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I first started obsessing over my weight as a teenager growing up in a seemingly perfect family in our perfect house on a hill overlooking Dayton, Ohio. When I first told my mother I wanted to lose weight, she drove me to a diet center in town, where they taught me to become an expert at drastically cutting my calories. I lost both pounds and my period.
But what I gained was something I could control during a time of family turmoil that was spiraling out of control. Much like me, my family looked perfect on the outside but was unpredictable, unstable, and even chaotic behind closed doors.
Dad was chief of staff at the hospital and having an affair with a nurse. I knew something was going on, as most children do, but it was all unspoken. A secret. Mom would get calls from someone who always hung up. Dad moved out, then back in, then out again because they couldn’t make up their mind about divorcing.
Having my own secret coping mechanism in a family full of secrets makes sense now that I look back on it. The only thing I could control in my life for years was my food and weight.
Until that got out of control, too.
Meticulous calculations and constant obsessions with weight and food were my normal default. The unsurprising thing about starving is that it makes you quite hungry. So when I did let myself eat, I’d inhale whole boxes of Keebler Fudge Stripes and Frosted Flakes, bags of Snyder’s hard pretzels, and an obscene amount of chocolate chip ice cream. Ravenous, I simply could not stop once I let the tiger out of her cage.
The only two things that scared me more than my binges were the idea of gaining weight from all of this eating. Since I couldn’t control the eating part, I taught myself how to throw up to manage the weight gain. As disgusting as it was, it worked.
I’d heard of something called anorexia, but never bulimia. In fact, I thought I’d invented it! The term bulimia hadn’t even been coined until 1979, and it didn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987. The term “eating disorder” itself had only made its first appearance in the manual in 1980. I’d scour Waldenbooks for literature on people who did the things that I did with food, but those books hadn’t been written yet.
Today, it’s totally different. Words like eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia are in the mainstream vernacular. Supermodels, influencers and people on social media speak about their struggles with these disorders openly. It’s easy (maybe even too easy) to find information on disordered eating by Googling it. But this was 1983. Google didn’t exist yet. The mainstream internet didn’t even exist! I had no idea what to do about my problem.
Secrecy and shame are essential parts of bulimia, especially when living in a house full of family members, so I was hiding and lying like a criminal in my own home. Moving into a sorority house in college only made the sneaking around worse, as I was now sharing a bathroom and kitchen with over a dozen other people.
I got even better at covering my tracks. I’d run the shower to drown out the noise of it all, brush my teeth constantly to cover up “vomit breath,” and make excuses for the calluses on my knuckles. I wouldn’t be surprised if my fellow sorority sisters were doing the exact same thing behind closed bathroom doors, also thinking they’d invented purging.
Even though it was hard living with people who might notice what I was doing, I soon realized it’s far worse having zero witnesses. After college, I was determined to be a successful working woman, shoulder pads and all, so I moved to Dallas — an up-and-coming city made famous by the prime-time soap opera of the same name.
Even though I knew only one person there, I was so proud to have my very own furnished apartment in a trendy singles complex and Toyota Corolla with a cream interior. I was free to do (and eat!) what I wanted when I wanted.
Since I didn’t have close girlfriends or even roommates to distract me, I soon fell into old, familiar habits. On my way home from work, I’d stop by the Piggly Wiggly, fill my basket with junk food, and make up a detailed alibi in case the cashier happened to comment on my items on her conveyor belt.
I’d start my binge on the car ride home and wrap it up by the time David Letterman was over. After spending an exhausting amount of energy and time getting rid of all that food in my toilet, I’d pass out and start the cycle all over again the next day. Instead of looking forward to weekends, I dreaded any unstructured time alone.
This routine was starting to scare me, so I found a group through Southern Methodist University for people with eating “issues.” The only thing they helped me do was get better at purging. Thanks to them, I even discovered the wonders of Ex-lax (which tastes nothing like chocolate!) and a gross syrup called ipecac that makes you vomit violently. (It’s now banned, as it should be!)
Over time, things only got worse. My glands were so swollen that I had a double chin. I knew this cycle wasn’t good for my body, and I lived in constant fear of someone finding me dead on the bathroom floor. Here I’d moved to Dallas to live my best 20-something life. Instead, I was completely alone, hiding from the world, eating food out of my garbage can after I’d attempted to dispose of it.
I booked a psychiatric consultation one day and told her about my “lost weekends,” where I did nothing but binge and purge. How I was afraid to leave my house to go anywhere other than work, Piggly Wiggly and home. I was always a little fearful of driving, but by the time I sat in her office, I was avoiding all major roads, using a giant paper map to navigate back roads because GPS didn’t exist yet.
My world got smaller and smaller. I knew I couldn’t stay in Dallas, but the idea of moving home was just as bad. Nowhere felt safe. She didn’t know much about bulimia, but after I told her about the ipecac and laxatives, she said, “I’m worried you’re not safe.”
I was too! But I was even more worried about what my parents would think if they knew about my big, disgusting secret. I agreed to let her call them, but only if she promised to say I was depressed. That wasn’t a lie. Just not the whole truth.
My family was used to lies and half-truths. What was one more?
Going to the psych ward for “depression” was a compromise I was comfortable with. I was too ashamed of anyone knowing my secret and there was a lack of resources to deal with it, but I also wasn’t ready to give up my only solution to all my problems.
If I’m being totally honest with myself, I was afraid the truth might lead to people taking my eating disorder away. I desperately clung to it despite being so distraught by it because it felt like there was no alternative. How else does anyone cope with life?
We now know more about the root of eating disorders and how to manage them effectively. But this was the ’80s. People were just starting to gain awareness of their existence and how to treat them.
Today there are therapists who specialize in eating disorders and resources full of information like the National Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorder Hope and Gurze. There are countless books and treatment centers with differing levels of care including inpatient, outpatient and partial treatment. Some treatment centers, for example, have IV treatment, walking restrictions (or even wheelchairs for critical cases), weight check-in, monitored meals, and locked bathrooms to protect severely sick patients from hurting themselves more. They also include the use of dietitians, meds when needed, and group, cognitive behavior and/or individual therapy.
They help with body dysmorphia and negative body image, and they teach patients coping mechanisms like meditation, art therapy and journaling. The field has come a long way since the ’80s!
If I’d had these kinds of options back then and had known I wasn’t the only one suffering from bulimia, I might have been open to getting help with it. But, at the time, my only choices were to move home, possibly die in Dallas, or check myself into a psych ward.
Off to the psych ward I went!
At the hospital, they just threw everyone struggling with their mental health on one floor together. Some were young, but most were elderly. Some were in straitjackets. The community room TV was always on in the background. I’ll always associate “The Price Is Right”and “General Hospital”with the psych ward.
In the psych ward, conversations were rare, even with the very people who were supposed to help. I don’t remember if I even had a therapist assigned to me, and my doctor knew absolutely nothing about eating disorders.
There are only two things I remember explicitly about those six weeks: staring at the hallway vending machine and riding my beloved stationary bike. No one else seemed interested in aerobic exercise, so this one piece of gym equipment in an empty “exercise room” was all mine.
Still, I wasn’t binging or purging anymore, just exercising (a little too much). Here in the hospital, I could just sleep, stare at the vending machine, and ride my stationary bike. I got a break from the violence and shame of purging and I didn’t have to pretend to be happy, wear makeup, or act like I was an adult who knew what she was doing.
It wasn’t Club Med, but it was a place that made me feel safe and protected from myself.
That ended almost as soon as I got out of the psych ward and I fell back on old routines: binge, purge, sleep, repeat. After all, I hadn’t received any treatment for my eating disorder or learned any coping mechanisms on how to deal with the real world without it. So, I spent all my spare time on the couch watching “General Hospital” while shoving anything and everything down my throat.
One night during a binge that seemed likely to keep going beyond Letterman, the leading news story stopped me in my chewing … and maybe changed my life forever. The singer Karen Carpenter had suffered a cardiac arrest because of an eating disorder and died.
I couldn’t believe it! One of the most famous singers of my generation was battling the same thing I was? I always knew what I was doing could kill me, but her tragic ending turned my casual fear into a real possibility. It was just the shock I needed to scare me out of my delusion.
It also comforted me in a weird way. It wasn’t just me who did this. And people on TV were talking about it! Women had been dealing with eating disorders for generations. Because they were never diagnosed, they often unknowingly passed down these disordered eating behaviors to their daughters. Thankfully, once we started to talk about it, intervention and treatment could happen sooner and more aggressively.
Not long after that moment, binging on my own couch alone, I was a patient on my new therapist’s couch (finally one who actually knew about eating disorders!). I could finally talk openly to someone about this thing I did.
Over the next 10 years, she tolerated my messiness and slow progress. Recovery from eating disorders can take time, because unlike with alcohol or drug addiction, you can’t cut them out entirely. You still have to eat and have a relationship with food.
In the beginning, I learned about myself, that I wasn’t crazy, and that my feelings just needed to be felt. Writing and talking helped delay urges until they passed. Once my symptoms were managed, the real work began — unpacking my struggles, my feelings, old belief systems and my family secrets. Even my visit to the psych ward itself was a family secret.
This pivotal day on my sweet therapist’s couch was the beginning of my long road to recovery. I credit her for not only helping save my life but inspiring me to help others. I dedicated the rest of my professional life to paying it forward. For over 25 years, I’ve had a private psychotherapy practice treating people with eating disorders.
Until just recently, I’d only told my close family and friends about my eating disorder, never sharing it with my patients and certainly not with my community (or Facebook!). I didn’t see the point of dredging up something I’d put behind me.
Recently, though, I’ve realized the power of my own storytelling. As a therapist, I am painfully aware that secrecy is rooted in shame. And shame is at the heart of eating disorders.
In talking about it, I’ve finally let go of my own shame. And now, in my early 60s, I’m going against what my generation was taught to do — keep our secrets to ourselves. Thankfully, the world we live in now has ample support to help people like my younger self, instead of just psych wards. Maybe my story will inspire others to feel less alone and to reach out for the kind of help my generation didn’t know we even needed.
Maureen Kritzer-Lange MSW, LCSW is a psychoanalyst in private practice for over 25 years. You can hear more of her story on her website, DontTrustTheMirror.com, her podcast, My Secret Life with an Eating Disorder on iHeartRadio, and on Instagram at @kritzerlange
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.