THIS WILL ALWAYS BE A PART OF ME...

By Ludovic MS Curtet

 

I swore I would never do it again and here I am, head in the toilet, praying to the porcelain god, my heart pounding, my eyes bulging out of their orbits, my body retching, the warm semi-digested remains of my last binge flowing through my opened fingers, and yet, not a sound comes out of the bathroom. I’m so good at it I have it down to a science. Never mind the guilt of wasting money or the food some starving children could have benefited from, I’m only focused on appearing “normal” and feeling nothing. I take my place back at the dinner table, nobody notices my bloodshot, wet eyes: sad victory. Now I can eat… again.

I am seventeen and every single one of my days is dedicated to food and the rituals I have grown to develop around it. I hate food. It talks to me, haunts me. It has overtaken my thoughts and my entire life is unmanageable. I am a walking controversy: I clearly look like a junkie, a very clean junkie I might add, but I have to hide the fact that I binge and purge from everyone. I must appear perfectly fine and everything around me must be perfect, tidy, orderly, and beyond reproach. I feel lonely; yet I reject the world. Behind closed doors, I engulf between 5000 to 10,000 calories at a time, followed by self-induced vomiting, six to ten times a day. Once I start eating, I lose control of my body though my thoughts are clear. I try to stop myself, in utter disgust and disbelief at what I am doing, but my hands cannot stop shoving food in my mouth. It is not an epicurean experience but rather a race to fill my stomach until the pain of its distension brings me back down to reality and the task at hand: body cleansing. I must discard this poison as fast as possible. Some have tricks, use toothbrushes, feathers, or inducing solutions. Some can do it on command without any physical intervention. I use my right hand, the whole hand. My throat is so conditioned; I need to push violently against its inner walls in order to produce a gag reflex. Sometimes it is painful, most times it isn’t. I learned to drink plenty of liquids alongside the food I ingest in order to facilitate regurgitation. When the gag reflex failed me every other week or so, or when I started vomiting blood, I relied on fasting to maintain what I thought was an ideal appearance. That ideal appearance allowed me to be accepted in society, therefore, life was bearable.

Fasting is the voluntary version of starving. Having gone through a starvation period due to lack of funds in my early teens, I often wonder if my bingeing is an attempt to compensate for that period in my life. The jury is still out on that one… I preferred fasting over bingeing for it was less violent. It was much easier to manage since it didn’t require any obsessive thinking about specific foods, and how and where I was going to get, hide, and purge them without getting caught. Though food was a refuge, a stress reliever, a misery companion and a reason to celebrate, fasting felt like a serene reprieve. Serenity, at that point in my life was anything that didn’t involve self-destruction. That type of comfort would often spark an aversion toward food in general, to the point that the thought of it or the feeling of anything in my stomach would disgust me and make me want to “cleanse”. I am the only one in the world struggling with this shameful, disgusting behavior; at least, it is what I firmly believed…

It all started at 15, I was completely depressed and self-destruction was the only coping mechanism I had developed which justified an unidentifiable pain I felt inside. By the time my body gave up, I was drinking a liter of Jack Daniel’s a day and used copious amounts of drugs to numb my thoughts. At 22, my liver was shot and I found myself “detoxing” on a couch in an apartment full of dope and booze. I was homeless in Topeka, Kansas, which still seemed better than the violent part of Paris I came from where you don’t always get to keep your cash or your clothes. There is a difference between choosing to die and looking at death in the face; I chose not to die. I was all about control but once I lost control of my own existence, I didn’t want to die anymore. The irony is that I have had a paralyzing fear of Death since the age of 6. Quitting drugs and alcohol had just been made easy for me but food would hold on to me much, much longer…

It’s lonely inside my life. I hate myself. I am ugly. I am fat; at least I believe I am. I am worthless. I do not matter. I am alone. I don’t know why. The feel and touch of my own body disgusts me to the point that I feel the need to crawl out of it. My body makes me furious and the utter sight of it makes me want to disappear. It has been a struggle from the beginning. My mom was constantly on a diet trying to fit my father’s idealistic notion of what her body should look like. Growing-up cross-eyed and being made fun of surely has had an impact on how badly I perceive myself, which I later found out in therapy. Having to be self-supporting at age 15 due to my parents each going their separate ways probably reinforced my belief that I do not matter. With creditors banging at my door and no money to pay them, I developed what my ex-wife calls a “scarcity mindset”. Music was my only refuge and my favorite guitar player was “pissed-off”, strung out and downright emaciated. I could relate on the anger so I decided to work on strung out and emaciated. I hide behind my hair, which is down to my waist and covers my entire face. I also wear round sunglasses to make sure nobody actually sees how ugly I am. I remember watching a show on TV years ago about highly educated, professional women being interviewed in the dark about their “shameful” bulimic tendencies and I started practicing their self-induced vomiting method. I obsessed with how thin I was and thin turned out to be the answer to all my disappointments: it’s okay, at least, I am skinny and skinny is ecumenically cool and attractive. I start to model for L’Oréal Paris, world champion hair stylist Alain Zinzius and designer Pierre Cardin. I stayed in school as long as possible in order to avoid the mandatory year of military obligations and the haircut that comes along with it. I am over-educated like most French Gen-Xers; I have two associates, two bachelors and a master’s degree, which means I could probably find work in a factory, if I’m lucky. I opted for the flight option: a newly developed coping mechanism.

Life in the USA is cheap, so are drugs, alcohol and food. Two months after my arrival I find myself in jail. I check in at 5’9, 117 lbs. Not a good start. 5 months later, my body is shutting down. Not a good end. The people in 12 steps programs saved my sanity and existence, but I’m still struggling with food. I can’t quit eating altogether and moderation is a concept that is totally foreign to me. I tried Overeaters Anonymous but I didn’t feel a connection with its members. The struggle goes until, once again, my body stops cooperating. After years of abusing laxatives and ipecac -a solution which induces vomiting- my stomach is chronically aching, my digestive track is off-kilter, my throat is raw, my teeth tend to crumble periodically, my right hand has deep serrations from my upper front teeth biting into the flesh right above the index and major fingers, and I’ve been hemorrhaging frightening amounts of blood in my stool for the past 10 years.  The most impactful experience in my life occurred while teaching special education to behavioral disordered (BD) students at the Menninger Clinic’s Southard School.  Many of my students suffered from anorexia and my inability to save them, even though I could relate to them, showed me how powerful the disease is. Growing close to permanently intubated children strapped to wheelchairs until they stop showing up to school for...well... lack of being alive was the moment of truth for me. I couldn’t teach them while still active in my behavior. I stopped then and there. When conservatively averaged, over a period of thirteen years, I have ingested and discarded over 175 million calories!  That would be equivalent to 25 tons of excess fat on my body.

I’ve been clean and sober for the past fifteen years and my eating disorder has been moderated for the past nine. After working for the Curriculum Department of Rockhurst University for a couple of years developing self-help and continuing education seminars, it occurred to me that my calling was to give back; to do what I love, love what I do and who I do it for. Health became my sacerdotal profession.

Food is a drug much more powerful than commonly believed, for one cannot abstain from eating, but must instead moderate its intake without relapsing. The biochemical reactions on the brain related to food digestion are considerable: 95% of the serotonin in your body is synthesized (manufactured) in the small intestine [1]. Everybody loves serotonin: In the central nervous system, serotonin is believed to play an important role in the regulation of anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, vomiting, sexuality, and appetite. Low levels of serotonin may be associated with several disorders, namely increase in aggressive and angry behaviors, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and intense religious experiences [1]. Depressed, obsessive compulsive and bulimic patients were found to have lower than normal serotonin levels [2]. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, are released as you eat. There is a definite food-mood connection and the only manageable way I found to maintain normalcy has been willpower, consistency, discipline and therapeutic modalities.

I do not recollect having encountered a person who didn’t exhibit at least disordered eating patterns. Even the “super healthy eaters” can develop a condition called orthorexia characterized by a fixation on eating what the sufferer considers to be healthful foods, while avoiding certain foods, such as those containing fats, carbohydrates, preservatives, or animal products, and thus suffer malnutrition. The symptoms of an eating disorder, be it anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder are all too similar but their root cause are as unique as the individuals themselves. In a lot of cases children learn about body image from their parents, friends or chosen role models by emulating or assimilating their dogma. Children displaying behaviors of disordered eating most often have parents who were chronic dieters, parents who had unhealthy eating habits, or parents who had distorted body-image standards. In my opinion, there are only 3 ways a child can learn a behavior: emulate, discard, or counteract it. Eating disorders are prevalent in about 8 million Americans with the sharpest increase being from the very impressionable 8 to 11 year old bracket [3].

The overwhelming majority of people I have worked with for the past 20 years have displayed obsessive compulsive disorders carried well beyond the realm of eating disorders, compulsive neatness being the most common (the rationale being: if my house is in order, everything is in order). Mood altering chemicals and substances are often used as replacement once the behaviors are interrupted (voluntarily or not). Control is of notable importance in all addictions. The substance of choice provides the ability to modify the way one feels by almost instantly altering the mental state. The bulimic life and behavior is very secretive (and time consuming) and almost identical to that of a drug or alcohol abuser. The bulimic is physically hard to identify for the body is usually of “average” size. The binge-eater is from slightly overweight to morbidly obese. The anorexic displays an alarmingly thinner appearance which, in my educated opinion, is a blatant attempt to communicate feelings of helplessness, pain, despair, loneliness, and most importantly careless self-destruction. Both have little or no time for socializing, for the obsession over food (hiding, eating, shopping, cooking, purging, fasting, etc.) and/or exercise ends up overtaking all thoughts and activities. Both personalities are usually extremely emotionally driven, are approval and affection seekers, lack self-efficiency or believe they cannot be successful. Social and self-acceptance is most often cited as the main drive to maintain an ideal physical appearance. Ironically, the fear of rejection most often drives the sufferer to repel any type of support or close relationship.

Exercise has become my healthiest addiction for I had to not just compensate, but over-compensate for years of abuse. I can easily, and do occasionally, over-exercise which is another related disorder. I follow a regimented eating pattern of six to seven meals per day and take a plethora of supplements that come in different shapes, colors and substances. I find it comforting, plus it suits my affinity for rituals.  I avoid skipping meals for an erratic blood-sugar level is likely to affect the choice and nature of my next meal and therefore could initiate a relapse. Surprisingly, I have never looked as good. I still have a distorted opinion of my body and mostly see its defects. I feel most comfortable in loose clothing and exposing my body to the public’s opinion is equivalent to torture. Therapy helps.

I strived for societal acceptance by isolating myself and alienating everyone who cared about me. I seemed to care and be affected by the public’s opinion while I actually didn’t care about much at all but how I perceived myself and how I was going to survive. I strived for survival by attempting to die several times. I searched for clarity and answers in mind-numbing chemicals. I lived as if I could lose everything tomorrow, which ironically made me lose everything several times. I felt fat while skinny and feel skinny while in shape. A damaged person with healthy looks. I sought to help everyone but never helped myself. I was in need of compliments but always discarded the ones I received. I rejected everyone out of fear of being rejected. I trusted no one for I couldn’t trust myself. I still feel alone, but at least now, I am not lonely anymore.

My life has been an oxymoronic adventure, an exercise in futility, fallacies and self-fulfilling prophecies. It could have ended a long time ago, like all but one of the friends I grew up with that I have lost to alcohol and drugs or the students that have succumbed to malnutrition. Years of twelve-step programs and therapy have contributed to rebuilding myself physically, psychologically and spiritually, and though I feel I will never be done, I am grateful for the opportunity to keep growing and helping people along the way. (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org)

[1] Dr. Lars Farde Ph.D, professor of psychiatry at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden 2003
[2] Grubb, Sellers, & Waligroski, 1993; Schwartz & Cohn, 1996; Zerbe, 1995
[3] (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorder)