Recovery?

I’m in recovery. What a nebulous sentence. I’m not even sure what it means when I admit to people that I’m bulimic, but am “in recovery.” Am I working on the behaviors? Am I successful when I don’t purge, or when I can sit uncomfortably after compulsively over stuffing myself? Am I still symptomatic if I’m binging? And what about these thoughts I have, related to my body and food and self-worth? When I can say, I’m recovered, does that mean I can’t feel guilty about missing the gym because I’m worn down?

The closer I come to having a life that allows me to live, the more I focus on the details, the semantics.

I realized yesterday that I don’t want to be bulimic anymore. I don’t want this disorder to be such a large part of my identity. But even as I trace its origins, even as I begin to understand how this happened, I’m not any nearer to defining what life without bulimia is like. Worst of all, this disease is like an invasive species; it doesn’t belong here.

I’m surprised that it happened so recently. Scott’s mom was candid about her feelings, perhaps because I was being open about my own. Not that I had much choice. Scott had told his family – without my consent – that I was bulimic. She was dismayed to hear that the disorder began in the midst of living with her. The answer she wanted was different – maybe some story about how I spent my time bent over a toilet in college and recently relapsed. She didn’t want to consider that the disorder began as part of my relationship with her son and his family.

In fact, when I told her I was going to residential treatment at Renfrew, she repeatedly stated, “I hope they don’t tell you we’re not good for you.” I was about to uproot my life the day after finishing my fall semester of nursing school to spend an indefinite amount of time at a residential facility in Philadelphia, and her main concern was that the therapist(s) would tell me to get the hell out of Dodge.

My therapist, of course, did question my ability to be successful with a partner like Scott. I never told her about Scott’s sexual abuse. I didn’t mention that his mother was an alcoholic, and that I spent almost a year being told by him and his twin brother that I was just imagining it or being dramatic. She didn’t know the details of Scott’s cheating, or the way he’d compare compulsive acts of sexual abuse to my bulimia. I never told my therapist that Scott explicitly said he didn’t forgive me for being emotionally unstable when my bulimia was at its worst (“you were still you then,” he told me more than once when I came back from Renfrew, even as he continued to cause me emotional and physical harm in bed), and considered the behavior of a genuinely ill person comparable to his cheating, his lying, his abuse.

I think my therapist simply saw what I see now: I’m a resilient person, but resilience is a finite resource. And I was wasting that resource on Scott, on his family, on people who never asked me what I wanted or if I was happy. I wasted my resilience on trying to live with people who slept with their secrets. Who didn’t, or couldn’t, communicate honestly, but acted passive-aggressively, displayed random bouts of anger, manipulated one another. I purchased their story of this being normal, and judged myself instead of identifying their problems sooner.

I wouldn’t have developed bulimia if I had never met Scott. I’m so certain of this that I want to laugh hysterically until I cry; I want to embrace the absurdity of my situation. These thoughts also make me want a life without bulimia more than ever. I want to be able to know what it’s like to not fear a bathroom after a large meal. To not miss the gym because I spent the day before, or even morning of, purging. My life is worth more than the DSM diagnosis they brought into it.

I don’t know what being “in recovery” actually means. I never will. But I am in a state of regaining my resilience. I can recognize that I’m not a bad person for wanting a life defined by my desires and needs. For accepting that it’s not healthy to keep secrets, or to let anxieties create a momentum that’s chaotic and harsh.

I’m happy to wake up. I haven’t been able to say that in years.

Promises

Sean is on the stairs, paused mid-step. “I would’ve liked that,” he says, referring to the sexual rabbit hole Sammie has led herself down. It’s funny, how little he understands the pain he’s caused her, the unfairness she’s referring to when she tells him that he’s hurt her more than he can comprehend.

You know what else is funny? He’s on the way to meet his new girlfriend, and he’s telling her the thing he regrets is not accepting the non-monogamous lifestyle he harassed her into embracing in the first place. I don’t know, she briefly recalls him saying, not long before she took an ax to the dysfunctional bond between them. I just love you more. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. She asked him, So what about the last three years? He didn’t have an answer.

He doesn’t understand her actual complaint, or has chosen to ignore it altogether as to support whatever lies he’s spun into the story of THEM, especially with regard to THE END. No, what hurt was the constant crossing of boundaries. Telling her to fuck other people for his sexual gratification, to be a whore even when what she wanted was to be his partner. He made her sexuality the practice of meeting his and only his needs, and he humiliated her time and time again when his own neurosis entered the equation.

She can’t help but wonder how he’s treating this new girl of his. He doesn’t mention sex to Sammie, not with Meagan – just in reference to her own exploits, which fit well into his strange “slut” fetish, despite his recently founded relationship. Does he tell her that she should sell herself to men, like he did Sammie? Or is this Meagan just that much better than Sammie ever was?

And what about recovery? What about treatment? Sammie had one real wish when she went into Renfrew. She told him, I’ll work on myself. But please, work on this — whatever it is. I want to have sex with someone who doesn’t talk about me needing to dress like a slut, telling me I don’t dress the way you want. I need someone who doesn’t get off to the idea of me getting gang-banged, who can feel satisfied by normal means. At least once in awhile. He agreed. And he lied. And when Sammie came back, he had all the excuses that let him think to himself, I have no reason to hold myself accountable.

These thoughts are all twisted together; they’re like some flash of heat that sends Sammie into overdrive. It’s another shock to a system that’s been overstimulated. The anger she feels when she looks at him is so raw and abrasive that she’s spitting barbs instead of words. “Fuck you,” she says, shaking her head vigorously in some attempt to keep the rest of her still. “That’s not what I mean when I say that you fucked me up. I didn’t want to fuck other people. I just wanted to be able to enjoy sex with you once in awhile. I wanted you to show – not just say – that you loved me.” I wanted you to not harass me into have sex after disrespecting me. I wanted to be able to go to bed some nights without feeling like I’d need to serve you before I was able to sleep. I wanted a lot of things.

Sean ignores Sammie. He pretends, as he’s often been, that she hasn’t said anything at all. He makes his way down the stairs, turning his back to her. He opens the door of the house, leaving for a date with his girlfriend; he smells like a quart of cheap cologne.

The Bulimic and the Sex Addict

“I’m afraid, knowing you’re going home,” Natalie said, her crossed legs long enough that they made the shape of an X. “I don’t think you’re in an environment that supports your recovery. Your relationship — I can’t tell you what to do, but I’m disappointed. He didn’t visit you at Christmas. He didn’t come to the family session. The phone conference we did instead — he rescheduled us instead of telling the parent that there was a time conflict.”

And this one met Sean, too, Sammie thought, considering her therapist’s words. Prior to entering residential treatment for bulimia, she had seen another therapist for a year who had encouraged her to reconsider her tendency to settle with “nice,” specifically in the context of Sean. When Sammie had told him that her therapist wondered if she was getting what she needed out of their relationship, Sean seemed frustrated and only said that she had never met him. His “side” went unheard. He didn’t realize that therapists usually kept their opinions out of the question of whether or not a relationship is worthwhile – that was for the patient to decide, and both Natalie and her former therapist went as far as to suggest that leaving him would only be beneficial. With many caveats about how it was Sammie’s choice to stay or leave, of course.

Natalie had included Sean in a few of the therapy sessions. One “teleconference” that mostly consisted of telling him he had a bad connection, and two times in person, when she was admitted and during his Christmas break, the first and only time he came as a visitor. “I’m glad my mom is driving,” she remembered him saying on the phone, “I don’t want to put so many miles on my car going from New Jersey to Philly.” Natalie’s impression of Sean was that he was a teapot on the verge of boiling over. His obsessive need to talk, she told Sammie, made it difficult for him to listen. He was always thinking about what to say next, when it was far more important to bring his attention to what was being said. Sammie found it hard to disagree with the therapist’s assessment.

“What can I really do?” Sammie asked. “I quit my animal clinic job. Being in the nursing program – I couldn’t do that and work at the same time. I went to nursing school full time for him, because he wanted to be with someone like that, a nurse. At this point, I don’t have the savings I used to. I don’t have my job.”

“If you have to go into debt, then you go into debt,” Natalie said. “Your recovery is more valuable.”

 

Sammie wants to tell him to leave. This is the fifth time he’s fallen asleep on her couch, and the third that he’s refused to see her on a Saturday, when he would actually have a chance of staying awake. He’s nice and cute, Sammie thinks, running her chubby fingers through his hair. I think he likes me. But Sammie can’t be positive. No, they barely speak. He comes over, fucks her multiple times, and falls asleep on the couch. Sometimes he stays awake long enough to beg for a back rub.

Sean is never cruel or particularly rude, just a little unintentionally insensitive. Sammie’s working full time, 2nd shift most days, while also taking classes full time at the local community college. She wonders if he realizes the stress she’s under, or how little time she has to herself. He often texts her when they’re apart, but the messages are things about his day that never respond in kind to what she has to say. Or they’re requests for validation. What do you like about me? Sammie would say a lot of things: I like that you’re cute, when you’re goofy it really makes me smile, I love the way you touch me, you’re really talkative in bed (although he says some very strange things), and you’re so dedicated to your job. When she made the mistake to ask him the same question, he wrote, You relax me. She wanted to demand some kind of answer that related to her personality, not the benefit of having sex and sleeping on her couch. Of course, she didn’t follow through.

The worst bits are the ones Sammie tries to ignore, but they continue to creep up into her thoughts. He’s sexually impulsive. It makes her uncomfortable. Determining her own rights is hard, for some reason. Is she just being sex negative? Is she a prude? She wants someone who is kinky and interesting. Her last relationship was a snore, at least sexually. But she wasn’t expecting to hear about how she should get implants, or try to get money from guys who want to fuck her. Isn’t that prostitution? He wants me to be a prostitute? Was he serious? Did it just turn him on to say these things? She did ask, at one point, but he refused to provide a clear answer.

She’s desperate for someone to care about her. So she doesn’t push, and she doesn’t judge. She doesn’t demand he see her on Saturdays. When he doesn’t get to her apartment until after 9pm on Fridays, when she told him she was making them dinner, she doesn’t get angry. Not even when he tells her he’s not hungry at all, because he ate pizza with his family before coming over.

 

Tomorrow, Sammie would be going home. She wasn’t ready.

As soon as Sammie was admitted to residential, she wanted to leave. She didn’t feel like she belonged. Sure, she binged and purged multiple times a day. And yes, she wanted to kill herself because she was tired of living her life that way. But she wasn’t thin. In fact, she almost cried when she was weighed by the nurse practitioner, distraught that she was now technically overweight. A fat girl didn’t belong in treatment, especially when her bloodwork was just fine. True, she did pass out the second day she was there; a blood draw at 4am would do anyone in. And she was naturally orthostatic. The dizziness she experienced had nothing to do with her behaviors. Right?

Whatever the answers were, Sammie did improve by being in Residential. She connected with other girls, and was able to complete her meals without engaging in the symptoms of her eating disorder. She hadn’t gone a week without binging and purging since her bulimia first began. Yes, the setting made it difficult to puke into a toilet after a meal, but it was a huge accomplishment nonetheless.

Moreover, after Sean had cheated on her, she needed space and time to regroup and validate herself, to reestablish her worth as a person again. He had told her that she hadn’t met his emotional needs for a long time. During their in-person session with Natalie, he had referred to the fact that he had cheated in vague terms, citing feeling neglected as the cause. Natalie explained that Sammie was an empty cup; she had nothing to pour into his glass. If she couldn’t take care of herself, expecting her to take care of him crazy. That was a lesson quickly unlearned, of course. Even while still in res, their conversations would include how she never said anything nice to him, that she was cold and not affectionate. Sammie wanted to scream at him. Instead, she usually just said, “what about the sex? What about taking care of the house? I do a lot. I do.”

He would answer, “I know. But I need more.”

He had nodded sagely during the session, but over the phone maintained that the cheating happened due to Sammie. He was dealing with so much. A bulimic girlfriend that acted like she hated him most of the time. Who wanted to kill herself. (And you ignored that, Sammie often thought and, at times, voiced.) As she became more comfortable in res, she stopped calling him all the time, taking to her books or conversations with other residents instead. She needed to use the time she had away from him to see herself through her own eyes. To not feel the weight of his expectations, his wants, his desires. To not feel like a failure.

So the news that her insurance was cutting her off before two complete weeks of treatment was upsetting. She was, in all honesty, afraid to go back to the life she had with Sean. In fact, she was already expecting to be disappointed tomorrow.

Initially, Sammie imagined that Sean would pick her up from Philadelphia before lunch, and that they would eat at a Panera or some other restaurant that met the criteria of her meal plan while driving home. Instead, because he didn’t want to put the miles on his car, he was having his mom and dad drive. They would all pick her up. Sammie had been with his family long enough to know that they would not stop for food, and that they’d have an assortment of snacks in the car to cover lunch. Her first meal outside of treatment would already be a failure.

Aside from that, Sammie also didn’t want his family’s continued involvement in her life. In her life together with Sean, sure. But when it came to her individual problems, she wanted Sean’s support. To feel like she could confide in him. (He already made it obvious she couldn’t, after telling all his friends she was going to treatment for bulimia, but she wanted to start over.) Instead, his family was being brought along for the ride – literally. She wanted Sean as a partner, not as their son. For him to love her, and take care of her without his parents’ help, and to drive as many miles as she needed him to in his own car.

Was that so unfair?

 

“It’s funny,” Sammie says. “I came here to talk about my family. How I grew up. Instead all I talk about is how unhappy I am right now. Not because of them, my parents. Because of Sean.”

Christine has a habit of tucking her blond hair behind her ear. She’s attractive in an unconventional way, Sammie notes, with her predictable habits and her widely set eyes. And she shops at Target. Sammie knows this, since she has some of the same sweaters, just in different colors. It makes her feel more comfortable, like her therapist is Any Woman.

“Right,” Christine says, after the silence extends beyond a certain point. I wonder if she counts and starts talking when she hits ten? “You’re not happy in the situation you’re in.”

“No,” Sammie says. “It’s hard. I feel like an outsider. I’m living this life where I’m struggling to keep up with everyone else. I’m in school. I’m working. It doesn’t seem like enough for anyone. Not for Sean, not for his family. I’m not a teacher. I don’t have a career yet. I’m doing well for me, but no one looks at my life within the context of how I grew up. The accomplishment of not having a kid at my age. Or at 18, for that matter. Of graduating high school. Of having a college degree. I still feel like I’m not good enough.”

“Is it possible that you’re projecting these feelings onto others?”

Sammie pauses, then shrugs. “Maybe. Not with Sean, though. Sean… that’s so difficult. He’s difficult. I got my job with the vet at the same time – the same time I was accepted into the nursing program as a second degree student. And I told him, ‘You know, if things work out with the vet, I think I might not go into the program. I’ll see how things go from March until September.’ And he said, ‘That’s not a career.’ He didn’t feel comfortable moving out with me from his parents’, even if I was working as a vet assistant. He has a certain standard.”

“Yes, we’ve talked a lot about Sean. I agree that you’re not projecting in his case. But let me clarify. He doesn’t want to move out with you, even if you’re contributing?”

“He doesn’t want to move out until I’m an RN.”

“Is his mom still drinking at night? Have you let him know that it’s affecting you negatively?”

“Yes. To both. She’s been so bad lately, drinking and making a ruckus almost every single day. I can’t focus on my work. And I just feel scared to go home. He says he’ll work on talking to his mom, but I’m so upset and angry lately, and he’s not doing anything.”

“Sammie,” she says, her usually passive face taking on a frown and furrowed brows. “I don’t say this lightly. It’s not within my rights to tell you to leave anyone. But I have a difficult time seeing Sean as a positive figure in your life. I’m not telling you what to do, but I strongly recommend that you consider taking a break from school, working, and getting out of there.”

Suddenly, Sammie’s at a loss for words. I’m part-time at my job now. I don’t know. I love Sean. I do.

“I know you care for him, but I’m worried about you. You’re so resilient, but right now you can’t be where you need emotionally while you’re in the middle of his mother’s alcoholism. And you’ve told me before that you’re not receiving the support you need. From what you tell me, I can only validate those feelings. He sounds very much like he can’t see things from your perspective. A good partner accepts you for you, and tries to understand what you want. What if he lost his job? What if you had a career as an RN, but had to take time off because of an injury? That happens frequently to nurses.”

“I know,” Sammie says. “I’ve tried to explain that to him. But I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t see you two as being in a partnership,” Christine says. “I haven’t met him, obviously, but I doubt my opinion would change if I did. It sounds like he wants to always be in a situation where someone else is taking care of him. He’s not interested in taking the lead on that. Moving out is not a huge request, not at your age, and not when you’re exposed to an alcoholic in your current setting. But that means taking care of you as much as you take care of him.”

“And he doesn’t want to,” Sammie says. “I think I’ve always known that, in a way.”

 

Is this really a surprise, Sammie thought, looking towards Sean. He sat on the couch opposite from her, slumped in his usual position. “I thought you were going there to get better,” he said.

“I was getting better. I told you that I wasn’t ready to come home,” she responded, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She was only trying to be honest, that she had trouble eating pizza with his family. That sitting with the cheese and dough in her stomach made her feel a flood of emotion: she was guilty, anxious, and wanted to bend over the toilet and puke. “Please, you’re not supposed to be so critical of me. Read about this. Come on. I gave you the pamphlet they sent home with me.”

Sean’s thin lips bent into a frown. She expected them to form the words “sorry, I will,” but that expectation was apparently too much. Why won’t he read about bulimia? Or about how to support a partner with an eating disorder? Why can’t I come to him when I’m struggling?

She gave him what she thought he wanted over the course of their relationship. A crazy sex life, completely dictated by what he wanted from her. She accepted his family, as much as she wanted her space. The house they lived in was his mother’s doing – she held the mortgage and enabled him to afford the property by providing a ridiculously low interest rate. Sammie wanted a partnership. To move out together into a shitty apartment, and buy a house when they could do so together. Instead he followed his mom’s wishes – to live a block away in the house that originally belonged to his sister.

Even fresh out of residential treatment, she was attending family pizza night, eating dinner with his mother (who was drinking, again) almost every night, going grocery shopping by herself, making meal plans alone. She was trying. Things could get better, right? Their relationship could become something great. Like it was before? No, that was awful too. It just didn’t involve Sammie stuffing herself to the point of needing to puke in a toilet.

Why can’t he meet me halfway? Well, Natalie and Christine both warned her of the same thing. He just didn’t want to.

 

Sammie is on the portable yellow phone with Sean, pacing near the nurse’s station, trying not to talk in front of other residents’ closed doors.

“Did you tell Natalie about the sex stuff?”

This is all he seems to care about lately. “No, Sean, I didn’t,” Sammie says. “I didn’t tell Natalie, just like I never told Christine.”

“Okay,” is all he says, leaving Sammie to count up the ways he’s hurt her sexually. The talks about changing her body – she wishes she could discuss them with someone, figure out whether or not that’s a part of the bulimia. She thinks about having sex with other men at his behest, after he’s begged for her to do so for years. How sometimes he loves it, and other times makes her feel so ashamed. How in either scenario, he’s obsessed with these fetishes – the cuckolding, the bimbofication of his girlfriend, the idea that he’s coming home to a slut. We’re so fucked up. We need to stop, he’d say, almost immediately after getting off, sometimes in reference to a recent hook-up, and sometimes in reference to his unique form of dirty talk. I’m going to take you to a glory hole, and you’re going to suck every guy’s cock there. Aren’t you, you whore? And you’re going to get fake tits, yeah. Next time we fuck you’re not going to complain about me wanting to make you a bimbo, right? You’re going to be a good little slut?

She thinks about being friendly with some of these men she’s slept with — making them genuine friends who she texted regularly after meeting them, and being told that he’s uncomfortable with that. I like the idea of you being a slut, not this. I don’t want you to see anyone consistently. I just don’t like it. How she’s given him so much, endured sex talk and activities she didn’t enjoy out of love, privileged his orgasm over her pleasure even after he’s brought her to tears with his continued requests to behave like a whore, or go to a glory hole, or change her appearance, or dress sluttier than she does.

The worst part is that she doesn’t even expect that he stop completely. She accepts his desires. She just wants him to change it up, acknowledge her own wants and needs, and provide some form of care afterward. For three years, he’s held her for no more than a minute before deciding that he’s too hot, too uncomfortable, to stand holding her anymore. That is, if he’s not in the mood to flagellate them both over his kinks. Or just tired. Then he rolls over to the far end of the bed, and promptly falls asleep.

So, disturbed by her thoughts, Sammie hangs up without a word. She resists the urge to throw the yellow phone down against the facility’s ugly carpeting. She’s going to do exactly what treatment doesn’t want her to do: she will avoid her feelings. Reading is her only strategy for that here – there are no cell phones and no Internet, and the television belongs to Dance Moms tonight.

Her distress must be visible, though. As she returns the phone to the nursing station, one of the counselors speaks to her.

“Sammie, right?”

She nods.

“How are you doing, Sammie?”

“Fine,” she says. “I’m fine.” She smiles broadly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“If you need anything, please find me. Okay, Sammie?”

She wants to say, Please tell me I’m going to be alright. Please help me.

Instead, she nods and turns her back to the counselor. I can’t let her see me cry.

Intermission

Things have been difficult for me lately. Some steps forward, and many steps back. Recovery wise, I’m not sure if I’m experiencing a series of lapses or a genuine relapse. That scares me.

My life is in flux, and I should probably keep that in mind as I consider whether or not I need to pursue some kind of outside help. At the very least, I need to begin seeing a therapist again, but that’s another item that’s on the back burner as I try to figure my current situation out.

Scott and I split up. In a month, I’ll be moving out. (That will help immensely.) Unfortunately, whenever a break-up happens, people take sides. Having moved to New Jersey as an adult, most of the people I know in the state are through him. Although I know I need to leave our life together behind to get better, it’s hard to be alone, and harder still (especially with my background) to feel “abandoned” by people I cared about.

Worse, there are additional stressors related to particular people who I really trusted wanting to draw up documents to make sure I’m officially out by May 18th. Talks about that being a “long time” for him to wait/me to stay, even though I depleted my savings trying to attend nursing school in order to be the kind of partner Scott wanted. (Employed and making as much or more than him, mostly.) Even though I was interviewed for my current job less than a week after telling Scott I wanted us to break up, because I was serious about leaving him.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m just a weak person. I’ve found this situation more difficult to deal with than I anticipated. I feel so misunderstood, and have wanted anyone from his side to just ask me why I broke up with him. Or just not take sides to begin with.

It would’ve been easier had this break up remained between Scott and me, but that’s not how things played out. He’s also moved on to someone more family oriented. Someone who is an English teacher, just like him. A girl who his friends will probably say is both hotter and better than me. That shouldn’t matter, probably, but it does. It hurts. I’m being replaced with someone who fits better into their lives. Someone who grew up more like them, and less like me.

I find myself back in a somewhat dark place. I can’t tell if I’m exercising too much again. Probably am. Two hours in the gym five nights a week, especially with a job that has a 10 hour door-to-door, may not be quite healthy. I’ve been binging and purging at night more frequently. My emotional health is really in the toilet between my behaviors and the current context of my life. I’m not being my best self at times, and can see in retrospect that there are moments when I’m being self-destructive and emotionally unstable.

But not all the time. I’m not so far down the hole that I can’t see the light. I went to the grocery store last night after the gym, for example, and I didn’t buy binge food. I had the intense impulse to check out with some of the reduced bakery items (as inappropriate as this is to say, Stop & Shop’s donuts are really fucking good), but I didn’t. I came home. I ate a ton of cashews and didn’t allow myself to feel guilty. I told myself, “It’s fine, Amber. You’ll have a great workout tomorrow because you ate enough today.” And I went to bed, instead of wasting my time puking into a toilet.

I also know that removing myself from this situation will help me immensely. (That’s also why I find it funny that there’s so much anxiety from people on Scott’s “side” about me not leaving – I broke up with him because his life is just not good for my recovery.) The stressors I’m facing are not within the scope of everyday life. These are very particular issues that will go away once I’m not living in our (well, his, as I’ve been reminded) house anymore.

My biggest steps forward are also worth noting: I decided to not continue with nursing school, and I secured a full time job that may not pay a lot, but that I so far really enjoy. Talking to people all day on the phone is honestly a lot better and less stressful than running around all day as a nurse, and I have a normal schedule with weekends off. Even better, since I work for an e-commerce company that deals with food/ingredients and provides a hefty discount to its employees, I can actually save money on my groceries if I’m smart and start cooking more. This weekend I made tofu in the oven, the first time I’ve really tried cooking anything in a long time. I felt that spark of joy I used to when I produced something tasty, and I’m holding onto that as I begin to figure out how to properly feed myself in light of my new job and my training schedule.

Part of why I’m posting this here is so I feel more accountable going forward. I also just want to be honest – I’m not so much in recovery as I am struggling with it, at least lately. But I’m adaptable and strong. Resilient, too. I’ll get through this.

The Bulimic Powerlifter – Part 1

I felt almost like a batter in the MLB. I imagined a player preparing to step up to the plate, performing a needless ritual that included the kicking of feet, wringing of hands, spitting, adjusting wrist wraps, and more, as if luck was brought on by movements unrelated to the current objective. At least I’m not as bad as Nomar, I thought, and I’m certainly not going to spit in the gym. I clasped my hands together briefly, took a deep breath, and then ducked under the bar, positioning a load of 210lbs across my pinched shoulder blades.

Up, off, take a step back. I found a spot on the wall for my eyes, and descended – hopefully to parallel – with the heaviest weight I had ever squatted.

Don’t pause don’t pause don’t pause, my mind screamed, remembering how often I failed by simply not going straight back up. The reminder worked: I pushed through my heels as if I were trying to move the ground itself, and managed to bring the weight back up. I stepped forward and racked the bar.

My feeling of triumph was soon overcome by the feeling of nausea. My peripheral vision went fuzzy and dark. I knew this sensation, as it had become more frequent during my lifting sessions. Fortunately, the squat rack was in the corner of the gym, and I was able to put myself against the wall and slide down into a sitting position. I bent my knees, attempting to get blood flowing back to my brain. I would’ve liked it if the feeling that I was about to faint came from lifting heavy weight, but the reality was that bulimia and training as a powerlifter weren’t especially compatible. It was a truth I often denied outside of the gym, the eating disorder telling me, Hey! You’re still making progress, right?

Sometimes, the thoughts were darker in nature: You want to die anyway, don’t you? Why care? Why try?

 

My passion for lifting weights was the culmination of many factors. Growing up extremely obese and uncomfortable with my body, lifting gave me the ability to transform myself into a healthier person. For a time, I thought it had even helped me escape my disordered eating patterns of the past, where I went through alternating periods of restriction and binge eating. Another benefit of my newfound hobby was the strength that came with training, both literally and figuratively. Exercise for the purpose of getting stronger was so much more motivational than endless cardio and watching the scale. In the figurative sense, it was a way of opening myself up, being vulnerable in a manner that contained more bravery than I thought I was capable of: I let myself be the fat girl in the weight room.

Most important of all, lifting represented a way for me to truly remove myself from my past. Not just the disordered eating I battled with, but the general baggage of my childhood too. For one, my mother and step-father didn’t care about health – the fact that I was obese and that my sisters were both overweight didn’t inspire them to make any dietary changes. Very rarely, my step-father “made” dinner, often ribs or hamburgers with no sides. It was much more common to see fast food on the table. We lived on a constant rotation of pizza, KFC, Chinese, Boston Market, Taco Bell, and some local wing joint. Our fridge contained no fruit or vegetables, or even fresh meat, and the cupboards were filled with boxes of macaroni and cheese and Hamburger Helper. Our freezer was stuffed to capacity with frozen chicken fingers and gallons of ice cream.

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Me before high school.
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Imagine being 13 and unable to walk up a flight of stairs.

Meanwhile, when I tried to talk to my mother about my weight, she would tell me to go outside and play more often. If I were more active, she said, I could eat whatever I wanted. It wasn’t her problem that I was so lazy.

Seeing my father was often worse, especially when I made him angry. I could still remember being in the bathroom of his apartment with him, his hand wrapped around my arm, shaking it so that my upper arm painfully jiggled. “Disgusting,” he had said, his face contorted in a fury I didn’t understand. “If you keep this up, only black men are going to want to fuck you.”

I was twelve years old.

My particular upbringing provided many reasons for me to hate myself. For a time, lifting weights made me forget that I spent most of my life thinking that my body was an object of contempt.

And then bulimia entered my life, pushing its way to the forefront of my day-to-day in an amazingly short period of time.

 

My struggle with bulimia started around the same time that I began training as a powerlifter. Previously, I only lifted dumbbells, but had made good progress aesthetically. It was time for me to move on to a gym with barbells, I realized at a certain point, because I wanted to be genuinely strong.

It was around this time that I began going to William Paterson for nursing, while also struggling with a living situation that was less than ideal for me. School work was hard to complete at home for a number of reasons, most of them related to living with Scott and his parents. My boyfriend didn’t have a good sense of when I needed time to do my work. His mother watched a child that was under one for most of the day, and then fed the entirety of her large family (including her adult children) at dinner time, meaning it was fairly boisterous in the house until close to 7pm. Scott didn’t believe me when I said that his mom was drinking and constantly made excuses for her erratic behaviors, which at times involved interrupting us constantly while trying to complete our respective work. I also rejoined the clinic I worked for previously, adding over twenty-five hours of work to my week. Under these circumstances, I experienced intense stress.

Meanwhile, it was incredibly important to me to keep myself hitting the weight room. In a way, my bulimia became tangled with my use of the gym as a way to avoid my feelings about the current state of my life. I coped by switching to a program that had me lifting six times a week. I began to add cardio to the end of my already long sessions. If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my anxiety at the time, I would’ve realized that this was the source of my very sudden experience of binging. Exercise became a necessity — I was determined to burn off the 5,000+ calories I consumed once or twice a week. I was falling down the rabbit hole of exercise bulimia, but was not mentally able to comprehend what I was doing to myself.

When I had to exercise less due to work, I began vomiting to purge calories while sporadically hitting the gym. I was getting heavier as my binges became more frequent, even despite bringing the food back up.

Embarrassingly, I tried to maintain the image of someone who was healthy and strong. My instagram was filled with pictures of me at the gym, and plenty of before and after shots that demonstrated my progress from obese or overweight to a “fit” girl. At times, I felt guilty. In a way, I was a fraud, sick on both the left and right – bulimic in one, a young binge eater in the other. Yet the validation was important to me, and in all honestly, important to my eating disorder as well. If people thought I looked good and strong, how bad could I really be?

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I posted photos like this all the time, comparing my new slimmer physique with my past self.

Sitting against the wall in the gym, people looking over briefly with quizzical expressions as I hung my head between my knees, made me realize that I didn’t need to feel this way. I didn’t want to. I loved powerlifting. And it was only getting harder and more dangerous for me as I fucked with my electrolytes or made myself overly dehydrated, the consequences of my numerous daily purges.

Your Bulimic Girlfriend

I thought you’d go there and be done with your eating disorder when you got home.

People want a recovery story that doesn’t include details about the process. They want to know the beginning, and they want to know the end, as if living without an eating disorder is a narrative shaped like an open circle – from one point to the other, without repeat or overlap. Yet there is no clear end, no definitive place to stop and say, “yes, I am better.”

The behaviors I struggle to control are not simply the impulses to restrict, binge, or purge. Victories are mundane but important. Eating ravioli for dinner when you haven’t had it in years, and eating it without shame, is more rewarding than the things you used to pride yourself on. The disappointments vary. Lapses happen. Despite how well-adjusted you feel, a panic attack hits you in the grocery store, or at a dinner served family-style. Sometimes you don’t eat, because you know you’re going to a party later on and can’t divine the choices. And when the selection is not “safe,” you decide it’s too hard. You can’t be “good” today. Your paper plate is, hilariously enough, like a loaded gun pointed at your gut. An opportunity to feel an intense and inescapable fear, a chance for your hunger to hurt you. So you throw it away as soon as you can.

For me, recovery will never be the open circle. It’s never going to have a beginning and an end. Recovery is more like getting lost while running in a place that is both familiar and confusing. You leave a trail of steps that go east but sharply turn west; you retrace the path without being able to recognize that you were already here. That is, until you come across a recognizable landmark that disappoints you in its meaning: you’ve drifted very far from the destination, and it may take some time and rest to find your way back. Even then, you’re not sure how to locate the place where you began. Perhaps you’ll recognize it when you get there, or maybe you’ll discover a different path altogether that leads you back home.

 

My struggle with bulimia didn’t exist in a vacuum. It wasn’t simply a part of me, whether the struggle at the moment was recovery, a lapse, or submission to the disease. It was also a vector through which others related to me, both positively and negatively. The experience of bulimia drew me closer to some, and much further away from others.

“I just hope you’ll look back at this and remember that I stuck by you,” Scott said, sitting at our small kitchen table. I stood several feet away from him, near the cream-colored counter top, my arms crossed against my chest.

The words weren’t meant to sting, but they did. I paused, taking the moment to inhale through my nose. Focus. Be present, I reminded myself.

There was a distance between us I felt only I could see. I smiled more, and I puked a hell of a lot less. I wasn’t a burden to be around, the way I was before treatment.In fact, I was so happy and outgoing compared to the past that I often surprised myself. But his responses, then and now, were effectively destroying the part of me that came to love him. There was no “for better or for worse” in our union. Instead, he lived with a passive hope for the bad times to pass.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” I said, attempting to balance honesty with enough sensitivity as to not hurt his feelings. “Or it’s hard for me to think of things that way.”

“Why?” He looked up at me with his blue eyes, the expression on his face familiar. He’s going to get upset. Whenever his brows furrowed and his lips went thin, stretched into a grimace, it felt like he was preparing to be hurt.

The new and improved me was not always good enough. A list of items spun around in my thoughts, tangling with a flurry of negative emotion. Still, I spoke slowly, allowing myself to choose my words carefully. “I’m not sure things would’ve been so bad under different circumstances,” I said. “I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. But you didn’t handle it well.”

“Things are better now,” he said, almost as if he were asking a question.

“Better. Yeah, they’re better,” I said.

Deciding the conversation was over, Scott turned his attention to his phone.

I give up, I thought, losing count of how often the phrase mentally punctuated our conversations. My life was better, yes, but the past and the present both told me that our relationship would never be what I needed.

 

It’s my opinion that love involves making someone’s life more enjoyable and more rewarding through your presence, and vice versa. So being able to say, yes, you make my life better than if I were alone, is how I know I love you.

The words of a past love. I should have carried his wisdom with me. You’re nice and don’t hurt me is not a foundation that love is built upon, but that’s difficult to grasp when what you know of pain is its extremes. Perspective is difficult for people like me, I’ve come to realize. The world you begin in is small and chaotic, shaped by words like cunt and bitch, molded by careless hands that squeeze and slap and hit. The longer you survive, the larger the world becomes, but there’s still a sense that it doesn’t belong to you. Everyone else’s fingers are entwined in your crevices, and as long as they don’t hurt as they pull and push, you think, they can have me.

That is pain the way an animal knows it: you’re not kicking me, and you’re not screaming, so I trust you unconditionally. But the pain that’s unique to the humanity you are still trying to unearth is more existential in nature. In some ways, it’s made worse by the fact that you’re still intact after all you’ve been through.

What are your dreams, Amber?

He’s never cared to ask.

 

How did Scott look at my bulimia? Did he ever reflect, the way I did, on how it began? The times I reached out to him, to tell him I had difficulties controlling my eating? I was devoted to the gym and terrified to dine out, the compulsion to exercise and my aversion to food heightened by desperation to reverse weekly binges. And I let him know. I expressed that I was struggling. His mother’s erratic, alcohol-induced behavior at home, the lack of privacy we had living with his parents, my first true introduction into the challenges of nursing school, and working close to thirty hours a week – to feel these burdens alone and without the sympathy of my partner was, to put it lightly, difficult. And after failing to connect with Scott, my response was to turn in on myself. The harder my life felt, the less I cared to live.

It was hard not to wonder how he felt after I experienced my first true purge. My left eye looked bloodied in the corner from bursting blood vessels, and my eyelids were spotted, the vessels broken there as well. My appearance generated concern from my classmates and teachers. Still, he only expressed that I needed to just figure out how to stop, as if I would willingly subject myself to looking so physically unwell. For a man who would often mentally check out of a conversation to look up something that interested him on his phone, he seemed to have little desire to bring his curiosity to the subject of bulimia.

I didn’t understand then that I was the idea of a girlfriend. Not a person, but a concept. Scott’s girlfriend and Amber’s disease couldn’t co-exist – and I wish I had recognized that earlier.

A Day in My Life

There was something both funny and frightening about sitting in the unit’s day room, listening to one of the social workers talk about the pain that accompanied attachment. I imagined myself as a patient, bored all day and night, using my attendance at group therapy as a means of escaping the floor sooner. I imagined what the four men in the room thought of me and my friend, two young female nursing students, observing them like exotic creatures to further our studies. For us nurses in training, these individuals were simply case studies. Nameless patients we would discuss later in post-conference, where insensitive remarks about mental health would inevitably be made. Sometimes the instructor would take the lead with a joke: What do you call an unmedicated bipolar? An addict.

Every day of my psychiatric clinical rotation left me tying the experience to the past and future. “Mindfulness,” apparently the act of “being present” according to whoever the hell wrote the handout the social worker was reading off of, was way beyond me. My thoughts wandered to the image of myself occupying the space of a patient, observed and evaluated, considered only in the context of my disease. A schizophrenic. A bipolar. (There was plenty of cultural and religious sensitivity content written into our curriculum, but little education on sensitivity towards those with mental illnesses.) Before long, I would be a bulimic to counselors and nurses in a residential facility. That’s what I thought, anyway, given how my peers and some of the staff at the hospital spoke.

Yeah, that was the funny part. Situated in the day room during a group therapy session, knowing I would be in a similar position as the patients we were asked to observe. That was hilarious to me. Upsetting, yet comical. I’d have a file, like the ones we looked at earlier — a fat red binder with my admission information. Patient reports that she binges and purges 2-12 times daily. Exercises 4-6 days a week for 2 hours. Admits to SI. Denies HI. Physical complaints include muscle cramps, swollen glands, thinning hair. How much of what I said to the woman who conducted my admissions interview would end up in that chart? And then my thoughts took another turn, wondering what sort of forms and tools they used within facilities primarily for eating disorders. Could I ask to look at my own chart? Probably not, I decided.

 

For a reason unknown to even the clinical instructors themselves, we had two teachers for our psychiatric rotation – one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday. Wednesdays sucked. Not because I disliked the instructor, but because she sat with us during lunch and often turned her attention to the fact that I didn’t bring anything to eat.

The first time we sat together for lunch, I said that I had forgotten to pack food in the morning and didn’t have money on hand. I figured that would be enough.

“Here, here. Have half my salad. I couldn’t possibly eat this all,” she lied, pushing the small plastic container towards me. I denied her offer, but could feel my own embarrassment and anxiety possessing my body — the warm cheeks, the clammy hands, my heart beating hard enough that I felt like it was hitting my sternum. Finally, one of the girls in the group offered a banana, and I took it so that the instructor would leave me be.

“Thanks, Jess. I love bananas,” I said.

“My mom always packs me a big lunch,” she said. “No problem.”

I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this but at least it’s not drenched in dressing and oil. I peeled the fruit slowly, took a few well-paced bites, and threw the rest away so that I could count the snack as 100 calories.

Today, I had a strategy. I brought some money with me and walked around the hospital’s tiny cafeteria for a few minutes. I purchased coffee. If I had something in my hands, maybe the kindly old lady would leave me alone.

“You didn’t bring anything to eat again,” the instructor said. She frowned, deepening the already quite severe creases around her mouth.

“I ate a protein bar before you sat down,” I replied. Not true, but it was a stock excuse for when people commented on my lunch habits. “I was going to get something else in the cafeteria, but they didn’t have many options.”

“That’s not much of a lunch,” she said.

“I eat a big dinner at home,” I responded. Some of the girls at the table turned their attention to the conversation.

“Amber eats like a bird,” Jess said. “She never eats a lot for lunch.” She was always commenting on how small and petite I was, phrasing her compliments in a variety of ways. I wish I looked like you! But Jess – and everyone else at the table – were perfectly beautiful girls. (Women, women. I was a bad feminist.) And I envied them when I saw them eating sandwiches on bread, or the delicious looking cannolis from the cafeteria.

How did people eat like that and not feel guilty?

My friend, who was my partner during the rotation, agreed with Jess’ statement. “She eats really healthy.”

Not true either. Not when alone, or when I knew I’d have access to some privacy and a bathroom. I was a complete and utter failure when it came to valuing my own health.

It reminded me of hearing from people in my program — instructors and peers alike — that I seemed calm and in control when it came to the didactic and hands-on challenges of nursing school. Wow, thanks! I’d say, with forced enthusiasm. An honest response would’ve been too frightening: I’m slowly self-destructing and if you knew who I really was you’d be disgusted. Calm? In control? No, not when people weren’t looking. Outside of college, I was the real and terribly disappointing version of myself that occupied nearly all free time by eating massive quantities of food so that I could then self-induce vomiting. There was also exercise, but I had angrily quit going to the gym when the woman responsible for my admissions interview claimed I overexercised. I don’t. I don’t even need to go. So I didn’t, but the guilt was overwhelming.

I was a fraud. I wasn’t healthy, and I wasn’t in control of anything.

 

Do I really need to go to residential? The question was on repeat in my mind. I’m functional, I thought, pulling into the ACME parking lot. No one knows. I’m going to finish this semester with great grades. Do I really need that level of help? I parked my shitty, decades old Toyota Corolla in a spot that was far away from the store itself (despite a downpour and the flats on my feet) so that I could increase my step count for the day.

As soon as I entered the store, my gray pants and blue button-up completely soaked, I became self-conscious about my current activity. Any time I shopped for food to binge on, my anxiety became transformative, granting people who did not give a shit about my presence the psychic ability of mind-reading. Oh, yeah. They totally knew what I was doing, and they were absolutely judging me. And I think I don’t need help, I thought, self-awareness colliding with the paranoia brought on by a part of me that was seriously disturbed.

Where was I in relation to the continuum of mental health? What did it mean to be functional on the outside, but to internally live in compulsions that, while providing temporary relief, made my life feel like a living, inescapable hell?

I carried these thoughts with me as I picked up a basket. I browsed the ice cream aisle first to see what was on sale, determined I would grab a gallon of Turkey Hill before I checked out, then moved onto the reduced-price baked goods. Most binges were ultimately disappointing, but a cheesecake for half its original price or chocolate frosted brownies at a steep discount always gave me some hope that the next session would be a fantastic opportunity to relieve some stress and feel genuine pleasure. Today, there were muffins, 50% off. Not easy to purge, I thought, as I often did when I considered an item outside my typical foods, but I don’t really care.

Eventually, my frugal values wore down to nothing. I told myself that I would be done soon, given I was going to residential in a week’s time, and that it didn’t matter if I spent a lot of money on foods that would end up in the toilet. When I was finally finished, I brought to self-checkout my gallon of ice cream, four large muffins, two packages of Oreos, two boxes of Entenmann’s donuts, a frozen pizza, a box of poptarts, and a rotisserie chicken.

 

When I got home, I ate everything. I took at least five breaks to purge, but at a certain point lost count. During these hours, my thoughts became fuzzy, lost in the overwhelming compulsion to eat and vomit. (Well, that and disturbed fluid and electrolyte balance. You know, nothing chugging Powerade Zero couldn’t fix.) But it occurred to me that what I consumed didn’t matter. Not at all. What I really desired most was the relief I felt following the purge.

Nothing else in life provided the same feeling. Probably because I was also deeply depressed, and found myself incapable of doing activities I used to enjoy – read, watch Netflix, play some video games, cook (haha). But I couldn’t justify the idea that I needed help with my eating disorder, or with constantly feeling on the verge of ending my life, when I woke up every day and went through the motions.

I was doing well in my nursing program. A lot of people respected me for being intelligent and motivated. I’m fine.