Bulimia as an expression of trauma with Lindsey

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Lindsey’s earliest memory is not her own. At least, not really.

I typically begin interviews by asking people their earliest memory related to body consciousness. At first, Lindsey simply tells me that she grew up fast, developing C cups in 5th grade. Later, she clarifies what else it meant to grow up fast. Lindsey was molested by a family acquaintance at an early age. She would spend years trying to expel this memory from her body.

It’s common for survivors of assault to experience disordered eating, just as it is common for anyone who experienced trauma to try to escape it. Lindsey doesn’t claim that one caused the other, but instead likens the phenomena to one described by James Baldwin.

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”

Clearly, Baldwin experienced a very different type of trauma. And yet, at least metaphorically, he reached for the same tools. He had the same desperate need to expel the hurt from his body, to reject what had been forced down his throat.

Lindsey’s eating disorder didn’t begin with vomiting, but rather with "healthy" attempts to lose weight. Things escalated when she saw Pink's music video, Stupid Girls, for the first time. The video is largely a parody, but it makes the mistake of showcasing a method of forcing oneself to throw up. It was not long before Lindsey adopted it for herself. “I too became one of those ‘stupid girls.’”

From a relatively early age, Lindsey identified as bisexual. I am, of course, eager to know about what it was like to date another woman with an eating disorder. “It’s really not that different from dating a man with an eating disorder,” Lindsey reflects. (I'm humbled. I had forgotten about them.)

At 15, Lindsey dated a wrestler. Manipulating his weight was, quite literally, his sport. He was full of unsolicited diet tips and tricks, including Lindsey’s personal favorite: “Are you really going to eat that?”

Lindsey's vomiting left her parents feeling powerless. It is a pivotal thing for kids to witness their parents in powerlessness, particularly when the kids themselves are perceived to be the culprit. I am too much, they learn. I am a problem.

Powerlessness was a bad look on Lindsey's mother, in particular. Lindsey classifies her as having "control issues." At the dinner table, she would callously tell Lindsey, “Have fun throwing that up.” She would lock the door to the bathroom to prevent her from purging.

Her doctor too was ill-equipped to deal with an eating disorder. Five minute consultations were followed by a new drug, presumably to quell the "emotional issues" that "lead to" purging. Clearly, this was ineffective. Bulimia is not simply a side effect of anxiety or depression.

“Were you being fully honest with the doctor about your purging?” I asked, thinking back to the many alcoholics who lie to their doctors about how much they drink.

“Oh no," Lindsey quickly admits. "Not at all."

It's true that others cannot help us before we are ready to help ourselves. That being said, others can make things a whole lot worse.

Lindsey was identified by her peers as a “natural helper,” and in her junior year attended a retreat for other “natural helpers.” During an open sharing session, she admitted to her naturally-helpful peers that she struggled with an eating disorder. Her secret was immediately leaked to what felt like the entire school.

Lindsey was a high school cheerleader. "I know, I know, a cheerleader with an eating disorder," Lindsey cringes. "We were a rare breed." At one football game, Lindsey fainted in the locker room, the result of malnutrition and dehydration. When the paramedics arrived, it felt like the whole school was watching.

“I felt like a leaper," she says.

In college, Lindsey lived on a diet of green tea, coffee, and cigarettes. She was dating a woman at the time who also suffered from disordered eating. “If she didn’t eat, I didn't eat." It wasn’t exactly competitive, but it was undeniably hard to practice wellness in the presence of another sick person.

Ultimately, that same girlfriend called Lindsey’s mom. “Lindsey needs help.”

Around that same time, Lindsey’s doctor told her that her organs were failing, that she was going to die. Lindsey did need help.

In a rare moment of willingness, Lindsey was ready to ask for it. In an equally rare moment, her mother was willing to listen.

Lindsey spent six months alternating between inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment. In reflecting on this stay, Lindsey is the first to admit that, while her body desperately needed rehabilitation, she wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared for treatment. While she grudgingly went along with forced weight gain, neither she nor her counselors truly examined the disorder at its roots. Unsurprisingly, then, the disorder remained intact.

I ask Lindsey what she learned in treatment, and for the first time she comes up blank. “I wish I had a better answer for you,” she says.

“It sounds like you were disconnected?” I ask.

”Yep,” she says. “That’s exactly it.”

Around the time she was formally discharged from treatment, Lindsey disclosed to her mother that she had been molested as a child. Her mother responded by challenging her story: “Really? Are you sure you aren’t thinking of someone else?” Lindsey hasn’t brought it up since. (Of course she hasn't; in my raw-from-recovery mindset, I am the first to agree that people who hurt us shouldn't be given a second chance.)

I know many women who have received formal treatment for disordered eating, and there are few I would classify as "recovered." Rather, their disorder becomes more covert, sinking back into the folds of the diet culture from which it first sprung. No, she wouldn't throw up her food, but who could argue with going gluten-free? With veganism? Who didn't want to lose a few pounds before vacation?

Also like other disordered eaters in recovery, Lindsey has forged a different path to wellness, one that feels authentic to her. After college, she applied for massage school. “I wanted to help people feel good in their bodies,” she says. “I wanted to support them when they are at their most vulnerable - lying naked on the massage table.” No longer is she taking "butter shots" or keeping meticulous food logs for her dietician. Rather, her warmth, strength, and natural friendliness lead her towards growth.

I feel certain that the strongest and most lasting recovery does not simply distance us from our weaknesses, but makes use of our strengths.

Last year, Lindsey relapsed. After a seemingly innocuous moment of overeating at work, her body seemed to demand the expulsion of food. She literally could not keep it down, and could not get to the bathroom quickly enough. She threw up right there at the table. This single event triggered months of subsequent purging. At the time, her family life was up in flames and she was experiencing more frequent childhood flashbacks.

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself…”

Undoubtedly, that moment of uncontrolled vomiting - when the food simply wouldn't stay down - was to some degree simply physiological. Like that of the anorexic or orthorexic, Lindsey's body had simply learned to reject food, particularly during times of stress. But I can't help but wonder about the symbolism in the act of vomiting. It is a palpably violent, satisfyingly grotesque depiction of the word "No." The thought, I am not safe. The demand, "Get away from me."

When I hear Lindsey’s memories, I want to vomit, too.

She thanks me for the opportunity to tell her story. Particularly in relationships, she is anxious about sharing her experience. What if her partner makes it impossible to eat normally? What if they tiptoe around her? Worse yet, what if they simply assume that she thinks she’s fat? Now more than ever, I see how belittling, how truly reductive such an assumption is. She and I have talked for over an hour, and we haven’t once mentioned the word “fat.”

I ask Lindsey what keeps her going. Without missing a beat, Lindsey references her eleven year old niece. Lindsey has seen her own mother pinch her rail-thin arms in front of that niece, lamenting the supposed "fat." Lindsey vows never to do the same.

And of course, she isn't just worried that her niece will battle self-inflicted violence, like purging, like restriction, like self-harm. She worries too that her niece will experience violence at the hands of an unsafe world. Lindsey’s will for her niece becomes, in turn, her will for herself. As I listen to Lindsey, it becomes my will, too.

Let me find a stronger "No." Let me be a model of shameless embodiment.

I ask Lindsey what it means to “level up” in recovery. Lindsey journals - better to expel the pain on paper. She has volunteered as a masseuse at her former treatment facility - better to use her hands for kindness. “I want to build my own…” she says, but then she trails off. She doesn't finish the sentence. And yet, the sentence feels complete. Lindsey wants to build her own.