by Kimberly Vogt
This week’s Letter comes from contributing writer Kimberly Vogt. With her incisive writing she takes us into the depths of an eating disorder. I want to jump right into Kim's work, so I'll keep this intro short.
I met Kim at age 6 — she was the first friend I chose. You. You're interesting. By 11 we were drawing the floor plans to our dream penthouse apartments in sidewalk chalk and deciding that we’d be the kind of women who hit our stride in our mid-thirties. I’m proud to have this woman's humor, wit and kindness in my life now that we have hit our thirties. I hope, dear Reader, you get as much out of Kim's essay, Counting Down as I have.
I'd first like to introduce you to a conversation I had at lunch today. There are about eight of us ladies who take our lunch break together. And since we are all around 20 to 30 years old, someone is always, inevitably, on a diet.
One is on Weight Watchers,
another Lean Cuisine's only.
One seems to eat only raw, green peppers
and another religiously types her macros into her phone tracker after every bite.
Sometimes we talk about it "How many calories are in those chips?" "Have you gone back to that trainer at super fitness?" and other times we don't. In fact, you've probably had lunch with people like us at some point. And maybe you are one of us. It's fine if you are.
From TV stations dedicated to eating the biggest, greasiest food possible to weight-loss competitions that parade the overweight around in shirtless gym clothes, we are a culture obsessed with food, fitness, and form. It's kinda, sorta, not our fault. Sorta. I only say this because I should say something. I should just scream, Oh just eat the damn chips! Because when others talk, they may not hear what I hear. I pick up on everything - every calorie, every comment, everything. I'm always listening.
I can safely say that I know of every convenient place to throw up in South Jersey. (You know, in case you ever need a place.) This includes fast food joints, diners, malls, parking lots, you name it. I began my eating disorder when I was 19 at college. A little bit of bulimia there, a dash of anorexia there. Before I knew it, I had all the makings of a blonde teenager from a Lifetime Original Movie. If you ask me why I started, I suppose I could direct you to my therapist. She probably knows better than me. However, what I can say, it started the way most addictions do: I had something lacking I needed filled. Some guilt. Some shame. Some discomfort. Some loss. I was at college and I was supposed to be happy. But I wasn't. My world was turned upside down and I didn't know how to fix it. All I knew was, I wanted that feeling to Go Away.
I wanted all the negative feelings to go away. It felt like if I got control over something, anything, it would make me feel - well - better. And for a while, it did. But much like any other addiction, that feeling didn't last and I needed more and more and more and more to get same effect. I began by throwing up part of dinner, then all of dinner, then every meal. Running for a 1/2 hour, then an hour, then to hit 2000 calories. The scale got lower, and lower, and lower. And I got more and more content. It gave me a goal, something to work for, something to be proud of. Before long, I was subsisting daily on black coffee until I just couldn't take it anymore, which led to me binging more than you could possibly eat in a Thanksgiving meal. My heart rate would increase, my palms would sweat, and I would get this pure euphoria when I finally gave in.Followed up by a trip to the bathroom where my pupils would be so dilated I would look to any outsider like I just did four lines of coke. Getting rid of it was never the best part but it felt good and bad all at the same time. ("How could you possibly do this to yourself? You're disgusting" "Good for you! This is so easy! You can do this forever!") I really had planned to. And for 10 years, I did.
Many people don't understand eating disorders and I get that. You eat, and you're not an "addict." Why can't I do the same? If you are an addict, you take whatever (food, drugs, sex) and use it in excess to replace what you are lacking. I could have easily been a sex addict, I guess, if sex were my drug of choice. It just wasn't. Food is easy. Food is there. Food is always there. Having said that, do you want to know what the best and worst thing about food is? You need it - daily. Not once a week or month. Every. Damn. Day.
The point is this: when you need your vice TO LIVE but your vice is simultaneously KILLING YOU, what do you do?
Well, I did what most people do in this situation: I absolutely lost my mind. I lost not only the ability to function physically as a normal twenty something (considering I was drastically underweight), but emotionally, I could not function period. I lived in what I like to call emotional purgatory. You can't leave, but you also can't stay.
I knew I needed an escape so I would create grand, epic fantasies of things to do to get out of where I was. (Join the Peace Corps to build huts in Africa! Move to California to become an Urban Planner! Enroll in grad school in NYC for Food Studies!). But instead of actually doing any of these things, I would over-analyze these plans until I decided not to do it. I would move on to the next thing, the next drive, that would give me something to strive for until the thrill wore off. I always liked the chase but never the destination. (One night, I actually enrolled in, picked classes, and dropped out of, St. Joseph's master's program. I basically paid $40 to dis-enroll from a university).
I moved out, but not far. I worked, but I hated my job. Relationships, personal, sexual or otherwise, were basically nonexistent. If you can't feel something for yourself, you can't feel anything for others. I starved. I binged. I purged. I lost weight. I gained weight. And I lost it again. I did everything to take me out of where I was without actually going anywhere. Emotional purgatory.What can make me feel good without actually making me feel good, since I can't feel anything?
I realize at this point most of you are probably like, well - if you knew you weren't ok (which I did), why didn't you get help? Which is a good, logical question. And if I can be honest, two reasons. One: I didn't think my eating disorder was the problem. I thought when I found that next job, school, apartment, degree, etc., I would be happy - and then I would stop. I didn't want to admit to myself that maybe it was the other way around. And I really did give my eating disorder the benefit of the doubt. I gave it a good 10 years until I finally thought, well - maybe I should address this.
Two: I simply didn't want anyone to know about it. Let me ask you...what's your deepest secret? What's the thing you hate most about yourself? What brings you shame? Ok - now admit it. Out loud. To other people. Not so easy, right? I didn't say anything because I didn't want anyone to know. Period.
One of the main things I learned from having an eating disorder is how to act "fine." When I was in the darkest trenches of it, I knew how to put on a good face. After all, who was I to say there was anything wrong? If I looked good, if I acted good, if I got all A's and everyone saw me as this perfect [employee, student, daughter, etc.], who's to say I wasn't?
I had that exact thought one day and in that one moment, I lost my whole identity. I became who others thought I should be. It was more important to be what someone else saw than to be myself. I cared more about how the world viewed me than anything else. Sometimes, I think I still do.
Any kind of rehab program is not as fun as it looks on TV. I did an outpatient program in Philly for about three months. After three months, insurance decides you're all better so they don't have to pay for recovery anymore. I'm surprised they didn't give me a lollipop on the way out. Oh, and spoiler alert, you're not all better. Somewhat better, yes, but not all better.
The truth is, at this point, it's even easier to pretend to be fine. And it's also way easier to convince myself I am fine.
There were the years I did follow-up individual therapy where we focused on other things. Easier things. New job, new apartment, etc. I was interviewed for a magazine a few years ago. In it, I described my struggle in great detail and how helpful recovery was. I acted like my struggle was over, was in the past. It wasn't. I wasn't consciously lying, but I was lying to myself. I was not fine.
I'm currently in a state of what I like to call "reluctant recovery." Like, I'm there, I'm doing it, but I'm not totally happy about it. I want to believe it will all work out in the end but I'm still not sure I completely trust it. You should know this: having an eating disorder, for me, for most, serves a purpose. If it didn't, I would never have done it. And as much as I do want to give it up, there is a part of me that really, really is afraid to lose it.
A lot of times it's way easier to hold on to something familiar even if you hate it than to face the unknown. But recovery is sometimes doing what you're supposed to do and not making excuses. I go to group every week. I go to individual counseling every week. I don't always want to go, but I show up. If I'm uncomfortable, it probably means I'm doing something right. There is also a part of me that doesn't want to deal with all I lost to my disorder. College, my twenties, relationships, trips, adventures, laughs.
Many peers are at a point in their lives where I'd be had I not held onto an eating disorder for so long. But that is reality. I cannot ignore that, but it doesn't mean I can't move forward. I could be looking back at 40 or 50 and saying, If I had only done it sooner. I wish that I could wrap this up in a nice tidy bow. The eating disorder part of me really wants to. But that's not always the truth.
This is not to say that I don't have hope. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing anything at all. However, I have learned many times to put my trust in others - therapists, support systems. You have to learn to trust others when you can't always trust yourself. I have learned it's ok to ask for help. It's ok to not be perfect. It's fine to not be...fine. This is something I deal with every day. Some days it's easy and some days it's not. Some days I think about it constantly and other days I don't. Some days I joke about it and other days I can't stop crying. But that's the way most of life is. It's messy and complicated and as long as you're in it and not trying to push it away with a carbs or crunches (or lack there of), it will ultimately give you something far more rewarding than a number on a scale. I do believe that - even if I have to remind myself of it once in awhile.
Oh, and another reminder, it's totally fine to eat the damn chips.