The Kind Coach
Rana Olk is such a warrior. She’s been successful at everything’s she’s put her mind to but getting over bulimia’s been one of her greatest successes. And now she’s going in to bat for others still struggling.
She actually trained as a fitness coach a few years ago but she felt like a fraud – training people to lose weight as she disappeared off to the bathroom to manage her own weight. Rana’s much better coaching women how to be kind to their bodies.
We talked about shame, fear, food, fat, thin, mothers and secrets for over two hours. It wasn’t just Rana’s bulimia story that had me gripped, but her story of growing up torn between two countries. It’s a story full of courage and shock and sadness and ballsiness. Unlike many bulimics I’ve interviewed, Rana didn’t struggle with weight as a child, she was skinny. She was told she had the perfect body. It was food she struggled with and how it made her feel, how it helped squash all those stink teenage feelings she didn’t know how to deal with. Sadly, that’s not something we learn in a nutrition class at school.
And here she is:
Can you tell me about your childhood – being torn between two countries?
My father is Turkish, and my mother is American. They met while my Dad was here to study for a PhD. The first few years of my life are just a blur of shuffling back and forth between Turkey and the US. My mom couldn’t stand being away from home, and my dad wanted to live in Turkey. There was a lot of unhappiness and tension.
My mother eventually left my dad in Turkey, and with my brother and me in tow, came to the US, filed for divorce, and gained legal custody of us. I was about five or six. My dad was unable to leave Turkey at the time. I missed him terribly. What’s worse, I knew he was missing us, and I’d feel bad for him.
How long were you separated from your dad?
Only saw him a total of a couple of weeks until I was 9. Then he moved to the US and battled in court to take us for a summer visit to Turkey. Never before had a court granted a non-custodial parent permission to take children out of the country, and yet, he won. If my dad decided to not bring us back, my mom was fucked. She knew that, but the courts didn’t listen to her.
So in 1981, off we went for a supposed visit to Turkey. We didn’t come back, just as my mom had feared. Of course, there was nothing the courts here could do about it. It was a pretty big deal. It was basically a story of how a judge gave permission for a parental kidnapping. I have newspaper clippings and articles of my mom’s battle to get us back – all for naught.
Your mom must have been devastated – how long was it before she saw you again?
Eight years. From the age of 10 until I was 18 we had an average of 2 or 3 phone calls a year with my mother. And that was it. This was before international calling was just a matter of picking up the phone and dialing, and something like Skype was sci-fi fantasy stuff!
How did you cope with this?
I will say here that there were some unusual circumstances around us not coming back to the US, and I have good reason to believe my dad didn’t really intend for things to work out the way they did, but that’s another story.
That first phone call to my mom, talking to her after she’d been informed that we weren’t coming back was awful. She was crying, and it was unbearable. I was only a kid, and I felt so torn between my parents.
I missed home badly, and wanted my mother, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my dad in Turkey either. Either way, I was going to be sad.
I had no idea that I wouldn’t see my mom again until I was 18. My dad was a very good parent, very devoted to us, but I still ached for my mom and held out hope that she would come and visit. I even dreamed that my parents would reunite. After a couple of years I had to accept the fact that it wasn’t happening.
That must have been horrible. Were you angry with your dad?
It was very painful, of course. The pain and yearning I felt is indescribable, and yet, I became a master at hiding it because I didn’t want my dad to feel bad or guilty.
As for whether I’m angry…That’s a tough one. Most people think I should be. I suppose a part of me is at times, but I have trouble directing it at my parents. It’s more an anger about the situation. The whole situation is just shitty. My mom made a lot of mistakes too. Ultimately, I have empathy for both of them. I can’t say what would have worked out for the best, I just know it hurt, and it still hurts.
Aside from the option of having had parents that loved each other and stayed together – regardless of where that was – none of the alternate scenarios is good.
And how about your relationship with food?
I always loved food. It was a highlight of my life. It was fun, and it made me feel good. My brother and I were both very skinny kids, but while he was always being nagged to eat, I had a great appetite and was praised for it.
The problems started in 8th grade when I was 13. I would come home form school and nobody would be home. I’d make huge bowls of butter drenched popcorn, and shove whatever food and candy I could into my mouth. Then I’d hide the evidence before anyone could find out.I didn’t know why I was doing it but I did struggle with a lot of sadness and anxiety, so I guess it was just a way to feel better.
I was still very thin at the time that I started what I now know was binge eating. I was popular in school and well liked. Was complimented for my looks. I didn’t start gaining weight until I was 14/15, and it was pretty rapid. My family was very image conscious, and started to comment on my weight gain and how much I was eating at meal times. And they didn’t even know the half of it.
Oh the dreaded weight comments. How did you handle those?
Well, I started being called fat. I remember my aunt telling me my thighs were rubbing together too much, and that I would look like a cow if I didn’t watch it. My grandmother would say “you have such a beautiful face and you’re ruining yourself”.
I’d look at pictures of my mother, and she was so thin and gorgeous. All the women in my life were beautiful. So as far as I knew, my dad didn’t like ugly women. He didn’t like fat women. I adored my dad and wanted nothing more than his approval in every way. So I was not supposed to be fat. I was supposed to be skinny like my mom.
There were times when I really felt humiliated and ashamed. I hate looking back on this now because I’d hate for anyone to think I am blaming my family. I can see it was out of genuine concern and frustration on their part. There was cause for concern if you saw how I ate. It was truly unhealthy. But I couldn’t handle it. I took it as failure. It broke me.
Did the criticisms make your eating go underground?
Actually it made me go on diets. And you know, you think, I’ll just suck it up and eat barely enough to stay alive and I will lose the weight and everything will be hunky dory. That’s what you think when you don’t know any better. So I went on a crash diet and I started losing weight and I was fucking miserable.
To my dad’s credit, I remember him saying that if I just ate like a normal person I wouldn’t have to diet. He didn’t like seeing me starve myself either. I didn’t understand that. Eat like a normal person? How? So I would diet, lose weight and then I would gain back the weight and be embarrassed. It was a terrible cycle.
This continued and around the time I was going to come to the United States at age 18, I put a lot of pressure on myself to stick to a diet as I was going to see my mom for the first time in 8 years and I didn’t want her to think I was fat.
And how was seeing your mom after all that time? Did she comment on your weight?
It was pretty surreal and I wish I could give you an answer that is all about the joy of seeing my mom and family. I can’t. I don’t remember those emotions that well. What I do remember is that I was walking out of the jetway and there were news cameras, flashes, balloons, a huge crowd, and lots of tears and hugs… And then all I can remember thinking was “everyone is so huge!”. Outside of my family, I couldn’t believe how big everyone seemed at the airport.
It really was a culture shock for me. Women in Turkey were much thinner. I mean, there was no fast or processed food, and meal times were pretty structured. When I told my mom I was trying to lose weight she said, “Why? You have such a perfect figure.”
Did you believe your mom about having the perfect figure?
Well, no, but I did let go of the diets for a while. All of a sudden I had access to all these things I had been craving for years. Sugared cereal, candy bars, and donuts. I couldn’t resist them, and I didn’t know the meaning of moderation. It was all or nothing. So I indulged but then I fell into this restriction/ binge cycle. If I had donuts, I had to try to not eat the next day. I was still trapped.
Even though I didn’t gain a lot of weight and didn’t feel as “fat” here as I had in Turkey, there were other things that affected me. I had gone from being so popular and all of a sudden I was in this foreign place. Nobody asked me out, I didn’t have any high school friends or boyfriends. So I threw myself into studying and school work and being with my family but I felt very uncomfortable in my skin. Then of course I discovered Jane Fonda and aerobics.
Did you know Jane Fonda was bulimic?
Yeah. Every now and then a celebrity will mention having “had” an eating disorder in passing, and if you notice, it’s always in the past tense. No one ever admits to struggling. No one ever says “I throw up, and I can’t stop”. It’s glossed over, and they don’t talk about how miserable and disgusting it is, or how truly ill they were, even while discussing it in the past tense. We already love them, we’re happy for them that it’s in the past, and then sweep it under the rug. I bet there are plenty of celebrities who are very much in the grips of binge eating, bulimia, or disordered eating, and miserable about it as we speak.
Amy Winehouse was certainly miserable and hers wasn’t talked about either. Do you think there’s a lot of sweeping under rugs?
I think more women are dying of bulimia than we know because it’s not as likely that bulimia will get written on a death certificate. It’s a heart complication, or a suicide, or some other such seemingly unrelated thing, and doctors don’t know about it.
A young woman I knew died last year of cardiac arrest and she was bulimic. Her husband knew. I knew, and her pastor knew. Her husband would talk to me, try to understand bulimia, and ask me to help her. I wanted to, but she didn’t want the help. I reached out so many times. Then it happened- she just didn’t wake up one morning. Her parents didn’t know. It was so heartbreaking. The statistics are wrong. They are so unreliable.
I am convinced that the majority of bulimia sufferers are never ever found out. They live and die with their secret.
When did yours start?
After yo-yoing between restriction and binge eating that was getting progressively worse for years, there was a day when I went off the deep end after a particularly brutal restrictive period.
I wanted an Oreo. Before I knew it, the entire box was gone. I ate everything in sight on top of it. I couldn’t stop shoving food into my mouth and it didn’t stop for a month.
It was shortly after that day, after another binge, that I was so full I unintentionally threw up. I remember thinking if only I could throw up every time I ate like this. It was such a relief. There were several unintentional purges after that. I couldn’t stop eating until I was sick. I got so stuck.
I was 24-years-old when I made the conscious decision to start making myself throw up on purpose. I truly did think that I was going to throw up only until I lost the weight. I had no idea that it would become my main preoccupation.
How long did bulimia boss you around for?
I was throwing up every day of my life at least once, if not two or three times a day, from the age of 24 until I was 39. There were very few exceptions, and only a couple of periods where I wasn’t. A couple of times when I thought I was free, and turned out to be wrong.
Did your husband know?
My husband and I have been together for 13 years. He didn’t know for the first 7-8 years that we were together.
What made you tell him?
Quite frankly, I was afraid I was going to die. I had been making efforts at recovery and trying to get online when he wasn’t around, trying to do self-help stuff. I went to counselling but he didn’t know it was for my bulimia. I did so many things and they weren’t working. I finally realised I couldn’t keep hiding. I got tired of lying. I already felt horrible. Knowing I was lying and keeping secrets just made me feel worse.
Throwing up in the bathroom every night, there was a part of me that would think how could he not know – he must know- therefore he must know I’m lying to him. Our relationship was suffering, which I blamed on my miserable state of being. I knew I had to fess up and it was very scary.
And how did he respond?
He was shocked. Turns out he really had no clue. He had no reason to doubt me, which made me feel even worse about having lied to him for years. To be honest, it’s a bit of a blur. I do recall him being a little upset at first, and confused. This woman he’s lived with for years is revealing she’s had this whole other secret life. I think things were starting to make sense to him. Why I exploded on him for ridiculous reasons. He was starting to connect the dots. I think he was surprised that I hadn’t trusted him.
Was he supportive?
Amazingly so. Far more than I expected. I think a lot of us think we won’t get support from our loved ones. But that’s just from our own thinking that we don’t deserve support. We also fear that they won’t understand. The truth is, they probably won’t understand it entirely. We don’t understand it ourselves, so to expect them to, is unrealistic. But we can still allow our loved ones to be supportive.
Until I overcame the fear and told him, I would have never believed what a burden shame can be. It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Regardless of what his reaction may have been, I think just telling him made me feel so much better about myself and opened up more space for me to begin some real recovery work.
How are you now?
I’ve been on the recovery train for years, and I’m happier than I imagined I could be. It’s a process. Bulimia isn’t something that can be fixed in x number of weeks or months. It’s different for everyone, and it doesn’t have a defined “end” point, which is why I don’t like using the word “recovered”. I finally learned that I could start living my life, and not wait to cross some ill-defined finish line. I had a purpose, and I was going to go after it. And wouldn’t you know, that’s when I made some of the greatest strides in recovery.
Did therapy help?
I had been through psychiatrists, spiritual programs, and more therapists than I could count. I knew particular diets and nutrition plans didn’t work. And therapy just didn’t help me make any headway with the urges. Every therapist seemed to insist that I still hadn’t processed all my feelings about my past, and that until I did that, or learned to love myself, I wouldn’t be healed. The expectation was that at some point, I’d “purge” all my pain, and the urges would go away. I finally began to question that.
I started studying the brain, neuro-plasticity, and habits, and realised what was going on with me. It was a huge revelation to feel like my bulimia was just a terrible habit that had been wired into my brain, and that I could change by learning new ways of thinking and training my brain. It didn’t matter if my past still troubled me or made me sad from time to time. I went through something called DBT, which got the ball rolling for me. Then when I started studying and learning about coaching skills, miracles started happening. It’s crazy.
It’s so true that recovery is a process, not a finish line. Do you still get urges?
Oh yeah, I get urges sometimes, but not often, and they don’t feel so compelling. Rather than an urge, in fact, I’d describe them more as a desire, or want. Sometimes I can even laugh about them. I no longer feel defined by them, or out of control, or powerless. I don’t have to give in. It’s really just a whole different state of mind, this recovery thing.
What was your biggest revelation?
That I wasn’t broken. That I didn’t have an untreatable disease. That recovery and freedom are possible. That hiding keeps us sicker, and that it’s possible to get a lot of enjoyment out of life before you reach this nebulous high bar we set for ourselves called “recovered”. You just hop on the journey and see what happens.
I also think that waiting to be completely at peace with your past, or expecting it to be the solution to those urges, can be an impediment to recovery.
No one is perfect, and everyone has baggage. You’re going to have sad days, anxious days, downright awful days, but that’s life. Recovery is about acquiring the skills to deal with them.
There is no getting around the work you need to do to acquire the skills of dealing with the sucky parts of life. You have to develop new habits, and understand how your brain does that. Sadly, many of us have never learned those skills.
Just like any other skill, you practice. The more you practice the better you get. Toddlers don’t decide that they’ve failed at walking and quit trying when they fall. We can’t give up and decide we’ve failed because we slip.
When you begin to appreciate your life, take responsibility for everything in it, and think about your challenges differently, recovery becomes possible. You just have to learn how to do it.
And now you help others through recovery?
I love my life now. I had known for years that I when I was well, I would speak up about bulimia in some way or another, and try to empower other women. So that’s exactly what I’m doing now.
I went and got certified, and coaching is my full time gig, and what I live for. I live for this mission and the purpose of reaching women in hiding.
Can you tell me three things you like about your appearance?
Haha… sure. I am beginning to like my shoulders. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a deltoid. It’s just a nice shaped muscle, I think. I like my legs, which is funny because they used to be the main focus of my body hate. Now I just love that they feel strong.
Then there’s my eyebrows. People ask me all the time where I have them done. The truth is, I’ve had them waxed about 5 times in my entire life. I don’t do them.
What would you tell your younger self if you could go back and whisper something in her ear?
If only we knew then what we know now, right? LOL. I could say a million things that wouldn’t have made sense to her then. Like follow your heart, dream big, do what you want to do and don’t worry about what others think and all that. She wouldn’t have listened.
What I think she most needed to hear at the time, is this : “ Even though this sucks now, this is all going to turn out okay. You’re more blessed than you think, stronger than you think, you are capable of making good decisions, and you ARE going to end up happy”. If I had only believed these things, I would have acted differently, and been happy sooner.
Thank you so much Rana.
Want more? The Huffington Post published a story about the perfect man body in 19 different countries and how pressure to look a certain way is screwing guys up too. Sigh. If anyone knows any men who want to share their story then please share this post or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And have you seen this incredible video by Amy Pence-Brown? She stood blindfolded in a busy market in a bikini with this sign: