As I begin writing this, I’m already worried it won’t be good enough. The perfectionism kicks in. I want it to be eloquent, witty, captivating and to flow effortlessly. I’ve already re-worded the first sentence. I remember being five years old and visiting the Sesame Street Club. My best friend and I both got our faces painted with little rainbows. Hers was painted so neatly and perfectly. Mine was messy with thick, smudgy lines. It bothered me the entire day. This theme would stick with me well into adulthood.
I was 15 years old, getting lunch with my cheerleading squad in a neighborhood McDonald’s. I had recently made the team. There was a big poster next to the cash register with nutritional information for all the menu items, along with a chart of one’s daily nutritional needs. A fellow cheerleader commented “You’re supposed to eat 60 grams of fat each day?? I have like 15…” I thought to myself – I can do better than that. And so my preoccupation with calories and nutritional labels began. A piece of fruit became my breakfast; a fat-free yogurt and pretzels became my dinner (I counted out the pretzels). I did sit-ups every morning and every night. I ran each morning, then rode my rollerblades to school, had my early morning cheerleading practice, and then the school day began.
I was trying on school clothes with my mother at the beginning of my sophomore year. As I stepped out of the changing room, showing off a new pair of blue jeans and a baby blue long-sleeved shirt with a glittery butterfly on the front, my mom commented “Katie, have you lost weight?” “No, I don’t think so”, I replied. A quick surreptitious grin escaped my lips – I just lied to my mother. Yes, I have lost weight, and I know exactly how much. I weighed myself multiple times daily on the old, yellow bathroom scale we had in our basement laundry room.
After more people started noticing, commenting and classmates expressed concerns to teachers, I came clean about what I was doing. My mom made appointments with a therapist and dietitian. I started to get back on track.
Meanwhile, a whole parallel universe was unfolding in my own home. About a year prior, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. I really didn’t think much of it at the time. Everyone got cancer, and everyone survived. They removed the cancer, and she got a hysterectomy as an extra precaution. Afterwards, this woman, my mother, who once did workshops on laughter and was infectiously, almost obnoxiously happy, became depressed. She stayed in bed all day and lost interest in things that used to drive her – her eyes were empty. I barely noticed. I was reading nutrition labels.
In February of my sophomore year, my mother took a bunch of prescription pills, drove out to the middle of nowhere and ran into the snowy, frigid Minnesota woods wearing only a nightgown. A local runner found her lying unconscious on the ground, and she was admitted to the ICU with severe hypothermia. While my father, brother and I visited her in the hospital, she took my brother’s and my hands and promised she would never do anything like that again. She lied.
On May 5 of that year my mother jumped off a cliff at Palisades Head in Northern Minnesota. She was missing for 2 days before we found her there, but we knew she was gone.
I was completely numb. I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. I sang a song at it, but I didn’t cry. I was still in therapy at the time, and I had a whole new can of worms to open. I was doing the motions but completely cheating the process. I remember duct taping 15 pounds of my brother’s free-weights around my waist before being weighed by my dietitian. She eventually caught me, and I started all over again. I reached a healthy weight during my junior year, but I was still completely preoccupied by food. I precisely measured every exchange; I cut my vegetables the same way, in the same order; I ate the same thing every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner; I always ate at the same time. The behavior was textbook. Being so obsessed with where I would eat, what I would eat, with whom I would eat, how many calories I would eat, how many calories I would burn – I had no time or energy to grieve my mother’s death.
Meanwhile, I was completely careless with my life. I smoked and drank frequently with my friends, sought attention and approval by being promiscuous with boys, and made a healthy habit of shoplifting. At the same time, I made straight A’s, was captain of the cheerleading squad, section leader in my Choir, and was accepted into every college I applied to, including my first-choice USC. I was surrounded by friends but felt completely alone.
I was in no condition to start college after my senior year, but I had no intention of slowing down or breaking my stride. So I took a plane, alone, from Minnesota to Los Angeles and began my freshman year at USC. I was in awe of the culture, the weather, the people and the University. I made friends, I partied, I rushed a sorority and I continued to get straight A’s in all my classes. Meanwhile, I was dangerously starving myself. I frequented the gym, ran around campus, slept, studied, did anything to avoid eating. They talk about the “Freshman 15” – I had that in reverse. When I visited home during Christmas break, my dad was horrified. He convinced me to stay home and take a leave of absence from my second semester to get back on track. I began seeing my therapist and dietitian again, but wasn’t particularly focused. I got a full time job and kept busy instead of dedicating my time to recovery. Regardless, I went back to school the next fall. This year, I hit my absolute bottom. When I returned home in the summer, I saw my therapist once again, and she told me if I didn’t check myself into an intensive eating disorders program, I would die.
So I moved down to Minneapolis that summer and checked myself into an intensive outpatient program. I met great friends, did a lot of journaling and spiritual work, worked with a dietitian and therapist, and really had the desire to get better. I left the program too early, when it was time to return to college in the fall. However, this time I had already made arrangements to begin another intensive outpatient program in Pasadena while going to school. This program was quite strict. I met more wonderful friends, many of whom I still have to this day, and did the work, but in this program, if you didn’t make your weight goal a few times in the row, they would “51-50” you. This means they would admit you to a psychological hospital against your will for a 72-hour hold for being a “harm to yourself”. I was 51-50’ed twice. It is a humbling wake-up call to walk the halls of a hospital amongst patients talking on cardboard cut-out cell phones.
I graduated the program in Pasadena, graduated college, immediately got a job in the music industry, and maintained a functioning eating disorder. I followed a meal plan, but held so tightly to the rigidity my anorexia demanded. Slowly, I began to exercise more and eat a little less, until after a few years, I again reached a considerably unhealthy weight. I entered another outpatient program down the street from my office, and started the cycle once more. The pattern of reaching an unhealthy weight, seeking treatment, graduating treatment, maintaining weight for a certain amount of time, then slowly losing until I reach an unhealthy weight again, ruled my adult life. My comfort and safety was reliant on routine. I didn’t schedule food around my life; I scheduled life around my food. I missed out on a lot of living so I could be safely home alone at dinner time. My friendships and relationships suffered. It took a lot of time and trust for me to genuinely accept someone into my disordered world. Many of my friendships were therefore superficial. I had a series of non-relationships, always seeking people who were emotionally or geographically unavailable. I would fall deeply into what I thought was love, but always saw an end in place, so I could prepare myself emotionally to be let down or abandoned. As much as I didn’t want to be alone, I never wanted anyone to get close enough to see all the shameful secrets and behaviors of my eating disorder. I wanted to be small – perfectly small, and impenetrable to life’s disappointment and abandonment.
In 2011, I was laid off with four of my colleagues from an amazing job I had held for almost 2 years. My department was a family. We loved and supported each other, and on one awful day in February, our family was torn apart. I was immediately hired by one of the best indie record labels in the world to run their West Coast office. This seemed to be the perfect job for me, working with amazing artists, doing music licensing and A&R, and being the sole face of the label for the West Coast. I have never experienced a more grueling and high-pressured situation in my life. My eating disorder kicked into high gear – I was abusing laxatives, skipping meals, purging periodically, exercising often and working long, demanding hours at a dangerously low weight. My energy was severely compromised along with my mental capacity, so needless to say, I wasn’t performing at my best. I was crying every day from the pressure. I wasn’t used to not being the best at something, not being perfect. Three and a half months into the job, I was let go. I don’t blame the label remotely. I was not doing well in the position. This truth was very hard for an anorexic perfectionist to swallow. At the same time, the heaviest weight in the world was immediately lifted off my shoulders. I was free to focus on what I had been neglecting for too long. I started seeing my dietitian again and attended my first EDA (Eating Disorders Anonymous) meeting. I found solace and comfort being able to share openly and honestly about my shameful behaviors with women and men who could truly relate. I began attending meetings almost every day. They provided a network of kind and inspiring individuals in a completely judge-free environment. I took commitments, reached out to fellows, began praying regularly and was in a more complete and peaceful place than I had been in a long time.
This state of mind I found changed my life. I was more present with friends and family. I was more kind, patient, self-aware and confident. I was able to be of service to my fellows. I got my old job back at the company from where I had been laid off, and was actually focused enough to perform well. And most importantly, I was open to love – conveniently at the time I met the man of my dreams. Never in my life have I felt so loved or so appreciated for the qualities I’m most proud of. I’ve experienced a new kind of nurture, generosity, attentiveness and affection. Really more than I ever knew was possible. Eating disorders are excruciatingly isolating diseases. I could have never been receptive to this love with the extreme tunnel-vision of severe anorexia. For the first time in my adult life, I no longer feel alone. Music, my true passion, is at the center of my life. I always viewed my eating disorder as something that made me unique. I finally realize and embrace that I don’t want this cunning disorder to be what makes me special – I want my music, my creativity, my mind and the true essence of my being to be what sets me apart from the rest.
My eating disorder certainly didn’t vanish. In fact, I repeated my cycle once more, and had to seek treatment again. But this time, I have a hand to hold along my ever-changing, always trying road to recovery. I have a magnificent treatment team, and so much hope and confidence that I can beat this tenacious disease and live on to experience the life I always imagined for myself. To quote my therapist, “A lot of fortitude, creativity, determination, and strategic thinking are required to maintain an eating disorder and all of its demands. If you have the strength and ability to sustain an eating disorder, then you have the strength and ability to move beyond it."