Thank God I Have an “Eating Disorder”

I was the fat daughter of an alcoholic father and an extremely depressed mother.

An only child and a lonely gal, I used food to numb out. I felt like Alice in Wonderland: I didn’t fit in with my family at all, and they really didn’t comprehend me. Curiosity and energy filled me. The people around me seemed resentful, annoyed, and almost fearful of my desire for knowledge and insatiable hunger for stimulation. I ate to not feel. I became obese to hide and to shelter them from my obviously unacceptable characteristics.

By age twenty-one, I had starved my body down to a deadly weight

By age sixteen I weighed 250 lbs. One day, at the start of my junior year of high school, I snapped and made the decision to be anorexic. I was definitely not a victim of anorexia. I am a person who does what she sets out to do.

Years prior I concluded that my fat body directly caused every problem in my life. Now I was going to change that so I could finally be perfect. For in my head, like any overweight person, I truly believed that being fat was my only problem. So I did it. I lost over 100 pounds in eight months by over-exercising and starving. I obtained the results I thought I wanted — I was the Homecoming Queen by my senior year, attended Homecoming with the Quarterback of the football team, and I fell deeply in love with a guy I’d had a crush on since sixth grade. Wherever I turned, I received accolades and compliments for my “discipline” and my “hard work.” No one knew that I had starved to get there. I lied to everyone all the time without a second thought.

It didn’t take long to realize that I couldn’t stop. I would not go back to being fat and I didn’t know how to eat normally, but it would be a cold day in hell before I asked another person for help. I continued to starve and over-exercise my way through college. I lived on hard candy, milk, and tomato juice for months. I spent so much time on the step machine at my local gym that they asked me to leave. I never set foot in the dormitory mess hall. In my dorm room, with the door locked, I chewed up and spit out hundreds of dollars’ worth of food. The chewing made my mind think I was eating and soothed my rumbling tummy for a short while.

Late at night, when the dorm was quiet, I would sneak down to the garbage room to drop off grocery bags full of chewed-up food. When the gym forbade me to work out, I ran miles and miles each day on the streets. Living in San Francisco at the time, I would run up and down hills for hours and hours to burn off imaginary fat. I was completely out of control, crazy, depressed, and trapped in a hell I could have never anticipated. The disease that I invited into my body and mind took over and there was no room for any remnants of the person I once had been.

By age twenty-one, I had starved my body down to a deadly weight. The day I arrived at the front door of a treatment center, I weighed 80 lbs. I could no longer digest solid foods — my stomach gave up, as it had been so long since I had chewed anything substantial. I stayed in the treatment center for a year while nursing my body back to a healthy weight. The re-feeding process was the most physically uncomfortable thing I have ever gone through, and I had to have more faith than I knew how to assemble. Every day the pendulum swung between great despair and even greater trust.

The most valuable lesson throughout was this new concept for me — the idea of gratitude. I had never before been grateful — not once. I had never known humility, trust, or serenity. I had never said, “Thank you,” and meant it — never. That was ten years ago, and my life now isn’t perfect. My food isn’t perfect, my body is far from perfect, and my head still sometimes gets caught in the tornado of diet and calorie worries. My mind is like a radio stuck on an old station that I hate listening to, but I can’t find the dial to turn it.

But each day I feel thankful. Each and every day, I cultivate more to be grateful for.

Just as I had never known gratitude before my painful journey with my body, today I never feel a sense of victimization. The idea of “why me?” has been totally lifted. The self-obsession and the focus on what’s missing from you and from me is no longer a familiar place. It’s not even somewhere I visit occasionally. Because of the painful journey I have walked in this body, I want nothing more than to be of service to those who still suffer. That is the absolute greatest gift of all. Today I am a thirty-one year old healthy woman with big dreams and wild hopes and a wicked sense of humor. I’m obsessed with Hello Kitty and have a mouth like a sailor. I think my eyes are gorgeous and my laugh is awesome. Today I appreciate who I am. Everything good in my life is a direct result of the pain I’ve been through with my weight, my body, and my health. I’m a yoga teacher, a freelance writer, an author, a speaker, a successful model, and an artist. I sponsor other girls and speak in high schools and junior highs and on college campuses about addiction to diets and compulsive eating. I am so grateful for the weight-body-food issues of my past.

Today I am a healthy woman with a full and opulent life. I came to trust a while ago that gratitude is an instant and free pass to sanity and peace. After over twenty years of looking for an outside source of confidence and serenity, I now rely upon active gratitude as an immediate remedy for the bizarre idea that I’m not enough, or I don’t have enough. In my case, the feelings and habitual thoughts of lack and insecurity played out in my life through body hatred, compulsive exercise, and food addiction.

One of my many dreams is to bring workshops to high schools and colleges for girls and young women. I have so much to reveal to them and such a burning wish to connect that it sometimes overwhelms me. I want them to love themselves, as I did not. I want them to hear and take in and believe that appreciation for the body we have is the only way we can battle the culture’s messages telling us that our worth depends on our body’s appearance and size. When I speak from a fearlessly authentic place to young women, I see their eyes sparkle. They give themselves permission to be as wise as they naturally are. I remind them to love themselves, and that their most important job is to take care of themselves. My gratitude for them and for where I am today is contagious; they feel it and radiate it back. Together, we can all muster up the faith to be thankful for what we have. Gratitude, in my experience, is the mightiest sword against suffering and the softest way to peace.

Paula Atkinson
Paula D. Atkinson is a registered yoga instructor at five hundred hours, a freelance writer, and a creativity coach. Her yoga practice started in northern California, where she remembers going to yoga classes with her mother when she was very young. Then she gave it up for a decade as she grappled with obesity and anorexia, compulsive exercise, and deep depression. She has been teaching full-time for seven years in Washington, DC. She now divides her time teaching yoga, speaking at sororities and high schools about her journey, and writing freelance. Paula also facilitates creativity focus groups in her home. Paula and her partner, Carlo, live in New York City, where Paula works toward a graduate degree from Columbia University so she can reach more people with her message of hope. Please check her out at PaulaDAtkinson.com
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