April 04

The Mouthy General Manager

Aimee’s career spans countries and industries. Creative, bold, onto it and sassy, she’s a force to be reckoned with and has championed some of New Zealand’s most successful marketing campaigns. She is known in business circles as a shit-kicking GM, generating results of the highest quality with panache and just the right level of bossiness.

We worked together in Wellington, Auckland and New York before knowing each other’s secret. In a café one day, over soup, we both confessed. Then we watched to see if the other was going to eat the crunchy bread. Then we laughed that we were watching each other. I found it quite hard to believe—it didn’t fit with the strong confident woman I knew. But that’s the bummer with dark eating secrets; too easy to hide.

Last month I went to visit Aimee and her new baby in Wellington and we talked for two hours on her couch. This is our chat.


BB: Shall we start at the beginning?

Aimee: Mine came on really suddenly sparked by a big change, but if I look back further I think I was always funny about food. When I was 12 I used to do dance workshops at Limbs in the school holidays and I used to take eight Ryvita [crackers] and marmite for the whole day because I wanted to be a gorgeous skinny dancer. It was clearly part of my psychological make-up.

Then I had a month in the six form [17] where I stopped eating; I only drank soups and smoothies—liquid diet!—and no one in my family even noticed, which I think says something about wanting to be taken care of and that not being there. Bulimia happened when I was still at school but Mum and I weren’t getting on so I went to live with other family members. It came on so fast. I didn’t even know what hit me. I would eat dinner every night, then go to the shop and get some chocolate or biscuits or something, then throw up on the way home: in a garden, behind a hedge, on the street. I didn’t know what was going on, it wasn’t like I was even thinking, ‘this is so cool, you can throw up and not get fat,’ it was just purely something I had to do.

Then I moved to London when I turned 18—went on a one way ticket—and got a job as a nanny, and all of a sudden I was on my own, living in somebody’s home again, but out of my comfort zone and having to grow up all of a sudden. It brought it ON. I couldn’t eat without throwing up essentially, and couldn’t get my head around eating a meal. My girlfriend from school came over and she was bulimic too. So even though it was really horrible it normalized it and took all the hideous shame out of it as we could be very open. We would joke, “I would have lots of money if I wasn’t eating everything and throwing up.”

Then I got a job with my friend in the gym, managing the café!

BB: Oh dear: two bulimics in the café…

Aimee: Yup. We used to eat lasagna and ice-cream together and then go and throw up.

BB: You went into adjacent cubicles together?

Aimee: Yes. Or we would sit at home and stuff our faces in front of the TV, just binge for hours and anesthetize ourselves. I realize now that when I had stress or feelings that I couldn’t cope with, I just numbed them. And then after throwing up I went into that high state, feeling skinny and purged and actually I was just dehydrated. It was a chemical high. That feeling of release.

I wanted to be skinny—that’s all I ever wanted—and was obsessively driven by it. Often I wouldn’t go out for weeks until I got myself thin, that whole isolating thing.

BB: Why do you think you were obsessed with being skinny? What was it going to provide?

Aimee: I think skinny was about control. When you’re young I think you forget you can’t do everything all the time. There’s always a fear about missing out and skinny was about always being ready to put myself out there. As you get older you learn you need time to recharge your batteries and look after yourself. Skinny equated to being perfect, but another thing you learn as you get older is that perfection is a fast way to misery.

You know, with maturity and hindsight I can see it now but at the time, the bulimia was pretty hard to figure out. I kept thinking, Why why why is this happening to me?

BB: I remember that too. Waking up every day, thinking I would be good and then I got to the afternoon and just caved in.

Aimee: For a year and a half, I woke up every day obsessed with food. One thing I am grateful for is that because it was so intense and it came on so quicklythrowing up two or three times a dayI got sick of living like that. I found a free women’s service in London that had six counselling sessions and I tried to unpick what was going on. Then I was referred to a hospital for treatment. Bulimia was so new and not well understood so they tried to treat us with an experimental drug therapy, which I know realize was Prozac—they thought it was an obsessive compulsive disorder. But I was so scared about taking anti-depressants—six pills a day—I refused them. So they put me on a strict feed diet where I had to eat three meals a day plus morning and afternoon snacks and I was was like, God you’re kidding me I can’t eat two pieces of toast without throwing up. It was such a big jump for me.

BB: Were you dangerously thin then?

Aimee: I always wanted to be dangerously thin! But I never was. I think I was chubbier and very full in the chops.

BB: Did the forced diet help?

Aimee: I don’t think they knew how to treat it properly—it was physical treatment rather than psychological. But by that time I had decided to go home to New Zealand and go to university.

So, I came home, got a boyfriend—tried to explain the bulimia thing to him and he just couldn’t get it. He said, “Why you aren’t really skinny?” because that’s how I always explained it, “I’ve got this anorexia thing…”

BB: Of course, not “I’ve got a bit of a vomiting problem.”

Aimee: Exactly, so unsexy! But having him helped. I grew up without my father—feeling desperately insecure thinking nobody would ever love me—and he was lovely. He was a skinny little surfer and he said, “Look if we’re going to live together in a student flat then I’m not going to eat bad food.” Most nights we had pasta, vegetables and chicken and that helped stabilize it.

Plus I went to group therapy at Auckland hospital and we all had the same problem, again normalizing it. There were a couple of people who had had it for twelve or fifteen years and there was one older woman and her skin was so dry, she was very thin, her hair was brittle and I thought, Fuck, this is so serious; I have to work really hard and try to get better.

Eating really well, along with the hospital stuff, and the security of a partner was enough to get me on the right path. And it was so self-perpetuating; you start getting better; you think about it less; you do it less; you think about it less, you keep getting better, you find other things to focus on. Plus I had my study.

BB: Did anything else help you heal?

A: University was my time for getting better and after I finished my treatment I put myself into private counselling and I kept that up, I always somehow found a way to pay for that, unpicking my childhood: my parents divorcing, my step-parents divorcing, and I talked it out and out and it just healed. I always had incredible outward confidence, but incredible insecurity and sensitivity. I always definitely had to have a boyfriend. I thought that was the root of all my problems that no-one thought I was attractive. Crippling. That’s not uncommon with the profiling of bulimics.

I see bulimia as a symptom, not the cause. I have noticed that with major stress in my life it comes back. It did in New York a bit but nothing serious; I learned that if I was ever going to eat and throw up it was never about my weight, or even about food. It was because I needed to do something self-destructive.

BB: Do you still get self-destructive urges?

Aimee: Yep, drinking the second cup of coffee in the day when I haven’t really eaten! It’s not about the food or feeling fat or thin.

Mostly, compared to 90% of women, I’m grateful I had an eating disorder because I let the food shit go. I tell myself, ‘Never limit the food, nothing should be off limits, if you want chocolate for breakfast then eat chocolate for breakfast.’

BB. I’ve had similar conversations with other bulimics—“Don’t talk to me about crap diets.”

Aimee: It’s all bullshit. You read stuff now that says you shouldn’t eat carbs and eat more protein and bla bla bla and it makes sense now, but fifteen years ago we heard you should eat grains and pasta (carbs!) and less protein. It’s just another fucking round. I never diet. My subconscious is always going on: ‘You should exercise more, you should be having more protein with meals, you should be gluten free’ and the other side of me goes, ‘Don’t even think about it because that’s only going to lead food obsession, and misery.’

And the other thing I never do is weigh myself. Even when I was pregnant I said to my obstetrician not to weigh me and he was great, he said he didn’t need to know and could look at me and see I was doing fine. I just don’t play the scales game.

BB: So how did you deal with being pregnant?

Aimee: I was fine because I was so happy to be pregnant. A couple of years earlier, at 34, I had left my steady boyfriend because I felt like I wanted a different life. Something bigger. Fast forward to being single in Wellington and I met this guy at a friends’ place and hit it off. He knew how to sweep me off my feet sending ten texts a day telling me I was beautiful. But something wasn’t right.

We went to the mountain once, he went up skiing and I didn’t—I drove to the local bakery and bought custard squares and cream donuts and pies. But I didn’t stress about the binge and throwing up, I told myself, ‘That’s cool, if that’s what you need, then just do it but have a little think about what’s really going on.’ I had enough self-awareness to know it was bigger than the custard squares.

Then I found out he was a fake and liar—in every respect—so I had to break up with him. A year wasted with an asshole.

BB: I’ve got a PHD in assholes. The whole time we were in New York I was in therapy to try and understand my track record of bad relationships. I looked up shrinks who specialized in women with eating disorders and relationships, and of course in Manhattan there were 112 therapists.

Aimee: I love that about New York, ‘Black Jewish Lesbian with Eating Disorder. Please call.’

BB. Yes! I discovered in those sessions that I had been picking men, my whole life, who couldn’t love me—a lousy side effect of [my] bulimia.

Aimee: You can be kind and loving to others but not with yourself huh? I had only ever dated nice guys so I like to congratulate myself that I got out pretty quick,but every now and then I wonder why that happened. Then of course, I got together with my guy. He’s not an addict. Or a bastard.

BB: And now you have Bella.

Aimee: Oh yes, so to answer that question, I felt OK when I was pregnant because I was in a great relationship with a good guy. I was so happy to be having a baby and I loved it, and what my body was doing.

BB: And how are you with your body now—friends or foe?

Aimee: I’d like to think friends, and honestly, mostly we are. I try to concentrate on the good stuff, although to be fair I’d like to make more of an effort to be a good friend and be good to my body. Mostly I just try not to stress it. After all, the best friendships should be natural and effortless.

BB: Do you ever think about Bella and how you want her to feel about her body?

Aimee: I take so much delight in my daughter and her delicious little body. It’s just gorgeous and I love every bit of it! And it’s humbling to think my mother felt that same way about me. There’s a lesson in trying to appreciate yourself and your body right there.

You know, before you came I was thinking I had nothing to tell you about bulimia, I couldn’t even remember that time…and then boom, suddenly two hours passed.

BB: Thank you so much for talking.


PS Dear readers, I would love to hear from you – are these interviews interesting? Are you reading them? Too long? Too honest? Too boring? Let me know.