My first diet was in second grade, and I remember the day clearly. I had overheard a family friend urge my mom to take me for regular, brisk walks in the neighborhood. Her message was clear: I was chubby and needed to lose weight. I felt embarrassed and internalized her words to mean that I was not good enough. That marked the beginning of my issues with food.
As a seven-year-old, I didn’t know anything about dieting. On that beautiful, sunny, spring day I ate more celery sticks than I could count and stepped on the scale after finishing each one. I was confused why the number on the scale never dropped! Wasn’t I dieting the right way? That evening, I looked out my bedroom window at the starry sky and prayed to God to be skinny, to lose weight.
As the years passed, I was made fun of for developing breasts at an early age and told I’d “get a waist” and “lose weight” once I hit puberty. I waited and kept praying to be skinny. As part of an annual health assessment in elementary school, teachers weighed their class of students, individually, in the hallway. My 5th grade teacher chose to weigh us in groups of three. My group consisted of two thin girls and me. I volunteered to go last, hoping they’d head back to class after being weighed. No such luck. After I was weighed, they called me “pregnant” for the rest of the school year.
As a shy, preadolescent kid entering sixth grade, I was on the fringe of popularity, teetering between the cool kids and the not-so-cool kids. Little Gridiron Cheerleading increased my confidence, and I made some friends. However, I quickly learned that I wasn’t quite cool enough since I was never invited to the latest boy/girl parties. It hurt being excluded but I pretended not to care, building walls around myself. Eighth grade was a different story. I was on the cheerleading squad with a busy social calendar. There were parties every weekend and the biggest challenge was deciding which one to attend! I was 13 and life was good. That spring, I joined the track team and lost weight. Feeling proud, I ran more often and ate less to keep off the weight. Friends commented on my weight loss but I brushed it off, saying it was track season.
That fall, I entered high school and joined a competitive dance team, student council, and other social groups. High school was a brand new ballgame. The stress of competitions, contests, and try-outs was a consistent, heavy burden, and I slowly began gaining back the weight I had lost. The pressure to be smart enough, thin enough, well-liked enough, and good enough was too much for me to handle on my own. That shy second grade kid re-emerged, and I recalled how lonely she had been on the inside and how lonely she felt now as a freshman in high school.
I wanted so badly to look good in tight, form-fitting dance uniforms and prom dresses. Feeling self-conscious, I’d quickly change into dance uniforms before practices and performances. I also turned to my best friend and enemy at the time: food. I began binging and purging in 9th grade, comforting myself from the day’s struggles by eating whatever was in the fridge or pantry; I was battling bulimia every day.
My sister caught on over the months. There were various signs of my illness even though I covered my tracks well. She noticed changes in my behavior like taking more trips to the bathroom and withdrawing from the world by retreating to my bedroom at night. Rock bottom hit the night my parents discovered my “secret.” One evening after dinner my mom asked me if I was bulimic. I emphatically responded, “No!”
My sister had ratted me out, and I stormed upstairs to my comfort zone, the bathroom. I had lost all control and felt ashamed. My family followed me upstairs, pleading with me to open the door. This secret I had kept to myself for so many months was finally exposed. I was exposed, and suddenly all the walls I had built around me were gone. The next day, my mom scheduled doctor visits. I went to a family physician for a physical exam, a nutritionist, and a psychologist who specialized in eating disorders. The thing is, I wasn’t ready to change. As much as I was abusing my body, mind, and spirit, I was terrified of “getting better” and continued battling the exhaustion, swollen glands, and rollercoaster of emotions.
Looking back, I realize hitting rock bottom that evening was my first step to recovery. I am grateful for having a supportive family. Healing from an eating disorder is a life-long process and, although I no longer binge and purge, there isn’t a magic cure to recovery. In time, I found diversions that had nothing to do with soothing myself with food. I eventually took a leap of faith that was terrifying and seemingly-impossible by ending all diets forever. Although relapse is not unusual, I eventually maintained a relapse-free, healthy lifestyle. Food is now my friend, though I still cringe when I see a scale and avoid stepping on it! It takes time, support, and space to talk about my – your – struggles. But it feels liberating beating the disease every day!
Those suffering from bulimia and anorexia have commonalities: anxiety, feelings of isolation, and a yearning to be perfect. On the outside, I looked and acted “normal” through break ups, dance try-outs and performances, student council races, and homecoming contests. Nobody knew I was at war with myself. People have shared their struggles with food with me over the years. I always listened with empathy but never shared my story because I wasn’t ready. Women and men, girls and boys are struggling right now with an eating disorder, alone. No matter your age, gender, or how impossible you think it is to overcome this illness, there are alternatives if you are willing to take a leap of faith. There are many more resources in 2017 than I had available to me in 1994.
Now, at 36, I have come full circle, and boy does it feel good to have that happy and spirited spark back that I had missed for so long. So, every time I meet a shy little girl or teen or college student, I make a point to tell her that she is good enough.
Katie Greenan is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, where she teaches communication courses. Additionally, she serves as the Director of Group Fitness at a club in West Lafayette, IN, where she strives to offer individuals opportunities to grow and rediscover their physical, mental, and emotional potentials. Katie has a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree in telecommunication from Purdue. Katie worked for 10 years in Washington D.C. as a press secretary and news reporter on Capitol Hill, writer for a regional magazine, college instructor, and television show host.