Anatomy of an Eating Disorder

2Being there...to here.

Being there…to here.

–By Coralie Raia Darsey-Malloy
I sit and listen attentively to each woman within the sharing circle speaks as they openly discuss their individual struggles with their eating disorders. Some are working through their own process and others are there looking to find answers for a loved one facing similar challenges. As I quietly observe I glance around the room see how some mask their pain with a vacant stare while others speak in words that are strangled with emotion. As I silently participate in their individual and collective journeys my heart goes out to them. I am fully able to empathize with their struggle … because I was once going through a similar process and am fully aware of how difficult it is to believe that there is a way to move beyond their compulsive coping patterns.

Their journey was once my journey and I had decided to come and offer a testimony of hope. When it came time for me to speak I began offering aspects of what I had learned along my own path. At first they there was openness as started sharing why I was there. “I am here tonight to honor and support where you are—because I once walked this path and fully understand what a difficult path you are on. It thirty years of struggle and strife to finally find another way to live my life—but I did—and I am a living testimony that it is possible to heal your body and your life. I have been free from the clutches of anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over-eating and body-image issues for over sixteen years. I am not a recovering anything—I am healed, whole, well and in better health now than I ever was in my youth. I am here to offer encouragement and hope that you can do it too.”

I pause for a moment and suddenly sense that the energy in the room has changed. As I glance around there is a tangible, yet inaudible ‘clunk.’ My many years as a group facilitator and life couch have put me in touch with this dynamic before. It is t very clear that minds within the room have suddenly closed. Something in what I related created a low comfort level and experience has taught me to respect individual boundaries than to forge ahead. I left shortly afterwards. The next day I called the facilitator of the support group and discussed my observations. Her feedback was not all that surprising and aligned to my perception. “Yes Coralie, even though the group appreciated where you are—there is a lot of denial, anger and feelings of victimization within this group. At this point all they really want to do is to be able to express how they feel each week without really getting into problem solving right now. Maybe what you have to offer will be more accepted at some later date—but thank you for coming. Good-bye.”
After hanging up, I take a deep breath and allow my mind to travel along time time-lines of my life to the point things began to unravel for me. Around the age of seventeen I decided to take a modeling course and see if I could make it in the fashion industry. The women who headed up the agency never bothered to tell me that my five foot two and a half inch height would never allow me to go very far. She willingly took the money for the course and I blindly followed her lead. As I struggled to compensate for the obvious height issue it made sense that if I lost enough weight maybe being skinny could somehow compensate for what was lacking vertically. Couple that dynamic with a home life with a controlling, abusive, alcoholic father and a passive enabling mother I began to develop a sense of self that was outwardly directed. That shift in focus was the beginning of my downfall.

Within my musings, I flashback to how I resorted to self-starvation, laxative abusive and purging as a desperate way to diminish my size and weight to a place it was never meant to be. The process began long before the medical model had the self-destructive patterns. The cycle eventually “worked” and I starved myself down to under 80 pounds. Originally, it started with restrictive calorie counting, frenetic bouts of intense exercising that were difficult to sustain.
Each time I ‘failed’ a binge followed and then the whole cycle began again. Weight gains lowered self-esteem and created an internal need to binge. Food was used to compensate for growing feelings of inadequacy or block out thoughts and emotions that were too uncomfortable to handle. Little did I realize at that level of awareness that my fixation on food, weight and body image were compulsive coping mechanism. The fixated thinking had become a way of denying what I believed to be insurmountable issues in my personal and family life. That awareness would only come many years later.

Then somewhere in my early twenties my father in his usual unthinking fashion said something that re-routed my life again. In one of my venting outbursts I declared that I had to find a way to lose more weight so I could ‘measure up’ to the fashion and entertainment industry’s stereotypes for the ‘perfect body. In what became a milestone moment my father said in a calm voice, “Well, why don’t you do what many jockeys, ballerinas and others with a high profile do to keep their weight low?” His serious tone caught my attention interest and I felt he might just have a solution and I quickly said, “What do they do?” My father could see he had me—and he played the moment to his advantage by taking a s drink from his glass of Scotch and a slow puff on his cigarette before answering. “It is any easy fix and you can eat whatever you want in any amount. Afterwards just stick your fingers down the throat and throw it up. Some also use laxatives—between those two things—you can be whatever weight you want and keep it. Simple huh?”

The impact of what he had just said was not lost to either my mother or me. I vividly recall the look of horror on her face. It was the exact moment that the light bulb went on for me. Needless to say there was nothing my mother could say or do to stop me. Little did I know then that my father’s statement would re-route my life and create a quagmire of confusion that would take years to emerge from. As I continue to wander down memory lane I am caught in a full circle moment of total recall and I vividly remember my first binge/purge experience. Ahh—alone at last. My stomach is bulging as I wander towards the bathroom. I cannot help thinking about the volume of food just consumed. It was the biggest binge of my life—but knowing that I was going to be able to ‘get rid of it’ created a bliss-like throughout the binge. Throughout the ‘stuffing’ I comforted myself with the reality that I was about to embark on my first episode in throwing up. No one could stop me now—I was on a whole new path of liberation—or so I thought then.

As I stand in front of the toilet the stark while porcelain bowl invites me to begin a ritual of association that will last far longer than I ever wanted it to. At this juncture I foolishly believe I would be able to control my association with it—too bad I didn’t know then what hard lessons I would have to learn as a result of what I did next. Before beginning I paused and wondered how to do it. For one brief moment I felt like an initiate to some order—and this was the act that would allow me to gain entry to some unseen power. Hmm—I wonder how many fingers I should use. I decide to hook my thumb and little finger together and try three. Ugh, that hurt, maybe I should try two. As I shove them down my throat initially nothing happens, I try again—further down this time—there I’m getting a gag response—keep it up—the energy within my intention to master this art of body and weight control drives me to keep going. As I push harder and deeper I gag more and I keep it up, pushing, probing fingers deeper until I finally feel my insides begin to respond. As the inner upheaval begins to move I am full of anticipation as I sense the massive amount of food I’d consumed is rising upwards. Excitement begins to build as I feel lift-off occurring.

The food rushes up in a volcanic eruption. Once I had the first experience in motion I kept it up I did it once, twice, three—four—until I lost count and could finally feel my stomach had released all its booty. As I flushed the toilet for a final time and closed the lid I looked at my formerly bulging abdomen and saw how flat it had become and I absolutely delighted. I stood in mute silence admiring my handiwork. Then within the aftermath I feel my knees slightly buckling and I sit on the toilet and try to process what had just happened.

In retrospect it was one of the last times I paid any real attention to my body’s responses. From that point on I become increasingly dissociated from anything it felt or needed. But initially symptoms were too obvious to ignore. I could not help but notice what a physically demanding ritual the self-induced vomiting actually was. I felt weak, my neck and back were stiff and sore from bending over. Residues of bitter tasting bile lingered in my mouth and my eyes felt as though they were stretched and bulging behind their sockets. Coupled with all of that was an incredible thirst and it was clear to me that I was severely dehydrated. But I held on to the fact that I had managed to do it and in the bizarre fashion of anyone with an eating disorder I felt kind of good about my achievement.

Even though I felt physically weak—something bigger and not clearly understood had occurred within the unusual and rite of passage I had just undertaken. I noticed a sense of relief—as if on some emotional level I had a moment of release from things I could not clearly define. That gave me a profound sense of empowerment and I liked it. Although it was not fully comprehended to me at that time I came to see that something within that first experience put a new set of beliefs in motion. In retrospect this first act created a false sense of security about controlling my destiny and achieving every weight loss dream of skinniness I had been harboring within.

I embellish the moment with romanticized ideas that this ritual would allow me to create the perfect body size and shape—and with that would come all the love, acceptance and appreciation I could not find anywhere else. As my mind ran along those line it eclipsed any sense of how bizarre the path I was embarking on really was. Logic and reason were replaced with an unrealistic sense that everything I ever wanted or desired was now within my reach. I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted in whatever amounts I wanted and never have to look back. On top of that I could show the world that I could achieve something many others could not—a lean, strong, thin body—something everyone wanted and now I could finally have.
As I continued along this deluded path in an ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach.

. Being able to binge and throw up worked for awhile. But what is now called bulimia eventually began to upset my metabolism and eventually my body’s ability to digest and eliminate food broke down and I had to resort to ingesting increasing amounts of laxitives. I rationalized that it was alright…because they were herbal. The delusion and denial continues. Eating less, exercising more, throwing up, starving my body decreased core energy and threw my whole self out of balance. Over the years of abuse my body became soft, bloated. My term for it is ‘gooshy.” I had no idea then that it was my body’s response to dehydration faulty digestion. Rather than feeling fit and fabulous the flab dragged me down so I increased the intensity and length of exercise when I had the energy to do so.

At that point I was hospitalized and went through five years in and out of psychiatric wards. I was subjected to massive amounts of mood-altering drugs. When didn’t work I was given over 120 electro-shock treatments before the doctor realized they were an ineffective treatment for me. No one within the medical system ever considered addressing family life or what might be the root cause of my debilitating health and personal problems. Through that whole time no one ever addressed the problems I was having at home and with my parents. I consistently felt that I was the problem—and that added to a growing loss of self-worth and any sense of self. There were times where I thought it would be better to die and I often wished I could. The depressing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness were so bad at times I considered taking my own life so the pain could end.
By the time I reached the ten year mark of struggle I was 28.

None of what the medical model had to offer was doing anything to change my behavior—or my life. So I made the decision to get out of the system and find another way. As I look back over the anatomy of my eating disorder one of the most surreal aspects of it was through the whole thirty year process I was still functioning on many levels. The five-year stint in the psychiatric wards was the most challenging and least productive times of my life. Once I broke free theconstrictive ‘care’ I made a decision to do something—anything different.

At that age and stage of life, I married my childhood sweetheart, began to journal, explore my spiritual beliefs and search for ways to heal my life It was clear that if I did not find a way through the confusing maze of my disordered life and disordered eating I was going to die. My throat had started to bleed when I stuck my fingers down my throat. My intestines and stomach ached and I was increasingly sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I have come to accept that the challenges I was having in trying to find answers contributed to the break-up of my first marriage—but there was nothing I could do—except keep on keeping on until I found another way to cope.

My lifestyle was a horrendous series of uphill and downhill slides into a world I feared I might never be able to escape. It was a lonely, isolating world at times because I could never allow anyone to get too close, lest they discover my terrible truth. The irony of it all is that I still had an outer semblance of a life. I worked, socialized, dated and even began writing, producing a series of talk shows on community access television in Winnipeg. So to all appearance I had my act together. The shame of my secret ritualistic life of self-destruction continued as I lived a life of ‘quiet, unspoken desperation.’

It took another twenty years after that to finally have enough of a spiritual epiphany to fully comprehend that my obsession with thinness, fixated thinking about image-management and trying to define myself from the outside were not the real issues. Then in an amazing moment of clarity some of my prayers were answered. For the first time I could see there was something very wrong with my whole lifestyle and my sense of Self within it and once I ‘got it’ things began to change. When Karen Carpenter died I was amazed to learn that what I had been doing since my late teens had finally had a name and a diagnosis. Well imagine that. Too bad it hadn’t been addressed when I was being tortured by the medical model all those years ago.

Up to that point a part of me did not really believe that what I was doing could actually kill me. I had been doing it for so long never in the thirty year span had any doctor ever said that there could be some long term health problems with what I was doing. But the media hype around her death mentioned that her heart gave out and that was a big newsflash for me. As unfortunate as it was to hear about Karen’s death added another dimension to the clarity I was developing from within. The soul searching forces me to question whether I had an unspoken, formerly unacknowledged death wish and unconsciously finding ways to fulfill it. That hard core question about whether my death wishes were stronger than my life wishes changed the course of my life path. I knew deep within my being that I did not want to die and that I had better smarten up or the choice might not be mine to make. The course of my life path began to change in strange and mysterious ways. Once I made a decision to live I embarked on a quest to cease feeling victimized the intent took me down a new road.

Rather than making skinniness my goal I focus on regaining health, balance. I sought out a series of therapists and alternative health practitioners with a whole-person approach. Talk therapy with reputable counselors leads to more accountable choice making and I stop playing the blame game. Through time, I was able to accept that I had daunting challenges but no one can change the past and it was time to move forward. Most definitely. Had my family of origin contributed to my personal and health problems? Undeniably. But through time I had to accept that I could either live in the past with all the hurt, regret, blame and shame or I could choose to forgive all of it and move on. And that was what I did and I continue to do that today. The changes took time and required self-ownership, therapy. I learned how to change my diet and mindset and eventually I regained my health and balance.

As I focused on being healthy over skinny while building a positive sense of self I began to live life from the inside out. I learned how to manage my life, handle stress and focus on goal setting and goal-getting my world and everything in it changed for the better. As I learned how like and love myself and accept my shortcomings as part of being human I also was able to establish safe boundaries with others. As I progressed along my path towards wholeness and happiness I recovered repressed memories of sexual abuse and it became clear that I had been treating myself the way I had been treated. I had been abused and felt that was what I deserved and I found a way to abuse myself—and what was what the eating disorders represented for me. It is so obvious now—all change begins with awareness and once I was aware of why I did what I did I was able to change the pattern forever and never go back.

I made it through and life today is sweeter, richer, healthier and more abundant than it ever was in what many call the prime years of their life. I now thank God that when I had considered ending my life that it never happened. If I had died or taken my own life I would be missing all the good that I now enjoy. That is part of why I am so committed to sharing what I have learned. It has been said that anyone who has met the challenge and overcome it has a moral duty to chare it. And so that is what I do.

As my journey through the past brings me back into present time I realize why I felt a need to go sit in on that support group. They may not be ready to hear what I have to say but I know there are many out there who are. As I was able to transform my life and become healthy and while I took training and began developing and presenting workshops about a system of weight management that works from the inside out. The Body Dynamics System I developed with my life and business partner David Malloy has a proven track record that assists people change their lives by changing and re-framing their attitudes and behaviors around their weight and body-image. We assist clients in making health, balance and strength the priority of unhealthy weight management methods.

The process for self-change involves a readiness to change a and some guidance about how to do it. David and I co-direct a company that is appropriately named Fresh Beginnings. We promote the idea that is it is never too early or too late create a new beginning. The website link for Fresh Beginnings is: http://www.fresh-beginnings.com. After sharing my healing journey with clients I was encouraged to write a book about it. I’ve Been There…A Testimony of Hope is the name of my memoir and it chronicles how I transformed my scars into stars and life for the better. The website for the book is http://www.ibtbook.com .

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