Written By: Nicole Balkau
I’ve been very open about my experience with eating disorders for a few years now, a little over four to be exact. I’ve shared my story time and time again. I have spoken about it with my friends, family, and even strangers. So why is it that now, when I sit here trying to write out my journey, from past to present, it is so much more difficult? I find myself a few short sentences deep and am already inundated with emotion and almost so overwhelmed that I am at a loss for words.
I sit here wondering, does anyone even care? Will exposing myself this way make the slightest difference? Will people view me differently? Am I opening myself for an onslaught of judgment? Why am I allowing myself to be so vulnerable?
One of the biggest questions I had for myself was what would I hope to have accomplished by having written this and sharing this publicly? That made me think a moment longer. In a way, this has been self-serving and therapeutic for me, if nothing else. Like I said, I’ve shared my story before, but I haven’t shared all of it. I’ve kept parts of my story to myself and only a select few close to me. There has always been so much more for me to say, so much for me to work through and come to terms with myself.
Then I thought, what would I even write about? What angle would I have? What would the topic even be? Should I focus only on my eating disorders? Would it make sense to venture and talk about my abuse and other mental health issues? Should I try and educate the public with facts and statistics? I didn’t have an answer for that. I don’t have an angle. I’m not a professional or expert in any of these subject matters. So I decided to just write, and walk you through my experiences from start to present. I chose to not say finish, because this is a journey that really doesn’t have an end date.
I should prelude by saying that what follows is deeply personal, raw, and a bit evocative. If this makes you uncomfortable in any way, I would suggest that you read no further. Particularly, if you are currently struggling with an eating disorder and you fear it may trigger you, please, turn back now. It’s also worth mentioning that the below is not solely focused on my eating disorders. I briefly touch on suicide, childhood abuse, and abusive adult relationships as well. This might be difficult to read for some, so I am putting that out there now.
THE TRIGGERING POINT
People don’t just wake up one day and decide that they’re going to starve themselves or stick their finger down their throat. Well, I shouldn’t speak for everyone, but I certainly did not wake up one day and decide to go down a path of complete and utter self-destruction. This is something I could not ever wish on my worst enemy, so choosing this simply doesn’t happen. It chooses you.
In a blog I wrote years ago, when I first came out about my illness, I said that a lot factors contributed to the development of my eating disorders and took years to build up. This part was true. I also said that it was years of built-up anger, frustration, stress, anxiety, depression, terribly low self-esteem, desire for stability, difficulty coping with changes, the constant need for perfection, and impulsive behavior. This part was also true. What I neglected to mention what triggered my illness.
I should mention that everyone’s “trigger” is different. Some have reached a point where they are cognizant of what has led them to their illness; others may not be there yet. It took me close to five years to understand what majorly contributed to my illness and mental health issues, when in hindsight, that seems ridiculous to me because it was so overwhelmingly obvious.
I come from a wonderful and amazing family. Sure, my parents divorced at a young age, but my family raised me right. But there was something that happened, and continued to happen, in the midst of my lovely upbringing that no one could have shielded me from.
I was molested. Between the ages of 11 and 15 years old, my body did not belong to me. For four years, my innocence was robbed time and time again while my adolescent body belonged to a grown man. Not just a man, a man that I trusted.
For years, I lived in unmitigated terror and unsure of how to act around other people. I was a child forced to deal with an experience that frankly, no one is equipped to deal with. I saw my friends and peers at school, seemingly happy and carefree. I, on the other hand, tried to manage my day through everyday life with a smile on my face while keeping this deep dark secret to myself, hoping no one would be able to figure out that I was hiding something. No one really ever figured it out.
The abuse became so frequent that it seemed normal to me. I almost expected it to happen. Though once it stopped, I blocked it out. Literally. For years I actually forgot that had happened to me. The emotional pain was far too much for me to bear that I erased the entire ordeal from my memory. The trauma was too horrifying for me to relive that I completely dissociated myself from the event in an effort to protect myself. The human brain can be really wild sometimes.
THE EARLY STAGES
Through high school, I exercised like a fiend. I would go to basketball practice after school for nearly two hours, then dance classes for two hours, and then I’d go to the gym for hours after that as well. The day I came home from the hospital after having an inguinal hernia surgery, I attempted to exercise in my room. Due to shear agonizing pain, I had to bow out. What a wimp I must be.
I’d become extremely self-critical and obsessive, and would crave perfection and control. I found myself in a self-defeating series of trepidation and dissatisfaction when I would fail to meet expectations that I set for myself. Failure to me was unacceptable, but it is exactly what my eating disorders would feed off of.
I would eventually begin restricting myself to < 500 calories a day once I went away to college and started doing extreme amounts of exercise. I would work out before, in between, and after classes, all while eating only fruit, trail mix, and vegetables. If I knew I was going out to dinner and had to put on the appearance that I ate full meals, I’d starve myself all day so I could make up for the calories at night. I’d keep a food journal and wrote down every single thing I’d eat and calculate how much I would need to exercise in order to burn every calorie off. I was obsessed.
I wouldn’t eat unless I was hungry – and not just hungry, but starving. Why would I succumb to the weakness of feeling hunger unless I was so hungry that I was physically incapable of standing or walking? All or nothing, right? Family and friends began noticing how thin I became, and while the attention made me uncomfortable because I feared someone would figure out my secret, I was also thrilled beyond words. All of my hard work was paying off.
MAKING A TURN FOR THE WORSE
I tried making myself throw up in college, but I was entirely unsuccessful. “What a failure,” I would think. I’d eventually get the hang of it once I moved back home after college, and what an exhilarating and incredible feeling it was.
Relief. Control. Comfort.
Finally, after all these years, I found what I was searching for. It felt like I was high from some kind of a drug, and I needed more of it.
For years, I would do just about anything to get my fix. I’ve stolen coworkers and roommates’ food. I’ve eaten food out of the trash. I’ve gone to the grocery store more times than I can count just to buy food for the sole purpose of binging and throwing it all up once I’ve gotten home. To this day, there are certain foods I can’t eat because I associate it with my “binge food” and it’s such a massive trigger. I avoid those foods like the plague.
Most of the time, I didn’t care what I was eating. I’d eat foods I didn’t even like if nothing else was around. I’d black out for over an hour sometimes and just eat. Eat until it was physically impossible to fit anything else in my stomach. I’d throw up until all that would come up is bile, then do it all over again. I would later come to realize that I forced myself to eat because it became analogous to the forced sexual acts I was subjected to, and violently vomiting was the only way I knew how to express my rage and self-hatred.
I’ve called out of work dozens of times just so I could stay home and binge, all day. I’ve binged and purged at work though too, as I got pretty good at silently throwing up. I’d binge in my car on long drives and throw up on the side of the road. I didn’t care where or how or when, I made it happen.
When no one was home, it both excited and terrified me: excited because I could be less secretive, but terrified because I knew I was capable of. I would feel so prideful by the time they did get home, because they were none the wiser of what I’d been up to. “I’ve gotten away with it again.” Though I’d binge when people were home too. I’d take long showers and throw up in the shower. I’d let the blow dryer run as if I was actually drying my hair, but in reality, I only needed some background noise to mask the sounds of me sticking my finger down my throat.
Throughout all of this, I ruined every relationship I had. My marriage fell apart and I had no friends left. I would find myself in some pretty unhealthy relationships with men as well. I’d stay in relationships where I’ve been emotionally and physically abused because I depended on sexual validation to feel important and valued. After all, if someone wanted to have sex with you, that must mean they love you. That’s what I learned as a child – that sex equated to love.
I learned to only identify my self-worth with whether someone would be sexually attracted to me or not. My opinions didn’t matter. My intelligence wasn’t of worth. My talents were to remain unrecognized. Nothing else held any value except my sexuality. I only saw myself as a sexual being. After all, that’s all I was good for, right?
I eventually would experience a multitude of health complications. I found myself in the emergency room because my stomach pains were so unbearable and I couldn’t go to the bathroom without the use of laxatives. My teeth were rotting, I didn’t get my period for two and a half years, and my heart always felt like it was beating right out of my chest.
I knew my disease was killing me, but I couldn’t stop. I often thought it’d be easier to just kill myself rather than deal with this pain. I gave some half-hearted attempts a few times. I stole Penicillin medication, which I’m severely allergic to. I’d keep a full bottle of Advil in my purse at any given time…just in case. I’d surf the internet for countless hours trying to find the perfect way to kill myself. I tried to cut myself so I’d bleed out in the bathtub and attempted to suffocate myself with a plastic bag. I wanted out of this agony that I was trapped in so badly, and at the time, suicide was the only logical answer.
In the midst of it all, the only thing that kept me alive was the thought of how devastating my death would be to my family. I didn’t care whether I died or not, but the guilt of putting my family through that was too much to bear.
GETTING OUT ALIVE
Only a few select people ever knew about my disease before I opened up about it. Family and friends expressed concern, but it pretty much stopped there. At the time, I realized I was on my own.
Towards the end of my days with anorexia and bulimia, my binging episodes became less frequent and less severe. I was starting to develop a healthier relationship with food. I began working out differently and I slowly began eating more “meals” throughout the day. It was a difficult transition because when I ate and felt full, I was extremely anxious. I couldn’t focus or concentrate and all I wanted to do was workout or throw it all up. I forced myself to try and keep it down. Some days I made it through without throwing up at all, and then I’d relapse. Then I’d begin keeping a tally of how many days I had gone without throwing up. Eventually, it stuck. I can’t tell you what made it “click”, but it did.
I pulled myself out of the darkest and ugliest places that I could have gone. Nobody did it for me; I did it for myself. I didn’t go to rehab or a treatment facility and I didn’t have some big staged intervention. I had to go through the worst of it to be able to come out on the other side better and stronger than ever. I lost more in my life than I ever thought I could, but in the end, I gained more lessons and more strength than I ever thought possible. I used to focus on how many relationships I lost or strained, failing to consider that the most important relationship I let fail was the relationship with myself. I saved myself.
Disclaimer: This is not the course of treatment that I recommend if this is something you are suffering from. Don’t try and go down the same path I did; seek professional guidance.
I used my eating disorders as a way to protect myself and repress the memories of my abuse. I blamed myself for what happened, and made my body the focus for my hatred and need for control. My binges numbed my pain and anxiety, and gave me the control I always needed. I’ve always craved control because it was taken away from me for so many years.
It truly was the only way I was able to cope with the trauma at the time. I developed a sense of fear once I stopped starving myself and binging and purging. How else would I cope? What would I lean on in times of duress or anxiousness? Well, I eventually faced the root of the issue. The more I work through, the more pieces fall into place, and the more healed I become.
I’ve since been in recovery for four years and have gone on to powerlift competitively. I am not only thriving professionally, but I’m building a life for myself that even a few years ago, I didn’t think I deserved to have.
Why am I telling you, most of who are complete strangers, the deepest secret I’ve ever had? Why am I unveiling the façade I’d carried around for so long?
Because it’s important.
It’s important to me to truthfully share my story for the first time, without omitting crucial details that have played a monumental role in who I have become as a person and the challenges I’ve faced. It’s more important that victims of sexual abuse and those who suffer from mental health issues are recognized, openly and without consternation. It’s about time victims feel safe to share their story rather than being held captive within their own minds. It’s time that the stigma that is associated with sexual abuse and mental health is far removed from our society. That’s why.
I find myself questioning who I would have become if none of this ever happened to me. I daydream about how differently my life would have turned out had that man never laid his hands on me. Some days, I feel like part of my life’s potential was robbed from me. Other days, I feel grateful. This sounds nonsensical when I say it out loud, but it’s true. I feel grateful that even when something so horrific happened to me, I was given the strength to pull myself out of it. I am thankful that during a time I did not have this strength to face my abuse, my eating disorders protected me – though now, I have a far superior set of skills to use as coping mechanisms. I do not say this to mean that I enjoyed being sick, as I wouldn’t wish this on any one.
This is also not to say I don’t struggle. I struggle tremendously, more often than I would care to admit. I surely haven’t worked through all of my demons. We all struggle in one way or another, and more people have similar stories to share than we think. I don’t have any philosophical parting words or a profound message to share. My message is simple: you are never alone.
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