Thursday, November 10, 2011

Overcoming my addiction

I always loved to be carried by my parents when I was a little kid. It felt so great to have my mom’s arms wrapped around me taking me step by step to the next destination. There was no more comforting feeling than walking through the door on that first terrifying day of pre-school with my hand in my father’s as he carried my favorite book and my backpack in his other hand. My parents were superheroes. They could do no wrong. My mom was always making us laugh with her silly faces, witty repartee and terrible re-telling of jokes. My dad had a firm hand and was undoubtedly the enforcer, so it was especially funny to have him continuously shove grapes into my mouth as I chewed and chewed to no avail, grape juice running down my chin and splattered all over my bib (the pictures are priceless). I so vividly remember my mom tilting her head down with her big sparkly brown eyes looking up at my dad and her head resting on his chest saying “Larry…I love you” and my dad responding by wrapping his arms around her with the reply “I love you too Bonna“ (nickname). I love you was a commonly used term in my household and always meant wholeheartedly. Any endeavor my sister or I embarked upon was met with 100% support from my parents. They saw my sister’s piano playing to national competition level, my passion for soccer to the exclusive Olympic Development Program I was invited to join. Growing up, life was pretty much perfect.

That never changed. Things continued to come easily for me. I had never faced true dilemmas, challenges or heartbreak. This scared me. I felt I was riding a wave and was expecting it to crest at any moment. As I reached my teenage years, I became very critical of myself thinking that if I hit the negative things before others had to point them out, it would hurt a lot less. I started to scrutinize everything about myself, beginning with my appearance. I looked in the mirror and saw every flaw and blemish magnetized to such a degree that made it difficult to function. When dressing, I sought out the most flattering but least form fitting style I could find in my (or my sister’s) closet. I wanted to hide my developing body from society, not ready for the scrutiny that accompanies becoming a woman. I despised my curves, crooked teeth, long boring hair, chipmunk cheeks, and everything about my physical self. I began to experiment with makeup. I understood that it was to be used to enhance natural beauty, but feeling that I had none, I used it as a mask to hide behind. I soon refused to leave my house without wearing it. I started utilizing my full-length mirror. I changed clothes 8 times before leaving to go to school. I spent twenty minutes tweaking every last hair on my head to brunette perfection. I could not leave my house in the mornings without the knowledge that I made myself look as good as I possibly could, considering the mess of a face and body I had to work with. To me (and probably about every other teenage girl in America), appearance was everything.

I became obsessed. I watched the E! channel nonstop, researching the models on Runway Television, trying to learn all of their hair and makeup tips and how they stayed so skinny. I brought my obsession to my best friend who encouraged me to get a job so that we could go on shopping sprees together every weekend. My parents gave me a credit card to try to help me learn the basics of consumerism, but I was way ahead of them. I became best friends with the salesgirls at The Limited, Express, Banana Republic, Guess, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bebe and United Colors of Benetton. As I tried on shirt after skirt after pant, I started to compare myself to all those glamorous, airbrushed, photoshopped models I saw in magazines, wondering if my face would look pretty like theirs if I were skinny like them.

I began to diet. Nothing extreme, just an effort to eat more healthily. I joined a gym and fell in love with the elliptical machine. I dragged my best friend around lap after lap on the track. I drank water and eating crackers like they were going out of style. Soon, I started losing weight. I lost about ten pounds in one month and I felt fantastic! I looked at my reflection and realized I didn't hate it anymore. I loved seeing the size 6 tags on my clothes. I loved the feeling of my once fitted jeans loose around my legs and waist. Mostly, I loved the attention. Popular girls I never spoke to stopped to talk to me and tell me how great I looked. Boys would “accidentally” trip and fall into me in the hallways. The more attention I got, the stronger my desire to lose weight became. I worked out for two rigorous hours every day after school and began to cut back on my food portion sizes. I started obsessively calorie counting. I would not put anything into my mouth unless I knew the exact calorie and fat count. I read an article about an anorexic girl who consumed 800 calories a day, and she weighed a lot less than I did, so I thought I would do myself a favor by cutting back to 400 calories and 5 grams of fat each day.

About a week into this new routine, I grew quite weary. I was feeling sluggish all the time, and I salivated at the mere thought of food. I was beginning to wonder if I would be able to keep this up until I started losing more weight, the pounds melting off in a flash. Within the next week, I was down to a size 4 and feeling drunk with power. Lunchtime at school, however, was tortuous. I did my best to avoid the cafeteria at all costs. I’m sure my friends thought I was losing my mind, and I started to wonder if they were right as I found myself in the library, salivating over cookbooks and food related magazines. I started crying over nothing. Getting up in the mornings had become so physically taxing that I decided I’d had enough of this diet. That evening, when I got home from school, I saw a box of Thin Mints sitting on the counter. I opened the wrapper, took one out, tried to put it in my mouth but it just wouldn't go. I wanted to eat it more than anything, but at that point I realized just how badly I wanted to lose more weight. I thought to myself about all of the  things I would rather do than eat that cookie, and dying was one of them. I started to cry. I started to bawl hysterically. I gave the cookie to my dog, telling myself that he deserved it more than I did. He was good, deserving of love, and I was scum deserving of nothing. If that was what it took for me not to eat a cookie, that’s what I was going to tell myself.

I convinced myself that I was bad. I was bad for so many things that no one would ever be able to truly comprehend, and the only way to right the wrong of my existence was to lose weight. As the hours ticked by and days went on, this thought process completely overtook me. Anything and everything I did or thought revolved around food and why I couldn't eat it. I can remember eating lettuce and crying because I felt guilty. I had a dream one night that I ate a chocolate chip cookie and woke up in tears. I had to start caring enough to wear makeup again to cover the black circles under my eyes and my ghastly pale complexion. My parents, of course, decided that I needed counseling and set an appointment for me. I had no desire to gain any weight – in fact, I still felt that I was many pounds away from needing any counseling. I felt ashamed, thinking that the counselor would think my parents were hypochondriacs for bringing big fat me into the office for an eating problem. It wasn't until I started having suicidal thoughts that I decided to give this counseling thing a shot. I went, I answered questions, took a battery of tests gauging my mental competency, and I put on a happy face, not wanting to seem like I was insane. My counselor listened, we talked and laughed, and he made me realize how much I missed moments where my every thought wasn't consumed with food and how fat I was. Still, I wasn't quite ready to give up my now near skeletal figure.

I found a solution. I came home from school one day and I asked myself what I would eat if I knew I wouldn't gain a pound. I ended up with a cinnamon bagel with cream cheese and 3 bowls of ice cream. I didn't even taste the food going down. It just felt so good to have food in my mouth and stomach that it didn't even matter what it was. I ate until I could feel the fat and calories gripping every fiber of my being, and then I started to panic. I wanted this evil out of me. At that moment, I began a routine that would define my life for the next thirteen years. I gagged myself and gagged myself and retched until I felt empty again. I felt so ashamed of myself for eating the food, since I knew I didn't deserve any of it. I hated the process of purging, but I preferred that to the prospect of getting fat again. After I felt the familiar emptiness in my stomach again, I felt amazing. It was like I had just stolen a million dollars and gotten away with it. I was high with power. The next day after school, I did the same thing. Again the purging was miserable, but it was well worth it to me. Shortly thereafter, I started eating lunch again with my friends, and they were glad to have me back. No one seemed to question why I disappeared to the bathroom after each meal.

Every Thursday, my parents and I went to my counselor’s office. I nodded when I felt it necessary, answered all the questions correctly, and smiled as much as possible. My parents were always so proud of me after my sessions, and it reminded me of when I was a child and just knew they were always going to make everything okay. I craved that feeling again. I wanted to be as little as possible. I wanted my dad to swoop me up in his arms and carry me like a child. I knew I was nowhere near ready to stop losing weight.

Summer came quickly. I still felt that I needed to lose about twenty more pounds to be able to wear a bathing suit without horrifying everyone, but at that point I knew I could lose weight since I’d been doing so for months, so I wasn't too worried about it. I remember climbing out of the bathtub one night, and as I was getting dressed, I started to notice things I hadn't before. My once slightly chubby chipmunk cheeks were starting to look sunken in. My sharp shoulder blades looked as though they could cut if touched. My knees were knobby bones bigger than my calves or thighs. I didn't like what I saw. I decided right then to stop losing weight. I wasn't ready to gain, but I wasn't ready to die either. As a compromise, I decided to eat what I wanted and to purge if I felt I needed to compensate. This thought process quickly became a way of life for me. Anything that happened that was even remotely upsetting to me did not affect me; I knew I would go home, eat until I could not move, then purge until I couldn't feel. I stuffed the negative feelings down with food, and then purged them out. This cycle worked very well for me, and I never questioned it, especially when I developed the ability to purge without gagging. As I started to gain some weight, I didn't become upset; instead I let myself pig out on whatever I wanted then got rid of it. I maintained this routine for years.

In February of 2007, I moved away from my family. It felt liberating, and I liked knowing that I could take care of myself. I started thinking that maybe I wasn't such a bad person after all, and I wondered what my life would be like if I didn't have this eating disorder. Would I have gotten married and had children? Would I be hugely fat and disgusting? Most importantly, would I be happy? I decided I was ready to find out. I started seeing a counselor whom I really liked. She was fun, intelligent, and not much older than me. I looked at her with her average sized body and realized that she looked good. Not skinny, not big, but attractive and healthy. I thought about this over the next few days and came to the realization that finally, after all these years, I was ready to let go and become the person I was always meant to be. Oh, and did I mention the pancreatitis that landed me in the hospital and the thirty-five cavities in my teeth? That was especially devastating after three years of braces. It was time to get healthy.

What I had not counted on was that this disorder was not ready to let go of me. All that “control” I felt when I was getting rid of dinner’s mistakes was actually all of my inner demons taking over my body. I tried to quit. I tried so hard. I cried. I screamed. I fought and clawed my way to healthiness to no avail. I found that I couldn't sleep at night without purging. I couldn't smile. I couldn't function. I could not breathe. I didn't know whom I was without the crutch of bulimia to lean on to get me through life’s vicissitudes, and I didn't know how to get rid of the crutch. Even though I was up to a healthy size eight, I still preferred death to gaining any more weight. This disorder was so deeply rooted inside me that I knew it would take more than one counseling session a week to rip the roots out. I contacted my insurance company and they put me in touch with a place that offered a partial hospitalization program for eating disordered patients. I thought I was too fat to be at a place like that, but I didn't see any other options in sight, so I called. Two weeks later, I was in the program.

That was, by far, the longest five weeks of my life. It was agonizing to be forced to eat a normal, healthy meal and not be allowed to go to the bathroom afterward. At times I felt my skin crawling; I felt like I was going to absolutely die. I soon found out that this is because bingeing and purging has several chemically addictive qualities to it. During a binge, people feel numb to anything emotional, just like injection heroin. After purging, the brain is coated with a dopa-mine like substance that produces an adrenaline rush comparable to that of cocaine. Simply put, I was literally an addict. The only difference between my addiction and others' was that, I needed food in order to survive. It wasn't as though I could put myself in a position where I could just not be around alcohol or drugs or cigarettes. I knew I had a long, hard road ahead of me, and for the first time in my adult life, I was ready to prove to myself that my life, my happiness and my health were worth fighting for no matter the cost.

It’s been a long, arduous battle. Each day is a struggle. Anytime the thought of food pops into my mind, I revert to a sense of dread. When food is mentioned at work or at family functions, I find myself fantasizing about what I would eat if I knew I could get rid of it immediately afterward. Life is a battle, but equipped with the armor that the program gave me along with the support of family and friends, I feel prepared for the war. I have good days and bad days, moments where I feel like giving up, times that I want nothing more than to be a child again, yet I press on. I fight myself from turning the car into the Chipotle parking lot knowing full well what I will be tempted to do after I fill myself with a giant burrito. I ignore the screaming voice of the eating disorder telling me to get the giant bag of pizza rolls at the grocery instead of the healthy choices I've selected. I push away the overwhelming sense of inferiority that tries to take over when I see a pretty, skinny airbrushed model in the pages of a glossy magazine. I am determined to use all of that negative energy to bring some good into the world, and this is my first step. Hopefully, hearing my story will encourage others to stop their eating disordered lifestyles and give parents the courage to confront their children whom they may suspect are suffering this affliction. It has been almost eight years, and though I do have slip ups from time to time, I am still recovered. I never thought I could get here, and now that I’m here, I am determined to never let myself go back.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this so eloquently and honestly. I hope it will save someone reading this one day.

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  2. Awesome Ambra. I am really proud of you!

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  3. Thank you for sharing this, in all its detail, making something complex very much easier to understand., Well done! I am sp impressed, also, with your self-reflection and strength to battle this demon!

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  4. You are an amazing, strong woman. I truly believe you are at a crossroads to getting your life to a healthier place. You've got a big community here at your back, cheering you on, and ready to help however we can.

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  5. Powerful testimony. Your story gives hope to people in ways you don't even realize.

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