A quick glance at my Facebook page will tell you I’m a writer and a suburban mom. You’ll see that I love music, books, movies, and certain TV shows. And my friend list is fairly typical; it includes family members, people I’ve known since kindergarten, people from high school and college, and a bunch of current friends and work associates. Nothing jumps out as odd or suspicious.
But when I look carefully at my Facebook page, I see a large gap. I see eight years and thirty-six people who are not represented. Some of the missing are former coworkers; some are old roommates and neighbors; a couple are guys I dated; others are just people I called friends. All have one thing in common: I never expected to completely lose contact with them. And yet, I did. To put it another way, Every single person who entered my life between the spring of 1986 and spring of 1994 are no longer part of it.
What happened? Quite simply, during those eight years, bulimia ruled my life. I was actually bulimic for fifteen years, but once I got out of college, things spun out of control. I lived in several different apartments and worked at several different jobs, and was often in the company of people I liked a lot. But although I believed I was projecting a fun, social attitude, the folks around me clearly knew something was very wrong.
One of the worst things about bulimia is its intrinsic element of secrecy. Vomiting on purpose is a social taboo, so almost all bulimics strive to keep their disease hidden. In my case, I also had an irrational fear of professional help. For some reason, I believed that seeking help would result in immediate institutionalization, so I was extra careful about secrecy. I also thought I was strong enough to defeat my “throwing up problem” on my own. But it was no small problem. On occasion, I could go twenty-four hours without vomiting, but most days I’d do it multiple times. Some nights, I’d go to bed so weak and shaky that I’d wonder if I’d survive the night. And because food didn’t simply appear in my kitchen, I spent tons of time shopping for—and hiding—it.
Hence, I missed out on a lot. I became a pro at dropping into parties but not staying long. Or I’d meet friends for a drink, but make an excuse about why I couldn’t stick around for for dinner. I had a boyfriend for a number of years, but we only saw each other on weekends, and I learned how to hide my illness from him too. In a nutshell, my relationships seemed normal on the surface, but the bonds beneath them were weak. Thinking back on those days, it’s almost as though I spent eight years walking this planet as an alien, a humanoid creature like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I kept those “normal” contact lenses in my eyes, but couldn’t fully disguise what was underneath them.
Thankfully, things got better. I met my future husband, and after confiding in him, I finally got the help I needed. Almost immediately, everything got brighter, and when we married and moved to another town, I was given the opportunity to reboot my life. We had kids and made new friends, and I felt no need to discuss my eating disorder with anyone. After all, it was in my past. I was living in the moment, thinking about the future.
Then I started writing again. I’d done a good deal of writing in high school and college, but when I was sick, I didn’t feel very creative. Good health changed that. As soon as I started putting words on paper though, I got a surprise. I set out to write a novel about a woman obsessed with music, but as her character developed in my mind, I discovered that she was also bulimic.
That frightened me at first, but my writing group encouraged me to continue with the novel, and I’m glad I did. (It’s called Leaving the Beach, and it’s published by Booktrope.) When it was released, I decided it was time to talk publicly about my own bulimic past too. After all, I’d been healthy for almost ten years at that point. So I “came out” as a former bulimic, but always made sure to emphasize the fact that I’m fine now. Perfectly fine.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve painted too rosy a picture. Have I given the impression that recovery is easy, or that once you’ve gone to therapy, life springs right back to normal? Because I can assure you, it’s not like that at all. Sure, I’m better now, but what about those eight years? What about those thirty-six friends who once meant so much to me? I feel certain that I’ll never go searching for them on Facebook, and you know what? None of them have sent me friend requests either.
So if you’re suffering from an eating disorder, please don’t wait any longer to get help. Trust me: you need it. You may think you’re keeping your sickness secret from the world, but if you’re anything like me, you’re distancing yourself from people you love every day. I may be a healthy, happy woman now, but there’s a gap inside me, an eight-year-long hiss on the tape of my life.
And to you, my friends that I lost, please know that I think of you often and hope you’re well. Typing your names here is painful, but also cathartic.
Robin, Mike, Maura, Katie, Joel, Meg, James, Scott, Ben, Eric, Tracy, Kristin, Deb, Diana, Hirfa, Yasmine, Dan, Mitch, Rachel, Terry, Tom, Sue, April, Mary Kay, Michelle, Kim, Amy, Kathy, Laura, Buddy, Cliff, Dottie, Bill, Doug, Marco, Brenda.
Mary Rowen loves music and is a Boston area mom to teenagers. All of her novels focus on women of various ages growing up, or at least becoming comfortable with themselves. Her essays have been anthologized and/or published on multiple blogs. Mary grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, is a graduate of Providence College, and has worked as a teacher, writer, salesperson, and political canvasser. She firmly believes that all of those jobs provide good preparation for an aspiring writer.
Learn more about Living by Ear, Leaving the Beach,
and Double Album on my Amazon author page.
Thanks so much for having me as a guest, Sarah! It’s an honor!
Gorgeous writing in this article, Mary. Thank you so much for your openness. I’m so happy to hear that you have traveled the road to recovery. You are so brave.
Aw, thanks, Allie! I hope you know how much I admire your work, your honesty, and your courage.
Thank you so much. xoxo
Bulimia is something everybody thinks they know about but in reality don’t quite understand. Acknowledging how good it is at hiding itself and writing frankly about your experience is important and I hope it helps others.
Thank you, Helen! I agree that eating disorders are grossly misunderstood. So many people believe they’re only about losing weight, but there’s so much more to them in most cases. I love how Stigma Fighters is working to expose the myths surrounding so many mental illnesses.
Oh, Mary. I am so sorry that you struggled with this. As you and I have discussed, I understand the horrors of eating disorders. You are such a strong woman and such an inspiration. It takes such courage to share this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I am so glad you have found peace. And health. May you continue to have that for the rest of your days. <3