Overcoming eating disorders to find beauty & truth.
Plato told a story of a man trapped in a cave. Bound so that he could see only what was directly in front of him. Many of us can be trapped in our own caves formed by the falsities others want us to believe about ourselves.
As a teenager I found myself in a cave of falsities, a tomb, really. I suffered from depression, anxiety and eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia. Only through an arduous journey of self-discovery did I free myself and finally see what is beautiful and what is real.
I’m happy to say that I did find a way out, but I would never wish the pain it inflicted on my family and me on anyone. Still, for better or worse, it made me the 51-year-old happy mother and teacher I am today. But, how did things get so dark to begin with?
I was a buoyant as a kid. A freckle-faced tomboy. I LOVED LIFE. I loved school, especially! There, I could devour lessons, play tetherball with my friends, give my teachers home-grown irises, attend Campfire girl meetings. Life was good.
But my parents thought life could be better. How? By transferring me to Catholic school. In many ways, that one decision started the slow decline of my self-worth. Most of the kids who entered Rosary High School in the fall of 1980 brought with them a wealth of friendships formed by eight years together. But I was the new kid, wanting desperately to fit in. I began sizing up other girls, thinking. “How can I be like them?” Those comparisons, along with ads from magazines and TV, contained the same message: “Skinny girls are happy girls.” So, I started my first diet right then. Mind you, I was not overweight by any standard, but the lonely perfectionist in me didn’t see it that way. Thus, I entered my own personal Dark Ages, my descent into Plato’s cave: eating disorders.
From 1980-1988, my 5’ 8” self withered to as little as 105 pounds and inflated to as much as 175 pounds ping ponging somewhere in the middle. Happiness for me was no longer that happy game of tetherball or the giggles with a friend. Instead, happiness became falsely and fleetingly dictated by an ever-loosening waistband on my plaid Catholic school skirt. Achieving this new ideal required extreme measures: 400-calorie days, hours of exercise, and, the hardest to admit, a finger down the throat.
Well, our bodies and mind cannot thrive very long in such tortuous conditions. My parents desperately sought solutions. I was hospitalized twice, attended private and group therapy, went to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings, took a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals, you name it. My health was tenuous at best and I was not fun to be around. But, as the end of the decade was approaching, there were improvements. Still, I had not completely climbed out of that cave.
The beginning of my ascent started on September 13, 1987. My brother Tim had been married the day before. I fell fast asleep after a fun night of dancing to 80’s hits, but was awakened to a quiet whisper, “You’re gonna be ok.” I looked around the room for my mom, it sounded just like her. But it wasn’t mom.
What was it? I believe it was a spiritual intervention, maybe my guardian angel. For, while my struggle didn’t magically end that night, a glimmer of light began to pierce my darkness.
In many ways, I began to see the beauty around me that my illness had previously distorted. I saw that my parents had been selfless warriors for me. I rediscovered the beauty and power of the written word, and returned to devouring literature and writing journals. I eagerly prepared for student teaching, knowing that if I could survive my Dark Ages, I could do anything. And…. I fell in love with Tom. A man with whom I had attended high school and who had been a friend for years.
Overall, I can say that I have maintained both a healthy weight and outlook as I enter my fifties. How? Being pregnant with my two boys, almost losing the second, reminded me of both the sanctity of life and a wondrous purpose of the female form. Those sagging breasts came from nursing. Those stretch marks are a reminder of my happy, pregnant times, and my continued dark circles just mean I care enough about my boys to worry about them incessantly.
In addition to motherhood, my experiences as I teacher keep me young and positive. I am called to model positivity for my littles and their parents daily. I learned that all the positive talk I give to my kids also applies to me:
You can do it
Keep trying, even when it’s hard
Be as nice to yourself as you are to others
I remind the parents to catch themselves when they find themselves blinded to their own children. It’s easy to fall into comparing their child to another or wishing for a trait the other child possesses. I tell them that their child’s traits, even the ones that seem undesirable, like stubbornness, all serve a purpose.
“Perhaps the same stubbornness that precludes Johnny from eating his peas will save him from the future peer pressure to drink or take drugs,” I tell them.
Accepting a child for who he is, for what God made him to be, loving everything he is, THAT’S the secret to being a happy parent.
The same is true for each of us. Accepting ourselves for everything we are RIGHT NOW — that which makes us both alike and different — is the key to our own happiness. Roosevelt was right. Comparison truly IS the thief of joy. So as we enjoy our fifties and look forward to the many decades before us, let’s celebrate who we are right now, and the varied, hard-won victories that got us here.