February is Eating Disorder Awareness Month. Not a very pleasant topic to talk I know but a subject that is important to many. Monika Volkmar of the Dance Training Project reached out to her readers and clients to share their stories this month. I decided to write mine and share it with her. I wasn’t sure if I should post this to my blog because it is so personal. But then after reading it over a few more times, I thought it would be a good post to share with my readers and clients. We all have our struggles. And mine is no different than many. Here is my story.
“It’s not that I’m not obsessed about food. I really am and I’m sitting in a room right now with food and I’m 10 feet away from it and I’ve been thinking the whole time I’ve been talking to you, is the telephone cord is long enough for me to get some food?”
“One, two, three, four. Pull in your stomach. Stretch those legs. Five, six, seven, eight.”
As she walked around the studio, she poked and prodded, pulled arms, lifted chins. Then, as she passed by me, she paused. She stepped back and looked me up and down. I stood a little taller and pulled my stomach in.
“You could stand to lose a few,” she remarked coldly and then continued to the next dancer at the barre.
What did she just say to you, my brain screamed at me. I froze. For how long, I don’t know. After a few seconds or so, I continued with my tendues. But my mind was racing. I was 14 years old. I was a freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts. I was 5’6” tall. I weighed about 110 pounds. And until this day, NO one had ever commented about my weight before. EVER. To this day, I think back at that day in the dance studio, and I wish to god it had never happened. I wish that she had not opened her big, fat mouth. I wish that this did not exist in the dance world, in the world of gymnastics, in the world in general. But it does. It has. And unfortunately, it always will. My world changed forever that day in the dance studio. 24 years later, I still struggle.
I broke down into tears a year later in my mom’s gynecologist’s office, sobbing over my weight. “I can’t weigh more than 120 pounds,” I wailed. “He said so.” Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the head of the dance department had instituted a weight requirement for the dancers (he had not.) But I was convinced he had in my mixed up, fucked my 15 year old head. My mother was scared. I was going away that summer for five weeks to a ballet intensive dance program in upstate New York, away from her, away from my friends, away from sanity. She did not want me to go but it was paid for, of course I was going. I should go. It was important to dance during the summer.
“Promise me you will eat, Emily,” my mom pleaded with me.
“I promise,” I told her. But honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to the othr girls, to my dance teachers, to being away for the first time. There was so much to think about that the last thing I really thought about was eating.
My dad drove me up to Skidmore College that summer because my mom had undergone unexpected stomach surgery and could not travel. I sat in the window of my dorm room and cried as I watched his truck drive away. There was a pit in my stomach and I ached for home. But as the days went on, I made friends, got wrapped up in my dance classes and settled into my home for the summer. Most importantly and surprisingly, I ATE. I did not even think about. We had all of our meals in the cafeteria and this was really the only time that we had a chance to eat. The first time we all made our way to breakfast, I knew I was going to keep my promise to my mom. I watched the other girls pick up orange juice, nothing else, maybe a piece of fruit. At dinner one night, I observed one dancer eating only a bowl of rice. I looked down at my plate of chicken and green beans and realized that I was the healthy one, not them. I told myself that I would eat my food, all of my food, just to show them that this is how a healthy dancer eats. I looked at their hip bones poking through their leotards and knew that did not want to look like that. I did not want to deprive myself of good, whole foods. I recognized that what I was eating was good and should not avoid it. I actually remember smiling at myself for doing this. But I will not lie to you and tell you that I still did not obsess over my food. This was my true disordered thinking. And this obsession went on (and unfortunately rears its ugly head from time to time) for many, many years after that summer.
When I returned home from that summer, my food obsession was just beginning to bloom. This struggle between eating/not eating and my love/hate relationship would continue to tear me apart all through high school, into college, into my early 20’s living in NY, into my late 20’s, my early 30’s and today. My junior year of high school, I did not get my period for months at a time. And when I would get it, the period was heavy, so heavy that all I could do was curl up into a little ball in my bed and hold my stomach. Who knows how much of this had to do with my eating habits. I was definitely underweight for my height and was dancing 5-6 hours a day, five days a week. And when I say love/hate, I really mean it. There were days when I would just break into tears, so unhappy with the way I looked, so unhappy with my attitude towards food. I wanted to eat it but at the same time, I was so mad that I could not tell myself to NOT eat it.
I injured myself my senior year of high school and continued to eat the same way I always had except I was not dancing anymore so the food I ate made me gain weight because I was not exercising. By the time I started college, I had gained a good 10 pounds which would then turn into 15. College was spent not eating, trying to lose weight, being happy with the way I looked one minute to then sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom down the hall from the dance studios an hour later. I could never predict how I was going to feel one day to the next in regards to my body. I would make myself feel so guilty for eating. I walked around all the time with a large bottle of Evian in my mind, sucking down bottle of water after bottle of water. (Now, I struggle to drink even a glass of water. Yes, I am one of those people. 😉 I drink a lot of tea and water with lemon. But I drink enough to keep myself hydrated.)
I would cut up fruit and eat it like it was going out of style. Bowls and bowls of fruit would be consumed on a daily basis. (No wonder I could not get a handle on my weight.) I can remember going to the bookstore on campus which also sold food and buying a bagel, a banana and a Power Bar. This was my breakfast, snack and maybe lunch too, all rolled into one. I drank tons of soda. I ate Power Bars constantly. At night, partying with my friends, I would drink tequila straight from the bottle. I abused my body. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office telling him that everything I ate made me sick. EVERYTHING. He looked at me and told me that I was crazy like my old man. (My parents were patients of his too.) And you know what? He was right. He was fucking right. I was crazy. There was nothing wrong with me physically. It was all in my head. But I could not see it. I did not want to believe it. It took me almost 20 years later to finally understand the extent of my obsession.
I moved to NY when I graduated from college and spent my early 20’s talking to GI doctor after GI doctor. I had a colonoscopy when I was around 22. I took Citrucel and Metamucil like it was going out of style. I took laxatives. I convinced myself that I had some sort of Celiac or Chron’s disease after reading a book that I bought about the diseases after I was diagnosed (FINALLY) with IBS. (Of course, I would understand years later, all doctors who diagnose their patients with IBS do so because there really is nothing wrong with the patient but they want some kind of label put on their ailments. Hmm.) And in my case, this was absolutely true. I had no IBS. No stomach disorder. No Chron’s disease. But I still insisted on eating nothing but tuna fish from a can for a week until I realized I was starving myself. I was mentally wired wrong in the head. I thought about food ALL the time. What I ate, when I was going to eat again, what I was NOT going to eat anymore. There is now a running joke with my family about my ability to remember past events in my life by what I was eating at the time. It is a joke but at the same time, it is not so funny. When you think about food 24/7, one has a hard time understanding how to truly enjoy eating. Food was the enemy. And it was beating me.
(The funny thing was that when I was living in NYC, I kept a journal and in this journal were pictures of women’s bodies that I wanted. When I looked back at those pictures, I was stunned. They were pictures of athletes, basketball players, swimmers, Gabby Reece, the volleyball player. I wanted to look like those women. Real women with arms and legs and muscles. At least I can take pride in the fact that I never wanted to look like a runway model. But I had no idea how to eat to look like them. For some reason I thought that starving myself was the answer.)
My parents arranged for me to talk to a therapist when I was in high school. That quickly ended after my mom found out I was using that time to talk about my parents religious differences and that somehow THIS was the cause of my eating issues. (It wasn’t.) In college, I tried to meet with a few counselors but I could not really talk about my problem because, well, I did not think I had a real problem. I met with a social worker when I was living in New York. I would go to her small apartment in the West Village and sit and cry and talk about useless things, never really getting to the source of my issues with food. I eventually stopped going to her. It was a waste of time and money. I wasn’t letting anyone help me. I moved back to Baltimore in 1999. I was still mentally on the edge with my eating, always teetering on the brink. Then, in 2004, I broke up with my boyfriend of three years, had a complete mental breakdown and started meeting with a new social worker whom I worked with from November of 2004 until May of 2011. She was amazing. It was the longest I had ever been in therapy, and we covered the gamut of my many issues. However, during this time, I never really spent that much time talking about my food obsession. Not specifically. However, I did come to the realization that my obsession with food is directly correlated with how I am doing in my life – financially, physically, emotionally. If I am happy, my eating problems are not a priority. If I am unhappy with my job, my life or I am injured, my eating problems surface and it is very scary. Yes, this does mean around the clock checking in with myself. I am in control now for the first time in my life. Food does not control me. Although it still wants too sometimes.
Fast forward to today. At age 38, I am learning to finally come to terms with my eating habits and my issues with eating. I have worked very hard to find a balanced and healthy way of eating that works for me and today, I eat better than I ever have. I am happy with my progress and my new attitude towards my eating and how it relates to my progress in the gym and in my daily life. But to be fair and honest, it is still very difficult for me to be completely comfortable with my eating, and I would be lying to you and to myself if I said that I have it all figured out. I am not going to say that when I look in the mirror at myself each day that I love what I see because I don’t. But I like what I see 99% of the time and that is HUGE progress. I am not going to tell you that I don’t count calories or think about calories because I do. I can tell you EXACTLY how many calories are in a ¼ of an avocado and one large egg. But 99% of the time, I don’t worry about it and just eat the avocado and the egg because I know they are super foods, and I LOVE super foods. 😉
I am going to tell you that I am better off than I was last month, last year, three years ago, 10 years ago. And that is progress. I rarely compare myself to other women anymore (that was a huge part of my issue too.) I enjoy eating out with my friends and husband. I choose good foods to eat and occasionally have my burger and fries and enjoy them too. Most importantly, I am married to an amazing man, my best friend, who loves me more than words can describe and has to be one of the most patient and understanding men I know… he knows it too. 😉 Each day I am reminded that he is here for me and that he understands me. And he really does. He really does. For me, it will always be one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time.
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