Road to Recovery Requires Time, Patience, Willingness to Share Your Story
by Mallary Tenore Tarpley
Last winter, I heard from a volunteer at Germaine Lawrence, the all-girls residential facility where I was treated for anorexia from September 1999 to January 2000. The volunteer, named Andy, wanted to see if he could interview me for a video project he was putting together for Germaine Lawrence’s 30th anniversary gala. Of course I said yes. I wanted to tell my “success story” in hopes that others could benefit from it and see that it’s possible to heal from the wounds of the past.
I met with Andy for the first time when I went home for Christmas. At first I felt uncomfortable telling my life story to a stranger. But I could sense that he genuinely cared about what I was saying, so I let myself open up to him. About a week later he came to my house to take pictures of me, my dad and my grandma. I later mailed him other photos, as well as journal entries and poems I had written when I was sick. One of the poems was titled “Black Flower” — a metaphor for anorexia. When writing out the poem on a piece of scrap paper years ago, I drew a picture of a black flower on one side of the paper and a colorful flower on the other side to represent what I thought recovery would look like.
Andy used the poem in the video, which he recently showed at the Germaine Lawrence gala. The event attracted about 300 people and raised a significant amount of money for the girls undergoing treatment. I owe a lot of where I am today to Germaine Lawrence, where I was afforded the time to work on my issues and connect with staff members and a therapist who cared enough to listen to my story and who helped me work toward a new chapter in my life, namely recovery.
Recovery is a delicate balance between stepping toward the future and back into the past. The trick is making sure you don’t get stuck dwelling on life there. In revisiting my past, I’ve learned a lot about how losing my mom when I was 11 led me to have an eating disorder. Feeling as though I had lost control when Mom died of breast cancer, I sought to find something I could control. It seemed easy enough at the time to try to control what I ate. So I started to restrict my food intake, first depriving myself of meat, then sweets, then carbs. Little did I know, my attempts at finding order in life would lead to total chaos.
Fourteen years later, I still have a love-hate relationship with food. The hard part about being in a relationship with food is that you can’t ever really divorce yourself from it. For as much as you grow to fear and loathe it, you need it to survive. Food is something to be celebrated and enjoyed with friends. A labor of love you prepare and serve to your family. A fixture in your daily life that makes you feel both good and guilty.
When I’m tired or stressed, food becomes my savior and my enemy. It’s something I can indulge in one day and then deprive myself of the next. Others who have struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating know what this is like. When you’re home alone and no one’s looking, you’re free to let your desires take over. So you go in search of the food that you’ve been craving but wouldn’t let yourself eat in front of others. You sink your teeth into the forbidden fruit, (which is usually in the form of apple strudel or blueberry cake), until a bite leads to a binge. When it’s all over, you scold yourself for getting to the point where you feel ashamed and gross, like a gluttonous girl with no self control. Then you restrict the next day to prove to yourself that control isn’t completely out of reach. You forget altogether what it’s like to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
If only I were 10 pounds lighter, I’d be happier, you tell yourself. But if and when you lose the 10 pounds, you find yourself wanting to lose more. Or you focus so hard on maintaining your new weight that you rebel and sink your teeth into those chocolate chip cookies you’ve been resisting, or that ice cream you stuck in the back corner of the fridge, hoping you could trust yourself not to sneak a spoonful. How easy it is for one spoonful to turn into one serving size, or two or three or four.
The irony of disordered eating is that it’s rarely about food. It’s about the emotions that drive you to turn to food, or rebel against it, when you don’t know what else to do. It’s about the desires you suppress, and the problems you tried burying long ago, hoping they’d never resurface. I’ve learned that when I’m having trouble with eating, I need to try to find my emotions. They’re always there; it’s just a matter of deciding whether I want to acknowledge them or keep burying them. It’s a lot easier to shovel food inside than it is to dig for feelings.
I’ve done a lot of digging throughout the years. When I start to forget how far I’ve come, I think back to the days I would spend calculating how many calories I consumed and how many I needed to burn. Those were the days when I would lie in bed and exercise when I should have been sleeping. They were the days when I stopped hanging out with friends because I was afraid they’d make fun of me for being “overweight” — at 66 pounds.
I talk about these low points and others in the video that Andy put together. For months I’ve wondered whether I should post the video on my blog, and whether I should be so open about my ongoing steps toward recovery. My ambivalence stems from my fear of vulnerability and the uncertainty of knowing how others will react. I’ve found, though, that people tend to respond positively to stories about overcoming difficulties in life. At their core, these are stories about survival. We all need to tell our stories — not necessarily publicly, but at least to someone who will listen and let us know we’re not alone. I’ve decided that if my story can help even one person feel less alone, then it’s worth telling. Here’s to hoping my story helps you. …