Hello, all. I’m here tonight with a particularly poignant and thoughtful Green Recovery story from a longtime reader (and friend) named Marissa. Marissa is openly up widely for the first time about her struggle with bulimia and disordered eating/thinking, and she has opened up in a truly inspiring way. Please join me in reading and commenting on her story.
My ED story is a little different than most. I was never clinically diagnosed. I never received professional help, and most people that know me–including my parents–have no idea that I’ve ever had an ED. But that’s one of the reasons I want to share my story, for all the people that don’t share and that hide their ED every way they can. That’s why I’m sharing now.
I was never a particularly popular person in high school; I was smart and artsy, and I hated all the fakery and posturing that seems to characterize high school. I had a small group of friends (mostly girls), and that was fine. Until the middle of junior year. That’s when suddenly, my best friend was beautiful to people who didn’t know her and she started dating this guy that I didn’t like (for good reason it would turn out). On top of that, it was SAT/ACT time, I was student directing a musical, assistant editing a magazine, taking ballet and tap class, starting to drive on my own, and still getting straight As. My parents started getting on my case about college and I was visiting a lot of schools, especially with my mom, straining our already rocky relationship. The summer was no better, as my friend kept seeing the same guy, I was working, college apps didn’t magically disappear, and my mom and I got along no better.
The beginning of my senior year is when my ED started, although it had been building. I had never really worried about my weight or my looks before, but as everyone I knew started to come out of teenage hell and as they all began relationships (and I couldn’t get the guy I liked to notice me), I became self-conscious about it. I’m also a perfectionist (like many ED sufferers), and I began to believe that if I could get my weight down to where I wanted it, then everything else would magically be okay. If I was thin, then it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t understand calculus, or if my college applications were woefully incomplete, or if the play I was directing was bad or…well you get the idea. So I became bulimic—I was never clinically diagnosed, but that’s the word that fits best. I binged, and then I purged. Bulimia.
The only problem was that I didn’t want anyone to know about it. Therefore, I would never throw up when anyone was around. No public bathrooms, no friend’s houses, and not even my own home when either or both of my parents were there. So I only ended up purging about once a month. At the beginning, that was enough, but the craving to purge got worse. Sometimes I’d binge, but I wasn’t able to purge discreetly, so I didn’t, which didn’t help anything. Suffice it to say, I never really lost weight, but I did know I had a problem. The summer after I graduated from high school, I decided to do something about it. In addition to my perfectionism, I have pretty good willpower. I didn’t want my parents to know about my problem, so I told my best friends about it, and they made me promise to stop, and to talk about it with them when I felt like I wanted to purge.
And I stopped. It was like I needed someone to tell me to stop, even though I knew it was wrong, and then I would. But just because I wasn’t bulimic anymore didn’t mean that the underlying reasons for my bulimia weren’t still there. I still didn’t like the way I looked. Going off to college, even to a school where everyone was smart and kind of nerdy, didn’t make me feel any more like I belonged, even though I had more friends. Having an unlimited meal plan was quite possibly the worst thing imaginable. At the time I was a vegetarian (have been since I was 12—unrelated to my ED), and there were actually a decent amount of vegetarian options. And as my parents reminded me, we were paying an exorbitant amount of money for me to have unlimited food. And it was there. And the dessert station was strategically placed so that you walked past it just before you exited. And there were cookies, and I love chocolate.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. I never gorged, but first quarter, I didn’t eat particularly healthily. And while I didn’t gain much weight, I certainly didn’t lose any either. So winter quarter I decided that I was going to lose weight. I went online, found some website that calculated how many calories I needed to eat per day to lose weight, as well as calorie calculating websites. And I started counting. I ran at the gym about 3 days a week or so, but the big thing was the numbers. I started out with a target of eating 1400 calories a day, and I calculated after each meal. I’d write down how many I had left for the day each time. I counted for everything that I put in my mouth, and if I went over 1400, then I subtracted the amount I was over from the next day. If I went over that day too, then I ate even less the day after. When this seemed to have no effect on my weight, I went down to 1200 calories per day. This didn’t seem to work either. When I went home for spring break, I got a physical, and of all things, my cholesterol was high. They wanted me to come back in the next month (which was impossible, as my college is a 15 hour drive from home) to check again, and if it was still high, they’d put me on medication. Cholesterol medication. At nineteen. No way.
So spring quarter stayed at 1200 calories, but less fat. I stopped putting oil on my salads. I stopped eating peanut butter so often (and I love peanut butter) and I stopped eating cheese. It didn’t make a difference to my weight, but I felt like there had to be something wrong with me, some reason why I couldn’t lose weight. All of this came to a head after a friend’s birthday party, when I calculated the number of calories I eaten that night and realized that I’d gone over by 1000 and hadn’t noticed or felt full. I called my parents (who knew about the calorie counting, but not the bulimia) and freaked out, crying. That’s when we all knew that something had to change.
I’d been looking into veganism for a while already, but I wasn’t sure that it was something I could feasibly do while I was at college and on the meal plan. One of the vegan blogs that I loved was Susan V’s blog (Fat Free Vegan), and that introduced me to Dr. Fuhrman’s book, Eat to Live. I read it. Basically, it’s all about a healthy eating lifestyle, mostly raw and cooked (non-starchy) vegetables, fruit, and legumes but whole grains, cooked starchy vegetables and nuts in moderation. While the goal of Eat to Live is for a healthier lifestyle, the six-week plan that starts you off is a weight loss plan, although it’s also designed as a transition. The six week plan is vegan, and while you can eat unlimited amounts of vegetables (raw and cooked), fruit, and legumes, you limited your intake of grains to 1 cup per day (and only whole grains, with cooked starchy vegetables in this category), nuts to 28 oz, flax seed to one tablespoon, and avocado to 1/4 of one. No sugar or other sweeteners, no oils, and no salt. The six-week plan also says no dried fruit.
This was like a godsend to me. It was healthy, and proven so, which was something that even throughout all of my messy, disordered eating, I wanted. It didn’t have me wean off things, which doesn’t work for me, it didn’t have exceptions, which I liked, and it motivated me to go vegan, which I loved. When I went home in June after my first year (this past June), I started the six week plan. I also saw a nutritionist, who okayed it, and a few weeks in, I saw my regular doctor. Guess what? After 3 weeks, my cholesterol was way down. No more talk of medication! And I lost weight. I stuck to the plan, and I ran and did ballet, and I lost weight. Not as much as I wanted, but some, which was better than anything I’d previously tried.
Post-six week plan, I stuck with veganism, and I still limit the carbs and the fats. I’ve heard the argument that restriction isn’t good for people with EDs, but for me, the restrictions help remove temptation. My roommate bakes a lot, and I’m not tempted to eat it because I know I can’t. I save my exceptions for when I’m out, maybe once a month, tops. I don’t use oil or salt in my cooking because I’ve learned to live without them (many things seem too salty for me now), and I’ve been keeping my weight pretty stable, and running at least 3 days a week to keep it that way.
Morally, I’ve always wanted to be a vegan, and I think that all my restricted eating finally made me take the leap, and made me eat healthier. I’m not perfect; I’ve stress eaten in ways that I shouldn’t have this year, but I didn’t throw up. I didn’t restrict myself more the next day. I just moved on, because the worst thing is to turn a bad day into a bad week. I hardly think that veganism has solved all of my problems; I still don’t always love my body or myself, and I still feel like I don’t belong sometimes, or that there’s something wrong with me. But I’ve stopped thinking that food–or lack thereof–can fix these problems for me.
I was really nervous about sharing my story, since no one really knows the whole thing, or the extent of the problems that were going on in my head. But I wanted to share because I know there are CR readers out there like me—who get strength from Gena and the bolg, but who aren’t ready for anyone outside the world of cyberspace to know yet because they think it’ll label them, or make people treat them differently. But I’m here to say that if you have good friends, they won’t judge you, and they’ll still love you and treat you the same as always.
And veganism can help. For me, it also sparked me to start getting involved in other things I care about, like climate change activism, and I also went to Brazil with Habitat for Humanity–which would have been a terror for me as recently as a year ago, since it was a group of strangers who would judge me. If you’re a college student, I am too, and it is possible to go vegan in college; it’s been working for me all this year. Some people think it’s weird, but it won’t lose you any friends or romantic prospects (neither my ex or current boyfriend are vegan). And if veganism is something you’ve always wanted to try, do it. You might try all of those other things you’ve always wanted to do, and being open and more content with your life translates into interpersonal relationships (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my first kiss came at 19—after I became a vegan and stopped restricting my eating).
To finish, I just want to say how great Gena is for starting this series and for discussing such a personal aspect of her life on her blog. She’s inspired me so much, and although we’re not friends, even blogger friends, I don’t think there’s anyone else whose blog I could have written this post for.
Thank you so very much, Marissa, for sharing your story with all of us!
A few thoughts:
First, Marissa mentions several times that she was never clinically diagnosed with her bulimia. I’m glad that her story is being featured, because in the many years I’ve been writing about eating disorders, I have found that there are many more women and men who have had eating disorders than there are women and men who have been diagnosed. I myself managed to escape formal diagnosis during both of my relapses, although my family physician had flagged my first bout of anorexia when I was young. Naturally, many of the more extreme cases of eating disorders are ultimately diagnosed by school health professionals, physicians, psychologists, and nutritionists. But many more cases slip through the proverbial cracks, in part because people with eating disorders are so good at concealing them.
It’s important to recognize the unique urgency of extreme ED cases, but it’s equally important to recognize that many cases that are either subclinical or undiscovered cause as much suffering and pain as the cases that do get diagnosed. If you suspect that you have disordered habits, but you don’t necessarily meet all of the criteria for clinical diagnosis (especially BMI), that does not mean that you shouldn’t seek out help and compassion.
Second: Marissa mentions that Eat to Live was a godsend for her, and that she continues to eat a lower carb and lower fat vegan diet. Historically, I’ve felt very strongly about never vilifying food groups on my blog: mine is not a low fat, low sugar, low salt, or low carb approach. Instead, I believe that these food groups should coexist in healthy and reasonable proportions in anyone’s diet, because they all serve important biological purposes. With that said, I do see clearly that certain approaches—lower fat, anti-candida, low-oil, grain-free—work for certain people, depending on their frames of mind and health needs.
I’m glad that Marissa (who knows my food philosophy very well) was forthright about what works for her. And while I do tend to caution ED survivors against restricting or cutting out food groups, I also realize that there is no single approach to treatment and recovery. If there were, this series would not exist, because I was told by many people that a person with my history should never become vegan. The rest is history.
Finally: I’ve been asked in comments whether I’d please features more stories of binge eating disorder? I’d love to. But so far, I haven’t gotten many of these submissions (aside from Wendy’s fabulous story). So, if you have a story of binge eating recovery to share, please do!
Beyond that, I hope you can all see what a wonderful outlet and forum is. I know from many of your comments that you have green recovery stories of your own to share, so please: share! Remember that I can always keep them anonymous: this is about self-expression and community, not about forcing yourself to be more revealing than you want to be.