The Stigma Smashing Speaker
Lee Thomas is not just a stigma smasher, she’s a shit kicking stigma smasher. She talks to teens about bulimia, bipolar and ADHD, and how she struggled silently for many years in her teens before finally seeking help.
At university, Lee founded a #MyDefinition movement, representing the variety of faces of mental illness on campus: mydefinition.ca. Now a UNB graduate with a degree in Political Science and English, she works as a mental health speaker and consultant. She’s fucking awesome.
When Lee was younger no one talked about mental illness. And now she admits, she won’t shut up about it. We’re really pleased about that. We need more people not shutting up about eating disorders and mental illness.
Here she is, or you can check her out on her site.
What was your relationship with your body and food like as a kid?
I’ve always had a weird relationship with my body, like I’ve always been acutely aware that it didn’t look or act the way I wanted it to look and act. But that didn’t translate into a weird relationship with food until I was about 12, when I went on my first diet. Before then I had a relatively normal relationship – I loved food of all sorts, and ate plenty of it, and my parents made sure that I had a good balance of macronutrients. I was a fairly active kid, my family skied a lot and I was involved in highland dance until I became really committed to wrestling and that became my main priority.
What was your view of your self?
That’s a tough question haha. I think I was always a pretty confident-seeming kid, but that wasn’t really intentional – I just didn’t know how else to live life other than to be loud and say exactly what was on my mind.
What triggered your bulimia?
I became bulimic by restricting first. I was actually restricting for wrestling; it was my first weigh-in and I was terrified that I would be over the weight limit, so I decided to go on a diet and cut out all sweet things. I remember people commenting on how much self-control I had, but it seemed really easy at first, because I was seeing results. I felt powerful, being able to manipulate my body to my will. Then as I became a teenager and was more focused on how I looked, the dieting stopped being about wrestling and started being about being smaller – I had gained some weight in puberty, which I was acutely aware of because of the wrestling, so I restricted even more. In about eighth grade I started alternating between bingeing and restricting, and then one time I binged so much that I just had this little lightbulb moment, what if I threw it up? So I tried, and it was messy and awful, but I felt like I’d found a way to hack the system. So I kept doing it. This was a way to – pardon the expression – have my cake and eat it too, to have the food I loved while not having it “count” against me.
What was your lowest point?
First year university. It’s such a stereotypical story, but I got much more sick in university – I took my newfound independence and dedicated myself solely to my eating disorder. I was exercising a lot more, because I was on the varsity wrestling team, and I binged and purged almost every meal that year. My whole life was numbers – how much did I weigh today, how many calories did I eat today, how many times did I purge today, how many times did I self harm, how long can I keep going on with this.
Did you consider yourself to be disordered at the time?
By the time first year rolled around I knew that I had an eating disorder, but I didn’t feel like I’d “earned” that title because I was still pretty chubby – even in the worst depths of my eating disorder my BMI never dropped below “normal,” and so I didn’t feel like I was ill enough to deserve help.
Wow, that’s messed up, isn’t it? How we only view eating disorders as real if somebody looks close to death. How did you view yourself when you were bulimic?
I remember writing in my journal (I journaled voraciously in high school and university) that I was just a vessel. Like my whole purpose in life was to take food into my body and funnel it back out. I was very good at segmenting my life – I kept my ‘eating disorder self’ separate from my ‘student journalist self’ separate from my ‘residence leader self’ etc. But I felt like my eating disorder self was who I really was, and everything else was an act. I had horrible self-esteem, which was part of why I got involved in so many things even though I was exhausted – I needed that external validation to feel like I was anything at all.
That’s the awful thing about shame, we go to great lengths to cover up our secrets. What made you change?
I really “wanted” with my eating disorder brain, to get to a point where I was forced to stop by other people, because I didn’t think I had the power to stop on my own. But in the summer of 2012 I realized that no one was going to save me, and I had to save myself. I made an appointment with counselling services on my university campus – still by far the scariest thing I’ve ever done – and told them I had an eating disorder. Fortunately they said they could help me, and I began slowly to recover.
What’s the best advice you got in recovery?
“Feelings aren’t facts.” I think that’s something my first counsellor told me, and it changed my life, because I’d never thought of feelings as something separate from facts. I thought that because I felt like a bad person, it meant I was a bad person, and learning that that wasn’t necessarily true changed everything for me.
How do you see yourself now?
That’s a tough question too haha. I make a living by going to schools and talking about my mental illnesses, so it’s really easy to make “mentally ill” my whole identity, and I don’t want that. I try very hard to build a self outside of my experiences, but I’m still kind of in the middle of that process – learning what I actually like, rather than what my experiences have told me is a “good thing” to like, you know? And learning who I am without the identity given to me by my mental health issues. Learning to be more than someone with an eating disorder, but also learning to be more than someone recovering from an eating disorder. It’s baby steps.
That’s the thing with bulimia – it’s consuming but we still have a life around it. It’s not all that we are. What’s your relationship with food like now?
I’d say it’s pretty normal, or maybe even a bit better than average. I eat the food I want to eat, no exceptions. I don’t associate moral values to food any more; I’m not more virtuous for eating a salad or a worse person for eating ice cream. I’m much more in tune with my body’s needs now; I don’t schedule meals or weigh food, I just eat when I’m hungry, exactly as much as I want.
And with your body?
With intuitive eating, I remember having this fear that my body would balloon out and I would just never stop eating. That didn’t happen; my body eventually regulated itself, it eventually stopped being hungry, it eventually stopped focusing on food every second of the day.
I still have things I don’t like about my body. Sometimes I wish I were taller, or thinner, or more androgynous-looking. But I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with things like shopping for clothes, wearing shirts that touch my stomach, that sort of thing. It’s definitely a process, but when I get frustrated with not loving everything about myself I look back to where I used to be, and I realize I’ve come really far from the constant loathing I used to feel.
Now I’m in a state of what I would call “passive recovery”. I don’t actively focus on eating disorder recovery, but every once in awhile I check in with myself to make sure things are still going well, and I still get massively triggered sometimes and need to take a day or two to recuperate. I’m a big believer in total recovery, and I’m not at that point yet, but I mean I lived with my eating disorder for six years – it’s going to take some time to unlearn that disordered thinking.
What’s your greatest fear?
For a long time my greatest fear was failure, and it’s weird to me that it’s not that any more – I didn’t really realize that had changed until you asked this question haha. Right now my greatest fear is getting too sick to do the things I love – in addition to my eating disorder I have ADHD, bipolar disorder, trichotillomania, and social anxiety. And the anxiety and bipolar disorder, especially, I worry about getting too sick to keep talking in front of people, to keep travelling, to keep doing the things I love to do.
Crikey that’s a lot for one person. Any thoughts on love?
I’ve learned not to discount the importance of relationships, relationships of all sorts. I think when it comes to mental health we like to medicalize it, make it about medications and therapies – and those are important, they really are. But the love of family members and friends and romantic partners can also have a huge impact on people’s recovery and wellness.
Shame is toxic. It keeps people silent, it keeps people from reaching out, it keeps people from advocating for themselves, from seeking the things that will actually make them well because it makes them feel like they don’t deserve it.
Did bulimia teach you anything useful?
That sometimes you need to save yourself.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?
Is it too big to say that I would eliminate social injustices? That might be a bit much, but it’s true. Forces like classism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and stigma ruin people’s lives and make living an authentic life very difficult for a lot of people. And I think that that lack of authenticity leads to a lot of problems.
What’s your superpower?
My story. Which is my vulnerability and my superpower!
And your motto?
There’s a quote I love by a writer named Wesley King, “I cannot un-know the monsters. But I can become the person who would have saved 13-year-old me.” I try to be that person.
Thank you so much for taking the time. You’re a total FABIK.
Want more? Did you see this great What’s Underneath clip with Shannon Clagett? Shannon opens up about her struggles with a lost childhood, physical abuse, emotional neglect, life-threatening drug use, and bulimia. She’s fucking amazing too.