A very personal story of growing from near death physically, emotionally, and spiritually, due to an eating disorder, to finding the will to live and the courage to fully experience life. You may learn how to recognize your own coping mechanisms for life and may discover the need for the medical field to better understand how to help disordered eaters.
Life Renewed – Struggles and All
A “Resurrection” Story
By Ariana Abel
There is an ongoing dispute in the medical field: It’s kind of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” dispute. Some believe that eating disorders are developed and can be cured. Others, myself included, believe that one is born with the tendency towards an eating disorder and, once triggered, one can enter recovery, maybe even a state of remission, but is always at risk of a relapse, similar to that of an alcoholic.
I recently read of how adult onset allergies is due to having been born with the tendency toward being allergic to something, then one day, later in life, after having been exposed just one time too many, there is suddenly an allergic reaction. With this theory in mind, the media, advertising, and skinny actresses don’t cause eating disorders, but certainly may contribute to the triggering of one. There was a study done in the Fiji Islands, where there was no Television. The women there were, in their own opinion, big and beautiful, large and lovely. They took pride in being voluptuous. However, once TV and, more importantly, American TV shows featuring beautiful, skinny women, were introduced to the culture, eating disorders surfaced in rampant numbers.
I showed signs of having an eating disorder by the age of fourteen, and my eating disorder began at age sixteen. I was trying to be the perfect eldest daughter, trying to be a good role model, including being model thin. I was an over-achiever as a pom pon girl, playing the leading role in school musicals, in community talent shows, was a foreign exchange student to Japan, on the school newspaper staff, and striving for good grades. . . and to be thin.
I didn’t know how to diet properly, so I skipped breakfast and lunch and, although I would never admit it, was starving by evening. Therefore, I would binge but, not wanting to gain weight, I would throw-up. I thought I was a failed anorexic until I read a magazine article about a then newly discovered eating disorder called bulimia.
By the time I was a senior in high school I was playing with thoughts of how to kill myself. I confided in an adult friend from church who knew that in order to save my life she had to tell my parents. They made me go to counseling, which I hated. I began to learn everything I could about eating disorders by reading articles and attending workshops. I learned that, like an alcoholic, we don’t want to deal with life and all its difficulties and would rather drown it out with the abuse of a substance, in my case food instead of alcohol or drugs. We don’t like feelings and emotions that are painful or confusing, and would rather try to stuff them down with food. Or, we try to escape life by focusing all our energy on size, diet, weight, and exercise so that we have no time to deal with the real issues of life and what’s truly bothering us.
So, I had to ask myself whatit was I didn'twant to face. At the time, I was graduating from high school, didn’t want to go to college, had no desire to get married
although I didn’t know why and was scared to be an adult, have a job, and pay bills. What was I going to be when I grew up? I wanted to remain a little girl and be taken care of.
I began by changing my eating behavior. I would make myself eat breakfast and lunch so that by dinnertime I wasn’t so ravenous. I took a career class and discovered I would enjoy a job where I worked with people, had a non-routine schedule, and could travel: Tour guide, cruise ship director, hotel clerk, and flight attendant were options.
I was hired to be a flight attendant and was transferred to another state. My eating disorder seemed like something I just had back in high school. I forgot I ever had it. I thought I was cured. However, for eight years, I had just been in remission.
At twenty-eight years old, I began taking walks in the park, which turned into power-walks, which turned into dieting. . . and the obsession returned. I would stay up late at night making charts of numbers: How many more miles could I walk this week? How many fat grams could I cut out tomorrow? How fewer calories could I eat? How many pounds could I lose this week? How many sizes could I drop this month? In a period of five months, I went from a sizeeight to a size two. Dieting to lose weight was fun, but dieting to maintain was not. I felt deprived because I couldn’t eat what other people could and maintain the size I wanted. I felt angry that God didn’t make me that size naturally and that I had to work hard at it. I had no social life because my schedule revolved around my exercise routine. Parties and restaurants were no fun because I was afraid to eat the fat-filled food being served. Then I remembered how to “have my cake and eat it too”. I could eat what and as much as I wanted as long as I threw it up.
At first, I only did it once in a while, but eventually it occurred more often until depression set in. Everyone seemed to be under the impression that I was perfect, but I knew the truth of my imperfection and the horrible secret of my disgusting habit. My depression got to the point where it was nearly impossible for me to even smile. Nothing seemed to matter. I wished I could die.
My “rock-bottom” came shortly after my thirtieth birthday. I had binged and purged, worked-out on my treadmill, and collapsed on my couch in a sweaty mess. The blood vessels around my eyes had burst from purging. I looked as though I had been punched in the face. My doorbell rang.
“Who is it?” I asked through the door.
“Sally.” Sally was a dear friend who knew I was struggling and, since she never dropped by unexpectedly, I knew why she was there.
“Go away,” I told her, and didn’t open the door.
The next day I called-in sick for work and the cycle was repeated: I binged and purged, worked-out on the treadmill, and collapsed in a sweaty mess on my couch. Again, my doorbell rang.
“Who is it?”
“Sally.”I knew then that she was serious about helping me, was not going to go away, and that I may as well let her in.
“How are you doing?” She asked me.
“How do I look?”
“You look like hell!” She was honest. She continued, “Get your coat; I’ll take you to the hospital.”
The only reason I finally agreed to go with her was because she was going to take me to a hospital that was supposed to have a great eating disorders unit. (Turns out, it’s just the psych ward.) They didn’t take my insurance and couldn’t admit me, but could not release me, so they strapped me to a gurney, tossed me into the back of an ambulance, and hauled me off to a mental hospital where, if I weren’t nuts before I was admitted for the weekend, I was certain I’d surely go insane before I got out!
I do not wish to go into the details of how awful it was in that hospital. I have tried to block-out the memories. I felt as though I had been falsely accused and thrown into prison for a crime I didn’t commit. Indeed,I had been behaving in an insane manner, but I was not insane. I was so angry that I vowed no one would ever lock me up and treat me that way again. No one would have the opportunity. When I was released and arrived home, I had to decide whether or not to commit suicide. It would have to work because I didn’t want to attempt, fail, and end up back in the insane asylum!
Call it my higher power, call it grace, call it a respect for life. . . I can’t explain why I knew I wasn’t supposed to take my life, I just did. I believed that, although it didn’t feel like it, life is a gift and not mine to throw away. Although I felt angry that I don’t get to know why we are here, I knew that my mission was to spend what life I had left trying to figure out the reason. I chose life.
I joined a support group and began working toward my recovery one day at a time. In retrospect, I now believe that I had had an underlying sense that there was something wrong with me, and that I wanted the outside of me to look perfect to the world so no one would know that, on the inside, I was a mess. Of course, I now know that unexplained feeling of something being wrong with me was not understanding why I wasn’t attracted to men. I have since come to accept that there is nothing wrong with me, I’m just gay. However, at the time, I was in a state of confusion and denial.
I have been in recovery since 1996. I take one day at a time realizing that I could relapse tomorrow. I’ve learned that to fully experience life means to allow oneself to be vulnerable to feelings. We all have coping mechanisms to survive the frustrations of life. If we don’t participate in the obvious ones for which there are twelve-step programs, such as alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, shopping, smoking, then we may spend too much time in front of the TV, on the Internet, sleeping, or working – anything that will distract us from dealing with an issue we may not be wanting to face.
I try to keep myself in check by being honest about my feelings and aware of them by meditating, journaling, or talking with others until I either figure out how to change the things I can or to accept the things I cannot change.
May you find the courage to fully experience life, struggles and all – one day at a time.