I was 6 years old and 55 pounds the first time I got on a scale and decided that I was unhappy with what it showed me. Ten years later I started throwing up in an attempt to purge that same unhappiness. Being bulimic as a teenager was common, internally glorified among online communities that were eager to commiserate and offer support. Suffering as an adult — in scattered spurts, following a four-month stint in an outpatient rehabilitation program — is lonelier, much more silent. It is both born of and breeds shame, resistant to recovery.
My mother, Linda, has struggled with bulimia on and off since she lost her own mother and sole guardian at the age of 14. She was never silent about her anxieties surrounding eating and dieting, and I grew up as keenly aware of her body's fluctuation as I was her dissatisfaction with it. She is the one I called from Fordham University in the middle of my first semester, when I'd thrown up blood and decided it was time to come home; and she is the one who researched, checked me into, and attended group therapy sessions with me at Mather Hospital's treatment facility on Long Island.
As I near my thirties, I asked her to sit down with me because, though my mother and I are close, we rarely speak about our eating disorders beside an occasional check-in ("Are you taking care of yourself?") at the end of a phone call.
Linda: I'm going to be very frank and honest, and you're going to have to just deal with it.
Arianna: (Laughs) That's fine, that's fine. That's perfect.
Linda: You sure?
Arianna: Yeah, that's why I want to do this.
Linda: I don't want you to think, Oh, well, she's still suffering from this and she seems to be OK. The whole purpose of being a parent is to guide your children in a better direction.
Arianna: No, I mean, I wouldn't worry about that. Don't worry about that. Tell me about the background of when it started for you, your own issues with your body. I know you were heavy as a child.
Linda: Well, I was heavy until the age of about 14. I was heavy until my mom passed away. My weight loss came after my mom died, and I lost a lot of weight then. I started throwing up then. But I had a lot of other issues then too. But that was basically when the whole cycle started for me.
Arianna: And had you tried to lose weight before that?
Linda: I was forced — I was put on diets during my childhood and during my adolescence because I was so overweight. My mom was concerned. So she brought me to the doctor and he put me on a diet and that's why to this day I don't like certain diet foods, because I was forced to eat them at an early age. But that didn't help me lose weight, and I was ashamed, you know? I was ashamed of my body for my entire life.
Arianna: And why did you start throwing up?
Linda: I don't think — I don't have any memory of throwing up before my mom died. I was abandoned, right? And that's when it started. But it became a regular habit for me from that point forward. I was 14 and I remember it. And I lost a lot of weight, and I felt good. I was getting looked at by boys for the first time. I felt that if I was going to take part in life the way I wanted to, now that I was alone, I felt like I needed to be accepted and included, and you can't be that way if you're overweight.
Arianna: Do you remember the thought process before you did it for the first time?
Linda: No. You mean the day?
Arianna: Yeah, well, the first time you threw up. I'm just wondering what pushes that first step.
Linda: I think that for me, it was a process of cleansing, and it still to this day is a process, for me, of getting a feeling out of my body. I don't know if that makes any sense, psychologically. It feels like a cleansing, and... I know people say it's about control, and I feel like part of it is, but a lot of it had to do with just feeling when my mom passed away, I felt, maybe... I don't know, I don't know. I know I wanted to fit in, you know, my whole life kids made fun of me for my weight. They called me names.
And I started losing weight because I wasn't eating and I started feeling, oh, this is cool. This is a good way to start shedding these pounds, to stop feeling so self-conscious. When I was 15, bulimia was a very hot thing to do. It was very popular, along with taking amphetamines. It was just part of the world. And so I lost a lot of weight, and I felt good about myself, but then I gained it all back about a year later anyway, and I basically became a recluse. I didn't socialize. I didn't go to functions. My whole life has been up and down with my weight.
Arianna: Was there secrecy about it with other girls who were doing it? Was there any competition or pride surrounding it?
Linda: Never. No, that wasn't part of our culture.
Arianna: Have you been throwing up regularly since you started, or have there been long spans in which you weren't?
Linda: I wasn't throwing up for the entire time that I was raising you guys. It just resurrected six or seven years ago. Somehow along the line of becoming a mother and taking on that role, it was like I took a sabbatical on these unhealthy things. And I didn't throw up all those years. I never thought about it.
Arianna: So the urges weren't even there?
Linda: I mean, I was always self-conscious about my weight, but I just didn't want to... I didn't think about it.
Arianna: But you definitely still dieted.
Linda: I've dieted my whole life. Life is dieting. (Laughs) I've never not been aware of anything I've eaten. And that's why I hate to see you battling with food. It's a battle that food always wins. It's always a thought process, and it's a burden, a heavy, heavy burden, when you have to think every time you eat something.
Arianna: I have memories of Slim-Fast around the house, Weight Watchers.
Linda: Always. I did Shaklee Shakes. Does that name ring a bell? I had a supplier. (Laughs) But my diets always were... I did the grapefruit diet, I did the Atkins Diet, I did Shaklee Shakes all the time. I did Lean Cuisine. So, yeah, that just reminded me. I lost 10 or 12 pounds on the grapefruit diet after my mom died. Eat nothing but grapefruit, breakfast and lunch. I hate grapefruit so much.
Arianna: I know, I did the banana diet for like a week, which, I mean, isn't even a diet, it's just you eat as many bananas as you want all day and then you're allowed whatever you want for dinner. (Laughs) Bananas and bananas forever.
Linda: (Laughs) I know, I did the same thing. I fasted so many times.
Arianna: But your weight fluctuated a lot. I know looking back at pictures, you get uncomfortable with some.
Linda: Yes, yes. And the difficult thing for me was the weight gain after I had my children. If you remember, when we moved to Arizona, I had been extremely thin. I may have been throwing up then.
Arianna: I don't remember what you looked like when we moved to Arizona, honestly.
Linda: I was really thin. I remember when people came to visit and said, "Wow, you look fantastic." Everything in my life revolves around weights and sizes and measurements.
Arianna: Right — you remember periods of your life by where your body was, weight-wise?
Arianna: Yeah, me too. Absolutely.
Linda: And I remember taking pictures and thinking, Not bad. I was on the treadmill all the time. When we moved back here, and I fell into a depression, I spiraled and I gained all that weight back. I was at the heaviest of my adult life. If you remember, I didn't want to take pictures at Nena's graduation.
Arianna: So how did you gain weight after your lowest? Why did you put weight back on?
Linda: I don't know, I just... I got frightened about the throwing up. I continued to run. So I lost 60 pounds, pretty rapidly, but I think that things started to settle down for me emotionally, and my life started feeling like it was getting back on an even keel, and slowly I started to allow food to come back in my life. That's the best way to describe it. I allowed myself to eat again. I continued to run, though, because I was so afraid that if you eat without running — and you know this — I was conscious of running before or after meals. I didn't want to gain the weight back, but I did.
Arianna: And you've been pretty steady since then.
Linda: Yeah. I gained back to what I think is a healthy level, although last year I saw the scale reach 120 and I was very uncomfortable with that. I'm afraid of the scale, and throwing up for me feels like the only way I can control those numbers.
Arianna: Well, the way I explain it is that it's really hard to convince yourself not to do it when you know you can, and you feel physically uncomfortable, and you're pissed that you just ate what you did.
Arianna: Were you worried about doing it in the house?
Linda: Well, you know, you can be very quiet, and so it's easy to hide. But then it's also gratifying when people notice. It's terrible. People would say, 'You look sick, what's wrong?' And that was so good for me. It's something that you can control, and it makes people care about you? Can I tell you what made me feel like I really needed to try to get better?
Linda: Remember I had that operation on my shoulder? And I came in after the operation that night and I went into Jordan's bedroom and I showed him my scar, and he looked at me like he was about to cry and he said, "Oh my god, Mom, can you please go eat something?" And I thought, What am I doing? I'm making my own son worry about me. That began my road back to healthy.
Arianna: How did you think about the way you would raise your kids to have a healthy relationship with food, when you were struggling with this?
Linda: I completely failed with you. When you and I went into the program — when I went with you — it made me realize the things that people say pertaining to food and eating are damaging. I'd never put the two together before.
Arianna: Do you have memories of things you connected to, that you thought you had done?
Linda: Well, yeah, one thing was my constantly, in front of you guys, talking about my own body. My own unhappiness with my body. My own harping on dieting. My own emphasis that I put on physical attributes, and it could be something so innocuous, you'd think, like, Oh my god, I don't even want to go, I can't find anything to wear because I gained so much weight, whatever, all those things are damaging. But I never thought about that when I was raising you.
Arianna: Did you feed us in a way to direct us toward a healthy relationship with food?
Linda: I always wanted us to eat healthy, but we always had snacks. I never really thought about it too much, my relationship with food once I started raising you guys. It just took a backseat. I suffered with it, but I guess not consciously. I always wanted us to sit down as a family and have a nice healthy meal, and I never was shy about us having snacks, but I didn't want you to have too many sugary snacks. I tried to incorporate healthy snacks.
Arianna: Yeah, I remember going to friends' houses and they weren't allowed to eat snacks before dinner or something, and I don't remember having restrictions. I don't remember ever being told I wasn't allowed to get something to eat.
Linda: I wasn't worried about you guys having an eating disorder, because I wasn't aware of my eating disorder for that long length of time. I know I had weight troubles and I was yo-yo dieting...
Arianna: When did you start noticing that I was becoming preoccupied with weight?
Linda: I always felt that you felt inferior to Nena, because you both had two different body types, and you were comparing yourself to your older sister. Let's get that right out. And so when I first realized that you were struggling with your weight, I feel, was when we moved to Arizona.
Arianna: Yeah, that's pretty much how I place it.
Linda: Nena started getting noticed for her physical attributes, and, it sounds strange or dramatic, but I felt sad for you. Even though I know that you were still very young ... what I'm saying is you weren't correct in comparing yourself to your sister because she was four years older than you — but I felt sad because I felt all of the attention was placed on her, and I'm not talking about her as a person, but, "Oh my god, she's gorgeous" or "Oh, she should be a model," and so I felt that you started struggling then. But a lot of time passed, and your weight was fluctuating, and I was OK with it. I felt like, if she feels like she wants to lose some weight, fine. I didn't connect any disorder to you until I found out when you went to Fordham.
Arianna: So you didn't pick it up in high school.
Linda: Not at all. Well, let me backtrack. I didn't know you were throwing up until you went to Fordham. I think I had a suspicion, because when I got that phone call, when we had to take you home from Fordham, I said I knew it. I knew it in my heart. Before you left I said, I have a feeling she has an eating disorder.
Arianna: I thought you must have.
Linda: I noticed you fluctuate, and I noticed you being body-conscious, but most girls are, right? It shouldn't be, but we're not past that yet, and guys too — I shouldn't say just girls.
Arianna: But I have memories from before Arizona, one of my first strong memories, of getting on a scale when I was — I must have been what, 5 or 6? And I saw that I weighed 55 pounds and I decided that I wanted to weigh 50 pounds, and I was excited to tell you that I was going to go on a diet. And I remember you getting upset about that. And where did I even learn that vocabulary? I don't think it was necessarily you.
Linda: It probably was a lot with me too, and that's the impact we have with what we choose to focus on. We're so much more aware of that now. Back then it wasn't really part of the discussion. In other words, if I just had you guys now, it would have been a whole different story, the things I would've said to you, just generally around the house about my body image and my weight and losing weight and how I look.
Arianna: But I feel like you can't win, and this is something I think about a lot, when I think about how I'll raise my children. Because there was definitely a point, when I was at my heaviest, that I resented you because, why didn't you make sure I didn't gain this weight? And I would vow to make sure my kids never got heavy. But then, if you go the other way, if you restrict, how do you make sure they don't grow up with this fear of food?
Linda: Well that's why the emphasis needs to be on health. Are you active? Are you strong? It shouldn't be "are you thin?" That's the change in vocabulary that we need. But I have to tell you that — and I'm just going to say this — if I felt that you were as heavy as a child as I had been, I would never allow you to be made fun of, the way I was. That would be my sense of protection coming through. And I would've made you aware of your weight. Whether that's right or wrong, it's unhealthy, I'm sure, but I would never want you to go through what I went through. And so here's the bottom line: You never really were heavy. You were never a heavy child. You felt you were, because you were comparing yourself to your sister, girls in magazines — and that's another thing, I used to bring those magazines into our house all the time.
Arianna: Yeah, but we never watched beauty pageants — I don't know, I feel like there was always a dialogue about how beauty wasn't everything.
Linda: Right, but the reason I never said anything, the reason I quote-unquote allowed you to gain that weight is because you were never really a heavy child.
Arianna: I guess I'm just trying to figure out now, at this point, how I became so obsessed with it. Because when we moved to Arizona and I had all those pictures up of me and my friends, I remember looking at those pictures and saying, "Oh, if only I had known how thin I was then," which is an absurd thing to think, as an 11-year-old, about my 8-year-old self.
Linda: Well, it is absurd. But it comes from comparing — whether you're comparing yourself to another person, or you're comparing yourself to a version of yourself you feel like you should be. And it's a killer, and it's the reason, I think, you turn to an eating disorder as a way to control that.
Arianna: What was that like for you to come to Mather with me? Because I was so in my own head that I didn't think about how those therapy sessions could have affected you.
Linda: It made me see the world of eating disorders. First and foremost, it made me realize that I might have been saying things that were unhealthy to you. Being in those groups made me realize which things we pay attention to are detrimental. People don't have a right to remark on another person's appearance. That stuck with me more than anything else. I never thought about it that way, how telling someone how great they look for losing weight could be such a dangerous thing. But the thing that really hit me hard was actually having to be in the midst of your struggle. It was heartbreaking. I don't like to talk about it. It makes you feel helpless, as a mother, because this is something that could actually end up killing your child. And there are so many rules that you need to follow, ways I was contributing to it, and you feel helpless. There's no real outer source of help when you come down to it; you're either going to be healthy and eat and not obsess over your weight, or not. And to sit there and watch your child and feel helpless, that was the hardest part for me. It was frightening. But I was happy that you were hopefully on the road to finding some solutions, and answers, and help. Did it help?
Arianna: Yeah, it helped. It definitely did.
Linda: Do you go back to it every now and then and say, "Oh, right, this is not good"?
Arianna: There are some things... I've definitely never gotten to as bad of a place as I was right before I left Fordham. That's definitely the worst I've ever been. And there are tools that still help me. Mantras and stuff. "Food doesn't make you fat." General rules of avoiding numbers in conversation, calorie counting, which we have been breaking in this conversation (laughs), avoiding scales.
Linda: Because of your program, I still get nervous when you're home and I see you take the scale out.
Arianna: I guess that doesn't surprise me. But that's the reality of life. And it's the struggle of wanting to be healthy, but then also, well, hey, I kind of want to lose weight right now. I don't know how to healthfully lose weight. I don't. I'm trying to, for the first time.
Linda: Well, people do that. People lose weight in a healthy way all the time. Can you say, "I want to lose five pounds" and then not keep going?
Arianna: That's what I'm trying to figure out.
Linda: I remember one specific day in Mather, when you got so angry, because you found out you were supposed to eat with the people in the program and you said to me, "I can tell you right now I am not eating what they tell me to eat." (laughs) You were so pissed. Do you remember that?
Arianna: I don't.
Linda: And I said to you, honey, I think that's the idea, they're trying to teach you how to eat in a healthy fashion. "I don't give a shit, Mom. They're not going to tell me what to eat, and I'm only eating what I want to eat, and I'm not eating anything more." And you were so adamant about it. And I'm thinking, well this is not working.
Arianna: That's really funny, I have no memory of that. I remember eating in the group, and how anxious everyone was. We weren't allowed to talk about the food while we were eating, and one time one of the women said she wasn't going to eat the skin on the chicken because it was too fatty and it was like chaos, everyone refused to eat the chicken (laughs). I guess I was angry.
Linda: You were so angry.
Arianna: So do you still feel the effects of it, throwing up, physically?
Linda: Well, the reason I don't really do it anymore — I'm still so aware of everything I eat, because I'm paranoid about being heavy — but the thing that makes me not throw up is that I'm afraid I'm going to have a heart attack or just die, and you realize it's not worth it. Aren't you afraid when you do it?
Arianna: Well, yeah. That's what has finally made me stop. I have these heart murmurs, and I think that's probably why I do. So yeah, that scares me.
Linda: How bad would it be? If I'm making myself throw up because I feel like I'm three pounds overweight and I drop dead, how selfish is that?
Arianna: So what is the fear? You said you had the fear of gaining the weight back. What was it about life at that heavier weight that makes it such a scary prospect?
Linda: That's pretty hard to put into words. That's the core of the whole problem. What is it about being overweight that makes us uncomfortable with ourselves? I can say all the surface things. I don't like the way I look. I feel I look gross. I feel I look unattractive. I feel, when I'm heavy, I've never said this out loud, I feel like I walk into the room, and everybody else in the room is tiny, and I'm this clumsy, oafish, giant monster. I feel everybody is smaller than me. Can you relate to that?
Arianna: Oh yeah, I feel like it's an offense to the world. At my worst, I feel like it's an insult to go out and make the world look at me. Which is narcissistic and irrational but also really scary, when you believe it.
Linda: Well, for me, I can relate to that because I used to be made fun of. It stays with you, when someone makes fun of you. And even as an adult, people have in passing said, "Oh god, you've gained a lot of weight" or they tease you. People are not allowed to do that. But people are ignorant about social cues and they say things that stick with you. So going back, the fear comes from the fact that I would rather be the person that makes people say, "Oh, wow, you look great" — and they do, sometimes, when you're unhealthy — than the person people tease.
Arianna: Do you ever feel ashamed that this is such an issue for you?
Linda: I feel that it's a tiresome added burden to a life that has a lot of other things that have to be dealt with. I feel weak because of it. I wish I could be that strong person that says, "Fuck it, I don't care, I'm going to eat those two slices of pizza, instead of cutting a little bit of the second slice so that it doesn't look like I'm overeating." I don't want to think along those lines. And that's tiresome.
Arianna: Well it feels like an addiction. I can't dabble in dieting. I don't have the ability to just diet for a couple months before bikini season or whatever because I don't know how to do that without falling completely into a crazy pattern. My issue is that I feel that the only way to battle the prevalence of eating disorders is to battle diet culture in general, so even if it is a healthy way of losing weight, it still feels like an unhealthy preoccupation. And I used to equate thin with healthy, but I think that's just another thing we're told as a way of fat-shaming. I don't think there's any way to tell if anyone is healthy based on how they look.
Linda: Well, you have the advantage of being part of a changing culture and changing generation. These things are embedded in me, this way of thinking has been embedded in me for over 50 years, right? I guess it comes down to two things. One issue is health, and the other is shame. And I have always equated being heavy with being ashamed of how I look.
Arianna: Yeah, it seems like such a basic concept, but the therapists would say, "Why can't you exist as a person who is sometimes at the top end of a 15-pound range and sometimes at the bottom end of a 15-pound range and be fine at every stage in between?" and that is absolutely an absurd thing for me to imagine. Do you have any memory of a point in your life when you've been OK with your body?
Linda: Yeah, the sad part is that when I went down to 95 pounds, after being extremely ill, the whole cycle came back in full force. And believe it or not — I know I looked unhealthy, and everybody around me was so upset because I looked so unhealthy, for the first in my life I took a breath and said, I can go anywhere wearing anything and I'm not ashamed of how I look.
Arianna: OK, so you did feel good when you were at that lower weight.
Linda: I felt the best I've ever felt.
Arianna: Emotionally? Wasn't it taking a toll on your body?
Linda: I knew in my heart that I was at an unhealthy weight. And I was getting a lot of sympathy from a lot of people because of it and, honestly, that made me feel so good. These are the unkind realities.
Arianna: That's interesting, though, because I feel like even at my thinnest, I didn't feel comfortable. I still wanted to lose more weight. I have no memory of a time when I have looked at myself and thought anything other than, I need to lose weight.
Linda: Oh, if you're talking about, did I think that I reached the ultimate goal of my weight loss, the answer is no — I never felt that way. I could've just kept losing weight until I died, to be honest, because even though I weighed 95 pounds, if I put on a pair of pants, and I saw that I had anything that looked vaguely like a stomach, then I said, I could probably lose a little more.
Arianna: Have you just resigned yourself to the fact that this is just a part of your life, or are you still actively trying to get to a place when you're happy with yourself regardless — not dependent upon your weight?
Linda: I think that I would be lying if I told you that I think I could ever get to the point where I don't care about my weight. I would like to be that person, but I know I would be lying if I told you there was a possibility that I be that person. I don't know. I go for long stretches of a time being healthy, and I kind of forget about it, and then there's a trigger and it comes back. It's still on my back. There's a part of me that feels like I'm always running.