She didn't speak of her shameful secret.
The one Joy Tapper hid after her mother began calling her fat and feeding her canned salmon and lettuce for lunch each day. The one that started when she was 15, the day her mother told her about a woman who ate as much as she wanted — and then made herself sick.
"Bingo," Tapper thought.
Bulimia would follow her as she raised four children, through relationships, careers and even therapy. Whenever she was stressed, bulimia was there, hovering over chocolate cake, ice cream, wine, diet soda, potato chips, fast food.
"It made no sense," she said. "It was an escape, an addiction."
Now 70, Tapper says she has finally found something to ease bulimia's grip: yoga.
The temptation to binge subsides as she gains an awareness of her body and quiets her mind through the poses.
She wishes she had tried this sooner.
"Why," said Tapper, "should anyone suffer for 55 years?"
• • •
It started just six months ago, when Tapper was bored, and one of her daughters suggested she take a yoga class.
People with eating disorders often suppress their natural body sensations such as hunger or satiety, said Dr. Pauline Powers, director of Hope House and the University of South Florida's center for eating disorders.
Yoga teaches a certain awareness or mindfulness, Powers said. She says anything that encourages mindfulness is helpful.
Others also see a connection between eating disorders and yoga. A study published in November 2009 in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that yoga helped participants with eating disorders have less obsessive thoughts about food, with long-term results. One participant told researchers: "This is the only hour in my week when I don't think about my weight."
Tapper said yoga was exactly what she needed. She describes her disorder as mindless, hard-core eating followed by "violent throwing up."
Through her teens, Tapper would vomit out her bedroom window, so no one would hear her in the family bathroom. As an adult, she made late-night trips to pick up fast food. She took laxatives. She replaced the veneers on her teeth twice, after repeated vomiting destroyed the enamel.
"It's a drug unlike most others," Tapper said. People can avoid alcohol or drugs, she said. "But you have to eat."
Eating disorders typically start in those under age 20, but sometimes they go untreated for a lifetime. An estimated 6 percent of those afflicted die from eating disorders, the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The disorders have reached epidemic levels, according to Hope House literature.
"They are everywhere," Powers said. "So many people don't seek treatment."
By 70, Tapper had accepted that it was just a part of her.
Like many others with eating disorders, she was an over-achiever. As a young girl, she made A's in school but learned that looks were more important. She strived to look immaculate to get a man.
At age 40, she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Akron, she said. She opened a high-end shoe store in South Tampa. She worked as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch. She raised her children, including daughter Janet Zink, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
But life brought its stresses, including three divorces.
Then she took her first yoga class.
She became more attuned to her body, as yoga interrupted her obsessive thoughts and brought a sense of peace.
Powers said recent research has found a higher instance of people with eating disorders in yoga classes, a sign that some may be using yoga techniques as treatment.
Tapper's first yoga teacher, Megan Weathers, also battled eating issues before starting a daily yoga routine.
"I lived in constant fear of eating too much and the shame and guilt that came with it," said Weathers, 44.
Weathers calls yoga "working in," rather than working out.
"We close our eyes, and we remove ourselves from the battlefield of recovery," she said.
Tapper attended a series of personal development workshops by Landmark Education that helped change her thinking patterns and charged her with creating a leadership project. Tapper organized A Day of Hope, an event slated for this Sunday to raise awareness of eating disorders and how yoga may help. Teachers from local studios will teach yoga techniques. Ultimately, she hopes to start a free weekly yoga class at USF's Hope House.
She has learned to remove herself from triggering situations, such as holiday meals with large spreads of food, and is turning her secret into something positive that could help others.
As a child of 10 she remembers waking up with a feeling of terror she describes as a panic attack. She remembers an overwhelming desire to make it big, and a fear that she never would.
She would step up to the line many times during her life, Tapper said. Now, finally, she feels like she's stepping into her greatness.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.