The Athletic Author
I first came across Katrina Willis through her beautiful essay, ‘Enough’, which was served to over 200,000 eyeballs on Momastery this year. I instantly recognized honesty, courage and humour – why are so many fucking awesome bulimics funny? I tell you, we are. We can’t go through it and out the other side without finding ways to laugh at ourselves.
Katrina’s book, Table for Six, scores 5 stars on Amazon, she was named a Midwest Writers Fellow in 2011 and is a 2013 Indianapolis Listen to Your Mother Show alum, she writes for Mamalode and Indy’s child, and her short stories have appeared in various anthologies. On her entertaining blog, Katrina describes herself as a writer, mother of four (six if you count the canines), red wine drinker and hopeless cook. All the things I admire in a woman.
For such an open, honest writer I was surprised to hear her ‘Enough’ essay was the first time she came out publicly. Bulimia gets buried so deep because it’s embarrassing, it sounds so nuts, but as Katrina said on her post, “Just as rape is not about sex, eating disorders are not necessarily about food.”
We spoke for two hours over Skype [and the recorder stopped after the first hour] and it was like one of those conversations I used to have as a teenager when neither of you wanted to hang up. You hang up. No, you hang up. And eventually you both have to. I’m excited to introduce you to this witty, warm, wise woman who admits she’s not perfectly fixed. And that’s OK.
BB: One of the lines I found very powerful in ‘Enough’ was that you said your eating disorder was like a hole that needed to be filled. Do you know where that hole started?
K: Oh I think so. Yeah. And I’m not a psychologist of any sort. I had a Father who left right after I was born and that was always a very palpable hole for me, I really really wanted him to be in my life and he had other plans. So anytime I think back to my childhood and early adolescence Dad’s at the heart of it. He was the most handsome, gregarious life of the party. He and my Mom were the golden couple – that’s what they were called when they were together. He rolled in and out of my life, a decade here, five years there. He was a larger than life presence and when he left, it was like a hole, there was something missing, because he was such a huge presence. I saw him not nearly as often as I would have liked. And there were years that went by, and Christmases he promised he would be there and wasn’t. He liked to show up for big occasions, so he showed up for my wedding and to celebrate the big occurrences, but I wanted him to throw a baseball with me in the backyard. That’s what I needed from him.
I always wanted my Dad, and wanted him to want us, and so there was always a sense of abandonment. And still it’s probably my least attractive feature now, I have a neediness in relationships, I want people to promise they are not going to go. And to give credit to my wonderful Mother she was as perfect as she could possibly be. So even though we never lacked in love, I always felt like half of me was missing with my Dad.
It’s shocking to me [now that I have kids] how he could have made that choice; I don’t know how you could say, “I have others things that are more important”.
BB: I don’t either. It’s sad you had that as a child.
K: Oh we all have our stuff. It’s part of being human.
BB: So tell me about you and your body. A lot of bulimics tell me they were not comfortable in their bodies at some stage. How about you?
K: My mother was a model and my sister was also thin and beautiful. I was built much more like my Dad – I wasn’t fat but I was athletic, just sturdier. I remember always feeling Amazonian, tall and strong and definitely not thin like the rest of my close family. My older cousins would give me hand-me-down clothes and nothing would ever fit me – I would hang them in my closet and admire them.
The first time I ever recognized that being different was a detriment was when I was 16. I was a three sport athlete, and was on a very successful basketball team and my coach told me if I lost 20 pounds I would be much faster. Back then I was at my most fit and felt like I could do anything, physically and mentally, and it kind of knocked me to my knees. I thought ‘wow I never thought of that, maybe that’s the problem.’
B: Those throw away comments can be so damaging. Your body was at its peak physically, and it was reduced down to one comment about size. It’s scary.
K: It is. And that scares me no end with my daughter. I try to be so cognisant of everything I say to her but you never know what throwaway comment is going to stick and change her trajectory. I’m fairly certain my coach didn’t mean harm by it, but there it was, and it became my story. Then I got sick and I could no longer compete or be involved in athletics and became weak and destroyed my own self.
BB: Why what happened, did you try to lose the weight?
K: I did. I have always been an eater, I love eating and I ate a lot because I was very active, and then I started limiting. I can’t remember what made me think ‘this will work’ – whether I saw it on an after school special, but once I discovered I could throw everything up and take laxatives and control everything in that way, that was it. There was no going back. It was fast and furious for me. Anything I could do I did.
I was mess. I could no longer play sports. A lot of my senior year is a haze to me, a survival haze. Everything changed. I was no longer an athlete and during softball season I tried to play my senior year and my coach said to me “something is wrong” and he was the only person who said that. Everyone else was saying “you look great, and you look so thin”, he was the one who said “this is not right”. And that’s the first time I realized it wasn’t right.
BB: That was intuitive of him.
K: It really was. He said, “No, you can’t play on this team, you need to take care of yourself.” It was a bit of a turning point, although that was not the end.
B: It’s interesting you say you got all that attention for losing the weight, that positive feedback. I remember that too, when I was 12, I got a lot attention for losing weight (through exercise mainly) and then I made a terrible equation in my mind: skinny equals loved.
K: That’s so true. It’s funny how we make those connections so young. Oh that’s how it is. They’ll love me if I look this way. I think that’s what I was looking for my whole life. I wanted to please. I wanted to make my Dad happy enough to come back. I wanted my coach to know I could lose 20 pounds if that’s what he wanted from me.
B: What about your Mom?
K: My Mom and I skirted around it, towards the end she knew. I know she was concerned but she wasn’t sure what to do about what was happening. And I say that with no malice or animosity, because nobody loved me better than my mom. But I think it was terrifying for her. I went to a counsellor for a short time and he said he didn’t want me to go group therapy because he thought that’s where I would go and get ideas. This was 1988. In my senior year I met the man who is now my husband and he was pivotal.
(Here is a segment from Katrina’s ‘Enough’) ‘I remember one of the very first dates Chris and I shared. He took me to a quaint French bistro, and he watched as I ate a basket of baguettes, then another. He confessed to me later, “I watched you eat all that bread. You were so beautiful and so funny and I knew you were going to go home and throw every last bit of it up. And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop you or to change your mind. So I just loved you through it.” (read it all here)
Chris just stood beside me and he taught me I was lovable regardless. It has nothing to do with whether I was worthy of love because he loved me, despite.
BB: He sounds like a total gem. What about college?
K: I went to college and lived in a dorm with a bunch of girls, many of whom were pretty much doing the same thing I was and it was easy there. Nobody batted an eye. We kept communal bathrooms. It’s funny, it was something that I never talked about and nobody talked about it with me but those of us who were part of that scene knew. I was very prone to passing out. I threw up every meal, I took laxatives like they were candy and I passed out a lot. I had nothing left. That was the legacy I had. My room-mate remembers calling 911 a lot until we figured out it was something I just did. It was surreal, we just didn’t talk about it.
BB: Well we don’t talk about it when we’re in the middle of it.
K: It’s so strange to talk about it now, I have never had this conversation. Ever.
BB: I was the same until I started doing these interviews. None of my close girlfriends had it and when I was at university I flatted with people and I’m sure they must have known but I never talked about it either. It was just something I did, I never thought of myself as disordered.
K: Me neither. It was in retrospect that I thought it was not normal. Throughout high school I threw up in the bathroom after lunch and got passes to be by myself and I really did think I was pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, I thought it was my thing. I knew how to do it and it was just mine. I joined a Sorority in my Sophomore year and then I realized it was definitely more prolific than I had ever thought. It was almost celebrated – although that’s not the right word.
BB: Was that better or worse? Did it make you feel less like a freak or was it also encouraging if other people were doing it?
K: I’ve never thought about that. I think it lost its allure for me when it was somewhat normalized and I know that sounds awful, but I wanted to be in some way special and it made me feel special, and it was my own special thing and then maybe it wasn’t so much anymore. I remember one of the Sorority sisters wanted to talk about it with me and I never wanted to. I never wanted it to be a secret club. I just wanted it to be my own secret and then it was a lot of people’s secrets I guess. I was fast and furious for a good three years and then I kind of stopped. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Plus it’s a gross thing to talk about it. Even the word is strange on my tongue and unsavoury. There is nothing glamorous or intriguing about it – even anorexia sounds sexier.
BB: Vomiting is very unsexy. That’s what adds to the shame. It’s funny you say that about the word, bulimia. I feel the same. It’s a swollen uncomfortable word. That’s why I put fucking in the title because who would click on ‘awesome bulimics!’
K: It’s a great combination of sucker punch words.
BB: How are you with your children?
K: It’s a big hurdle for me. I don’t know what to do with my daughter at 14. She is fierce and confident in a way that I never was but recently she said to me, “I don’t want to go to the Homecoming dance, I will feel like a potato in a room full of French fries”. She is built like I was. She is not fat, she’s tall – taller than all her friends. When you’re bigger than all your friends, you feel towering and looming.
I remember always wanting to be tiny, to fit into somebody else’s pocket and I never was that girl and my daughter never will be either. I do fee l like she is confident and sure of herself and I admire that and I want to nurture and protect her and it’s so hard to know the right way to do that. You never know what sticks.
BB: Unfortunately the world tells our daughters the French fry (skinny) is preferable. We think, especially as teenagers, that being loved and getting attention, is all about how we look – our height, our shape, our hair colour, our skin colour. You know, I learned skinny = loved so young and it turned out to be wrong, when I was my most skinny I was my most screwed up and unlovable because I was so miserable. How do we teach our daughters that it’s their own acceptance that is the most powerful weapon, and that’s what will make them attractive?
K: I think that’s such a hard lesson to teach when you’re still trying to learn it yourself. I feel in my head that the dialogue I have about myself is not right and not accurate but it find it very challenging to change. I read all the posts about self-love and learning to love yourself and body acceptance and I don’t know if I will ever get there.
BB: As Glennon [Momastery] would say, it’s not about being totally fixed (we’re all doing things our kids will complain about to a therapist one day) but it’s about showing up. I bet you and your husband throw balls in the backyard with your daughter. You are both there every day – that’s teaching her about love and that she is enough. As she is. No holes right? And everyone has stuff. The people that enrich our lives the most are the ones who have been through hard times – I don’t feel 100% with my body either but all we can do is show up.
K: I hope that’s true. I think that going through the fire forges exceptional human beings. I talked about not having a Dad and I still feel that way and he’s alive and he’s out there but it’s a story that I don’t know that I would change because it’s part of who I am. Right? And I kind of like who I am now – I don’t necessarily like the body that I’m in – but I like the person that I am and I think that if you go back and change those things that were so important in your earlier years then you would come out a different person. But I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable in my own skin and even though I don’t throw up or take laxatives any more I still eat like a crazy woman and that part of it has never gone away. I always struggle with too much.
Of course I’m in a much healthier place emotionally now than I was as a teenager but sometimes I look at my husband – who is wonderful and devoted and couldn’t love me more than he does – and I think, ‘what why are you still here?’ There is that underlying feeling of unworthiness. That feeling of not being enough. It breaks my heart what this does to him. He has had to deal with my emotions with food and red wine and we go through cycles where he tries to support me being healthy. He’s always trying to balance what’s best for me and how to best support me. We’ve been together for 27 years, he’s ridden that roller coaster for a long time.
B: That feeling of not being enough never quite goes away. From everything I’ve read about you, you are many many things too and that struggle with food is such a small part of who you are, and what’s lovable. It’s interesting you say that about red wine – I am very enthusiastic with it too and can get quite obsessive over my glass at the end of the day.
K: I hear you sister. Are you obsessive over things other than food?
B: I wish was I was obsessive about cleaning (so does my husband) and I used to be obsessive over cigarettes! I was amazed when I read your hilarious blog post about being such a bad cook, as I am too. Can you explain this line, ‘ I feel safe when other people cook for me.’
K: I go through it all the time – every time I get in the kitchen I think I am going to learn how to cook. And all the people I know who like to cook say the missing ingredient is love, and this is the way you nurture your family and friends and they say “as artistic as you are why hasn’t this clicked for you?” And truly, in the last 24 hours I have realized I will never be a cook. I can’t. I’m afraid of food. I am uncomfortable around food. I don’t trust myself at all, to be able to nourish myself or my family or my friends – to the point where I think that there may be some kind of unconscious sabotage as my cooking is horrible. Just horrible. When I most want to impress somebody with food it’s a disaster. There is a fundamental disconnect with food, and I think it’s as much mental as anything else.
When people cook for me it feels safe and it feels like love. It does. I love to have people cook a meal for me. It’s a safe place. And the effort that goes into it – to me, it’s quadrupled as it’s so hard for me to do. So when somebody cooks for me it fulfils some kind of need for me for love and to feel loved and be taken care of.
BB: Glennon and Nicole and many other bulimics say they can’t cook either. I have never thought about the self-sabotage. I do that too. Guaranteed if special people come over I ruin it. My husband’s often baffled by it and my children complain about my fried eggs. They say, “Daddy is much better” and I’m like, god how can I get eggs wrong?
K: It’s amazing what we can get wrong isn’t it? I made a strawberry cake from a box once and I don’t know what went wrong but the middle just sunk and so I spooned it out and filled the hole with strawberries and served it like it was passable. And it was awful. My kids still laugh about it; it’s still the joke around our house, the strawberry cake.
BB: That’s hilarious. OK, one final question, can you tell me three things about your body that you like?
K: Wow, I’ve never thought about that before. I always focus on the things I don’t like. Thank you for asking – for encouraging me to look through a different lens. I like my blue eyes and the wrinkles around them. They’ve seen and experienced so much love and laughter. They are a map of my life. I like my hands. They aren’t model hands by any stretch of the imagination, and my cuticles are always a mess, but my hands are strong and capable. They’ve held babies and written books and wiped away tears and touched loved ones with tenderness and grace. And, of course, I love that this body created and gave life to four unique, amazing, beautiful human beings.
BB: Thank you so much. On a final note I loved this comment you made on Momastery [to somebody who wrote in about ‘Enough’]: ‘There are days, of course, when I feel fabulous, but more often than not, I feel like I am just too much, that I inhabit too much space. I don’t have any answers, but perhaps what we have is the knowledge that we’re walking together, side by side, taking up just as much space as we need and deserve… and gradually learning to hold our heads up high as we journey.’
– Did you see this story on Keira Knightly – she wanted to show the world what genuinely small breasts looked like, unphotoshopped, no chicken fillets, just the way they are. We are all so darn different, if only we saw more variety on our screens.