National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Talking Changed Everything
By Mary Rowen


Eating disorders were introduced to me through a magazine article I read in high school. The article was about models suffering from anorexia and bulimia, and its obvious goal was to instruct on the dangers of these illnesses. To this day, I don’t know why it had the opposite effect on me. Maybe it had something to do with the other pages of the magazine, which were graced with images of beautiful, thin, stylish girls. Or maybe EDs were just part of my DNA and I was destined to end up with one. What I can say for sure is that the article remained in my thoughts long after the magazine went out with the trash. I decided to engage, and nobody knew. It was so easy. I was hooked. Fast forward to college, where my behaviors got out of control. I think the only thing that kept me out of the hospital during college was living in dorms and apartments, and sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with lots of other students. Part of being bulimic means keeping your illness a secret until you’re ready to stop and I didn’t feel ready just yet. The eating disorder gave me some warped sense of control; it was my special thing; or, put in another way, it was a mental illness, psychotic behavior, and self-destruction. Despite the fact that I’d heard and read statements to that effect, I adamantly denied that I had a disease. After all, I couldn’t be mentally ill. I wasn’t psychotic, or self-destructive. I was just going through a “phase”. The damage to my body and social life increased with each passing year. I slept poorly and felt weak. I was doing damage to my heart and other organs. My face was always broken out, my lips were chapped, my mouth was dry, and my stomach was permanently bloated. And I won’t even attempt to describe the damage I did to my teeth. Instead, I’ll tell you that over the past thirteen years, I’ve spent about seven hundred hours in the dental chair trying to repair that damage. (Yes, I’ve done the math.) Is this sounding glamorous yet? Bulimia also made me reclusive. I could usually make it to work in the morning, but I’d avoid most social events. I dated a bit and had a couple of boyfriends, but no relationship ever felt right, thanks to my huge secret. I have no idea why my true friends stuck by me, but they did. They are truly special people. My other saving grace was that every once in a while, I’d get so weak, dizzy, or sick that I’d decide I needed to “get clean,” and stay that way for a week or two. During those respites, my skin would clear up, I’d sleep better, and I’d start feeling normal. It was during one of those periods that I met the man I’d eventually marry. I wish I could tell you that my ED ended at that point, but it didn’t. It went on for several more years. My boyfriend traveled a lot for work, so even after we’d moved in together, I was able to hide my sickness from him. It wasn’t until we started talking about marriage that I broke down and told him everything. And that was the moment things began to change. Once the words were out of my mouth, the next step became perfectly clear. “We need to get you help,” said my boyfriend. Truer words were never spoken. The very next day, I called my health insurance provider and got an appointment with a therapist. The therapist listened to my story—and honestly, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to talk to her, once I got started—and she assured me that if I wanted to get better, I could make a full recovery. Even though It had been over fifteen years, she had no doubts. She said talk therapy alone might do the trick, or perhaps I’d need a bit of medication too. But the important thing was that she was on my side. And so was my boyfriend. I wasn’t alone anymore; I had a team. The relief was palpable. After all those years of wondering in isolation if I’d ever be able to eat and live normally, suddenly I knew the answer. YES! Finally, my eating disorder was gone. I still checked in from time to time with my therapist, but now I was married and free. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I welcomed our first, healthy child into the world. And two years after that, we had a second. I was eating well, exercising, making new friends, and living an active, healthy life. Then a strange coincidence occurred. We’d moved to a new town, and I’d decided to find a new general practitioner. I’d had several different doctors, and had lied to them all about my ED. I’d been convinced that if I told them about it they might send me to a mental institution, and I had an irrational fear of such places. I found one whose credentials and general location seemed perfect. His receptionist also told me he was accepting new patients. But when she started giving me directions to the office, my stomach sank. They were at a famous psychiatric hospital. No. No, way. I wasn’t going. Deep inside, I was still afraid of being labeled mentally ill. Even the medical clinic at a reputable hospital scared the crap out of me. Eventually I overcame this fear and I agreed to an introductory visit with the doctor. And once I met him, I began to realize that It was exactly the right place for my medical care. Because this doctor clearly understood psychiatric disorders way better than your average GP. So when he asked about my medical history, I told the truth. And he didn’t freak out. He didn’t even flinch. He just talked to me seriously, making sure I understood the very real risks of relapsing. For once, I had a medical doctor with whom I could honestly discuss my health concerns. So if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please seek help, and above all, don’t be ashamed. I promise: getting help is much easier than you think. You’ll be amazed at how much better life gets when you’re freed of your ED. I only wish I’d spoken up fifteen years before I did. Recovery has given me a new chance at life. When I was sick, I often wondered if I’d ever find real happiness, or if I’d always feel like I was living on the outskirts of life, watching normal people enjoy things I simply couldn’t. Like everyone else, I have good days and bad days—raising a family is certainly a challenge—but one thing I know is that I’m in control of my eating and my body. And that’s a wonderful thing, real happiness exists.

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