I had an eating disorder when I was still a child. I didn’t want to be thin, I didn’t want to be pretty, I just didn’t want to eat. It was something that would stay with me, but it was never about what I looked like or about fear of food, it was about control. As a grown woman I now recognize it in other children and it is dreadful how much misinformation is out there. Everyone knows eating disorders are about wanting to be thin, but this is just the tip of the iceberg! My experience is so much different, but it would be someone from Planned Parenthood who would change my life.
When I was nine my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In the months leading up to it she began to change her cooking. What was already mediocre at best became unpalatable! (I was a strange child with gourmet tastes). I refused to eat. Financially, times were tough for us so I had two choices: eat or starve. I chose to starve.
My father at this point had been married to wife number 3 for two years, and she came with two teenage daughters and two daughters my age. The oldest had secretly been bulimic for years, but the disease had been outed to the entire family after she had eaten her sister’s entire sheet cake from her Sweet Sixteen Party! This affected the three youngest of us girls in two ways: S followed her sister, and K and I stopped eating.
Over the next two years my mother successfully fought cancer, but my body was changing. I began to develop breasts and stray hairs in private places. I don’t really know why, but I was afraid of puberty, afraid of growing up. Not eating had become a pattern for me and I didn’t see that I was super thin, especially since I had always been thin, to me it was just normal.
Between the cake incident and entering sixth grade, my step sister S had begun to not only eat as much as she could, sometimes finishing off both K and I’s uneaten dinner, but she began to steal and horde food as well. Their mother even had to lock up the fridge and the kitchen cabinets to keep both of her overeating girls out. As a result, K and I were left the victims of S’s thieving.
I clearly remember one afternoon, the summer I turned 11, coming inside to get my afternoon snack, which was a nectarine each for the three of us, only to find one there. I literally cried and could feel my stomach caving in as S swore to her mother she hadn’t eaten it. Her mother took her side in the argument, and I was left shaking. K was so sweet, she gave me the rest of her’s and we shared it. I still can’t believe how that entire situation of eating disorders was ignored for the most part, but then again, my step-mother was a raging alcoholic!
Due to my step-mother’s abuse of alcohol, her youngest, K, had been born with a defective hip. She spent the first two years of her life in a full body cast and needed numerous surgeries throughout her life. That upcoming fall another one had been planned. After school started, K went to see the surgeons for her pre-op appointment and was so underweight the surgery was postponed and she was sent home to gain 20 pounds! Not long after was my back-to-school doctors exam, and I was told to go home and gain 10 pounds the next month or the doctor was prepared to take more drastic action.
I was shocked!
I was a tomboy, I played football with the boys, I rode my bike, climbed trees, hiked, rolled in the mud!
I wasn’t some wannabe girly-girl who worried about being “fat”, about what her butt looked like in jeans! I was absolutely appalled.
I was anorexic?
Shortly after this, one of the ladies at my church organized a day for some of us young ladies to learn about our bodies. (OMG you cry! Sex-ed at church! And by a woman from Planned Parenthood no less!) It was great! I finally learned about all the changes my body was going through, that is was perfectly normal, and there was nothing to fear from it all! My mother claims this woman saved my life, I don’t remember, but my eating patterns changed and I began to accept my body for what it was, My Body. I no longer feared the changed of puberty and began to look forward to some of them.
The following year in school we had sex-ed, a mandatory class for all seventh-graders in the state of Washington, and all the controversy of 1990 to go along with it. But I do remember very clearly, sitting in that class NOT worrying about my body like some of my female classmates did. I finally transitioned into puberty, even when all I got was a size A-cup, and then I was devastated my breasts weren’t bigger! (I was devastated for years!)
It wasn’t until adulthood that I would understand exactly what an eating disorder is and is not. Anorexia isn’t always about wanting to be thin, in fact it’s mostly about control. I wanted to control my environment. But I couldn’t control cancer and I couldn’t control my step-mother or her kids. I could control my food.
As I learned about my bipolar diagnosis, I learned there seems to be a correlation between bipolar and eating disorders, but they don’t know why (which means there is no evidence, really). I have noticed a number of my bipolar friends who do have funny relationships with food or who did as children, like I did. I worry about my own daughter’s relationship with food. While I don’t want her to fear food, I also don’t want her eating chocolate cake all the time, (which we would both happily do!). To strike the right balance, I focus on creating a stable environment and pray she never feels like she has no control around her so she focuses on controlling the food that goes in her.