The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 3. Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival, and the Body the Enemy
I had eaten peanut butter cookies and Skittles. I know this because I can still remember the multi-colored stained water in the toilet bowl.
I was 13 years old. This was my first attempt to purge. It didn’t work because it had been nearly four hours after having had my first taste of a binge. I didn’t try this ED behavior for another four years with a more pointed, stronger intention.
This early experience was amidst my anorexic years. I was with a childhood friend and we had baked cookies to sell. They were so soft, warm, and inviting. I hadn’t eaten a freshly baked cookie in probably a year.
I started with one, two, then five, as an overwhelming, uncontrollable impulse started to take over my body and my brain.
“EAT. EAT now while you can!” The voice urged. Mouth salivating and survival instincts kicking in, my ED brain was no longer in control. I entered into my first foggy binge state. After maybe 8 or 10 cookies, I stopped, frozen and dazed, crumbs dripping off the corner of my mouth.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked myself. I felt bewildered until the critical ED voice started berating me. “You were weak. You let your guard down. How could you after all I’ve done to make you strong? You should feel ashamed of yourself,” it scolded.
Eyes cowering downward, heart deflating, I felt deeply ashamed by my own lack of willpower. I felt guilty over how much I had eaten and how utterly out of control I had felt. I vowed to myself that I would never let that happen again. I would never let my guard down again.
I left my friend’s house and went home still feeling the guilt pinging around in my stomach. I went to the bathroom and attempted my first purge. Nothing but spit and colored remnants of Skittles came up.
I felt deflated and decided that I was never going to lose control over food again, or so I thought. That brief “failed” stint with self-induced purging was enough to ward me off for a few years.
After seeing a nutritionist consistently over a few-month time period, I stopped restricting my food. I began to eat the necessary daily servings of fats, carbs, proteins, veggies, and fruits again. Anorexia became a faint memory of my early adolescent years. The obsession with food dropped into the background for a few years, but my anxious brain and temperament remained.
I learned on a deeper level that I was not worthy of food (nourishment) and care. Anorexia was a sure way to reinforce this belief.
I survived the rest of middle school, slowly gaining friends through the sports I played. I entered high school, still anxiety-stricken and highly insecure about who I was and feeling painfully shy.
Thankfully, I had two older siblings who helped to usher me into the “cool” high school scene. Their friends became people I at least knew and who knew me. It was a “false” sense of popularity that made me feel semi-okay, but also deeply afraid of being in the spotlight.
I started to feel the pressure to dress a certain way. I fell into the arms of compulsive shopping expenditures and started stealing money from my mother and then coaxing her to take me shopping at the hippest and trendiest stores.
I felt I needed to look like the popular kids if I wanted to feel like one and if I wanted it to be believable that I was, in fact, “cool.” I desperately felt the need to look the part and compensate for my insecure, shy demeanor.
I feel all kids go through this pressure in high school to look a certain way. I was not the exception, but the rule. So much emphasis is put on the way you dress, the way you do your hair, and who you hang out with.
We are left with little individuality and immense pressure to fit in. Some, of course, rebel against this or simply don’t care about fitting in.
I experienced the relentless undercurrent of anxiety throughout my freshman and sophomore years. I felt enormous pressure to have the perfect outfit each day, the perfectly done makeup, and straightened hair, despite my hair being naturally curly. I felt I had to put on a mask each day in order to compensate for my “flawed” introverted personality (or what I felt to be).
I had been bullied, so to speak, and criticized by my peers for my unusually quiet nature. Some thought I was stuck up. Some thought I was weird. But I deeply understood and received the underlying message that there was something innately flawed with my personality.
If I couldn’t be liked and understood for being more reserved and soft-spoken at first (until you got to know me), then I had to compensate for that in my looks. I thought I could fool others, even myself. And, I did for some time. I always needed to look the part of perfection, even if I felt so contrary to that inside my fragile ego.
Despite this pressure, I slowly found my friend group and my sense of belonging in the fairly “cool, smart, and athletic” group. I got nominated for homecoming queen all four years of high school, which felt like a panic attack waiting to happen. I never wanted to be in the spotlight back then.
It made me somehow feel that I was under a microscope that enlarged all of my flaws and falterings. But it was also self-induced. I put myself underneath the microscope, pressuring myself to be “perfect,” whatever that meant.
I dreaded giving presentations in front of the classroom. My heart would pound, profuse sweating would ensue and threaten to expose my perfectly adorned clothing. My breath would shorten in my chest, and words were barely breathed out of my mouth in gasps, with a shake and a stutter.
When I stood and spoke in front of others, I never remembered what I said afterward. I felt myself dissociating from my body. I didn’t realize it then, but I was most likely having miniature panic attacks.
I started to find my groove though, even if I felt largely uncomfortable and afraid of being seen. I had a good group of friends and played sports, albeit anxiously so, feeling even more pressured to perform in front of larger audiences. I tried dating, as in went on a few bouts of dating cycles, never feeling totally like myself, and continued to excel in school.
I started to come out of my shell. I dabbled with drinking. I experienced the typical aches and pains from my surrounding environment and peer exposure. I heard from two of my guy friends and boys who had crushes on me that they preferred to hang out with me when I had been drinking.
That really hurt to hear, and it also reaffirmed my belief that I had to become someone else to be liked. It reaffirmed that there was something wrong with me, and I had to be different to be liked. They didn’t understand that I was so mired in self-insecurity that I couldn’t let myself just speak and be uninhibited unless I had that liquid courage.
Drinking showed me a new way to let loose and be perceived as someone who was fun to be around. I liked the way it made me feel less inhibited and more able to just relax.
Thankfully, drinking never became an issue for me (as food did), but I did find it was something that made me experience another side to my personality; the fun, joking, unencumbered person I knew myself to be before the anorexia struck and stole my joy. I can certainly see why drinking becomes a manifestation for some to cope with social anxiety. My first and sole, albeit more secret drug, would always be food, though.
Tune in next week for the next excerpt in this series.
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.