Anorexia: Four Women Tell All (Cat’s Story)
“Anorexia saved my life.” —Cat
By Cat Saunders
As I write this introduction in September 2011, it’s been nearly twenty years since I conducted in-depth interviews with women who were or had been anorexic. I was one of those women.
The interviews were completed during research for my doctoral dissertation, which examined the relationship between functional neurology and eating disorders. My dissertation also offered a holistic approach to healing anorexia.
When I began working on the interviews in 1992, it was a difficult decision to “interview” myself as a former anorexic, particularly because the interviews cover intimate details about family issues. Recently, when I decided to finally publish the interviews, I went through another layer of fear about making my personal story public.
The admonition not to talk about the family outside the family is strong. But if nobody ever talks about the family outside the family, how can we ever learn anything about what works and what doesn’t? Besides, we’re all part of the human family, so it’s impossible to talk “outside” the family because we’re all in the same one!
In the end, I realized that if I didn’t share my own story, I would be hiding. Making myself vulnerable in the same way I was asking the other women to be vulnerable felt like the most honest thing to do.
Of the women I interviewed, two of them (jill and Leah) graciously gave me permission to publish their interviews. Sadly, one of the other women (Meg) was killed in an automobile accident, but her husband gave me his blessing to use her words. Please note that Meg and Leah are pseudonyms to protect their privacy, while jill and I decided to use our real names.
At the time of the interviews, we ranged in age from 33 to 46. For all of us, our parents were present during our childhood years. With the exception of Meg’s mother, all the parents were still alive at the time of the interviews.
In the years since the interviews were conducted, the rest of us have lost one or both parents, and some of us have lost a brother or a sister as well. The interviews are published here as originally written, in present tense, when speaking about family members who were still alive at the time.
It’s important to note that these women’s stories are told from their own personal perspective. This may seem obvious, but some of the women expressed fears about being unfair, since their perspective is the only one being published.
I assured everyone that the interviews would be presented simply as one perspective, with the understanding that there are many perspectives within any given family. In making this promise, I hoped it would help the women feel safe enough to tell their truth, including the details of any abuse they experienced.
Anorexics tend to hide their truth and often take too much responsibility—even to the extreme degree of taking responsibility for their own abuse.
By sharing our experiences openly, we are giving ourselves the chance to be seen and heard and valued by others. Unfortunately, our openhearted sharing also puts us at risk of being discounted and criticized and shamed.
By offering a personal glimpse of our family experiences and our dance with eating disorders, I hope that others can gain a deeper understanding of the pain—and the power—of the anorexic path.
Do you consider yourself anorexic now?
When do you think it was over, for the most part, and how long did it last?
It’s been a long process, but I remember a specific incident in June of 1985 that symbolized anorexia’s end for me. I was 31, and I had just cut off all the hair I started growing 17 years earlier when my dieting craze began at age 14. My hair fell down below my waist and I cut it off very short.
When I burned all that hair in a fire ritual, a deep moan—like a death cry—came up from deep in my belly. The next day I woke up and knew anorexia was over. When people asked how I knew, I said, “If you had a black cloud over your head for more than fifteen years, you’d probably notice when it was gone, too.”
Obviously, the fire ritual didn’t cause anorexia to end; it was simply my marker. The ritual came after more than fifteen years of therapy and inner work. However, I don’t think the underlying emotional patterns and “crazy thinking” of my eating disorder dissipated at the core—neurological—level until I completed “brain work,” as I call Developmental Movement Therapy.
Through that work, the basic functions of my pons and midbrain were “hooked up” through a daily process of specific physical movements and patterning like all human babies do (or need to do) early in life. It took me three years to complete that work, which is longer than most people require, but typical for people who have anorexia and/or have suffered severe head trauma.
How would you describe the onset of anorexia?
It was a process, but there was a specific triggering incident after which I remember the dieting craze began. I was 14 and had just begun dating. My parents were pretty uptight, both emotionally and sexually, and when I started dating, they became extremely controlling.
We started having power struggles about curfews, clothes, when and whom and how I could date—typical teenage stuff, perhaps, but more extreme. My mother wouldn’t let me have a bra until I said that my breasts were hurting, and they wouldn’t let me shave my legs until long after my peers were doing so.
I remember when they finally let me start wearing nylons in high school, they still wouldn’t let me shave my legs. This was particularly humiliating for me because my legs were really hairy like my brother’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with hairy legs, obviously. It’s just that hairy legs weren’t exactly the style for girls when I was growing up.
In regard to dating, my parents came into the kitchen one morning when I was eating breakfast and started laying down the law again in regard to their dating rules. By this time, my mother had already instructed me that I couldn’t trust myself with boys, and that I couldn’t be sure I would be able to say no.
At some point while I was eating, my father—who had never yelled at me before in my life—exploded viciously, “ALL MEN WILL EVER WANT FROM YOU IS SEX!”
To my amazement now, I had the guts to say back to him, “Well, that says a lot about Mom, doesn’t it?”
He didn’t like that! Things went from bad to worse. It was very traumatic for me. The fact that it happened while I was eating didn’t help. This incident, on top of their constant control around my budding sexuality, conveyed the message to me that it was definitely not okay for me to become a woman. It was after that I began dieting and starving myself.
When I was 30, I had a therapy assignment to talk with my father about sex and anorexia. I told him about the experience just described. I said I could understand that maybe he had confusing feelings about me when I started becoming a woman.
He denied ever having any sexual feelings at all in regard to me, and told me he would rather I had become a streetwalker—a whore—instead of becoming anorexic. What a statement!
What was your height and weight at the lowest point of anorexia, and what is your so-called normal weight?
I am 5’9″ tall, and at my lowest point, I weighed 105 pounds. Normal weight for 5’9″ is about 145 pounds according to insurance charts, although more recent BMI (body mass index) charts show a range with anything below 125 considered underweight.
My average weight before anorexia was 130-135 pounds, although it ballooned up to 150 for a short time just before I started starving myself.
Whatever the “normal” range is, my weight post-anorexia—eating heartily four meals a day—has averaged 125 pounds.
How did anorexia manifest for you?
I was severely anorexic from age 17 to 31, and I was bulimic from age 18 to 26. The anorexia began as a dieting craze, and it got out of hand. I weighed myself every morning, and if I weighed a fraction over what I thought I should weigh, my body would “shut down.” I would literally stop feeling hunger, and I would eat less. It was only okay to lose weight—or at least, not to gain anything.
I ate very scientifically, based on whatever diet information I was currently reading. I had prescribed times to eat food and drink water, and I elevated calorie-counting to a high art. There were lots of foods that were “bad” or “scary,” and the list got longer as I became more anorexic, until there were only a few “safe” foods.
Most of the time, I ate alone. Food was so precious that I wanted it to be my only focus. I couldn’t socialize and eat at the same time without getting an upset stomach, because I was so sensitive to other people’s energies. Also, I hated feeling harassed by people’s invasive interest in my eating habits. Though I’m able to eat with people now, I still prefer meals eaten in silence. I would have done well as a monk!
In addition to my food habits, I was an exercise addict. If I didn’t exercise, I could almost feel myself gaining weight. I felt like I had to do my workout in order to ” earn” my food. I would get very agitated if I missed a workout.
Besides the anorexia, I was bulimic for eight years. My style was to binge and then throw up immediately. Eventually, it got so bad that I couldn’t always eat a regular meal without throwing up. Sometimes I binged and vomited several times a day. I must have thrown up thousands of times in those eight years.
As a result, I lost the enamel surfaces of nine of my previously perfect molars, due to stomach-acid erosion. It cost several thousand dollars to have my molars ground down and reconstructed in gold crowns. This devastation to my teeth has also led to increasingly complicated dental and TMJ problems—problems that get worse and more expensive to fix as time goes on.
I feel great sadness about the cost to my body from anorexia and bulimia. My organs are still recovering from the starvation and vomiting and some parts of my body will never be as strong as they were before I was ill.
Sometimes I have blamed myself or felt guilty about the cost to my body, as if I was “bad” or “wrong” for being sick. For the most part, though, I feel deep compassion for myself as a person who was in so much pain that anorexia and bulimia seemed like the only way to survive.
Do you think you were anorexic before you admitted it?
Definitely. In 1975, after I’d been anorexic—without knowing it—for about four years, my mother sent me an article about anorexia. She had this habit—which I hated—of sending articles with no note attached when she wanted to make a point without saying it directly herself. I remember being incensed that she was implying I was anorexic—a sure sign of my denial!
Did others know you were anorexic, besides your mother guessing? If so, who else knew, and how did they respond to you?
It’s important to mention that today’s high level of media awareness about eating disorders was simply not present when I became anorexic in the early 1970s. I started starving myself at least ten years before public awareness about anorexia became more widespread in the early 1980s.
In my case, anorexia kicked into high gear after I left home for college. To this day, my parents still say that their only major mistake as parents was to allow me and my sister to go to private colleges. I guess I wasn’t the only one with a tendency for denial!
When I lost a lot of weight my freshman year at college, they were understandably concerned. At the time, however, there was no awareness of eating disorders, so all they knew was that I was getting weird about food and dieting.
When my anorexia got worse, and as public awareness increased, I think my mother tried to understand in her own way. By the early 1980s, I’d been emaciated for more than a decade. At that point, I think my mother realized at some level that her youngest daughter was truly suffering. Unfortunately, however, her response was crazy-making for me.
On one hand, she was angered by my refusal to eat whatever she wanted me to eat when I visited their home. On the other hand, she had done some reading about anorexia, and she knew it wasn’t good for her to be controlling about food, so she tried to stop doing that so much.
In addition to the food issues, my mother consistently denied any responsibility for her part in the family system, psychologically speaking. Both she and my father were—and continue to be—galvanized in the position that I was “the problem” and they had nothing to do with it.
In family therapy in the mid-1980s, it came out that I had binge-vomited at home—not just when I was away at college. When my father heard this, he looked at me in disgust and said, “You did that at home?”
On the flip side, I had friends who were aware of my eating disorder. Without exception, they were patient, kind, nonjudgmental, and accepting. The love of my friends is one of the main reasons I am still alive.
What was it like for you growing up in your family?
It was a mixed bag. On one hand, my parents worked hard—my father at his profession and my mother at home—to create a comfortable and stable environment for us to grow up. We lived in the same house for most of my childhood, which was great.
We had about 3/4 of an acre, which provided enough land to have a big garden for growing vegetables. My mother would then freeze or can the produce so we had home-grown vegetables year-round.
My mother cooked three meals a day for us, day in and day out (I have no idea how she did that!). She was an awesome cook and baker, and we had sit-down family dinners every night. This was wonderful in many ways and difficult for me in other ways.
On a practical level, my mother taught me how to make a beautiful home, prepare meals, and bake up a storm. I learned a lot about basic nutrition from her as well. My brother didn’t get any of this instruction, because gender roles were strictly followed in terms of who did what in the household. I remember my brother calling me in college to ask how to boil an egg!
My family played games at home. I remember that Scrabble and Monopoly were a couple of favorites. We also had fun together in other ways. My family went hiking and camping a lot, and my parents took us traveling cross-country when I was a kid.
I had a good time with my older brother and the neighbor boys, because I was a tomboy when I was young and we were all pretty close in age. Later in high school, I “stole” my brother’s best friend for several months so I could date him (it didn’t last long, and happily, their friendship is still going strong now).
I also had a sister, ten years older, whom I adored. Sadly, my sister left the family in 1978. That was a devastating loss for me even though I understood and supported her exit from the family. I may have left the family myself but I didn’t have the heart to “bereave” my parents of both their daughters.
When we were children, my parents let my brother and me play hard, both inside and outside the house. They didn’t expect me to get a job until I was out of high school and needed to contribute to my college expenses.
My parents paid for four years of college for all three of us—tuition as well as room and board. That was incredibly generous and required tremendous sacrifice on their part, and I remain grateful for that gift.
When I was growing up, I think my family had a typical sort of 1950s normalcy to all outward appearances, but I think there were some serious undercurrents of tension below the surface. I became more aware of these tensions as I got older, although I’m guessing they were probably present throughout my childhood.
My father told me that when my sister was 13, she threatened to leave home. He told her to go ahead, but that if she left, she couldn’t come back. He also added that he doubted she could make it alone. Obviously, something was amiss at home, not only in regard to my sister wanting to leave at such an early age, but also in regard to my father responding to her like that.
In my family, there was a big emphasis on achievement, and this emphasis was both directly stated and modeled, as well as indirectly inferred in a hundred subtle ways. We were expected to “always do our best” no matter what.
Although I appreciate the value of having some level of healthy expectation for one’s children, the problem for me was that I could never figure out how I’d know what “best” was. As a result, I never knew when to stop trying to do even better, because whatever I did never felt like enough.
There was a lot of shaming and criticism in my family, both overtly and covertly. The shame and criticism could involve almost anything, and I think it was one of my parents’ primary means of “discipline” and control.
On a mundane level, I remember my mother criticizing me for such things as using my teeth to take food off my fork. I also remember her mimicking me and shaming me for how much I smiled when I spoke. Apparently, she thought this prevented me from enunciating my words clearly enough.
By the time I went to college, I had stopped saying much to anyone except my closest friends. I remember my freshman year, one of my classmates asked me if I even knew how to talk!
When that happened, I realized I definitely had a problem—I had retreated from people far too much, even kind people. So I took a speech class to force myself back into the world of socializing. Once I started talking more again, it took many years and lots of therapy before I felt safe enough to show any emotional expression in my face, aside from just voicing words.
Growing up as a passionate person in family that denigrated emotions, I had learned to be as “invisible” as possible by having a stoneface. Anorexia was another way I tried to “disappear” and be invisible in order to feel safe. It didn’t really work, of course, but that was part of what anorexia was about for me.
I have learned more about the pervasive level of shaming and criticism in my family by noticing how much work it’s been for me—as an adult—to clean up critical and shaming behavior in myself. I’ve been working on this issue for years, and I’m still working on it.
As a professional counselor, I know that my own critical, manipulative, and controlling tendencies did not appear out of nowhere. I learned them by example, day in and day out. It was the ocean I swam in.
During my twenties, I discovered more about how I was treated as a child by watching my automatic reactions when I tried to raise a kitten that my then-husband and I had brought home to live with us. I was horrified to see how cruel my automatic responses could be sometimes when that helpless little creature didn’t behave the way I wanted him to behave.
At the time (my mid-twenties), I felt sick at heart when I saw that my “default” behavior when our kitten misbehaved did not tend toward gentleness. Instead, my automatic response went toward overt and escalating attempts to control him.
In addition to being distressed by my treatment of our kitten, I was also distressed to realize that the behavior I was witnessing in myself—in my own automatic responses—was most likely a picture of the way I had been treated if I misbehaved when I was a helpless little creature.
Another way I learned more about how I was probably treated as a child was by watching my mother with my brother’s son when he was a toddler. I was shocked to see that my mother—who professes to love children—treated her grandson like some kind of automaton to be controlled, instead of a vulnerable little being who deserves kindness and respect.
As I teenager, I listened carefully when my parents talked about my older sister, since I adored and looked up to her as a role model. My sister was an artist and a sculptor. After she completed her MFA and moved to Canada, my parents spoke with undisguised disgust about her career choice, saying she wasn’t a contributing member of society if she was “just” an artist.
This message was not necessarily for women only, but since my sister is female and the only person in the family I identified with, I “got” that I should squelch my creative side. My older brother became a businessman, and I noticed that he got lots of strokes for that.
The different messages for males and females in our family continued throughout adulthood. It was clear that my sister and I were the “black sheep” and my brother was the “white knight,” although my parents would surely deny how differently they treated us.
As adults, my brother and I talked about him having a whole different set of problems as a result of always being told that everything he did was right. I definitely didn’t struggle with that!
One of my strongest memories of childhood is sitting around in my room, feeling guilty, and wondering what I had done wrong. I could never come up with anything. I just felt guilty all the time.
When I was 30, I took a 40-year-old friend to my parents’ house for a dinner visit. Afterward he said, “Do you realize that when your brother talks, your parents put down their forks and listen intently? But when you talk, they don’t even pay attention.”
I was stunned. He was right! I was so used to being invisible that I never noticed how blatant it was until my friend’s objective observation woke me up.
How did your parents treat you at puberty?
As I mentioned before, my parents were very strict and controlling. They also gave me a lot of double messages about sexuality. On one hand, my mother would make proud comments about me becoming a woman and starting to menstruate. On the other hand, she would tell me I couldn’t trust myself as a woman when I was with men.
On one hand, my father would say, “Stand up straight and stick your chest out, now that there’s something to show!” On the other hand, he screamed at me that all men would ever want from me was sex. It was crazy-making.
Describe your mother, from your understanding now.
When I was doing relationship intensives in the mid-1980s, we were asked to describe our parents by listing words and phrases to paint a picture of them. When we got done, the workshop leaders asked us to bottom-line it.
My bottom-line for my mother was, “My mother is two people.” The same thing happened when I did the exercise in relation to my father.
I would say that my mother is resourceful, smart, creative, a good writer, highly organized, practical, a great household manager, and in many ways very generous.
On the flip side, she is extremely judgmental, overly concerned with appearances, morally fundamentalist, and as far as I can tell, unaware of her capacity for emotional cruelty.
My mother can be warm and sociable in situations where she feels in control, yet she can be cold as ice if she doesn’t like someone or they do something she doesn’t like. “The Ice Queen” was one of my private names for my mother when I was doing family therapy.
“Being productive” was very important to my mother, so I remember that she was always doing something and rarely idle. In addition, my mother believed that putting others first—even if you must overextend to do it—is the best way to live.
Although my mother has been truly generous in many ways, I discovered over time that her giving often came with strings. It took me a long time to understand that the shadow side of giving is control.
Despite my mother’s controlling and critical style, I’m pretty sure she would deny that she harbors any “negativity.” She believes in “accentuating the positive” and apparently didn’t notice the contradiction between this belief and her penchant for criticism.
On the sweet side of things, my mother has a delightful streak of childlike innocence that comes out when she feels safe. To many people outside the family, and according to my father, my mother is a “saint.” She strongly identifies with the “mother” role, and I think she honestly loves her children, although her concept of love is different from mine in many ways.
My mother professes to love life, yet somehow the animal passion seems to be missing—or maybe it’s so tightly controlled that it’s like keeping a dancer in a cage. I also sense that she is deeply starved for attention. But since she doesn’t feel comfortable asking directly for what she needs, I think she tries to get her needs met in covert or manipulative ways—again, without realizing she’s doing that.
My mother’s stated philosophy of life is that “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a puzzle to be solved.” She is proud of the fact that she has never questioned anything in her life. She is well-read, but as far as I can tell, she’s not open to ideas that conflict with her belief system.
If you were to ask her, my mother would probably say that everything is fine in her life, even though she has a daughter who left the family, a son who is seriously workaholic and probably alcoholic, and another daughter who suffered many years of anorexia, bulimia, manic-depression, and drug addiction (marijuana).
Occasionally, my mother intimates that she wonders why her daughters don’t want to see her, but her basic stance has generally been that she has no problems and that she just needs to “emphasize the positive.”
Describe your father, from your understanding now.
If I had to describe my father in a few words, I’d say he is sensitive, intelligent, psychologically savvy, articulate, philosophical, perfectionist, outwardly evolved but intolerant in many ways under the surface, innately passionate but emotionally repressed, workaholic by force but not by nature, and a romantic at heart.
My father was an alcoholic before marrying my mother. He stopped drinking before marrying her, but he never worked on his “stuff,” psychologically speaking, so the alcoholic patterns remained intact. I was 30 and in graduate school before I ever heard the term “dry drunk”—someone who stops drinking but doesn’t work on the underlying problems.
The research I read about dry drunks spoke about how difficult it can be for children to be raised by a dry drunk, because the kids are subjected to crazy-making behavior without having anything to “hang their hat on” or point to, in terms of actual alcohol use. As a result, the children often end up thinking they are the crazy ones. This was most definitely true for me.
My father has a deeply emotional nature, which he calls an “artistic” nature, similar to my sister and me. Also like me, my father had bouts with insanity in early adulthood.
When I was 21 in 1975, I experienced my first psychotic break. That year and the following year, I had three psychiatric hospitalizations, and in 1976, I was diagnosed with manic-depression (now called bipolar disorder). I took lithium for eight years, going off the medication in 1984 with the encouragement and guidance of my doctor.
After my first psychotic break, my father confessed to me that he had suffered nervous breakdowns twice in the army. When he was in his late teens, Hitler was on the scene and the United States had not yet entered World War II.
Because my father felt strongly that Hitler needed to be stopped, he went to Canada to enlist in their Army, because that country joined the war effort before the United States did. After our country went to war, he came back and joined the U.S. Army.
For better or worse, my father never went overseas because his nervous breakdowns happened while he was in training. He spent two three-month stints in “snake-pit” psych wards in the Army. At some point, a psychiatrist told him there was nothing wrong with him that the responsibility of a wife and children wouldn’t cure, so he got married and had us three kids.
During my childhood, my mother would never let my father talk to us kids about his past, even when we asked questions. The message was clear that there was something shameful about my father’s life, so we were never allowed to discuss it. Naturally, this restriction only served to make me all the more curious!
When I was 30, I asked my father if I could interview him for a family of origin assignment as part of my master’s degree program in psychology. My father agreed to do the interview, but only on the condition that I never tell my mother he had told me about his past.
It was incredibly healing for me to finally hear my father tell his story. It seemed to be a healing experience for my father as well. I can only imagine what a relief it must have been for him to finally give himself permission to tell someone the truth about his life.
The more I listened to him talk, the sadder I felt about his and my mother’s ageement to hide his past from my siblings and me. As far as I was concerned, my father had nothing to be ashamed of—and in fact, hearing his story made me respect him even more for what he had overcome.
My father had a horrendous childhood. He was an only child, and his father deserted him and his mother when my father was five years old. His mother left him in boarding houses after that.
As a teenager, my father said he used to hold a gun to his head in bed at night, trying to get up the courage to shoot himself. That story breaks my heart, not only because of the terrible pain he was suffering, but also because of how alone he was.
Since my father went crazy in his late teens, he said he decided early in life to turn against his “artistic” nature. As a result, he never found what he loved doing, so he settled for doing what he did well, which was business.
I remember when I was in college I told my father I wanted to take singing lessons. He told me there was no point in doing that, since he said I had no talent for singing, and he said it was pointless to waste time and money pursuing anything that wouldn’t pay off somehow later (professionally). I was crestfallen.
It took me years to realize that my father’s response wasn’t so much about me as about his having never been encouraged to enjoy himself, much less find his own passion.
I never took singing lessons, but years later, I finally started singing alone at home and eventually got hooked on chanting. Once I did, I knew that singing is essential for my life, and that’s the best payoff of all.
What was your parents’ relationship like when you were growing up?
I think my parents have always really loved each other, even though I have my own judgments about the way they relate to each other. Above all, my parents were and are a “united front.”
I never saw my parents fight. When I was a teenager, I asked my father why they never had conflict, and he said something to the effect of, “Your mother and I found out early in our marriage what we disagreed about, and we just never talked about it again.”
Amazing, huh? As if new things never come up! And did that mean they could never change their minds about whatever it was they decided early in their marriage?
I think my parents really didn’t have fights per se, but they sure as hell had their ways of being upset, whether it was with us or with each other. I think my mother would express anger with shaming or critical statements, and my father would do the same. My father would also use the “silent treatment” and stop talking for long periods, or he would withdraw to the bedroom and sleep.
Also, I think their relationship conflict primarily came out toward and through the kids, especially the two daughters. By nature and temperament, my parents are as different as night and day, though my father once described them as ” two peas in a pod.”
To be fair, I think my parents were genuinely best friends and lovers as best they knew how. They supported each other as true comrades-in-arms in raising a family, even though the division of labor was stereotypically sexist as was common in those days.
For example, when I asked my parents whose opinion ruled when there was a disagreement (not that they ever had any!), my mother immediately answered that she would always defer to my father. She said she felt his judgment was best.
Do you know anything about your birth?
There are two stories about my birth. One I was told when I was ten, and the other came when I was doing birth research on myself when I was a therapist and rebirther. I choose to believe the original version, before my mother was worried about how it might look from a psychological standpoint.
I was born on January 21, 1954, in a doctor’s office on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Seventeen inches of snow had fallen in a huge blizzard the night before. The nurse was there, but the doctor was late because of the snow, so the nurse asked my mother to hold back. When the doctor finally arrived, I was born quickly.
Because the storm had knocked the power out, there were no lights and no heat, so they had to keep my mother and me warm with whatever hot water bottles they had on hand. I’m glad I managed to be born in a quiet and dark room, but it was shockingly cold!
I’m sure some people will doubt this, but I’ve re-experienced my birth a number of times during intense breathwork sessions as an adult. I don’t just remember the physical environment, either. I also remember being furious about being held back, because I was ready to come out!
Did you have any head injuries or accidents before the onset of anorexia?
Yes. My birth may have caused some degree of brain hurt because I was held back. Typically, a baby would be held back by having the mother squeeze her legs together, which puts pressure on the infant’s soft cranial bones and so, on the brain.
In addition, research over the last few decades about common birthing practices in America has shown that babies can suffer some degree of brain hurt due the common but unnecessary act of turning babies upside-down and slapping them to start their breathing. This slapping can create a forceful whiplash effect, since the baby’s spine has been curled up in the opposite direction inside the womb for nine months.
Even without this slapping, one of my doctoral mentors (who is neurodevelopmental therapist) said that seven out of ten babies experience some degree of brain hurt just by being born. This hurt can be corrected during the first few years of life if babies are given what they needs to grow and develop. But the point is, birth is not an easy process, even when there aren’t serious complications.
When I was three, I had a rather significant head injury when I flipped on my trike going down a hill, smashing up my face. I remember kicking and screaming in pain and fear in the doctor’s office while he sewed up my bloody mouth.
When I was eight, I smashed my face again when I was hit by a huge tree branch that my brother and I and our friends “rode” down to the ground from the top of our tree fort. One of our neighbor friends had just ridden the branch to the ground, and when it snapped back up, it hit me square in the face. I remember that my father’s main concern was that the tree accident might ruin my looks.
When I was seventeen, a truck ran a stop sign and hit me while I was riding my bike about 30 mph down a hill. My bicycle was totaled and I was knocked across the street, unconscious. I was also in a motorcycle accident with my brother in my late teens, and I got another concussion from that.
Have you ever been suicidal?
Yes, off and on for years in my twenties and early thirties.
Have you ever tried suicide?
Nothing overt. Something happened for me at age nineteen, which made me decide that suicide was not an option for me. I read a book by Raymond Moody called Life After Life. This was the early seventies, and he and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross were beginning to write about people’s near-death experiences.
Moody reported that the only people who seemed to have a bad time with death (at least, those who had clinically died and then been revived) were those who killed themselves thinking they could escape from something. I realize now that suicide is not a black-or-white matter, and it is not always about escape. Even so, when I first read Moody’s research at age 19, his perspective stuck with me.
Basically, I realized that killing myself to escape my emotional pain was not going to work, because in a sense, there was nowhere to go! That kept me alive until I had something deeper to sustain me.
Were you emotionally neglected or abused?
In my parents’ eyes, probably not. From my perspective, in terms of what I needed as a person, yes.
It might be helpful if I say how I define abuse so you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here’s the definition I use in my book: Abuse occurs when someone uses another person to meet a need in a way that harms, coerces, or devalues the other person.
Obviously, we all use other people to get our needs met, and there’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s a mutually supportive exchange. Problems occur when it’s not mutually supportive.
Of course, there are degress of abuse ranging from unintended disrespect to full-blown brutality. In addition, a victim may not recognize that he or she is being abused (indeed, some victims have been conditioned to believe the abuse is a sign of “love”). On the flip side, the offending party may not recognize—or may deny—that he or she is perpetrating any level of abuse.
It’s difficult for me to talk about my upbringing in terms of what I perceive as abusive, because I realize that my perceptions are just my perceptions, and there are many ways to look at things. As a result, I sometimes feel like I’m being unfair if I express opinions about my parents that present them in an unfavorable light.
On the other hand, I realize that I myself am one of those people who was conditioned to believe that certain kinds of behavior were “loving” when, in fact, I didn’t experience those behaviors as loving, nor would I describe them as loving now that I’m an adult.
As far as I’m concerned, shaming someone is one of the worst things you can do to a person, because it chips away—and in some cases decimates—the soul. When the soul is debilitated, the body follows suit and eventually, loses its will to live.
One of my longtime heroes, Andrew Vachss, says that of all the forms of abuse he has witnessed in his career, he considers emotional abuse to be the worst. When you consider that Vachss is an attorney who goes after predators who prey on children—and when you understand that in his experience, the luckiest child in some families is the one who doesn’t survive—his statement about emotional abuse being the worst is even more chilling.
In the end, I decided to step through my fears and my conditioning in order to share my perspective about what did and didn’t work for me in my family. By doing so, I’m hoping that my story may be of support to others who are struggling or have struggled with anorexia.
I also offer my perspective in case it can be helpful to families, friends, and helping professionals who know, work with, or love someone whose life has been touched by anorexia.
Were you physically neglected or abused?
This is tricky, because my parents always provided food and shelter and basic necessities, and I’m sincerely grateful for that. I was hit (spanked) a couple of times as a child, and in my book, any and all hitting is abuse.
However, to be fair, spanking definitely wasn’t my parents’ main form of discipline. Also, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was less understanding about the physical and psychological ramifications of corporal punishment. Not that this ignorance made even one spanking okay. I don’t think it’s ever okay for a parent to hit a child. Period.
I don’t know where this memory comes from or who was involved, but I have a strong memory of being smothered with a pillow when I was an infant. My sense is that whoever was caring for me at the time thought I was making too much noise and that was my caregiver’s solution to the problem.
For me growing up, I somehow got the message that bodies were a shameful subject. I don’t know exactly how this message was conveyed, but I know it was very hard for me to talk with my parents about anything related to my body, especially once I started becoming a woman.
My budding sexuality, as mentioned earlier, was shamed and controlled in various ways, which affected me physically in profound ways that I am still healing.
I remember an incident that happened with my father at the beginning of puberty. One night after dinner, after everyone else had left the dining room, my father and I were standing near the table talking. Out of the blue, he told me to put my arm out. Thinking nothing of it, I extended my right arm toward him.
Without saying a word, he grasped my wrist and gave it a quick twist in a certain way that sent waves of excruciating pain up to my shoulder. I cried out in pain and pulled my arm away. It felt like he had broken my arm.
My arm wasn’t broken, but it was clear to me that he could have broken it if he wanted to. I was shocked. My father said nothing about what he had just done. All I could make of it was that he wanted me to know that he could physically overpower me and hurt me if he wanted to.
Another story about my father comes to mind. I don’t remember if I heard about this from my father or from my brother. The story was that one time, my brother was mad at our mother and said out loud that he hated her. When my brother said that, my father pinned my brother up against the wall in a neck hold.
The fact that these incidents were not my father’s typical behavior somehow made them even more intense for me. Knowing that he could flip from loving father to abusive father in a split second—with or without provocation—created an environment where the implied threat was always there.
By the time I was a teenager, I was already well-trained to be a good girl and I was duly fearful of displeasing my parents. Knowing that my father could and would hurt me physically if he deemed it necessary only served to increase my fear of him as a father and as a man.
What was your parents’ response to your having needs?
Even though my basic physical needs were addressed and cared for, I remember saying things like “I’m cold” or “I’m hungry” and being told by my mother that I couldn’t be cold because it was warm out, or I couldn’t be hungry because I just ate. It was confusing for me to be told that I didn’t know what I was feeling or what I needed, but she did.
In regard to emotional needs, my parents considered emotions to be a sign of weakness or immaturity, so feelings were generally shamed, criticized, or simply denied.
I learned early in life not to go to my parents for emotional support. I remember crying myself to sleep a lot, alone in my bed.
Was there any emphasis on appearances—either in terms of how you looked, or how the family looked?
Both, definitely. In answer to a previous question, I mentioned that my father was sometimes more concerned about my looks than about my being hurt. There was a lot of emphasis on being “presentable.”
My parents were critical and controlling about how I dressed, especially once I hit puberty, and both parents thought it was okay to comment on my body, not just the way I was dressed. I certainly wasn’t allowed to make comments about their butts or breasts, but I remember them making comments about mine. It was embarrassing for me.
In terms of the family and outside appearances, there was a big rule: “Don’t talk about the family outside the family.” I think it’s hilarious that I became a writer. They never said I couldn’t write about the family!
What were your family’s rules about conflict?
Don’t have it! Or at least, pretend it doesn’t exist. If you really want to win points, try to be in so much denial that you actually believe you never experience conflict.
Were you shamed or criticized?
Yes, both, excessively. However, my parents might well deny my experience in this regard and say that I am simply “too sensitive” or that I have “such an imagination.”
Were you controlled in any way?
Oh, no, not at all! I think I’ve answered that one already.
What was your family’s relationship to feelings?
Don’t have them! As I mentioned previously, feelings were not okay. They were considered shameful and a sign of immaturity. It wasn’t even okay to be “too happy” or at least, not to express it too exuberantly or for too long—because that would be inappropriate or show that you were out of control.
I remember when I was young, my parents would orchestrate these awful “family discussions.” Actually, a discussion meant that my brother or I was doing something they didn’t like, and they wanted to lay down the law about it under the guise of talking about everything democratically.
During these so-called discussions, I would be the only one who showed any emotion. I would start to cry not only because I knew I was somehow in trouble, but also because the tension in the room was so thick.
Seeing my tears, my mother would say to me coldly, “We hope that when you grow up, you will be able to have these discussions without getting upset.”
One time when I was a teenager, I asked my parents why they never told me they loved me. They said, “You should assume we love you.”
What kind of communication happened in your family?
Indirect, always indirect. I learned to read looks, decipher mood shifts, and second-guess my parents’ needs. In addition, I found out what my mother wanted by hearing it from my father, and vice versa. Neither one spoke for themselves directly.
Also, if my mother wanted me to do something, she would say, “Would you like to do such-and-such for me?” Apparently, she didn’t actually want to know if I wanted to do whatever it was, as I discovered one time when I said no. You can probably guess what happened after that!
What was your family’s relationship to food, eating, and mealtimes?
Food was a major focus in my family, with my mother at the helm. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was a great cook, and she made three meals a day, day in and day out. I have no idea how she kept that up!
Though my understanding of nutrition has changed dramatically since I started researching it more deeply as an adult, I’m still grateful for what my mother taught me in childhood about basic nutrition. Even so, there was way too much emphasis on food in my family.
We were supposed to be hungry at the times my mother set for meals. We had to eat whatever she put on our plates, and we had to eat all our dinner in order to be allowed dessert. If we didn’t like something, we still had to eat some of it.
Dinnertime was expressly important as the time when the family would be together every day. I remember there was a kind of tense expectation that dinners should be “pleasant,” since it was the main time we spent with our father, and he was always tired from work.
The food was good, and there was always enough to eat, which was nice, but there was always an air of control. There were lots of rules about what to eat and how to eat and whether we were dressed appropriately and what we were allowed to talk about.
Dinner at our house was definitely not a casual affair where you could eat if you were hungry and eat whatever felt right for your body. It felt more like “you will eat what and when I feed you and you will be grateful for it.” I truly was grateful for the delicious food, but all the tension surrounding mealtime was difficult for me.
I remember as a child that I ate very slowly and savored my food. But I ate so slowly that my family made fun of me, and eventually, everyone just got up and left me there alone, even though my parents had a rule that nobody was allowed to leave the table until everyone was done eating. I felt so ashamed that I learned to eat at lightning speed when I was with them, so I could finish first and avoid their ostracism.
Desserts were a particular area of control in my family, especially around holidays, when they were hidden away to save them for guests. There was also a big deal made about my brother and me getting exactly the same amount of any goodie, and even our milk had to be poured to exactly the same level.
There was a big show about my brother and me being treated equally in every way, but that just seems funny to me now. It’s more like we grew up in two different families!
I remember once when I returned to my parents’ home to live for a year when I was 22. I had been suicidal after three psychiatric hospitalizations, and my mother asked me to come back to live with them until I got better. As you can imagine, it was difficult to go back into the family system again.
For one thing, during my first hospitalization, I knew my mother had told my doctors that my psychotic break was “punishment for being promiscuous.” Apparently, having any sex at all without being married defined “promiscuity” for her.
Even though it was hard to be in their home again, I’m grateful they helped me out because I truly was in terrible shape. I was so depressed that I was sleeping 20 hours a day, getting up only to eat meals. It took me a year to recover my health and go back to work again.
I’m mentioning that year at my parents’ house because of an interesting food story that took place during that time. One night when my father saw me making myself a snack before bed, he said, “Someday you’ll have a man, and you won’t have to sublimate.”
What a statement!
What were your parents’ expectations for you when you grew up?
As I mentioned in regard to my sister, it was definitely not okay to be an artist. It was very clear that I was to be an upstanding member of society, and that I was to contribute to society by paying taxes and by having a good job.
One time I asked my parents if they had a conscious reason for having children, and if so, what that reason was in my case. They said they had me because they didn’t want my brother to be raised as an only child, the way my older sister was, and my father also told me they had me so I could “make a contribution to the world.”
Beyond that, I think my parents’ original expectations were that I would grow up, get married, and have a successful career as well. It was always clear from the beginning that I was supposed to be independent, because it was shameful to be dependent on anyone for anything.
I think they also hoped I would have children. However, beginning at the ripe old age of 14, I was very outspoken about my desire to remain childless in this lifetime, so they knew better than to pressure me about that.
I did get married—twice—and was twice divorced. The first time, my ex-husband and I split amicably after seven years together. We didn’t discuss with my parents our reasons for separating, because we had never discussed our relationship with them.
When we invited my parents over to our house to let them know about the divorce, my mother literally went over and stood by my soon-to-be ex, thanking him for “supporting our daughter through all her problems.” He and I both thought that was incredibly presumptuous, not to mention pretty heartless.
The second time I married, it was a very short lesson in the dark side, as I call it—great for my future work helping other women recognize and leave abusive relationships, but not so great for me at the time!
My second husband and I were married for just a year, but we only lived in the same house for the last six months of that year. I actually knew the whole thing was a mistake from the first night of our marriage, but unfortunately, I didn’t have the guts to get out immediately.
It was 1986 and books about codependence and abusive relationships were just beginning to hit the mainstream media. I remember my husband being incensed when I brought home a book called Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.
One night after six months of living with him, two of my close friends came over one night when my husband was away and got me and all my stuff out of the house. When I phoned my mother later to tell her I was leaving the abusive relationship, my mother’s only comment was, “Well, are you sure you can make it alone?”
I’m now happily partnered for life to a man I’ve known since 1983 and been living with since 1987. We plan to stay unmarried by choice. My parents don’t honor relationships without marriage, but I think they are finally beginning to see that it is a happy and a healthy one.
In terms of career, I think my parents are uncomfortable with me being a therapist, though I think they are proud that I am successful at it. Since they always shamed my sister about being an artist, I haven’t shared my published artwork with them.
They say they are proud of me as a writer, but I stopped sending them my published work because my mother was always critical, and my father said outright that he wasn’t interested. Aside from these responses, my mother constantly wanted to know if I was getting paid, and my father only expressed interest when I said I had written a book.
Apparently, external appearances—money and notoriety—determined their valuation of my work. At first this hurt, but then I realized that their responses helped me give up the fantasy that success as a writer would somehow win me their love.
Now I just write to write, and that’s much better.
Were you sexually abused, either covertly or overtly? If so, by whom?
Yes, I was both overtly and covertly abused. When I was a child, I was sexually abused by some older neighbor boys, who made my brother and me do sexually inappropriate things while they watched. There was also some inappropriate touching by an older ranchhand where I worked as a teenager during the summer.
In terms of my family, for years I knew about the covert sexual abuse by my father and mother in regard to shaming me about my sexuality, and in regard to the slimy double-messages about my sexuality that came from my father.
I don’t think my father was at all aware of his inappropriate sexual innuendos, and I think they both were probably in denial about the ways they tried to control my sexuality. They would probably be shocked that I would accuse them of being abusive—or even disrespectful—in this way.
When I was 35, memories of early childhood sexual abuse started surfacing out of the blue. I was stunned. The memories started coming back when I began doing Developmental Movement Therapy, which is the brain work I mentioned earlier in this interview.
Although at first these memories seemed to center around a particular male relative (not in my immediate family), I honestly can’t say with certainty now what actually happened or who was involved.
It’s not that I don’t trust my body; the cellular memories that surfaced over many months—and the emotional charge beneath the memories—were simply too intense to be ignored. Besides, I didn’t solicit these memories and I had no reason to manufacture stories that were so utterly distressing, not to mention disruptive to my life and my relationships.
The most truthful thing I can say at this point is that I trust that something traumatic happened to me as a young child that affected me physically, emotionally, and sexually.
Sometimes I wish I had a library of mental videotapes so I could find out exactly what happened that affected me so profoundly, and sometimes I obsess about whether or not anything happened at all. When I go too far in the direction of not trusting my body, however, I hold fast to what Alice Miller says: “The body never lies.”
Eventually, I’ve come to realize that for me, the point is to honor my body’s experience by giving myself good self-care and compassionate support, as opposed to using my energy to figure out what someone else did or didn’t do to me.
What were your family’s main rules, in one-sentence cliché form?
Don’t talk about the family outside the family. Don’t have feelings. Don’t have needs. Do everything yourself. Be independent. Don’t ask for help. Be responsible. Be honest (except about feelings). Be strong. Be quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Be positive. Be cheerful. Don’t cry. Don’t be so sensitive. Put others first. Be successful. Contribute to society.
What was the role of affection in your family?
My parents were affectionate with each other, in terms of hugging and kissing upon coming and going from home. I think they showed me physical affection when I was little, though I can’t say I have actual memories of that.
At some point around puberty, my parents stopped touching me. When I asked them about this later in family therapy, they said I told them to stop touching me. But it was my experience that they initiated the change; I don’t remember ever telling them to stop being affectionate with me.
As our family therapist confided to me later, “One of you is lying, and it isn’t you.”
As an adult, my mother would hug me when I visited. It was very uncomfortable for me, and I can’t imagine that it was very comfortable for her, either.
For me, it felt like hugging someone who thought she “should” hug you, but who didn’t really want to touch your body—or at least, was uncomfortable doing so. She would even turn her face away from me at the same time she came to embrace me.
With my father, I wrote to him a few years ago and asked if we could just shake hands to greet each other, instead of hugging and kissing. I finally gave myself permission to honor my discomfort with his inappropriate sexual energy by making boundaries for myself.
He responded with agreement, saying that he believed hugging and kissing should be reserved for husband and wife. Ironically, his response showed me that I wasn’t crazy—that even simple displays of affection were sexual for him.
What did your parents teach you about anger, by their example?
As far as I could tell from my upbringing, I think they considered anger to be immature and therefore “bad.”
If for some reason one of them was angry, their example was not to express it directly, but to instead have someone else tell you about it for them in a roundabout way. For example, as I mentioned earlier, I found out from my mother if my father was upset, and vice versa.
I don’t think I ever saw them be directly angry with each other, though it was obvious in other ways when they were upset with each other. Thus I learned to be covert, controlling, and manipulative to get my needs met, instead of expressing anger directly and asking for what I needed.
I learned this lesson so well that I didn’t even think I had any anger. When I was 17 and a freshman in college, I went to the college chaplain for counseling because I was depressed. One of the first things he asked me was what I did with my anger.
I told him I didn’t have any anger. He smiled knowingly, no doubt aware that I was in massive denial. He gently asked if perhaps I at least felt frustrated sometimes? Step by step, with incredible patience and compassion, he helped me come out of denial, recognize and identify the feeling of anger, and express it to him without fear of being shamed.
It wasn’t long before I was hitting pillows with baseball bats in group therapy exercises with well-trained therapists, breathing deep into my belly, and expressing a lifetime’s accumulation of repressed rage in safe and structured ways.
What did your parents teach you about tears?
Tears were even worse than anger. They were considered immature, shameful, and a sign of weakness. That story about my mother saying she hoped I would be able to have family discussions without crying was a good example of their opinion of tears.
As for my parents crying, I only saw my mother cry once in my life, for a few seconds when her beloved father died. When my grandmother died, I wasn’t with my mother, but she told me later that she “cried for about ten minutes and then she was fine.”
I saw my father cry twice, both times in my arms. Those two experiences are very precious to me, because he let himself be vulnerable and allowed me to comfort him. He felt very ashamed about it, though.
One time my father wept while telling me about how he found a duck covered in oil from an oil slick on a pond. It broke his heart to see the animal’s suffering, especially knowing that we humans were at fault.
The other time my father cried with me was when he told me about a time when my brother was caught stealing as a teenager. My father wept because he knew my brother was acting out as a way to get his (my father’s) attention. That made my father sad about not “being there” enough for my brother. I was very touched by that.
What did your parents teach you about fear?
As far as I could tell, fear didn’t exist for them, or at least, it was totally denied. I don’t know if my parents talked about their fears with each other, but I don’t recall anyone ever talking about their fears openly in any family conversations.
This is actually interesting now that I think about it, because as a therapist and from my own experience as a recovering control freak, my sense is that my parents probably had a lot of fear, since fear is the primary stimulus for controlling behavior.
What did your parents teach you about joy?
It was good to be cheerful, but not good to be overly exuberant. For one thing, I somehow got the message that “something bad will happen if you get too happy.”
I also remember my mother saying to me in exasperation, “I don’t see why people think they should feel good all the time!” From that statement, I got the feeling that people shouldn’t expect to feel good at all, or at least, not too often!
I remember as we kids got older, I noticed that it was somehow suspect if we kids were laughing too much or too loud or too long. I don’t know exactly how I got that idea, but I learned to be judicious with my expressions of joy.
On the positive side, I think my parents did experience genuine joy in relation to certain family events. My mother was truly in her element then—and when my mother was happy, my father was happy, and when they were both happy, things generally went better for us kids.
As a child and teenager, I experienced joy most often in relation to my sister, brother, cat, nature, and my friends, and sometimes also in relation to my parents. In regard to my parents, though, I was often so focused on seeking their approval that an element of tension sometimes overshadowed my joy.
Was there anything in your family, or in your childhood, which you think positively contributed to your sense of self?
I think the two most important beings in my childhood were my older sister and my cat. Although my sister completely severed communication with my family in 1978, during my childhood she was really there for me. She was my friend and my first teacher—about writing and art, about passion and being human.
My family had a very special cat, whom I honestly think was some kind of Zen master. We got him when I was four, and he died when I was twenty-two. He was my best friend and my cuddle-buddy, and he was also my best childhood teacher about unconditional love.
Reading was another gift, and since intellectual achievement was valued in my family, I lost myself in books. At an early age, I also fell in love with writing. Writing saved my life over and over again.
My brother, who is two years older, also contributed positively to my life. We had a special blood bond, and we played hard together.
I credit my parents with many things. I’ve mentioned some of them and would like to mention more. They taught me to always tell the truth. Never mind that they didn’t always like it when I did!
They limited our TV watching to 1.5 hours per day except for Channel 9 (public television), which was unlimited. Their limit on TV forced me to cultivate my own imagination, and for that I am deeply grateful. To this day, I can’t tolerate much more than an hour and a half of television in one day, and I think that’s great!
In addition to limiting our TV-time, my parents didn’t let us watch war movies until I was in high school, and by then I didn’t want to. I think this helped to cultivate my abhorrence of war and my disgust with the American media’s glorification of violence.
My parents raised us outside the city, so I had lots of opportunity and encouragement to be in nature. They also taught us to be “good campers”—to always leave things better than we found them.
My parents definitely loved nature, and my mother loved landscape gardening. She created beautiful gardens around the home where I grew up. I have always shared my parents’ love of nature and I fell in love with landscape gardening, too, to the point where I almost became a Landscape Architect before switching my degree focus to psychology.
Another thing that was helpful was seeing how my father treated his employees as a business manager, especially during the years he managed the Space Needle when I was a teenager. His style consisted of lots of praise and rewards, no shaming or criticism other than respectful and constructive advice, generous listening and empathy at the personal level, and openness to learning from those “under” him.
Best of all, if an employee screwed up, my father would examine his part in the system. Although he was generally unable to parent me in that way, I chose to follow his business example as a model for how to treat people in general.
On the personal level, my parents taught me the importance of valuing friends and helping them in times of need. It’s funny, because they never modeled that it was okay to need help, or to be helped, but they did model that it was good to help others. I also think they helped people from a genuine place of love and generosity.
It may sound strange, but one of the most positive contributions of my parents to my development was the atmosphere of profound emotional adversity they created for me, however unwittingly, just by being themselves.
My parents definitely did the best they could, given their own histories, and I think they did a great job in many respects. I sincerely doubt they ever intended to hurt me. But because of our profound differences as people, I was forced from an early age to find my own way.
This may sound strange, but without my family’s “help,” I could not have become anorexic, bulimic, manic-depressive, or a drug addict. And through the vehicle of that pain, I found my path relatively early in life. In addition, I was able to use what I learned from my own experience to help others in my work as a counselor and author.
Although I’ve felt my share of blame toward my parents and siblings over the years, the end result is forgiveness and ultimately, gratitude. My family was truly the perfect family for me, soul-wise.
What do you think are the roots of your anorexia, in as simple terms as possible?
I think anorexia has roots on all levels: physical, emotional, mental, sexual, spiritual, familial, neurological, and cultural.
For me personally, I was born with an intensely sensitive and passionate nature, with a definite leaning toward the unconventional. However, I was born into a family that was emotionally repressed, deeply conservative, fearful of the artist and the feminine, and spiritually fundamentalist. It was not a happy combination for them or for me!
Even so, as I mentioned, this forced me to find my own way, and becoming anorexic was definitely an important part of my struggle to find my own way. As strange as it may sound, anorexia saved my life.
I believe anorexia has profound sexual implications. In addition to my own childhood sexual abuse, there were all sorts of disrespectful and confusing messages about sexuality and womanhood that came from my family and the culture.
These messages perpetrated stereotypical thinking in many ways, including the idea that females are second class citizens and not as important as men; the idea that women should put everyone else first (especially men); and the idea that women should deny their own needs and disrespect their own bodies in order to conform to whatever societal standards ruled the day.
In addition to the the cultural and familial factors that contributed to my anorexia, I also had significant head injuries that impacted my brain function and therefore impacted my ability to feel and respond to my needs in appropriate ways.
From what I understand now about brain development, it’s likely that early childhood sexual abuse and the severe emotional repression of my upbringing may also have impacted my early brain development in ways that decreased my ability to feel and respond appropriately to my needs.
Of course, it didn’t help that my parents’ psychological style was one that encouraged stoicism and taught me to discount my own feelings and needs in order to take care of others. It was, literally, a deadly combination.
I don’t think a person can become—or stay—anorexic unless there is dysfunction at deep neurological levels. However, brain hurt can happen not only through head injury, but also through other stressors such as emotional trauma or neglect.
For me anyway, the important thing was to treat anorexia as holistically as possible and address any and all possible factors that could contribute to its healing.
I don’t think there is any single cause for anorexia; I think it is a very complicated illness with many roots. However, I do believe that brain function must be effectively addressed in order to fully overcome anorexia at the primal, animal level where the signals of pain and hunger and fear originate.
What do you think anorexia is about spiritually?
Spiritually, I think anorexia is about fear of life and denial of the self. More specifically, I think it’s about fear and denial of the archetypal feminine nature—whether it shows up in men or in women.
Anorexia is about denial of the part of us that feeds our intuition and our dreams, our passions and our feelings, our sensuality and our connection to nature. Anorexia is an attempt to control the wild, powerful, and passionate inner spirit that defies containment.
I think the anorexic’s starved and dishonored body is only a symptom of this deeper spiritual starvation and dishonor.
What kind of healing work have you done in regard to anorexia? What has been helpful and what hasn’t been helpful?
I’m not sure there are many kinds of healing work I haven’t done! In 1971, I started my healing process with Gestalt work, moving into Transactional Analysis, bioenergetics and Reichian therapy, dreamwork, and the shamanistic teachings of Carlos Castaneda.
As the years went by, I did extensive work with the breath and rebirthing, rolfing and many other kinds of bodywork, movement therapy, creative visualization and affirmations, family of origin therapy, stress reduction work and biofeedback therapy, healing with light and sound and electricity, art therapy, provocative therapy, nondominant hand work, and lots of personal spiritual work, chanting, and meditation.
I’ve done several firewalks, working from the perspective that everything in the universe is safe, as opposed to using the “mind over matter” method some firewalk instructors employ. I’ve also done a lot of work with naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary medicine.
Since the late 1970s, I’ve studied and practiced shamanic journeying and healing techniques, and my helpers in nonordinary reality have all been invaluable in helping me to heal anorexia. I have also had a number of shamanic soul retrievals, which accelerated my healing process dramatically.
When I was introduced to Arnold Mindell’s Process-oriented Psychology in the 1980s, I felt like I found “home”—a container big enough to hold all my psychological, spiritual, and shamanic work, plus a framework for taking my work into new frontiers. In a nutshell, Process Work is basically a combination of Jungian psychology, shamanism, and Taoism (following the way of nature).
Last of all, I did extensive work with Developmental Movement Therapy (neurological repatterning) from 1989-92. Though all outward symptoms of anorexia were over by 1985, I still struggled with the underlying “crazy thinking” that anorexics know so well.
Developmental Movement work healed the underlying neurological hurt—the dysfunctional brain circuits—that allowed anorexia to manifest. It would be physically impossible for me to be anorexic now that my brain is working so much better.
All the healing modalities I’ve mentioned have been helpful for me in their own way. In terms of what hasn’t been helpful, I would say that when people criticized me, shamed me, or tried to control me, that definitely wasn’t helpful.
Seeing me as “sick” or “weird” or “willful” or “just trying to get attention” wasn’t helpful. Nor was it helpful for people to make comments about my body or my food behaviors as if I were some kind of freak.
What was helpful were simple acts of human kindness. What was helpful was encouraging me to find my own way, no matter how that looked to others. And what was helpful was asking me what I needed, even if my answer was that I did not know.
What is your relationship with your body now?
I love my body and have deep compassion for it. I used to hate my body and treat it as if it were somehow my enemy, so it’s a minor miracle to feel so differently now.
It helps me to relate to my body as if it were my child, because that reminds me to be more gentle and respectful. I really try to listen to my body and honor my needs. I feel sad when I overextend or when I can’t give myself what I know I need, in the same way a good parent would feel sad if she can’t give her child the support her child needs.
Do you think food will ever be a non-charged issue for you?
I think it already is in one way, in that I eat what I want, when I want it. Of course, my level of being able to discern the deepest level of “want” is quite profound now compared to when I was eating (or not eating!) compulsively.
In terms of interfacing with other people, however, I doubt if food will ever be a non-charged issue for me. In part, this is because it is generally considered weird in our culture to be deeply attuned to your body’s needs, and to eat according to that, rather than eating according to social expectation.
At this point in my life, I prefer to eat without talking, monk-style, whether I’m alone or with my partner. Eating is more of a sacrament for me than a social activity, and that’s considered weird by most people.
After everything I’ve been through with food and eating disorders and family stuff—not to mention serious gastrointestinal trauma (emergency surgeries to repair a congenital defect)—I just want to do whatever feels kindest to my body. Even so, it’s not always easy to be a social misfit in terms of how I eat, especially since the culture is so overfocused on food.
I doubt if I will ever forget the extreme physical and psychological wounding that happened for me as an anorexic. I don’t really want to forget, because I think that would be a form of denial. Instead, I want to remember and treat my body with all the compassion and respect it deserves.
What have you learned by taking the anorexic path?
I’ve learned that I am a survivor, and that I have an iron will and an indomitable spirit. I’ve also learned that things are not always as they appear, and that illness is not “bad” or “wrong.” In other words, I’ve learned that illness is more of a curriculum than a sign of some mistake. I also have a deeper respect for the ultimate mystery of illness.
I’ve learned that in the pain of anorexia was hidden the wealth of the shadow, and that the shadow held enormous reserves of untapped power. By taking the anorexic path, I consciously flirted with death for more than fifteen years. In doing that, I had extraordinary experiences and was given incredible teachings early in life. Walking that razor’s edge brought great gifts of knowledge.
By taking the anorexic path, I also learned about the plasticity of the body. I literally took my body down to the bones, and have been rebuilding it slowly, over time. To accomplish this on the physical plane, I had to ride my spirit all the way down to the depths of my darkest terrors, reclaim the nuggets of gold in that darkness, and then bring it all out for renewal in the light of compassion.
It was a long and excruciating odyssey, but I honestly wouldn’t trade my time as an anorexic for anything, because through that process, I discovered my true soul.
What do you think is the role of the culture in anorexia?
I think the culture plays a huge role in it, as I’ve mentioned in other parts of this interview. American culture still treats women as second-class citizens. We have a culture that puts women on pedestals of queenly beauty, or regards women with disgust for our “messy” physical/emotional/sensual natures.
Since the Information Age hit, the media bombards us day in and day out with messages about the perfect body, the perfect breath, the perfect period, the perfect home life, the perfect meal, the perfect career, and the perfect way to get the perfect mate so you can have the perfect relationship and the perfect sex life. It’s ridiculous!
There is an inordinate amount of emphasis on beauty, thinness, and youth, and there is an insane glamorization of the pristine, sanitized, brainless, bloodless, odorless, rageless woman.
What do you think is the most important thing an anorexic needs to heal?
The most important thing is the desire to heal. Without that, nothing can happen.
Following that, I think safety is vital. By that I mean that somehow the anorexic must be able to find enough compassionate support in her life—within herself and with the help of loving friends, family, and professional helpers—so she can begin to explore and find her own path of healing.
This safety must include genuine acceptance, respect, and permission to be exactly who she is at all times, including no judgments or expectations or pressure about whether she lives or dies. I know that may sound impossible, but unless an anorexic knows she is truly at choice—and will be loved no matter what—there is no real safety.
What do you think is the gift for the world from the presence of anorexia?
I think anorexia is a profound cry for wholeness. Anorexia is an extreme manifestation of our cultural shadow. It shows in microcosm through the anorexic’s body what we’re doing to the planet and all its beings.
Anorexia is the shadow crying to us to honor all parts of ourselves—to honor our bodies, our spirits, our animal passions, our dreams, and our deep connection to Mother Earth.
Anorexia is a cry to stop the insanity of our profound disconnection between the physical and the spiritual, before we destroy ourselves and the environment.
This interview is one of four in a series:
For the list of questions used in the interviews for this series, please click here.
The image at the beginning of this interview is one of 1300 daily drawings completed by Cat Saunders between 1983 and 1987, from which a deck of 64 images was created called “Shadow and Light: Images of Change and Transformation for Women in Recovery.”
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).