Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Life With An Eating Disorder: A Story of a Once Perfectionist

To check out day one of this series click here.

Today my blog buddy Amy is going to be sharing her experience and testimony. Amy is a new momma to her beautiful baby girl Lily, who is just as cute as can be. It has been fun watching Lily grow as she is just about three months younger than Clara. I have so enjoyed getting to know Amy, especially over the last year. She just launched her new blog Livin' La Vida Lily where she documents her day to day adventures with her little one. 

Her story is below. 

. . . 

I will admit that when Brittnie sent me an Email that said, “Just tell your story and experience and how you came to the place you are today,” I had a mild anxiety attack.  And by “mild anxiety attack” I mean I was two seconds away from finding a paper bag to breathe into.  What had I gotten myself into?!  The idea of just telling my whole story in a few paragraphs was pretty overwhelming and challenging.  But the more and more I thought about it and, admittedly, obsessed over it (old habits die hard!), it all seemed to boil down to one concept for me: perfection. 

I am a born perfectionist and people pleaser.  It’s in my blood and courses through my veins with a frightening severity.  I cannot pinpoint anything that happened in my childhood that made me this way; it’s honestly just an inherent part of my make-up.  All I have ever wanted was to make everyone proud, to impress people, to be … well … perfect! 

When I was 5, my sister was born.  I refused to sleep in my own bed, opting instead for a pillow and a small throw blanket set up neatly on the floor next to her crib.  I felt that it was my job to protect her, care for her, and keep the monsters away.  At five years old, I wanted to make sure my parents were getting enough sleep and help them in any way I possibly could.  Everyone told me I was mature and sweet and cute and responsible and helpful.  Everyone told me they were proud of me.  That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I learned quickly how to achieve it.  Be mature and sweet and cute and responsible and helpful.  Rise to the occasion, no matter what. 

Why did no one ever tell me to just go get back in my own bed? 

That example really set the pace for the rest of my story, I think.  My life proceeded on in that way for years and years and years.  Pushing myself to the limit, winning every award, turning heads, leading every possible organization in school and in the community, doing everything in my power to be the best at everything.  I was always the girl who “did it all” and “had it all together.”  I looked pretty darn perfect and “together” to everyone around, but eventually the inside turned to nothing but total chaos.  It is exhausting to keep up that act for so long.  

I started using food as a way to express my emotions and silently cry for help when I was 12. I was already so over-worked and over-exerted that I couldn’t even deal with it.  What coping skills does a 12-year-old have?  I didn’t know how to articulate that I needed a BREAK!  I felt so worthless and silly and undeserving of that, though.  At 12 I was playing with disordered eating and pushing the limits, but it never went too far.  High school was the same story.  Doing too much, striving to be the best at all of it, and beating myself up like crazy when that didn’t work out.  But definitely more “disordered eating” than “eating disorder.”  If there is even a difference.  (Different debate for a different day.)

Then I started college.  Two weeks after I moved into the dorms for my very first semester, Hurricane Katrina hit.  I live in Southeast Louisiana, so this was a life changing event.  Many of my family and friends lost everything.  Returning back to school after having been evacuated for weeks, and having to start the semester knowing what my loved ones were going through 45 minutes away was more than I could handle.  I needed to FIX it!  But this time there was not a thing I could do.  It killed me.  I distracted myself by taking 18 hours my first semester, working 30 hours a week, and joining a sorority.  By the end of my four years in college, I had held 9 Vice President offices in my sorority, often 2-3 at a time.  While working 2 jobs, taking 18-21 hours per semester, and exercising a minimum of 2 hours per day.  Yeah, college kind of fueled my fire.  Big time.

By my second semester, I was very sick.  Everyone around me could see it, and my family and friends were all terrified of what was going on and what would happen if they did not intervene.  So, intervene they did.  Full-blown A&E TV show sort of scenario.  I was mortified, terrified, humiliated, and mad.  I started seeing a therapist and a nutritionist, and honestly learned pretty quickly how to do just enough to get everyone off my back, and no more.  That worked for a little while, because people around me equated weight gain with progress.  All I was doing was gaining (quite minimal) weight and smiling (like a LIAR!) my way through it all.  Eventually everyone was thrilled that I appeared to be “recovered” so they left me alone. 

But recovered I was NOT!  I was just getting started.  I continued my workhorse lifestyle, kept doing anything and everything I could to keep the peace and keep everyone’s worries/suspicions at bay, and continued, even more rapidly and intensely, down a path of total destruction.  My eating disorder became my entire life.  My life was complete chaos.  I stopped spending time with my friends; I stopped visiting my family; I stopped doing anything that did not involve exercise, coffee, bleach, or a vacuum.  My days were mapped out in 10-minute increments, and there was no room for error.  And trust me, I NEVER got off-track.  I had no idea how trapped I was inside the neatly outlined self-imposed confines of my own life.  But my eating disorder convinced me that those confines and that amount of control were safe, comfortable, and absolutely necessary and non-negotiable.  It was the only way to not let the chaos overtake everything. 

This is when everything finally started to fall apart.  My grades dropped, I lost the office I was holding in my sorority at the time. I nearly lost both of my jobs. My friends (with good reason) wanted very little to do with me.  I had wrecked just about every relationship I had.  I was so obsessive and caught up in my routines that people were terrified of me.  I was running on empty, albeit very manically due to insane amounts of caffeine, lack of sleep, and probably bleach fumes.  I couldn’t stop, though.  And honestly, I didn’t want to.  I wanted everyone to leave me alone with my planner, my hunger, and my cleaning supplies.  I spun, and spun, and spun out of control.  There are whole months of my life that are so hazy that I can’t even remember them in any detail at all.  The smell of bleach, the sound of my ears ringing in a deafening pitch, and the nagging throb of hunger pangs are all I can really recall from a big window of time. I would stay home while everyone else was going out and having fun, just to clean my baseboards with a toothbrush and soak my blinds in a bathtub full of Clorox.  I realized one day that I had accidentally left my phone charger on my bed in the morning before leaving the house, and it tortured me for hours until I finally left work to go put it away.  Why?  Because I was worried SICK that if someone broke into my home and saw my phone charger on the bed, he would think I was a disgusting slob.  True story.  God forbid I should appear anything less than perfect to someone who is robbing me.  That is so sad to me now.  But I was so lost, so confused, so overwhelmed, and so broken.  I was stuck, and convinced that I was okay with it. 

I’m not really sure the exact events that led to “Intervention, Take 2” in 2007, but this one was a doozie.  My parents had all but packed my bags to send me to residential treatment, which I somehow sweet-talked my way out of.  I agreed to participate in intensive outpatient treatment and group therapy.  I wasn’t happy about it, but who is?  I grew to be a more open minded, willing participant throughout the process.  This time around I was diagnosed with ADD and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.  It was actually a huge relief to finally be able to understand all that chaos and control and perfectionism.  It made the eating disorder make more sense to me, and I could immediately see how all the outward displays of perfection and over-achieving were very much necessary in order to keep all of the inner chaos and ADD at bay.  For the first time ever, I could understand the cycle and what was going on. 

Unfortunately, just because I understood it doesn’t mean it just all shut off and went away. I started Grad School in 2009 to get my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy.  I have never felt like more of a big, fat, liar in my life.  I was sitting there breezing through the program with ease, all the while living my life still fairly trapped by my eating disorder.  I pulled myself together, fell apart, ran into walls, and reeled it back in many more times, always seeming to teeter on the edge of Holding it Together and Fake It ‘Til You Make It.  I learned how to manage my eating disorder and maintain my weight fairly well, without totally letting go of it.  I was still taking in way too few calories and spending way too much time exercising, but I was hiding it better and knew how to work out to avoid losing an obvious amount of weight. I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that this was just how life was going to be - constantly walking on a tightrope that no one could even see existed. 

Through much therapy, I’ve realized that all of that over-achieving and that quest for perfection was never anything more than an attempt to find inner peace, and to fill a void in my heart that plagued me for years.  I didn’t know what that void was, so how was I supposed to fill it?  Believe me, I tried everything.  It all just made it worse, though, discovering that the nagging tug at my heart for something I could never put my finger on, could not be satisfied with anything

And then I got pregnant.  Let me remind you of the 10-minute increments my days were planned according to.  “Have a baby” was definitely not color-coded anywhere in there at that time.  I was finishing up Grad School, had no job lined up, not married (although in a serious, committed, wonderful relationship) … those things were not quite the picture of perfection.  Far from it!  But you know what?  That bothered me for about 5 minutes.  And then this sense of peace, this feeling of total calm and surrender, took over.  I fell more and more deeply in love with that teeny baby with each passing moment.  I knew that this was the reality check I needed, and the best thing that would ever happen to me in so many ways.  I was forced by God into a rest, and I was so not afraid of it for the first time EVER.  Even though that was not quite my plan, I knew immediately that God had vetoed all my foolishness and given me the very thing that I had always needed the most.  

My daughter was born last July, and I could go on for years and years about how that one moment changed my life forever in ways that I’m sure I still don’t even fully understand.  She was the missing peace.  She was the part of me that I never dared to dream of, because I never thought I deserved something so amazing.  I still know that I don’t!  But she is here, and she’s mine, and I can’t think of a more amazing miracle in my life. 

I’d like to wrap this up with a pretty little bow and tell you we all lived happily ever after.  I can’t really do that.  My life is light years ahead of anywhere I ever dreamed I could be. Yes, there are still struggles.  There are still fears.  There are still worries and concerns and thoughts that creep into my head on occasion.  Absolutely.  The fear that I could ever somehow “pass my ED on” to Lily is crippling, I promise. 

The desire to do everything “right” does not just disappear overnight, I hate to tell you.  But as I am sitting in my living room right now, looking around at all the toys and big bows and tiny shoes and Gerber puffs and MESS all around me, I can’t help but feel that this is total perfection.  This life - this amazing stay-at-home-mommy gig I’ve found myself blessed with, this amazing little angel who steals my heart with every cheesy smile, this love that makes me feel like I could take over the world - is what I was always missing.  I was running like a chicken with my head cut off, stretching myself so darn thin (pun sort of intended), getting my hands in everything I could in order to stay busy enough to not realize how unhappy I was.  And when I had to finally stop and slow down, it just … came to me.  A true God-send.  Peace, contentment, happiness, and a soul that can’t help but smile until it may crack when my little Lily gives me the sloppiest kisses in the world. 

So I guess I can’t wrap my story up with a big, beautiful bow, but I CAN tell you that I never imagined my life would be so calm and easy.  Not calm in a boring, not-much-going-on way, but calm in the way of inner peace and ease.  No chaos coursing through my veins, no need to busy myself with mundane tasks in order to impress everyone, no need to be the best.  Now, I am SO MUCH happier to busy myself with games of peek-a-boo, impress Lily with my amazingly on-point dance moves, and be the best Mom to Lily that I can possibly be.  It’s not so all-or-nothing or black-and-white anymore.  Everything is gray, for the first time ever.  And I promise you, it is the most beautiful thing in the world.
My little family of three 


  1. Though our stories are not the same, I feel like I can relate to a lot of what she said in different ways - thanks for sharing, Amy!

  2. Wow, what a powerful story. Hearing about you as a 5-year-old, bearing the weight of your sister...that's so tough...and that all of the adults simply thought it was cute and sweet, but it started such a huge negative thing in your life...wow. Thanks for sharing, Amy.

  3. I can totally relate. Feeling as though it was my job to hold my family, my entire world, together. No one ever told me it was my job, but it was all I knew to do. That perfectionism and people pleasing spirit sent me down a similar path. While I can say that after ten years I am quite strong in recovery (minus thoughts and some weird food habits) the people pleasing is just now starting to lesson. In recent weeks I have actually been able to say NO! to things I did not want to do. And it feels amazing.. and freeing :)

    PS. Isn't it amazing how the litte people in our lives can make us want to finally do better??


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