“The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” — Audrey Hepburn
Today I’m taking a brief detour from my Monday series to share a story I posted last year about an important turning point in my life. It’s one of the inspirations behind the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest, which will reoccur on February 22nd. If you’d like to participate, pop back here Thursday for details. I can’t wait to sing, dance, laugh, shout and think about beauty again with all of you. ♥
I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris—woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should have been a pinnacle in the modeling career I’d held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder. Where logic would’ve told me to get some rest, nourish my body and tend to the day’s work responsibilities, E.D. commanded I wake up and run! Breakfast, castings, agency meetings and photo shoots would have to wait; my sole priority was the upkeep of my disease.
My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots, sugarless ice tea and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn far more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness—i.e., happiness, success, perfection. I had to run.
I slipped my feet into my worn out, blood-stained sneakers, stepped out of my tiny Parisian flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel haze of the sunrise—a living, breathing Monet. It’s beauty could’ve taken a blind man’s breath away, I wrote in my journal. I didn’t deserve it.
The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting. Forty-five plus six plus ten…plus five plus ten plus three… I estimated the previous day’s “damage” then plotted an itinerary of exercise and occasional food bits to compensate. So accustomed to ignoring the dizziness and fatigue accompanying me, anything else would’ve felt foreign. But this time was different.
Pushing aside the added sense of off-ness in my gut, I observed the dip in the ground ahead: It looks like an adult-size cradle... Perhaps I knew what was coming.
I ran with increasing dizziness and pain, as though a metal clamp squeezed my brain. RUN. Don’t stop! You can’t. Tears stung at my eyes as I tried to outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. For a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.
I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than contemplate how long I’d been there or if I’d been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories?
I don’t recall who found me or how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: “You have anorexia. Do you understand what that means? You could’ve died. You…could die.”
Her words blurred together like fog on a windshield as my thoughts went wild. She’s crazy! I can’t have anorexia. Please don’t make me eat… I felt neither thin nor “skilled” enough to have a disorder characterized by starvation. Sure, I had problems—the “cancer in my soul” I’d journaled about. I felt physically and emotionally rotted and weak, but couldn’t make sense of anything. I only knew I had to go home.
The week after I arrived in Minneapolis, I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. Once I accepted my diagnosis, anorexia seemed the one special thing about me. If I let it go, what was left? The word ‘recovery’ seemed synonymous with ‘fatness,’ ‘failure’ and ‘mediocrity.’
As my starving measures increased, my emotional and physical self tolerated them less and less. My therapist repeatedly threatened in-patient treatment. I lied, promising I would eat more and gain necessary weight.
Finally, one of my worst nightmares came true. In a moment of despair, I gave in to my longing for a single bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the dollop of creamy cold sweetness into my mouth, my entire body trembled. I felt intoxicated, a sense of danger, head-to-toe orgasm and temporary relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, then all that remained of the half gallon. The fatty cream sat like a putrid rock in my shrunken stomach. I’d never felt so ashamed.
The bingeing/starving roller coaster that followed was the most excruciating and important occurrences in my recovery. At its worst, I entered what my therapist called a “bulimic trance.” The bingeing took over and I had little awareness of all I’d consumed until I found myself sobbing amidst wrappers and crumbs.
As weight returned to my body, friends and family told me how healthy I looked: “You’re filling out so nicely!” The well-intended comment haunted me for months.
Desperate to stop bingeing, I decided to take my treatment more seriously.
“I will do anything to stop this,” I told my therapist.
“Good,” she said. “It starts with eating. After you binge, don’t skip your next meal.”
Anything but that. I resisted her instructions, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were just strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired and stop bingeing at once. It sounded Utopian. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.
One night, after a fast ended in a gargantuan binge, I hit a new bottom. I considered gulping the poison I’d used on occasion to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear life as I knew it. In a fury, I scavenged the house for the tiny bottle. When I couldn’t find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.
Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. That calmness, paired with tired frustration and an inability to foresee life continuing as Hell, brought clarity. Try something new. You have to.
I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror, as though nearing a fatal cliff. For the first time in too long, I looked not at my hips, belly or thighs, but into my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.
“You can’t live like this anymore!” I told my reflection. “I won’t let you hate yourself so much. This is not who you are.” I didn’t know what I was fighting for, but my instincts said, Don’t give up.
My anger at ED and proclamations in the mirror were the first signs of self-love I’d displayed in years, the light switch in the dark cave I lived in. If I managed to turn it on, I knew my life would change. But the decision was only part of it… Rather than plot restriction strategies for the coming days, I had to plot a future free of ED.
The night became a Good Riddance Ed rampage. I threw my “skinny clothes” and scale in a dumpster and removed the size tags from clothes that fit. I trashed every fashion mag, food journal and diet book, sang my feelings into made-up songs. I vowed to myself that for one year, I would not diet, starve or make any other attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning, with trembling hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I ate breakfast, forcing thoughts of I love you, You deserve this, You’re going to be okay, with every bite.
Though I wanted to forego my commitments frequently over the subsequent weeks, I held fast. The bingeing continued at first, as did my weight gain, until I nearly doubled my lowest weight. If I have to start over every day, I will, I wrote. And start over again and again I did. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.
Gradually, I fought less with myself and slip-ups drew further between. Months later, I was no longer dieting, starving or bingeing and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends, writing songs and even, on occasion, laughing. But my recovery had reached a plateau. I felt awkward eating around others, anxious about eating too much or too little. The slightest pangs of hunger or fullness put me on edge. I saw plates of calories and felt guilty when I indulged. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn’t left. He’d merely grown quieter.
One day over steaming cups of Indian tea, my mom handed me a CD with a song she and my dad wanted me to hear: Lee Ann Womack’s, “I Hope You Dance.”
“It’s time to find joy,” she said. (And here I’d thought I had everyone fooled…)
The song’s message about “dancing,” which I took to mean many joyful things, hit me with profound force.
That evening I sat at a park watching a group of friends picnicking, captivated by a woman around my age. After a bite of her hearty sandwich, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back, exclaiming, “This is so good!” I longed for an ounce of her joy.
I’d been eating because I was “supposed” to, promised others I would and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep end again. In order to fully recover, I had to manifest joy around eating.
I knew it was possible because I’d experienced it. My childhood love affair with food seemed insatiable. Family photographs portray a bubbly, smiling girl holding an ice cream cone, sitting before a luminous birthday cake or about to take a chomp out of a fresh red apple from our backyard tree. Before bed, I often asked my parents what the next day’s breakfast would entail, “so I could dream about it.”
Food for my family meant togetherness, birthday celebrations, picnics by the lake, nightly home cooked meals—a special bond and clay with which we built memories. Until fear and ED had creeped in. No more, I decided.
I began studying food with a velocity I’d only previously applied to treadmills. I wanted to discover its goodness and stop dreaming of ways to avoid it. What did particular foods do for me? If not for managing weight, why did people eat them? How could I eat healthfully, and not by diet book standards of what that was?
I began addressing a self-compiled “I’m afraid of” list: Eat in public. Eat at a restaurant, alone. Eat a meal prepared by others without demanding particulars. Eat the ice cream that triggered my first binge, one serving at a time.
I traded my diet books for medical and dietetic texts that defined food as fuel, a necessary means of nutrients, and obtained my first certification in nutrition. I cooked, experimented with foods I’d never tried and volunteered at soup kitchens. I stopped aiming for dietary perfection. Multiple studies had convinced me that such increased my risk for bingeing, obesity, anxiety, depression and sleep problems—pretty much everything on my “No, thank you” list.
It took numerous attempts of arriving at an upscale restaurant alone before I dined there and several more before I enjoyed the food sans heavy sweating or heart palpitations. I wept over a homemade candlelit dinner for one, served on my grandmother’s china. I stocked my kitchen with food until it felt warm, loved and lived-in. Rather than cold and frightening, it felt like home. I took a Buddhist philosophy course and applied its principles to my meals. Eating slowly and without distraction soon went from mortifying to pacifying. On difficult days, I asked myself what I’d feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that—until gradually, finally I became her.
On a cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table with a bowl of spicy chili and fresh-baked corn bread. An unexpected breeze blew through my apartment window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannelloni beans, I laughed. Struck my own amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table. All anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy had dissipated, leaving me with a palpable sense of peace.
I returned to Paris that summer to celebrate my recovery. Near the grassy patch where I’d fallen, I buried a capsule filled with cards from loved ones, photographs, under-sized clothes and copies of my songs and journal entries. ED’s funeral, I called it—a memorial service for my self. I ran along the Seine, this time grateful for the strong legs that carried me, the absence of pain and my second chance at a happy, healthy life.