by Mary Rowen
Eating disorders initially entered my world through a magazine article I read as a junior in high school. The article was about models suffering from anorexia and bulimia, and its obvious goal was to prevent girls from engaging in dangerous weight loss behaviors. But for some reason, it had the opposite effect on me. Maybe that had something to do with the other pages of the magazine, which were graced with images of beautiful, thin, stylish girls. Or maybe EDs are mixed up in my DNA anyway—I’ve always been extremely anxious, and significant research has shown a strong link between anxiety and EDs.
What I can say for sure is that the article remained in my thoughts long after the magazine went out with the trash. Especially the parts about bulimia. How intriguing, I thought. A shortcut in the dieting game. So one day when I was feeling particularly fat—and I should mention that I was never truly overweight, but heavier than most models—I ate several pieces of cake, then vomited. Nobody knew; it was my little secret. Of course I had no intention of making it a habit. It would be a special tool, used only in cases of overeating emergencies.
In college, however, and for more than a decade afterwards, binging and purging became almost a daily activity, and on many days, I’d vomit several times. The more I did it, the more I wanted to, and at some point, I lost all control. Quite likely, the only thing that kept me alive was living in situations that involved sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with other people. That lack of privacy prevented me from vomiting as much as I would have if I’d lived alone. Because whenever I was completely alone, my activity of choice was binging and purging.
The damage to my body—my heart and throat in particular—and social life were undeniable. I slept poorly and often felt dizzy and weak, despite the fact that I was actually gaining weight. (One myth about bulimics is that they’re skinny, when, in fact, the body soon begins to retain some of the food the person tries to purge.) I looked terrible, too. My face was always broken out; my lips were chapped; my mouth was dry; my stomach was permanently bloated. And I won’t even attempt to describe the damage I did to my teeth. All I’ll say is that since I’ve been well, I’ve spent about seven hundred hours in the dental chair trying to repair that damage. Don’t even ask how much it has cost.
Bulimia also made me reclusive. I’d make it to work most mornings, but I avoided social events, using every imaginable excuse because I was so self-conscious about my appearance. Besides, I wanted time to binge and purge. I dated a bit and had a couple of boyfriends, but no relationship ever stuck, thanks to my secret. And yet, I couldn’t bear to think of myself as mentally ill, or psychotic, or self-destructive. Every time I’d decide I needed help, I’d talk myself out of it, promising to stop tomorrow.
Fortunately for me, I had some wonderful friends who stood by me, even though my behavior was often unpredictable. And every once in a while, I’d get so sick that I’d stop puking. I’d become afraid that I’d die of heart failure in my sleep, so I’d “get clean,” and stay that way for a week or two. During those respites, my skin would clear up, I’d sleep better, and I’d start feeling more normal. I’d socialize more, too, and that’s how I met the man I’d eventually marry.
I wish I could tell you that my ED ended at that point, but it didn’t. It went on for several additional years. My boyfriend traveled a lot for work, so even after we’d moved in together, I was able to hide my illness from him. It wasn’t until we started talking about marriage that I broke down and told him everything.
And that was the moment things began to change. Once I’d broken my silence, the next step became amazingly clear. “We need to get you help,” said my boyfriend. Indeed.
The very next day, I called my health insurance company and got an appointment with a therapist. I was still very frightened of the “mental illness” label, but I knew I wanted to get married and start a family, and I couldn’t do that as a bulimic.
Therapy was so powerful. The therapist listened to my story—she was incredibly easy to talk to—and assured me that if I wanted to, I could make a full recovery. Even though I’d been vomiting for over fifteen years, she had no doubts. She said talk therapy alone might do the trick, or perhaps I’d need medication, too. But the important thing was that she was on my side. And so was my boyfriend. I wasn’t alone any more; I had a team. The relief was palpable. After all those years of wondering in isolation if I’d ever be able to eat and live normally, suddenly I knew the answer.
So I stopped vomiting. Just like that. And when my official therapy sessions ended—although I do still check in with my wonderful therapist from time to time—I got married. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I welcomed our first, healthy child into the world. I was eating well, exercising, making new friends, and living a fun, productive life. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried about the bulimia coming back.
Then a strange coincidence occurred. We’d moved to a new town, and I was looking for a new doctor. (I’d never spoken to any medical doctors about my bulimia, although I had told the midwife who’d overseen my prenatal care.) Anyway, I came across a general practitioner in my health care directory whose credentials and location seemed perfect for me. Better yet, he was accepting new patients. But when the receptionist started giving me directions to the office, my stomach sank. “We’re at MacLean Hospital,” she said. “In the medical clinic.”
MacLean? The famous psychiatric hospital where Sylvia Plath was treated? And James Taylor? And Susannah Kaysen, who wrote Girl, Interrupted based on her experiences there? Oh no. I wasn’t going near that place. Deep inside, I was still terrified of the “mental illness” label.
Eventually, though, I did meet with the doctor. And after a brief chat with him, I realized that there was nothing scary about him or MacLean. Furthermore, he had a deep understanding of psychiatric disorders. Therefore, every visit to the physician now includes a bit of therapy, too.
It’s been eighteen years since I vomited voluntarily. I’m the proud mother of two teenagers, and an active member of my community. I’m also a writer, who has published two novels—one of them about a woman with bulimia. But even though I talk about EDs all the time, it’s often hard to believe I was ever so sick. During those terrible years, I surrendered control of my life, but now, I’m firmly back in place as its subject.