Shut up Cheryl!
I still remember so clearly the first time I made myself throw up. The details are like an old plot of a familiar storybook I could retell with no effort; ground into my psyche, a part of my identity. I knew the characters, when the plot would twist, and what the ending would be. I don’t remember what day it was, or what I was wearing, but I remember how it felt and what it meant; the strangest small details coming back to me effortlessly.
I can feel the cool tile of the bathroom floor, the inner turmoil wrestling my brain back and forth between “do it” and “just walk away”. It’s like I knew that if I did it once, it was all over. I know what that shower curtain looked like, and how ashamed of myself I felt. Even then, I knew there was something off in this; that it wasn’t really accomplishing what I wanted it to, but I persisted. I’ve never been a quitter, after all. The world and its motivational posters had taught me that if you stuck with something long enough, things would happen for you. So I chose this to stick to. This was my one great commitment.
I kept at it. Sure enough, I felt that control, the release of the out of control spinning; order from chaos. The world would make sense again for just a bit.
I can’t pinpoint an event that started it, but I do remember the deep desire. I wanted to fade away to something so small that people noticed. Or maybe it was that I wanted to fade away to something so small until I finally disappeared. I’ve never really figured that part out. But I know I wanted to feel tiny, but also noticed and enough. I’d always felt too big, and I’d tried over and over again to just be smaller, both physically and metaphorically. I’d held my words, changed my views and opinions, liked things I didn’t like to just blend; to be “smaller”. Standing out or being different felt “big”, and I certainly didn’t want that. True success for me would have been to whittle away to invisibility, or fade deeply into a crowd of those I thought mattered. I wanted to just seamlessly become one of them.
Looking back now, the weirdest part of it all was that I was so mad at myself for not being able to be a good enough anorexic. Anorexia was the “pretty” disorder; the one that wasn’t disgusting, just controlled and disciplined. Bulimia was the one for those of us that were “messy”. Even something so harmful became a competition with myself. I couldn’t even do THAT right. I would put restrictions on myself every morning around what I would eat that day and how long I would run. The running was easy...the work made me feel like I was doing something. It was the not doing that was starving myself that felt stagnant to me. There was no action to take, so I was lost. I would eventually cave into my deprivation plan by binging on whatever I could find, followed almost immediately by such immense shame. “If I was stronger, I would’ve been able to do it”, “I’m not even good enough to be an anorexic” would run through my head on loop.
As I got older, the behavior stayed. I still wanted to be small, but not for the same reasons. I wanted acceptance. I wanted love. I thought these things were one in the same, and that smallness was the route to that. I easily shifted who I was to find it. Who I was at any given time would depend on whose attention I wanted. Looking back, it was exhausting. I had to remember who to be depending on who I was with. Holy shit. That’s a lot of work, ya’ll; shifting your likes and dislikes, preferences and opinions to suit the needs of your audience is more than I would ever be willing to take on again. I’m sometimes impressed I could handle it. I’m also sad for that girl, and the people that missed out on the “real” her.
These days, I have good days and bad. I have days that feel completely out of control, and my brain immediately goes to what I could change about myself that would make this situation better, as if I have an ability to change others’ behaviors simply by not eating, or exercising excessively. The next day, I wake up and I feel completely at peace with myself and things around me. It’s a lot sometimes. But I remind myself daily that every single one of us has some little demon inside our head, or a voice of self doubt, or even self-hatred. Every one of us has things that stop us in our tracks and hold us back. I’m not alone. There’s something soothing in looking at others and recognizing we are all in this together. We all have our shit, even if it’s different. There’s a bond in all of this.
I used to say “Oh, I used to be a bulimic”, as if I’ve completely dominated that inner demon. I’m here to tell you I haven’t. That voice creeps in every now and then. I call her Cheryl. Cheryl has a lot to say about how I could make other people love me more. She wakes up with me sometimes and spends her entire day picking me apart. Cheryl thinks that pushing a little harder or conforming a little bit more will make my life better; make people love me just a little bit more. But I’m learning to tell Cheryl to shut the hell up, and every day I get to try again right? But as far as the “title”, I can still say I have bulimia with confidence. Only this time, it doesn’t identify me. I’m not a victim. It’s just a thing that shows up sometimes. There was a time that bulimia was a cry for attention for sure, but not now. It's just a part of my story, and it's given me a deeper understanding of myself and my resilience.
I write this today from one of those days that Cheryl is in my shit, and my way of reminding myself that she’s not the head bitch in charge is to put it all out there to read and reread until I recognize the crazy in it. And maybe this helps you see your own Cheryl (maybe it’s Chuck, or Kathy...you get to choose your own annoying voice’s name), and put that damn thing to bed. Please don’t start watching me after I eat. Please don’t think I’m running to the bathroom to throw up my food. I’m not. I assure you. On days where it is at its worst, I would most certainly NOT be out at a meal with friends. But please do feel free to share your own struggle with things. I’m here for that conversation, and ready to support in quieting that asshole in your head down.