“I’m sorry I haven’t been in class lately,” the young woman said as I rolled up my yoga mat, “But my sister-in-law just had a baby. The baby was born weighing just three pounds, so I was there visiting.”
“Wow,” I replied, “Three pounds? Premature?”
“Yeah,” the young woman went on. “The mom, my sister-in-law, has an eating disorder. She’s anorexic.”
Boom went my heart as it dropped to my feet. Another one.
“I’ve dabbled a bit myself, you know” the woman continued haltingly, as if she was describing a hobby, like painting with watercolors or French cooking.
“With anorexia?” I asked.
“No” she paused and visibly squirmed. “The other one.”
“Bulimia?” I asked, saying the word out loud that she was unable to voice.
“Yeah.” She looked at her feet, shame palpable.
And so it goes. Far more often than I’d care to acknowledge. Women, young and not-so-young, telling stories of starving, bingeing, purging, hating, grasping for control. Of anything and everything.
It’s my story, too.
From the time I was seventeen until my late twenties, my life was consumed with not consuming. Food, that is. It began innocuously enough–the latest diet, the newest exercise, just ten more pounds, just one size smaller. That magical, mystical number attained whereupon I was sure Happiness would reside. It never did. Happiness never lived at any of those numbers.
My home life was an ever-changing landscape of controlled and not-so-controlled chaos mixed in with happy memories. I had two parents whom I knew loved me, and six older siblings. By the time I was in my late teens, however, it was only my brother, Chris, and I living at home. Chris was four years older than me and had struggled through his childhood and teenage years with undiagnosed learning disabilities and delinquency. In and out of juvenile detention, crippled by his raging anger, and resentful towards me most of all, or so it seemed. He scared and threatened me regularly. At the end of the day, I really just wanted my big brother to accept me. When I was sixteen, he violently blew up at my mom and wound up sending me to the ER when he lobbed a mug full of hot coffee at my face, resulting in a bloody mess of cuts and burns. He challenged my parents to no end, and deflected much time, attention and resources away from the rest of the family. The breaking point finally came one night when I overheard him sharing his detailed plan with his buddies of how he would kill both me and my mom. He was going to get a gun and shoot us dead. I remember his friends trying to dissuade him and saying that it was a ridiculous idea. Chris insisted it would work.
Visibly shaking, I told my parents what I had heard.
Within weeks, my mom and I had moved out of my childhood home. For the first time in years, I didn’t fall asleep wondering if I would wake up or not. For once, I felt safe. Well, sort of.
The numbers game began soon after. The counting, the measuring, the label reading, the constant weighing. If 1000 calories a day helped me lose weight, then why wouldn’t 800 be better? As time went on, I finally settled on 300 calories as my bare bones minimum….a little bit of cottage cheese, steamed broccoli, one little steamed red potato. I was clever, as most anorexics are. I added exercise to the equation and was delighted with the results. Religiously, for years, I did 1000 leg lifts each and every night–500 with straight legs, followed by 500 pulling my knees into my chest. Night after night, day after day. If I was too tired and collapsed into bed without doing them, my guilt and shame overcame my laziness and I eventually rolled out of bed to complete my assignment so I could fall asleep peacefully. But sleeping became tricky, too. All the fat and cushioning had melted off my bones, leaving my hip bones to press uncomfortably into the mattress as I tried to sleep. And then there was the open sore on my tailbone. Thousands of repetitive leg lifts had taken it’s toll and left me with an open wound on my tailbone. The flesh had been worn away down to the bone. It became infected and painful. Finally, I went to see my father’s dermatologist for help. I told him what I was doing and he told me to try running instead.
So I did. In addition to the 1000 leg lifts, of course.
Running was magic. The weight dripped off me like water.
At nineteen, I fell in love with Tim, my first serious boyfriend. Head over heels but brimming with insecurity, I loved him completely and worried about losing him to someone skinnier and prettier than me. So I kept it up. I often made him wait downstairs as I finished my 1000 leg lifts before we would go out for the evening. I watched him eat countless pizzas late at night, just me and my diet Pepsi. He didn’t seem to mind. I knew he liked having a skinny girlfriend that didn’t eat. I was cute and inexpensive.
It went on like this for years. Me, in control, for once in my life. I felt powerful and beautiful and utterly miserable all at once. The frequent “Oh, you’re sooooo skinny” comments only fueled my resolve. Always living in fear of letting my guard down for that one fatal slip-up, that bite of cake, that taste of pasta, the shame of weakness and then the inevitable punishment. Punishment for my gluttony could be 500 extra leg lifts, or sometimes an additional hour of running. It wasn’t unusual for me to run up and down the staircase of our townhouse, like a crazed hamster on a wheel. Up and down and up and down and up and down until I had successfully paid my penance.
I was sick and had no idea. No one else did, either. Anorexia was a new word in our vocabulary and many hadn’t learned it yet.
The regimen of control exhausted me. Food was the enemy and being around it made me anxious. Tim and I broke up after a couple of years which catapulted me into diet pills and my lowest weight ever. I frequently felt light-headed and nauseous and if I got even a small scratch, it took weeks to heal. But the fear of gaining weight was much bigger than the exhaustion. My days were spent planning and exercising and my nights were spent hanging out in rock n’ roll nightclubs with my friends. The music, the energy, the darkness of the clubs wrapped around me like a security blanket. It was my only escape from the daytime crazy, this controlled prison of my own creation. Plus, I danced a lot, which burned calories. It was a win-win relationship.
I moved out on my own to a different city, started my career and began my real, adult life. Even so, I made sure my mom knew to never, ever tell Chris where I was living. That fear was still present and real. It may not have been rational, but it was cellular. It lived within me. Dreams about him coming back to kill me and the rest of my family were frequent. Horrible, terrifying, life-like dreams where I would awaken crying, sure that he had killed everyone but me. I didn’t see my brother for years, but the fear of him was always just under the surface.
I was lucky. You abuse your body long enough and eventually it stops cooperating. For many anorexics, that often means organ failure with sometimes permanent and fatal consequences. For me, it meant that what was working for so many years simply stopped. I met a boy who loved me unconditionally and who liked to eat at the best restaurants in Seattle and wanted me to eat, too. I couldn’t keep up the façade any longer. And frankly, I was tired. I gained weight. I went to counseling. I won’t lie–it was a big challenge to reconcile my old, controlled and measured self with this new me. Newly in love and rounder, I struggled mightily with body image. I would lie awake in bed and feel my hip bones and count my ribs, making sure that I still could. Just like the fear of my brother, the frantic need to control always right below the surface.
Yoga brought me back to my body.
Not overnight, but over years of practice. Showing up on my mat, feeling worthless and awkward and always leaving somehow lighter. Little by little, bit by bit, my body began to feel less like an enemy I was up against and more like home. A good home, one that isn’t always perfect and shiny, or exactly as I imagined, but one that feels familiar and warm. I learned to move and breathe again, without punishing myself. I learned to lay still in savasana without running my hands up and down and over my bones like I wanted to, just to make sure.
I learned to be me. And I learned to love me. Wild, uncontrolled, unpredictable and unmeasurable me.
Chris died a few years ago. Even though he spent several Thanksgivings at my house, I could never breathe well until he walked out the door at the end of the evening. He was a grown man and treated me kindly during those later years, but the fear never really left. My fear may not have been rational, but it lived within me. I wished he could have told me he was sorry for all the hell he caused in my life growing up, but he didn’t. I like to think that he was sorry, but simply couldn’t find the words. We all stumble through this life.
The young woman I was talking to that day went on to tell me how yoga was helping her to finally accept her body and make peace with herself. At this weight, or that weight, be it heavier or lighter. She told me how she was determined to not pass this crazy on to her young daughter. We each had tears in our eyes as we shared our stories. The same story, just different players. A need to control, a need to be loved, a need to be at some imagined version of perfect so that we can finally, at last, be happy. But happiness doesn’t live there. It lives here, in this body, in this life, just as we are. We just need to look.
She turned and walked to the door to leave. “I’ll see you tomorrow at noon,” she said, smiling through her tears.
“Yes you will,” I said. “One breath at a time.”