tank tops. I saw lots of other girls who were just like her and, hard as I tried, couldn’t push the “I’m so ugly and disfigured” self-talk out of my mind fast or far enough to keep me centered. Before college, everyone knew me and my story. Even though I never really accepted myself with fully open eyes during those years, I wasn’t triggered as much by stares and the skrunched faces signaling others discomfort and confusion about how to interact with me. In college, I saw only beautiful, slinky bodies next to my big, clunky, wooden-leg clad being. I covered everything up with loose-fitting tops and long-legged bottoms, hoping no one would notice my distorted body. Feelings welled up inside at every turn and I felt overwhelmed, like I was losing control of my mind. Like all good control freaks, I quickly came up with a solution. I left college and a full scholarship which rattled my parents, who warned me there would be no money from them (rightly so, they had no money to give) to get me started again when I was ready. I made no mention of my panic. “It’s not a good fit,” I told my mother after a week. That was it – no more panic. I’d done it – taken charge and survived.

I worked as a nurse’s aide that year, and secured another full scholarship to a college nursing program. The summer before college, I found a position as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged kids with muscular dystrophy. It was more than an eye-opener of the kind I wished I’d not happened upon. Surrounded again by the beautiful bodies of late teen-aged counselors, many who knew each other and had ongoing summer romances. A repeat of my college experience a year earlier, although this time I knew I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t/wouldn’t go home again. And, at the camp, it was not only my beautiful-bodied fellow counselors poking at me, but there were disabled counselors who were eager to get to know me. I had to find a way to get away from both while quieting the panic and staying put.

It happened at the opening barbecue, before the kids arrived. There was a generous spread of picnic food, a male counselor in a wheelchair who wouldn’t leave me alone, and a dozen or so other counselors flirting their little butts off. I was stuck at the buffet table and, without weighing in on my behavior, I began furiously eating everything I could get my hands on. Stuffing my face to avoid seeing and feeling, until I panicked, imagining my body ballooning into a thousand pound blimp overnight. Then out of nowhere, a distant memory of a Seventeen magazine story about models who throw up to stay thin popped into my mind. A godsend – I could throw up. And I did. And it was like a miracle. The relief was unimaginably divine. I went back, ate some more, threw up again, and I was on the road to bliss!

To be continued…

 

Are Secrets Really Secret?

…or are there any secrets? Do I merely soothe myself by believing there are things no one knows about me even if I’ve told them?

These last few weeks I’ve been obsessing about why I didn’t say more about my relationship with E&T, aka bulimia, in the initial launch phase of my book, Joy Ride: My One-legged Journey to Self-Acceptance. And today, for the first time in a couple of months, I took a look at my website, karenwittdaly.com, and realized there’s not one word about my forty-plus year relationship with E&T, despite it being a major part of the journey I catalog in the book.

Am I still hoping to keep that part of my life a secret, even though it’s openly discussed throughout the book? It’s a puzzling revelation, especially because I was proud of how honest I was in describing the way bulimia affected every aspect of my life. Maybe I thought it was a secret that readers who knew me would discover for the first time. Or, maybe I thought potential readers would be turned off by the topic of bulimia – another story of addiction and recovery – and not even consider reading the book. What I see now is that opening up about difficult, shameful things is a gradual unveiling, a process that’s more about how I think and feel about myself than about how others might see me. I suddenly have a desire to change up the website and some other writing to more accurately represent the various aspects of the journey I wrote about.

This reminds me of a quote by Richard Brautigan I recently came across:

Are You the Lamb of Your Own Forgiving?
I mean: Can you forgive yourself / all
those crimes without victims?

It seems forgiveness, of others or of oneself, is impossible when that which is to be forgiven remains a secret. But, if I don’t make space to forgive, I continue to blame myself (and maybe others). To what end? Sometimes stories we continue to tell ourselves just reinforce things we need to let go of. I now know (from reading some of the reviews of my book) that my years of bulimia were not a secret. People close to me knew about the behavior, even though I told myself they didn’t, while knowing deep inside myself they did. And, although I did my best to keep it a secret from myself by denying it was a problem, and rather considering it something I was destined to do, to purify myself or cope with difficult things–I always felt the shame of it. Maybe only now–after having published a book that on the cover doesn’t even mention bulimia, but on almost every page makes reference to my E&T ritual–I am releasing the secret and beginning the journey of forgiveness.

Life is such a surprise – every day there’s something I was sure was behind me that pops up right in front of my face to remind me it’s not over yet. And, then, I have the great good fortune to dig a little deeper, clear out more of the muck, and make room for even more joy.

What could be better than that!

Bravado, Shame, or Seeing Things as They Are?

The “happy gene” chatter in my last blog seems to have caught up with me. This week I’ve been restless and in a bit of a funk. I’m certain the happy gene is holding it’s place, just hanging back so other, equally important “seeing things as they are” genes can make themselves heard.

Last week’s blog about my present eating routine got me wondering whether it would be good to talk more about bulimia as a second, major theme in my book, Joy Ride. This notion came up originally before a book reading event I was part of in early March. Sarah, the organizer, asked if she could make reference to my bulimia history in the press release about the event. I said sure, and sent her a copy of a press release noting the bulimia that my editor and I wrote for other media events. Sarah never mentioned bulimia – instead she said something about behaviors I’d struggled with, something like that. I think she wasn’t sure how I really felt about having it show up in the newspaper.

Since then it’s been bugging me, and I’m wondering if maybe she was picking up on my discomfort with it – although at the time I didn’t think I had any discomfort. Today, though, I’m pretty certain I do – have discomfort.

Here’s my shake-out about that. I’m wondering if my writing about my relationship with bulimia in the book came from a place of bravado – wanting to shock people from a distance. Throughout the book, I fondly and disgustedly called it E&T (eating and throwing up) before I was able to see it for the multifaceted addiction that it was. I never used the word bulimia until the epilog when I wrote about finding my way to Twelve Step programs, and finally letting it go. So many aspects of that addiction feel shameful: the gluttony, the head in the toilet, the wasting of food, the stealing that accompanied it, the lying, hiding, what it did to my teeth, on and on. And yet, as I lived with it and wrote about it in the book, I was thankful for it, even sort of worshiped it, felt proud that I had figured out how to continue it, seemingly without notice (although I was always wondering who knew).

As I step back (or maybe it’s that I’m stepping closer), I see this vacillation between a kind of bravado and an overwhelming shame. Maybe it was a dichotomy that had to exist for the secret of bulimia to continue, and for me to continue functioning.

Today, as my head spun, throbbed, and tried it’s best to rid itself of the reality of this funk, something shifted inside and I began to see how bravado and shame are my concocted stories about me and my past. They are characteristics, loaded values and judgements I’ve attached to a behavior. I can accept the behavior and it’s 40+ year history without naming it shameful or bravado. I might understand bulimia as an addiction, a coping mechanism, or something I had to do, and I can talk about that honestly, while remembering it’s simply one part of a story of a life.

I was lamenting today about how this process stuff gets old. It seems everything I do – writing a book, or a blog post, or going to a workshop, or even having a conversation, or going swimming – leads to some new self-awareness that then challenges my identity, my joyfulness, my very fragile self-acceptance.

Here’s a quote from David Niven that makes me chuckle.

“Keep the circus going inside, keep it going, don’t take anything too seriously, it’ll all work out in the end.”

Is this what a joy ride is all about?