Jamie Ottesen: Recovery Starts With Ending Silence, Isolation #Knowb4Stage4
This submission to the #Knowb4Stage4 eating disorder awareness campaign was written by Jamie Ottesen, BSW, MSW, LCSW. Jamie is a licensed clinical social worker and is going on two years of recovery from bulimia and food addiction. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a 52-year-old, married mother of three adult sons, and a recovering food addict and bulimic. I want to share my story so that it may give others hope in their struggle with food addiction and bulimia.
Childhood for me was traumatic. My father was an alcoholic and verbally abusive, while my mother had very low self-esteem and a lot of self- hatred. I have memories of using food to numb my emotions and stuffing myself until I felt sick and could hardly breathe.
When I was 13 years old, I became uncomfortable with my body. I thought I was fat at 105 pounds, and I felt alone. I was in junior high and didn’t have friends to eat lunch with, so I stopped eating lunch at school to avoid the cafeteria. This led to a desire to stop eating, but it didn’t last long.
One day, I began self-induced vomiting and then went right back to bingeing on high-calorie foods. Before I knew it, I was bingeing and purging almost everything I consumed. I knew this was not right or good for me, but I could not stop. The behavior became extreme when I would consume 10,000 to 30,000 calories a day and purge 15 to 20 times a day.
My addiction was completely out of control. I was addicted to being thin and had a distorted body image.
I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing, so I isolated myself and lived in secrecy. To compensate, I worked really hard at pleasing people and trying to be good and look good to others. Shame, the belief that I was bad, began to take over my thoughts. I felt I deserved to be punished and never felt like I was enough.
I continued this behavior throughout high school. Many days I felt so sick and was so weak that I could hardly make it through the day. I felt like I was going to faint, and I had headaches and stomachaches on a regular basis. My family knew about my behavior, but their response was to shame and criticize me. I didn’t know how to stop or where to turn for help.
Hiding My Secret
I went on to college and continued daily bingeing and purging. I was barely able to keep food in my body without feeling a tremendous impulse to purge. Living in the dorms where there were no private bathrooms was scary. I would wait for just the right moment to go in and purge. Feelings of worthlessness, despair and guilt permeated my days. I ate for emotional relief and to numb my feelings.
I fainted one day and ended up in the emergency room, but I couldn’t tell them about my shameful secret. Later that summer, I had another visit because I felt like my stomach was going to explode. No matter how much I ate, I never felt full.
I finally reached out for help during my second year of college. After sharing my story with a counselor, I was told to “wrap it all up in a package, tie a bow around it and be done with it.” Well, that did not work for me, so the bulimia continued and, unfortunately, thrived.
The act of assaulting myself with large amounts of food and then purging became powerfully addicting. Each time I attacked myself with a binge-purge episode, I destroyed more of my spirit, self-worth and health.
Bulimia robbed me of any joy and peace. It felt like a prison in which my soul was a prisoner who was beaten down daily.
I went on to get married and have children, and I hid my behavior from them all. I lived with daily depression, anxiety and low self-worth. Along with this, my health was deteriorating. I had chronic acid reflux, dehydration, cardiac arrhythmia, major dental problems, swollen salivary glands and chronic migraine headaches. My cholesterol was high, I always felt fatigued, and I lived with chronic physical and emotional pain.
Because of the large amounts of food I was consuming, I began to gain a lot of weight even though I was purging daily. And after decades of purging, it became more difficult, physically, for me to purge the food. So my weight continued to increase until I hit 230 pounds. The purging was no longer working to prevent weight gain. All of this became too much to manage. I wanted to be free of my life-destroying food addictions and bulimia.
Letting Go of Addictive Foods
I started attending a 12-step addiction recovery group every week. Seeing others who were able to be honest about their own addictions gave me courage to do the same. This experience helped me step out of my isolation and face the fact that I needed help to overcome my addictions.
The first step in my recovery was to admit to myself that my life was completely unmanageable, and that I was powerless to overcome bulimia and food addiction. I was entirely ready to change and had the will to begin.
I realized that the pain of the problem was worse than the pain of the solution. The amazing thing about this honest realization of defeat was that recovery was finally able to begin.
I decided to act with the tiniest ray of hope, and on Nov. 1, 2011, I got really honest with myself: I stopped blaming everyone else and my circumstance, and decided I was going to get off sugar and the chemically addictive foods I craved. I felt that if I could abstain from these foods, I could possibly reclaim my health.
I took one day at a time, and it was very hard to change and manage my urges. For me, abstinence worked best because I could not control my addiction by using moderation. I was a food addict and bulimic, and had to face those facts head on.
I began a regular exercise program of strength training, walking, swimming and yoga. The movement and exercise helped me become more aware of my body, and it also helped the emotional symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Seeking Help for My Bulimia
I started feeling better and lost 50 pounds. But I still had a big challenge ahead of me: Conquering the bulimia. I was still bingeing and purging. By now I had been bulimic for 38 years. I was almost 51 years old, and I knew I could not keep doing this forever.
The thought of not having bulimia as a coping mechanism was very frightening. Bulimia was my best friend and worst enemy at the same time.
I felt ashamed and self-conscious, and was constantly trying to hide my secret. It digs into you, creating dark thoughts as it undercuts your self-esteem. Life simply becomes a tiring show as you try to put on a happy face to hide your dark secret. I feared talking about it or exposing it. I knew that the only way through it would be to face it and start to change.
One day I was at the gym and saw a flyer a therapist had posted. I liked what I read but did not have the courage to call her. A few weeks later I saw her at the gym and asked if I could make an appointment. When I met with her she was kind, nonjudgmental and very positive. She told me that if I did purge, to try to not shame myself over it. She empathically listened to my story and brought out my strengths, helping me to bring my bulimia out of the darkness and into the light.
She also helped me see that I did not have to define myself by the bulimia or the emotions I felt. As I began to ponder all of her positive, kind and compassionate words, I began to have a real, sustained desire to change my life. I began to trust her, and her words of kindness and belief in me.
On June 20, 2013, I mustered all the courage I had, and decided I would try and go just one day without bingeing and purging. I had a great fear of gaining weight in the recovery process, but I had to accept the fact that I might gain more weight in order to get free of the bulimia. It was very hard in the beginning to keep food in my body and not want to purge. But slowly, through trial and error, I began to accept my food and not allow it to be my enemy.
I realized this process would take time and be uncomfortable in the beginning. I just kept trying to relearn how to eat without purging. I began using intuitive eating, where I recognized hunger and fullness, for the first time in my life. I went one day, then another and another. To change my thoughts and behaviors, and to look honestly at what got me here, takes the deepest commitment I have ever made. It has been an incredible journey of learning how to eat healthy foods, keep food in my body, resist the urge to purge and get free of my food addictions.
I am developing the inner strength to bear my feelings, sit with them, not judge them and verbalize them instead of acting them out in my eating disorder. I am learning that I am enough. The food I have is enough, my body is enough, and I have enough of everything I need right now.
My inner strength grows as I continue my daily journey. I no longer see myself as irreparably damaged and defective. Each day I approach food by asking myself, “Is what I am eating in my own best interest?” I have come to realize that when I act in my own best interest, it is in the best interest of everyone I love.