51: A Dangerous Comfort

51: A Dangerous Comfort

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

A Dangerous Comfort

It does not matter how deep you fall, what matters is how high you bounce back.

~Unknown

“It’s not like you’re going to eat any of the cake anyway,” said my mother, cutting huge slices of a cold and creamy cheesecake with a chocolate cookie-crumbed bottom, for the guests at my high school graduation party. In just a month I was going off to a prestigious college in a big city to study acting.

“Well, I dunno,” I said, confused. I walked away, feeling bad about even having been tempted by the cake. But the desire to have permission to eat it seemed stronger than ever. Well, why can’t I? I found myself thinking. All my teen years, as a competitive figure skater and aspiring actress, watching my weight was an obsession in my life. But now that I was entering a new phase in life, I seemed to want to rebel against that restraint.

At the party, I told myself I could only eat the vegetables and focused on smiling at my guests as they congratulated me for being accepted to university and making my professional theatre debut in the months before I went. But inside I was teeming with anxiety. What if I couldn’t live up to everything?

Later that night, feeling empty and uncertain, I wandered past the kitchen freezer and found the rest of the cake inside. Everyone in my house had gone to bed. I quietly swiped my finger into the rich creaminess and tasted. Then, as if one bite sparked an uncontrollable craving for more, I ate the rest of the pie and threw it up.

Thus began a five-year battle with bulimia.

A few weeks later, in college, resorting to this behavior quickly became a very viable option for escaping the difficulty of adjusting to city life. From the very first week of school, I found myself bombarded with feelings I could not identify, new responsibilities, and a desire to stand out and make a splash. Deep down, I had trouble trusting that my emotions were valid. I was very good at covering up my anxiety, presenting a golden girl image. I wanted to get it right, to please, to go above and beyond teachers’ expectations.

In studying acting more thoroughly, tapping into deeper reservoirs became necessary. Sometimes after scene work classes I felt vulnerable and wanted someone to just hold me, but I was afraid to let down my guard and ask. Instead, late at night, anxious about the next day’s work, or writing a paper or reading a difficult text, the most self-reliant thing I could think of was to visit the plethora of food shops.

I have to be thin, I have to be thin. What am I doing?! Those were my thoughts after I grabbed the food. I began to spin out of control. There would be restriction in calories, fad diets (all-protein, detox teas, raw foods) followed by binges, vomiting, and a lapse back into the never-ending cycle. Soon, I was engaging in the bulimia a few times a week, then a few times a day.

I was afraid my vomit would clog the toilets so I started using plastic containers or jars. In that, there was also a perverse pleasure in seeing how much I had thrown up. As a result of my behavior, I often felt depressed, drained, listless, angry, and numbed.

Then, during an acting exercise in my last year of college, an intuitive voice teacher looked me in the eye and said, “You have to embrace your inner dragon.” At first, I dismissed it as new age mumbo jumbo, but now I see that this wise woman’s words were right on target. Recovering from bulimia is about learning to take care of yourself, about knowing your needs, which, if ignored, will otherwise erupt like a dragon’s fire.

In the fourth year of struggling to deal with my problem, I finally started seeing a psychotherapist, who helped me look at the underlying tensions in my life. I started saying no to things that triggered the feelings of conflict, powerlessness, and anxiety that were manifested in bulimia.

For example, in my struggle to make money as a young artist in the city, I had been hired a few times as a masseuse at a “guy’s night poker party.” At the third and last party, as I walked around massaging the stranger’s shoulders while they blew cigar smoke in my face with a feigned virility, I felt repulsed by both them and myself. “I don’t need to do this!” I realized. The next time they called I said no. There was better work out there.

I started being smarter about my relationships with men in general. I decided to take things slower. In therapy, I discovered a great parallel between my relationship with men and that with food. Jumping into things sexually right away seemed to be my instinctual response when I met someone, but it always ended up being too much to digest, so the romance would quickly be over — just like my overeating followed by the need to purge.

Recovery has been a slow, frustrating process. Relapses were frequent for a long time. But then I started cutting myself some slack. I am the one in charge of my life and decisions. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to put on a show. I don’t have to eat like a health-nut all the time. Stopping the vomiting was a key step, and the toughest part at first was not vomiting after a binge. Soon, things began to regulate themselves naturally. I find it is still very important to constantly stay in touch with my feelings and have a lot of patience.

What I hope to spread to other people struggling with this serious problem is this piece of advice: try to understand yourself. What is it about wanting to eat? What do you really want? For me, it was often a longing for someone else to take care of me, a seeking of comfort from the harsh world. Every day more and more, I realize it is ME who has to be that caretaker.

~Meredith Marie

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