Sunday, January 2, 2011

Anorexia, Bulimia and the Road to Recovery

How does one explain the mindset behind purposely starving oneself?  I ponder that question as I sit here and munch on pretzel sticks, drink juice and type.  Thirty years ago, I could have also been found munching on the same little sticks, but they would have been counted out to a specific number equaling 120 calories (100 calories were too few and 150 were completely unacceptable.)  Thankfully, I no longer remember how many pretzel sticks equal 120 calories, although the number 24 comes to mind.  What I do remember is that I could eat more of them than pretzel rods or the twisty kind; fooling my brain into thinking I ate more than I actually had.  At the time, the drink of choice was not juice (too much sugar and too many calories), but TAB. 

Never mind that TAB and pretzels contain tons of sodium, refined flour, pretend sugars and chemicals.  If I was attempting to be healthy, I would have drunk tons of water, ate a healthful balanced diet and not attempt to deprive my body of essential nutrients.  At the time I was convinced my behavior was healthy when it was anything but.  I was anorexic and eventually bulimic as well.  I was addicted to starving myself.

Believe it or not, anorexia is an addiction.  Just like alcoholism, gambling, or drugs.  A person is addicted to depriving their body of necessary nutrients.  There is a high that goes along with starvation. There really is.  When mountain climbers experience oxygen deprivation they hallucinate, or think rather wacky thoughts.  With that thought in mind, my sarcastic (healed) self believes the high comes from the effects of nutrient/caloric withdrawal on the brain.   Seriously, why or how else could someone do this to themselves? 

It is hard for me to remember that high and I am honestly glad I cannot re-create the feeling.  My 15 extra pounds that refuse to leave my body after giving birth to Adam 15 years ago are a testament to being cured.  Yet I remember how much I LOVED to bake cookies and never let the batter or spoon touch my lips.  Being able to control my mind and body like that was euphoric.  Personally, there is now a feeling of satisfaction when playing the role of "Quality Assurance" making sure everything tastes great.  Back in 1980, the control I had over psyche, spirit and body was mind boggling. 

So, again, I ask the question, how does one explain the mindset behind purposely starving oneself?  The only answer I have is control.  My life had suddenly turned out of control and I needed to create a sense of order, regardless of how misdirected.  I left for college in the fall of 1979 a bit fluffy.  I was 17, not quite 5'2" and weighed about 133 lbs. I was on my own for the first time after growing up in an over protected Italian household.  Personally, I could not wait to move away, spread my wings and fly.  No one knew, nor would I divulge, how scared I was on the inside. 

That same fall I fell in love for the first time and subsequently learned the pain of a broken heart.  Knowing my parents expected I do well in college and needing to micro focus on anything but heartache, I threw myself into classes.  It wasn't good enough to me, or my parents, that I was the first Concialdi to obtain a degree.  Grades were extremely important.  Grades showed perseverance and hard work.  If I received a B, my dad always asked why it was not an A.  I doubt he realized the pressure his comment inflicted.  In his own way he was being supportive and knew that I could achieve anything for which I strove.  He did not realize that I strove to be the perfect child and make him proud.  Being an over achiever was easy and I excelled in almost every class.  Yet, the pressure I put upon myself was more than my frightened and hurt psyche could tolerate. 

My dorms were the farthest away from campus requiring me to walk a minimum of two miles a day.  After a while I upped my trek to campus; taking 3 or 4 trips into town and logging 6-8 miles a day.  Then I added dance classes to the mix.  I needed to lose a little weight, but as the weight started to melt off, I took over achievement to a whole new art form. 

By the time I came home for spring break I was 25 pounds lighter.  My brother, Mark, barely recognized me.  I could step in and out of my jeans without unbuttoning or unzipping.  At summer break I weighed 93 pounds.  In nine months I lost a total of 40 pounds.  The doctors were concerned, but I assured them I was not anorexic.  The term was not common nomenclature in 1980 and they were surprised I knew the term.  They then informed me I would be hospitalized if I lost one more pound.  Wondering if they would stand behind their word, I took their statement as a dare and tried my hardest to lose that last pound.  Don't ask why.  The thought process of an anorexic is really not rational.  Fortunately, I craved salty foods (pretzels contain zero fat) and massive amounts of TAB.  To this day, I truly believe sodium, water retention and excessive carbonation prohibited my hospital admittance that summer. 

I eventually gained a few pounds; hovering around 98-99.  Every morning when I awoke, I ran into the bathroom and weighed myself (after I peed of course).  Then I scrutinized myself in the mirror to make sure my thighs did not touch and that my stomach was flat.  If something touched or protruded, additional sit-ups, squats or walking was added to my routine.  I continued this behavior throughout the majority of my college life with a slight foray into binging and purging for interest.

Positive that my body still contained ugly fat, I walked into a fitness center and wanted them to assess my BMI (Body Mass Index).  It was barely on the charts.  Surprise!  Surprise!  The women at the center who obviously had me pegged as anorexic tried to chat with me about lean muscle and consuming protein.  I would have none of it. 

No one in my family could understand my behavior.  We were Sicilian for God's sake.  Everyone ate.  There were no excuses.  Sunday meals at our house could feed the 299th battalion, yet I barely swallowed anything. I remember Mark loading my arms up with food; telling me to sit and eat.  What was easy for all was impossible for me.  I remember seeing the pain in my father's eyes.  My chubby dad could not comprehend why I was torturing myself (and him).  I remember once, with tears in his eyes, he asked me why I was so unhappy.  He wanted to make it all better, but helping me was completely out of his realm.  My mother thought teasing me would snap me out of it.  She always had her own thoughts about weight and hated when I was fluffy.  She called me her "little anorexic".  No amount of tears or cajoling worked.  I was the Queen of Control.   

My parents sent me to a behavior modifier.  Her task was to convince me to change my behavior.  Little did she realize that I would go to great lengths to keep my skeletal frame as skeletal as possible.  She and I planned menus and discussed what I loved to eat.  Did she seriously think I was going to dine on any of the suggested peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, pasta or vanilla shakes?  If she did, she was as delusional as I.

The death of my grandmother added to my need to gain control of my life.  The last time I saw Granny Concialdi was at Christmas Break of 1980.  Gran was 83 and ill, but she was a tough ol' Sicilian.  My dad was Gran's youngest child and the light of her life.  I was my dad's youngest child and the youngest of all the grandchildren.  I too held a very special place in her heart.  I stopped by her house the day I was returning to college.  If I had realized it was the last time I was going to see her I would not have argued with her. 

But Gran had a way about her.  She had been telling me since I was 5 that she was never going to see me again.  It's not like we lived far away.  I lived on the next block.  After my kindergarten graduation she told me she was never going to see go to first grade.  Randomly throughout grade school she told me she was dying.  After my 8th grade graduation I received the same speech and subsequently throughout high school.  When I left for college...same speech.  SO, here it was Christmas of my sophomore year of college.  I had heard this argument my whole life.  When I ran over to her house to say goodbye, Gran cried and told me she was never going to see me again. 

Throughout any of these previous declarations I never argued with her.  I always hugged her and said I would see her soon.  This time, I argued; explaining that she had been telling me the same story for 13 years.  I said that I would see her either at Spring Break or when I came home for the summer.  And I promised that she would see me graduate college.  I was naive.  She cried, hugged me and kissed me goodbye.  For Spring Break I went to Daytona with some friends and Gran died a couple of weeks later. 

I lost an uncle when I was 10, but this was the first death I ever experienced as an adult.  Well, as much of an adult you can be at 18.  I was devastated.  It also broke my heart because Gran was so sad when I left her house in January.  I took for granted that she would always be around.  And I chose the last time that I saw her to argue. If I needed any additional excuses to punish myself via starvation, this was definitely a perfect time to do so. 

From that moment on I was completely hyper focused; concentrating on my classes and my diet.  I took over achievement to a whole new art form.  By my junior year in college my family was spiraling out of control even more. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in October of '81.  They knew going into her surgery that the tumor was malignant, yet my parents chose not to tell me until I asked for an honest answer.  My father was now worried about the two women in his life.  Both of us were facing life threatening illnesses and he did not know what to do.  One could be cured by surgery.  But the other required treatment unknown to him.  My disease was so foreign and incomprehensible.  He was petrified that the news of Mom's illness would cause further starvation.  What he did not realize is that any excuse fueled the fire.

Once given the news of her illness and surgery, I hopped in my car in Champagne and the muffler promptly fell off before I could hit the expressway.  4:45 on a Friday afternoon.  Who was going to fix my car so I could get home?  I HAD to get home.  Nothing was going to stop me.  My friend Chris and I pulled into a Midas shop where I was informed they did not have the part for my '73 Pontiac Catalina (a.k.a. the SS Concialdi).  I calmly explained that my mother was in the hospital and I had to get to Chicago.  They calmly explained that they did not have the part.  A little louder, I explained they were a muffler shop and they should have the parts.  They, again, explained they could not.  A little louder and a little more frantic, I explained that my mother was in the hospital.  She had cancer and I needed to get home.  They explained a little more emphatically that they could not fix it 10 minutes before closing.  That is when I completely lost it.  Think Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment "Give my daughter the shot" lost it. My car was fixed and Chris and I were on the road by 6PM.  I drove 80mph; arriving at the hospital before 8, a good 1/2 hour prior than I should. My poor friend, Chris, white knuckled the ride with me.  All I can remember her saying is, "Would you like me to drive?  Seriously, Mar, I'd be happy to drive."  Pulling over required minutes and I would have none of that.  Still friends, the poor woman has yet to ride in a car with me 30 years later. 

As I arrived at my mom's hospital room the phone was ringing.  Without barely looking at my mom, but sensing she was asleep, I grabbed the phone so not to wake her.  It was my dad calling to say I would be arriving within the hour.  When my dad heard my voice he knew exactly what I had done.  "Baby, how did you get there so quickly?" he asked.  My only response was, "Traffic was good, Daddy.  You would be amazed."  Once I hung up the phone, knowing a lecture about safety, speeding and reckless driving was in my very near future, I turned to look at my mom.  She was so frail hooked to a variety of loud, scary machines helping her live.  I slowly backed myself up to the hospital room wall, slid down and fainted.  I awoke to a couple of nurses, juice and cookies.  The nurses could see what I was oblivious to.  They would not let me leave until I ate the cookies...which took forever. 

Soon thereafter, I decided that starving myself was getting a little too difficult, but I did not want to gain weight.  That is when I hopped on the bulimia roller coaster.  Some people are able to easily vomit.  Not this girl.  It is difficult for me to throw up when I have the flu.  Throwing up when "healthy" took industrial strength effort.  Throwing up an apple, celery, some pretzels and a couple of hard boiled eggs (Yes.  That was my daily diet.) required more work than I cared to muster.  Although bulimic, I was obviously lazy about the tasks at hand.  After numerous attempts at throwing up, I broke all the blood vessels around my eyes.  Anorexia and bulimia are all about vanity.  Wanting to look your best (in your mind's eye).  The idea of looking as if I had been KO'd in the ring was completely unacceptable.  Throwing up was not the only option with bulimia, so I ate and found various means to not keep the food in my system. 

By my senior year my mother had two surgeries and radiation.  She had one more surgery in her future, but she was going to be fine.  No one was quite sure if I was going to do the same.  That September a family friend was getting married.  Mark was in the wedding party and we were all going as a family.  It was a celebration.  Mom had kicked cancer's butt, Mark had just gotten engaged.  All was right with the world.  I went home that weekend to celebrate with everyone. 

That night Daddy kept announcing to my mom, "You don't feel well.  Let's go home."  She kept saying, "I feel great!  Let's stay."  After a while, my mom, quite exasperated with my father, said, "According to your father I don't feel well.  We are going home."  She was none too happy about this either.  It was my father who did not feel well.

When I got home from the wedding Daddy was up watching TV.  He was sweating.  I remember kissing him good night and telling him I loved him.  I awoke the next morning to the phone ringing.  Mom was calling from the hospital.  She had called an ambulance in the night.  Unbeknown to us, Daddy had a mild stroke during the day; he went to the wedding not feeling well.  Looking back there were signs of odd behavior, but none of us knew the signs of a stroke.  We were all focused on the wedding and he never indicated he felt ill.  The stroke weakened his heart.  By the time he woke Mom to tell her he did not feel well it was too late.  He died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.

The next few months are a blur.  The pain of losing a parent is incomprehensible.  I was sad and frightened.  Mom was facing one last surgery and I was petrified I would lose them both.  But somewhere in that blur I realized that what I was doing to myself was insane.  Life is a precious gift and my actions were equivalent to Russian Roulette. The thought process was a slow awakening.  A flicker of a thought which eventually took root.

It took years to return to "normal" although I credit Baskin Robbins to part of my healing.  I initially did not change much of my diet, but allowed myself ice cream on occasion.  How could something so creamy and yummy be bad for you?  To this day my brother Mike recalls me eating an ice cream sundae with a Diet Pepsi by my side.  (I needed to balance out the calories.)  Still not healthy, but the action was baby steps towards recovery.  It was the first realization that eating rationally was not so frightening.  Fear of caloric intake was prominent in my mind, but I s...l...o...w...l...y started to live a healthier lifestyle. 

Today, I can no longer tell you the caloric value of most food items and am very proud of that inability.