The Merry Mind
Nicole grew up in Alabama as a self-professed Type A: perfectionist, responsible, conscientious and total overachiever with straight As and APAs (where you sit college papers in high school). She went on to get a Masters in journalism and now she’s found out there is a way to research and write and get paid well and it’s called marketing. And she’s figured out how to do it working from home. Still the overachiever.
She never had eating disorder on her Things To Tick Off. Yet somehow both Ana and Mia crept up on Nicole; those selfish high school bitches that want to swallow you up, steal you away and make you miserable.
I came across Nicole on her blog, Body Boop, where she is real and honest and wonderful. She writes about her body and journey and the name comes from a movie – to boop somebody is to poke them, to fill the gap when there’s an awkward silence. It’s also a sign of affection and a reminder to Nicole to be affectionate towards her body. Her brave words are getting attention in the US and she’s about to do her first TV segment on good body image.
Speaking to her in her home in Chicago three weeks before her wedding I was grateful she spared the time. As a fan of Betty Boop, we had a lot in common. Here is our chat.
BB: When were you first aware of concerns with your body?
N: My whole childhood I was aware I was a little different. My sister and I were very curvy and hippy with big butts, from 8 or 9 years. I remember being in the car with other girls from school and looking at my thighs and mine were so much bigger than the others. I never had these little stick legs. I think concerns about being different got worse as I got older. And the perfectionist side played a part, too. I was first diagnosed with anorexia at 14.
BB: What happened around the diagnosis?
N: Starting high school, and my mom and dad both remarried in the same year. It was the perfect storm. Plus having some sort of genetic predisposition, it all combined at the exact right moment.
My mum was in pretty deep denial initially but after 7 or 8 months, she admitted me to the hospital. This is 15 years ago, so they didn’t have an eating disorder section. I was with the mental health cases. None of the nurses knew how to talk to me—the treatment piece didn’t seem to be in place—and I was strictly being hospitalized for medical reasons: re-feeding, get my blood pressure up. I didn’t get any counselling.
BB: Do you remember the day you were admitted?
N: I do, I was missing out on a spring break trip and I was really angry. I stayed in the hospital for a week then had weekly appointments with a nutritionist and therapists to get to the bottom of it. I was off and on throughout high school [with anorexia]. But when I went to college and was on my own it spiralled out of control.
I had this incident in college were two boys broke into my dorm room and attempted to assault me and my flatmate stopped them. The trauma triggered it. I was trying to deal with the stress and the school was discouraging me from filing a police report. I felt so silenced.
BB: Why were you discouraged from going to the police?
N: Schools in the US have these hearings for on campus incidents and there is a panel that consists of students, faculty and staff, and often sexual and physical assault go before the panel of peers – to keep their safety record pristine. It’s awful for the person being victimized as you are telling this story to people you see in the cafeteria all the time.
I ended up not going in front of the panel, for many of those reasons and then the shame triggered all this eating disorder behaviour.
BB: Did you find bulimia was a form of escape, like a bottle of tequila?
N: It’s an addiction for sure. My dad is a recovered alcoholic, but he’s fallen off the wagon a few times. It’s always been when he’s lost his job or something major happened and eating disorders follow the same pattern.
During the year after that incident, the bulimia came on. Horrific. 10, 12, 15 times a day. Not just following meals. Totally consuming. Just before Christmas break I found out that one of the janitors reported to the residence hall committee that a bathroom I had been using— a public restroom nobody went into—was being used by somebody to vomit in. And so the residence hall held this big meeting. They didn’t know who it was, but I knew I was the only person they were talking about. Then I was like, “Holy crap, this has gotten way out of hand.” I didn’t want to be found out. You talk about shame and secrecy, and I didn’t want this to be a public thing. I told my mom, and I got on a plane a week later and went to Boston for treatment.
BB: I ruined a bathroom in a flat at university too. It was upstairs with old plumbing and I blocked up the system so badly the landlord had to get the front yard dug up and replace all the sewer pipes. I was dying of shame thinking there was a year of buffet meals in those pipes. One of our flatmates was a vegetarian so I blamed them…. All those lentils.
N: My mom had to do similar things! When I stayed in her house my behaivours came with me and she had to spend thousands of dollars getting everything replaced and dug up. I still don’t think she correlates it with what I was doing but I’m pretty sure I was the cause of it.
BB: We’re keeping plumbers employed.
N: Ha. OMG.
BB: We have to be able to laugh at it.
N: I know. When I think back about all that money, I mean not only the food, but the plumbing, the treatment, the counselling. It’s just wild.
BB: So that must have been huge when your friend told you about that meeting, what was happening in your mind then?
N: It was a sense of panic—that people would know—and panic for myself, and for my health. I was pissed at myself for getting in an eating disorder situation again. After you spend three months in total isolation with other eating disorder patients you certainly don’t plan on doing it again. Treatment for anorexia and treatment for bulimia were two historically different experiences. When I went in for anorexia, aged 18, I was in a fog, I was so malnourished and spacey and out of it. When I went in for bulimia, aged 21, I was a smoker and a drinker, and all these behaviours had poked their ugly heads and I was angry. I was way angrier than I ever thought. I didn’t know I had that anger in me. Bulimia is so violent in itself, and my anger and lashing out at the world felt very violent, too.
BB: It’s frightening how violent we can be towards ourselves isn’t it?
N: If there is a positive to any of this, it’s that bulimics who seek treatment often learn to express anger properly where maybe they never have before. That was the case for me. I was like, gosh, I had been suffocating feelings of anger or taking it out on myself in horribly abusive ways so I had to figure out how to communicate properly to get those feelings out of me in a healthy way.
BB: Can you tell me what treatment centres are like?
N: It’s very bizarre. All of your privileges are taken away, you don’t even have a razor to shave your legs, people check you out when you leave the dining hall, they check that you have a clean plate. Days are filled with group therapy, individual therapy, family sessions but it’s all very scheduled. And you’re there for three months and it’s very intense. You practice how to go to a grocery store again, we had classes how to prepare meals for yourself. You had monitored showers – the door was cracked open so they could hear you so you couldn’t get away with anything. There are a lot of things that make you feel like a child all over but really you are learning to live your life again from square one.
Both times I was only with women. Different age ranges. For the most part it was a pretty wide variety, anorexics, bulimics, compulsive over eaters, a lot of people who had addiction issues, trauma histories, there were several patients who brought other stuff to the table other than eating disorders, people going through withdrawal, and battling some intense demons.
BB: And how were you at the end?
N: The first time I thought I had done my job and I didn’t really realize how difficult going back to real life was going to be. Whereas the second time I was bound and determined to not let it screw me over again. I had a therapist tell me I had to get really mad at my disease. And that little phrase has really helped me so much. I have to let myself get pissed that my anorexia and bulimia got in the way of so much, I lost so many friends, completing degrees, being able to live independently. I was sick and tired of it. So my resolve was a lot stronger.
BB: Did you have a name for your disease?
N: We called it Ed in treatment. How about you?
BB: Yep I called her Gertrude. She was like a terrible best friend who doesn’t want you to be with others or experience things without her. It helped to think of it as a force of energy and get angry at her.
N: It took a while to get to that place where I understood that it was a force that was interrupting so much for me. If I was this person who was super focused on success and being the best at everything, as I always had been, then I didn’t have to have eating disorders be something I had to be the best at. In fact it was doing the opposite; it was impeding my ability to be the best at other things that I actually wanted for my life. So yes, it was really helpful but it took me many many years to get to that place.
BB: And how are you now with Ed?
N: I’m doing really well with it now. My impulses are always there and I can’t speak for everybody but for me, those desires are never going away – me wanting to binge and purge but I feel like I have much more control over it. I have my life in Chicago, my dog and my little cat and my fiancé and I don’t want to introduce that ugliness into this space I’ve created for myself. Ed’s never been a part of my relationship with James [for three years], aside from body image issues and I don’t want that to change. In treatment, I used to listen to mothers on the phone to their kids, over Easter and Christmas, and I would listen to them crying, as they were separated from them for three months. That had a huge impact on me, I thought I never want that to be a thing.
I’m not sure if I want to be pregnant. James and I talk about adoption a lot and I think me talking about it is just wanting to avoid the whole topic. I think any time our bodies are changing, we get stressed and scared and you want to go back to some kind of comfort.
BB: Being pregnant really helped me (I faced my worst nightmare of getting huge) and somehow my body grew a human being – actually two! I’m doing a small unscientific survey on FAB – can you cook?
N: I actually avoid cooking at all costs.
BB: Same, totally lousy.
N: Ha! James is a restaurant manager and it’s so ironic to me when I think of what my relationships to restaurants were in the past. But he enjoys every aspect of spices and flavours and it’s very therapeutic for him to be in the kitchen and he doesn’t like to be bothered. It’s his Zen space. And I have never liked cooking so it actually works out really well for me; I give him his space, I get to eat delicious food and then I clean up.
BB: How do you feel about the whole body love obsession right now?
N: Most days I actually feel a lot of loathing for my body and I think I tend to focus on the achievement piece rather than full out loving everything about my body. And yeah I have a favourite feature or two, that’s a healthy thing. But rather than say, “Oh my god, I have such a nice butt or abs,” I would prefer to say, “These thighs carried me across that finish line. I don’t give a crap what they look like or how much I love them but this is something I wanted to do for a long time and I just did it.” That works for me more than the whole body love, I want to celebrate my achievements and other women’s achievements no matter what they say to themselves on a daily basis.
I like to express those sentiments on the blog—don’t look at your body for how big or little it is but what you can achieve with it. You know, whether it’s a big race or pregnancy or whatever it is, but the fact you are mobile and healthy and able to do all those things.
BB: I love this line from Baz Luhrmann’s video “look after your body, it will be the best instrument you own.” You mentioned earlier that you’re a type A person. What were some of the other things you were trying to achieve?
N: I was president of everything, very hard on myself academically and all aspects of my life. Overly involved, strove to be perfect at everything until I was physically and mentally exhausted. I get it from my Dad, he has a similar personality. My parents divorced when I was 4 and I think that played a big part; wanting to make everyone happy. I became a people pleaser. A lot of the girls I was in treatment with fell into that people pleaser personality type, make everyone happy, not ruffle feathers, be good at everything so everyone was happy with them and not make any waves. But it’s been a lot of more interesting… the times I’ve actually messed up. I’ve learnt a lot more. It’s not fun to make mistakes, but I take it more as a learning experience now than I used to.
BB: Totally agree. When I interviewed Glennon Melton-Doyle (a great FAB and inspirational writer) we were discussing our messiness, she said “you can’t truly be interesting unless you’ve been though some crap”.
N: I’ve never been one to have these giant groups of girlfriends who have surface relationships. If I am going to be a friend of yours then the value of that on both sides is to be able to speak honestly about things. The friendships that have gone the furthest are with people who have gone through stuff, and not an eating disorder, but gone through difficult life experiences, it makes them a bit more human.
BB: In your bulimic days did you have a friend to talk to or who knew?
N: Most of my friends in college were pretty scared of what was happening if they knew about it. My best friend from high school lived in the same dorm but we rarely hung out because I was drinking and partying and sleeping around and throwing up and she was still the same good girl she was in high school. I still love her and she’s one of my bridesmaids but that’s a regret of mine—that she was kind of scared about what was happening. I had some friends where I could speak really candidly about it and others ditched me because I did something to them and others were just freaked and I don’t blame them for feeling that way, because it’s a scary thing. When this was happening we were very young. So I could speak to one or two without fear they would abandon me. It’s been a sticking point with romantic relationships, you know, that fear that if I’m open about this it’s going to ruin everything.
BB: In the thick of my craziness, I found myself attracted to assholes and other addicts; people with so many of their own demons they never probed into mine. That would be an interesting study: bulimics and alcoholics, a match made in hell. What kind of guys did you hook up with?
N: Horrible. When I was in the midst of bulimia it was awful. Volatile relationships. I dated a guy I had to get a restraining order out against. I came out of this and moved to Chicago and I met James, but it’s tough to have to admit that I’m the one that has the big problems, I’m the one that has to go to therapy every week. James’ mum is a social worker, so he grew up accepting that everyone has things they need to work on, but this is the first relationship where I don’t feel like the big fuck up.
BB: I’m so glad you’re in a relationship where you can show yourself and be loved for it.
N: He’s written for the blog and he’s very proud of the fact that I’m putting my story out there. I’m in a very different thing to what I’ve had before.
BB: He sounds like a good man.
N: Yeah, it’s a good relationship, we’re getting married in three weeks. I’m kind of ready for the wedding to be over. In terms of all the thought and feelings and body image and wanting to go back to stuff. The wedding is putting a lot of pressure on me in terms of how I look and I’m very excited for that piece to be over so I can go back to the way I was.
BB: Are you having dress fittings?
N: Well the first fitting I had the dress didn’t fit – it was too small – and that was pretty awful and I started crying in the dressing room and there was a big scene. And the girl in the fitting room she was saying, “Look, in our daily lives we don’t wear dresses so super structured, you’re sucked into it, it has boning,” and she reminded me it’s very different to anything I will ever wear in my life. I have to remind myself of that when I go down the crazy path.
BB: You will be your most beautiful, every woman I know is on their wedding day. Drunk on love (and relief it’s over!). All the best and thank you for sharing your story with us.
Want more? One of our FABs (Katie) sent me this link and said ‘shit I wish I wrote this’. I nodded. Agreed. However, I’m so glad Mary HK Choi wrote this – more and more strong funny voices are talking about this messy messy business and it’s freaking awesome: Wherein I Learn Bulimia Doesn’t Work Is More Expensive Than Suspected.
AND, loving this song Try, by Colbie Caillat. Makes we want to Not Try So Hard.