Today we have another interview. This time Kristen Tsetsi is the interviewer. (See Kristen’s other interview here.)
Kristen’s guest is Kathleen M. Rodgers, an award-winning author whose work has appeared in national and local publications. This intimate interview gives us a window into one woman’s journey into, through, and out of bulimia.
Thank you Kristen and Kathleen for this interview which gives us such honest insight into this life-altering experience. I believe that everyone who reads this will learn something valuable which they can use in making their own life better.
Bios of both Kristen and Kathleen are listed at the bottom of this interview. If you feel moved by this story, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you and here is the interview…
Q (Kristen): You wrote as a comment to a Facebook post I shared about a current “thigh gap” trend among young people (mostly women), “I survived 15 years caught up in the hell of bulimia.” Which 15 years, and how did your eating disorder begin? What was the first step?
A (Kathleen): I struggled with bulimia from the age of 14-29. When I was in the ninth grade, I went on a diet to lose fifteen pounds. About this same time, my beloved thirty-year-old uncle died unexpectedly. His death stunned the whole family, but back then nobody talked about the aftermath of grief. His sudden death sent me into a downward spiral. For the first time in my life, I consumed an entire cake within a few short hours after the funeral. Feeling guilty and miserable, and not wanting to regain the fifteen pounds I’d lost, I didn’t eat for two days following that first binge. Then my parents’ twenty-year marriage started to fall apart about the same time. By then I was bingeing on vast amounts of food and purging through self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, and excessive exercise. My uncle’s sudden death and my parents’ divorce, coupled with my desire to be “thin and beautiful,” compounded the eating disorder. I didn’t seek treatment until I was in my early twenties, and it would take me years to recover.
Q: Looking back, what would you say was the first indication it was getting out of control or becoming a disorder?
A: When I became secretive about locking myself in the bathroom and making myself get sick. At first it seemed so innocent. I could eat anything I wanted then simply stick my finger down my throat. But over time, it became harder to throw up. After almost swallowing a regular spoon, I resorted to using a wooden spoon then the looped end of an extension cord to trigger my gag reflex.
Q: Experts say people with eating disorders are compensating for a loss or lack of control, or to numb themselves. Many, they say, had difficult experiences at a young age, whether it was abuse, no lessons in coping skills, not having their emotions validated and therefore being disinclined to feel anything, etc. What, if anything, in your life contributed to the formation of your eating disorder?
A: I grew up in large family of six children. I was the third one down…a middle child…and I weighed nearly ten pounds at birth. Looking back, I always knew I was my mother’s biggest baby and when we kids were all young, I was the only chubby one in the bunch. I was also extremely bashful, and I sometimes felt invisible until someone would call attention to my weight. Sometimes it was one of my brothers – we all teased each other unmercifully back then – sometimes it was an adult family member making a jab about me going back for second helpings. And to this day, I can still hear the childhood rhyme “Here’s comes the bride…big fat and wide” singing in my head. I don’t know where that line came from, but we all sang it back then, along with other mildly irreverent songs that made us giggle, like we were getting away with something slightly mean-spirited, but we didn’t think it hurt anybody.
As I entered puberty and began to feel self-conscious about my changing body and increasing weight, I remember a slow quiet rage brewing inside of me. I didn’t know how to express my emotions other than to stuff them down. Instead of telling someone that I was scared or angry or worried about something, I ate. By the time I was in ninth grade, my upper thighs rubbed together when I walked, and I longed to wear miniskirts and knee-high boots and fit in with the popular kids at school. So with the help of my mother, I went on a diet. While the rest of the family ate casseroles and family-style meals, I lived on small chopped steaks, lettuce salad, and cottage cheese. After losing the first few pounds, I felt empowered and longed to be as thin as the models in Teen Magazine. Mother didn’t know I’d stopped eating the hard-boiled eggs and Melba toast I’d packed each day in my school lunch. I was down to drinking one tiny can of V-8 Juice for lunch when my uncle’s death set off a chain reaction that would take me years to recover from.
Q: You also wrote on that Facebook post, “I blame some of this on the messages I received as a teenager back in the seventies. We didn’t call it thigh gap back then, but if you didn’t have the look…you weren’t one of the beautiful people.” What was the look? (And who was presented at the time as the ideal?)
A: I remember feeling inadequate as I thumbed through the pages of Seventeen and Teen Magazine. It seems that all the models were flat-bellied-slender in midriff tops with short-shorts that showed off smooth legs with a “gap” between the thighs. This was also the era when we wore Dr. Scholl sandals – those flat wooden clogs designed to give us shapely legs, according to the ads on TV and in magazines. And then there were the ads in the back of magazines on how to increase your bust size and get rid of pimples. I’m 55 now, and it seems that every generation strives for a physical beauty that is nearly impossible to reach unless we resort to extreme measures.
Q: How far “off” were you from the look? What did you see when you looked in the mirror?
A: When I looked in the mirror, I saw a chubby girl with straight bone-white hair, a round face with big rabbit teeth, and legs that rubbed together when I walked.
Q: What was your body checking method? How did you measure where you were on your weight loss journey? (Number on a scale, poking hipbones, visible ribs, space between the thighs, highly visible collar bone, etc.)
A: All of the above. Over and over again, checking myself many times a day.
Q: What was your goal body weight/look? Did you achieve it at any point? (For example, someone who wants “thigh gap” could feasibly get there after losing enough weight.)
A: By the time I was in my early twenties and I’d whittled down to 108 pounds, I finally had “the look” I’d longed for during my teen years. I had that gap between tan slender thighs, conditioned from running long distances, and my belly was flat in a bikini. But the price to get there nearly cost me my life.
The rest of my body looked emaciated. (Of course I didn’t see it back then. I thought I finally looked like all those slender models in the magazines on TV.)
Q: What happened next, after you achieved your goal?
A: I hit rock bottom. After years of bingeing and purging and abusing laxatives and running up to six miles a day, my body rebelled. One morning I woke up with black diarrhea and what felt like giant claws shredding my insides. It hurt to even sip water. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know where to turn. Except for an occasional magazine article about anorexia, there wasn’t much information out there about my odd behavior of bingeing and purging. Deep inside I knew I had some kind of psychological issue, but that petrified me and also reinforced my sense of shame. I didn’t want to appear weak. I didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. So I continued to suffer in silence, hiding my eating disorder from the world.
Q. What was the routine of your eating disorder? That is, describe an average day in your life as a bulimic.
A: I was always filled with panic and a sense of dread. I never planned for a binge, but when the urge came on, I had no control over stopping it. After I married and my husband left for work, I attacked the kitchen like a starving animal. I’d stand in the kitchen shoving food into my mouth. Be it half a box of cereal, a dozen pieces of toast, corn chips and bean dip. Sometimes I pulled on an old pair of sweats – regardless of the temperature outside – and drove to the convenience store for ice cream, cookies, packaged donuts, fried pies. Then I raced home so I could tear into my food in private. I gorged until I could no longer breathe. Until my stomach felt like it would rupture.
Then I cradled my bloated belly and headed down the hallway to the torture chamber. Ignoring the mirror over the sink, I turned on the faucet, flipped on the exhaust fan, and bent over the toilet to heave. While I forced myself to throw up, I dwelled over dark thoughts I tried not to think about the rest of the time: the loss of close relatives and friends over the years and the outrage l felt over my parents’ divorce, family secrets never discussed, and my own sense of failure. After cleaning up the mess, I went on long runs, sometimes pushing myself to go six to eight miles. In those moments when I ran, I felt powerful and vowed I would never binge again. But of course I did.
Q: What did it take to motivate you to change your behavior?
A: Again, the physical abuse I was doing to my body and the fear that I was going to die alone in a bathroom, hunched over a toilet. I was killing myself with food and I knew it. Late one night my mother called, and I broke down on the phone and told her the “eating thing” was out of control. The next morning I called a physician referral service and was put in contact with Dr. Richard Popeski, an eating disorder specialist based in Tucson, AZ, the city where I resided at the time.
Within minutes of my first office visit, I had a name for what was wrong with me: bulimia. It was 1981, and the term bulimia had only been around a couple of years. For some reason, putting a name to my odd behavior gave me the first trickles of hope. Then Dr. Popeski dropped the bomb. He looked me square in the eye and said, “There are no magic pills. If you really want to get better, and are sincere, it will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life.”
A month into my therapy, a breakthrough came when Dr. Popeski helped me see that my lifelong battle with food and weight were not at the heart of my compulsive behavior. The bulimia was merely a symptom of something else: anger, rage, despair over things I had no control over. When I binged, I was stuffing emotions down, not just food. And when I threw up, anger and rage come spewing out, too. For years I internalized these normal human feelings – and acted them out through bulimia.
Q: What was your first step, in terms of how you dealt with food, in climbing your way out?
A: I began to look at food differently. Food was no longer the enemy. Food couldn’t hurt me if I learned to respect it for what it is. Food was fuel. It’s really very simple if you think of food in those terms. Food was not my lover, my mother, my family, or my savoir.
Dr. Popeski taught me to take each minute, hour and day at a time. “Think of it as taking two steps forward and one back,” he said. “Eventually you will get there.”
Two steps forward, one back, became my motto. If I stumbled and binged, I was not to chastise myself or wallow in guilt. Easier said than done, but something clicked and I went for days without bingeing, although it was tougher than I imagined.
Q: What did that first step feel like?
A: I was petrified of failure. But I was also filled with HOPE, and I was tired of living a lie. Plus I didn’t want to die alone in a bathroom with an electrical cord jammed down my esophagus. I had to learn to open myself up to all kinds of emotions, and that emotions couldn’t kill me, but bulimia could.
Q: How did you keep going? If what fuels an eating disorder is an emotional or psychological issue, what was fixed inside of you that gave you the strength to fight the disorder?
A: I had to acknowledge that I had a problem and I had to take responsibility for it. Nobody else could fix me. I had to fix myself. My recovery is a combination of hard work, prayer, and using the psychological tools to repair my damaged spirit and body. I just reached a saturation point I guess. It’s hard to explain and put into words. All I can say is I wanted to live a life free of bulimia. I wanted to be rid of the urge to consume…. Instead of stuffing food and emotions in, I wanted to let go and learn to live fully in the moment. I learned to acknowledge and respect my emotions.
Q: What is your current relationship with food?
A: Food is fuel. I am a healthy eater. I eat to live, not the other way around. Instead of pastries and high fat breakfast foods, I go for multigrain cereals and breads. I stay away from fatty meats like bacon and sausage unless it’s the turkey variety.
I eat lots of fish, chicken, and white pork and load up on veggies. My indulgences are dark chocolate, frozen yogurt, and white wine. I stop when I feel full but not too full. I listen to my body as I eat. I try not to eat standing up, and I always use pretty plates and bowls. I celebrate each meal and remember that junk food makes me feel like junk and healthy food makes me feel healthy. Moderation is the key when it comes to eating and exercise. Not too much, not too little.
Q: What is your current relationship with your body?
A: At 55 and slender, I’m happy with my figure although time and nature work against things I no longer have control over. I’m trying to accept the aging lines on my face and neck, embrace the dimple thighs, and stay as healthy as I can both mentally and physically. I power walk a few times a week or climb on my elliptical for a 20 minutes workout. I haven’t run since I was 37 but my motto is to keep moving. I also feed my spirit with prayer, devotionals, and stopping to count my blessings. And I never forget the long road it took me to get to this point where I can say, “I am recovered.”
Kathleen M. Rodgers is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in national and local publications. She is the author of the novel The Final Salute and has recently completed Johnnie Come Lately, a novel about a woman named Johnnie Kitchen, a recovered bulimic who’s still haunted by secrets from her past. To read more about Kathleen’s work, please visit the following websites:
Kristen Tsetsi is an author, feature writer, and columnist for a Connecticut newspaper. Here are 3 of her books that she has written:
I’ve read the first two. They read like drinking water. Delicious story telling.
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