I have attempted to write my story a few different times, but each time I have been overcome by overwhelming emotions and have had to set my writing aside. While the overflowing emotions are heart-wrenching and difficult, they are an important sign that I am no longer using my eating disorder to numb those emotions. It means so much to me to be here at “Hope & Inspiration” to share my story. Although my ED became full-blown in my late 40’s, the seeds were planted long before. Many women battling ED in mid-life are triggered by recent events such as divorce, empty nest, or aging. I, on the other hand, still have two of my three wonderful children at home, I have been married to my loving, devoted husband for twenty-seven years, and I am in the best shape of my life. Yet, it is not surprising at all that I had to fight a long, difficult battle against a very stubborn ED in my late 40’s and early 50’s. Let me take you back to where it all began.
I grew up in suburban Rochester, New York. My father was a successful lawyer and my mother was a smart, stay at home mom who was very active in the community. The innocence of my happy, secure early-childhood was shattered when I was seven years old and my sister was six months old. My dad took my mom away for the weekend to tell her he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. This was 1970 when well-respected lawyers didn’t just walk out on their wives and young children. If this were today, the divorced parents would likely remain in the same city and both actively participate in their children’s lives. There would likely be counseling for all involved, and, obviously today’s technology would make it easy to stay closely connected.
I have absolutely no recollection of my parents telling me what was happening. I think my mom, somewhat in denial, told me at first that my dad was on a long business trip. My mom handled the reality of her divorce by acting as if nothing happened thinking that she was protecting us from her pain. I found out as an adult that she would cry by herself late at night.
I was an introverted, shy, and very petite young girl who had no opportunity to talk about the divorce or its impact; no place for tears, sadness or anger; no place for feelings of any kind. I think around this time my anxiety began though it wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 40’s.
There is no doubt that my mom loved me, and I do have many happy childhood memories for which I am very grateful, but she was very moody, rigid, controlling, and very hard on me. As for food, she controlled what I ate, when I ate, and how much I ate. I never learned intuitive eating. We were not allowed into the kitchen to help ourselves to a drink or a snack. She even put the cereal into the bowl for us and poured the milk on it. Meals were wholesome and always included dessert that I ate without thinking about it. Even when I would come home from college, I still had no control or freedom with food.
When I first went off to college, the freedom around eating was wonderful. There was no “freshman 15”, but I could choose for myself when to eat, what to eat, and how much. After two months of eating on my own, I clearly remember in November of freshman year deciding I would eat just the minimum each day. In retrospect, this was the first sign of ED in my life, although I found an entry in an old diary when I was twelve where I wrote that my body was changing so I needed to go on a little diet. Fortunately, an ED did not take hold at that time. I don’t remember hearing from ED again in college, although for some reason I chose “anorexia nervosa” as my topic for a paper in a biology class.
I grew up feeling the only way I could make my mom happy was to get good grades in school and do well on the tennis court. I will always be grateful to my mom for supporting my dream to become a professional tennis player. The tennis court however became my sanctuary, my escape from emotions inside that I was unable to express.
I was very fortunate to go to an excellent private school with small classes and nurturing teachers, but my mom put so much pressure on me to excel. I was bright, motivated, and conscientious, but I never felt support if a grade didn’t meet her expectations or if I lost a tennis match I could have won. In fact, if I got a test grade back of 95 she would ask if I understood what I did wrong instead of complimenting the good grade. I remember feeling down at times and confiding in a couple of caring teachers about the pressure I felt.
My mom’s moodiness made me feel like I was walking on eggshells much of the time and her unfounded anger and screaming at me really scared me at times. Now, I believe that she suffered from anxiety, OCD, and depression. She took out all of her suppressed emotions on me. She could, however, also be very loving, and fun. In her mind, she did everything she could to keep us from ever feeling like we came from a “broken” home. It was a safe and loving home but one in which I felt I had to be perfect and always strong. At the time I thought “strong” meant positive and unemotional.
My dad was not a part of our daily lives. There wasn’t the technology that there is today for us to keep in touch though there were certainly visits and occasional phone calls. After a second failed marriage, my dad moved to Chicago to start his personal life over. He remained throughout a very successful lawyer. He supported us financially from his new life in Chicago. We visited on a scheduled basis, but I always felt he was distracted. He worked a lot, even during our short visits, and never really gave us his time or attention. There were several girlfriends over the years and by early high school there was wife number 3. I often used tennis as an excuse for not visiting and even skipped a big 50th birthday party in his honor which I know hurt him. I felt as if he just wanted us there “for show.” I know that he loved my sister and me but he didn’t really show it.
I learned later in life that he always carried with him tremendous guilt for leaving my mom, sister, and me. Yet, I also learned that he left my mom because of an affair. I felt like he was very hard on me, always criticizing me, and putting me in the middle between him and my mom. I just internalized any and all feelings, no one cared how I felt. I would protect my sister from hearing their heated arguments, but no one protected me.
My dad flew to Rochester to attend my 7th grade father-daughter banquet, to hear me speak at the 9th grade forum, and he taught me how to drive at one of the few tennis tournaments he came to watch. He attended my high school graduation with his third wife. I still don’t understand how he could move so far away from us and not want to be more a part of our lives. He would get mad at me if I neglected to send him a card for a minor occasion as if it was my fault he lived 1,000 miles away.
My mom’s mental health issues were never diagnosed. She thought she was perfect and that it was everyone else who had issues. To others, she was bright, reserved, and always very well-dressed. We were expected to meet her expectations of perfection with no place for questioning her ways or expressing emotions. I know she was proud of me when I excelled in school and on the tennis court. Yet, I had no voice. I just went along being a good girl, and doing what was expected of me to the best of my ability. Failure was not an option and I’m sure that fueled my undiagnosed anxiety and prevented me from ever being a risk taker. I had to be in control at all times.
My mom always made birthdays and Christmas special and she instilled in me my strong faith in God. I prayed a lot and asked for forgiveness for any negative thoughts. I felt that I always had to be positive, and I felt guilty for even thinking anything negative.
My mom accepted my going to college 400 miles away from home because I was recruited by Brown University. I was very privileged to receive an Ivy League education and play Division One college tennis. She still had my sister at home to live through. I enjoyed my time with my mom during parents’ weekends and I looked forward to school vacations at home. However, my mom would make me feel guilty for any time spent with friends or my boyfriend because it kept me from spending time with her.
It was the best thing in the world for me to go to a big, liberal university, but I didn’t take full advantage of all the opportunities. I studied hard, played tennis, made friends, and also had my first serious boyfriend, but even far from home I still needed her approval and felt her control over me. I needed her to be happy with me.
I came home from college for winter break sophomore year and my mom told me over lunch that she had breast cancer and would be having a mastectomy two days before Christmas. She insisted we open our presents early. Such a scary, difficult diagnosis, yet I have no memories of significant conversations with her expressing either of our emotions or fears. It was a quiet Christmas with close family friends and my grandparents with visits to my mom in the hospital. A few weeks later, we were invited to a friend’s house for dinner, my mom’s first outing since her surgery. I told her she looked “nice” thinking I was complementing her, but she just yelled at me taking out all of her bottled up emotions on me. I regretted that she never was able to celebrate being a cancer survivor. We never really talked about it except at one point she said she was on a “no fat” diet to make sure her cancer didn’t come back. I learned from her that eating “fat” was bad. She remained cancer-free for fourteen years. I regretted after her death that she never got to wear a special survivor shirt in the “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk,” nor walk a survivor’s lap with everyone cheering in a “Relay for Life” event organized by the American Cancer Society. We just never talked about her being a breast cancer survivor. I participated in these events in her memory for many years after her death.
Eventually, a turning point in my relationship with my dad came when he visited me at Brown my Junior year and we spent an entire weekend together without him lecturing me or criticizing me. By Junior year, I was slowly trying to break out of the tight web my mom had spun around me. Brown opened my mind to the world around me and allowed me the time and space to think about life beyond my mom’s control. My tennis identity was still very important to me and was a tremendous source of self-esteem. Tennis gave me the opportunity to make lifelong friends and travel around the country. But by that pivotal weekend with my dad, I was starting to think that maybe that summer I would take a huge leap and not go home to Rochester to play tennis, teach tennis, and live under my mom’s unrelenting control. I did have wonderful people in my tennis life at home who cared about me and made me feel happy to be with them, but at home, however, even as a 20-year-old, there was no freedom or voice. I decided during that weekend with my dad that I would spend the summer in Washington, DC, working in a law firm and subletting an apartment. My dad had the connections to make it all possible and we were both excited. He still lived in Chicago, but he spent a lot of time working in DC, so we would have time together. In the first twenty years of my life, the most difficult thing I ever did was tell my mom I would not be spending the summer at home. She could not be happy for me which was very hard because I still wanted and needed her approval. It was all about her – she was hurt, devastated, sad, and the fact that my dad was making it all possible made it even worse. For me, however, it was the beginning of loosening her grip and beginning the journey of becoming independent.
My dad picked me up in Rochester on a beautiful June day. It was hard saying goodbye to my mom and my sister but we were off to DC. My dad helped me figure out the Metro subway system so I could get to and from work each day. I was so excited to be living in the city for the summer. While my summer in DC was the beginning of my becoming my own person, it was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with my mom as I knew it. There were no smart phones back then to keep in touch but I did talk to my mom on the phone that summer. She felt very hurt and betrayed that I would “leave her” and what made it worse was that my dad had made it all possible. It was a life-changing summer for me, making decisions for myself. I worked in an office all day, played tennis in the evenings, and even won a very big tennis tournament in the DC area. My identity was still very strong as a tennis player, but I was learning how to be independent and stand on my own two feet. I learned that there was life outside my mom’s bubble and I liked it. The best part of that summer in DC was that I was able to spend time with my dad and develop a relationship we had never had. He traveled to DC frequently and I just loved picking him up at the airport and having dinner with him and sharing the details of my DC life that he had made possible. Just a few months later when I was happily back at school, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It had already spread to his liver and he was given a year to live.
After a summer of independence and my dad’s diagnosis, I became much less “type A,” enjoyed drinking more, and had a very active social life. Ironically, as I enjoyed myself more, my grades and tennis were better than ever. As graduation approached, I told my parents I didn’t want to spend my graduation weekend dividing my time between them. I asked if the four of us could actually spend the weekend together. They did do that for me, however, it was not without some later accusations from both of them that I favored one over the other at various times.
In the Spring of my senior year, I accepted a job in Washington, DC at the law firm where I had worked the previous summer. After graduation, I went home for the month of June and then I moved to DC to begin my new job. My mom, several years later told me that she was so depressed that I was not moving home to Rochester permanently, that she had been suicidal. She still had my sister at home for many more years yet she could not be happy for me. She did do things for me like buy me a set of dishes for my apartment, but as I was preparing to embark at age 21 on my DC adventure, she made me clear out everything from my room including even the contents of my desk drawers. She told me that if she couldn’t have me at home, she didn’t want any reminders of me. That felt like a knife to the heart. The concept of home as a place of unconditional love where you are always welcome would never be the same. I was hurt so deeply that the effects of that statement have had a profound impact on me to this day. So, off I went to make a life for myself in DC, fortunately equipped with all I had learned from the previous summer and with the understanding and support of my terminally ill father. I simply internalized those difficult emotions caused by my mom who should have been so proud of me going off with my Brown degree to start a great job in Washington, DC. She treated me as if I had “divorced” her, just as my dad had done 14 years earlier.
My first apartment was not very nice. I had hand me down furniture, crates for shelves, and a college trunk as my coffee table, but I made it my home. My best memory of that apartment was time with my dad. His cancer treatments were still working so we could spend good quality time together. Nothing could make up for not having had him as a positive part of my childhood but I will always be grateful for the time we spent together during my early adulthood in Washington, DC. We enjoyed simple pleasures like going to the store, cooking and eating dinner together, things that are a part of most kids’ ordinary lives. Despite his cancer, my dad married for a fourth time during this period. He still seemed healthy and she helped make the last two years of his life as happy as possible. He had been given a year to live, but lived two. He mellowed a bit as he knew his time was limited but he still worked hard including achieving an important legal victory before the United States Supreme Court. Working in a law firm where everyone knew and respected him, I was so proud to be his daughter. He no longer ignored or criticized me. The two years I had with him were truly a gift and I will always be grateful for that time with him. He taught me so much about life in that short time and he appreciated me for who I was. He died in October 1986 at the age of 56. I was 23.
During those early post-college years, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life professionally. My simple dream was to have a happy marriage, children, and a house in the suburbs. My dad’s goal for me was to be a professional woman. I thought many times about going to graduate school in clinical psychology with the ultimate goal of helping children whose parents were divorced. My father, however, whose treatment by this time had stopped working, impressed upon me the value and marketability of a law degree. How do you go against the wishes of your dying father? One of the last things he did for me before he died was read my essay for my law school applications. He knew I had applied but never knew I was accepted or that I would eventually graduate from American University Law School in 1990. My dad must have known what he was doing in pushing me towards law school because on the very first day, in line at registration, I met the man who would become my husband three years later. Jeff helped make my dreams come true.
During those two years I worked before law school, I continued my personal growth. I learned how to live without my tennis identity as I lived the post-college “yuppie” life in DC. I still yearned for a place to call “home” and returned to Rochester at times hoping to feel welcome and receive unconditional love. Instead, I felt like an outsider not fitting into my mom’s bubble anymore and with no appreciation from my remaining parent for the independent adult I had become. I guess I was a glutton for punishment going back hoping each time that it would be different. It never was. My mom promised that she and my sister would spend that first post-college Thanksgiving with me in my first apartment. I was so excited cleaning, cooking, and planning for a wonderful time together in DC. At the very last minute my mom called to tell me that my sister had an opportunity to play in a big tennis tournament in New York City, that they would not be coming, and that I should just come join them. I was devastated. Once again I internalized the hurt and sadness, and I took a train Thanksgiving morning to be with them at the tournament in New York. I couldn’t disappoint her. When I mentioned to my mom that I had considered going to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with my terminally ill father, her response was “well, I could be hit by a truck.”
After my father’s death, I was on my own in the world. Home had to be wherever I was. Home in Rochester was no longer a place of unconditional love and security. I received zero support from my mom after my father’s death. She was only concerned with her financial situation having been supported by my dad since the divorce. Thankfully, I had unconditional friendship and support form a lawyer in the firm where I worked and his wife. They are close friends to this day. Steve “walked me down the aisle” when I got married and Patti came to take care of me for a week after major surgery last year. At my friends’ urging, I met once with the counselor who worked with cancer patients and their families at the place where my dad had received experimental treatment. When I told my mom I was going to talk to someone about my dad’s death, her response was “Why would you do that?” I was grieving but had no understanding of what that meant.
Less than a year after my father’s death, I started law school. Law school was a time of incredible personal growth, intellectual challenge, and friendship. At one stressful point early in my first year of law school, I called my mom for support on a day I was feeling particularly overwhelmed. Her response was, “it was your choice to go to law school.” The parent who would have been so proud of me and who would have given me the support and encouragement I needed was dead. I missed him so much but I couldn’t begin to know how to express those complicated emotions. I was successfully “adulting” as today’s young adults say and, using words from an old Beatles song, “I got by with a little help from my friends.” My attorney friend Steve sensed my sadness at times and would say “your feelings are your feelings,” but I couldn’t even articulate those feelings let alone feel them.
That first semester I met, Jeff, the man I would eventually marry. On one of our first dates, we had a very deep conversation about loss. He had lost a fraternity brother to suicide and I had lost my dad. It was a deep conversation between two 20 somethings who didn’t understand what grief was all about. We became engaged before our final year of law school and married the following summer. During those law school years, I worked hard, enjoyed time with my close friends and boyfriend, and continued to feel and internalize the strain of my difficult relationship with my mom. Occasionally, the tears would flow and there was sadness within, but I was strong on the outside. There were no signs of ED, and I ran almost daily for exercise and stress relief.
During our busy third year of law school, we were also planning our wedding. It wasn’t easy to accommodate our religious differences and I was very conscious of making my mom feel comfortable while meeting all the expectations of my husband’s family. I wanted to make everyone happy. I paid for our wedding with money I inherited from my dad and thought I did a pretty good job of making our August 1990 wedding a beautiful, happy and meaningful occasion. A few months later when my mom and sister joined us for Christmas in our new apartment in Rhode Island, my mom, in the course of a heated discussion, told me that my wedding was the worst day of her life, even worse than the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could a mother say that to her newlywed daughter? I had tried so hard to please everyone at the expense of my own preferences. My mom, once again hurt me very deeply and to this day, I can’t watch our wedding video or look at our wedding album without feeling that pain. At the time I didn’t know what to do with that pain and just internalized it as I always had. Jeff and I went on with our lives, both working as lawyers and enjoying life as a young couple in Rhode Island. Jeff made me feel happy, loved, and secure and I feel to this day that my dad had something to do with bringing us together in law school.
In 1993, our daughter Rebecca was born. My mom only saw Rebecca two times in her first year of life, but the first time my mom held her granddaughter at 6 weeks old, it was love at first sight. Then, just before Rebecca’s first birthday, my mom literally ended up on our doorstep. She had hit rock bottom financially and eventually had to declare bankruptcy. A family friend gave her a few thousand dollars to start a new life in Rhode Island. She slept on the couch in our tiny first house for a couple of weeks. I tried to be as patient and supportive as possible, but as always, I stuffed all the feelings inside. Almost one year old Rebecca was the only thing that eased the tension between us. I could never tell my mother how I truly felt or how deeply she had hurt me. I also couldn’t abandon her as she had her own mother at the end of her life in 1990. We helped her find an apartment, buy a cheap used car, and find two part-time jobs. She worked six days a week, but always spent her one day off with us. We took walks, drives, and day trips, and she became a wonderful grandmother to Rebecca. My mom was actually happy and living simply within her means. She even got to know and for the first time appreciate Jeff. We celebrated birthdays and holidays and everyday life. For the first time in my adult life, my mom understood and appreciated me and my life.
Our life was all in the present. I was never able to express all the hurt from the past. And then after two great years, she was gone.
Her breast cancer, first diagnosed 14 years earlier, came back in every bone in her body. Three months after a fall caused by her cancer weakened bones, she died in November 1996 at the age of 60. I was 33. After very complicated and difficult relationships, I had two good years with each of my parents before cancer ended their lives way too young.
My mom died Thanksgiving week and the holiday hasn’t been the same for me since. During the final three months of her life, my mom suffered greatly. Her deep faith in God and a gifted hospice chaplain were her only comforts as she neared the end of her life. After her death, I continued to put all my time and energy into being a good mom to Rebecca. I didn’t know how to grieve. I felt that if I ever started to cry, I would never be able to stop.
Another wonderful hospice chaplain who came to meet with my sad little girl sensed that I needed help too and thus my grief journey began. It took me places I didn’t even know I needed to go. At the hospice chaplain’s insistence, I saw a therapist for the very first time. I finally had a safe place to begin to talk about my life – my parents’ divorce, their deaths, and my relationship with them when they were alive. These complicated relationships created complicated grief. I was grateful for the two good years I had with each of them before they died but two years with each could not erase the years of what the therapist identified as emotional abuse. There was anger, sadness, and regret, so many difficult feelings that it was hard for me to express them even with a trained therapist. Unfortunately, my therapist moved away before I had successfully worked through the years of internalizing so many difficult emotions.
I had never been allowed to feel, and, as a child, felt guilty any time there was a negative thought. I believed being a good person meant always being positive, appreciating the good, and never expressing the bad. My grief was delayed because I thought I should just focus on the two good years I had with my parents instead of processing the years and years of emotional abuse. After my mom’s death, we continued to enjoy life as a family of three, but there was a sadness in me that wouldn’t go away and at times I was just going through the motions suffering from low level depression. As part of my grieving process, I developed a thirst for knowledge about everything there was to know about grief and loss. I read numerous books, intellectual ones and simple ones. I began accompanying my hospice chaplain friend to bereavement groups and talks. Eventually, she encouraged me to speak and share parts of my story of loss with others. I became a certified hospice volunteer. Over the years I have facilitated bereavement groups and spoken to large and small groups in multiple settings about coping with grief and loss. I wanted to help others with their grief, but I still wasn’t completely in touch with my own.
In 2002, our precious twins were born. Alexis and Matthew brought a deep sense of joy and happiness that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. All of my time and energy went into taking care of my twin babies and then 8-year-old Rebecca.
Three years later I was diagnosed with asthma. I had to learn about and manage a chronic disease and it created a great deal of anxiety. The first few years I had several very serious flare ups. I didn’t know how to rest, take care of myself, or let others help. I was the mom of three children, and I absolutely needed to be able to take care of them. A friend suggested I see a therapist once again because I was so hard on myself. I didn’t know how to “give in” to a disease and give my body what it needed most, rest. I was used to going nonstop and being the mom I loved to be. It was around this time that I was also diagnosed with anxiety.
A few years later when the twins were in first grade, I found myself back into tennis after being introduced to a woman who had also played college tennis. A wonderful friendship developed. We both had busy family lives, but loved our tennis time when our kids were in school. Tennis had defined me and my life for so many years and that identity returned as I played more and more. I started playing competitively again and my passion for tennis was reborn. I became very muscular and fit and I lost weight without even trying. I got many positive comments and it made me feel good about myself.
Around this time my relationship with Rebecca was becoming very difficult. She suffered from severe anxiety which had yet to be diagnosed. It was her last couple of years of high school and she took all her stress out on me. I felt so sad because of my difficult relationship with my own mom. It broke my heart to have such a strained relationship with Rebecca. During this time, I continued to have occasional major asthma flare ups which prevented me from playing tennis, my outlet for stress and anxiety. I still had a very hard time accepting my chronic disease and these times of inactivity led to anxiety and bouts of depression. At this time a very close friendship ended as well. She was an asthma specialist and would get very upset with me for not taking care of myself during these bad asthma episodes. I knew nothing about self-care. It was the perfect storm: difficult situations with people I loved or cared about and a disease that made me feel out of control. I was not able to be the mom I needed to be and was not able to play tennis, which had once again become my escape from life’s stressors. My anxiety got worse and my eating disorder come to the rescue.
Looking back, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. My ED behavior took hold when I couldn’t play tennis during asthma flare ups. I was so scared of gaining weight. I didn’t want to be like middle aged women I knew who always seemed to talk about “having to be good” around food, and I was terrified of gaining weight when I hit menopause like other women I knew. Tennis was my passion. It fueled my self-esteem and I needed to be fit and muscular to feel good about myself. I needed to be thin. It was all part of my identity as an athlete. I listened to ED and he made me feel good about myself. I listened to ED and he made me feel in control. I now understand it was ED who was in control, not me. I started using tennis more and more as an emotional outlet, just as I had in high school and college. It reduced stress and anxiety, made me “feel thin” and was an escape from confronting and expressing my feelings.
I was seeing a therapist occasionally to help me deal with having a chronic disease as well as anxiety and mild depression that I now think was originally triggered by my parents’ divorce. He knew nothing about eating disorders but eventually suggested I meet with a nutritionist. A neighbor was seeing a nutritionist in my town so I got her number and eventually set up an appointment. At my very first appointment, I was diagnosed with anorexia. My recovery journey would soon begin yet I had no idea what it was all about or that it would be one of the most difficult journeys of my life. Contributing to a very stubborn ED were 40 years of internalizing all difficult emotions and feelings. From my parents’ divorce at age 7, to the complicated grief from my parents’ devastating cancer deaths, and everything in between, these life experiences triggered my anxiety, depression, and ultimately led to a full blown eating disorder in middle age. Recovery would require vulnerability which I equated with weakness and getting in touch with all the feelings I had internalized through so many challenging times in my life.
My ED recovery was all outpatient. In hindsight, I would have benefitted greatly from a program where I could have focused exclusively on my recovery, but I still didn’t know I had needs of my own and I was unwilling to disrupt my family life or add to my husband’s ever-present work stress. Around weekly appointments with my dietician and a new therapist who specialized in eating disorders, I was able to continue as a hospice volunteer, bereavement group leader, competitive tennis player and high school tennis coach. I would talk to the girls I coached about sports nutrition and fueling their bodies appropriately for tennis practice and matches, yet I was unable to provide my own body with all the nourishment it needed to fuel several hours of my own tennis each week.
One of the important things I did during the course of my recovery was attend a MEDA support group. For eight weeks, from January – March 2015, I drove from Rhode Island to Newtonville every Thursday morning for an “over 35 women’s group.” For years I have facilitated a Bereavement Support Group, but I personally always preferred sharing one on one rather than in a group. So with the support of my husband, dietician, and therapist, I took one day each week to focus on me and my recovery. I was unable to be honest with friends, telling them I was attending seminars in Boston related to my grief work. The first week I left the group feeling that I didn’t belong. I felt that I was so much healthier than the other women. I went home and went to the gym, the only way I knew how to cope with all the unspoken feelings I experienced from being there. The next few weeks I was in the midst of a serious asthma flare up but for some reason still felt compelled to go back, sometimes taking up to two hours to get there due to traffic and snow. During one of those weeks, I discovered a cute little coffee place to go before each meeting. I also discovered a place with a sandwich I learned to eat and enjoy.
During the worst of my ED, I did not eat any sweets, but by this point in my recovery I had learned to eat occasional sweets again by sharing them with my dietician in the office setting. At the sandwich place, they had oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, my favorite. To be able to eat these cookies would be a huge accomplishment. After each meeting I would get my sandwich and cookie, then eat the whole sandwich and half of a big cookie on the ride home. This became an important ritual. It was a big step forward in my recovery to be able to eat the cookie on my own as well as the sandwich, especially on a “no exercise” day.
I didn’t feel comfortable sharing at the group meetings, but I was committed to going back each week. I found MEDA to be a warm and welcoming environment and I absolutely loved all the inspirational quotes all around. I thought about how we needed a place like this in Rhode Island. I still couldn’t relate to the women in the group. I felt sorry for them and wanted to help them. Then something happened in the eighth and final week. I cried in the car on the way up, I cried at my favorite little coffee place, I cried at the group, and I cried on the way home. Reflecting on this eight week experience I finally realized that I actually belonged there. I was able to share some of my feelings about the shame and secrecy I felt with my ED. I was the only one not coming back for the next eight-week session and the women said they would miss me. This group was the first time I had ever been with anyone with an ED and after eight weeks I finally allowed myself to feel the support that was there for me all along. Until that day I hadn’t cried or felt so much in a very long time. I was proud of myself for taking the initiative to find this group and follow through and make the commitment to go to eight consecutive weeks. When I left there for the last time I felt so alone. I wanted to talk to Jeff or my dietician, but I wouldn’t have been able to talk without crying. I felt so sad as I got my last sandwich and cookie. My conflicting thoughts focused on how I wanted to help others, yet I realized I wanted and needed to feel support for me.
It sounds so simple but one of the things that helped me in my recovery journey was a collection of inspirational quotes. My dietician and I often shared quotes about recovery and about life. After my MEDA experience and all the quotes there, I started keeping a special notebook with inspirational quotes from a variety of sources. Whenever I would have a particularly difficult day in recovery, reading through my quotes empowered me and helped me keep going along the long, difficult road towards recovery. Looking back, one of the most significant quotes for my recovery was “you don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared, or anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a negative person, it makes you human.” To believe this would require that I undo everything that had been ingrained in me from a young age. I literally needed permission to feel.
I kept my eating disorder a secret from everyone in my life except my husband. He knew I needed to eat more but was surprised by the diagnosis and had little understanding of this battle that consumed me every day. I felt so much shame and had so much to learn myself. As I had done with grief, I did a lot of reading about eating disorders. I found Jenni Schaefer’s books to be most helpful, but it scared me how much I could relate. Throughout my recovery, my dietician would reread relevant passages to me as needed to reinforce our conversations. Poet Robert Frost’s quote “the only way out is through” applied not only to grief but to ED recovery. There was no choice but to do the hard work of recovery if I wanted to loosen ED’s grip and be strong and healthy inside and out. I only wish my husband had had the time to read these books so he could have gained a better understanding of my illness.
As someone who was always a good listener helping friends, I was rarely comfortable opening up to others. It was necessary however that I let myself be vulnerable as early as possible in my recovery journey. I thought being strong meant never being vulnerable, needy, or negative. Recovery required that I let go of those misconceptions.
My dietician slowly added more nutrition to my meal plan to restore my weight. She did it in a way that wasn’t totally overwhelming. She was so patient with me and I felt more and more comfortable talking to her. I began to share more openly and honestly with her and began to understand the hard work that would be necessary in order to recover. The first thing I had to work on in addition to eating more was to “separate food from feelings.” My therapist worked with me in a parallel way to separate my healthy self from my eating disordered self. To do both of those things required that I figure out what purpose the eating disorder was serving in my life.
My eating disorder took hold after years and years of suppressing emotions, it surfaced in response to significant stress in important relationships, and finally it was fueled by my return to competitive tennis. ED came to my rescue when my asthma made me feel out of control and I was unable to exercise. Listening to ED reduced anxiety, numbed difficult emotions and feelings and eased my intense fear of gaining weight that developed after my return to tennis.
My return to tennis fueled the fire without which my eating disorder might never have become so powerful. Tennis, however, was a return to doing something for me that I loved, and I happened to be very good at it. It was a source of high self-esteem and made me happy. It led to wonderful friendships and my coaching job which I thoroughly enjoy. But, my return to competitive tennis and with it my identity as an athlete also brought back my escape and coping mechanism that I had relied upon from ages 12-21. Tennis brought unintended and unnecessary weight loss and a new thinner, muscular, and fit body. All the positive comments made me feel good about myself. I developed an intense fear of gaining weight and both ED and tennis made me feel in control. ED helped when tennis couldn’t, when chronic asthma led to periods of inactivity, and increased anxiety.
The challenge became to recover from my ED without having to give up tennis which I knew went against my treatment team’s expertise in ED recovery. Had I learned earlier in my life about self-care and how to express my emotions, I likely wouldn’t have turned to ED to cope in stressful times. ED was exhausting and consuming. Recovery meant learning not only to ignore him but to disobey him even when doing so made me feel uncomfortable and even more out of control. I had to learn to trust the process even when I did not yet have a glimpse of the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Although I felt so much shame about my ED and kept it a secret for a long time, I eventually tried to share a little bit with a few select friends. The reality was that there was little to no understanding of eating disorders. One close friend actually said to me “don’t let THAT happen.” I felt so isolated and unable to talk about what I was going through except with my professional support. So I went about my normal life and the few friends with whom I had shared that I had an eating disorder never brought it up again. When I was further along in my recovery, I was better able to let in two very close friends but I never wanted to be needy or a pain. These connections outside my professional support with two very special friends reinforced my understanding of the importance of expressing my feelings and taking care of my own needs, two things with which I had little experience.
So for the past six years I worked on my recovery each and every day within the context of my normal everyday life. My time each week with my therapist and dietician was often the only time I felt support and understanding. In the world around me, there was regrettably an extremely limited understanding about eating disorders. In order to recover, I needed to feel supported and understood. I was so fortunate to have daily email contact with my dietician which was especially helpful because she traveled a lot. That connection was critical and gave me a level of care I had never had before. She always knew exactly what to say to help me stay on track or get back on track. She reassured me many times that she believed in me and my ability to recover, and she gave me the encouragement and support I needed even when I had lost that belief in myself and could have easily given up. She impressed upon me on many occasions that I was strong and determined and that I could do this, that I could be a success story. She always reminded me to “do the next right thing” when I had a tough day in recovery or was unable to follow my meal plan. She never gave up on me through all the ups and downs, and she helped me through long periods of time when I couldn’t exercise due to asthma flare ups and significant tennis injury.
Without her support, I easily could have continued to use my eating disorder as a way to cope. She helped me recognize that I had needs of my own and that taking care of myself and my needs was not selfish. Instead, it was absolutely essential to my physical and emotional health and well-being. I knew how to care for others but had to learn in recovery about self-care. You cannot recover from an ED on your own. You need to have someone who believes in you, is there for you, and encourages you even when you don’t believe in yourself. She has been with me every single step of this journey and from her I learned so such about myself and about life. I had a safe place where I could let my guard down and be open and honest about my ED, my emotions, and life’s challenges. I learned to be vulnerable which was particularly hard for me. I learned so much about nutrition and how to nourish my mind and body so that I could fuel my tennis in a healthy way. I also learned that I deserved to experience peace, joy, and deep down happiness. Finally, I learned that I could face life’s challenges without resorting to my eating disorder. Throughout my recovery, she reminded me that my ED was a brain based disorder and was not my fault, a fact that was very hard for me to accept. We had to work to rewire my brain, and reverse ingrained thinking and habits. It was a long, difficult process, but so worth it.
From my therapists, I learned so much about how the difficult experiences in my life had shaped me but had also led to anxiety, depression, and ultimately my eating disorder. I had a safe place where I could talk about the complicated relationships with my parents and how I wasn’t allowed to feel anything except positive as I strived for perfection in order to feel their love and earn their approval. I went through my life achieving success in the classroom, on the tennis court, professionally, and as a wife and mother, yet it has taken years of therapy to begin to unravel the layers and layers of suppressed emotions through all the stages of my life. It is a process that continues today.
A quote that reflects many of my conversations with my therapist is “you can’t change the wind, but you can adjust the sails to reach your destination.” Continuing this metaphor, in recovery I have learned to sail and with my therapist’s help, I will continue to strengthen my skills so I can better weather the stormy seas.
I am a very spiritual person and I always felt tremendous guilt for feeling sad or any other negative feelings when my life is filled with so many blessings. I learned in recovery what my friend Steve meant years ago when he said “your feelings are your feelings.” It has always been difficult for me to talk about the emotional pain I experienced in my life yet being in touch with those difficult feelings was essential to my recovery. I have always tried to live in the present but years and years of stuffing those difficult emotions inside is clearly one of the reasons I eventually developed my ED. I am learning to be in touch with all emotions, happy and sad. I feel so much now that it is often overwhelming and I can’t always articulate what I am feeling. I just know that I no longer use my ED to numb those feelings. While I can share with others much more freely now, I have a strong need to feel connected with the few people in my life who truly understand my journey.
While I am relieved that my ED no longer impairs my life as it once did, it will continue to be a life-long process of staying on a healing path so that I can live my life to the fullest. Being in touch with my feelings, being open and honest with myself and others, using my voice, and taking care of my needs are all essential to my health and well-being going forward.
A little over a year ago I faced the most difficult physical challenge of my life. It tested the strength of my recovery and in many ways was the most important chapter in my recovery story. On February 13, 2017, I had a total abdominal hysterectomy. My gynecological oncology surgeon removed a growing tumor from my ovary along with my uterus, cervix, and other ovary. I was in the hospital for four days, three nights. I woke up from the nearly three-hour surgery with a six-inch vertical incision but with the best news ever. The ovarian tumor was benign and there was no cancer anywhere. During the weeks leading up to my surgery, fear and anxiety took over. I tried to go about my normal life, but I was so scared. This had all come out of a routine pelvic ultrasound. My husband’s love and support comforted me daily and my good friends checked in frequently. When I planned to go alone to a pre-surgery CT scan, a dear friend insisted that I not go alone. After the test, we went back to her house and she made me a cup of tea to drink by the fire. I felt so much care and support. I wasn’t ready to go home where I had to pretend everything was fine. I didn’t want my children to worry about me for longer than necessary. I did of course tell them all about my surgery but not until the week before.
I have never felt my husband’s love and presence as profoundly as I did in the hospital following my surgery. I also had friends come to visit me in the hospital and then when I got home, there was an outpouring of care, love and support in a way I had never experienced before in my life. With prayers, gifts, flowers, food, visits, texts and calls, I never felt alone. For the many weeks of recovery, I had no choice but to rest. I had to take care of my body so that it could heal from major surgery. I had to nurture my body with rest and nourish my body with food. I took care of my body’s needs surrounded by so much love and support. This surgery experience was a powerful reminder that you only have one body so you need to take care of it. My body had survived major surgery and I would do everything I needed to take care of it so I could heal and resume my life. Never before had I felt such a deep appreciation for good health. Earlier in my ED recovery, I learned to negate negative body image thoughts by focusing on what my body could do. Now I had an even greater appreciation for what my body could do when it was healthy and strong and I was determined to do whatever I needed to do to regain my strength.
Two months after my surgery I was back on the tennis court and it only took a couple of weeks to get back in top form. I was so happy to be back on the court and my ED recovery got even stronger by my fierce determination to be as strong and healthy as possible. This experience also reinforced my commitment to self-care not only for my body but also for my mind and spirit. I never wanted to ever again deprive my body of what it needs on a daily basis. I lost a lot of weight following my surgery because I had no appetite. My dietician was with me every step of the way to help me regain my strength and needed weight. At no time did ED come back in and try to regain control over me. I needed food for proper nourishment for strength and healing. It was truly a situation of “no choice” if I wanted to resume my life.
My faith in God has always been strong. This experience with a serious cancer scare and major surgery required me to dig deep and put my faith and trust in God over a situation where I had no control. Throughout my life, I had an intense need to feel in control at all times. In the throes of my eating disorder I used ED to feel in control but in recovery, I learned that as long as ED was there, I was not in control, he was. My surgery experience forced me to contend with the anxiety that came from feeling completely out of control. I put my faith and trust in God to get through one of the biggest challenges of my life. When my health returned, I felt immense gratitude after being reminded so profoundly that each day of life and health is truly a gift. I learned that my body is strong and I need to take care of it day in and day out to remain healthy. I learned that in life, we cannot always be in control and that I can get through a major life challenge without going back to my ED.
I can’t help but compare my experience with a physical illness to my experience with my eating disorder, a serious mental illness. With my surgery, I received so much care, love and support, every step of the way. With my eating disorder I felt so much shame and secrecy and very little care, support or understanding from the same people who were there for me before and after surgery. Going forward, I intend to do something about this lack of understanding by focusing on education and eating disorder awareness.
In conclusion, there were so many contributing factors to my developing a full-blown eating disorder in my forties. My childhood experiences propelled me into adulthood with a very sad inner child deep below the surface. I naturally took care of others but didn’t know how to care for myself. I eventually used food to numb years and years of difficult emotions and those habits grew stronger, gave ED his voice, and gave me a false sense of control when life became stressful. I returned to tennis and with it my athlete mentality returned along with a strong desire to be fit and muscular. Tennis once again made me feel good about myself but also became an escape from dealing with stress and emotions. Battling an ED while living my normal life was very isolating. Outside my professional support I felt alone but was too ashamed to share my struggles with others. Having an ED was consuming and exhausting. I was living my life around the hard work of recovery but was wasting so much time and energy overly focused on food and exercise because of an intense fear of gaining weight.
It has been a very long road to recovery. While I now know that there is no absolute “finish line,” life without an ED consuming me allows me to live life more fully, be more present, and engage deeply in relationships. I have a greater awareness of how my past has shaped me and an understanding of the importance of self-care. I have a new found appreciation for life and health. I want to express my gratitude to MEDA for allowing me to share my story. I thank my dietician and therapists for being with me every step of the way with unwavering support, insight, expertise, and care. Finally, I thank my husband for his love and patience. He had to live with me for so long while I battled an illness he knew nothing about.
The next chapter in my life is unfolding and I’m excited to see where my recovery journey takes me. One of my favorite quotes is “keep going . . ., difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.” We are never too old to be a work in progress. We can always become stronger and healthier, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually so we that can partake fully in all life has to offer. I leave you with one final quote “You fall, you rise, you make mistakes, you live, you learn. You are human, not perfect. You’ve been hurt, but you are alive to breathe, to think, to enjoy and to chase the things you love. Sometimes there is sadness in your journey, but there is also lots of beauty. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other even when we hurt, for we will never know what is waiting for us just around the bend.” To those who are struggling, please keep fighting and as Winston Churchill said, “Never never never give up”.