I have struggled with a barbaric and often relentless eating disorder for 26 years. That’s a long time. A first I thought I might be the only woman in her 40’s hiding my secret, but I was wrong. After wrestling with the illness in an attempt to overcome, I gave into my solo fight and entered treatment in the fall of 2011. It was there I discovered that many women, some much older than I, have been struggling with symptoms for 30, 40, even 50 years. That floors me.
I started my little secret in the upstairs bathroom of my mother and fathers bedroom. It was quiet and secluded and off the beaten path. Save the yellow and silver metallic wallpaper that donned the small water closet, it was a cozy retreat for a girl like me that practiced a method that would ultimately dominate me and rule the way I looked at every female human being that crossed my path. Was I thinner than them? Were they thinner than me? Did they do what I do? Did they ever? Or are they just naturally thin? I remember at age 26 thinking, “Gosh. I’ve been at this for 13 years. I need to stop.”
But I didn’t.
I remember the first time I ever “hoarded” food. It was Thanksgiving, just a few short months before I started visiting my parents’ bathroom regularly. My mother put out a spread that included a fat, juicy turkey with thick, brown gravy, a green bean casserole, and my all time favorite, fruit salad with whipped heavy cream and sugar. She would dump in an extra jar of maraschino cherries to add more sweetness and color. Despite the spread she put before us, this is the one dish I would load onto my plate more than any other that donned our table.
After everyone went to bed that night, I lay quietly in my room, waiting for the house to fall completely silent. When I was certain everyone was asleep, I tiptoed into the kitchen (my bedroom was the only bedroom on the first floor) and opened the refrigerator. The entire third shelf was packed with leftovers covered with tinfoil or mismatched Tupperware tops. Slowly and carefully, I pulled out the leftovers and set them on the counter. Then I rifled through the cupboard where the Styrofoam plates and plastic ware waited for me in a disorganized heap. I grabbed a few plates and bowls and proceeded to fill them with turkey and cranberry sauce and fruit salad. Caught between a sense of nervousness and excitement, I felt intensely high and giddy as I scooped the fruit salad into a bowl. Could anyone hear me? What if my mother came downstairs? What would she think? I scooped faster, licking the spoon and wiping it off with a paper towel so I could replace it, unnoticed, back in the silverware drawer. Then I covered the little dishes and plates with paper towel, as it seemed far too risky to attempt ripping the aluminum foil across the serrated teeth that Reynolds so generously provided on each and every box. It would be loud. I imagined my father bolting upright in his bed, jerking his head back and forth as he attempted to decode the sound. Poor guy.
When my to-go meal was complete, I snuck quietly back to my bedroom with my hoard in my arms and headed to the closet door. There, I knelt on the floor and proceeded to stack my little smorgasbord ever so carefully on top of my shoes and books. I sat back on my heels and rested my hands on my knees, pleased with my selection. My plan was to go to sleep, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, hide myself in the closet and enjoy every savory bite in solitude. It would be so much fun! Just me, some dark turkey meat and a giant heap of fruit salad. Oh. And a can of Pepsi.
I barely remember waking up and eating all of the food I hoarded in my closet. But I know I did. I don’t know if I had symptoms afterwards, either. I doubt it. I don’t think I had a handle on that part of the illness yet. I was just a kid. And I’ve never done anything like that since – hoarding, that is, - at least that I can recall. I had other behaviors that are recognized as “disordered”, but no one ever saw them. If they did, they certainly didn’t know what I was doing. I still have times where I’ll head into the kitchen to grab something small and eat it quickly so no one sees me. Or I’ll bounce into my daughter’s room where her Easter candy sits in a colorful basket and I’ll shove two or three pieces in my mouth, praying no one walks by as I’m carefully unwrapping the foil. But those behaviors are far and few in between now, thanks to my recovery.
I learned during my time in treatment that recovery is for everyone. Some older women believe treatment programs aren’t for them. They think it’s “too late” or that they’ll never recover. But that’s not true. It’s never too late. Sitting in group therapy sessions with the same 15 men and women for two months taught me that a fresh start was possible at any time. The youngest that battled along side me was a 12-year-old boy. The oldest was a 54-year-old woman. We all shared the same fears. But every second of every day, Hope was right next to us and Possibilities were just around the corner. We cried together and cursed together. We laughed at our fate and praised our desire to change that fate. We ate together every single day, some of us struggling over a plate of peas or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most of the time we made it through dinner with small talk and a few laughs, but not always. Sometimes one of us would really struggle to ward off the demons. Mealtime would turn into a brutal assault of our mental capacity to accept the body we were born into. But that’s part of recovery. I suppose if it were easy, there would be no such thing as an eating disorder. And I wouldn’t be writing this.
I know how brutal and relentless this sickness can be – but I also know that I have the power to change my life. I call the shots. I create the outcome. If I want to continue to define myself as a woman with an eating disorder, then I will continue to be a woman with an eating disorder. But I don’t want that. I want freedom. And so I define myself as a woman with strength and courage; a woman with a bright future that can beat this – and anything else that comes my way in an attempt to defy me. You can, too.
With everything left in your soul, please don’t give up. Nothing that plagues you has to define you. Those demons that have been chasing you for years can be slayed. You may grow weary and you may lay down in defeat, but you must always stand back up. This life is yours to create; to play with and mold just as you like. You write the story, always, which means you get to decide your happy ending.
Statistics show that in the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org). What the statistics don’t show, are how many of these millions are older women that have been struggling for years and years. There is no question that there is an uninvited stigma attached to the medical term eating disorder. Even I still find myself hiding my face now and then when I have to divulge my medical history to a new doctor. But it’s up to us to change the face of the disease by tackling it head on. It’s never too late. Choose life and health over fear and doubt. Remember – you call the shots. Today and everyday.
Joleene DesRosiers Moody is a speaker, life coach and author of the self-improvement book “Memoirs of Normalcy: Journey from Sedentary to Extraordinary” available at amazon.com and joleenespeaks.com. The Thanksgiving story above is an excerpt of her upcoming book, “Twenty-Six”, a compilation that speaks directly to the healing of older women with long-time eating disorders. For more information, visit www.joleenespeaks.com.