The Eating Disorder Beast Can Be Beaten
I’m 15 years old, it’s 3:00 p.m., school is out and I can’t wait to get home and be alone. I’m dizzy, lightheaded, and cold. As I go to my locker to get the necessary books I need for tomorrow’s homework, I’m stopped by friends to talk and discuss afternoon plans. As usual I choose to go home and be alone. My energy is high and my face has its usual big smile. My frail body is hidden by layers of clothing and my mind is filled with nothing but thoughts of what I can eat when I get home. I’ve been a good girl — I have stuck to my eating plan that amounts to 500 calories so far.
I feel very anxious and pressure to start my homework. I have a Science test to study for and I must get a 95 or above.
As I open the door to the house I pray that my brother will not be home. God hears my prayer — it’s quiet and empty just the way I like it. I go straight to the kitchen, which is full of cookies, Ring Dings, ice cream, Fruity Pebbles and lots more. I stare at everything over and over again and hear voices saying: “These foods are bad”, “You’re going to get fat,” “Don’t be a bad girl,” “You will ruin everything”. After about 20 minutes I decide on a cup of hot tea and an apple cut into very small slices. I proceed into the den to watch TV and continually go over the calories that are on my plate. I sit down and pinch my stomach for any excess skin, I can still pinch some so I’m not perfect yet, just 5 more pounds and then I will be happy!
Fifteen years later, and I recognize these to be the “dysfunctional thoughts” that I so often hear from my patients now. That, of course, is the right label for the obsessive and irrational voice that ruled a life of rules, regiment, and control — the hallmarks of what I now know to be the disease Anorexia Nervosa — the Beast.
It would take eight years before I would beat the Beast, and then try and understand the process — so I could help others fighting the same battle.
What I and other health workers have come to find out through our own personal struggles and those of our patients, is that eating disorders are often not about food — parental control, relationships, responsibility, career, and marriage all can cause stress, anxiety, and depression in an uncertain world.
For me, the beast was not about eating — it was about having control of at least one thing in my life.
As early as 7 years old I felt like a burden. Beginning with heart surgery that was a life threatening for my whole family. I was hyperactive and struggled with the inability to focus and concentrate It was always something with me. My parents divorced when I was 11. My mom worked very late hours and my brother and I did not get along. Although I always seemed like a happy child I was unaware that I was already living in a colorless world so different from the one most people lived in. To me, it was twisted thoughts running in a circle, my pulse constantly hammering – to me it was hell.
At home there was a divorce, my Dad remarried, and I felt like a burden — even on those once-a-week visits. My mother tried to take over both roles, but to me, I thought my mom was super-mom, she can do anything. Little did I know for her the demands were overbearing. How could she help me when she was suffering too? I had learned that crying was not allowed. I had to be a good girl, I had to smile and be happy.
The beast had appeared, and I didn’t even know it.
In High School, I came to realize as an adolescent, that the events of my childhood were not happy, but I continued to put pressure on myself to work hard and get straight A’s. Then a preoccupation with food began. I joined the track team and started a diet that led to an obsession with appearance. I felt the pressure to be thin.
I had a distorted self image. I had no self esteem. The beast was in, and the beast was winning. I still didn’t know it.
Popularity was never a problem in High School, but I never had a boyfriend either. Something was in the way. My weight continued to decrease. When I got down to 80 pounds, a group of girls, who to this day I don’t know who it was, saw my silent cry for help and got the school nurse and my parents involved. I began to see a psychologist twice a week and an eating disorder specialist, too.
It was time to plan for college. My Mom had gotten remarried to a man with three children of his own, my brother and I were getting along better — and at 95 pounds, I felt that my weight was under control.
I was headed in the right direction, or so I thought. But as I packed my bags for college, the beast was packing, too.
I was happy at school. I was in a sorority, had men paying a lot of attention to me, and was still getting good grades.
I was also engaged in bouts of bulimia and night binge eating. I would wake up in the middle of the night and eat large amounts of food to put me to sleep. I over-exercised and was constantly getting sick. I was silently killing myself. The beast was at college, doing great, too.
Sophomore year I took another turn downward. I was absolutely still dependent on my mother. She had always been there for a hug or comfort, and now she was leading a new life of her own — I could not interfere with that. Then my father had a child with his new wife — my half sister was born — I was no longer daddy’s little girl. I had competition. I was jealous and felt cheated. My grandmother, who was one of the closest people in my life, died of cancer the same year. I felt so smothered with pain and loneliness that I began to have anxiety attacks that would lead to my heart racing constantly. The thoughts came like bullets.
What do I want to be when I grow up? What should I major in? Why don’t I have a boyfriend? I continually blamed myself for every incident in my life – for not being perfect. That’s was the beast’s rationale, and it made perfect sense. Perfect.
Junior year at college I fell in love. I was able to share myself with someone for the first time in my life. I began to feel pretty, desired, and my self esteem started to come to the surface. I was still obsessed with food, weight and exercise, however. My regimented struggle for independence had backfired.
Insecurity, loneliness, and fear of abandonment overtook me, and when I graduated I did the easy thing — I moved in with my boyfriend hoping for marriage somewhere down the line. I was working as a nutritionist in a hospital during the day and waitressing at night. Quality time between us was limited and I was not a priority. The bingeing and over-exercising started again, and intensified. Every night I called my mother crying. I was unhappy. I needed to move back home.
No sooner than I was back home, did my stepfather suffer a severe brain hemorrhage — this crisis was almost too much to bear, watching this man become completely debilitated. My mother became overburdened , money was tight, and tension came between everyone in the household. For me, who had been punishing myself anyway, I felt like we were now all being punished, and I couldn’t stop it.
But there was a turning point. After my stepfather returned from Gaylord Rehab Hospital never to walk again, my mother moved down South. Time to grow up and take responsibility for myself! Therapy helped me realize what a tremendously strong woman she is and how much of a role model she has and still is for me. She became my best friend.
I started turning less and less to an obsession with food and focused my energy on my career, family, and my independence. I wanted to be healthy and strong. I was sick of being sick. I slowly began to change my behaviors and adapt gradually. The late night bingeing stopped. I began to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. Eating in a restaurant became pleasurable.
I cried when I was sad and yelled when I was mad. I stopped felling guilty and started living. These new behaviors though hard, helped me beat the beast. There was lots of hard work, and therapy from some very good people. The best in their field.
Thirteen years later some of those people are sitting in my living room for a meeting of a group I helped to found. HEED (Helping To End Eating Disorders) is a not-for-profit group designed to prevent, treat and increase awareness of eating disorders worldwide. The director of the group Dr. Ira Sacker is here too — not just a doctor — the angel who saved my life. Dr. Sacker is the Director of the Eating Disorders program at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. The main goal of the group is to build HEED HOUSE — a group home to provide males and females with an environment to help develop the necessary skills and strength to begin to live their lives again. Many battling with the beast are admitted to hospitals over and over and over again. One young woman getting better with help from those now forming HEED was admitted to the hospital over fifty times. Our project will provide a halfway dwelling place, which will prevent that kind of chronic hospitalization, and provide a place for patients to get better with the kind of intelligent, loving support I got during my own battle with the beast.
HEED is a vision both Dr. Sacker and I had many years back, and its combination of patient evaluation, treatment services, and behavioral programs is going to be a dream come true to those working there, and those benefiting from the program.
My battle was not easy. I suffered many setbacks and thought many times I would never get better, but I proved myself wrong. I am no longer the victim of the beast. The Beast can be beaten.
What have you learned?, Dr. Sacker might have asked me when I was a patient and he was the healthcare professional caring for me.
Life is not about having it all, doing it all, or knowing it all. It’s about having something, doing something, and knowing something. That’s part of the answer, at least for me.
For More Information
HEED Foundation, Inc.
(Helping End Eating Disorders)
205 South Service Road
Plainview, NY 11803
HEED is a non-profit organization “restoring hope & promoting recovery” through free support groups, helpline referrals, educational information, professional speakers, and community outreach.
Tiell, L. (2013). The Eating Disorder Beast Can Be Beaten. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-eating-disorder-beast-can-be-beaten/