back in my body
by Sara Brown
This post includes frank discussion about eating disorders, including content that might be triggering for people who have experienced eating and exercise disorders and calorie counting. Here is a link to the National Eating Disorders Association if you need it! Please never hesitate to reach out for help and resources.
“I was bulimic and All I Got Was a Bunch of People Who Think I Have Chronic Diarrhea”
I’ve got this thing that I say a lot whenever I talk about my history of bulimia, about the moment I had to admit to myself that I had an eating disorder. I say, “it’s hard to deny having a problem when you’re bent over the toilet, your own fingers in your mouth.” Which isn’t untrue. But I think, for me, the moment I really had to face my ugly truth was when I began to lead people to think that I just had horrible diarrhea all the time rather than know I was going to the bathroom for long stretches of time constantly because I was puking up whatever I just ate. I think one time, I even just told my friend Bredhan I HAVE HORRIBLE DIARRHEA. Phew, saved it.
I also usually say that I struggled with eating disorders for six years, although the actual timeline of it is much more difficult to trace. I know that around my junior year of high school, I became aware of my body. It became something disdainful to me. By senior year, I would skip lunch and count calories obsessively. By the time I moved away for college and was on my own, I developed an addiction to exercise and still obsessively counted calories. By my sophomore year, I was stealing my roommate’s food to have incredible binges and then would throw it up. By junior year, I was purging after every single meal and was also heavier than I’d ever been. By senior year, I missed an important cue in a play I was in because I was throwing up Fritos in the backstage bathroom. That was on October 2nd. And I promised myself I would stop for good.
I think the bottom line is that I trace the origin of my eating disorder to the moment when I first felt so overcome with self-hate that I had to make myself feel some kind of physical pain. And hunger felt like a good start.
Listen, high school is a rough time. And if it wasn’t, I really hope you find peace. I went to a big public school in Texas where I was so glaringly aware of the ways that I didn’t fit in. My interests, my talents, they didn’t align with the interests and talents that made someone cool. I wasn’t bullied, I was simply ignored. I was beyond any interest or recognition, most notably from boys. That was the first time I learned that a lack of attention can be traumatic too. I learned to internalize that I was not worthy or time and attention. Otherwise called, in most circles, self-hate.
For most of my young life, I had also been naturally very thin. As was my mom, as was my brother. I ate without a second thought. That was a gift that I desperately wish I could re-live. Eating without any thought as to what you’re eating. Just enjoyment. I assumed that thinness was a genetic disposition that would serve me for my entire life. But as it is opt to do, puberty hit with a vengeance, rather late, in my case, and I began to fill out in my stomach and my hips. I wish someone had told me that it’s both completely normal and somewhat inevitable for a sixteen-year old’s body to change. Obviously, I knew I would get my period, but somehow the weight gain that went along with it felt so shameful. We want girls to develop breasts and enter womanhood, but not have the hips and stomach of a woman. Male puberty, and the changes that accompany it, is celebrated. A deeper voice and body hair are signs of manliness. Even the sprouting of zits is something we often laugh about playfully. But for women, they are shameful. Except for the breasts. 10/10 agree the breasts are good. But the stomach? The hips? The blemishes? The pubic hair? That they exist is the fault of the woman, apparently. That they are natural is of little concern, because they are unwanted.
I was not going to be unwanted. So, I drew up a new diet plan for myself. It went like this. I’d wake up at 6am for school and have a double chocolate chip muffin for breakfast (500 calories). Lunch would be around 11:45 and I would eat some of the pretzels my mom packed me (50 calories). (pro tip: if you don’t eat your lunch at school, do not just leave it in your backpack and bring it home that afternoon. Your mom will say, “didn’t you like your sandwich?” and you will say “not really” and then your poor mom will make you different varieties of sandwiches that you might like more and you’ll feel sad about that for a long time.) Then I’d eat an early dinner before play practice around 5pm. Either subway sandwich, turkey and lettuce (400 calories) or a McDonald’s happy meal (300 calories). This is the time when I begin to enjoy the sensation of hunger. It’s a sign that I have been virtuous and good. To be full is to be out of control. I am not out of control.
When I was eighteen, I moved from Pearland, TX to New York City to go to school at Brooklyn College. It was the loneliest, scariest, saddest, most exciting year of my life. So of course, as a teenager alone in the toughest city in the world, I handled change like an absolute champ!!! I stocked my fridge entirely with frozen vegetables, quinoa, and loads and loads of hot pockets. Everything was about calories for me. My world began and ended with my daily calorie intake, and believe it or not, hot pockets are quite low calorie! My first year, I lived in this tiny “dorm”. To be clear, it was not an actual dorm, just an independently owned shitty apartment building that had an agreement with the college that they could advertise to students as student housing. This dorm was an absolute shoebox, and the kitchen consisted of a refrigerator and a microwave. I kept my hotplate and my toaster in my room. My room smelled like toast, all the time.
This “dorm” also had a tiny little gym in the basement. This gym included a treadmill, an elliptical, and a stationary bike. I had never really worked out much in my life, so this makeshift gym suited me well enough. Time to bite my thumb at the body nature gave me.
So, I began to work out. I learned that I hate running, and I have very poor endurance. I hated that I hated running and had poor endurance, and so I forced myself to run. Every day. Most evenings, I hopped on the treadmill and cried. My workouts became more and more intense. My phone became littered with apps that would instruct me through new and different workout routines. I’d do two a night, for two hours, every night. Every workout involved running. My thighs became bulky and firm. My stomach tightened. And every day after coming home from class, I would sit in my room and weep, hating the gym, not wanting to go, not wanting to punish my body any more, and every night I went. It was like there were two different people inside of me. There was ME, with natural desires, tired, and the Barry’s bootcamp instructor, who saw me in all my messy shame and used that to make me run. (I’ve never been to Barry’s bootcamp, I’m sure they’re nice, but you get my gist.)
I spent the summer after my freshman year back home in Pearland. My mom had moved from my childhood home into a smaller apartment. This apartment complex included a gym. Just by simply existing, this gym doomed me to continue my terrible routine of crying and running crying and running. I felt trapped and alone and in a place that was home but wasn’t home at all. I began to restrict my calorie intake more. I narrowed my diet down to an exact routine. Every day, I ate the same thing. A one hundred calorie pack of microwavable oatmeal, with one tablespoon of low-fat peanut butter and one-half cup of blueberries. For dinner, a filet of salmon and a cup of brussels sprouts. 700 calories a day, like clockwork. Stable, reliable, bland.
By the time I returned to school for my sophomore year, I probably weighed around 115 pounds.
I’d moved into the basement apartment of a house in Borough Park, Brooklyn with my three friends. The house was owned by the grandmother of one of these friends and the apartment had one bedroom with a kitchen and a big open living space. Two of my friends split the bedroom and the other friend and I divided up the big living space with bed sheets. Let me be clear, this was hell. The apartment got no light, I had no personal space, and the grandmother who owned the place and lived right above us would sing super loudly and badly at all hours of day and night, which was terribly sad and made me terrified of aging. I was anxious and deeply depressed. I began to comfort myself by bingeing on incredible amounts of food at a time.
Now, I have to say, I think the word “binge” is overused. It’s lost its meaning. People will say they’ve had a binge when what they really mean is, they’ve eaten past the point of being full, or when they feel a sense of guilt over what they’ve eaten. True binges are something else entirely. They have nothing to do with a feeling of hunger or fullness. They have nothing to do with actually tasting the food that’s going in your gut. Binges, at least for me, were about filling myself with SOMETHING, ANYTHING, until I was at the point of feeling like I would throw it all up and was probably in tears. Many, many times, I binged simply on what was in the apartment, and because I was still heavily restricting my diet apart from these binges, I only really kept produce and health bars. So that’s what I would binge on. These binges provided me an immense sense of freedom. Freedom from my Barry’s bootcamp alter ego who demanded that I not eat. That I punish, punish, punish because the body and its desires are an evil thing. The binges were a high, until they weren’t. Until I passed the point of feeling in control and this deep, ravenous, hurting, and yearning thing came out of me and told me to fill myself more, more, more.
And then, horrified with myself, I’d make sure my roommates were occupied and wouldn’t notice me, and I’d slip into the bathroom. I’d turn on both the shower and the faucet to cover my noise, and also to have a way to clean off my fingers when they inevitably got my regurgitated food all over them. I could never stand to purge until I was empty. It hurt too badly. I could only purge until I couldn’t stand the burning and the sore throat, and that also made me feel ashamed, undisciplined.
A common misconception about bulimia is that bulimics are bone thin. By and large, this is false. Most bulimics just look like normal people, could be thin, full, curvy, fat. That’s the worst part of it all. You punish and punish, and nothing changes, so then you need to keep punishing until it does.
I no longer had a gym in building, so I wasn’t working out. While I was partly relieved about that, I also carried an immense shame for what I perceived as laziness. And as a result of not manically working out, and of the new pattern of bingeing, I began to gain some weight back.
By the end of the year, I’d moved out of the basement dungeon and found a real-life apartment that had lots of sunlight and actual walls. I moved in with my friend from the acting program, and I thought the apartment was the most beautiful apartment in the world. It was much closer to campus, and civilization in general.
While I was so much happier in the new digs, the hyper-controlled eating, the binges, the purges, they all continued, and in fact, got worse. Having the perfect body seemed to me, at the time, as the only quality that would give me worth. The perfect body. I had such a clear vision of what that meant. It was iconoclast, set in stone, not up for opinion or debate. This withholding of love and respect, however, only applied to me.. I would watch the people who passed by me on the street and feel a spasm of jealousy that they could exist and be inherently lovable. They could eat what they wanted and not torture themselves and live in the body they live in and just be ENOUGH. I found countless ways to isolate myself. I alone was special in my abhorrence. It’s the isolation that kills.
By this time, I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. The binges became more and more frequent, which meant the purges did too. Often times, I would purge even when I didn’t binge. All food was unacceptable. I was so ashamed of my body; I didn’t want to leave the apartment. I didn’t want my body to have to exist in the world. One day, I had gone down to the Popeyes by campus to get a meal, and as I walked back to my apartment with my food in hand, the campus security guard told me to lay off the fast food, it was showing. I went home and I wept.
Early on in my senior year, I had been cast in my thesis production. I was going to act in a play that I loved, in a role that was incredibly challenging, and that I felt had been gifted to me out of a sense of genuine admiration and trust. Everything about the process was thrilling, and I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude for the show itself and everyone I had the privilege to work with. The show opened and I was prouder of my work in it than anything else I’d ever done. On one double show day, lunch was provided. A simple deli platter for sandwiches and chips. I’ve always had a weakness for Fritos, and so I opened a bag. One bag became two, which became three. The evening show started. I had a fourth bag and then a fifth. I hated myself. I had to rid myself of my shame. I ran to the bathroom backstage and put my two fingers down the back of my throat. I threw up the Fritos. But then I didn’t stop. I kept purging and purging, this time until there was absolutely nothing left to throw up.
I went back to the wings to find that the show had stopped. There was a silence onstage, as the two characters waited for me to make my entrance.. The silence between the stage and the audience was oppressive and seemed to me to be a bigger indictment of my shame than anything else I’d ever felt. But this is showbiz, baby, and the show must go on! And it did. My missed cue was a great shame to me and my saving grace. On October 2nd, 2016, I decided to force myself into recovery.
Knowing what I know now, I’m shocked my attempt at recovery was successful. It was not gentle, nor forgiving. I held on to my self-hate like a shield, but this time used it to NOT purge. My one and only goal at this time was to not purge. I continued to binge. I gained a little more weight. I didn’t go to rehab, or even see a therapist. My initial attempts at recovery were as isolating as the disorder itself. It was only successful in so far as I addressed my behavior. Eventually, when I was no longer purging, the binges became less and less frequent. The thoughts were still constant and obsessive. Eating was not enjoyable; it was riddled with fear and anxiety.
It took me a long time to realize that recovery fueled by self-hate is not recovery. I eventually sought out a therapist. I’m incredibly lucky, both that I found a therapist who I trust and feel understands me, and that I’m able to afford to go. She helped me learn how to hold myself with compassion and gentleness, to see myself in all my damaged glory and offer myself acceptance, and maybe even love. During this time, I still had binges. Sometimes I purged. Change was so glacially slow; I sometimes fell into a deep hopelessness. But somewhere along the lines, I broke through.
And then the most destructive thing that could have possibly ever happened to me at this time happened: I lost weight. It happened so incrementally, I didn’t notice at first, until one day I woke up and found myself at the goal weight I had set when I was my most disordered. I looked in the mirror and I liked my reflection. But I didn’t like my reflection because I had learned to love and accept myself. I liked my reflection because I was closer to my fucked up ideal of my “perfect body” than I had ever been. People even began to comment on the weight loss. They congratulated me and asked how I did it. Every time it happened, I felt embarrassed and angry. Embarrassed that they had noticed my weight gain in the first place and angry that they felt my body (re: women’s bodies) are public domain to be commented on at will.
Losing weight sent me into a tail spin. An obsession with maintaining that weight emerged, and I began to slip back into an old headspace of assigning food moral value. Fried food/sugary food is “bad,” veggies are “good,” and whatever good or bad food I choose to eat determines my value as a person as well.
Which leads me to where I am now. Trying my darndest to eat whatever I want and by and large deal with the small fluctuations in weight that that entails. Freeing myself from the moral weight that society puts upon women’s bodies and their eating habits. I still have anxieties about eating, but I’ve also been able to eat with joy, which is a totally foreign feeling to me. My mom used to say that sex and food are the two greatest physical joys that this world has to offer, and I have decided that I would like to experience that joy. I see my therapist all the time, and I am still working very hard towards a sense of self-like. But guess what? My self-esteem is still very much contingent upon maintaining a weight that I’ve deemed acceptable. One may argue that this isn’t self-like at all, that self-love is inherently free of any strings and caveats. But I say, fuck you. We are in an era where the phrases “self-love” and “self-care” are thrown around like hot cakes. We have stripped them of their meaning and created a society that both demands that women look and behave like mannequins AND love themselves unconditionally no matter what.
Let me be clear, self-love is necessary. Maybe the most necessary thing in the world. But it’s also not something that can ever be fully achieved. No one will ever love themselves so fully that they free themselves of insecurities and anxieties. It’s a process. That’s all it is. By treating it like an achievement, or a product, we’ve simply created another guilt-trap for women. Even Lizzo feels bad about herself sometimes.
My hope for myself is that I continue just as I am. That I can experience the moments where I feel like an ugly pig slop blob as fully as when I feel like a mega babe. Experience them, but not act on them. My hope is that I can be proud of all the work I’ve done and not subscribe to this bullshit idea that any of it has an end goal. My hope is that the men who work at the bodega down the street will know far too much about me because I’m always buying Ben and Jerry’s from them, and you’re goddamn right that I’m enjoying the hell out of every bite.