Fingers coated in sticky chocolate goodness and licking the vanilla ice cream from the side of my Eskimo Sandwich, he passed by me and laughingly said, (with a wink and a smile), “Gettin’ a little chubby there Tackett!”. It was 1982 on a hot spring day in Homewood, AL; having come in from band practice out on the field ~ I played the flute. My Director was an awesome guy who could on the one hand, put the fear of God in us so that we would push to be our very best, while on the other hand possessed the unmistakable traits of a “dad”, causing all those under his tutelage to both love and respect him. When he spoke these words to me it was done in that “dad like” way of just having some fun, with no ill intention. There was no way he could have known what happened prior to this moment in my life, leading to an overwhelming sense of lacking personal control over myself or the world around me. Until that day, I can’t remember having ever really thought about my body one way or another…other than the thought of most teenage girls at that age, “I wonder how big they’re going to get”. For whatever reason though, the moment I heard those words, something inside of my mind just clicked. I can recall thinking to myself, “No one will ever say this to me again.” There was a spontaneous resolve that in this one area of my life, “I” could change the outcome.
I’ve always found it utterly bizarre the way certain memories linger with such constant clarity, while so many others just fade away to the outer edges of the mind. For instance, I remember: The first time my heart raced because of a boy; The first time I ever felt guilt; My first bully and the moment I “snapped” and knew I would never again be on the receiving end of one; I remember my first french kiss…as being “SO gross” and my first drink as being…”SO great”; and I remember the day that I began to pursue with all that was in me…the beautiful empty.
Let me back up to the year prior: I was 14 and had begun going out with a guy who was several years older than me and had a car. His father was the principle of another high school and his sister had worked at the church camp I had attended. It was a very innocent time in my life and I was enthralled with this “man of the world” that I was now seeing. Around the 3rd or 4th time we went out, he took me to the apartment of some friends who were having a party in a town about 40 miles from my home. Shortly after arriving he said he wanted to speak privately to me. Taking me by the hand he led me to one of the bedrooms, where he would then sexually assault me. That night…the whole world changed. Filled with fear, shame and self loathing due to the consuming feelings that I should have done something…that “I” should have prevented this from ever happening…I never spoke of it to another sole. Within months I had become obsessed with thoughts of suicide, believing that: No “good boy” would ever want someone like me; that my parents would be shamed by me and that God was probably done with me. Thankfully I was introduced to alcohol, which had proven to be one solution that at least took away my desire to die. However, it did very little to take away the constant feeling that I had no control over my life, as even my drinking was extreme from the beginning.
So in the band room that day and at that exact moment, I had found hope in the resolve that at least ONE area of my life would be under “my” control ~ that being the size of my body. Initially it began with decreasing my consumption of food, while purging everything I ate, (I actually thought I’d come up with something that no one had thought of before), along with an excessive regiment of physical exercise. I began getting results that lead to the attention and envy of some peers. With each pound that dropped off, I felt more and more free. One day however, I saw an after school special about something I’d not heard of before ~ Bulimia. Ultimately the girl in the movie died as a result of her purging. Needless to say, since I’d decided a few months back that I wanted to live, I knew that I better find another means of accomplishing my goal. I liked food very much, but I was determined and so came up with a plan: I began lying in bed every night and essentially brainwashed myself that food was bad and in time I saw relatively little need for it. I did not receive negative feedback from anyone, other than occasional comments of concern and gentle words from my family that I, “didn’t need to lose weight”. The interesting thing was that even at 5’5 and 100 pounds, I was perceived by most people as being disciplined, pretty and in great shape. Everything around me from TV, to magazines, to movies showed that the picture of beauty was “thin”. But in all honesty those things were not my motivators, rather they served more as a reassurance that I was fine. My motivation was found in that I’d discovered my level of peace and calm was directly connected to the feeling of being “empty”.
I don’t recall ever seeing myself as an anorexic and I never heard that word being directed at me until I was hospitalized at 19 for drug addiction, weighing in at 86lb. I can recall getting into a battle of wills with a nurse who wanted me to eat two pieces of fried bacon and told me, “You have to eat to not be anorexic!” – (How could I have not realized such a profound truth like this?) – Needless to say, I won that battle and made a new frenemy with Nurse Ratched. For the next 10 years I continued my love affair with the beautiful empty, finding however, that no matter how much I lost, no matter how small my size…my reflection always showed me where I needed to lose just a little more. I’d managed to maintain what I viewed as a controlled weight – by not gaining or losing more than 5lb. (Not a dangerous weight, but not a healthy one either) A series of traumatic events would occur consecutively over a period of about 18 months, and for the first time, (at 6 years sober), I spiraled out of control, dropping to 92 pounds and finding that for the first time, I actually could not make myself eat. Thankfully my boss saw what was happening and rather than turn a blind eye, would supportively intervene and I would agree to begin therapy.
I had a wonderful therapist who never focused on, (or even talked about for that matter), food. Ultimately he said that, “Not eating was just a symptom of the illness that we will not be focusing on” ~ rather we were “going to get to the root of the problem”. I need to say here, that being an addiction counselor and having been in and out of various institutions for addiction treatment – I was NOT a fan of going to therapy. That being said, therapy group did occasionally have its up side. I would have to say that one of my favorite memories of group therapy was during Lent. A woman in our group, I will just call her Princess, (who irritated most of us with her attempts at perfection), announced with a perfect posture and a proud smile, that she was, “Giving up ALL sugar and breads for Lent” which she took, “Very seriously”. Our therapist then looked up from his note pad, using his right hand to hold the outer edge of his glasses and peering over them at her said, “Really? Well now I’m Jewish, but isn’t Lent about giving up something that is difficult for you? Help me to understand this.”
Well, let me just say that at that moment ol’ Princess looked like she was choking on a persimmon. Before she could come up with an answer he said, “It seems to me that considering you don’t eat sweets or bread, perhaps you would be better served to give up not eating those things and instead “eat them” ~ Right?” Watching Princess’ head spin off during a classic melt down freak out was extraordinarily entertaining. Besides, nobody liked being in the preverbal hot seat, yet it was somewhat domestically pleasurable to watch each other have to do it.
I would remain in therapy for over two years and one day, right in the middle of group, it happened…like a theater curtain was being pulled back, I saw what I believe God revealed to me as the driving force behind my quest for the beautiful empty. Somewhere along the line when I had first begun toying with taking control of my body, another connection had been made on a much deeper and subconscious level that was beyond the issue of physical size. Food had taken on the representation of everything around me that caused pain and with it, the feeling of fullness caused by food, allowed the pain to be in me. While on the other hand, emptiness caused a feeling of safety and freedom that while pain might be around me, and might even affect me…as long as I was empty, it would never be in me. With this revelation I now knew more clearly the areas that needed to be addressed, (primarily rooted in fear), and that I needed to invite God into. Seven years would pass before I would become willing to fully let go, (even within the secret place of my mind), of the illusion that the beautiful empty could somehow be managed successfully and remain a part of my life. With the strength of my God, (gained by applying the actions found in the twelve principles of recovery), the support of my family and friends and the immense love of my husband, ~ the perceived risk of letting go became not only possible, but desired.
That was eleven years ago. In this time I’ve learned that the “glitch” in my mind that always perceives my body in a way that would much resemble the image reflected in some dreaded carnival fun house mirror, doesn’t necessarily fully go away ~ however it does get better! More important is the freedom of now being able to choose the thoughts that I listen to and the path that I take. Today the beautiful empty is just someone I once knew, who turned out to be the kind of friend I would never miss. ~ and the trade off? Peace…a gift more precious than gold.
© 2014 Rebecca Balko