What I want you to know about my eating disorder

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here.  Today’s guest post is bKelsey Butcher.

In conversations I have had about my history with anorexia and bulimia, people tend to have the same two questions: “What caused it?” and “How did you stop?”

Moms of daughters are always more persistent in their quest for answers – understandably so. Disappointingly, I never have the answers they are looking for. I don’t even really know the answers myself.

I suppose some people have vivid memories of the first time they stuck a finger down their throat – I don’t. Many women remember the how exhilarating it felt to their crooked brain to feel the control of skipping that first meal – I don’t. I don’t remember any of the firsts of my disorders. It was almost as if it took over my body and brain and my job became to find ways to feed the disease, to get better at it and hide it.

Like most people with eyes, ears, and a pulse, I was – and still am – affected by media’s portrayal of women. The images of how women are supposed to look, how we should act, and how we must dress can make the most confident woman become self-conscious. I was born in the early 80s, the beginning of the age of the Cardio Bunny, every other commercial was of Suzanne Summers and her fabulous Thigh-Master, Jenny Craig was begging every woman to call her catchy 800 number to become part of her weight-loss program, and diet pills were dangerous and easy to come by – all of that taught me very early that my body was not okay. But did any of that alone cause my eating disorders? No. Contributing factors to my insecurities and self-hate? Absolutely. But not likely the cause.

I wasn’t abused or bullied or abandoned or starved like some of the horrific stories that are being told. My childhood was probably charmed compared to many.

My mom has always had a battle with the shape of her body – and, for her, I think it can be directly attributed to the way she has been spoken to about it. When she was a lean and beautiful 16 year old, her dad told her she shouldn’t go anywhere in the bikini she was wearing because of her fat thighs. Can you guess which part of her body she hates the most? And, consequently, what my sister and I have always hated about our bodies? If you guessed our thunder thighs (that I’m not really even sure are that big), you’d be right.

While I have very early memories of exercising with my mom, it was always with the motivation of body-hate rather than caring for the shell in which we live. I also remember very clearly that my dad always knew that weight was the one button he could push with her.

When I was maybe five, my gymnastics coach made a cruel comment about my weight bending one of the parallel bars. I was not a chubby kid, quite the opposite, in fact. Likely she was making a joke. But this particular coach had already done the groundwork for breaking me down by teasing me mercilessly about my clumsiness. I don’t remember if I ever went back after that. In first grade a classmate said I had a fat stomach – I didn’t; and a lunch lady told me I had a big butt – again, I didn’t. Those were the first times that I felt body shame – and I still struggle with hating my stomach today.

When I was 8, I remember going through a Babe’s drive-thru with my mom and her friend Lloyce. I desperately wanted a cookie to go along with my meal. My mom said no –because I had either had enough sweets that day or, more likely, I was being an asshole and didn’t deserve an extra treat. As I pouted and sulked in the backseat (putting on a very dramatic show), the woman in the drive-thru handed my mom a free cookie to cheer me up. Obviously she had no idea that I was acting like a brat over said cookie. This was the first time I understood the satisfaction of emotional eating, and also pairing together of manipulation and food.

In fourth grade, while I was rail thin (and clumsy to go along with it) I had an enormous appetite. My parents even introduced me to new neighbors as their “bottomless pit.” The same year, my sister advised me to stop telling people how much I loved to eat and that I would eat all day and night if I could – she said it was embarrassing. So then, even though both happenings were quite innocent, introduced to me was food shame.

The end of fifth grade is when I began restricting food, and I was hospitalized for the first time in the seventh grade when my 5’6” body weighed only 89 pounds. During that 40 day hospital stay, I was in a wheelchair for fear that too much exertion would give me a heart attack. In 8th grade, I began stealing my mom’s diet pills and in high school I started buying my own. I was hospitalized again twice my junior year, once after an attempted suicide. In early adulthood I still struggled, but was much better at hiding it. Eventually my attention turned to binge-drinking – because college.

There was no one situation that flipped a switch in my brain that made me stop eating or begin purging. There was no one moment that began it all for me. And while there were many foundational incidents that contributed to my attitude about my body, depression and addiction are in my genes. I was predestined to have OCD and a hormone syndrome that makes controlling my weight nearly impossible (likely the reason my eating disorders were so bad during puberty).

Everyone who struggles with an eating disorder has a different story, a different trigger. Had any part of my story been different or removed, I likely still would have dealt with an eating disorder. No one is to blame, not media, not that bitchy gymnastics teacher, and certainly not my parents (who did everything they possibly could, and spent nearly every penny they had on my counseling and hospital bills).

And eventually, just as my diseases started, they sort of just… stopped. I don’t know if it was that the years of therapy had finally clicked or if the beginning of my relationship with my now husband was enough of a positive that the negative stuff just began fading away. Maybe all of my mom's desperate prayers finally worked. Maybe I was finally on the right anti-depressant. Whatever it was, I got better (I won’t say healthy, because I didn't even understand what healthy meant until the last few years).

That’s not to say that I haven’t had short periods of struggle throughout the last ten years of our marriage. But I know how to deal with it now, I know how to talk about it, and, most importantly, I know when and how to ask for help. CrossFit has been instrumental in keeping me healthy in both body and mind.

While I can’t say for sure what will help or prevent your child’s case (because it is so hard to know what will stick in each person’s brain); I can say this – model positive self-talk for children. Just as your children will mimic your behaviors and mannerisms, they will copy your words and thoughts and actions – but amplified. I am not perfect at this. Just this week, my five-year-old son overheard me saying I was fat. And then later he told me I was fat. He wasn’t being cruel, he was talking to me how I taught him to talk to me. And now, I have to somehow make him unlearn that lesson in talking to women (and also himself).

In front of your children – and always – speak kindly about your spouse’s body. Speak kindly about other people’s bodies. Teach your children how to be active without teaching them to punish their bodies. Show your daughters and sons (because eating disorders do not only affect girls) how to eat healthy without introducing them to shame. Let them understand that what they see in magazines is not real. Let them see you walk proudly in a swimming suit. Let them see your stretch marks and cellulite and teach them that those flaws aren’t really flaws at all.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder of any kind, please get help. I know it can be scary. I understand that when your brain is warped and twisted from the disease, the word healthy is heavily associated with the word fat. Know that it’s not true. Your health and your body and your mind are worth saving.

Be healthy. Love yourself. And thank you for keeping me In Good Company.

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