Four doormat size pieces of plain cheese pizza with extra marinara sauce. Two fudge brownies. And a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. This was my daily go to for comfort only to be vomited up asap. Heaven forbid an ounce might be gained.
It was mortifying to go down to my local New York City pizzeria and bodega next door. It felt like they all knew that I was a closet puker. It was hugely embarrassing to be addicted to food. Somehow, as wrong as it is to say, it seemed much cooler to be addicted to alcohol, or drugs, more rock-n-roll, Keith Richards style.
Being a food purger is done in isolation. Many addictions can end up being solitary, but I am pretty sure nobody ever became a bulimic at a group barf party. Regardless, all are devastating situations.
There are approximately 4.7 million women and 1.5 million men in the United States alone that suffer this disorder. Mostly, bulimia is more common in adolescents, but has been discovered in children as young as six years old. Yikes. 1.5% of all American women will suffer bulimia-nervosa in their lifetime. Yikes again.
I had been playing this deadly routine for years while living in an Upper East Side shoebox with my roommate Paula. She never knew. I was stealth like in my abilities to hide my hideous relationship with food. It became necessary to adjust to softer foods like pasta marinara because it was easier to regurgitate. It was also quieter and caused less choking. Anything too heavy such as a double cheeseburger and a bucket of fries was pretty painful to pull back up.Yeah, I know. Gross.
Hiding the evidence of empty food containers and vomit spots under the toilet seat was of the utmost importance. The cost to continually feed myself as if I were a family of ten was straining my limited finances. My deepest relationship, if you could call it that, never made it past a one night stand. No one including my gray cat Tasha would see me in my undies, let alone naked.
I was lost. The perfect storm of growing up with an alcoholic father and overdeveloping at eleven years old started the tailspin. Overdeveloped is an understatement. There was no over the shoulder boulder holder that could contain my gi-normous size boobs that hung low like large pendulums. And I lived in Florida. The land of the bathing suit. Egads.
It was difficult to hide and there was a lot of duct tape involved which only created a large shelf that I could almost set a plate on. Convenient, since food became my closest friend. Some would say how lucky one is to have a “set”. Well, I guess if you consider porn style ta-tas that have deep red stretch marks and point straight down, then sure.
Sorry, no. My eleven year old self did not know how to manage.
I had my secret fetish. It went with me everywhere. It was challenging to vomit quickly and quietly in group bathrooms. Like the one with those awful florescent lights when I worked as a receptionist at MTV, or the overcrowded, smokey ones when I was night time bartending in the East Village. It did not matter where. Flights? One can barely stand straight up inside those miniscule port-o-pottys let alone bend over the bowl. And yes, holidays required extra care in going undetected while the entire extended family cajoled in the festively decorated dining room for Thanksgiving. Or Birthdays. Or anytime.
The guilt. The shame. The embarrassment. It kept me in the closet for over a decade.
But the feeling. The counterfeit comfort of consuming the food was like a love drug, satisfying some deep dark hole that seemed bottomless. It didn't matter that it was reeking havoc with my finances or ruining my skin, or my teeth. How does one stop an addiction that is required to survive? Like a crack cocaine addict using just a wee bit. Kind of a conundrum don't you think.
The Mayo- Clinic lists some risk factors caused by bulimia:
When I finally felt I was bottoming out and told my roommate, she didn't believe me. My secretive skills were that good. Turns out there was another level of bottom. After going back undercover for another year with my vicious food cycle and self loathing, my health started to deteriorate.
I called my mother. This is the single most difficult call of my life so far. It was the most important one and as you can imagine, emotional.
I had a breast reduction surgery. Finally. It was an immeasurable sigh of relief to be able to wear a t-shirt at twenty-five years old. The difference that it made was enormous. But it didn't stop the purge cycle. It was the beginning of the end. Although, I have been recovered for over twenty years, the process to my individual healing was a long one. Until eating disorders are viewed as symptoms instead of the problem, recovery will remain limited in success. Bulimia is beatable and there are no easy answers like “Just stop.”
Perhaps the questions are more important the answers?
1. Why are we afraid to reach out? How bad is it going to have to get before one makes the call for help? This is the hardest part. It takes tremendous courage. No way around it. Just gotta go through. Putting my fears on the page helped push me to take this critical step. And reaching out goes both ways. My mother had a feeling something was wrong and understandably did not want to hurt me. She had her own darkness to deal with and was doing the best that she could. If you suspect someone you love is battling this problem, then be brave and say something. Yup, and it's going to be uncomfortable but you just might help someone open the door to healing. Make the call to a loved one. It can save a life.
2. How are we influencing our children? I cringe anytime I hear an adult say anything about dieting around a child or teen. How about good ole healthy eating? For me, one of the pivotal points for my recovery was to stop dieting. Food is not the enemy. Our relationship with it is the foundation of a healthy body and mind.
3. What are the triggers? The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. Many factors could play a role in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, biology, emotional health, and societal expectations. Learning to identify certain triggers is an integral part of healing. It helped me a lot to deal with this in therapy. Finding a good therapist and/or group is likely to have a profound effect on recovery success.
4. Why are we eating when we are eating? Keeping a journal was and still is a great help in catching my run away feelings. Pouring yourself out on the page is like purging. Except that you don't need to spend any money and risk your health. Back when we used day-planners instead of technical devices to organize our lives, I marked a smiley face (the original old style emoji) each day I made it though without vomiting. X marked the days I didn't. Little by little, there were more of the smiles. As silly and perhaps small as this might seem, tracking my progress was empowering and helped beat the inner critic that drove me to gorge.
5. What messages are we receiving and sending on Social Media? All media? This is the gorilla. It can be a trigger for self doubt and wondering why we all don't look perfect in a dental floss thong. It all looks so smooth, sparkly and fabulous out there! We have the power here to be aware of what we put out on these platforms. How can we be better messengers?
6. And finally: How can we make friends with ourselves? Especially the parts we don't like so much? Maitri. One of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and be of benefit to others. It means fully embracing all of our qualities. Yes, those parts of us that have mood swings, our internal struggles and yes, our cellulite. I remind myself often that there's strength within my sensitivity which many, including myself, sometimes perceive as weakness. We are not broken. We heal when we practice radical acceptance with ourselves. Sure, there are things that can be worked on. Like one of many times I have had a tantrum when my brother and I disagreed on politics. (That is putting it lightly in the hopes this article won't spark another argument.) When we can meet ourselves with kindness instead of an internal hammer, we can connect better with others.
Bulimia is not beautiful. It's power has affected celebrities like Jane Fonda. Princess Diana. Lady Gaga. Elton John. I know! Rocketman! It's comforting to know we are not alone. Healing from this traumatic disease is absolutely possible. Make the call.
When life is moving along swimmingly, being steady and comfortable seems attainable, even easy. When our jobs, relationships, finances or heaven forbid, all the above go haywire, it's probably not so steady there sweet pea.
We all know these moments. For me, mine came a few years back when it was an all of the above equation. Things did not go as planned (um, do they ever?) for the yoga studio my husband and I built. We were successful and going strong for five years and yet, could not sustain the politics of a small town. My biggest fear was losing this place - my dream, my heart.
And I did.
It was a slow, painful process. While this wrecked havoc on our finances and our marriage, the worst part was the emotional side. It felt like we were going through a nasty divorce and would never see our kids again. Yes. Dramatic. The soap opera kind that takes us on the emotional roller coaster of life.
But here's the biggest ding. I am forever grateful that it happened. Yup, that's what I said. Grateful.
I would never have learned so many of the valuable life lessons if it did not happen. I am better and wiser for it. The one little thingy I would change was my own internal suffering over the whole debacle. My most feared nightmare was coming true and it was hellish, but the inner torment I put myself through was much worse. This is where all the self-sabotage seeped in. “If I were a better teacher, this would not have happened. If I would have trusted my gut, this could have been avoided. Who did I think I was opening a studio.” And on and on it went.
My poor husband, my friends. I was pretty twisted up and many of my relationships suffered. I was not “embracing the glorious mess that I was” as Elizabeth Gilbert said.
No, I can not change the nightmare of the past. But I can change my response and outlook around it. This is where being effortless in the effort chimes in. Friends, it is a choice. And granted, a hard one when we are in the thick of the sh**t, but a choice nevertheless.
Whaaaaaat? Effortless effort is a paradox!
The dictionary says effort is defined as: a vigorous or determined attempt, the result of an attempt, strenuous physical or mental exertion. The synonyms as: exertion, force, power, energy, work, muscle, application, labor, the sweat of one's brow, striving, endeavor, toil, struggle, slog, strain, stress, trouble, bother.
And effortless as: requiring no physical or mental exertion, achieved with admirable ease. The synonyms: flowing, fluid, fluent, smooth, graceful, elegant, natural, leisurely, easy.
Um. I don't know about you, but being fluid and graceful sound a lot better than struggle and slog.
The key here friends, is that effortless is an adjective while effort is a noun. Yes. That means we get to decide what kind of effort we put out there on the life mat. And yes, effort is required for transformation or growth of any kind.
Now that we have defined the terms, how does this translate onto our yoga mat and more importantly, into our lives? The better question might be, how does it not.
In my book, as a yoga student first and always and a teacher second, life and yoga are the same game. How we act on the mat is a pretty good sign of how we will act off of it. Snap.
As much as we might not like to connect these ideas together, I dare say, it's true dear friends. Perhaps this is an eye-opener or maybe it might be one of absolute rejection of “No. F**king. Way. Not. Nope. Not me. I said this once to a newish friend/student and well, let's just say they pretty much steered clear of me and my classes. Sigh. I agree. It can be scary to face ourselves.
When we see our yoga teachers or fellow students in a difficult pose like pincha mayurasana (forearm handstand) and that they seem like they are floating in air as if they were filled with helium looking effortless, don't assume it is. Most likely, it is taking a whole car load of internal drive and experience. And how can we learn to live in our skin in the moment we want run screaming off and soothe ourselves with chocolate and cold white wine? Can we steady and comfort ourselves when our effort starts to become a slog?
The jewel of “sthira sukham asanam” from the yoga sutras means to teach us that every asana (pose) be 'steady' and 'comfortable' -sthira and sukha. 'Sthira' means steady, stable, grounded, strong and 'sukha' means comfortable, easy (or 'easeful'), peaceful. The paradox is that this is not easy. This is where the true discipline in practice on and off the mat kicks in and discovering how we can make the “effort” to learn, grow, evolve while maintaining a sense of ease remaining “effortless.”
”I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.”
-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
So what happens we are on our yoga mat? We get into a chill mood with some sweet lighting and soft music. Maybe the instructor leads us in with a few rounds of calming breath, perhaps an intention starts to form and we might love ourselves a little more in those quiet moments. But. Then things shift. They always do. We start to flow a little bit more, maybe we get a little lost in the sequence while building momentum to a more challenging pose like parsva-bakasana (side crow) and the so-called calm goes right out the window. Our breath gets caught, our jaw locks down, our forehead scrunches and our faces have a look that might scare someone in a dark parking lot.
Does this kind of stress sound familiar? When we fight with our beloved over who's turn it is to scoop the cat poop? Or do the same physical and mental reactions occur with that phone call with our boss about that looming deadline? Yoga. Life. Same game.
Dears, this is why we call it practice, not perfect. There is no endpoint. And no! It's not a contest or a competition. Life is hard a lot of the time. I wish I could say it wasn't. But do we have to become hard in the process? Or can the challenge of being lost, not knowing or whatever scary horror story we have conjured up in our over-imaginative minds be the place to practice. To play. To be steady. Comfortable. Sthira Sukha.
Perhaps the next time life is kicking us in the head or when we are on the yoga mat practicing what seems like an impossible pose, we can can apply these three simple techniques:
1. Notice the breath. This comes first! Is it choppy? Uneven? Held? The most important part is to
catch ourselves in our habitual responses to challenge as well as uncomfortable situations. Nervous before a big meeting or presentation? Lost on how to balance in Vrksasana (Tree pose)? Try inhaling the breath for 4-5 counts and exhaling equally for 4-5 counts. Maintain this for at least ten full cycles and continue this with steady, even breathing as you move. This will help ease the heart and slow down the mind's need to fight or take flight. Taking a child's pose or hitting the pause button for a moment in the day to breathe is advanced yoga and life.
2. Whether on the yoga mat or out in the noise of the day, check your jaw. Is it on lock down? Are the shoulders up to the ears like earrings from 1985? How about the belly? Clenching or being rigid in these areas among others are signs of more strain. Can we catch the moment we start to create strain instead of space? Try softening places like between the eyes for immediate relief. Soften direct points in the body that feel tense.
3. Remember that challenges are necessary for growth and effort is necessary. If everything were easy, would we gain any wisdom? And sure, I agree. Easy sounds nice. But after a while, how would we measure happiness and what would our ability be to evolve? If we really think back on a difficult part of our lives, would we be able to see we most likely learned something from it? Practice, not perfect. Let yourself step out and do something that's outside the comfort zone. Got an idea for work that's perhaps requires thinking outside the box? Practice number 1 & 2 and move forward. Something unexpected happening like losing a job or relationship? Repeat the above and remember, sometimes what we think is a storm is trying to be a blessing. Let the effort be without internal struggle and know that everything will shift with time.
Yes. It. Is. Hard. But we do not have to become hard along with it.
Nope. I did not do these things while lost in my inner turmoil. While I do believe it is important to acknowledge one's feelings, I continually tore myself to pieces and blamed myself. It's the easy way out and keeps us stuck in the mud. With continued practice, I am happy to say that these three simple practices have been powerful beyond measure in my life. On and off the mat. Is it comfortable? A lot of times, no. But then I remind myself that it's up to me to be okay when things are not okay, to be comfortable when things are not comfortable and to be imperfect when things are not perfect. We get to choose grace with effortless effort.