Unpeeling the Trauma of Disordered Eating

TW: Eating Disorders, weight/numbers

JUNE: Since I was 16, I have purged every single Thanksgiving dinner I’ve consumed. Turkey. Mashed potatoes. Pumpkin pie. Flushed away before it has the chance to leave its mark on my body. I am now 37.

Smaller, smaller. Become less visible. Take up less space. All around me, the notion was reinforced. Just my mere existence was burdensome because it felt so unworthy. Less than. Shameful.

You see, the best women are the invisible ones. The ones who do what they are told, and the ones who fall in line. This is our purpose as women: find a man to eternally save you, support him, build him, nurture him, and make sacrifices in which you overlook your own self–but all for good and worthy reasons. The leaving of your own dreams, aspirations, and hopes behind as a woman for the greater good of partnering with a man comes naturally and effortlessly given the expectations place on us from birth. But it does not come without a cost. The cost of not recognizing abuse and unhealthiness within relationships is grievous, since, just as in my situation, some relationships are not a true pairing of equal yoke. Furthermore, the failure to teach otherwise results in women being trapped in a vicious cycle of their partner’s abuse disguised as God’s will.

This dynamic of unhealthy normalization of codependency within an orthodox religious culture is seen across many faith-based communities. The expectation of outsourcing our own spiritual autonomy to our ecclesiastical leader, who is also a male, is the not-so-hidden secret ingredient that ties everything together, like the splash of pickle juice added to my grandmother’s Sunday dinner roast. In many of our daily interactions, the directive is implied, ‘Become invisible and small and submit to the men. This is worthy, this is the plan, this is our sacrifice.’ I would frequently hear at church, “The more talks you volunteer for, the more handsome your husband will be.” Lessons about marriage and eternal salvation were repeated weekly. The message was clear: My worth, my purpose, my salvation was inextricably tied to a man. And I needed a man because my literal life depended on it.

I never wanted to have bulimia. It just happened. The first time I purged, I will never forget. Seared into my memory, like the grill lines on a piece of juicy steak. I was a Junior in high school. A guy dumped me. I immediately thought it was because I was not thin enough. I weighed 125 lbs.

I came home from school, alone. I locked the bathroom door and made myself gag. I couldn’t do it at first. It was so hard. But eventually, it came up, as my feelings of unworthiness, fear, and shame went down. I had completed the act and I would keep doing it. It was my reward and my punishment.

My abdominal muscles began to feel sore, from the purging. The sides of my lips began to crack, a scab formed on the knuckle of my middle finger from repeatedly hitting my teeth several times each day. My hair and nails weak like peanut brittle. I lost weight. 111 lbs.

After about a year of this, I began to need to hide my secret better. Long trips to the bathroom after meals were a dead giveaway, so I made excuses to isolate myself so no one took note. I learned tricks, like running the faucet to drown out the sounds of gagging. I learned how to switch hands to induce vomiting to minimize the scarring on my knuckles. Drinking soda with every meal helped it to come up easier. Flushing the toilet at the exact time I purged. Lots of tricks for the incredible shrinking girl. 108 lbs.

My shrinking was reinforced. The loss of weight meant the gain of friends, the attention of boys, the praise of my mother. Girls at church looked up to me because I was living the sacrifice. This is the trap of disordered eating: Living to die. I kept doing it because it became my self-care in the form of emotional bypass with a major component of spiritual trauma mixed in the batch. It was my outlet to dealing with my feelings of inadequacy, my desire for perfection, and my need for approval. Bulimia was my best friend, my secret weapon, my coping skill. It was vodka to an alcoholic.

Eventually I was hospitalized for bulimia in an inpatient center. My food was monitored. The bathroom locked. I did a few therapeutic exercises that made no sense. Insurance coverage ran out after a couple weeks; my treatment not worth paying for. Of course, it did not cure me of the disease. I loved my bulimia and held onto her like a child holds onto their first piece of candy. After my stay, I was in and out of counseling, never able to truly verbalize the feelings swirling inside of me like a Dairy Queen blizzard. I never examined the why.

I went on to college, where living in the dorms on the campus gave me away. I wasn’t asked out on dates and again, I assumed that must have been because I was not thin enough or skinny enough, so the purging worsened. An intervention was staged to find the guilty bulimic; a public shaming that left me feeling more alone than ever and more committed to my bulimia than ever. 107 lbs.

I bounced around in a series of bad relationships throughout young adulthood. Afterall, I was accustomed to believe my worth depended on a man’s ability to see it. So it would stand to reason that I ended up choosing a bad relationship permanently. Being married meant that I would be desired, wanted, fulfilled but it didn’t and I wasn’t. I gave everything to my marriage–constant sacrifices of self with little return of investment and at times, clear and distinct abuse, neglect, and soul-crushing damage. And because of this, bulimia again became my friend and my partner. What’s more, my husband used my eating disorder against me time and time again in the bishop’s office–to deflect from his unhealthy and damaging abuses within our marriage. Because he knew I would be shamed by it and I was. Put in my place, I came secondary to his needs, his wants, his desires, and his reputation.

Life took a turn of heartache and unimaginably difficult trials. Abuse, betrayal trauma, separation, divorce, and faith transition primed me for hardest work I would ever do. I began to examine my feelings. I was finally ready, like a Thanksgiving turkey baking for hours, emerging with golden brown skin. The work was intense, exhausting and excruciating. EMDR to heal from past trauma. Inner Child Healing to instill love and worth in my child self. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to modify dysfunctional thinking and beliefs. Therapeutic Mentoring to build on my strengths and offer encouragement to keep going. Guided Meditation to cultivate mindfulness and self-awareness. A myriad of support groups to show me that I was not alone, ever. Examining my deepest darkest fears of not having a man to say I had worth was scary, re-traumatizing, and uncomfortable more often than not. Picking apart my most vulnerable places and laying them out in the open was not pretty and certainly not graceful. But it was necessary. And worth it.

I have worked to extricate my feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness from my soul. Now single, I don’t date at all because I am so scared of falling back into the cycle of unhealthy co-dependency. Some days are better than others. Sometimes, triggers are awful and send me wanting to run back to my bulimia, longing for immediate bypass of my feelings. But I have learned tools that help me sit with those false core beliefs, acknowledge them as waste, and then allowing them to be discarded, like when you clean out the guts of a pumpkin and squeeze the slime before tossing it in the trash. Other days, I am the picture of health and strength. This is the healing journey of trauma. Even now, crumbs of my eating disorder still remain hidden and tucked away within my heart, slowly being swept out and replaced by the staples of self-love.

-June-

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