content warning: eating disorder, bulimia, sexual violence
When I was in 4th grade, I was friends with two girls in 5th grade. As a sign of friendship, the three of us chose nicknames for each other. They decided mine would be Blubber, like a whale.
My senior year of high school, I shaved my head. I had read all these online blog posts written by empowered women who found it meaningful and worthwhile to learn how to still feel pretty once they shed a traditionally feminine characteristic. I learned that the word “still” did not apply for me.
The summer between my gap year and college, I started going to the gym with my mom. We swam a mile together every morning, and she taught me how to use the Weight Watchers point system. I weighed myself each day, not realizing that as the number on the scale went down, my attachment to it went up.
My freshman fall, some friends held a potluck brunch outdoors. I ate an amount that would have been a lot before I lost weight, but that, after I lost weight, was way too much. My stomach hurt. I went to a library bathroom and put my hand down my throat. I was not thinking about losing weight or being thin, only about getting rid of the pain. It was the first time I ever made myself throw up, and I did not understand the danger, could not conceive of the slippery slope, had no idea about the spiral.
The day I actually became bulimic (falling into a pattern of binging and purging) was on Thanksgiving. A few weeks after the brunch incident, I again ate an amount that my new, shrunken body could not hold. Conveniently, I was pet-sitting for our neighbors. Between dinner and dessert, I excused myself to feed their dogs. This time, I had found the answer: self-induced vomiting would help me keep losing weight, would let me eat all the foods that I had told myself were off-limits without facing the consequences of their calories, would let me return home with room for dessert. I promised myself I would never make myself throw up in my parents’ house.
I broke my promise. I put my phone on the bathroom counter and played the pop song “Stitches” to drown out the sound.
You watch me bleed until I can’t breathe
I’m shaking falling onto my knees
I promised myself I would stop when I went to Thailand over winter break to visit my brother and his girlfriend who were living there.
I broke my promise. That trip was the first time in six months that I didn’t have access to a scale, and I couldn’t handle not knowing my weight. I fell back into my bulimia, worse than ever.
At a salad restaurant one afternoon, I wanted to run away from the table. I hadn’t factored it into the mental list of food for the day that I went over hundreds of times in my waking hours. I was scared of a salad.
Miserable on the long flights home, I waited to find out how much weight I had gained. The limbo was excruciating.
I stepped onto the scale. I had lost weight. How had my mind so completely lost touch with my body?
Back for my freshman spring semester, I went to the Flatbread Co. with a friend for dinner. The next morning, I saw on the scale that I had gained a pound, or maybe it was just a few tenths of a pound. I went on my longest ever binge. I spent all day searching, eating, vomiting, seeking out foods that I loved, and craved, and deprived myself of, and felt guilty about. Searching, eating, vomiting. The next morning, the number had gone down one pound again.
Crying on my dorm room bed, I called Health Services and asked for help. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how to do it alone. Weeks later, the nutritionist was the first person I ever told. When I finished sharing my story, I asked if my case medically qualified as an eating disorder. I cried when she said yes.
Two young women, in the span of one week, told me that I looked great and thin and could I tell them my secret for how to lose a couple pounds?
Sometimes I binge ate just to show myself I could eat a lot and had the willpower to keep it inside my body. Other times, I relapsed, finding myself in yet another bathroom, leaning over yet another toilet.
In early April of my freshman year, I made a pact with my parents and my brother. If I didn’t make myself throw up even once until the end of May, my parents would buy me a one-way plane ticket to Colorado to join my brother on his road trip home to New Jersey. I succeeded, and by the time we arrived home, I knew I would never make myself vomit again.
During my summer in New York City, a guy from Tinder complimented the blowjob I gave him: “That was amazing. Do you even have a gag reflex?”
I faked a laugh and nodded. He insisted there was no way. I wanted to cry, unable to explain why I was positive that the answer was yes.
At my annual check-up, I updated my doctor on my health over the past year. She told me, “People don’t lose weight from bulimia.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was she telling me I hadn’t lost weight from bulimia? Of course I had. Did she know how many tears I shed alongside the pounds? I hesitated. After all, she was the trained professional.
Now, I know the term gaslighting.
My first post-bulimia Yom Kippur was difficult, full of reflection I was unprepared for. Listening to my stomach rumbling as I fasted, I was shocked back to all the times I had made myself hungry on purpose, had told myself I didn’t deserve to eat, had thought my body wasn’t worthy of taking up space.
In my fiction class, a student wrote a story about a young woman who counts everything she eats and makes herself throw up. During our in-class workshops, the professor always called on a student at random to summarize the story we were about to discuss, both to refresh our memories and to make sure we had done the reading.
“Rachel, can you tell us what this story is about?”
I should have said, Actually, this story was triggering for me; is it okay if someone else summarizes it? But I froze, and the words did not come.
I should have said, This story is about me. It is about me and it should have had a content warning because I was sitting in the library doing my homework and I was not ready.
Instead I said, “It’s about a young woman who counts everything she eats and makes herself throw up.” And then I fell silent for the rest of the discussion.
When another student mentioned the character’s bulimia, the author stated that the protagonist didn’t have an eating disorder, just “some unhealthy habits.”
I thought, Does she have personal experience? How can she not call this an eating disorder? Where does an author get the authority to write?
I didn’t have the words to say, We need to talk about trigger warnings and authors’ obligations to their readers and what fiction even is and whether an author needs to have direct experience with the content they write about.
I wish I said, We need to talk about all these things and more but I don’t know if I am ready and I don’t know if I will ever be ready.
My brother Josh and I decided to run a half marathon together over Thanksgiving. He is six feet tall and a natural runner. I am five foot one and not a natural runner. I knew I would have to take care of my body if I wanted to be strong enough to run 13.1 miles, so I committed to nourishment instead of punishment. A month before our race, Josh ran a half marathon in New Mexico. He finished with a great time, and I called to congratulate him and tell him it was okay if he wanted to run the Philadelphia race faster than me. He replied, “RJ, I ran the half marathon in Albuquerque to see how fast I could do it. I’m running the half marathon in Philly to run with you.”
We crossed the finish line side by side.
That Thanksgiving was the one-year anniversary of the day I became bulimic.
While I was home for the long weekend, I hung out with some friends from high school. We played a stupid drinking game where one of the team challenges was to see how far people could fit a beer bottle down their throat, a joke simulating oral sex. My best friend Will looked at me and understood immediately that I couldn’t participate. Without anyone else even noticing, he went a second time so that I wouldn’t have to.
“Stitches” came on the radio on my drive home.
Got a feeling that I’m going under
But I know that I’ll make it out alive
While cleaning my sophomore dorm room, I found a notebook I kept while I was in Thailand. In it, I had recorded a scene that I must have blocked from my memory, because I had no recollection until I read it: me, alone, late at night, in the dark, making myself throw up by the side of a dirt road.
I haven’t kept a journal since.
I find it more manageable to write pieces like this one: a carefully-planned essay that gives me a sense of agency, an ability to control my own narrative. The journal from Thailand haunts me, like I have lost some privilege of living without fear of my past self, and with this piece I say: Look, I am choosing to write about this, to reflect on this. I will not let it sneak up on me.
Recovery was thousands of times harder than being bulimic.
My therapist once told me that while recovering from any addiction or unhealthy habit is hard, eating disorder recovery is unique because we all have to eat multiple times a day every day. I cannot abstain from food the way I might abstain from alcohol or drugs. I have to face it, all the time, over and over. I have to live in my body, this battleground, and I have to eat.
I told my therapist that some of my friends make themselves throw up when they drink too much alcohol and don’t want to have a hangover. She looked worried and said, “You know you can never do that, right?”
My junior fall semester, I studied abroad in Cameroon to improve my French. On the program, meals included about ten million carbs, which I was uncomfortable with at the time and still labeled “negative.” Sometimes lunch at school had potatoes, rice, plantains, yucca, and beignets. Sometimes they served sandwiches with a side of extra bread.
I got sick, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Two or three times a week, I woke up in the middle of the night experiencing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Medical tests revealed nothing, and antibiotics didn’t help.
Looking back, I am certain my illness was psychosomatic. With all the carbs and the lack of exercise, I was (subconsciously) terrified of gaining weight. A year and a half after my initial recovery from bulimia, I would never have dreamed of making myself throw up, but I believe that my body did what my mind wouldn’t consider carrying out.
Last January, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I sat with myself, by myself, stuck in my head and in my body with little else to focus on, for ten days. I did my body scans, moving slowly like dripping honey, and I did not want to run away. The depths of my mind didn’t scare me, and I was content there in my body, which I consider great progress.
Two guys I had sex with last summer didn’t use condoms, even though I very clearly asked them to. I told my friends afterward, “Other than the fact that they didn’t use condoms, they were really fun one-night stands!” until it dawned on me that that sentence didn’t make much sense, that the first half of it might negate the second. It took me a while to process how disrespected I felt in those moments, how awful it feels not to be listened to or taken seriously, how hard it is to learn that I need to ask more not just from others but for myself. How deserving I am of everything that I ask for.
But also, I didn’t make a big deal out of it because part of me—the part of me that used to struggle so deeply with body image that I thought the solution was to make myself vomit—was flattered that these guys were sleeping with me at all. The sexy one with the stupid Barstool Sports t-shirt from the bar in LA, the Spanish massage therapist from Tinder. Part of me was “honored” that they “picked” me.
I have stopped actively harming my body, but I am still learning to love it. I do not need to feel flattered, and I will not make excuses for those men.
I got ghosted last month. Or, almost ghosted. My suspicion is that he would have ghosted me if I hadn’t asked for him to return a book I lent him.
I was excited about him, excited about the way he kissed me goodnight at the end of our first date and said he was eager to see me again, excited about the text he sent me when he got home to say, “Thanks again for tonight, I had a great time.” Excited about the way he described me as smart and cute and loud and big-hearted, excited when he texted the next day to ask if he could see me again before leaving for New York for the weekend because he didn’t want to wait. Excited when he told me he had already mentioned me to friends and his parents.
After a week of silence, I asked for my book back and he texted me the feeble explanation that “interest kinda fizzled.” I cried and told him to leave the book in my mailbox.
I fought my gut reaction to the text rejection, not allowing myself to think, If only I were hotter/thinner/prettier, he would still be into me. My therapist told me to consider negative thoughts just as harmful as putting my hand down my throat. I cried when she said that, wanting to think that my progress has moved me far away from self-harm.
His fizzled interest says nothing about me or my body. I have to tell myself this over and over. His fizzled interest says nothing about me or my body.
I am grateful that it no longer takes so much energy for me to think about food. And I made the active decision not to put so much energy into wondering why this guy changed his mind and disappeared. Instead, I am taking the energy that I might have spent on him, and putting it back into myself: into caring for myself, loving myself, building myself up, and reshaping the narratives that I tell myself. This guy might not deserve my energy anymore, but I do. I do.
I found the book in my mailbox; he didn’t even text me to say he’d driven over, climbed my front steps, thank you for letting me borrow it.
I don’t call myself “in recovery” anymore. Loving myself is still hard – I’m told it’s a life-long process. But I don’t treat my emotions with food. I let myself feel, I let myself cry. I let my body take up space. I skip gym days, I eat dessert. I try to be more confident, to think kind thoughts, and not to take rejections so personally. I devote time to more important things, like enjoying my last semester of college and all the wonderful people and learning that fill it. I have spent 23 years in my body, and it has been three and a half years since I made the decision to take care of it. It/me.
People tell me I seem happier, and my loud laughter has returned. These are signs of my healing. Growth is long and slow and trying and exhausting, but the civil war is over. There is no voice inside my head telling me that an eating disorder will save me. I wear a ring engraved with the words no one is coming to save you.
The civil war is over. My mind and body are on the same side now, sometimes in tension, but we are moving forward together. Instead of fighting against myself, I am fighting for myself.
RACHEL ROOD-OJALVO B’19.5 encourages Brown and RISD students who need help or support to call BWell Health Promotion at (401) 863-2794 or RISD Health Services at (401) 454-6625.