For a long time, I was sure I’d never recover from my eating disorder. I’d carried it with me for so long; as a little girl I began overeating as a way to protect myself from the neglect and abuse I experienced from my mom, who raised me by herself. I don’t have many childhood memories, but I do remember the feeling of panic that would overtake me when I heard her keys in the door. The first thing she’d do was check the pantry and refrigerator to take inventory of what I’d eaten. You see, we were poor, and the more I ate, the more food she had to buy. But she was gone so often (I often saw her for the first time every day around 7 p.m.), and all I had to comfort me was food and television. So I ate. And as I ate I became overwhelmed with shame, which peaked when she got home. If I’d eaten too much, she’d send me to my room, where I could smell the popcorn she popped and hear the television. Being alone in my room was a distinct loneliness. I had no siblings. I was on my own.
It was when I became a teenager that I began throwing up. I saw an after-school special about bulimia and decided to try it out. I shoved things down my throat to make myself gag: toothbrushes and q-tips; my fingers. After I’d overeaten at night, I’d run a bath so no one could hear me. By this time my mother was married, and our abusive relationship had evolved to include another party who was sometimes physically violent. They both hounded me about eating and my weight. “Quality, not quantity,” my mom’s husband said, although he would get wasted nightly. They were alcoholics, but our lives had supposedly improved. We had money.
I kept vomiting and eventually lost around 30 pounds, which at 5’ 6” was a dramatic shift in appearance. By now I was a sophomore in high school, and when the weight came off it seemed as though I had suddenly morphed from an invisible wall-dweller into an actual beautiful girl. I became popular. People saw me.
At 20, I was able to simply bend over any toilet or container and empty the contents of my stomach into it. It became a natural function of my body. Often I’d go to the kitchen again and again, never wanting to, and end up over the toilet crying, wishing I could stop, not knowing why I couldn’t. I had spent two weeks at a recovery center, but that wasn’t long enough. My parents were the opposite of supportive. I continued to get sicker and sicker.
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I began therapy and found Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. I knew about Buddhism and even considered myself a kind of Buddhist; my grandfather, who was Buddhist, had taken me to temple with him often when I was younger. But Radical Acceptance presented some concepts that opened up a space in which I could breathe. Brach, who has shared about her own struggles with eating disorders, wrote about radically accepting oneself and one’s experience. This wasn’t something I’d been exposed to, even in my grandfather’s Buddhist practice or meditation. I’d been taught to correct myself. When I felt particularly out of control, I’d buy self help books and underline all the passages that told me what I needed to change, even making note cards so I could be reminded.
When I was 29, after a long struggle with her own demons, my mom died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She’d gotten divorced a few years earlier, and our relationship had deteriorated even further, although in the months preceding her death she’d told me she had cancer (which turned out to be untrue), and I’d tried to help her, moving from Denver to Seattle, where she lived. When she died, I was working for the Park Service in Alaska. I came home, made the necessary arrangements, and went back to work for the summer. When I returned to Seattle after my season ended, I began to experience severe PTSD. My symptoms were dissociation, hypervigilance, paranoia, and night terrors. I didn’t have any family to support me, and my mom hadn’t left me much money; only her possessions, which she’d hoarded in the basement of her rental. I moved it all into a basement apartment and began going through her things, deciding what to sell and what to keep. It seemed everything she owned was tainted by her choice to take her life.
I’d begun therapy in Denver, but was still actively bulimic. In Seattle, I worked with a Buddhist psychotherapist and delved into several texts, including Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel’s The Power of an Open Question. I lived near Discovery Park and went on long walks by myself, where I was often shrouded in paranoia (my mother’s favorite birds were crows, and I often thought they were following me, among other things). During the walks I listened to these books, as well as to the Tara Brach and Thich Nhat Hanh podcasts. As I listened, I experienced a physical sensation of unraveling; loosening. I would often cry when the text suggested softness. I had learned, throughout my life, to be hard and rigid. I’d learned that I was bad and that I needed to be fixed.
I registered for a weekend meditation retreat at The Seattle Insight Meditation Center with Howard Cohn. After one of the sittings, I shared with him that I had an easier time with walking meditation. I didn’t tell him what had happened with my mom, but used the word “trauma,” and he suggested that I be gentle with myself, that maybe it wasn’t the time in my life for sitting meditation, and I should listen to my body. I could almost hear the click of revelation: what the books, my therapist, and Howard were telling me was that I innately knew what was good for me, and needed to trust myself. To relax into openness and allow myself to unfold at my own pace. To trust that I would recover.
My therapist began gently urging me to be mindful about my binging and purging cycles. She didn’t ask me to stop, but to pay attention. “What is happening inside you when you begin to binge? What happens when you need to purge?” For so long, my bulimia had served to numb me, and I was terrified to let it go. But simply paying attention was low stakes, and I began to notice how, when I was emotionally overwhelmed (with memories, with meeting new people, with triggering experiences), my first instinct was to come home and eat while watching television. I was trying to erase myself and my experience. This mindful attention—along with the wakeful openness encouraged by Trungpa Rinpoche and the brave compassion and vulnerability suggested by Pema Chödrön—helped me to start accepting my experiences rather than rejecting them. Through my own attentiveness, I could see how bulimia had served an important function in my life. But it was a triangle of destruction, isolating me emotionally, destroying me physically, and stunting me spiritually. I knew I had to stop, but I was also beginning to realize that it may take years to undo it, and more than anything, I needed to be patient.
A few years after my mom died, Tara Brach released a new book, True Refuge, in which she wrote about RAIN, a technique she’d often discussed in her podcasts. I have found this method’s blend of psychotherapy and Buddhist teachings to be the one most important for my recovery. RAIN stands for: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-Identification. When I came into contact with RAIN I was well versed in the first three concepts, but the Non-Identification piece was essential. Often, when I relapsed, my sense of self would be all wrapped up in my action. I had relapsed; therefore I was weak and bad. I’d be overcome with shame, which would often lead to a continuation of the cycle and sometimes led to day-long relapses where I’d eat and purge until my heart fluttered. It was so scary to feel that out of control. I found that once I began to detach a sense of “good” or “bad” to my relapses, I was able to stop the cycle. I would maybe eat too much, then purge, and that was it. And as time passed, I was able to step into my own process and avert the purging altogether.
At 32, I moved my entire life to the East Coast and returned to school to finish my undergraduate education. I’m 37 now, and just graduated with an MFA. I’m a writer; no longer working a blue collar job, as I had been before my mom died. And I’m still recovering. It’s been a very long and slow process, and I have had uncountable relapses. With each relapse, I forgive myself, and I allow myself to begin again. This is what Buddhist philosophy has taught me; what my teachers have taught me. And now, for the first time in my adult life, I have gone months without a relapse. I celebrate that every day, with the knowledge that, if I do relapse, I can begin again.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.