National Eating Disorders Awareness Week ends Sunday. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, "30 million Americans will struggle with a full-blown eating disorder." The range of eating disorders includes anorexia, binge-eating disorder and bulimia.
Mirror-mirror.org estimates that 4.7 million women and 1.5 million men suffer from bulimia, which is marked by compulsive bingeing followed by "compensatory behavior," or purging, that can range from self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives or diet pills to excessive exercise.
For 46 years, Tampa author-blogger Iris Ruth Pastor scooped ice cream and gulped chocolate cake anytime she felt like it. Why not, with a such a clever solution for eating to her heartís content: Just slip away to vomit. Ice cream especially, she recalls, "simply because it was so easy to throw up. Like a tsunami, it carried along whatever was in its path."
Bingeing and purging made so much sense that she continued for decades, starting as a sophomore at the University of Florida in 1966 until finally seeking professional help six years ago.
Her family had no idea she had an eating disorder, writes Pastor, 70, in her memoir, The Secret Life of a Weight-Obsessed Woman. Nor did a doctor or dentist ever suspect she was bulimic, despite a constant sore throat and aching chest from corrosive stomach juices being discharged from her body night after night.
She tried to stop innumerable times, but the disease commanded her like an abusive lover "who might erupt at any time, often without warning," she writes. She calls herself a battered woman in a sick relationship until successful outpatient therapy ended the love affair on Feb. 14, 2012. Even then, the spurned boyfriend continued to beckon.
Open and honest about every other facet of her life, Pastor believed bulimia was her burden to bear alone. Decades passed before the former Huffington Post blogger, weekly newspaper columnist and radio show host ever alluded to bulimia.
"It outlived its usefulness," she told the Tampa Bay Times, eager to be finally speaking up to help others on the road to recovery.
Bulimics are not connected to their emotions. When they feel anything they stuff themselves with food and throw it up. It didnít make me feel loved ó it made me feel awful ó but "Ed" was a coping mechanism.
I wasnít even aware there was a word for it when I started. I was at a sorority house at UF and I thought I had discovered something magical. I could eat all the foods I hungered for and not get fat.
Outside I was serene and confident and inside a mess. There was no synchronicity. Some binge and purge hourly, mine wasnít daily, but very regularly until I outgrew the reasons I was doing the behaviors.
Do you regret hiding your bulimia? How did you keep it secret for 46 years?
I only did it at night after my husband went to bed, not at work or at parties. Just at the end of the day for a reward, like someone would have a glass of wine or watch TV.
My first husband caught me once and I was terrified my husband Steve would ask me to stop so I totally blocked him out. This was my battle, I pushed him away and he complied. I firmly believed I couldnít beat it and I couldnít bear the thought of losing him. My fear was that I would end up in a pool of vomit without my husband. It really corrodes personal relationships.
Why do you recommend the Weight Watchers program?
A bulimic pays attention to emotional, not physical, hunger. We donít respond to "Oh, Iím lightheaded" or "My stomachís growling." We respond to "I am feeling lonely" or "Iím overwhelmed."
Weight Watchers taught me common sense and helped me identify when I was hungry. It focuses on lifestyle and portion control, which I still find challenging. I donít have the kicker in my brain that says, "Iris, youíre full."
You write about embracing intuitive eating. What does that mean?
Itís being in tune with your physical hunger and itís very tricky. Itís a nonscarcity mentality that is not natural for people with disordered eating patterns. Itís listening to hunger signals and not being in a state of denial. Itís a very nuanced and difficult concept. It has taken me years, while some people do it naturally. Itís like telling someone who canít spell to write a book.
What finally worked? How did you stop purging?
I was just ready. Psychiatrists didnít think outpatient therapy would work for me but I had to address it within my own routine. I wanted to be at home at night where the triggers were.
Fairwinds Treatment Center in Clearwater treats all kinds of eating disorders. I went three days a week for three months ... nutrition class, art therapy, group and individual therapy to figure out how to manage feelings ó anger, tired, lonely ó before you get swept away and binge.
You estimate you literally purged $170,000 worth of food. What are some of the things you realized you could have done with all that time and money?
I could have made a down payment on a house, paid for two years of law school or started my own business. I could have had a weekly massage for 44 years. What a waste of resources, literally flushed down the toilet. The change came when I decided that I was worth taking care of.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.