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Healing the Part That's Bulimic

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Trigger warning

On some occasions there were dinners in restaurants where people wanted me to stay, dinners where I wanted to be, but being there was more than I had to give because I couldn't relax and so I ate too much dinner. Or I ate too much dinner and couldn't relax because I didn't know how to stay. I made mistakes I didn't forgive myself for and left to correct the night. But mostly, I didn't go out to begin with. Home was where I'd submit to what tormented me, where I didn't have to pretend that food was not relentless, that eating hadn't been appointed with an importance different from the complete absorption of myself. Home was the place I could take control of all that bread and butter and comfort. I'd fill body with what I let no one else give me, and then rebel against its power. I'd stop at nothing for that ferocious taking in and ejection; my own simulated economy, a secret construction to keep myself at bay one more time.

Secrecy was nothing new to me. Wanting my mom was a secret. I just wanted her. I looked to heaven, the upward abyss of no. I want her. "No." When can I have her? "Never." She died when I was 6 on a day as voluminous and empty as a cloud, floating against the blue, and carried by what is imperceptible. No one told me to scream or throw my self against her so completely and sharply I could understand what was breaking. No one said, "Dana, your brother will hear 'Nothing Compares 2 U' on the radio when he's 11 and think about her, and he will be right." Or, "You idiot, this is when easy hands go away. They leave forever and you're too small to know what that means, but picture the sun. Picture how far away the sun is. She will be farther away than the sun so many times it's a distance that doesn't end. And it's almost the distance at which other people will try to love you too because you will go out there with her name in your hand, broken up by the stratosphere, looking for her in the place past the light." But they couldn't, I had no idea how far away the sun was.

The wanting of my mother had no voice and no container except in the ache of my body. In junior high my spine coiled and torqued and took my rib cage with it. My center was gone. In its place, a war of muscle and bone pushing and pulling so restlessly nothing could be settled, but my trying came without pause. Every moment was a failure to put my body in its right place. Scoliosis marked my entrance into adolescence and I received the transition into womanhood which followed with a deeply private shame. I didn't understand what was happening, only that it was a catastrophe. Acne flared, throat clearing and face tics developed. As well as other compulsive behaviors which were charged by a fear that god would punish me and my family if I didn't comply to his demands. I fastened myself to identities that provided security. My internal experience was of devastation and everyone knew me as funny.

My sister and I shared a bedroom most of our childhood and by high school we'd become diametrically opposing caricatures of our ourselves. Her shirts hung in order of sleeve length and her sleeve lengths hung in reference to the color wheel. Her homework had been turned in, her skin undisturbed by redness or flaw and her body seemed to me at least as long and ironed out as a ribbon. On the other side of the room, my skin was only a disturbance and my body felt insurmountable. It had been crumpled up and discarded like the mound of clothes on my part of the floor. My homework was a pile in my locker and better described as garbage with a conscience. We were a paradox, pushing each other further into opposite corners of the same heartbreak.

At 16 I was the only one left in the house with my dad. I began severely restricting food and losing weight and when the hunger came back fiercely, I found bulimia. It was the perfect anesthetic, a vital escape, a place to have contact with richness and sweet and forget myself, without disqualifying me from prize as a ribbon. All the tension of the day pacified as I smuggled high calorie foods it into my room and medicated myself with their corrupt pleasure. A half hour later I'd turn up my music, purge out the layers of discord, flush it down the toilet and rest temporarily in emptiness.

In the following weeks, my ritual devolved to recklessness. I couldn't resist bingeing even if there was no privacy to purge after. When my Dad found out, he came upstairs to the bathroom he'd remodeled with three heart-shaped tiles laid in the floor that he carved himself for each of his three daughters. How frustrated he must have felt, maybe more than me. He promised my mom we would be ok, he gave us everything he was made of and still I needed more. How hurt that after all his effort, all his lecture on good and bad, on approved behavior and not, after all my nodding and agreement it turned out I wasn't going to listen to him anyway. He said I was throwing up on my mother's grave. His one bullet, his one shot at the bad guy to try and save me. I said I was sorry, and became better at hiding. Maybe he became better too. How could he return to that place again by the hearts, all out of ammunition. The mother was gone, food was the new mother, another mother would not come again until I was 30 and could begin to feel her softness within myself.

Eating disorders are vicious. They are weapons against harmony. Spheres of pattern so enveloping that seeing a way out can seem nearly impossible. And often misunderstood as vapid or lazy. But really, more than those things, eating disorders are just a safe place to go in a world that feels unsafe. My bulimia was the only answer I thought I was capable of to feeling insufficient in life over and over again during the course of a day, the course of a lifetime. I wasn't bad, or will-less, I was scared and needed a place to survive. I felt exhausted by physical and emotional pain that I didn't think could be taken care of, that seemed inseparable from who I am.

Addiction succeeds on fear and injured self-esteem, the deterioration of our center leaves us to operate mostly from a place of either neediness or withholding. We're desperate to find security, to find something to actually land on but have difficulty making contact, except with our addictions. Dependence negotiates with the underdeveloped, stunted idea of who we are. It perpetuates our wounds, our unhealed childhood that says we do not have the strength or vulnerability it takes to create change, to commit to finding out what we really want and can trust ourselves enough to be accountable for it. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no evasion of accountability. We use addiction to keep safe, hide from our humility, delay growth, escape the terror of freedom, to avoid standing up for ourselves, to avoid paying a price. There is always a price, it is always paid. In shadow, or in light.

I was bulimic, with some periods of other disordered eating for fifteen years. Healing from food addiction and a delusive body image feels like I've walked away from a brainwashing captor that has kept me locked inside his home since I was twelve. In a way being there is what preserved me. I am so grateful and in awe always. Every day brings a new lesson on how I respond to life outside of that protection. I observe actions that maintain a false sense of control and make a little more space to be humble. I notice behaviors that regulate safety and smallness and find a little more bravery to evolve. When I make judgements about others and myself, I remember that those judgments are born from the sliver of perspective my reality provides and I open a little more room to see.

For so long, no matter how much I wanted it, I could not let go from how bulimia served me, I tried and failed many times. My way out of bulimia was complex and deeply intertwined with my life within it. Six years ago I received an email from someone in my acting class asking if I wanted to babysit for her friend, another actress named Frankie. I didn't want a babysitting email. I wanted an acting email, I wanted to be seen as an actor. But I took the job anyway. I couldn't have known then how much Frankie's presence in my life would help me. I couldn't have planned that she would introduce me to a family I'd nanny for and that their appreciation and trust in me would gradually save my life. Or that their home is where I'd learn to play piano. I didn't know that the relationship I have with their children is what would ask me to examine what it means to truly love someone. I just wanted to be accepted into show business. I wanted a business to accept me for what I didn't accept in myself, so I could pin my heart into its clockwork and watch it finally move to the beat of time.

One night about a year and a half ago I got a text from my friend Emily, who I'd been in a band with before, asking if I'd like to come over and sing and play music. I was already very attached to the idea of bingeing that night, but I said yes. After playing for a few weeks together and writing songs, we found a drummer named Seth to join us. I went to his apartment one evening to record vocals and we ended up talking for hours. A couple nights later I kissed him at the bar in a French restaurant and we started dating. Neither the band or the relationship lasted, but in those 2 or 3 months my seemingly indestructible bond to food began to replace with music and the intimacy I felt with Seth. He saw what is pure in me, and he saw my fear. I felt understood which opened up a vulnerability I've never had with someone I'd dated before. His receptiveness created a safe place that was not bulimia. And although our romantic relationship was not meant to last, Seth's tenderness will forever be a part of what people are talking about when they say they know me. I couldn't have expected this. I just showed up one night because I absolutely love singing, it's something I got from my father.

Stopping the bulimia was only one part of the process. My dependence on food still needed to repair, and has done so over the following 15 months with a slowly unfolding commitment to be patient and compassionate with myself. I quietly returned to this body I'd abandoned years ago and began listening to what it's needing, and together we started to breathe again. 'Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.' -Albert Einstein

True healing is slow and incremental, and it looks differently for everyone, but it probably all begins with a wish. Here is what I have say from my experience: Believe in miracles. Our being is inconceivable. Our capability is brimming with surprise and mystery, our addiction to control is not. Forge an opening to let the right people in and know your insecurities and failures, and believe in you anyway. Be one of those people. Love this opening like it's your child. Let it become the place you peek out from and imagine something new. Pay attention to what knows someday you will take a step toward an uncertain length of uncertain road that leads you somewhere more graceful. You already have.

What assembles is faith. Albert Einstein also said this: 'The scientists' religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.' Sometimes faith will feel like a lie. It will seem meant for people other than you and too hopeful to bear. It might make you angry for taking you where you didn't want to go. It doesn't matter, you are calling, it is there, patient, creative, asking of you, part of you, revealing who you are.

I am just a microcosm of our society. Pulsing with illness and war, clinging to the appearance of being ok. Manufacturing as many bandages and distractions it takes to continue on with what's familiar and keep from facing our own humanity. A nation with no mother, following a patriarchy handed down from a different time. Manic-depressive from giving our power and sanctity away to things and people outside of ourselves, and replenishing it by exploiting anything we can find in our control. Destructive, deluded by fear, and desperate to heal our inherited wounds. But above all, forging space every day to let love live.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.