My Story: The Origin Of My Food Addiction- Part 6

The experience with Kenzie was a life altering point in my path. It brought into focus that this was a disease, not a tool kit for weight management to be dabbled in like much of my generation had experienced. Kenzie would end up staying in the hospital only another month before secretly grabbing her laptop and walking out in the middle of the night against doctors orders. She showed back up in Alaska about a week later but we lost touch. She dropped out of school, started working at the front desk at a local gym, and ended up passing from complications of her disease before we reached the age of 29. I still think of her often.

For me, in the years that followed our interaction, I stayed true to my word for the most part. I didn’t go long long periods of time without eating, I tried not to throw up on purpose. But the unfortunate part was that to some extent, the damage had already been done. Sometimes I would eat and immediately vomit involuntarily. It started during college and got worse after I graduated, I began to suffer from extreme stomach issues. I would get sharp, significant shooting pains, diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn. I would be up all night writhing in pain on the floor of my bathroom, praying for relief, pivoting between sobbing on the floor and vomiting bloody, frothy vomit.

The next day I would wake up, (often still on the bathroom floor) feeling as though I had been in a boxing match. My whole abdomen would ache. I saw doctors, had an Upper GI, kept a food journal. I was tested for allergies, went back on the antacids for ulcers. I was miserable. I was newly engaged and my fiance was worried and, we were spending a ton of money on medical bills and getting no where.

About this time we started to prepare for the wedding, six months to go and the last thing on this planet I could imagine doing, was standing up in front of all of my family and friends looking fat. I resolved to lose weight before the wedding. Vanity is a powerful tool.

I started restricting again. I counted every calorie. I mustered all the will power I could and I cut out all dessert and I worked out hard. I worked out two to three hours on cardio machines every night. Before I knew it, the wedding was nearing and I was at my all time lowest adult weight, 175 lbs. I had lost 45 lbs in 6 months and was so stoked! I was still 10 lbs above the top of the “healthy BMI” for my height, but I’d take it. The wedding came, we said “I do” and headed off on our honeymoon. We ate like kings on our cruise (to Alaska) and by the time we got home, I could barely fit my wedding ring on! (This is mostly due to sea level swell- you people that live coastal lives have no idea how much water you retain). But the trend was set. I never returned to my “wedding weight”. It was like I worked so hard, got there, tagged the buzzer and pivoted and headed straight back up. I am pretty sure that week was the full extent of the time I got to experience “my slightly overweight” body before all the habits set back in.

Six months later I was standing on my bathroom scale staring 199 lbs in the face, holding a positive pregnancy test. Boom. Goodbye “Onderland.”

My Story: The Origin Of My Food Addiction- Part 5

I started college at Colorado State University in the fall of 2004. During high school my weight had crept up and my eating habits, heavily dependent on my mood, had deteriorated. I started college weighing about 204 lbs and was so embarrassed about it I could hardly stand it. But, I found so much freedom in not having to follow anyone’s schedule or be accountable to anyone regarding food that new habits started to develop, over eating. This was made worse by the endless options and “all you can eat” buffets that come with dorm food plans and soon I passed the “freshman 15” and slid firmly into the “freshman 20.”

I lived in a coed dorm with a roommate and two suite mates who shared a bathroom with my roommate and I. It was here I met Kenzie. She was my suite mate and was notably thin. The kind of person people whisper about in the hallway. She was about 5 foot 10 inches tall with a gaunt face, long grasshopper limbs and an obsession for exercise. Every time I would see her she was always on her bike hustling to and from one side of campus to the other. I don’t know how we started talking, but we became fast friends. She was from Alaska but it turned out her cousin was a neighbor from my home town and I knew most of her Colorado family.

It wasn’t long before her eating disorder became a subject of discussion. We confided in each other and compared notes. Where I was obviously a failing anorexic, she was a master. She had spent months and months in several rehab facilities, (mostly in Arizona) during much of her youth amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for her family to cover the cost of her treatments. But she had been “cured” in high school, graduated and struck out on her own, thousands of miles from her whole support system.

We bonded, deeply and she became one of my closest friends. So close in fact that I failed to see what was really happening to her. She wasn’t cured, she was set free. Free to no longer be constrained to the limitations of covering up an eating disorder, no hiding her habits, she did what she wished. She was totally unhindered in her obsession. She would call her family frequently and give false updates about her health and wellness all the while refusing to eat even as much as a single french fry and spending literally hours and hours a day on a treadmill.

By the time Thanksgiving break rolled around Kenzie had caused herself irreparable damage. Being so close to the situation though, I didn’t recognize the issues. She had arranged with her parents to stay in Colorado for the week long break saying she’d spend the time in my home town with family. I offered her a ride, hoping to spare her grandparents the 4 hour drive, but she insisted that they wanted to come get her. I wished her well and told her I’d see her in a week.

On my second day home, I got a call from her aunt. “Is Kenzie with you?” she asked. “No.” I said. I explained the story about her grandparents coming to get her. They hadn’t. A web of lies began to unwind.

I ended up driving her grandma and my mom back to Fort Collins to find her. The dorms were closed for the week, no food or services available, but Kenzie had stayed anyways. At some point she left her room and came to the lobby for a soda. She passed out there and was taken to Children’s hospital in Denver.

By the time we got there, the picture was starting to come into focus. Kenzie was a master manipulator. Standing there in her hospital gown, for the first time I saw what was actually there. A 5′ 10″ tall, ghostly woman who weighed all of 71 lbs. She was so malnourished her skin looked translucent and flaky. Her hair was patchy and dry, giant bald spots exposed where before she had covered them with elaborate hair do’s.

It turned out on any given day she would typically wear two to three pairs of jeans and three or four sweaters to cover her skinny physique. I had no idea it was so bad. I had bought into her story about a blood disorder. A form of anemia that explained away her thin face. Looking at her image what sticks out in my memory was the thought that when you look at most peoples faces, the first thing you notice is the nose as it is what sticks out the farthest. But not for Kenzie. It was her teeth. Her teeth protruded out of her face, round and front and center because every other part of her face was so hollow. It reminded me a bit of a monkey.

She was sick and it took some time to sink in what I was seeing. She was irritated and belligerent. She wanted out of the hospital. She wanted to go home. We offered to take her to her grandparents house but the doctor rebuffed. He informed us the trip over the passes (the change in elevation) could cause her heart to stop.

I grieved for my friend. How did I not know? How could I not see what was happening right in front of my eyes. She was killing herself. She bent over to reach something on the floor. The hospital gown slipped down around her sides revealing big, stuck out- horse like hip bones. As she bent the thin skin on her back showed dark areas that moved under her skin. My mind wondered if I was seeing right through her skin to her organs.

Eventually her grandmother reached her mother and relayed the severity of the situation. They thanked us for our help and dismissed us. I hugged my best friend goodbye and followed my mother back to the parking lot. Once in the car I collapsed into tears on my mother’s shoulder. I could hardly believe what I had seen. At that moment I swore to myself I would never not eat again. I would never force myself to throw up again. I wanted to be thin. I didn’t want to die.

My Story: The Origin Of My Food Addiction- Part 4

By the time I got to high school I had a pretty versed and well established eating disorder tool set that I dabbled in often. Sometimes exacerbating my “symptoms” when things were hard, sometimes relaxing when things were going well, pretty much always tied to my emotions. During high school I stepped up my sports involvement. I played volleyball, became a year round cheerleader, did diving, and played tennis. I adopted a boyfriend cause and kept up a pretty diverse social presence all the while “controlling” my weight with these tactics. At some point during my sophomore year the use of diuretics (Exlax) was added to my my routine as well.

When I say “controlled” my weight, I don’t mean that I was thin or maintaining a healthy BMI. I was still between 20 and 40 lbs over weight, self conscience and struggling with my self image. But I was not at this point, obese. I think much of the reason for that based on the food I was eating was due primarily to the 2 plus hours of sports practice and gym time I was grinding out each day.

For the most part though I was happy and pretty healthy and look back at those days (about 180 lbs on my 5′ 8″ frame as some of the best shape and condition of my life.

Things were not great, but they were stable. However, my eating habits remained poor. Always over eating even though I tried to eat “healthy”. In those days it was before no carb diets really took off. There were low fat and “no sugar” substitutes deeply ingrained in my life and my family had a two batch or roughly 4 dozen a week cookie habit courtesy of my Great Aunt, who lived with us at the time.

“My you are getting fat.” My aunt would say whenever I walked around the corner. And yet, each week a new batch of sugar cookies or peanut butter cookies would appear and then disappear. All told over the time I was in high school despite the sports, my weight rose gradually until by the time I started college in the fall of 2004, I was just topping out at 204 lbs.

My Story: The Origins Of My Food Addiction- Part 3

By the time I got to middle school, I was not thin. I was however, feeling the effects of bulimia. My throat hurt all the time. My stomach hurt. My teeth were showing signs of damage from stomach acids and I was really self conscience of my breath. When I threw up, it was often accompanied by blood. But I remained fat.

Some how I became “friends” with a boy in my class who would come to be my protector, though looking back, at a cost. Under his wing, the bullying stopped. I began to play sports and enjoy some success and my confidence grew. In 7th grade I made the “A” team in basketball. First string. But I was competing with girls who were better, who had attended camps and clinics. I felt a deep need to look like them.

Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that throwing up after each meal hurt too much. If I just didn’t eat at all, it wouldn’t hurt and the end goal would be the same. An anorexic was born. I plotted and planned. I was sneaky. I found a book in the school library that was about a girl with anorexia and I followed it like a manual. Avoiding meals, feigning illness, shuffling food. Eating a bit and then using my napkin to spit it out. I made it 17 days without so much as a bite. I lost 30 lbs.

My art teacher stopped me after class one day, took my chin in her hand and turned my head side to side.

“Uh hum, Missy. You better be careful. You are getting skinny.”

“Skinny”. I thought, I am doing it.

The next day however, my bubble was burst when my coach sat me down and told me she was moving me to the “B” team. I didn’t seem to have the same stamina I did earlier in the season. I was crushed. I went home to find my dad was making a big batch of kinildri, a dumpling soup where the dumplings are packed with ham, turkey and salami. So much salt. I ate 6 bowls of it.

After 17 days without anything but water, my digestive track revolted. I was struck with severe gastro-intestinal distress. I will spare you the details, but I am sure you can imagine.

Later that week the team had a pizza party in my coaches classroom. Pizza, chips, soda and movies. I sat in the dark, depressed at the turn of events and ate delicious, doughy, Pizza Hut pizza. One slice after another. 16 slices in total.

At 12 or 13 years old, this is the first time I can remember gorging myself like this. 16 slices of pizza is A LOT for anyone, much less a young girl. There may have been candy and other treats there as well. But the pizza is all I can remember. That, and feeling better.

My Story: The Origins Of My Food Addiction- Part 2

By the time I was about 8 years old, I was the subject of relentless teasing for my size at the small Catholic school I attended. I was quiet and stayed in my shell, afraid to draw attention to myself. I was sad and painfully aware of my weight problem. I was the “fat kid”.

At some point my mom mentioned an article she read that reported a “famous gymnast” had died of complications from anorexia nervosa and bulimia. I didn’t know what she was talking about and she explained that tragically, this gymnast had a disease where she thought she was fat and either starved herself or threw up after eating in order to control her weight. I asked how and she said they stick their finger down their throat. Looking back on it, I imagine my mom was talking about Christy Henrich, former US Olympic Gymnast who was only 60 lbs at the time of her death.

I am positive this off the cuff remark from my mom was mentioned in passing and had little bearing on her, I would be shocked if she even recalls the conversation. But it’s funny how some things we stay will stick with our kids. I did not hear “disease”, “tragic” or “death”. I heard, “weight control”. And suddenly something in my little brain snapped and a “blue print” was born.

I don’t even remember what I ate the first time I tried it. But I remember realizing how easy it was to gag myself. It worked! And just like that, new habits were formed. I started throwing up after meals. Sneaking into the bathroom to rid my self of whatever devil treat I had just consumed. This was before the days of smart phones and internet searches. My skill set developed on trial and error.

Within a few months I would regularly binge and purge everyday. I was only about 9 years old. My mom eventually took notice. I complained of stomach aches constantly, (a reasonable excuse for the need to vomit after meals). I would vomit blood and had constant heart burn.

Eventually I went to the doctor and had a barium test. I was diagnosed with stomach ulcers and prescribed Zantac. The Zantac calmed the pain and the “stomach issues” covered the lie. I lived this life through middle school. Still fat, but not so fat that any “childhood obesity” interventions would come. I loved sweets and would eat and eat.

“My, you are getting fat”. My great aunt would say.

“You had better be careful, that’s a moment on the lips, and years on the hips.”

A long road a head was forming.

My Story: The Origin Of My Food Addiction

“Rachel! Come in, honey.”

I look over my shoulder and see my great aunt standing on the front steps of the house on Cooper Avenue calling me to come in. It’s still early and light out. I turn, reluctantly and start making my way back down the street to her house. She’s in her 70’s, I am 5 or 6. I want to play with the neighborhood kids, but she’s worried she can’t keep track of me and beckons me into the house.

I come in and sit down on the floor in front of the couch. She offers me some candy from this blue dish she has that stacks, one bowl on top of the other, each higher one acting like the lid of the one below until the top little one which has a lid ends the stack. Chocolate covered raisins. Yum, my favorite. I grab a handful and settle in. She turns on Nick at Night and we wait for my parents to pick me up.

This scene repeats itself day after day all summer. Before you know it, school is starting and the lack of activity and ample supply of treats has contributed to an already brewing dependency developing in me; food addiction.

I didn’t know it then, I was a kid. But I was developing life long habits for emotional eating and sugar addiction.

Sitting here, watching my own children, I worry about what I am teaching them. I don’t want them to grow up facing the challenges I have faced. I want them to be free of these chains.

I grew up in a family and in a time, when separating food and emotion wasn’t a science people talked about. We celebrated with food, we comforted with food. We did holiday’s and traditions and condolences with food. And just like that, I went from a “healthy” weight kindergartner, to an overweight first grader. In the 30 years that have followed, I have yet to return to a “healthy weight”. But that is about to change…