Unmaking My Eating Disorder

by Kathryn Stumpf

It would be extraordinary for a grown woman to spontaneously ration herself to 300 calories a day or vomit after every meal. Odds are that the skeletons pacing your average ‘Eating Disorders Ward’ have not had a short-term relationship with celery and self-loathing.

Slowly, the flirtatious ecstasy of weight loss mutates into a full-fledged affair based on corporal punishment, maladaptive emotion regulation, and a false ideal of perfection. There’s a process – one that often begins in childhood.

By the time I was officially diagnosed with a purging sub-type of Anorexia Nervosa at the age of twenty, I’d been torturing my body for eight years. Eight years of midnight crunches, thinning hair, and fat-free taste-free yogurt. And for what? A label. A paragraph in my psychiatrist’s diagnostic manual.

Boeeuen Choo, "Child innerside"

It was the same deflated feeling I had at the end of my senior year in high school when all the agonising math assignments and hours spent colour-coding geological diagrams were boiled down to a single score: 99.55. The sum of my life so far.

But eating disorders can never be simplified to that extent. There’s a time when you’re just learning the ropes. You need a way to cope with distress you aren’t necessarily aware you’re experiencing, a way to achieve wonders while beating yourself black and blue. Somehow, you discover that depriving your body of sustenance does the job fine.

In my case, there were certain psychological challenges I faced as a child that, in part, led to and maintained my eating disorder. One of these challenges is captured by a quote from Appetites author Caroline Knapp, who asks, “If you satisfy your own hunger, will you risk starving someone else?”

While I escaped childhood without major trauma, my older sister developed depression when I was in late primary school. As my sibling struggled and I succeeded, I began to feel guilty about my achievements and the positive attention I received for them when, through no fault of her own, my clever sister was unable to excel in the same way. I felt I was starving her.

My parents called me Little Miss Sunshine (referring to the round, yellow, perpetually happy cartoon character), an identity I both embraced and detested. Of course I wanted to brighten my sister’s mood when she was down. Of course it was gratifying to be the ‘good’ child – problem-free, a source of pride and laughter – to parents who already had a lot on their plates and were managing the best they could.

The trouble was, this role-playing became a permanent enactment. I internalised my concerns and put others’ wellbeing ahead of my own, my desire to need nothing manifesting in the literal ‘disappearing act’ of anorexia. Paradoxically, my weight loss was an expression of the fact that I was, in fact, not fine – I needed to be looked after too.

It’s taken me more than ten years to even begin examining how my family’s dynamics may have contributed to the development and maintenance of my eating disorder. Not to mention the conglomeration of other factors at work, including my inherently perfectionistic, people-pleasing personality, and the media-saturated culture in which we live. Back then I was just a sensitive, empathic kid feeling silently overwhelmed and looking for some way to channel that emotion. I found one, all right.

Before turning twelve, I don’t really remember being conscious of food in anything but a tastebud-driven sense. Thumbs up to chocolate mousse, thumbs down to Brussels sprouts. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a Low GI diet in Who magazine that the vague, judgmental vibes about beauty, worth, and weight I’d been absorbing for years honed to a point and stabbed me in the gut.

To be a happy, successful, worthwhile, independent person, I had to be thin.

I carefully tore those pages out of the magazine and studied the high/medium/low GI food table as religiously as a trainee nun at Bible camp. Short grain white rice was a glycaemic no-no, whereas food with lots of fibre and zero sugar was ace. Who promised that vegetables and protein would trim me down to size, so, with a heavy but determined heart, I banished my favourite mint chocolate biscuits to back-of-fridge purgatory.

In addition to my dietary overhaul, I started working out in the high school weight room several afternoons a week. There I was, a smallish twelve-year-old girl getting guns of steel and sweating harder than all the boys. I bonded with the cross-trainer. I rowed countless fake kilometres along a fake river and cut back little by little what I ate. Four dried apricots for recess one week, three dried apricots the next.

And, predictably, I started losing weight. My grandma said I looked great, never mind that I refused a slice of her divine black forest torte for the first time in my life.

“Oh my God, you’ve got amazing calves!” This from the coolest, skankiest girl in my grade – quite possibly the first thing she ever said to me. I couldn’t take a break from the gym with those kinds of compliments coming thick and fast. I felt feather-light and superior, looking down from cloud-nine at peers, family members, and perfect strangers waddling around below.

Things got a little out of hand when I turned fourteen and found myself perched on the school counsellor’s couch, wondering why I was being punished for working harder than anyone I knew. External stimuli told me I should be thin, so I was thin.

At 47 kilograms (103 pounds), I was Dux of my grade. A whole corner of my family’s lounge room was a trophy shrine, extolling my athletic and academic virtues. I was a netball champion, math Olympiad, Speech and Drama superstar…and budding anorexic.

The next couple of years were overpopulated with doctors appointments, excellent grades, and exhortations to eat. I wanted everyone off my case, my parents most of all. I gained about four kilos (nine pounds), loathing every gram. I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

Over the summer holidays when I turned sixteen, my eating disorder went ballistic. Bored with the break but dismayed at the prospect of another school year, I didn’t know where I stood. As it turned out, my winning five subject awards in freshman year hadn’t cured my sister’s depression or lured my mum home from work early each night. Getting 98% on English essays didn’t make driving lessons with my dad any less stressful. Everything felt out of my hands.

That is, everything but my weight. I resolved semi-consciously to focus my energy on this, this one thing I could control. An epic cliché, I know.

Except for the small serve of dinner I consumed to placate my parents and provide bare minimum energy, I ate little of nutritional value for the next six months. On special occasions, I treated myself to an extra slice of dry toast or a can of water chestnuts. Breakfast consisted of sugar-free Jell-O and a spoonful of yogurt.

I whittled down. Over the holidays I power-walked up and down my hilly suburb, ignoring the burn in my Achilles tendon as I set off on my fourth lap of the neighbourhood in 34 degree (93-degree Fahrenheit) heat. I started wearing clingy gym pants and crop tops that hadn’t fit me since before I hit puberty.

By the time school started again, my sister’s hand-me-down skirt was flapping around my ankles. Never before had I so relished a trip to the second-hand uniform store on campus.

Come netball season, my bodysuit hung off me like a tent with built-in undies. I was spending as much time as I could on the cross-trainer in between studying and writing dismal poetry. I hadn’t had my period in over a year. Always freezing cold, I took to wearing blue-striped thermals underneath my winter uniform. My brain was hazy and my belt ran out of holes.

Still, I was in control. Wasn’t I?

Crunch time came one Saturday morning in July. Mum looked teary and fierce when the final whistle sounded across the netball courts and I jogged to the sideline.

“One of the other mothers said you look anorexic,” Mum said, lip shaking. “I feel like I’m seeing you for the first time today and – you’re so thin, Kathryn! I want you on the scales as soon as we get home.”

42.5 kilos, or about 93.6 pounds. I was busted. I started sobbing while my brain clicked into crisis control mode. I had to protect my eating disorder. If I wasn’t allowed to exercise and restrict my food intake, how would I cope? I’d have to feel for goodness sake.

“Mum, I swear I’m not trying to lose weight! I know I’ve been eating less for dinner lately, but I’m just so stressed about my math class. I’m not doing well and I’m really worried I’ll disappoint you and Dad. I had no idea it’d gotten this bad, honestly.”

Mum buys the story and I hate myself more than usual. I’m a failure, a burden, and a pathological liar; a literal waste of a person. I’m also exhausted. I can’t even drag myself to the weight room for a feeble workout anymore. I’m not learning anything in class, and I can barely keep my eyes open past 2pm.

In a moment of clarity and concern for my overwrought parents, I decide I’m done with dieting. I realise, in a strange way, that I occupy more space the less I weigh. It’s obvious I’m struggling – my parents are freaking out and strangers stare at me, whispering from the corners of their mouths. I want just the opposite. I want to disappear.

So, paradoxically, I eat. No, I devour. The doctor tells me to put on about ten kilos (22 pounds) and I take to the task with gusto. It’s fun to eat junk food all the time! Now I know what a blast Renée Zellweger must have had in between shooting Chicago and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

As I gobble jumbo marshmallows and fix myself a fourth peanut butter sandwich, I have no idea I’m laying the groundwork for bulimia. I’m not throwing up (yet), but I hate my body more than ever. I’ve discovered a new way to squash down the feelings of worthlessness bubbling up in my gut. Salvation is a 500-gram packet of Arnott’s Assorted Cream cookies.

Soon enough, I turn eighteen. I move states, maintain my weight around 55 kg (121 pounds) and become a star university student, High Distinctions all the way. I start a small magazine. I donate blood and navigate my new city like a put-together grown-up. I get so good at pretending I’m fine that I can’t imagine any other option.

I don’t remember my first proper purge, just as I don’t remember my 600th. It seems to me that the violent act of forcibly regurgitating the contents of my stomach should be seared onto my frontal lobe in all its heaving, messy specificity. Maybe I would have committed it to memory if I thought it was wrong to empty myself out like that. I didn’t. In the beginning, purging was simply an awesome way to eat what I wanted and avoid gaining weight.

A couple of years later, I was bedded down at a private mental health clinic in Brisbane, a nasogastric tube dangling out of my left nostril. It didn’t just happen. I didn’t randomly wake up on the eating-disordered side of the bed the day I turned twenty. There was a process, a sequence of events that began in childhood.

It’s tempting to think that if something different had happened along the way, just one superficial thing, my life would have been peachy. If I hadn’t found that Low GI diet in Who, if my parents never called me Little Miss Sunshine, if Aeroplane Jelly didn’t manufacture sugar-free products, if my school didn’t have a weight room… All those ‘ifs’.

But then I hear my psychologist’s voice pipe up in my head, reminding me of the bio-psycho-social model of mental illness, how many complex factors contribute to the seemingly straightforward impulse to starve or binge or purge. The way things turned out for me isn’t anyone’s fault. The situation is as it is.

Just as context and a lifetime of small choices got me into hospital, a million small choices got me out. I’m healthier now than I have been for a while, but it’s still a day-to-day matter of mustering the resolve to treat myself kindly.

A major milestone was realising that anorexia and bulimia are coping mechanisms that develop for a reason, but they are also methods of extreme self-harm. The next stage of my recovery process will involve tackling my terror of ‘starving’ others. Ultimately, I want to believe myself worthy enough that continuing with the cruelty of my eating disorder becomes an unconscionable way to live. Schema Therapy facilitated by my insightful and compassionate psychologist has already been a great help in this regard.

Recovering from my eating disorder is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. I have a feeling it will also be the most worthwhile.

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