By: Nikki Bowers
I do not remember being called fat. I DO remember hearing women talk about so and so being fat or how much weight so and so put on. It always seemed to be the topic of conversation when I was a little girl. I was a dancer and a baton twirler at a young age so maybe that is what people talked about in that circle. I do remember looking down at my thighs in second grade, spread on the chair, and thought, “My legs are big.” From then on, I tried to hide them.
I grew fast and quick. I was 5’3” tall in fifth grade. I had stretch marks from that growth that I would hate for the longest time. I was called “big boned” and “broad”. My mother used to say, “Nikki can’t fit into that…she is just too broad.” To me, it meant that I was too big. It seemed that I was too much of a lot of things and not enough of most things. Too slow. Not fast. Too average. Not smart. Too goofy. Not serious. Too much energy. Not focused.
In high school, I walked into the weight room one day. It was empty so my friend and I decided to box squat. We had seen it done but had never tried. We kept putting on the weight. 160, 180, 200, and the numbers kept climbing. 260 pounds was starting to get harder. When the guys walked in they began to joke, “What are you going to do…try out for wrestling?” Can you imagine if the response was different? But it wasn’t. Every girl in the 80’s was expected to look like a twig.
That summer before my senior year of high school I worked as a lifeguard. One day as I jumped off the diving board, a fellow lifeguard commented on how I looked like a “wrestler”. That is when I decided…I needed to lose weight.
Nobody begins a diet, drinks alcohol, or experiments with drugs thinking, “I can’t wait to be addicted to this.” Yet, this is how it happens. People began saying kind things to me that they had never said before. “Wow! You look good!” Even my mom complimented my weight improvement.
The shift began slowly, deep inside my head. Every eating disorder patient will tell you of a different high they would get. My high came from being empty. The longer I could be empty, the more euphoria I had. It is when I felt the best. However when I ate I would learn that I could make myself throw up. This gave me more options. I had control. And control is what I love. I could be empty whenever I wanted. This emptiness created a prison that would be ALMOST impossible to escape.
I became a Christian right after graduation. I was hoping that God would heal me instantly. Healing like this does not happen from a lightening bolt from the sky.
I thought about it day and night. Would I eat? Would I not? If I did, could I throw it up? Did I need laxatives? How many calories? When would I run? When my parents needed milk, I would run to the store and run home with the milk. I ran in the middle of the night if I could not sleep. I slept with weights buckled around me (my own contraption) hoping it would make my stomach flat.
I had been too weak to finish playing Fall Ball for softball in college. I was lucky to finish exams. On December 17, 1990, my dad took me to a special eating disorder unit in Baltimore. I screamed at him not to leave me because I wasn’t finished losing weight. He looked back with tears in his eyes and left. It was a place where I would be “fixed”.
I did not return to college and lost the scholarships that I had. I was the youngest woman on the unit and I finally felt understood. I didn’t have to explain myself. I did not have to hide my addiction. If you did, you had privileges, if you did not, you had to stay in the common room and could not go back to your room, use the phone, or have visitors. On Christmas day, my friend Ann and I were the only ones not allowed privileges. We sat in the common room and watched everyone have Christmas. I remember thinking, “How could my life get any worse than this?” Yet, it did.
Nobody from my family showed up for family therapy because we did not have any problems. It was my problem. My brother was a drug addict, and I almost died from my eating disorder, but we were all good! I went to individual therapy where the doctor just stared at me, I talked, nothing was really solved, and time was up. I went to group therapy where we talked about our body image and I was encouraged to “let my feelings out”. I was given Prozac to help my OCD tendencies. I was on my way to recovery…or that is what everyone thought. Actually, the thought was, “If you just eat, you will be fine.”
Being in a hospital where they make your food, watch you eat your food, take your meds, watch you go to the bathroom, talk about your feelings….that is the easy part. You then have to go back to your dysfunctional family that never visited you in the hospital and live it out. That wasn’t going to be challenging at all. Not at all.
After 2.5 months in the hospital, I was released to go home. I really cannot put into words what happened but in one month, I lost weight again. In a heated argument with my mother, I told her what I had wanted to tell her since kindergarten. I finally “let my feelings out.” It was the best feeling in the world. However, it landed me out of the house with some belongings in a trash bag. I was kicked out of the house.
That was the moment I realized that getting better was my responsibility. Recovery was up to me. I couldn’t blame anyone for where I was at this point (which was pretty low). I had to make decisions every day to get better. This was also the time where my friends became my family. I moved in with my childhood best friend. Her mom loved on me the way I needed. She always had dinner and then you were expected to clean up and not throw up. It was soooo hard. But slowly I gained some confidence. I took a year off of school and worked three jobs. After several months of minimum wage jobs, I decided that getting my degree is what I needed to do. I did not have any money. I had my work ethic, my determination, and a glimmer of my sense of humor. I slowly began to rebuild my life.
Every step forward seemed to push me two steps backward. It seems that “just eating” doesn’t get rid of the demons that caused the disorder. There was a lot of work and pain to process. I had to unlearn the bad habits and relearn the healthy habits. The magic pill of Prozac had to be taken regularly. And I would not do that. That left me suicidal and participating in self-mutilation. The demons and I battled every day. Some days I won, some days they won.
From the outside, I looked “fine”. If you asked me, “I was fine.” Everyone expected me to be fine. So to please everyone….I was. I hid my wounds and became a master of this. I participated in the life everyone expected me to do but inside I fought a battle every hour to keep myself sane and fed.
When you are a perfectionist and people pleaser this is what you do. I had food rituals that could not be disturbed and I constantly fought the question, “Do I rent this or own it?”
I filled my life with work and school. I went to school full time and worked three jobs. This busyness kept me structured. But it also kept me from eating.
There were pivotal moments in my recovery that made me realize that life was worth fighting for daily. My dad pleading for me to live made me choose small goals to heal for good. Getting my first teaching job made me realize that I had to be fueled to keep up with elementary school students. Meeting my husband that knew all my brokenness and said, “I love you anyway” and encouraged me to lift because my body was so strong made me want to be better. Becoming pregnant when they did not think it was possible was another milestone. Having two girls back to back made me want a different childhood and healthier perceptions for them both. I knew I had to heal so they would have better.
I have learned to give myself grace to not be okay. I have learned that recovery is not perfect and takes a long time. Relapse happens but it does not have to be a downward spiral to undo how far you have come. I have learned that being honest about my struggle helps others. I have learned that I have wasted so many years obsessing over the expectations that others have for me instead of discovering my own.
It has been 27 years. I am still trying to figure out so many things. Life is not fair for anyone. We are dealt a family and their choices have consequences. We make choices and every choice has consequences. There were many days that death looked better than what I was facing. And every time in that loneliness and despair, God showed up. From the outside, it would not look miraculous but when I was on my knees pleading for a better way, I would always find the strength to rise. God would guide me to paint beauty with the ashes.
If someone were to call me a wrestler now, it would be the biggest compliment. I am a strong woman. I have muscles. My body can do amazing things. My confidence and self-acceptance does not come from people’s admiration. It comes from me knowing that I have worked my a** off mentally, physically, and emotionally to be standing here today.
I love the life and family we have created. If someone would have told me that I would be standing here with the confidence and strength I have now I would have never believed it was possible. Because my brain was hard wired in a certain way and critical elements were not met when I was growing up, I believe that I will always be fighting my demons. The only difference now is that my winning streak is so much better and my armor is more complex. The past 40 years have been spent fighting to unlearn and undo things while breaking out of a prison that I created. The next 40 years? They will be spent living in the freedom I fought so hard to have.
This post originally appeared on paintingbeautywithashes.net
About the Author: Nikki Bowers is a wife, mother of 2 girls, educator, mentor, and blogger. She has recovered from her eating disorder and helps women find their voice and strength to keep fighting.