First anorexic, then bulimic, I always found new ways to punish myself.
Finally, I'm whole again.
By Ellyn Mantell.
Recently I was out for dinner and ran into a woman I had not seen since leaving Emerson College in 1968. As we reminisced, I wondered if she had ever known how much I was suffering back then. At that time, few people had even heard of anorexia nervosa, the disorder that plagued me.
Anorexia and its counterpart bulimia have had long-lasting effects on so many aspects of my life. Whereas anorexia destroyed my body and brain, bulimia destroyed my ego, my sense of self-worth, my soul. Today, when friends or acquaintances learn that I was once anorexic, they often ask in jest how they can become "just a little bit anorexic." One is no more a little bit anorexic or bulimic than one can be a little bit pregnant. When you are in it, you are fully consumed. It is truly the embodiment of self-hatred.
I grew up with parents who were bipolar, physically violent and irrational. I was excited to go away to college, but being there brought so much guilt. How would my two younger sisters survive without me to run interference? By the middle of my freshman year, the guilt consumed me. I felt I deserved to suffer; food became my weapon of choice. I ate less and less at each meal. Soon I was just pushing the food around on my plate. Eventually I missed meals altogether, claiming I had eaten in my room, and my friends stopped asking me to join them.
I'd wander around Boston, walking into my favorite cafés just to smell the muffins baking or see ice cream being scooped. I was no longer interested in being attractive to boys, not even to the boyfriend who is now my husband. My thinning hair and darkened teeth ensured that I wouldn't be.
Once a girl who was pursued by every sorority on campus, I now lived alone because no one would share a room with me. My alarm was set to ring every 30 minutes throughout the night so I could exercise away the 12 calories I had consumed.
Despite my obsessive-compulsive behavior, I made the dean's list, participated in a work-study program and baby-sat for a professor's children. How, you ask? I have no idea, but I do know that the euphoria I experienced every time the scale reflected a shrinking me was very motivating.
I returned home for my last two years of college, and became a different kind of sick. I gorged on massive amounts of food until my belly was so distended I was unable to get out of bed to go to class at the local college. My head pounded, but that was just fine. I loved the pain of it all.
I was in therapy, which consisted mainly of taking tranquilizers that clouded my thoughts. And then, with no warning, my father had a heart attack and died. My uncle told me that since there was no money for any more therapy, I had to be a "good girl" and get over this nonsense.
I didn't try therapy again until I got married a few years later. It has taken years of counseling to tie the thread tightly around all the issues that contributed to this disorder. Learning how to feel worthy and loved took hard work. I know now that I could never have protected my sisters from our family life. I have ceased hating myself for that. I have ceased allowing a negative body image to control my life.
My message to others is that food is neither punishment nor reward. It is nourishment, pleasurable nourishment. I want all the women who are wasting precious moments agonizing over food to begin to love their bodies, to understand that their value is not tied to their appearance.
It is more important to me than ever to be a woman who leads by example. I told my two beautiful daughters about my disorder when they were adolescents. I am thrilled to report that they have a normal relationship with food. I also have three young grandchildren with whom I hope to share many hot-fudge sundaes. We will make wonderful memories, and they will know that I love them fully, because I am a whole person. I have gained self-respect, and my mind and body are healthy and strong.
[Mantell lives in Watchung, N.J.]