Eating and purging was one of my addictions after my husband Larry left for Vietnam and when I checked myself into the Menninger Clinic in 1970. It was a ritual that relieved my escalating anxiety and the sense that all the fear building up inside of me would blow off the top of my head.
At the time, my fear had a constant cadence like a drumbeat.
Not long after being hospitalized during one of our afternoon sessions, Dr. Roberts visited with me about a report from one of the cafeteria workers. She had reported seeing me hide a piece of pie under my shirt and walk out of the dining room.
In my book, Where the Water Meets the Sand, I wrote about this first-time Dr. Roberts acknowledged that he and the staff were aware of my purging and vomiting.
“You don’t have to hide food. You’re welcome to take as much as you want. Also, the maids who clean your room have reported that your bathroom is splattered with vomit, including the commode, floor and walls. They have requested that we put a toilet bowl brush and cleaning supplies in your bathroom so you can clean it yourself. They’ll be happy to clean your toilet area when you stop vomiting.”
I was mortified and apologized. “You’re not in trouble,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?” I didn’t.
My room included a tiny bathroom furnished with a lavatory and a toilet only. There was no lock on the door.
The patient showers for women were three doors down from my room and included some toilet stalls. Some of us could shower or bathe without supervision while others required the supervision of an aide.
In 1971 I was discharged from The Menninger Clinic. I finished my bachelor’s degree, then completed my doctorate and worked for Topeka Public Schools until 1984. I continued to take on increasing leadership positions in education administration finally settling in River Forest, Illinois, before my retirement from elementary education in 2004.
During the decade after I left The Clinic, from time to time, I wrote my former social worker. I sent short essays on my recovery from eating disorders, cutting and alcoholism and gave updates about how I was doing. After he shared my stories with his supervisor, I was invited to speak at a Menninger sponsored workshop for social workers seeking continuing education credits. I was thrilled for the opportunity to give back.
After talking about my recovery from bulimia (gorging and purging) to the large audience, I opened the floor to questions.
One of the participants began, “I work on a locked unit for patients with eating disorders. Among the staff, we’ve struggled with a decision – whether to lock the community toilets on our unit requiring patients to ask for permission to use the bathroom. We are concerned that needing to ask for permission hurts their self-esteem. What are your thoughts?”
In my mind’s eye, I immediately saw myself kneeling on the floor, head hanging over the toilet.
Before I thought about it, my words strong and emphatic flew out of my mouth, “You have to decide. Which is worse for someone’s self-esteem. Having to ask to have the toilet stall opened, or to suffer the self-imposed degradation of kneeling in front of a toilet bowl as if it is a shrine, their head hanging over it with their fingers stuck down their throat forcing vomit and filth to run down their arms, spraying all over the toilet bowl and walls and then working to clean it up before anyone notices. Then comes their guilt. They know they’ve given in to their addiction one more time, feel disgust and failure, and are exhausted. Binging and purging is an addiction like alcohol. The motions are different, the act is different, but you get a high for a short while and then are overwhelmed with personal disgrace and the agonizing fear of being out of control.”
Shocked that I was so direct and gave such a strong opinion to a group of professional social workers, I stood quietly amazed with my words. We went on to more questions. After my talk, several members of the audience thanked me for my candor. I didn’t and don’t know if that was the right answer. I do know that my response was honest.
While still in Topeka I had the privilege of serving as principal for a junior high school and a middle school. In early 1981 our custodians reported that some girls were vomiting regularly in one of the bathrooms. It appeared that one stall was favored. Based on my history, I assigned an aide to check the girls’ restrooms on a regular basis and ultimately locked that stall. Gorging and purging for some pre-adolescent and adolescent girls can lead to an addiction. Only on a few occasions, as an educator, was I aware of young boys doing the same. The point is, as educators, we need to make sure our children are safe. Sometimes it means that we must be nosey, observant and act to get those we care about help.
Addictions come in many forms and affect children, adolescents and adults in different ways.
The National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) website is a great place to find the resources needed to make the first step towards recovery.
- If you think you are struggling with an eating disorder, NEDA has a short and confidential online screening In three minutes, NEDA can help guide you in the right direction if you may have an eating disorder.
- NEDA also provides resources to get help and to get involved. With various helplines and services, there are many ways to talk with someone about seeking help. NEDA has a 24/7 crisis support text system available to those in need. Text NEDA to 741741 for immediate help.
- Other resources include tool-kits & guides directed towards parents, educators, coaches and medical professionals. These tool-kits contain information about signs, symptoms, medical consequences and how you can support a loved one.
- Getting involved throughout National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26-March 4), is a great way to show your support for those with an eating disorder. By attending a NEDA event, becoming a partner or even participating on social media with the hashtag #NEDAwareness, you are actively spreading the word about eating disorders and showing
Next week, in honor of Read Across America Day, I’m going to share a story about one of my passions – reading to children.