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.

I am my scars.

So much of my life feels like a secret. How much time, I wonder, have I wasted, filing away my memories, trying to put them into places where they can be forgotten? How many times have I closed myself off to others because the real answer is off-putting? Because I’m afraid of how people will respond – afraid of being rejected for honesty, the way I had been as a child, by some of the people closest to me? As an adult, I live in the space between truth and social acceptability. And the result is total isolation. A lonely reality, shaped by a multitude of traumas that I’ve tried to abandon and forget.

The worst part about surviving awful things is that you always carry them with you, even if you can forget or forgive. Other people do not understand that they’re seeing the scars left behind when you can’t maintain eye contact, or when you flinch during a hug. Sometimes the scars are mistaken for being socially awkward. Cold. Boring. For me, the truth is that I’m just afraid. I’m a dog that’s been kicked most of its life and I’m terrified that you’re going to kick me too. I protect myself with silence and half-truths. I say, “I’m okay” when I’m not. I don’t share stories of my childhood. To prevent rejection, I cut people out of my life before they can say that they’re done with me. That I’m not good, or weird, or something worse.

It’s been a slow process, but I am getting help for my issues – I’m trying to learn that this shit is not my fault. For me, it’s been difficult to realize I need help undoing the trauma. Despite feeling like I can’t share most of my life with others out of feeling grotesquely different, I spent a lot of my time growing up being told that my feelings were misplaced, selfish, wrong. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it,” my mother would say, not always jokingly. She would complain that I had unreasonable expectations. She would say that it was not wrong to tell me that I was responsible for myself at fifteen. When I was in college for my first degree, I remember coming back home for the winter break and trying to discuss that I thought I needed help dealing with the fact that I was socially delayed. (Being in college, around people whose parents visited them and called them, who could recount so many happy stories – that was the first time I started to realize my life wasn’t typical. I could also see that I was not making friends, because I was so scared to even talk to people.) My mother denied I had problems. For whatever reason, it then seemed like a good idea to tell her about the time I tried to kill myself.

I was fourteen and didn’t have a single friend. I was bullied terribly by boys in my school for being overweight and socially awkward. A few months before, I had a falling out with my father (one of many), which resulted in him harassing me over the phone about being an ungrateful bitch (for what, I don’t know) and a stupid, fat cunt. He had come to the house my mother and step-father owned after I hung up on him. When I tried hiding behind my step-father, because I knew my father was going to beat me, my step-dad moved aside so that my father could slap me hard across the face. He’s your father, I’m sorry. At this point, I couldn’t deal with experiencing another day in my life – I had no one I could trust, and school was just another place where I was abused. So one night I overdosed on Tylenol and ibuprofen. I vomited for hours and literally passed out several times, but my mother and step-father didn’t check up on me and weren’t concerned by the symptoms I exhibited. Even the ringing in my ears. I was still not dead, and tried doing the same thing the next day when I stayed home from school. I was unsuccessful again, most likely due to the fact that I didn’t understand that Tylenol and ibuprofen were different drugs and didn’t have the additive effect I expected. My attempt resulted in a lot of vomiting and sleep.

I told my mom about overdosing because I felt so friendless and alone. I told her that I was disappointed that I was able to do that without anyone noticing I was trying to kill myself. That no one even thought to take me to a hospital. That I had real issues, and have had them for awhile. My mother simply said, “I don’t remember what you’re talking about. And I’m not responsible for you.”

I learned so many things from my parents. My mother and her husband taught me that I am alone. If I think I have problems, I am probably just making them up or being childish. My social ineptitude is my own doing. That it’s funny when I don’t want my own family members to hug me. My father taught me how to be afraid. He taught me I was worthless. He instructed me on how to hate my body. To not trust kindness, because it’s always fleeting. Together, my parents taught me that I will always be rejected by the ones I love.

The part of me that realizes these are the lessons taught by parents who abuse and neglect their children cannot mollify the part of me that still hurts. I’ve managed to become a productive adult and can hide behind my so-called successes, but I still (rightfully) see a damaged person in everything. I have friends (but no close relationships). I have (rocky) monogamous relationships with men (and use sex to obtain validation when I’m single). I’m extremely talented when it comes to school (but feel like an impostor, because how could I be talented?). After being at a new job for a couple weeks, my bosses are always happy that they picked me over other candidates (until I implode a year later, and abruptly quit). I powerlift and really value health (but will binge eat and puke in times of stress – yes, I’m bulimic).

I’m a functional mess. A woman born from a girl’s trauma.

This is ultimately an attempt to tell the truth. To be honest about myself, so that the words I speak don’t always seem like such lies. And the truth is that I am often not okay. I shouldn’t need to expect “okay” from myself after the kind of life I’ve had. But in writing this truth, I also see it’s not my fault. I don’t deserve to feel so much contempt for myself over the fact that I am not perfect. That I can’t recover on my own. That I’ve developed bad coping skills.

There’s more hope in the truth than there is in my lies of omission. If I can see there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, if I can voice that I am just barely getting by, then it’s easier to accept that I deserve help.