Reprinted from "Culture" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (4), p. 15
“Again and again, the same situation for so many years
Tethered to a ringing telephone in a room full of mirrors
A pretty girl in your bathroom, checking out her sex appeal
I asked myself when you said you loved me ‘Do you think this can be real?’”*
I didn’t decide to stop eating one day when I was 11 years old so I could look like the thin model in a magazine picture. That came later. But I was 11 when I first lost my appetite—a sign that a storm was raging in the ocean of my soul. It was a direct response to the sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, which started just prior to my 11th birthday.
When I was 12, near the end of a month-long tour of Europe with a youth choir, the conductor noticed I’d lost a lot of weight. She told me, “You look anorexic; you better eat or I’ll tell your parents.” I didn’t know what “anorexic” was, but from her tone it sounded like a character flaw; a sin. I didn’t want to get into trouble so I filled my plate with cauliflower, only to throw it out when she wasn’t looking.
I didn’t get into trouble when I got home, so the conductor mustn’t have told my parents about my not eating. But the sexual abuse resumed. Everything returned to ‘normal.’
I grew up in a religious home and attended a private religious school. My preoccupation with morality and spirituality heightened when I was 12. This awareness of moral goodness versus evil was honed to a desperately nasty point when I began to blame myself for the abuse. I wrote in my journal, “How can God ever forgive me for making a man be an adulterer?”
I hesitated to include this segment of my story, because I recognize that people have many different opinions about religion and God. I love God, and I don’t want to add fuel to anyone’s negative fire about something as precious to me as my relationship with the Creator. Now, as an adult, I know it wasn’t religion that caused me to think of myself as an evil sinner; rather, it was that so much occurring in my life went unnoticed.
The abuse, my weight fluctuations and, apparently, my thought processes all went pretty much unchecked and unattended by my parents, teachers and the youth leaders at my church. Why was I repeatedly excused from the dinner table when all I’d done is push food around my plate? Why did no one notice my switch from wearing trendy clothes to wearing many layers, often choosing men’s clothing, to hide my size and frame?
Mentally, I struggled with a strange triangle of thoughts. The first angle was my desire to be liked, which butted heads with the fear that I was different from my peers because of the abuse. I wanted to be liked, but I was afraid of being liked too much. My changing body and the continuing abuse both pounded the message home that I lacked control over my body and my life. I feared that my blooming womanhood and sexuality would attract yet more unwanted physical attention.
The second angle was my recognition that people treated certain types of girls differently than others. By the time I started junior high school at age 13, I noticed how the boys treated the girls. The boys paid a lot of attention to girls who wore popular clothing brands, had their hair permed, sported blue eyeliner and tight white Levis with leather boots, and smelled of Polo or Obsession perfumes. These girls usually came from homes with money. Other girls clustered around them, vying for position of ‘best friend,’ like crows fighting over the carcass of a dead animal.
Adults—the teachers, the church leaders, the parents—also shined their favour on these girls, whose parents often held positions of power or prestige in the community.
I was in a clique of six girls, one of whom dressed and smelled ‘just right.’ Another of the girls was big-boned and heavy-set, and constantly on some strange diet or another at the behest of her parents. Even among us six, the ‘attractiveness’ inequity was apparent. While five of us shared wearing shirts and sweaters, I could see the pain in our larger friend’s eyes at being excluded from this rite of friendship. When we held swimming parties, our friend would be sitting to the side, or simply absent.
Also at 13, my best friend and I began buying Cosmopolitan magazine, and would pour over the pictures. In the ’80s, the popular clothing brands were Esprit, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein (all still flourishing today). Calvin Klein had a series of advertisements about which people often commented that the models “looked like crack addicts.” To me, they did look incredibly skinny and somewhat sexually ‘used’—and yet . . .
The third angle was the growing belief that if I could be like those models, I’d be liked, wanted and no longer afraid of my own femininity and sexuality. I think it was the confidence portrayed by the women in magazines and on television that appealed to me. Their ability to stand brazenly in front of a camera, not caring that so much of their skin was exposed, was a harsh juxtaposition to what I felt about my body when it was naked. I couldn’t change clothes in front of a mirror; my disgust at my femininity was overwhelming. When undressed by my abuser, an event always marked with physical struggle between him and me, the fear and shame reached pinnacle heights.
By the time I was 13 I’d moved the scale in my parents’ bathroom to my bathroom. I sometimes weighed myself as often as 30 times a day. When the number on the scale went up, terror made my appetite disappear. Then, down the numbers would plunge.
At 14, I told my parents about the abuse, hoping that would stop it. Unfortunately, nothing was done. My parents were unskilled in dealing with trauma, as neither sexual abuse nor childhood trauma were understood in the early 1980s as they are now. Additionally, the abuser was both a relative and held a position of power in church. These factors, I’m certain, hindered my parents from taking action.
The abuse continued, as did my weight fluctuations. However, by this time I’d added purging to the mix. On occasions when I did eat, I’d make myself vomit. And on top of that—just to make sure everything was out of my system—I took laxatives, often more than 500 pills a day.
In my journals, I recorded everything I ate, the number of times I vomited, and the number of laxatives I took each day. I also wrote extensively about how I hated myself. Certain statements were repeated and became slogans. “I loathe, detest, despise and abhor myself.” “I should be taken to the curb with the trash.” “Someone should take me behind the barn and put me out of my misery.” “I am fat and ugly.” Regardless of my weight, these statements were written with vengeance and spite.
My emotions and the events of my life were uncontrollable. Turning the energy of anger and fear on my body was a storm I could weather more easily.
Weathering ups and downs today
The yoyo of weight gain and loss continues to this day. I’m just shy of 5 feet 11 inches, and my weight has gone up and down between a healthy 155 pounds and less than 80 pounds. Despite these incredible changes in weight, I wasn’t diagnosed with an eating disorder until age 39. My husband’s family intervened when I had a particularly rapid loss of weight, losing 49 pounds in as many days.
Since being diagnosed in 2010, I’ve been medically stabilized through two stays at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, totalling two months. At St. Paul’s I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This has been followed up with care through a local mental health office, where I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist and a social worker who specializes in eating disorders. In addition, I’ve pursued extensive personal therapy with counsellors who specialize in PTSD, and have attended various therapy groups offered by Langley Hospital Group Therapy Services.
I often ask myself if I’d still be at war with my body had circumstances been different. Would the eating disorder have developed if the abuse hadn’t happened, or if I hadn’t read Cosmopolitan? But I can’t identify any one cause. Abuse, moral development, social awkwardness, parental inattention and pictures of skinny girls were just some of the ingredients.
Anorexia is the debris following the perfect storm; it’s the flotsam and jetsam of childhood trauma not attended to by my caregivers. Waves still overwhelm me at times, and I can only call for help. But there are other times when the sea is calmer—or perhaps I’m a stronger swimmer. In those times, I head for shore.
About the author
Jolene resides in Langley with her husband Bob and dog Rapha. She enjoys walking her dog and writing about her experiences. Jolene and her husband lead a small informal group for couples that focuses on attachment needs within intimate relationships
*From Joni Mitchell’s song “The Same Situation,” on her 1973 album Court and Spark.