Profiles in “Kourage”
Part 1: Interview conducted by: Sheila Moseni
Written by: Sheila Moseni
State: TX, born and raised in California
Job: Video Production
I had the lovely opportunity to meet with and interview Diane. She is a survivor of both Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa and is over 9 years sober. Diane has made it her life mission to raise awareness about eating disorders and to decrease the stigma around it. She believes that in sharing her story, she can help alleviate some of the stigma around mental illness and therefore help open up the conversation that often goes unheard.
Diane grew up in a middle class family that was loving but also controlling. “I had everything that I needed, but I didn’t grow up with a
good, strong self confidence.” She recalls . “We weren’t an emotional family.” She was teased for her appearance in elementary school. “I
remember being teased in third grade. Certain things just stick with you.” Her classmates called her fat, and even though she knew she wasn’t, the insults still stuck with her. Diane was 11 when she first started struggling with her eating disorder. She began restricting her intake, exercising excessively, lying about eating, and throwing her lunch away in response to her lack of autonomy. “My mom was controlling, wanting to be involved in everything, and that’s where the control of food came in.” Food was the one thing that she felt in control of in her life, and so she began restricting her intake.
She began to lose weight and received positive affirmations from the people around her. But like most people who develop eating disorders, she wasn’t able to stop after hitting a certain weight. The ideal number dropped lower and lower, her waist growing smaller. “I had this label as a girl who doesn’t eat, and I thought I couldn’t break that image. When I ate, it was almost like a hit to my ego. The skinnier I looked, the better I felt.” Her weight loss efforts didn’t stop with restrictive behaviors. She began to binge and purge to get rid of unwanted calories. She was spiraling out of control.
In late high school, Diane developed a problem with alcohol that bled into her college years, becoming more extreme post college. “When alcohol really took over, it was when the eating disorder was most under control. And that’s when I felt like I really went crazy with the drinking. I wouldn’t eat because I didn’t want the calories. I would drink and I would drink till the point that I was sick. It was natural for me.”
Her dual addictions were devastating, and Diane had enough, so she began her difficult journey into recovery. After a series of different therapists, therapeutic methods, and years of hard work, Diane was able to become sober and no longer binges and purges or engages in any other eating disorder behavior. She bravely shares her experiences with eating disorders in the following interview:
Sheila: What do you think of the Stigma surrounding eating disorders?
Diane: My view on it is that people just don’t really understand the toll it can take on one’s life. I know if you see someone (and I’m guilty of it, too) that’s really thin, you think “just eat something,” you know? But I know better. I know what’s going through that person’s head. There’s more to it than just food. I think the general public doesn’t understand the dynamic and therefore can’t understand the disease and why it’s such a problem. There’s still such a focus on body image with everything and anything, to look a certain way and to be a certain way. It’s hard to get away from it and society conditions it. I think there’s still a lot of work that can be done.
Sheila: For those not familiar with ED, what are some key points they should know?
Diane: The main thing about eating disorders is that it’s not just about the food. It’s the same way for any other addiction. There’s something else going on. That’s just the solution you choose to get through whatever it is you’re trying to get through. I was trying to be in control but I felt out of control. It was my solution to numb myself. Unlike other addictions, you have to learn to manage it. You can’t just cut it out of your life like you can with other addictions. It’s an obsession. You’re constantly thinking about food. What am I going to eat? Did I eat too much? Instead of enjoying your life, you just think about food. For me, if my pants fit tight in the morning, I thought “Do I stay inside and go into a panic attack or do I realize I just feel bloated today but I’m still going on with my life?” For me that was the deciding factor of how my day went. It was just a one track mind, almost like a rush and a high. Food was the tool I used to punish myself or reward myself to get through life. It could start off about vanity, but someone who truly has a problem can’t just stop once they hit a certain weight. I looked at pictures and I thought I looked fine. I had total body dysmorphia. Today I look at those same pictures and realize how emaciated I looked. It’s like a double edged sword. You do all of this stuff to get skinny but then when you go out, you are afraid of how people look at you and you feel shameful. But you still want to get skinnier. Sometimes it comes from a place of vanity but then it goes off the deep end.
Sheila: What do you think the turning point was for you in your recovery?
Diane: It was a gradual victory. I’ve been in counseling from the age of 15 till the age of 36. There are different styles of therapy, and I went to a bunch of different therapists. There were stepping stones to get me where I was, but it wasn’t until 2004 that I found an eating disorder specialist and she worked me. She was tough. She didn’t sugar coat things. She called me out on stuff that I didn’t want to hear. It was intense. She was there when I first got sober.
Sheila: How did you find recovery?
Diane: I never thought of it that way. With alcoholism, I thought I’m in recovery, but not with an eating disorder. I never thought “I’m a survivor!” But then you see others that lost their life. It’s not like you’re broken, you get fixed and you’re okay. It’s a process. I don’t think it’s ever completely going to go away. And I’m okay with that. I’ve come a long way, and I think, how did I get here? There was a book about juicing by Natalia Rose, called Raw Food Detox Diet. I got the book and I read it. In one paragraph, she compared eating an avocado with a power bar. To my surprise, the avocado was the healthier choice even though it had more fat and calories. She talked about food as energy for your body. That was my “Aha” moment! For the first time, I felt like food had become my friend again. I understood, I felt guilty, I felt bad for my body. I thought “I’m sorry I treated you so badly.” I looked at food as the enemy, instead of looking at food as a positive, as fuel for my body, as something I need to sustain and to live.
Sheila: How can we prevent it?
Diane: Provide education on nutrition. Getting healthy habits early, so kids enjoy eating vegetables and fruit. Make the meals interesting, make them fun, not just about convenience. That’s part of the issue, too. It’s just easier and cheaper to eat unhealthy things. Eating well usually costs more. It’s not just about gaining weight and looking better, but it’s about functioning better. There’s a balance. It’s developing a sense of self and confidence and not having that tied to what you eat, what you look like, who you know. Being your own person and being able to feel okay and comfortable in your own skin. And that ultimately is going to lead towards healthy attitudes about food, relationships, anything.
Sheila: How can family and friends that feel helpless aid someone in need?
Diane: Be supportive, but also don’t be afraid to be assertive. Because the person that’s suffering, as much as they may hate you in the moment for it, down the road will see you’re right. They’re not thinking straight. With a little bit of time, they’ll regain their clear thinking. Then they’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you don’t say anything, you’re going to regret it. Come from a loving place, not a derogatory place. Don’t make them feel like there’s something wrong with them, because I think that’s where the shame comes from, the feeling that they should know better. To not look at the person as lesser than, to not think that they’re weak. They’re suffering.
Sheila: What was the most difficult part of your journey with eating disorders?
Diane: I think the hardest part was trying to balance a normal life. A constant struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, but yet I couldn’t allow myself to be normal, I couldn’t allow myself to just be free. I was always so self conscious and worried. It was like my own little prison that I put myself in. It was my safety, but then it was also my biggest doom. Covering it up, hiding it, that was really difficult. Trying to find ways to binge and purge without being caught. Being afraid of myself. Not knowing when I’m going to have an episode, not knowing when I was going to have the urge to binge and purge. Food was always stressful. Traveling, going to a friend’s house, going out to eat, I didn’t know what I would eat. It totally ruled my world. Still to this day, I have my certain foods, but it doesn’t take over my life like it used to, and that’s a big relief. I actually look forward to the company of someone versus what I’m going to eat. Food is not the focus anymore.
Sheila: What advice do you have for people who may be struggling with an eating disorder?
Diane: Wanting help is the first thing. I remember that was the hardest thing. You get in this pattern and way of life that’s so normal and comfortable for you that getting out of that is scary, but then you get tired of living that way. My advice is don’t give up. There’s hope. It’s not easy, it’s a long hard battle, because you can’t just say I’m going to get rid of food. You’re going to have to relearn how to accept food into your life in a healthy way. And to also be strong on the outside so that others don’t influence your decisions. Find something you’re passionate about. What really helped me was art. I took up painting. I could get lost in painting without worrying about food for hours. It was liberating!
Sheila: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers?
Diane: What’s interesting now is that I’ve been going back and reading my old journals. Now it’s so far removed that it’s hard to remember what it was like having an eating disorder. I was more suicidal and depressed when I had an eating disorder than any time with alcohol. I knew that it was bad, but I forgot how bad it was. Going out to dinner was stressful. Thinking “what am I going to eat?” Everything revolved around food. I still kind of have weird eating habits, but as long as I’m not binging and purging, I’m okay. I think I’m always going to have issues; I’m always going to be concerned. But this is my normal, this is what works for me. I was with a friend of mine and we were having dinner at a restaurant. The food was so good. The waiter said dessert was on him, and the old me would have been like “you’re not going to touch that.” But I took a bite and just thought “this is so good”, and I felt so full, but the thought of purging didn’t even occur to me. I thought “Diane, you ate it, you enjoyed it, you’re not going to gain 10 pounds over night” and I didn’t feel guilty. That for me was a big moment. When I read my journals now, it takes me right back to where I was. The feelings I wrote were so raw and real, but I know I’m in a safe place now. It doesn’t freak me out. If anything, it reminds me of how far I’ve come, and that something I thought was impossible to overcome has been conquered.