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“This is my fault.”
“Nothing I do will bring my parents back together.”
At the brink of my parents’ divorce, the truth of the last statement intensified. Rather than seeing the actuality and realizing that my parents’ issues were not my own, I let those thoughts swallow me whole. From age 3 until I became a legal adult, my life was an ongoing game of monkey-in-the-middle. The game involves two players who throw the ball back and forth to each other with the intent of keeping it away from the “monkey,” the player in between them who tries to snatch the ball in order to get out of the middle. In my case, as the monkey, I did not have any control over my parents’ divorce, so I was never able to snatch the ball and live my life outside the intermediate.
I began to seek control in other aspects of my life. In kindergarten, all the Disney princesses in my colouring book were immaculately coloured within the lines. In first grade, my handwriting was such perfect print it resembled a typewriter. In second grade, I was the line leader of my class. In third grade, I beat the Indian boy in every single multiplication contest in class. In fourth grade, I read a million words by the first semester and got to be a part of the “Millionaire’s Club” at the library. In fifth grade, I was the first one to complete every single math box in my textbook. In sixth grade, my planner was color-coded. These patterns reflected my perfectionist habits regarding cleanliness, timeliness, and orderliness.
Sixth grade was also the year my beloved sister was born. After close to 11 years of being an only child, her sole being brought indescribable love into my heart. But along with her, came my step-grandmother’s five-month-long visitation, undermining a time of emotional struggle.
She meant no harm when she said my thighs were thunderous or my appetite was that of a hippo, even though she did say it in the infamous Russian tone. My controlling personality quickly realized that thighs could be slimmed and appetite could be suppressed, and all that was needed was a lot of willpower. My destructive habits began at the snap of my 11-year-old fingers in the form of bulimia.
My bulimia throughout middle school was not her fault. It was a product of my parents’ divorce, which I aimed to reverse; my poor self confidence, which I aimed to change; and the ever-present pressure from society to look a certain way, which was particularly overbearing at a time of hormonal changes.
I started kindergarten young, so for me high school began when I was 13 years old, and I felt more than ready. Shortly after I started high school, every area of my life took a more serious turn. I dove head first into my dance studies (particularly ballet), my challenging honors courses got my very focused attention, and my first serious relationship began. It was so much so fast, but I was an independent and self-motivated individual and knew I’d figure out a way to handle it.
And by “handle”, I mean my bulimia escalated. In April of 2011 my form of self-punishment got severely worse when I discovered the gym. A normal day of physical activity for me consisted of between 4-5 hours of dance and an additional 1-2 hours of weight training + cardio per day. My body was used to being pushed to its limits. My eating disorder combined with overtraining was the most satisfying form of self-destruction. Everything became a punishment for my eating. In my attempts to control my life and under the disguise of “taking care of myself,” I was actually killing myself slowly.
The biggest motivator for keeping up this lifestyle was the relationship I had with my boyfriend. In his eyes I was an object, his property, a whore, a liar, and a thief.
“You can’t leave me, I bought everything you own.”
“Why don’t you wear looser clothing instead of wearing tank tops and yoga pants to the gym.”
“No one will ever treat you better than I do.”
And the worst one was, “If you ever got with anyone else I would kill him and then kill myself.”
Between endless fighting, cheating, and manipulating, the verbal and emotional abuse intensified my need to gain control of my life. By sophomore year, I felt weak and powerless against my family and friends, my boyfriend, and most importantly, myself.
The last six months of this relationship were absolutely terrible. I lost my best friend because she “couldn’t handle seeing me get hurt so much.” I lost much respect from my peers because I was “the girl who cried breakup.” I was not taken seriously by my mother because “you keep going back to him anyways.”
Why didn’t I break up with him right away? A question I know many people face when others see them unhappy in a relationship. The answer was not so simple, though, at least not for me. I didn’t leave him immediately because on the surface I had a great relationship! He was a football player, I was a dancer. He had a nice Mercedes and we would often go on dates to nice restaurants. He would show affection in front of my friends and they would be jealous. I know now that all of those reasons were surface level. Nothing can make up for emotional support, for a deeper connection, or for captivating conversations. My values were compromised at the expense of an image.
We drifted apart and I’m pretty sure he cheated on me, but I used this as an excuse to get out of the relationship. However, I quickly jumped into another one, thinking it would heighten my self-worth. Everything was great! Or so it seemed. The relationship was loving. My grades were excellent. My friends were supportive. But my greatest enemy was always myself. It seemed that no matter how great things were, I would always be a bulimic. In fact, it was almost as if my bulimia got worse when everything else was agreeable.
Explaining the experience from a psychological perspective is useless, in my opinion. I can tell you all about the cognitive behaviour model, the research that shows bulimia is associated with poor body issues which grows into anxiety, depression and self-loathing. This is true. I can also tell you about the “pathophysiologic model,” which describes the eating disorder as a problem with brain chemistry, including disbalanced levels of serotonin, some opioids, endorphins, estrogen, and cholecystokinin (talk about biochemistry nerd). This is true. And lastly, I can tell you about the genetic studies of bulimia which shows that it runs in families, although no consistent gene has been identified as the contributor. All of the above is true, plus much more.
All of this information is extensively available, but public personal experiences are limited. With that being said, my take on this is that people often do not share such struggles for three reasons: (1) shame, (2) shame, (3) more shame. People who have not experienced an eating disorder will never understand that the sickness which inflames every time food is present and then takes hours, days, weeks, months, years to soothe the mere physical side effects (not to mention the endless emotional ones). This lack of understanding multiplied by feelings of insufficiency creates irrefutable shame.
The controller in me wants to be able to write a happy ending with an inspiring ‘before and after’ photo, but the fact of the matter is, I am not there yet. However, I know that my own freedom lies in expression and by sharing my story I get to let go of those exact feelings of shame and hopefully help someone in the process.
“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
~Dory, Finding Nemo
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