Jill's Story Bulimia Nervosa Toledo, Ohio





My World Unaware that I am two hours away from being forced to enter a total institution, I arrive at my Colorado cabin at two in the morning the night of my twenty-third birthday. As my friends force me into their car and drive me to Porter Hospital, they claim I am out of control, unstable, unhealthy, and a danger to myself and my life. When we arrived at the hospital an hour later I was taken to the ER where nurses and doctors stood around me asking me questions about my secret life. I had tubes sticking out of me as they tried to hydrate me. They took countless blood tests that were very painful because they couldn't find a vein and then my blood wouldn't come out. They also checked my electrolytes and gave me an EKG to check my heart. I gave the blank stare as their curiosity rose. Basically, they probed me with questions about my suicidal thoughts.

At this point, I am very weak, unable to articulate anything, and in total shock. Doctors and psychologists evaluate me and around eight in the morning they inform me that I am not allowed to leave, they're admitting me. In more vulgar terms than I will write, I informed them that I can leave if I want to. Suddenly, as I noticed the police officer again who has been guarding me all morning, I realize there is no way out. Against my will, I am admitted into this total institution which has cut me off from my freedom and the rest of the world. Now I am merely a weak, ghostly patient who must follow the rules of these doctors running the institution. What kind of sick joke is this? What do you mean I have no rights? I was the girl who cried wolf too many times, and then, ironically, was fed to the wolves. I felt as if my friends had given up, finally washing their hands of me. A sigh of relief for them, a gasp of breath for me. Now I really wanted to die.

The policeman, who I immediately hated, escorted me to the psych ward, where I am locked in. Immediately they make my friend leave and then strip and search me, confiscating fifty laxatives, my stash of plastic bags, my cigarettes and lighter, my purse, and my shoes. I was locked in, video-taped, unable to see others, watched in the bathroom, had minimal use of the phone, and was only allowed to smoke two cigarettes at certain times. This can be compared to a degradation ceremony that recruits in basic training must experience, which by definition strips me of my identity as a group member, and then I am given a gown and wristband to designate my new status as a patient. I was now part of a group, a minority group. None of us wanted to be there and so we formed an alliance. It was now us against them. The patients against the doctors and nurses. We had created in-group solidarity and out- group antagonism. This was my experience until my family flew out and brought me back "home" to the Toledo Hospital where I would once again had the dreadful experience of total institution.

The day I entered Porter Hospital, in Colorado, marked the end of my eight year eating disorder which had progressively gotten worse. I was finally reaching my ultimate goal of death, and therefore, I was devastated when my friends interfered with my grand plan. After all, this is my life, don't I have the freedom to choose to live or die? Fortunately, they stripped me of my freedoms. Like everyone in the total institution, I did not leave unharmed. I have been branded for life, and my scars remind me every day of the world I do not wish to return to, as I continually try to heal my wounds.

I cannot pinpoint one reason or one experience that caused my eating disorder. I think it's a complicated formula composed of many complex factors. I have already lost almost a decade of my life and so I would rather put my energy towards recovery rather than who or what I can blame. Some psychologists suggests that an eating disorder is a way of avoiding womanhood, sexuality, and responsibility. Recently, psychologists have suggested that an eating disordered person, with a lack of autonomy, might simply be looking for breathing room, less attention, and power. Not only did I have control over myself through this eating disorder, I had control over who, if anyone, I would allow to access my brain, and more importantly my heart. I believed I was superhuman, untouchable, inaccessible, but I was also desperately seeking acceptance. I was searching for independence, identity, success, power, and control over a world that was so scary and uncertain. There is nothing more valuable than life, and therefore, this fight for control of my life was intense and dangerous. I did not realize at the onset that I would fight for this control at all costs. Even if it killed me.

Living through my eating disorder for almost a decade of my life is an unbelievably scary underworld. I went to the dark side and decided I never wanted to return. This world of its own is like a counter culture, which is a subculture that has values opposite of those in the dominant culture. Some of these values include: self-hatred, starvation, and death. This is unbelievable in a world where many people are starving involuntarily. By definition, values are the standards by which people define good and bad, beautiful and ugly. These values underlie their preferences, guide their choices, and indicate what they hold worthwhile in life. This is also true in "my world" but my values were twisted and backwards. The only thing I held worthwhile was my eating disorder, and I viewed everything about myself as bad and ugly, and continually thought about my own death.

In examining eating disorders, sociologists will look at the role of society on the individual rather than the biological factors within the individual. Agents of socialization such as family, school, peers, and the media influence our behaviors, attitudes and self- concept. From the time we are born, society influences our behaviors and attitudes through gender socialization. Men are encouraged to be strong and powerful while women are misled to believe that to obtain power, success, happiness, and self-worth you must possess beauty and thinness. Comparing nature and nurture, I believe nurture plays a huge role in eating disordered people. When we are born we possess no values, morals, or beliefs, yet as we grow older we acquire them through social factors including family, peers, and the media. I developed a sense of self, as Charles Cooley suggests, through a process he called the looking glass self which states that my self develops by how I interpret others to perceive me. I felt as if every day I was on stage, I needed to be flawless. The one thing about acting is you never have one clear identity. As your audience continually changes, it becomes impossible to please everyone and so you eventually stop acting and realize you have failed once again.

My family is one agent of socialization that I don't blame solely, but feel that they must share in the responsibility for my eating disorder. I learned my values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors from them and tried to emulate them as I continued to seek acceptance. I spent my whole life trying to please my father and through all my accomplishments, academically and athletically, nothing was good enough. I was never proud of myself until my father recognized my achievements, and sometimes not even then. If you're doing something that is expected of you how can it be an achievement? Following your parents beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors is not necessarily bad unless you're emulating someone who is very controlling, doesn't communicate any feelings, and has screwed up attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. As if this isn't difficult enough, I had to somehow deal with my parents' divorce at the same time I had just been sexually abused by a friend's father, at the age of thirteen. What more pressure can you place on one person? Growing up, I kept everything to myself because I was frightened and had never been taught to express my feelings. Besides, I did not want to add another problem to a family that was falling apart: my parents were going through a bitter divorce and my older sister was in rehab for drugs and alcohol. I had to play mother and keep the family together, if that was at all possible. In retrospect, developing an eating disorder was the "logical" thing for me to do. I could not possibly communicate or ask for help. Therefore, I, unconsciously, expressed my neediness through extremely outrageous behaviors, and then hid in this dark underworld that I thought would save and protect me. And I believed for a very long time that my eating disorder did just that: it saved and protected me. Although I do partially blame my parents, my views about my family's role is similar to Marya Hornbacher's, a recovering anorexic who wrote the book Wasted;

"It is decidedly not their fault. If someone tells you to jump off a bridge, you don't have to jump. But if you jump, you can always blame them for pushing you. It would be very easy to blame this all on my parents, if I weren't so painfully aware that I was also very curious about how it would feel to fall."

As twisted as this may sound, this belief fueled my eating disorder and allowed me to continue destroying myself. One more thing must be noted about families. Parents should be warned because the child most likely to have an eating disorder is the one parents thought they didn't have to keep a close eye on. Most people with eating disorders are daughters that possess everything parents want for their children. They are hard working, perfectionists, peacemakers, academically and athletically successful, good, attractive students.

The media cannot entirely be blamed for causing an eating disorder, but the media does reinforce our twisted beliefs about thinness and beauty. Women believe they must possess beauty to obtain success, power, and happiness. Hornbacher states, "when a women is thin in this culture, she proves her worth, in a way no great accomplishment, no stellar career, nothing at all can match. We believe she has done what centuries of a collective unconscious insist that no woman can do - control herself." Even our textbook suggests that people tend to pick leaders that are tall and judged better looking. We are unconsciously sending a message to everyone that looks are important and necessary.

Children under the age of twelve are developing eating disorders and roughly 40% of nine year olds have dieted. I strongly believe that the family environment and the message society gives plays an important role in the development of eating disorders. I believe if it wasn't for family and society these young children would not have the slightest understanding of this disorder. After all, our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are learned from our parents and society. I'm not suggesting that these children do understand this disease, but they wouldn't try and emulate women that family and society shows as beautiful and successful. Thinness has not always been a sign of beauty and success. In some cultures, heavier women were admired because it was a sign of health and prosperity.

People of any social class, race, gender, or age are at risk of having an eating disorder, but certain people are more prone to having this deadly disease. White upper- middle class women between the ages of 13 - 30 are the people with the greatest risk. Women of more industrialized countries are also more likely to have an eating disorder. There are also certain athletes at high risk. These sports include: ballet and dance, figure skating, gymnastics, running, swimming, rowing, horse racing, riding, and wrestling. I fit very nicely into many of these categories, including: social class, race, gender, age, and athletics. Also, I have a controlling father, a fear of abandonment by my mother, was sexually abused, had parents who were going through a bitter divorce, had a sister in rehab, changed schools, and grew up in a house where nobody spoke or expressed feelings. I had to do something. I needed control over my chaotic life. More accurately, I needed to escape this reality.

Although there are times I miss "my world", I would do anything to keep people from going to this underworld. I was in incredible pain, but at the same time that pain was encouragement and strength. I was screaming inside, but as I felt the pain I knew I was reaching my ultimate goal of total destruction and therefore, by dying, I was winning. In a very twisted way I became fearless and I liked the pain because I knew I deserved it. I believed I was so awful and deserved starvation and death. I wanted to die. While awaiting my prolonged death, my mind and body split in two. Both frantic without the other, and leaving my mind in total chaos. I hated myself so much that I wanted to kill myself. When I failed to attempt suicide to escape the me underneath, I decided self-destruction would be the next best thing. At this point my eating disorder stopped being about any one thing and the agents of socialization had no effect on me, for better or worse. My eating disorder was all I had, it was who I was and how I dealt with everything. Therefore, it was extremely hard to give up.

I was now at such a level of intensity that there was no way of stopping myself. I had lost control. Ironically, this is the control I had desperately been seeking my whole life. The only way for me to stop was to crash. And I crashed hard the day my friends forced me into the hospital, robbing me of all my rights. These friends were my only primary group, who also, thankfully, played the part of my family. I cannot thank them enough for all they have done for me. When I had given up on myself, they were the ones holding me up. In the simplest terms . . . they saved my life. One of the hardest parts of recovery is that there is no end to my story. This disease is something I will always have to fight. At first, I wasn't sure I was ready or able to do that because it's so much easier to stay in the underworld. As Hornbacher puts it;

"It's not something you just get over. For the vast majority of eating disordered people, it's something that will haunt you for the rest of your life. You may change your behavior, change your beliefs about yourself and your body, give up that particular way of coping in the world. You may learn, as I have, that you would rather be human than a human's thin shell. You may get well. But you never forget."

Not being able to forget isn't all bad. There's a certain sense of relief knowing you have nothing left to lose. This process of recovery is extremely difficult, but it's better than the alternative. Like a sober alcoholic, I count the days that I have been able to function with simply daily routines without starving or purging. I am one week away from my six months of being symptom-free.

Another extremely difficult part about recovering is dealing with my primary group: my friends in Colorado. I am working on forgiving myself and trying not to feel so guilty about what I had put my friends through. I had let them get too close and unfortunately they suffered. I did not want to let them in, but they were all I had. My eating disorder had completely taken over and I could not stop from hurting them. I believe they have suffered as much, if not more than I have because I was so numb I was immune to the pain that was destroying my mind and body. My friends gave me more than any one person deserves and yet I trampled over them at every opportunity. Silently, I apologized in my head every time I did this and every time I fought with them, but I was out of control and could not stop the pain I caused them. They put their lives on hold and allowed me to drag them through the hell I was accustomed to. I cannot simply say sorry to them for what I have done. You cannot destroy a life and a friendship and expect it to be better once you are better. I thought living in hell was the worst part of this disease, but actually it's paying the consequences of trying to kill myself that is the difficult part. I will never have what I treasured so dearly, and I must except that nothing will be the same. Slowly, I am beginning to deal with all this guilt and also with forgiving myself. As for my friends, because they are so amazing, they have forgiven me, I think. And they continue to stand by me through this process of recovery.

I'm also trying to understand my family and realize they love me and their behaviors and attitudes are the only things they know. Like me, they know no other way to act than what they have learned. I now know that they are not the enemy. They love me, and are doing the best that they know how. Putting things in perspective, I understand why my friends and family did what they had to do. After watching me for eight years playing a game with death, begging it to take my life, but never doing it myself, I understand how they eventually need to let go, for their own sanity. I do not blame them for letting go. Actually, it was the only option I gave them.

Even after I had hit bottom and had been in recovery for months, things were still very difficult between everyone. Nothing will ever be the same and I am beginning to understand this. I can't expect my friends and family to forget that I kicked death's door. I cannot create a massive destruction and expect them to forget all the lives that were at stake. For better or worse, everything changes. But there was no other way around it. I was in too deep. Unfortunately, I had to lose everything, (my friends, my job, the ranch, and Colorado), before I would realize how very sick I was.

I am continuing to get stronger, healthier, and wiser. I still go to out-patient therapy. I am getting better, but it's extremely scary, and I can't even try to explain the fear I must face every day. It's impossible for anyone to fully understand any part of what I have gone through in the past ten years. Nobody can completely imagine it, this is something that can only be experienced. As I try to step back into reality and live normally, I am terrified. I have given up my bag of tricks and now have no idea of how to handle things because I have never known any other way to live. Giving up my eating disorder is comparable to giving up your baby, it's a baby I had raised for eight years, the only thing I trusted. I loved it. It was my identity.

This process of recovery is also a process of re-socialization. For me, this process is intense because the ideas, attitudes, and behaviors I am learning greatly conflict with my previous way of looking at myself and the world. I'm learning to do this, but when you've lived in this dark underworld for this long it's hard to just give up part of yourself, so you end up compromising and living in both worlds. Just as things have changed, there is always going to be an uncomfortable distance between you and everyone you know, and especially everyone you meet. You may get well but that does not mean you don't have a secret anymore. Whatever you say and do you still cannot hide this fact from yourself. This secret will always set you apart, slightly, from everything and everyone. For the rest of my life I will stand with one foot in this world and one in my underworld. But this alternative is better than death. My eating disorder will continue to challenge and haunt me, and I will continue to fight . . . and win!