The Smart Homecoming Queen
Genevieve’s always nailed everything she has touched. In high school she was a Student Congress Leader, Varsity Cheerleader, Orchestra Violist, piano player, on the Homecoming Court, and a staff member of the Yearbook. She made straight A’s and graduated from college with a degree in Communications & PR at 21.
She did not have eating disorder on her list of things to achieve.
When Genevieve contacted me, she admitted to battling bulimia for the last seven years and said she wanted to share her story. I panicked, “I’m not qualified to talk to anyone still battling,” I told my best friend, who is fortunately wiser than me. She reminded me that to change the world sometimes we need to give it a good listening to. No qualifications needed, just ears.
I arranged a Skype date one Sunday morning with Genevieve; two strangers with one icky secret. After an hour, Skype threw us off and we kept trying to reconnect because we still had so much to say and then agreed we would just have to do it again. I could listen to this sagacious 24-year-old forever.
Here is our chat.
GW: I first started struggling with bulimia in college in my Freshman year (17). My childhood was very standard with great parents who are still together. I was very good in school and pretty straight edged, and by the book; I didn’t see PG13 movies until I was 13. My parents were not strict but they had a hold on me. My Mom is a psychologist and my Dad is a PGA tour caddy. We are very close and always have been so when this issue came up I didn’t know how to take it to them. I didn’t know what it was or why it was happening to me. It was the control mechanism that went uncontrollable.
Prior to that, I don’t want to say I was fat, but I was heavy. I am five feet tall and I felt fat because society told me I was. I dropped 30 pounds in six weeks and I came home for spring break and my Mom thought I had a tapeworm or something crazy and wanted to take me to the doctor. And I’m like, “No, you know it’s just stress it’s fine.” Obviously I knew something was going on with me but they didn’t and it was just very rapid. I started to get all this positive reinforcement for this terrible act. It kind of spiraled out of control.
Your body changes as you get older. Currently I see a lot of different doctors to help because it really jacked me up. I see a nutritionist, a therapist, and an internal doctor for my blood-work. I have gastrointestinal issues, reflux and gurd. I have a lot of different problems from it.
BB: How long did you manage to keep it a secret?
GW. Not very long! Well, I had a boyfriend for years and it kind of started after a rough break up. Obviously there is always a trigger but after I started binging and purging, I was in a Sorority (alpha delta pi and all that) proud of it, loved it to the core of me, and they saved my life in a way because they knew what I was doing. They have positions of power in the Sorority–a standards chair–and their job is to monitor the sisters and make sure everyone is healthy, happy, grades are up, and financially OK. If you’re having an issue and it’s brought to the table then they will sit down with you and say “We know you have a problem and let’s figure out how to fix it.” At the time I wasn’t ready to accept it or be open about it.
BB. It takes quite a while to admit that the secret small act is actually a problem. I would have folded my arms. What did you do?
GW. I got defensive. I got upset. I denied it to the grave. It was one of those situations where they implied I had to get help or there would be repercussions, as in I might be suspended from the chapter. They wanted me to know it was serious and I had to take my health seriously and they made me go to therapy–I had to prove to them that I was going once a week for four weeks. I was meant to bring back these little cards and I went once and found a loophole around it by stealing four cards and forging them. I never went back. At the time I was terrified of anybody finding out. It was shameful and embarrassing. I was so unconfident and unhappy I didn’t want to be touched by that idea or have it following me around campus. So I let it continue but I told everyone I was OK and I gained a little bit of weight.
BB: And your family?
GW. My parents were fantastic. My Dad is one of the coolest people you’ll ever met. My Mom is one of the most open-minded beautiful women. Ever. She’s brilliant and kind and loving and open-hearted. This should not have been something I waited so long to tell them. In fact when I did tell them they said “Why didn’t you let us know you were dealing with this?” Which of course bought a lot of guilt.
When I was going through hell, my therapist and nutritionist were saying “There’s got to be a jolt here for you, because you don’t care about taking care of yourself, there needs to be accountability here because if you don’t want to take care of your body then do it for your Mom or Dad because they love you so much.” What I had to start doing at the end of every day was send an anonymous email to my Dad–he was the only one who had access to it (not my Mom because she’s maternal and wouldn’t be able to carry it like him)–and I would have to tell him, in bullet points, about my day: what I ate for breakfast, if I kept down my lunch, if I binged, if I purged, what I drank. It became so important to be able to admit to what I was doing; not for them but for me. It was a contract we had. He couldn’t email me back or ring me about it or bring it up. The only way he could talk about it was if he came into therapy with me and my Mom, and we would sit down as a family and talk about it, because he knew I needed to feel in control. It worked, it didn’t work, but my parents are so crucial in my recovery. It’s amazing what people can do for you and they don’t even realize it most of the time.
BB. I kept a secret diary and it helped with recovery too. That’s brave of you to email those details to your Dad and accept that support. Your Dad rocks.
GW. I know it’s hard for my parents. I struggle, knowing that I worry them so much, I know that they love me so deeply–to the point that I can’t understand it–and to worry them is hard to carry. I’ve had friends come and go because of this [bulimia].
I am an intense person and I feel like I love very deeply and I’m loyal to the core and sometimes it scares people. They don’t understand it; they don’t know how to process it. To the friends that do love and care for me, and know my struggles, those friends are like my family because I can tell them anything and they’re not going to judge me.
I make jokes about it, but if I’m not between three and seven I’m crying. I’m an emotional person. If I’m too happy I’m crying, if I’m too sad I’m crying. If I’m too overwhelmed I’m crying it’s just how I was born. I really relate to my favourite writer, Glennon Melton-Doyle.
BB. Did you know Glennon is another fucking awesome bulimic on this site?
GW. What? Are you serious? She’s like, one of my heroes. I love her. Her book changed my life, it started to make me OK about my sensitivity, and be open about those functions in my life and I stopped being so closed off about my problems. My Mom introduced me to her and Anne Lamott.
BB. What a great Mum.
GW. She’s rock star. You know after a while, I was packing a bag, calling residential treatment centres, desperate to get help and not sure where to go. My parents were trying to attack it from all facets and I felt like I needed to get out of the city, and do something different; re-write my life. And my Dad came to me, and said, “Vieve, the relapse rate is extremely high and I’m not saying I don’t have faith in you or that you couldn’t kill it out there but it might not be the best option, let’s try and attack this and see what else we can do. Come to yoga with me for a week.” He said, “Come every day and I promise it will change your life.” So I did.
BB. What kind of yoga did he take you too?
GW. Hot. Baptiste. He knew what I would want. I had been to a couple of slow flow classes and that wasn’t enough, I needed the aggressive action. I started going for a week and it turned into two weeks and then I kept going and I think it seriously saved my life. Other than my Sorority and best friend, I think yoga was pivotal in my mental transformation. Now that I’m in it and I’m there and I’m committed to recovery it’s all I want to do.
BB: Glennon and I joked that yoga was our first healthy addiction. You know, I like to think that I’ve never struggled with booze…
GW. Me too!
BB. But they’re related huh – food and booze, both can be a means to escape. I went to see this amazing therapist in New York, Jodi Rubin, and she was the only person to really sort me out. We talked about how mean I had been to my body with bulimia, and how yoga was the first thing I ever did that was kind. And I would think about that in yoga sometimes and it would make me cry.
GW. Me too! In savasana.
BB. I had to pick a hot yoga too, (Bikram) to be taken to an uncomfortable edge.
GW: I know. I went to the doctor a little while ago, I was as thin as you could be, as malnourished as you could be and still properly functioning. I had a bobble head, my teeth were crazy, I was getting that weird hair on your body when it goes into famine it starts to try and fix itself, my skin was crazy, it was unbelievable. You know it’s a daily struggle, it’s not just something that changes, it’s going to be an effort for the rest of my life and I’ve accepted that but what I’m working on now is self-compassion and self-love. It’s a challenge to do that because you talk so negatively to yourself, and about yourself. You know, you can have the best qualities in the world and you can be fun and loyal and smart and dedicated and a great friend and wife and lover and daughter and be so many different things but when you wake up in the morning the only thing you see is this negative part of you, and the negative sides of your body and it’s just not the way to live but it’s hard to grasp that in college.
The only thing that matters in college is how you look and what you eat and how you present yourself and the way people think of you, but who gives a fuck. You know, you have to love yourself or you’re not going to do anything good, for anyone. To transition to that thought process is a daily mountain climb.
Instead of looking to food and alcohol to push down my emotions, I am going to be me and be sensitive and I’m not going to feel all weird and funky around people and if they like it then OK but if not, then that’s OK too.
BB. I love this line by Anne Lamott, “Joy is the best make-up”
GW. Yes! My Dad and I were eating lunch the other day in a salad bar and this woman walked by and she had on these heels and immaculate dress and she was flawless, beautiful. He looked at her, then he looked back at me, then back at her and said, “It’s hard to be a woman isn’t it?” And I told him that her appearance didn’t take ten minutes. She looked great but she strove for that. It’s crazy you have to try to look good but at what cost?
BB. As a woman it takes up so much head space.
GW. And as a kid.
BB. So if you could say something to your younger self what advice would you give her?
GW. Oh gosh, when I was a kid I was bullied pretty heavily. My nickname was Pillsbury Dough Girl–that sounds like a joke but it’s not. I was pudgy and I felt uncomfortable all the time (I remember jeans felt weird so I never wore them) and I didn’t know how to dress so wore sloppy clothing. My hair is very curly and I didn’t know how to tame it so I fought it, and I had a gap the size of my pinky in my teeth and I would gleek on people accidentally. I was like Glennon, all rolly polly and oily and I felt out of my body, I didn’t connect with myself. So I became aware of my body at a very young age because people made me aware of it. My parents were so loving towards me and full of grace and compassion and love and when I went to school it was a different story.
If I could say anything to my sweet twelve-year-old self I would tell her that you are so loved and you could do anything and people will still love you, you don’t have to put yourself through things that you think will make you look better because it’s not going to make you feel better; it’s going to make you feel worse. And to focus on things that are you, to commit yourself to philanthropy and a higher power, be there for your family and friends and do the next best thing because you are not going to feel better by making your body suffer. It’s not the way to go. Stay positive. Carry on warrior. Rough it out.
BB. I’m so sorry to hear you went through that as a child.
GW. [Laughs]. It’s OK. I think that was for a reason. You know?
BB. Makes you resilient, huh?
GW. Oh God if anyone can go through hard things it’s this one. We all go through it. It’s not foreign, especially in America. It’s crazy. People are so mean. Me and my best friend were talking about this lately, the way that people treat each other is inconceivable. And that’s the opposite of my heart and a lot of people close to me.
BB. And actually the opposite of a lot of people. We aren’t born mean; we learn it as a way to protect ourselves. It comes from fear and competition.
GW. Totally. Sad isn’t it? I just want to teach people to love each other, we all need the same thing, let’s just cut the shit. Forget about it.
BB. You have a very wise soul. I wish I had that figured out when I was 24.
GW: I don’t get it though; you think that if I was that wise then I wouldn’t have got this.
BB. No! I have spent a long time thinking about this. The profiling of bulimics is that we are smart women; we are usually ambitious, head girls, student prefects, etc. At the time bulimia starts it seems like a clever solution, a way to get rid of eating too much, we have no idea it can take over our lives. I was interviewing this other bulimic in London recently and I was saying to her that I want girls to know that sticking fingers down throats is as dangerous as shooting up heroin. When I was growing up my parents were very clear about what I could and couldn’t try – I could try cigarettes (if I had to), I could try wine, I could try sex, but never heroin or P (NZ’s meth). I knew it could take over my life and I was fearful of it. Bulimia sits between melancholy and addiction so if you have slightly obsessive compulsive tendencies, and purging gets a little foothold in your life it can become a horrible addiction.
GW. Isn’t it? It’s that little thing, you open the door just a little too much and it wedges its way in there, and then it’s like fuck. I can tell you, I can recall the first time I did it, I was in my Sorority hall and I had eaten way too much and felt sick to the point that I thought I was going to throw up, and I actually wanted to because I thought it would make me feel better, and I swear to you, Angela, in no way shape or form did I think that by doing this, by encouraging my body to vomit did I think that I would have an eating disorder. It wasn’t my goal or thought process. I wanted to get that food out of my body because I felt miserably full. I didn’t do it because I wanted to lose weight, or get thin or eat more food, I was not drunk, I solely make myself throw up because I thought it would make me feel better. And it did. It did not happen because bulimia was my goal. My parents and I have talked about this, and they have asked me about this period they don’t know about in my life. And I have literally blocked it out of my memory.
BB. Same. I have no photos of my life from 19 to 24.
GW. I remember having conversations about bulimia with my girlfriends when I was younger and saying “Ew, why would you ever want to do that?” It seemed so repulsive to me, and the next minute, I was like what?
BB. It comes on fast.
BB. Well, I’m no expert but I think that having a tendency to strive for perfection, to do our best can spur it on. In trying to have the perfect body bulimia can appear to be a (terrible) trick to get there.
GW. I think that it’s got a lot to do with perfectionism, this idea that the way you present yourself on the outside is a reflection of the inside. But that’s not true. I don’t think. At least for me. You know, when I was in high school I was on all these things: Cheerleading, Student Congress, First Chair of the Orchestra, Yearbook staff, Key Club, Habitat for Humanity, Homecoming Queen – everything you could possibly think of I latched myself onto and I would crush it. Nothing fell through the cracks with me. My Dad came over last week and we were talking about that and he started to cry and he said, “When you were a kid you were a champion, you were unstoppable and you did everything to try to make the home we were in perfect.” And it rang so true, because my little brother, who I adore and looks up to me, he wasn’t so easy, he was a needy kid and I wasn’t like that. My Dad said that he and my Mom had been meditating on that recently and they felt that they put so much attention on him because he demanded it whereas I always had everything together to the point where they thought I was more self-sufficient than I was. I don’t know if they beat themselves up about that, I hope that they don’t. My Dad was visibly upset.
You know, I have asked myself why am I like this, why am I so sensitive? Nothing happened to me to make me this way; I was never emotionally, physically, sexually or mentally abused on any level. My Dad said, “I want you to know that nothing is wrong with you. You’re fantastic. This is just the way you decided to cope with things and that’s OK and stop beating yourself up about it.”
BB. I have asked myself similar questions as my childhood was idyllic, the best. I love this line from Glennon, “You know, my favourite people are the people that have been THROUGH IT. You can’t be truly interesting if you haven’t been through some crap. I wouldn’t change anything about my life, even though it’s been a doozy. My challenge is to apply what I know about what makes a good life and let my kids have their own mistakes and paths. Mistakes can be the good stuff if you allow them to make you softer and more open.”
Can I ask you three things you love and appreciate about your body?
1) I appreciate that even though I’ve put my body through the ringer, it is still loyal to me. It still functions well, it still lets me enjoy yoga and run and laugh and love others. I am thankful for that.
2) I love my boobs now that I’ve gained weight and they’re fuller. When I was so malnourished I dropped down to a 32 B! Now they’re back.
3) I appreciate my curves. It is not something I love every day, in fact it’s something I’m in learning to love. I’m accepting that I was born curvy–I’m Lebanese for heaven’s sake! So it’s a daily conversation with myself, to love my curves.
To all you gorgeous readers out there I want to share: Bulimia The Musical… brilliant, 15-minute extravaganza of comic genius. The best way to talk about shameful subjects is with humour. Enjoy.