At nine, when my eating disorder started, I didn’t know what to call it. I knew the moment I’d stuck my fingers down my throat that I was doing something unnatural, and when the pizza that I’d eaten landed in the toilet, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take it back. But, I’d thought, if it didn’t really happen, then it wasn’t a big deal because it would be O.K.–as long as I didn’t tell anybody. I told myself that I would never, ever, do it again. I was wrong. I’d end up doing it as often as six or seven times a day.
At thirteen when I’d learned that the punishment I kept putting my body through had a name, I rejected it. Bulimia was an eating disorder, and all of the literature that I’d read about it told me that eating disorders were for young, White girls from affluent families. I was a young middle-class Black girl from South Carolina. We don’t get bulimia. Our family physician confirmed as much when my mother finally caught me in the act of unloading my dinner into the toilet. It was just a “phase,” he’d decided. My secret was safe.
I couldn’t bring my issues with food to my parents; with a marriage on the rocks, they had their own anxieties about our family and its future to deal with. When I’d expressed dissatisfaction with my body, I was told repeatedly that African American women were supposed to be curvy. No one addressed the underlying issues of anxiety and depression that made me hate myself.
My parents had always told me to do my best at everything I did so I spent time trying to be the person that they wanted me to be. With my father I raised hogs, smoked hams, learned how to fry chicken and how to preserve fruits and vegetables. With my mother I attended tea parties, learned to sew, ate salads and, on the weekends, bounced around the living room with her, trying to keep up with the latest jazzercise tape.
But I’d failed. Doing my best didn’t fix things between my parents. Unable to express the anger and disappointment that I felt, my brain went numb so that I could focus on my schoolwork, because I understood that getting an education would provide an escape from an unhappy life. For years I couldn’t smile. I never wanted to go out and play. But I got straight A’s.
And then I started binging. I would sneak food back to my room, forcefully cramming dinner leftovers, pizza, and ice cream down my throat until I was painfully full. With a bloated face and shaking hands I would drag myself to the bathroom to throw up. Eating this way made me gain weight, which lead to dieting, and then skipping meals, leaving me to find activities to fill the space where a sandwich and friends should have been. My bouts with bulimia became everyday occurrences, but I’d gotten into Dartmouth College. It was under control.
But it wasn’t shrinking me in the ways that I had hoped, and it wasn’t enough punishment for being a failure, so I began using a knife or razor blade to carve words like “fat” and “disgusting” into my skin. Cutting was reinforcement: physical proof that I was damaged, not worth saving.
Then my habits started jeopardizing my escape plan: my education. I had my head in the toilet when it should’ve been in my books. After a string of failing grades I knew I had to take a medical leave from Dartmouth, because I knew the next term was going to be just as bad and after that I would be expelled. In the early days of January 2005, my reality became too heavy. Shedding hair and rotting teeth, I felt there wasn’t much else to lose. So, I tried to set myself on fire in the snow on the banks of a frozen pond near my college. Thankfully, I failed at that too.
But the shame of it followed me all the way home when I could no longer function at school. My parents couldn’t be at home to watch me all the time, so eventually they checked me into an inpatient treatment facility to get me medically stable. It’s working.
Now my eating disorder and self-injurious habits are in remission. Still, my life isn’t always easy. I’ve just moved back to South Carolina to care for my terminally ill parent. But the time I spent in treatment followed by several years of therapy taught me how to cope. I now have the tools to successfully deal with crises that come my way.
When I have a hard time communicating my emotions, I go for a walk. When I’m frustrated, I no longer pick up a razor blade. Instead, I stop and think about my accomplishments: I graduated from Dartmouth and I just earned my MFA. This past Thanksgiving, I even ran a Turkey Trot, my first 5K. Even though I had put my body through years of torture, finishing the race proved to me that my body was still strong and capable. I’m still strong and capable.
Food will always be part of my heritage, as it is for many African American women, but now my participation and interactions in the Southern tradition are different. Instead of slaving over a stove every week to commit my great-grandmother’s recipes to memory, I collect oral histories from the elders and write down their stories, documenting the experiences of the community so that the knowledge won’t be lost.
As I work to remain in recovery, it’s also my mission to help other young women do the same. I travel the country talking to young women about self-esteem and rarely a week goes by when I don’t get a Facebook message from young women from all over who have heard my story and are worried about their own health or a friend’s. I tell them that there is help, that they too can get better with treatment, that they are not alone.
Eating disorders don’t belong to a specific face or race or shape. Any one of us can fall victim to this sickness. And with help, any of us can be survivors.
Latria Graham's essay on bulimia can be found in the anthology Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial and Overcoming Anorexia. Follow her on Twitter.