My Secret Body

Published April 10, 1997 4:00PM (EDT)

This is the story of how, at the age of 33, I learned to feed myself.

To begin with, here's what I did until then: I ate, starved, binged,
purged, grew fat, grew thin, grew fat, grew thin, binged, purged, dieted,
was good, was bad, grew fat, grew thin, grew thinner.

I had been a lean, coltish girl, energetic, always hungry, always
eating, always thin. But I weighed 100 pounds at 13, 130 at l4. For the
next 10 years, I dieted. It is a long, dull story. I had lots of secrets
about me and my food and my body. It was very scary and obsessive, the way
it must feel for someone secretly and entirely illiterate.

In July 1977, when I was 23, my father was diagnosed with brain
cancer, and one week later, I discovered bulimia. I felt like I'd
discovered the secret life, and I learned how to do it more effectively by
reading articles in women's magazines on how to stop doing it.
I barfed, but preferred laxatives. It was heaven. I lost weight.

All right, OK; there were tiny little problems, hardly worth
mentioning. I was scared all the time, full of self-loathing, and my heart
got funky. When you've lost too much water and electrolytes, your
muscular little heart cramps up; it races like a sewing machine.

I would try to be good, in the Puritanical sense, which meant denying
my appetites. Resisting temptation meant I was good -- strong,
counter-animal. But the jungle drums would start beating again.

I looked fine on the outside, thin, cheerful, even successful, cute
as a barfy little button. But on the inside, I felt like Martin Sheen in
the Saigon hotel room at the beginning of "Apocalypse Now." I went into a
long and very deep depression after seeing some photos of people on a
commune, working with their hands and primitive tools and work horses,
living outside the world. I saw Breughel scenes of them cutting wheat with
scythes, stomping grapes, lying under the sun, and I could see that they
were really tuned to Nature, to the seasons, to a direct sense of bounty,
where you plant something and cut it down or pick it and eat it, tasting
it, filling up. But I felt tuned in to heavy music. I felt like I had
the soul of a trapped rat.

Luckily I was still drinking at the time.

Then all of a sudden I wasn't. I quit in 1986. I had all these sober
people helping me, and I told them almost every crime and secret I had,
because I believed what they said, that we are as sick as our secrets. But
I couldn't tell anyone that I couldn't stop binging and purging, being on a
diet, being good, getting thin, being bad, getting fat.

I remember hanging out with these people, letting their stories wash
over me, when all of a sudden the thing inside would tap me on the
shoulder and whisper, "OK, honey, let's go." And I'd cry out inwardly,
No! No! "Sorry," it would say, "Time to go shopping." And silently I'd
cry out, Please don't make me go shopping! I'm not even hungry! "Shh shh,"
it would whisper. "Let's go."

I felt like God had saved me from drowning, but now I was going to get
kicked to death on the beach. It's so much hipper to be a drunk than a
bulimic. Drunks are like bikers, or Lenny Bruce; bulimics are Cherry
Boone. The voice would say how sorry it was but then glance down at its
little watch, tap its foot and sigh, and I'd sigh loudly too, and get up,
and follow it to the store.

We'd buy the bad things, me and the voice -- the chocolates, the
Cheetos, the Mexican food; and big boxes of laxatives. Dyno-Lax.
Finally, one day in l987, I called a woman named Rita Groszmann, who
was listed in the Yellow Pages as a specialist in eating disorders. I told
her what was going on, and that I had no money, and she said to come in
anyway, because she was afraid I was going to die. So I went in the next
day, and have not been bulimic since. That's not the miracle, though.
The miracle is that I haven't dieted, either.

I sat in her office and explained how I'd gotten started and that I
wasn't ready to stop, but that I was getting ready to be ready to stop.
She said that was fine. I said that in fact I was going to go home that
very night and eat chocolates and Mexican food, and then purge. She said
fine. I said, "Don't try to stop me." She said, "OK." I said, "There's
nothing you can do to stop me, it's just the way it is," and we did this for
a half an hour or so, until she finally said, very gently, that she was not
going to try to take my bulimia away from me. That she in fact was never
going to take anything away from me, because I would try to get it back.
But she said that I had some choices.

They were ridiculous choices. She proposed some, and I thought, this is the angriest person I've ever met. I'll give you a couple of
examples. If I was feeling lonely and overwhelmed and about to binge, I
could call someone up and ask them if they wanted to meet me for a movie.
"Yeah," I said, "right." Or here's another good one: If I was feeling very
other, very sad and scared and overwhelmed, I could invite someone over for
a more or less regular meal, and then see if he or she felt like going for
a walk. It is only because I was raised to be Politeness Person that I did
not laugh at her. It was like someone detoxing off heroin, itching to shoot
up, being told to take up macrami. Something to do with those nervous

She asked if I was willing to make one phone call after I ate and buy
a little time. I could always purge if I needed to, but she wanted me to
try calling one person, and see what happened. Now I'm not stupid. I knew
it was a trick.

But I was so scared and beaten up at that point that I agreed. I got
home, ate a more or less regular meal, called a friend, made contact, and
didn't purge. The next day, I ate a light breakfast and lunch, and then a
huge dinner, rooting around the fridge and cupboards like a truffle pig;
but I called my younger brother. He came over. We went for a walk.

Several weeks later, during one of our sessions, Rita asked me what
I'd had for breakfast. "Cereal," I said.

"And were you hungry when you ate?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean, did you experience hunger, and then make breakfast?"

"I don't really understand what you're asking," I said.

"Let me put it this way," she said. "Why did you have breakfast?"

"Oh! I see," I said. "I had breakfast because it was breakfast time."

"But were you hungry?"

I stared at her a moment. "Is this like a trick question?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I just want to know how you know it's time to eat."

"I know it's time to eat because it's meal time," I said. "It's
morning, so I eat breakfast, or it's mid-day, so I eat lunch. And so on."

To make a long story ever so slightly shorter, she finally asked me
what it felt like when I was hungry, and I could not answer. I asked her
to explain what it felt like when she was hungry, and she described a
sensation in her stomach of emptiness, an awareness of appetite.

So for the next week, my assignment was to notice what it felt like
when I was hungry. It was so strange. I was once again the world's oldest
toddler. I walked around peering down, as if to look into my stomach, like
it was one of those old-fashioned washing machines where you can see the
soapy water swirling over your clothes. And I paid attention until I was
able to isolate this feeling in my stomach, a gritchy kind of emptiness, like
a rat was scratching at the door, wanting to be let in.

"Wonderful," she said. And then gave me my next assignment: first,
to notice when I was hungry, and then -- this blew my mind -- to feed myself.

All of a sudden I was Helen Keller, after she breaks the code for
"water." I felt lonely at first, but then I came upon a great line in one
of Geneen Roth's books on eating, where she said that awareness was about
learning to keep yourself company. So I'd feel the scratchy emptiness in
my belly, and I'd mention to myself that I seemed hungry. And then I'd ask
myself, in a deeply maternal way, what I felt like eating.

"Well, actually, I feel like some Cheetos," I might say. So I'd go
and buy some Cheetos, and put some in a bowl, and eat them. God! It was
so amazing. Then I'd check in with myself: "Do you want some more?" I'd

"No," I'd say. "But don't throw them out."

I had been throwing food out, and wetting it in the sink, since I was
14; since I'd been on a diet. Every time I broke down and ate forbidden
foods, I threw out and wet what was uneaten, because of course each time I
was about to start over and be good again.

"I'm hungry," I'd say to myself. "I'd like some frosting."


"And some Cheetos."

So I'd have some frosting and some Cheetos, for breakfast. I'd eat for
a while. Then I'd check in with myself, kindly: "More?"

"Not now," I'd say. "But don't wet them. I might want more later."

I ate frosting and Cheetos for weeks. Also, cookies that a local
bakery made with M&M's instead of chocolate chips. I'd buy half a dozen
and keep them on the kitchen counter. It was terrifying. It was like
knowing there were snakes in my kitchen. I'd eat a little, stop when I was
no longer hungry. "Want one more cookie?" I'd ask.

"No, thanks," I'd say. "But I might want one later. Don't wet them."

I never wet another bag of cookies. One day I woke up and discovered
that I also felt like having some oranges, then rice, then sautied bell
peppers. Maybe also some days the random pound of M&M's. But from then on
I was always able to at least keep whatever I ate down -- or, rather, in my
case, up. I went from feeling like a Diane Arbus character, seen through
that lens of her self-contempt, to someone filmed by a friendly cousin,
someone who gently noted the concentration on my face as I washed a
colander of tiny new potatoes; each potato holy, each action tender.

these years, my body has not gotten firmer. Just the opposite in fact.
But when I feel fattest and flabbiest and most repulsive, I try to remember
that gravity speaks; also, that no one needs that plastic body perfection
from women of age and substance. Also, that I do not live in my thighs
or in my droopy butt. I live in joy and motion and cover-ups. I live in
the nourishment of food and the sun and the warmth of the people who
love me.

I tell you, it feels like a small miracle, to have learned to
eat, to taste and love what slips down my throat, padding me, filling me
up, and it is the most radical thing I've ever done.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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Eating Disorders