My Disordered Eating Past

by Charlotte on February 5, 2010 · 42 comments

Polly is dead. She committed suicide on February 8, 2008, a likely result of her lifelong struggle with anorexia. I don’t know Polly but for some reason the news of her death went through me like a cold shiver, the same way it does any time I hear about a eating disordered woman who loses the battle.

So I did what any intelligent stalker-type does these days: I googled her. I discovered that her death made headlines because she was one of three eating-disordered women profiled in the HBO documentary “Thin” that aired back in 2006. Not watching TV, it has taken me this long to hear about it I suppose. Someone posted the entire documentary (in 11-minute segments) to You Tube. I watched it two nights ago and have been torn up ever since.

I’ve been mulling it over and trying to think of a way I could post about it – to let you know what an interesting, amazing, inspiring, and yet completely horrifying & depressing show it is – but I couldn’t think of an appropriate angle. It just hits too close to home for me. I see myself in every one of the girls profiled.

The Start
I’ve never been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder [edited to add: I have now! Compulsive over-exerciser, that's me!] but there are times in my life where I think I definitely would have qualified for ED-NOS (eating disorder – not otherwise specified). As did far too many of my friends, I flirted with anorexia in high school & college, always managing to keep my weight just on the safe side of things. Always able to pull back when I really really needed to. I never cognizantly thought of the times where I would subsist on a single “fun size” package of candy for an entire day, several days in a row, as “restricting.” I just thought it was what girls did to stay thin.

Lots of girls I knew did it or things similar to it. Other waitresses at the restaurant I worked at taught me which foods had the least calories and tricks to make all the decadent food we were surrounded by look unappealing so we wouldn’t be tempted to eat it. Our dinner breaks were actually competitions to see who could eat the least actual food. Girls in my gymnastics classes taught me about not eating before a competition (the lower your weight, the higher you fly!) and then using massive doses of caffeine pills to mask the hunger & keep your energy up. Roommates taught me about “saving calories” by restricting all week so you could eat on a date and the guy would think you are one the cool girls who is thin but can eat whatever she wants.

This type of behavior also runs in my family – my grandmother, whom I still adore and think about almost daily despite her being dead for 20 years, was an active bulimic all her adult life. Two cousins were bulimic. Two more spent time in eating disorder clinics. And then of course there was the media – thin movie stars, even thinner fashion models. Even my health teacher encouraged disordered eating by requiring only the girls in class to keep a food journal, a practice I kept up for over ten years after her class ended. (The boys had carte blanche to eat whatever they “needed” to keep up their strength for sports and because they were still growing. Never mind that many of us girls were also in sports and also, duh, still growing.) I was surrounded, almost from birth, by our culture of thin. Every girl I knew was tainted by it.

The Decline
And yet my bouts of bad eating were interspersed with longer ones of health because my body’s will to survive and thrive was stronger than my willpower to starve. That is, until I met G. in college. He was my partner on a swing-dance team. He was an amazing dancer and, simultaneously, a sociopath. I saw something good in him and he, likewise, saw something in me: vulnerability. We began to date. The entire time we went out (if you can call it that), he abused me in every way possible. It started out small with little comments about how I was harder to lift than some of the other girls on our team – natural waifs, every last one of them. Then it progressed to screaming vitriol, that I cannot even now bring myself to repeat.

To cope, I did what came naturally – I stopped eating. I pulled out all the tricks I’d ever been taught over the years and combined them with hours of intensely athletic dancing. It worked. G. complimented me on my protruding hipbones. He liked that his hands could almost span my waist. He was happy. I was nearly destroyed. I fainted after a dance performance. I suffered heart palpitations, dizzy spells, nausea & insomnia. He finished the job by sexaully assaulting me. That was the end of my relationship with him, thanks to good friends and family, but the beginning of a kind of self-loathing I had never experienced before.

The Worst of It
After G., my weight went up a bit and stabilized. I met a great man who cared about my mind and my soul and honestly thought I was beautiful regardless of a few pounds up or down. I married him and for a few short years, managed to not think about food or weight at all. The hole in me wasn’t gone but at least it was covered up.

That came to an end when G. popped back into my life in the most horrific way possible. At the time, I had assumed that I was the only girl he had abused. Turns out he was a serial molester and had only gotten worse during the intervening years. I was contacted by the police and decided to press charges.

My only experience with our legal system being Law & Order reruns, I was wholly unprepared for the physical and mental nightmare of a sexual assault case. I was also pregnant with my third child. The interstate court case dragged on nine long months, exactly the length of my pregnancy. The longer it went on, the more I deteriorated. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Despite being pregnant, I quickly reached the lowest weight I’d ever been. I thought about suicide every single day. The baby inside me was the only thing that stopped me from actually doing it. G. finally plea-bargained and got a year in prison, with time served. The very next day my son was born. Hale and hearty at ten pounds, he was beautiful child. I was broken.

The court case ended, everyone assumed I would feel empowered and vindicated and quickly ease back into my old perfect life as wife, teacher & mother. I think they assumed that because that is what they so desperately wanted for me. What did I want for me? I wanted desperately to finally heal. I thought being healthy physically would help me mentally. But this time my disordered eating snuck up on me as my quest for ultimate health devolved into Orthorexia, a newly coined term for people who restrict their food based on health reasons as opposed to wanting to be thin. In fact, I’m told it’s the new “in” eating disorder in the Hollywood set. Yay, me.

I saw a therapist (who was tainted for me by the fact that G. was court-ordered to pay for her services) who was pretty good at helping me work through my damage from the abusive relationship. But when it came to my disordered eating, she was worse than unhelpful. She wanted tips. Every week as I shrunk before her very eyes she would ask in awe how I did it. Somewhat overweight herself, she pressed until I actually gave her a how-to, which she then promised to implement. At last we both realized that she had problems with her self image & eating and that our relationship had moved far from therapeutic. So I stopped seeing her. But I still hurt.

The End
I wish I could say that there was some huge life-changing moment that made me leave my disordered behaviors behind. But let’s face it, you read my blog, you know I still straddle that line at times. Although these days I trend more towards orthorexia than anorexia [edited to add: actually these days it's crazy amounts of exercise]. Which is why “Thin” was such a powerful documentary for me. I’m at a healthy weight. I’m healthier mentally than I’ve been in years. And yet I still see myself in so many of their mannerisms. The way Alisa obsessively tried on outfit after outfit, sometimes for hours a day, looking for one that didn’t make her look fat (not realizing that the fat was all in her head and not in her clothes). The way that Shelly (the girl pictured above in the Thin promo) talked about what her control over food meant to her and how it played out in her family. The way that Polly went to the ED clinic to heal and instead just found something else to rebel against.

I’m not saying that I have an eating disorder now. I am saying that the potential for one lives inside me. Which is why I suppose I am telling you all this. It’s my was of staying accountable.

Because Polly is dead.

This post sound familiar? Fridays are greatest hits day here at GFE. This post originally ran 2/2008. I chose this one to repost today mostly because I think I need to hear it again right now.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Marste February 5, 2010 at 4:39 am

Love you, Charlotte. (I hope that's not creepy.)

That is all.

Oh, wait! Also, *hugs*

THAT is all.

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Michelle February 5, 2010 at 4:53 am

We all have moment (me with my bingeing) where we need reminders of how far we come. I do not think that anyone evers gets over anything. Love, eating issues, over this, under that. Rather, I think that the emotional ties to those issues lessens and our coping mechanisms are strengthened.

With that being said, there are times when old patterns resurface and our strength is tested.

That is when we choose to rise above or succumb. Both of those options I have exercised and both of those options have been tested.

I say to you dig deep into your soul, into your faith and remember that yes..you have a choice in this matter.

Hugs and thank you. This post reminded me that I need to go and buy a 'success' journal and get crackin' on what I have done that is a success to me.

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 4:55 am

Love you right back Marste, creepy or no!;)

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 4:56 am

Michelle – Thank you so much for the reminder! I love your idea of a "success journal" – gotta get me one of those!

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Ariana February 5, 2010 at 5:59 am

Thank you for your honest words – I feel really sorry for you and I admire your honesty.

All the best for your future – always remember yourself that you are beautyful, strong and amazing.

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Christina February 5, 2010 at 6:18 am

What's scary for me is that I see myself in so many of the lines in this post. Never diagnosed but always obsessive about food and it's only been in the last year (I'm almost 24) that I've realized that not every girl obsessively counts calories and restricts. So while this post actually brought me to tears for the pain you've suffered, it also gives me hope that one day I may be able to have a healthy relationship with food again. All thats to say thank you; your posts are raw and real and in so many round about ways, they help me restrain the potential eating disorder inside; and for that I am truly grateful to you from the bottom of my heart.

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M February 5, 2010 at 7:11 am

Some of your posts remind me how fantastic a writer you are- and this is one of them.

I know too many people that have been abused (sexually, physically, and emotionally), and it breaks my heart every time. I always hope that I would be strong enough to leave, but I've seen how easy it is to be sucked in. I help run legal seminars at battered women shelters, about finding housing, child custody, social services, etc. It's really hard to go, but it's so rewarding seeing the women who've moved forward (and the corresponding gains their children have made).

Eating disorders are also not a good scene, but budding lawyers don't really have any useful skills to offer to the eating disordered. I also don't know any girl that doesn't have disordered eating. None. I think it's impossible, in this era, in this culture.

I also send internet hugs…because they're pretty awesome. Second to real hugs, but better than no hugs, right?

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Another Suburban Mom February 5, 2010 at 11:57 am

Thank you for your story. I could never understand the mind of a person with an eating disorder because its not in my nature, but as screwed up as it is, I think of someone who is anorexic not as someone who is sick, but someone with incredible self control. That usually brings me to some self loathing that if I only had half the self control of the anorexic person I would not have a weight problem.

Sick I know. Thank you for shedding a little more light. Hopefully this will help my brain remind the darker part of my heart, that anorexia is not something to want to turn on and off as the season dictates, but a real disease.

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bjbella5 February 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm

After reading this I wasn't sure what to say, but Michelle seemed to sum it up perfectly. You have come so far and accomplished so much!

{Hugs}

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Geosomin February 5, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Having the opposite thing with food (it's my medication. It's so much more than food should just *be*) it's strange to read the other side of it, but I'm amazed and honoured that you can write these things for us to read. Thank you.

The strength of the human mind and will is incredible. This reminded me of what I can do that is *good* for me by focusing the good things on that.

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marathonmaiden February 5, 2010 at 3:02 pm

take care girl. ((hugs))

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Joshua February 5, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Always eloquent, no matter the subject, Charlotte. Intense and emotionally possessed, as per normal. And poignantly close to home, even for me.

Thanks.

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Gina Fit by 41 Maybe 42 February 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Thank you for sharing something so personal, so relatable. Your G. sounds like my M. that I dated at age 15 (he was 20).

My 8 year old daughter just came in next to me now. I wonder how I can protect her from all of this. I hope she is smarter than me.

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azusmom February 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I love you, too!

More HUGS.

And you're so right: we have convinced ourselves that starving, over-exercising, and being rail-thin is "normal" and "healthy." Even worse, we're convincing kids that this is what healthy looks like.

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Joy February 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

i can't believe polly is dead. i saw Thin several years ago and also got a chance to borrow the book from someone (the photos are really quite powerful).. i am recovering and doing quite well. that just blew my mind though.

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Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman February 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Oh Charlotte, I read this for the first time today and my heart breaks for you. I'm so sorry you had to go through that. Thank you for sharing your story and helping us understand.

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Alice February 5, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I think you are amazing Charlotte. We all have our issues, but you face yours head on.

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Christina – That's what this is all about – keeping each other healthy and sane:) Glad we have each other!

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 7:24 pm

M – Thank you! Both for your support of me and for your selfless service to other victims. You're gonna be one heck of a lawyer! Beauty, brains AND empathy.

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Another Suburban Mom – That myth of "anorexics must have so much self control" is one I have been actively working to dispel for years. It's NOT self-control. It is white-knuckled FEAR, sister, and you are losing nothing by not having it:)

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Gina – So sad how many of us there are, isn't it? I too look at my sleeping infant daughter and wonder what I can do to help her avoid the mistakes I made!

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Charlotte February 5, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Joy – There is a BOOK?? I had no idea! Now I must go find it! Thanks:)

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Emily (A Nutritionist Eats) February 5, 2010 at 7:36 pm

So powerful and moving – Thanks for sharing.

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Jody - Fit at 52 February 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm

WOW! You are an amazing woman!

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balancejoyanddelicias February 6, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Oh… dear… I had no idea what you went through… you must be really strong to be able to go through those moments of your life.
LovE~~~

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love2eatinpa February 6, 2010 at 1:06 pm

WOW. that was so powerful. thanks so much for sharing your story like that.
as heartbreaking as it is, look how far you have come and what you have learned. you can take that information and do so much. awareness is key.
i haven't seen "thin" yet, but i will watch it. it sounds like something they should show to all middle school and high school kids.

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Dr. J February 6, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Sometimes we preach to change others, sometimes we preach so that others do not change us.

PS Calorielab is looking for a new editor, so my column is down for a while. Tell the boss you miss me
:-)

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Deb (Smoothie Girl Eats Too) February 6, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Charlotte- even though I did read this before and know your history, it didn't stop me breaking down in tears in a coffee shop where I'm using their WiFi. My heart breaks for you.

And on the opposite side, my heart breaks for me because no matter how hard I try (and I really try), I can't lose the weight I want to lose. And it hurts tremendously. In fact, backsliding inexplicably is beyond painful in a totally different way to what you have experienced (and ortho/anorexics everywhere). Hugs all around.

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Orlando Wedding Photographer February 6, 2010 at 7:21 pm

great article, my daughter is in gymnastics and is having trouble with her looks, I am as caring and reassuring as I can be

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justjuliebean February 7, 2010 at 4:56 am

Oh, Charlotte, what a terrible tale. I'm glad you're healing yourself from that. G, the therapist, you can't win for losing. I hope you can learn to be comfortable and accepting of both your mind and body, after the hell you've been through. I wonder if I exercise too much, but it doesn't seem unhealthy, maybe just an teensy bit compulsive.

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Rebecca February 7, 2010 at 6:22 am

thank you for reposting this.

polly's death just breaks my heart in a hundred ways–"thin" was incredibly difficult for me to watch; one of the more twisted parts of having an ED is the ability to see the agony those women were/are going through and still think, "wow, if i drop to 700 calories per day and run every night, i can be as thin as they are…"

i was so hoping that polly could get past her ED, past that voice…

i don't think most EDs ever really go away for good. i think they can be controlled, but i've been "in recovery" for two years, and there are still times when those three little numbers can send me straight back to ED-hell.

all that to say,
you have many faithful readers,
myself included,
who are walking with you through this struggle.

you're not alone, charlotte–
and sometimes,
that's the best kind of reassurance.

*love*

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Allie (Protein Girl) February 7, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Charlotte,

This was a deeply provoking post. Thank you for sharing it. I'm terrified of your therapist who could unwittingly inflict so much more damage.

You're strong. You're brave. You're beautiful.

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Megan @ Healthy Hoggin February 9, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Thanks for being so honest! One of the things I love about the blog community, is I feel less alone with my struggles with food. This was a good reminder for me for how far I've come, but how easy it is to slip back into old habits if I'm not careful! You had perfect timing with this post. Thanks! :)

Wishing you the best! Take care!

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Minny February 14, 2010 at 1:13 am

An eating disorder is not my past, but rather the present I live with each day. I wake with thoughts of glutting myself coupled with the parameters of 700 calories and no carbohydrates in the form of bread. I stumble through winter-dark rooms for hours before tucking into chocolates or whatever small caloric luxury I've self-agreed is acceptable, and douse this with the diuretic that is coffee.

Fear is the abstraction which both binds me to anorexia nervosa, and liberates me in terms of not exercising heavily and eating anything. As a precocious college student, I do possess professional goals; I eat and refrain from stressing my body because I want to retain my linguistic skills. The first time I whittled my (petite) body down by 40 lbs. in five months, I lost the ability to speak.

Polly had, evidently, professional goals as well. Fear, debilitation, disease, and despair can erase our aspirations. This is what causes me to fear the disease within my potential for success. I agree, Charlotte, that instinctive fear is the centre of these diseases, not self-control.

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Charlotte February 15, 2010 at 12:12 am

Oh Minny honey! Take gentle care of yourself – please get help if you aren't already. I know that dark place. You don't have to stay there!

You write like a poet:)

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Anonymous February 16, 2010 at 12:38 am

I really like your courage and honesty. It's funny, because you don't pick a side. There's a love for being thin, for being healthy and for staying alive and that's great. You're a very strong woman who is human in every way.

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Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) April 5, 2010 at 6:09 am

Omg we have to talk. This is horrific. I don't have time to give all the details of my past and sociopaths, but suffice to say, lots to talk about. And clearly this is not the forum :) but I wanted to reach out and tell you, Charlotte, the admiration I have for you as a human being just increased infinitely after reading this. Godspeed, healing, peace, contentment, and blessings. You have certainly lived a freakin tale of hell and I had no idea. I have been victim of many attacks, one is never he same.

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Nina November 21, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Charlotte,
Thank you for a brilliant and honest post. I have also been through the various manifestations of an eating disorder. SOme are much more sophisticated than others and it is hard to see them creeping in! It can even take the face of "healthy eating" and "exercise".
But good for you for seeing it and shedding light on it! That is the way to move towards acceptance and growth.
I myself have been recovered from eating disorders for a few years but always need to keep check on it. Sometimes it comes up with trying to be too healthy and preoccupied with nutrition. Anything that makes me feel obsessed I have to watch and admit!
Thanks for your honesty
Nina

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