My Triumph Over Eating Disorders
Like most Americans, I was raised with constant reminders about the importance of food and the seemingly contradictory value of being trim. My parents were always on some diet, constantly struggling to abstain from the abundance of available food. Food was a minor obsession for my parents, and I am sure that this impacted my consciousness and influenced me to become determined to master the art and science of eating.
Growing up in the 1960s, I was always told to clean my plate because of the starving children in China. Later, as an adult, I always wanted to go to China, clasp my hands around my fat tummy, and say to the people: “See? Look at what I did for you all!”
I came from the first generation that was raised on processed food. I remember eating Campbell’s soup for lunch, half the bowl filled with soaked saltine crackers. I recall that one day in particular, when I was about five years old, I tried to form a mental “time warp” into the future. I thought to myself, “On the day I get married, I will remember this moment, sitting here, eating Campbell’s soup.” Well, I didn’t remember the incident on any of my wedding days, but for some reason I have often recalled that moment since.
Processed food was just becoming commonplace when I grew up in the ’60s: Pop·Tarts for breakfast, Twinkies for lunch, Oreo cookies, graham crackers or ice cream after school and TV dinners for supper. When I reflect, I think I may have had an average of one fresh food item a day: an apple, a banana, a carrot or the occasional salad smothered in pasteurized, sugary dressing.
After my parents divorced when I was 14, I moved from a small town in Indiana to a larger city. Convinced that I would be more successfully popular if I lost the fat around my waist, I went on my first diet and lost ten pounds in a couple of weeks.
In spite of the fact that this did not add anything to my popularity or confidence, I was so proud of myself that I kept strict tabs on my eating. I memorized the entire calorie book and counted calories every meal, every snack, every day, diligent never to allow myself to go over 1,600 calories a day.
I slowly slipped into anorexia nervosa, the golden cage of needing a figure like that of Twiggy (a fashion model of the late ’60s who made it stylish to be skinny), but at the same time being obsessed with forbidden foods. When I restricted my intake to 1,300 calories a day, I slimmed down to 96 pounds at the age of 16 (at the height of 5 feet and 6 inches).
My diet consisted of things like sugar-free sodas, sugar-free diet gelatin, sugar-free gum, low-fat cheese, lettuce, sugar-free Kool-Aid, canned tuna, canned green beans and dry air popcorn. I thought it was a glorious time that we lived in; technology had enabled man (and best of all, me!) to defy the law of calories by eating all these delicious, synthetic, “foods.”
My diet was so full of chemicals and so nutrient-deficient that it was no wonder I came down with asthma, allergies and hypoglycemia. My blood sugar became so unbalanced that I sometimes fainted. I spent nearly a week in the hospital for tests, as my parents were quite concerned about my sudden illness.
The asthma and allergies got so bad that sometimes I would gasp for air, unable to sleep; so the doctor had me take asthma medication. I quickly became addicted to over-the-counter asthma pills, which were a mild form of speed (amphetamines). This went on for about a decade as I battled an addiction to stimulants that kept my nervous system hyperactive.
At that time, few doctors knew about anorexia. This was nearly a decade before pop singer Karen Carpenter’s death made the public aware. Like many anorexics, I had elaborate food rituals. For example, I would spend eight hours creating gourmet Christmas cookies and then eat only one.
After I’d been anorexic for about three years, suppressing my desires to eat and dreaming every night about food, the dam suddenly burst. I became bulimic and gained 60 pounds within months. This was depressing, as I had always had full control of myself until then. In fact, my will power had made me feel superior to everyone I knew. Losing my will power and my figure shattered my self-image.
Then bulimia, or binge/purge syndrome, kicked in and lasted for seven years. It was seven years of hell that completely changed my life.
On a positive note, it made me a much more compassionate person. Within months, I transformed from the most judgmental person I had ever met to a non-judgmental person with insight into why people do the most insane things. I developed the insight to seek to understand the reason behind the actions or words I disagreed with, rather than condemn the doer or speaker.
But I hated this disease. Worst of all, perhaps, I believed that I was alone, that no one in the world was sharing my illness. When I confessed my compulsive behavior to doctors, counselors, and psychologists, no one had any idea what was going on with me. I even took eight psychology classes at the university, hoping to find some insight that would lead me to a cure. I knew that I couldn’t wait for some doctor to treat me or for someone to find the cure or magic pill. I had to heal myself as soon as possible. I couldn’t wait for medical science to figure things out.
One day I picked up a copy of the magazine New Woman and read an article explaining that B vitamins from brewer’s yeast reduce stress. I started reading about nutrition and trying out various high energy and high mineral foods, such as bee pollen and brewer’s yeast.
I started on a path of learning about nutrition, and how it affected not only my body, but also my mind and emotions.
Several months before that, I had also begun to exercise regularly.
Gradually, I freed myself. I no longer felt the mood swings, stress and compulsive behavior to binge and purge. After seven years of hell, I was free! (Well, relatively free, at least.) From that time on, I knew that nutrition played a key role in mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.
In retrospect, I realize that another reason I was able to rid myself of eating disorders was that I was living in Mexico that year. I wasn’t exposed to most of the food additives and chemicals found in American food.
About a year later, Karen Carpenter suddenly died from complications of her own eating disorder, and the topic of eating disorders suddenly sprouted in all the media. Books were written about it. Treatment centers started advertising to help women with this disease. It was interesting to me, but it didn’t really matter because I had been freed. I was on to other things, like traveling around the world.
For a several years, I slipped a few times a year. Then, only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, like normal people. Now I rarely overeat as I hate the “stuffed” feeling. Here I am, 35 years later, and I can honestly say that there is hope—there is freedom—and it can be permanent.
(This post is a modified excerpt from Susan’s book The Live Food Factor.)
I found thought-provoking the idea that our battles with eating disorders could be related not to the food but to the chemicals in them.
Yes, MSG, GMOs, HFCS, etc.
Thank you for mentioning Karen Carpenter. She taught me how to sing and taught the world about this complicated illness. Such a loss. In spite of the increased knowledge, I flirted with anorexia in my thirties, consuming 1000 calories a day, and got a glimpse of the seductive nature of zero appetite. Then I got pregnant, and realizing it wasn’t just me anymore, I backed away from the brink. I like to think I would have come to value my own life even if I had not gotten pregnant. I’m glad you were able to triumph and find balance.
Sugar is more addictive than crack cocaine–at least to mice! 🙂 People too, really. As for fats, the good fats are great (butter, ghee, coconut oil, fat from healthy-raised animals)—but the vegetable oils are bad, bad, bad!
I think the most troublesome part for me was a lack of vegetables and nutrients. I tried to fill those nutrient cravings with fat and sugar as a kid. And as a teenager, I just ignored them. I’m a vegetarian (borderline vegan) now, and I can see how foods impact my body. Most importantly, I can sense what my cravings are for! I think it’s so important for people to figure out what they need, as opposed to what other people say they need. The body already knows!
I had similar experiences with cycling through various eating disorders, Susan! I, too, found healing through awareness and nutrition. Though, instead of packaged food, I grew up on sugary and fatty Ukrainian and Russian traditional foods. Thanks again for sharing!