I was 13 years old the first time I stuck my fingers down my throat. It’s one of those vivid memories that remain forever etched in my mind.
Sitting alone in my room, watching television long past when my family had gone to bed, I had just eaten an entire bowl of popcorn and all I could think about was how gross I felt – a full stomach past midnight. In an instant, I thought to myself, “Maybe I could just get rid of it?”
I can’t tell you where this idea came from. It’s possible I had read about bulimia in a book, or had seen some bulimic character on television. I don’t remember that part. I just know that once I had the idea, I had to try.
I sat at the toilet that night, sticking my fingers down my throat, gagging but never actually producing much of anything more. I eventually gave up, feeling a little silly and ashamed to have even made this attempt at all.
By the next night, though, it was more like a challenge. Something I wanted to teach myself to do, for reasons I can’t fully explain. I was never a big kid, though I had gotten curves earlier than most of my friends. There were other things, though. My life was pretty chaotic. My parents divorced when I was 8, and my mom bailed out on raising me after that. First emotionally, then completely – giving my dad full custody not too long before that first night spent hovering over the toilet. My dad loved me, but he was married to a woman who made it routinely clear that she did not want me around. So I had learned to be invisible, even in my own home.
Meanwhile, I was a perfectionist – exhibiting all the classic symptoms of a child of abandonment, desperate to prove herself worthy of love. I got straight As, babysat around the neighborhood, and volunteered to stay after school for special projects and extracurricular activities.
All while writing out suicidal ideations in my diary and crying myself to sleep most nights.
So if I’m being honest, I don’t think it started as a weight thing – I think it started as a control thing. And maybe as a deeply rooted cry for help, the thought crossing my mind a time or two that if my dad caught me, he would know how sad and broken I was – and he and my mom would come together to fix me.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, on that second night, I learned through trial and error how to effectively press my fingers against the back of my tongue in a way that would actually produce a result. And from that night forward, I had a new obsession – one that involved me binging and purging every time I felt as though I needed to regain some sort of control over my life.
For years, I would take a shower every time I wanted to puke – counting on the sound of running water to drown out my gags. It wasn’t until I was 16 that my dad finally overheard me, confronting me shortly after. But by then, it was a habit I didn’t want to be saved from. So I lied. I told him it was the first time, and that I would never do it again.
Of course, I had no intention of quitting. If anything, my habit only grew worse after being caught – because it became a challenge to find ways to get my fix, and I had always been a girl who tackled challenges full force.
I started going through multiple drive-thrus each night, using the tips from my waitressing job to purchase more food than any one person should ever eat in a single sitting. I always got a large soda with my orders, dumping out the liquid as soon as I parked somewhere secluded, and then eating to my heart’s content and bringing it all back up into the empty soda cup. I would toss the remnants of my disgrace into a dumpster before driving home.
When I couldn’t get away with binging and purging, I would veer in the other direction and limit my food intake completely. I went on fad diets and ran miles around the neighborhood in the middle of the Arizona summer. By then, it had become about weight – about yearning for the same stick figure many of my friends boasted, and loathing the curve of my own hips.
At my smallest, I was down to 115 pounds. I’m 5’7” with an hourglass build – not a girl who was ever meant to weigh so little. Looking back at pictures, I can see bones protruding and my clothes hanging off of me in unnatural ways. But I swear, even then, I still thought I was fat.
I can’t tell you what eventually prompted my road to recovery. It was a lot of things, I suppose; moving away from home, traveling, and choosing to see a therapist on my own. It didn’t happen overnight. I was at my most sick between the ages of 16 and 19, but I still threw up occasionally until around the age of 23.
Ten years later, I would tell you that I am a stable, competent, confident woman who has a healthy relationship with food and her body. While I may weigh 30 pounds more than I did at my lightest, I like the image I see in the mirror today – one that is strong, and curvy, and mine.
What’s more, I enjoy food. Dining out with friends and chatting over big, elaborate meals is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes, I can’t even remember that girl who was once so concerned about the numbers on a scale; she seems so far away.
But then, I became a mother. And as far away as that girl had become, she was suddenly right in front of me again; this image of the person I would do anything to avoid my little girl ever emulating in any way. Because I know my experience is not all that unique, and that plenty of other women have similar pasts. And I am desperate for a road map to helping my daughter navigate around those same traps of self-loathing that bring so many other young girls down.
While being reminded through her that I may still have some healing to do myself.
You see, I always thought I would be that mom who had healthy, well-balanced meals on the table every night. As an adult, I’m someone who cares a lot about nutrition and who believes in delicious, whole food meals that make your mouth water and your body strong.
The problem is, trying to cook those meals sends me into a tizzy.
I never saw this coming. I’ve made excuses for years about why I don’t cook, usually claiming that it’s just no fun to cook for one. But as my daughter has gotten older, and that excuse has been thrown out the door, I’ve realized there may be something more going on here. I’ve realized that being in the kitchen, attempting to cook new meals for us both, is something I actually dread.
Ultimately, I think what it comes down to is a panic I experience over having to think about my food. If someone else cooks for me, or if I’m dining out, I’m fine. I don’t think about the calories or worry about eating too much; I’m fully capable of stopping when I am full and enjoying whatever flavors are placed in front of me. It’s when I get into the kitchen that the panic ensues. When I’m the one responsible for producing those meals, I just … shut down.
When my daughter was little, it wasn’t a big deal. We did baby-led weaning, and I cut up bites of avocado and apples for her without issue. I was proud of myself for never once giving her pre-packaged baby food – thinking this was the first step to me becoming that mother in the kitchen I wanted to be.
But the older she has gotten, the more I have wanted her to start eating what I am eating – which has forced me to realize something I never noticed before; the fact that when I do cook, I usually stick to the same few meals night after night. Meals I have been eating on repeat for a decade.
Meals I don’t have to think about.
I honestly never realized I did this before. It wasn’t until I started trying to feed my daughter that it occurred to me how little variation there was in my cooking routine. Noticing this forced me to take note of the other weird little things I do with food. The way I separate the things I am eating, or how I navigate certain meals. I also can’t diet, because I realized long ago that while I have eradicated my purging behavior, I am still prone to binges if ever I feel like I am restricting myself. Three days of eating “perfectly” and according to some plan usually results in two days of me stuffing myself with whatever it was I wasn’t supposed to be eating.
I don’t do well with restrictions.
All of this is coming to light only because my daughter has now entered toddlerhood, and trying to feed her has me reflecting on how I feed myself – in ways I haven’t thought about in years.
My desire to be that June Cleaver mom has forced me into the kitchen, trying to create an array of meals that will offer her varied nutrition and a truly healthy relationship with food. I’ve downloaded recipes and created epic shopping lists. I’ve attempted the crockpot and freezer meals, and I’ve studied the habits of my friends – all of whom are far better cooks than me. But still, I find myself dreading being in the kitchen. Looking for excuses to do just about anything else. Overcome by panic when I think about it too much.
I am this woman who truly believes she can do anything, from carpentry to triathlons, but trying to cook something new paralyzes me. It creates a sense of trepidation unlike anything else in my life. And spending hours in the kitchen cooking meals neither of us particularly likes has done nothing to ease that panic.
It’s like this mental block for me; these concerted efforts to cook have forced me to really think about food again — something I’ve avoided doing for a long time. I think there is a bit of fear on my part; fear that putting that thought into my food could ultimately send me down some sort of disordered spiral again.
Without realizing that in my avoidance, there is definitely a hint of disorder.
I’m honestly not sure how much of this is just me, and how much of it is remnants from my past. Maybe I never would have been the mom who liked to cook, no matter what my relationship with food was once like. I mean, that happens, right? Some moms are great at crafting or cooking, and some aren’t.
Maybe this was just never meant to be my forte.
But even if that’s true, it doesn’t help me with my dilemma; that of a single mother who desperately wants to help her child form a healthy relationship with food, but who is afraid of the kitchen herself.
I want to be the mom who cooks mouth-watering, healthy, well-balanced meals every night. The mom who teaches her daughter how to have a healthy relationship with food by example.
But what if I’m never actually capable of fulfilling that role?More On