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.
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.
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.
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.