Anorexia: Four Women Tell All (jill’s Story)
“I need my bones. They have no feelings,
no memories, no pain. Bones are safe.” —jill
Author’s note: This interview is one of four in a series: Meg’s Story, Leah’s Story, jill’s Story, and Cat’s Story. The same introduction precedes each interview.
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, and 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 as 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 andLeah) 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?
If you could describe the onset of anorexia, what would you say?
I think I began calling myself anorexic when it began to consume so much of my energy and my life. It became very obvious to me that anorexia was the focus of all my efforts. That was about 1985, when I was 25.
Before that, looking back, I would say that I had anorexic tendencies, but didn’t recognize them as such. I was in a lot of denial.
How early in your life do you think it actually started?
In 1981, when I was 21.
Would you talk a little about what was happening in your life in 1981, and what was happening in 1985, when anorexia got worse for you?
In 1981, with one year of college left, I decided to take a year off from school. My parents had separated, so my mom was going through the divorce that year, and she was living alone. I decided to live at home with her for the year to help support her through the divorce.
I remember feeling very unsure of myself, about who I was and what I wanted from life. Also, I was unsure about the decision I had made at that point in my education, in regard to a career in teaching. So I lived with my mother, and I took a job at a private preschool to teach for the year.
At that time, I remember making a list in my mind of things that I didn’t like about myself. I wasn’t confident. I didn’t feel worthy. I felt alone, invisible, and basically lacking an identity. My list also showed the things I wished would change, and one of them was to lose weight. It seemed like an easy place to start.
What happened in the process was that I appropriated all those other goals into the goal of losing weight. I thought that becoming thin would get me all those other qualities I wanted—to be confident, visible, and have an identity.
My style of losing weight was healthy in the beginning, in terms of being conscientious about eating and getting plenty of exercise. But it escalated to the point where I went from a position of choice to total obsession. I lost my judgment about what I was doing and its effects on my life.
In 1985, I went back to school to get my master’s degree in early childhood special education. I remember thinking during that year that I was going to be as thin as I could be, and I was going to graduate at the top of my program.
Those were my two goals for the year, and that’s where I put all my energy. Up to that point, I was close to being my normal weight, even though my eating was disordered. But in 1985, my weight plummeted fast.
I remember in 1986, writing my résumé to return back to teaching. I had many things to say about myself, but where did it say that I was anorexic? That would have said it all! First and foremost, I was anorexic, and without that description, I was invisible again.
If you feel safe enough to tell me, what was your height and weight at your lowest point, and what is your so-called normal weight?
I’m not at my lowest point now. I’m 5’5″ and at my lowest point, I was 88 pounds. Normal weight, by a chart, would be 125 for my height.
Thanks. How did—or does—anorexia manifest for you?
I don’t know which tense to use in talking about some of my behaviors and thought patterns. Most of them still exist for me now, consuming my life and spirit. Yet some of the intensity and solitary focus is missing. Sometimes it feels like I continue to live this way because it’s the only way I know how to live.
I developed rituals to help contain the feeling of being out of control and to provide a structure. This structure essentially allowed me to focus on the rituals and therefore stay in denial.
Right now, there are no safe foods for me, including liquids—even water. When I take water in, my throat constricts. If I take in food, I need to get rid of it, purge it.
Food is dirty, tainted, poison. Eating feels like a sin. I can’t imagine eating in front of other people; it doesn’t feel possible. I feel incredible shame and embarrassment in realizing that people might know that I eat sometimes.
When I do eat, it is always with the intention that I will purge afterward, to get rid of the food. The purging is what I need—an emptying of the fears and anxieties, the feeling of “badness” that is within me. Starving or purging equals absolution. But as to the sin, I’m not really sure what it is.
Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so. Sometimes I wish that I wouldn’t give eating so much power. Over the years that I’ve been anorexic, my restrictions of foods has tightened significantly.
Originally, I had a list of “good” foods and another list of “bad” foods. But over time, the list of “good” foods grew shorter, until as it exists now, there are no “good” foods. Ironically, the more I restricted my food intake and tried to detach from food and eating, the more it consumed me. Thoughts of eating or not eating fill my days and nights.
I am ashamed to admit that I even dream about food and eating. It used to be that by fasting, I was allowed a sense of worthiness. Now, just the thought of food and eating feels like eating. To have these thoughts inside my head dirties me, and I constantly feel the need to purge.
Exercise quickly became an important facet of my eating disorder, taking one to three hours daily to complete. Exercise feels like doing penance. It is something I must do to atone, and in doing so, I give myself a chance, once again, to work towards achieving purity.
Exercise numbs my emotions and reinforces a split from the body. I become quite agitated and literally feel as though I’ve gained weight if I miss a routine. It becomes a strike against me, a sign of weakness that I simply don’t allow. Lately, though, when I rise at 4:30 a.m. to push myself out the door for my run in the dark, I feel weary. It feels brutal sometimes now.
Weighing myself was another part of my anorexic behavior. At the height of my compulsion, I was probably weighing myself ten to fifteen times a day, even getting up in the night to check the scales.
In approaching the scales, I felt like I was approaching an altar, and judgment would be due. If the resulting number was higher or even the same as before, I had failed—and I was weak, dirty, bad. If the number was lower, I felt one step closer to becoming clean, pure, and strong.
My bones are very precious to me. They represent clarity, purity, and strength. At times when I am feeling anxious or scared, I find myself seeking them out—to feel and tap them. It feels trance-like to do this, and it numbs my other feelings. If I feel what I perceive to be fat on my bones, I panic. But even still, I need my bones. They have no feelings, no memories, no pain. Bones are safe.
Another way my eating disorder has manifested itself is in the clothes I wear. My clothing must hang on me so that I do not feel my body inside. Everything I own is oversized and baggy, so I can hide beneath my clothes.
Thanks for being so honest. Do you think you were anorexic before you admitted it?
Do other people know you are anorexic?
I think they know.
What has been their response?
Actually, there’s a very small number of people who know, and I know they know. I don’t have any idea who else might know. The ones who know, worry and are afraid it’s out of control.
I think they feel like it’s something I’m “choosing” to do and “choosing” to hold onto. At times I know it’s probably a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way. My parents probably think I’m going to die.
When my mother confronted me with her suspicions that I was anorexic, I told her that her suspicions were true, but that I wasn’t ready to talk about it. She then proceeded to call the other members of my family, telling them of my anorexia. She even phoned my boyfriend (at the time) and tried to get information from him.
When I asked her why she responded in this way, she said she was making it easier for me, and that the others needed to know. Even in my first crisis, I was invisible to my family by not being allowed to make the choice to tell—or not to tell—the others.
I feel like my family wants me to “get better” so that they won’t have to think about me or worry about me or put energy out toward me. I know they would tell you otherwise.
They would tell you that they want me to heal or get better—they would say “get better” or “be fixed”—so that I would be happier. But I don’t have that sense at all.
Would you describe the feeling of your family’s household in your early childhood years?
I felt invisible in my house. I felt like I was always in the background. I felt like I served as scenery and props—something to insure that everything else held together.
I was not a principal person. I also wasn’t comfortable receiving attention. Even though a part of me wanted it, I wasn’t comfortable with it.
In my family’s house, it always felt like there were things going on under the surface, but no one talked about what those things were. Everyone else was living and functioning on some superficial level, while I was feeling chaos going on around me.
I couldn’t see it, no one would talk about it, and there were no events I can remember, but I felt the chaos was real. It felt crazy, to see one thing and to feel something else.
This may be difficult for you to answer, but intuitively, do you think it was any different for boys than for girls in your family?
No, I didn’t ever sense that. I know that exists in our society, so it probably existed in my family to an extent, but I’m not aware of how it manifested. I don’t remember comments or discrepancies or expectations that were spelled out differently for the sons compared to the daughters.
How about puberty? How did your parents treat you when you became a woman?
Did they acknowledge it?
My mother did, because she was directly involved, in terms of me telling her that my cycles had started. I perceived her as being very angry and upset, though I didn’t know why.
I was embarrassed to tell her at all, but I had questions. She responded to my questions by snapping back and being very short. I asked very innocently, because there were things I needed to know, and I didn’t know the answers. But she was not comfortable with the whole experience.
Had she told you about sex when you were younger?
Well, she told me where babies come from, but that was when I was 5 or 6. After that, there was no further communication about anything like that.
She hadn’t told you about women’s cycles?
Did you learn in school, at the “menstruation movie”?
Yes, and from books. I read a lot to get the information I needed.
Your mother didn’t answer your questions?
I only asked one. I asked her if I had to continue to wear a pad while I slept. I didn’t know if it continued through the night.
She answered very abruptly by saying, “Well, of course you do! What do you think would happen?!” She got very mad, so after that, I didn’t ask any more questions.
Did you have anybody else to talk to?
No. No one that I chose to talk to. I was young, too, when my cycles started. It hadn’t happened to my friends yet, so I think I felt very ashamed about it. I was 11.
What was it like for you when you started dating? Did your parents have curfews or rules for you?
No, I had no rules, no curfews. They didn’t really acknowledge I was dating. I didn’t really exist. Also, since I was a very good little girl, I don’t think they had any reason to believe they needed to supply any structure, acknowledgment, or guidance.
Was that different than with your other siblings?
Very much. One of my sisters, who is four years older, acted out quite a bit, and all the focus was on her. She had curfews, rules, and restrictions. She got grounded all the time.
From your understanding now, how would you describe your mother?
She is closely tied to her identity as a mother. She’s very generous. She can be kind. She likes to put her energy into nurturing, into what she sees as nurturing—situations, animals, people.
I don’t think she’s comfortable with conflict. I don’t think she’s comfortable with pain, either her own or someone else’s. It is easier for her to pretend that things are okay and good.
I think she’s very angry, and I think she’s very sad. I don’t think she feels like she’s a whole person. It’s hard for me to know where I stop and she starts.
How about your father? I know it’s hard for you, but would you describe him from your understanding now?
As other people see him?
No, as you see him.
He’s intelligent. He’s very competent at what he does. He enjoys being playful. He can be very single-minded. He has very definite ideas about how things should be done, and he can be critical if they’re not done that way.
My father is pretty far removed from his feelings. I’d say he’s manipulative. He seems to get his needs met in very sneaky and indirect ways. He almost has a bravado about that. He tells stories about such events with great pride, about how he got something in a sneaky way.
My father is very frightening to me. I don’t feel safe with him.
What was your parents’ relationship like when you were growing up?
They were very far apart emotionally. They seemed to be in their own circles, and they connected very little. I think that bothered my mother more than my father.
My father would busy himself with his own activities and his own interests. He would just remove himself physically from the home situation.
I think my parents fought more than we ever saw. I think they were very angry with each other, but we didn’t see a lot of it. I never thought of them as friends or life companions.
How did they fight? Verbally?
It happened very seldom, but they would begin to fight verbally, and then they would just shut down. Either my dad would leave, or they would both stop talking. Afterward, they would both be tight with anger, and the tension increased.
It might be important to mention for this interview that your father has a physical handicap which no one spoke about.
He had polio when he was eight years old, and lost the use of his left arm. Since the age of eight, he’s had no use of it, and it atrophied. He has no control over it at all.
His disability was never talked about in our family. It was hidden. To this day, he wears long-sleeved shirts. His hand is always in his pocket, so from his shoulder down to his fingertips—where the atrophy is—his arm is completely hidden.
My mother tells that she never even saw his arm until some years into their marriage. It was even kept hidden when they were intimate. His disability was always something that none of us felt we could ask or talk about.
For instance, when we would go camping, and go down to the swimming beach, we would always walk halfway around the lake to find a spot where no people were, so that he could take off his shirt and swim without being seen.
It was never acknowledged that we did that because of his arm. He would present it as, “Oh, we’re the luckiest people of all because we have this private spot to ourselves!”
It felt so crazy, because for me, I wanted to be with the kids and I wanted to swim where there was sand, not all those sharp rocks! Even now, very few people outside the family are actually aware of his disability, because he has hidden it so well, and because he has overcompensated for it in all his activities.
Do you know anything about your birth?
Well, my mom doesn’t remember the time. I was born in a hospital. I don’t know for sure if my mom was drugged or not.
Do you know if you were wanted as a girl?
I don’t know that. I know I was unplanned. Once they learned of the pregnancy, I don’t know if they had wishes for a girl or a boy.
What’s your intuition?
That I wasn’t wanted at all, and that gender didn’t matter. If I had to say, I would say that they would have preferred a boy, but I don’t know why. I don’t have anything to back up that intuition.
Did you have any head injuries or accidents before anorexia started, besides your birth?
I had minor things happen. Twisted ankles. Fell off a horse. Some falls in gymnastics. Nothing that required medical attention.
All kinds of mishaps can affect the brain, including various forms of abuse or neglect, whether physical or emotional. If the pons level of the brain is hurt, for example, some people may even become suicidal. Have you ever been suicidal?
Have you ever tried suicide?
I’ve not followed through on my intentions. It hasn’t gone past thoughts. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve hoarded pills, but I have not ingested them.
These next questions might seem obvious, but I’d like you to answer if you would. Do you think you were emotionally neglected or abused?
Knowing what I know now about the emotional needs of children, I don’t think my emotional needs were met.
How about emotional abuse? Do you have any sense of that?
I know that I have the sense that I was emotionally abused, but I don’t have specific incidents or events or stories to tell.
How about physical neglect or abuse?
I think anytime a child or a person is struck, that’s physical abuse. I wasn’t hit a lot, but I was hit. Knowing what I believe about hitting, I would have to say yes, I was physically abused.
What was your parents’ response to your having needs?
Discounted. Reframed. Or ignored. Early on, I stopped having needs, or at least, I stopped making them known.
Was there any emphasis on appearances, either on how you looked, or how the family looked?
I don’t remember a lot of direct emphasis on appearances for myself—like “you have to have good grades” or “you have to be very proficient at whatever you do.”
I do remember feeling like any grade under an “A”—actually, anything under an “A+”—was not acceptable. When I played competitive tennis, I needed to be Number One on the team. I acted like that was an expectation within the family, but I don’t know where that expectation came from.
As far as the family needing to look good, I think it wasn’t so much in terms of how we might appear to others, but rather a pretense of “this is how we need to appear to ourselves.” We couldn’t admit to ourselves that something was wrong, or that something painful could really be happening here.
There’s one example I can share. When my older sister was living at home, she was very involved in growing and using marijuana. This was initially a source of conflict between her and my parents, and they tried to stop her.
My sister continued to grow marijuana plants in her room and in the basement in full view, and she continued to use pot in and out of the house. After some time, it was as if the situation didn’t exist. I know my parents hated the idea of her growing and using pot, but it continued without anyone ever referring to it.
After graduation from high school, my sister toured Europe with a friend. She left detailed instructions with my mother in regard to the tending and care of her marijuana crop, and for a year, my mother took over the job.
There was such denial about it all that I felt crazy. I knew I hated the plants in our house, and I was always afraid the marijuana would be discovered and the police would arrest our family.
Was there any rule about keeping family problems inside the family?
There were no family problems as identified.
How convenient! What were your family’s rules, if you were going to put them into one-sentence cliché form? For example, what were your family’s rules about conflict?
It doesn’t exist. Or pretend that it doesn’t exist.
When it did exist, what would happen?
Discounting. It was minimized. People walked away from the situation physically and it wasn’t brought up again. It was kept very hidden.
Were you shamed or criticized?
I have a sense of saying yes, but I don’t really know why.
Were you controlled in any way?
Only in the sense that I think any child growing up can be controlled by the dynamics of the family. There was a real need in my family to pretend that nothing bad was happening. We did not acknowledge other people’s feelings, and people didn’t admit to their own feelings.
I felt a need to play a role in that, so I chose a role and played it to the best of my ability. My role was to not ask for attention, not to do or say anything that would prompt someone else to feel like they had to pay attention to me.
I felt like I had to hold the family together by providing as much background stability as possible. I felt I needed to meet their needs. I saw sad, unhappy people around me, and I felt I was responsible for making things better.
What was your family’s relationship to feelings?
Feelings were rarely acknowledged, and if they were, discounting quickly occurred. When I would respond with tears over a situation, I was told that I was too sensitive, and that my feelings were inappropriate for the situation.
What kind of communication happened in your family?
Very little direct communication. What did happen was very indirect, subtle, and confusing.
What was your family’s relationship to food and mealtimes?
I don’t remember food playing a significant role in my family. We had meals together, and they were seen as important times to come together.
Dinnertime was the only time my father would be there. He was always very uncomfortable, as if he feared being undermined by us. That was something that troubled him.
I remember that at dinnertimes when he was there, it was not okay to laugh. It was not okay to be spontaneous. If someone laughed uncontrollably—and at times, we three younger kids couldn’t stop laughing—we were sent away from the table. It was very disturbing.
Spontaneous laughter was very upsetting to him. He did not want it to happen. I believe he thought it was somehow reflective of his inability to either control the situation or us. In terms of food, though, I don’t remember it having any sort of special significance.
Who did the cooking in your house?
My mother cooked some of the time. She wasn’t the type of homemaker who had to cook everything and have everything be perfect. There wasn’t an emphasis on meals being perfect.
At an early age, I started cooking and baking for the family. I did empower food and saw food as a way to better a situation. I used it as a prop, as a way to smooth things over and help people feel good and happy.
I supplied the extras, the niceties, as opposed to the basic meals. After school every day, I would bake for my family—homemade bread, pies, cakes, cookies, candies. I felt I had to do this.
In terms of the food my mom cooked, I didn’t have to eat everything that was served. In fact, I ate very few foods as a kid. My mom was willing to deal with my limited choices. I know that’s a little bit different from other people’s stories about food in their families, but that’s what I remember.
Why do you think you put so much importance on food?
I think I gave it importance and power because I didn’t know what to do about my family. I felt like they were so fragile—always right at the edge of falling apart—though I couldn’t really tell you why.
I didn’t know what to do as a kid. Cooking for them was something I could do, and I got strokes for it. It was another way to feed others, in a real physical sense. I was feeding them emotionally and physically.
What were your parents’ expectations for you when you grew up?
They never voiced any to me. They didn’t say, “We want you to get married.” They didn’t say, “We want you to have kids” They didn’t say, “We want you to go to college.”
I do remember my father voicing an opinion to me about a career choice. He valued financial security and wanted me to be a pharmacist. This was at a time when I wanted to be an artist or a teacher.
I’m afraid to give my perception about my family, because it’s so one-sided. I want to be very fair to everybody involved.
I understand that, and I’ll be sure to include that in your interview. I realize your perception is only your perception, and I am interested in your perception. Please feel free to tell your own story as fully as you can.
Do you think you were sexually abused in any way?
Do you know what kind of abuse it was?
I may “go away” during this part of the interview, but if I do, I will try to come back.
That’s okay. Take your time. You don’t have to answer if it’s too scary for you.
I don’t know by whom I was abused, although I have some ideas about that. I have had many dreams and have done many drawings I don’t completely understand.
I have some feelings about what was involved, and some questions. I don’t have answers, only questions. I’m just beginning to look at this.
Do you have a sense of it being covert or overt or both?
My sense is that it may have been overt.
Does your family know anything about the sexual abuse?
Not too long ago, my mother asked about it, only because she was not understanding why it was so difficult for me to relate to my father, or to be around him. The way she asked was to say that she didn’t understand why I was being so hateful and hurtful toward him since I wasn’t sexually abused.
When I reminded her that she had never asked me if I had been, she then charged ahead and asked, without realizing the consequence and responsibility of asking such a question.
My answer was that I didn’t know. My answer was not yes, and it was not no, but that I did not know. She became very upset. She wanted more information. She took the liberty of then talking about it with one of my sisters.
Without your permission?
Yes. She wanted answers. She told me that I didn’t realize what that did to her. She told me that it wasn’t right or fair for me to keep anything from her, given what I had already told her. She seemed to forget that she asked the question.
I have told one sister that I’m close to, my oldest sister. She knows I am looking at the issue. I’ve been open with my oldest sister about my questions. She’s been very respectful.
Does she believe you?
I’ve never asked her, but if I were to just say, I would say yes. Actually, I’m sure she does, because four years ago, before I was looking at any of this, she asked me the same question herself.
She had been struggling with why I was anorexic, and why living was such a struggle for me. She asked me about sexual abuse then.
She knew how hard it was for me to be around my father, and she wondered if anything had happened. At the time, I told her no, but there was some quiet little voice in me that was saying something different.
Thanks for telling me. What was the role of affection in your family when you were growing up?
There was very little of it. I don’t think it was like one person received a lot, and no one else did. I think that physical affection wasn’t something that was shared between any of us.
I think I craved affection as a child. I was envious of relatives or friends who openly hugged in their families. I longed to live in such a family.
Was there affection between your parents?
Definitely not. They had single beds for as long as I can remember. Maybe I saw them exchange a hug or two at Christmastime, but it was pretty limited.
What did your parents teach you about anger, by their example?
To pretend it’s not there. To try to hold it down. Certainly not to acknowledge it.
The intensity of anger was frightening to me, especially if I saw it erupt. I also came to view it as a weakness.
To see my mother so passive in her anger showed me a woman who couldn’t get her needs met. I prided myself on never becoming angry or losing my temper.
Who did the anger in your household?
With my mother, it was verbal and sometimes physical. With my father, it was both verbal and physical. It would happen very seldom, but basically, he would slap…a face.
Your mother’s face?
No. The kids’ faces.
Your parents’ conflict came out toward the kids?
In this context about anger, would you say something about your “tantrums,” as they were called?
I think they started when I was about two, maybe three. They lasted until I was five. They way they are described to me is that I would have incredibly intense tantrums where I would become irrational.
I would throw myself down and kick and scream loudly, and not let anybody near me. I would be inconsolable and out of my head. Again, they would just use the word “irrational.”
They talk about one time in particular when they were putting me to bed when I was three. They don’t know what set it off, but I wanted my dad out of the room. He went out, and then I wanted him back in. Then I wanted him back out, and then I wanted him back in.
The story that’s told is that I directed him—and he responded—to go in and out of my bedroom about twenty or thirty times. They say I did not seem to know what I wanted. They say it was very hard on everybody in my family.
I don’t remember my tantrums. I only know what I’ve been told. I know I was taken to a mall once, and I had a tantrum in the middle of the floor.
Were you shamed about your tantrums?
I don’t remember a lot about my childhood, so I don’t remember a lot of what went on during that period either. I think I was shamed about it when I was older.
I would find letters that my brother and sister wrote home from camp telling my mom, “I wish I was there to help you with jill. Sorry that she’s so hard for you.” I felt badly about that.
How long did this go on?
The tantrums continued until I was 4-1/2, then they stopped for a while. Then we moved up here from California, and the tantrums started again my fifth year.
My parents took me to a lot of doctors, and every doctor had a different opinion. One doctor thought I was mentally retarded. Another thought it was seizure-related.
One doctor thought that the fontal plates of my skull had closed too early, and that they were causing pressure on my brain. He wanted to do surgery to open them up. The doctors did a lot of brain scans, but no abnormal electrical patterns showed up.
The doctors all had different ideas about how my mother should cope with the tantrums, ranging from physically holding me down, to pouring cold water over my head, to letting me just cry it out. I don’t remember everything she tried.
The only memory that I have is when I was coming out of a tantrum when I was five. I was in the bathtub, so I presume she was trying one of her water theories. I remember her giving me something on a spoon, some sort of medicine.
She doesn’t remember any sort of medication being prescribed. But what I remember is coming out of the tantrum and having a spoon in front of me. I also remember being extremely tired, and wanting to go to sleep.
These tantrums continued for about a year the second time, and then they just stopped. It’s interesting, because later, when my mom would see a difficult child in a store, she would always sidle up to the person and make a comment like, “It does get better. I know what it’s like. It’s awfully hard. But this daughter here had incredible tantrums and now she’s not angry a day of her life!”
What did your parents teach you about tears?
I cried easily as a kid, and I was told that I was too sensitive.
Did they ever cry?
As a child, I think I saw my mom cry once or twice. Now that I’m an adult, I have seen her cry much more.
And your father?
What did your parents teach you about fear?
I don’t know what they taught me. I remember being afraid all the time. I never felt safe.
Did you get respect for your fears?
I didn’t voice them. I remember waking up from nightmares and wanting to call for my mother, because I was afraid. But I was also afraid to make a loud voice in order to call for her. So I would whisper, and pray that somehow psychically, she would wake up and hear my whisper for her. I couldn’t make noise to call for her to come.
What did your family teach you about joy?
I think joy was probably one of the more allowed feelings, except at the dinner table, as I said before. But at times they saw it as appropriate. My dad was very playful, and he enjoyed playing with us. As a family, we would play together.
Did you have a good time?
Yes. At least, I think I did.
What do you think are the roots of your anorexia?
I think it’s about finding myself, establishing a sense of self. I think it’s about discovering my own truths, and making a conscious decision to live them. I think it’s about healing pain, and trying to find a place for myself here.
My eating disorder has been and is very meaningful to me. I want to honor its existence by allowing it space for its story. When I became anorexic, I felt safe for the first time in my life.
I felt powerful in that safe place, which was defined by my determination and my conscious choice to reduce and eliminate my physical self.
I felt hopeful that I finally had found a way to purify and strengthen my spirit, purging once and for all the soiled darkness from my body. In becoming thin, I would become pure, filled with light. I would become strong and void of all needs. Air and light would sustain me.
I worked very hard to enter into this state of being, but I was always kept from achieving my goal. My standard of thinness was always changing as I pushed my goal weight further and further down, tightened my restrictions of food intake, and increased my exercise expectations.
It was as if I could hear a voice saying, “No, you can’t be thin yet because you don’t feel pure and good enough. You must keep trying!”
For me, this struggle is more about living than dying. To someone on the outside, I realize anorexia could appear to be a form of slow suicide, a death wish in disguise. I want to live, and my anorexia teaches me both about living and dying. It is a struggle but it allows my self to awaken.
Do you think anorexia has anything to do with being alive in a woman’s body?
When I read the literature on anorexia, I used to scoff at the insinuation that fears and discomfort with one’s sexuality played a major role in the development of eating disorders. I was adamant in insisting my sexuality had nothing to do with starving myself. I refused to see it any other way.
The truth is that I have so many fears about my physical self, my sexuality, my sense of the feminine that it is terrifying to admit to the fears. My periods have ceased, my breasts are barely present, and I have no sexual feelings.
I feel asexual and this feels safe. To be a sexual person feels dirty, bad, wrong, and sinful. So I don’t want to acknowledge myself as a sexual being. I do now realize that anorexia is about fear, including fear of womanhood and sexuality.
What do you think anorexia is about spiritually?
Anorexia allows me to develop my spiritual self. I feel like that’s my essence, that my soul or my spirit is my essence. I’ve allowed myself to honor my spirit more through being anorexic, and in doing that, I feel fuller and more whole. I feel like spirit is what has kept and will keep me alive.
What kind of healing work have you done regarding anorexia? What has been helpful, and what hasn’t been helpful?
I’ve done talk therapy. You’re the second therapist I’ve worked with in that regard. The first experience was not helpful. It was not a safe situation, and I did not feel validated there. It was long-term, and part of that time included a group experience, which was also not helpful. It was very frightening to me to feel exposed to others.
I’ve done a lot of searching on my own, in terms of reading, lectures, workshops, writing, and drawing. Seeking out information, perspectives, and self-reflections have been helpful to me.
Since I’ve started working with you, I’m beginning to do Developmental Movement Therapy, and I’m beginning some homeopathic remedies under the care of a homeopath.
My experience with you has felt the most helpful of all. I feel seen. I feel supported. You allow me to have a mirror.
I’m glad you feel supported. Would you like to say anything about your work with shamanism?
My soul just wants to jump into that whole realm. I have a lot of judgments about myself, in terms of whether or not I’m worthy of the experiences and gifts shamanism has to offer.
Am I clean enough for that? Am I pure enough for that? When I look past the judgments, I realize how strong the longing is. I wish I could just act on the desire alone, because shamanism feels like coming home.
What is your relationship with your body now?
I have conflicting feelings about it. I still hate my body and see it as a source of blackness, dirt, filth, physicality, a place that weighs me down. Because of that, I split off from it. Experiences that happen to my body don’t necessarily happen to me. I can get burned and not feel it.
When I look in the mirror, I know I probably don’t see what really exists, but what I perceive is the image I carry in my head. I’m uncomfortable with it having needs or functions. I’m not very comfortable with its existence at all.
Recently, a shift in my thinking is that I’ve had glimpses of feeling that what I am doing to my body—by denying its needs and not feeding it or acknowledging it—is very familiar. It’s as if I’m playing out something that maybe happened to me.
In those moments—they’re very brief—I feel sad toward my body, because it’s carrying so much pain, pain which I perpetuate when I abuse it by denying its needs.
Do you think food will ever be a non-charged issue for you?
No. I can’t imagine it.
Was there anything in your family, or in your childhood, that you feel positively contributed to your sense of self?
What strikes me when I think about this is that there weren’t a lot of people, and that’s how it is now, too. I have a lot of experiences and activities now that sustain me, but not a lot of people.
One exception is my sister—the sister I mentioned who is much older. She is very supportive. I think I grew up always knowing that she loved me, she saw me, and she thought I was special.
Since she is much older, she wasn’t in the house much. But even though she was away, the little things she did meant so much to me. She made time for me in her life. She wanted to be a big sister. I liked that a lot.
I loved my cat, the one we had from when I was about age eight on. He always knew when I was sad or lonely, or when I was crying in my room. No one else would know, but somehow he would always come into my room at those times, day or night.
My cat wasn’t ever demanding. He would just curl up next to me, and he would stay awake, like he wanted to be with me. His name was Blackness. Every time he would come in the night, I would feel safe, like I was protected and that nothing could hurt me then.
I loved to read. I was a voracious reader, and that was really valued in my family. I’m appreciative that my mother encouraged that. I felt safe in those other worlds.
I love drawing. I did it alone, and I felt like I could come out and be creative then. When I was drawing, nothing could touch me, and I was really safe. It felt like drawing was mine. I could block everything else out.
Another thing is that I was outside a lot in nature. I would climb trees or walk on the beach. And I liked to sing to myself. I would sing to myself at night when I was going to sleep. It was very comforting, like my spirit or soul was singing to me.
One last thing is that I had a pretty strong imagination, so I would fantasize a lot in order to be taken away from where I was. I liked that.
What have you learned by taking the anorexic path?
I learned that I have resilience, tenacity, and a great deal more strength than I ever thought I had. I can act with intent. Also, should the choice be made that I continue to be here, I will have a purpose supporting me, one that I can be true to. As I said before, I want to live. My struggle with anorexia is allowing my self to awaken.
What do you think is the most important thing an anorexic needs in order to heal?
What does “safety” feel like?
A place, a person or persons—to validate, to honor, to hear, to see, and to allow an individual to learn her own truths.
What do you think is the role of the culture in regard to anorexia?
Culturally, the unrelenting emphasis on physical appearance and image—versus the wisdom of an inner self—has contributed to the incidence of eating disorders. Also, the drive for perfection and the devaluing of women play major roles.
I think anorexia also portrays a mockery of abundance. Anorexia strips a person down to what’s within, and gets right down to the bones, as if to say, “Let’s get down to the the truth here.” I think for some people, self-starvation could even be seen as an outcry against the accumulation of goods and material wealth and overconsumption in our society.
I would say that the prevalent wounding of children perpetuates a need for anorexia and other addictions. Not just in the family, but in society as a whole, children are devalued and abused.
What do you think is the gift that anorexia offers to the world?
I think anorexia gives people—all people—an opportunity to allow someone to heal his or her own pain. Someone who has anorexia can be a mirror for another person, even though the issues might be different, or the way the pain manifests might be different.
Someone who is anorexic could allow another person a chance to see his or her own pain, and to heal that pain. I think when people do their own work and heal their own pain, there is collective healing—which is important to all beings and to the planet.
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).