One day, when I was about sixteen, which is the age when someone I loved and admired told me I looked horrible, that I’d gained weight and needed to change that, and wouldn’t look me in the eye when he said it, I ate a lot and a lot and a lot and then I walked into the bathroom and I threw it up. I did that off and on, every week or so, for too many years.
It’s taken me twenty years to say that publicly, even privately. No one except my immediate family knows that I suffered from bulimia. No one. I have best friends who might contact me, stunned, after reading this–or not, out of embarrassment or shame or anger or confusion.
And I don’t know why, sitting here alone in my living room on a Wednesday night, I suddenly feel that now is the time, at least as good a time as any. I’ve thought about writing this before. That’s what writers do—observe, think, see, and write so that we can understand and hopefully touch others in a way that makes them understand, too.
But I’ve never written it. Never even started writing it. A teller of “true stories,” it’s been the elephant in my room. “Well,” I’d ask myself, “when are you going to tell that story?”
I’m a private person. That’s been my justification. Which might seem odd—I put a lot of myself on the page openly. But I’ve shared mostly safe things. And the thought of neighbors and acquaintances and extended family reading these words is almost enough to not write them.
So I’ve told myself: this is incredibly private. It’s also a disorder of shame—there is nothing cool or interesting about sticking your finger down your throat. It’s not like holding a rocks glass of whiskey in the tips of your fingers or snorting a line of coke on a mirror or smoking a cigarette under a furrowed brow, all the (misguided) romantic notions of addiction. Who, really, wants to hear about leaning over a toilet? It’s a disorder of shame and secrecy to begin with, and imagine the shame of letting everyone in on that secret?
But over the almost two years since I started this blog, I’ve listened to women cry as they describe what it feels like to be raped. What it feels like to abort a baby. What it feels like to lose something, to miscarry, to struggle and yearn for a child. What it feels like to have PTSD, to lose a brother, to be at the butt end of racism.
These people tell me their stories and maybe it’s simply because I ask. Maybe it’s no more than that. But still, they share. They give me, and you, a part of themselves. And so I feel like a fraud, because if I were to ask myself, “What is the truest story you could share?” this would be it. And as these people, these storytellers, have had the courage to cry to me, to show me their fears, I’ve kept silent.
So I guess this is about truth, as a person and as a writer.
But this truth doesn’t define me. It is one of my struggles, one of many past and many to come. I know now that it’s not just about eating. It’s not just about weight. It’s a way, a dysfunctional way, to deal with stress. It was the outlet my sixteen-year-old mind found to deal with divorce, loneliness, grief, and feeling ugly. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t skip school. I was too Type-A for all that. Instead, I committed my teenage rebellion in the darkness of a bathroom. By myself. Because I couldn’t show those who loved me that I wasn’t perfect.
Yes – I thought those who loved me might not really. Because why do we all do those shameful things? Why do we hide liquor bottles in the back of a drawer? Why do we start shooting up not at parties, but alone on a Saturday morning? Why do we eat and eat and eat and then lock the bathroom door and turn on the fan so no one hears? Because we’re unhappy and because we don’t feel, or feel we deserve, love.
So this is partly about truth and the courage to tell it, but it’s also about my daughter. Because as much as bulimia isn’t only about body image, it is all about it. And God help the person who makes my daughter feel like she doesn’t look the way she’s supposed to look. I’m going to have to get used to talking about this. Because I’m going to tell her what I’ve done. How could I claim perfection doesn’t matter and then hide the most imperfect part of myself?
And then I’m going to tell her: “See those dimples on your thigh? They are you. Your crooked smile? You. Your short legs? You. Your raspy laugh? You-est. And most importantly: the first time someone tells you that you need to smooth out your legs and straighten your lips will be just one of the many times you’ll have the privilege to know what it feels like to stand up for yourself, to love yourself, and to kick out of your life anyone who makes you feel less than. That is what I want for you, sweet Clara: to be able to defend yourself the way you would anyone else you loved.”
And if my daughter, then every daughter.
So I’m not sure why tonight, exactly. But I’ve learned, thankfully, to follow my instincts, trust my gut, listen to my heart above all other hearts. Others have shared their hard truths in this space and now I’ve shared one of mine.