While volunteering at a Los Angeles animal shelter, I met a brindle, 10-month-old pit bull named Sunny. She was so skinny that even her shadow looked bony, and her tail looked like it had been chopped in half and then stomped on in three places. Yet despite her dire circumstances, a joyful energy moved through her. Every time I slipped inside her kennel, she came barreling into my arms and sprawled across my lap, her whole body wagging along with her stub tail.
The outdoor kennels gave the dogs little relief from scorching summer sun. Sunny often panted with saliva dripping from her mouth, and I knew she was excruciatingly thirsty. Sometimes she approached her water bowl, but then would back away with her ears flattened on top of her head. And soon enough I realized what she was afraid of: her reflection. Sunny’s body told her to drink, but her mind told her a scary, dangerous dog was in her way.
Until one day, when the temperature was in the 90s, Sunny stood over the bowl and peered down. Her chest heaved, her ears unclenched, her body loosened. Then, as if she made a decision, like she was standing on a cliff and saying “to heck with it,” she jumped. She dunked her mouth inside the bowl and drank and drank in big gulps. I gasped and watched her stomach expand. She came back to me gloriously slobbering, looking like she felt a lot better, like this was the first nourishment she’d given her body in a long time. I nearly stood up screaming and cheering, nearly became liquid myself.
I knew this feeling. How loud a body can beg. And finally, the taste of water.
When I became bulimic in high school, I believed that a thin or “perfect” body could somehow protect me from suffering. Crazy as it sounds, I believed in this as much as Sunny believed a scary, dangerous dog lived inside her water bowl. Unconsciously, I believed I could throw up more than food. I could throw up my problems. I could throw up my love handles and frizzy hair and acne. I could throw up my alcoholic father and the guys who didn’t like me back and all the rage that never escaped my mouth.
I could throw up the difference between the girl I was and the girl I believed I was supposed to be.
I told myself that my bulimia wasn’t hurting anybody. I told myself that if I ever really wanted to stop, I had the power to do so. I told myself that if I looked “good” according to society’s standards, then I’d start to feel good inside.
These were lies of course, but I couldn’t see it at the time. Sadly, it took me eight years of waking up with a raw throat and bloodshot eyes and food wrappers all over the floor and a clogged toilet and an aching chest, before I became willing to consider that my mind wasn’t telling the whole truth. Before I stopped listening to the voices in my head and began listening to my therapist, my family, my spiritual teachers … and, most important, my heart.
I didn’t heal all at once, but rather, in one microscopically small moment after another, as I struggled against what scared me. As I acknowledged my fear and did the frightening thing anyway.
I took that bite of bread even though I feared carbs would “make me fat.” I went to treatment even though it seemed unnecessary and weak. I told someone that I was freaking out over a potato chip, even though this embarrassed me. And I tried to keep my hands out of my throat and my knees off the bathroom floor, even though my thoughts were luring me there.
Today, I know the universality of suffering. I know that each of us has a heart beating inside of our chest, and as much as we’d like to build armor around it, as much as we’d like to fight off pain and feeling with food and starvation and drugs and alcohol and sex — sometimes, we just have to feel.
And when I look back at the girl hopelessly trying to puke up her problems, what I feel is compassion. I want to hold my teenage self in my arms and speak to her like I do with the shelter dogs. I want to tell her about her courage and resilience and beauty and limitless potential. I want to say to her what I once said to Sunny: Sweet girl, you’re going to be OK. Sweet girl, you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.