The Courageous Counsellor
Straight up, considered, and warm, Cassie has incredible strength. Her intro was so marvellous I cannot possibly create a better one, “I’m black. I’m queer. I’m a feminist. I was a theatre performance major in college, wrote a play that was produced in New York, went to school in Chicago for social work… now I counsel kiddos age 4-18. On good days, I can see that I am pretty fucking awesome.”
Cassie has been struggling with anorexia and bulimia since she was 13 and has just turned 28. She went untreated initially because nobody was looking for an eating disorder as it is so often considered a ‘white girls’ disease’. And that, says Cassie, “doesn’t help anyone.”
Last year she was working with young girls with eating issues. This woman has a huge heart and after talking to her for over two hours on Skype I have to say she’s totally fucking awesome. Every day.
Here she is.
BB: What’s your view on bulimia and eating disorders – is it changing? Are people more aware?
C: It’s complicated. On one hand, yes, I think we are generally more aware than we were say, ten, fifteen, thirty years ago. Most people know the terms, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating. However, I think it is still generally considered a “luxury” disease; a white girl’s disease. This is changing, but especially when I was coming up through middle school— that’s just what was on people’s minds as far as when they were on the lookout for “vulnerable” people who might get eating disorders. People tend to be on the lookout for white, middle to upper class, perfectionist, heterosexual females. As far as how that connected or impacted my trajectory, I do think there may have been some earlier intervention if people were more aware that eating disorders don’t discriminate! They impact people of all genders, orientations, class, race, whatever. When I was sick, it felt like someone sick who looked like me just wasn’t on their radar. I find even with myself when I see women or men of colour who behave in eating disordered ways I’m less likely to immediately think ‘eating disorder’ as I am when I see a white woman or male with the same behaviours. And I, of all people, should know better! But I’ve been socialized and internalized the lies like everybody else.
Culturally it was different for my parents; they struggled to understand what was happening. I remember one time my Mom was upset and said something to the effect of, “When I was growing up I got teased for being too thin so it’s hard for me to understand what you are finding so unhappy about your body.” Whereas some of my friends who were sick but white, their parents had gone through it themselves, or had friends who had gone through it and were just more generally aware. I think right from the get-go my parents were trying to figure out what to do and how to be helpful. They just had to do a lot of research and there wasn’t much about there about people of colour and eating disorders.
Also doctors didn’t ask questions about it or explore my feelings about race and how it might be impacting/driving my eating disorder. They kind of did the “colour blind” approach in my treatment which is bullshit and unhelpful. My eating disorder and experience of being sick is impacted by race. Race—though it’s a social construction— is a part of the picture that affects my life on a day to day basis. People see me, and, at least in the states, what they first see is that I’m black. And they have assumptions and thoughts about what that means about who I am.
BB: That’s interesting that your Mom was teased for not being curvy enough. Does that still happen in today’s world or is it about something else in communities of colour? When I spent a few years in California I saw the white girls obsessing about being thin and the girls of colour talking a lot about the shade of their skin.
C: I can’t speak for all communities of colour, but, in my experience, all over the world, having lighter and more “white” skin and more “white” features is considered better. I think there’s a lot of hate and internalised racism that we face in trying to figure out “What is beautiful?”. I do think a lot of black girls, Latina girls and Asian girls all over the place really struggle with body size, shade of skin, facial features—as far as what is beautiful and what will make you successful. Just being socialised in America, I think it is made very clear from the get go that the more “white” you look the better. And now there’s an obsession with being super, super fit – not looking like a weight lifter but looking very toned.
And that, to me, is tied into class status as well. Back in the day if you were heavier that was a signifier that your family had enough to eat and so you were of a higher social status. Whereas now to have that certain kind of fit look you’re signifying that you have the money for a personal trainer, the money for organic groceries, the time to workout—that’s time you’re not working to earn your living, so you must have that handled in another way. It’s a symbol to the world that you’re better, you’re on top.
BB: The problem with any kind of ‘in’ body shape is that such a small minority are naturally that way, whether it’s 90’s Kate Moss thin or current Kim Kardashian curves or Madonna’s yoga body. It’s slowly changing but it would be great is if we saw more variety. Like these images – from Liora K Photography or this site with hundreds of different breasts. We are all so incredibly different.
C: There is also a project with vaginas – people take pictures of their labias and it was then I realised, “Oh yeah I haven’t seen this.” Maybe I am normal!
BB: Both porn and the media provide guys and girls with a distorted view of what boobs, bodies, vaginas and faces and everything looks like. And an all over tan.
C: The media is definitely a big component. It is interesting because my Mom tried really hard to protect me from that. We didn’t really have magazines and there wasn’t a scale in our house. We didn’t talk about food the way I hear some people talk about their families and how they were always talking about calories or weight loss and weight gain. She was really trying to build a healthy body image for me and a healthy sense of self. I think she often probably wonders what happened. Shit, I do too!
BB: Do you want to tell me the story? What did happen?
C: Sure. To cut a long story short, I was twelve or thirteen. I remember my grandmother said a comment like, “It’s about time we start paying attention to your weight.” My Mom got really mad at her and we left her home and she was telling me I was just fine the way I was. To be fair, I was overweight. I wasn’t obese, but I was overweight, and I think looking back on it my body was getting ready for puberty and for all that change that was coming. I often wonder how things would have been if I let my body change on its own, natural, timeline.
But it stated before then—I remember in third grade being happy that I wasn’t the biggest girl in the class. Then in fourth grade I got bullied about my weight; I came home crying almost every other day. Then in fifth grade, I went to a fine art school and the bullying stopped, but I think somewhere around there, moving up to eighth grade, I started to realise that I didn’t like my shape; then I started to piece together that if you ate less you could lose weight – I hadn’t for some reason made that connection before.
Then my grandmother, the same one who told me to watch my weight, she got sick and we ended up going into the hospital to visit her. She was asleep when we got there and I was annoyed because we’d gone all this way to see her, so while the adults were out talking with the doctor, I went over and touched her hand to see if I could wake her up. The instant I touched her hand she had a seizure and after that her health went downhill and she ended up dying; not immediately afterwards, but weeks after. I remember really feeling that it was my fault, I had made this mistake, and that I also had caused her to get sick with the seizure and die. I thought that I was a horrible person and deserved to be punished.
Around that time I went on a low carb diet, very healthy, with my Mom’s support. I got a lot of positive feedback from my family and friends on how good I looked and it just kind of shifted I think. I became really obsessive and compulsive and I started to really tie it together with punishment. I had a mantra: “food is bad, food is evil, food is a punishment, not a reward. If you participate in eating you are bad, fat, ugly, evil and, worst of all a failure.” It was on a repeat loop in my head
I remember wearing this really big jacket with long sleeves. I didn’t want anybody to be able to see my skin. I felt like I didn’t deserve to have people to see me. I stopped letting my parents give me hugs even though I desperately wanted them. I didn’t feel like I deserved comfort.
It ended up becoming this really sad thing. When I look back on it and think about what I know now and how me not getting enough nutrition made it harder for me to think logically, it makes sense. It just spiralled out of control.
BB: It’s a dark place that self-punishment, feelings of not being deserving. Not enough. It’s rough. And the self-talk is very unkind.
C: Yeah, definitely. Some of the things I have said to myself—I would never talk to anyone else that way. Even physically I would hit myself, I started cutting myself. I did hours of exercise. I really created a prison for myself in a way and I never won; I would never win. It’s a no win situation.
BB: We don’t win. A therapist said to me once, with really sad eyes, “You’re really hard on yourself aren’t you?” I don’t think I had ever realised that that’s what I was doing. Did you know that you were being so harsh on yourself at the time?
C: Yes and no. I was aware that I was punishing myself but felt like I very much deserved that. I think it would have been impossible for me to really conceptualise how horrible I was being though.
BB: Do you remember where you heard the idea of purging from?
C: That’s a good question. By the time we talked about it at school I was already sick.
BB: What age would it have been talked about at school?
C: 13 or 14? It was at the end of eighth grade. It was such a long time ago and it is so hazy. It’s been 15 years on this journey. Once my parents worked out how much weight I lost, they took me to a therapist and there was more structure and attention paid to what I ate. I didn’t want to gain the weight back but I also wanted to make them happy and them to stop worrying about me and leave me alone. So, in my head, it was the perfect compromise—I eat, they are happy, I throw up, I feel safe. Then it just became all consuming. I was throwing up, I was taking laxatives, I was taking diet pills, I was exercising for hours every day, and still restricting. My story isn’t the one of a person who kind of got better and then got sick again, and then got better and then sick. I was more always sick and generally destructive and on a downward slope and learned how to manage it, how to fake it, how to hide it in a way that I could keep going. But it was always there.
BB: What is your relationship like now with your Mom and Dad?
C: It was definitely rocky for a while there. It was really tense in high school. I remember Dad telling me I was destroying our family unit and for a while we didn’t talk; he didn’t trust anything I said. I had lied and stolen money and diet pills from him. Once, I took my brother’s car, which I wasn’t allowed to drive, before anyone got up, to run to the store and get laxatives. At a different point, I remember it was around Christmas because I remember the Christmas tree being the only light in the room—I’d gone to get laxatives and hid them in my purse, and my mom found them and took them. And I was on my knees at her feet just begging her to give them back, saying how much I needed them. She was really upset and said it was like I was on drugs and had to leave the room. So I was crying on the floor with the Christmas tree. And the next day when she went to work, I ransacked her room looking for the laxatives. God. I would hide bowls of puke and forget about it and I remember one time my parents, while helping me look for a book, found a forgotten bowl full of vomit. It was mortifying. Geez. It was just hell for them, I think. And for me. But I think I’m only now really realizing the impact it had on the rest of my family. It was just very tense and I remember having to go buy food to refill our refrigerator after bingeing and purging it all. They really worried about me going away to college and almost didn’t let me go, but us being further apart eventually allowed me to come to a different place in getting to know them as people and not just my parents. So now we’re at a much better place. We don’t really talk about me being sick. I think they try in their own ways. It is just so uncomfortable. When I was at the treatment center, my Mom and I talked about it a bit more bluntly.
BB: How are you now?
C: I’m still pretty strict with myself and have high standards. I think it depends on the day, the situation and lots of things. I have more self-compassion than I did then. I try to be aware that if I am talking to myself in a way that I shouldn’t. And I may keep that same self-talk, but I’m aware that it’s not helpful. Something that I found is helpful is putting up a little picture of myself at seven, by the door, reminding me of a time before I was sick. I wouldn’t talk to this lovely little person like that so why do I talk to myself like that now?
Working with kids now and seeing how young I was when all this started— I would never hold them to the standard I was holding myself.
BB: It must be quite healing working with kids in that level?
C: Yeah. Particularly in my last job when I worked exclusively with teenage girls. I was working at a residential place, so the kiddos live there. At any given time, we had at least three or four girls in our room who struggled with eating. I was definitely on some level working some stuff out and realizing the truth about what people had told me—you need food, don’t be so hard on yourself, you are enough just as you are. I believed it when I told the girls, and, in a way, I started to believe it more for myself, too.
BB: What was your eating like when you were working with teenage girls?
C: The last year I was there I had to leave twice to go to a higher level of care due to the eating disorder. The first was for a partial hospitalization program—I was gone three months— the second was for a residential experience, I moved out of state to do the program for two months. After I left that time, I didn’t go back to work. That was really hard. One would have to ask the girls if they picked up on me being sick. I want to hope they didn’t. It makes me sad and angry and ashamed now that I think about that. Even then I couldn’t put the eating disorder aside, which is part of the reason why I left to go to treatment— I couldn’t do my job being that sick with the girls who were trusting me. It wasn’t fair to them. And my body was physically finally starting to deteriorate after 14 years of abuse. Chest pain, foggy mind, extreme fatigue, dental problems, mental confusion, deep depression, suicidal ideation and a plan. It’s like it just all fell apart at once.
BB: Were you attracted to that work initially to help understand your own stuff?
C: I think on a sub-conscious level that was probably there. My training was with adults, but then this job became an option, and I took it. For most people who are drawn into the helping profession, it seems like there is some of their own stuff in their history that has led them to this work. Either what they have experienced personally or watched someone they love experience.
My day to day is still impacted by my eating disorder and definitely there are times I won’t go to an event because of food, or if going meant I would have to not go to the gym. But there are more instances than I ever believed possible years ago where I am able to say, “Okay, I’ll go” and tolerate the distress that comes with it. I would say it’s pretty much a driving force but not as intense. I am so much better than I was. I am not throwing up three times a day, I’m not running for miles a day, I’m not as medically compromised. I’ve heard it’s possible to never think about food in such a disordered way if I keep working for it, but it’s hard for me to believe that’s a true possibility. My behaviours have improved, but my body image and what goes on in my head is still pretty sick. Which sucks.
BB: You have come a long way though.
C: Yeah, definitely. It’s weird to think that a year ago I was in treatment.
BB: Exactly. You have to be kind to yourself.
C: I guess it’s hard because I am still struggling. It’s hard to realise how much space in my life this has taken up and that I can’t really remember it being different— more than half my life has been this way. It’s hard to think about that. Makes me really sad. And angry. But mostly sad. Just a waste, you know? So much energy, so much damage done. To myself and others.
BB: I find I can’t think about the waste or what happened to my twenties, it gets me nowhere. I have had to let it go. It’s both unmade and made me. After all the work you’ve done with those young teens with body image issues, if you could say something to your 11-year-old self what do you think you would say?
C: God. That makes me so sad to think about. I don’t that anything I could say would have got through to her. Maybe that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe try to use exercise and sports to realise what your body can do and encourage that as opposed to dieting or focusing on numbers or weight. To find out how strong your body can be, what it’s capable of.
There are a lot of issues of worth – am I worthy? Am I attractive? The underlying question is am I worth loving? Am I worthy of love? I think our society is still pretty sexist, homophobic, and racist and so there’s all these ways in which you can be taught that you’re not good enough, that you are not worthy of love, that you are not worthy of anything. And so I think some of those vigorous societal questions get played out in the one area that it feels like you can control: your body. Controlling food is one way you have to rebel.
I do think there was a point where my eating disorder became a rebellion, I would be mad at my parents and in my head I would be like, “Fuck you, I’m not eating dinner,” or “Fuck you guys, I’m going to purge,” even though they didn’t know what was going on in my head. But really, I think of it like an addiction— it can become whatever you want it to be, whatever you need it to be in that moment. So at times it was my punisher, at times I used it to punish others, at times it felt like it kept me safe.
BB: So true. It’s like smoking cigarettes. ‘Screw you Mum I’m having this’ and we ignore who we’re really screwing. Are you able to picture yourself at 40 or can you picture what your relationship with your body might be then?
C: For a very long time I didn’t think I was going to get this far. I was pretty sure one way or another, either by suicide or as a result of my eating disorder, I would be dead by 26, seriously, because I knew I couldn’t live this way forever. So, now, at 28, it’s hard for me to really imagine being 40 and at peace with my body. I’m told it’s possible, I don’t know.
BB: It’s good to start that you will be around!
C: Yeah, that’s a good first step.
BB: It’s a great first step. People who have been through the fire end up with a lot more compassion for others.
C: I think I can definitely tap into that compassion and the ‘not judging’ because I’ve done some really crazy shit to keep this going; stolen and lied and done disgusting things that I never thought I would do. I get how far we can go when we feel desperate.
BB: It will make you amazing in your work.
C: I hope so.
BB: Finally, can you tell me three things you like about your body?
C: My skin for the most part, minus stretch marks and cutting scars. Does that count? People seem to like my smile. My ears; I like my ears, they’re fine. My eyes. One is a little crooked though. Hah! I still clearly have work to do. Thank you for doing this project. I think it’s really important.
BB: Thank you so much for doing this.
Anyone interested in sharing, yakking, having a rant them we want to hear from you. Stories can be anonymous and we really want some guys . Just as it’s not a white girls disease, it’s not a ‘girls’ disease either. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Cassie’s name has been changed.
Want more? FABIK’s favourite video of the week from Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette celebrating Julia Louis-Drefus ‘last fuckable day’.
Image source: Here.