At 16, I probably appeared to my peers as if I were ready to take on the world. In the five years since my family had relocated in 1980 from Arlington, Va., to Lexington, Ky., I had gone from being an awkward, insecure sixth grader with remnants of a bowl cut, to a reasonably popular high school sophomore. I had oodles of friends and annoyed my siblings by monopolizing our phone line. I was very involved in school, primarily through student government and sports. Throughout it all, I held onto a dark reality that I never shared with anyone until many years later.
In the summer of 1985, I traveled to Pittsburgh to represent my school at the National Association of Student Council’s Annual Conference. On an afternoon free of programming, I wandered downtown Pittsburgh with a group of newfound friends from around the United States. We rounded a corner and found ourselves face-to-face with Mr. Rogers. No entourage, and dressed as if he’d come from his studio, or maybe that’s just what Mr. Rogers wore to buy groceries. He was welcoming and engaging, seeming not to mind the barrage of requests for photographs from this group of a dozen excited teenagers standing before him who had grown up watching his show.
I was recently reunited with my photo of me with Mr. Rogers all those years ago. The photo is faded from the decades it spent sitting under a magnet on my parents’ refrigerator, but Fred Rogers is easily identifiable. His broad smile and easy familiarity were his trademarks. Me, not as recognizable. I can’t blame my hairstyle; my hair’s color and propensity to curl in humidity are largely unchanged in the 35 years since the photo was taken. It is my face that I find harder to recognize, and not for the reasons you might suspect.
That summer, I projected confidence while privately I was struggling with bulimia, an eating disorder that even today I am ashamed to admit I had. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, “Eating disorders are illnesses of denial and secrecy.” Difficult to identify by loved ones, particularly in the mid-1980s when anorexia was first being talked about, most people had never heard of bulimia.
Over the years, I have read a lot about bulimia, its causes, risks, and treatments. It can be hard to identify, as the afflicted often maintains normal weight, but puffiness in the face is a sign, and the one that I could see staring back at me from my photo with Mr. Rogers.
If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.Fred Rogers
As a young child, adults described me as “skin and bones.” Running around the neighborhood with friends back in Arlington, food burned off as quickly as I consumed it. Then came our move to Kentucky and my struggle to ingratiate myself into a very different social environment. Within a few years, my love of Ho-Hos and fudge caught up with me. This, within a community that prized physical beauty and a petite frame for females, created a reality I could not abide. I don’t recall making a conscious decision to binge and purge, it just happened.
Ironically, as I started fitting in more at school, my challenges at home increased. The move to Kentucky was not an easy one for my Bostonian mother either, her primary focus becoming her five children’s exodus out of Kentucky and into the best possible colleges. My extra-curricular choices did not always align with what she felt would advance me toward her goal. By my sophomore year of high school, I had opted for cross country over band. My extroversion found a home in Student Council, and not long after in Junior Achievement, a student business organization my parents could not grasp the value of.
The Boston Children’s Hospital website goes on to share that, “Often teens with bulimia come from families with high levels of stress, poor patterns of communication, unrealistically high expectations and underdeveloped problem-solving skills.” Make no mistake, my family life was nothing extraordinary, and our inability to productively process conflict was not unique. But my mother’s strict Catholic upbringing, coupled with my father’s stoicism, was not a good mix for a middle child who pushed boundaries and did not always match their standards of success.
My eating disorder was a means of escape and control. As I look back on my adolescence, I recognize two characteristics that likely contributed to my finding solace in food. The first was my need for love and approval. As a young child, life at home was harmonious. Apparently, I was the perfect toddler as I rarely made a fuss, observing goings-on with my large hazel eyes and letting my big sisters do much of the talking for me. I came into my own in elementary school. Yet, I was still a “good kid” with many nice friends, a talent for piano and excellent test scores.
In retrospect, our early years in Kentucky were more painful than anyone in my family cared to admit. My mom’s social life and interests were upended. Outlets that helped define her and provide a much-needed escape from five children disappeared. She was still busy, but nearly all her activities seemed to center on curating the lives of us kids. For my part, I left behind a nucleus of close friends and supportive teachers whose attention and affection made up for emotionally distant parents.
I later learned that using food as an escape was only one contributor to my eating disorder. The second was anxiety, a disorder that began to manifest in middle school when I’d obsess with interactions big and small and ruminate on my performance on the soccer field or in a club meeting at the expense of sleep. And there was my mother’s anxiety that was obvious yet ignored. Chalked up to the stress of having five kids in nine years, much easier than admitting to an underlying health condition that is often regarded as a character flaw.
By my late teens, I was starting to be characterized as the “black sheep” of my family. I became a cautionary tale to my younger siblings; eschewing certain extracurriculars and having too many fun-loving friends in high school meant no Ivy League education. As the middle of five, and the third girl before the long-awaited boy, I vacillated between being invisible and getting scolded for my messy room, rushed homework and obsession with friends.
However, I managed to survive and, in many ways, thrive in high school, paving the way for college and graduate degrees from highly competitive schools. My educational journey landed me in Chicago, my home now for the past 26 years. My last brush with bulimia was in my early 20s, but I would be lying if I said that my struggle with body image has been completely resolved. I exercise religiously, and during times of acute stress, I have been known to eat mindlessly or skip meals, something I’ve been very attuned to during the 2020 pandemic.
The early days of the pandemic forced us all to slow down. With many obligations on hold, I had far more time to reflect and process. The alarming statistics released by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in 2020 prompted me to share my own story. NEDA reported that helpline calls increased by 94% from March to September 2020 compared to the prior year. When I read Claire Mysko, NEDA CEO’s quote, “We know eating disorders thrive in isolation,” I knew I had to find ways to connect with friends and loved ones despite prolonged social distancing. Over time, I’ve learned it’s the quality, not the quantity, of relationships that matter. In time, I’ve stopped missing the harried social engagements or office water cooler talk, taking solace instead in long phone conversations with some friends and masked outdoor walks with others.
As the pandemic raged on, incidences of eating disorders continued to increase, as Boston’s WBUR reported that, “Leaders of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) say social distancing has created the perfect breeding ground for compulsive behaviors around food.” But awareness can be the first step towards change. Shining a light on an affliction that prefers to be live in the shadows may lead to more resources and better support. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”
As I work to build stronger relationships at work and in my personal life, I try to recognize the importance of understanding what role I am playing. Rather than obsessing over extrinsic measures of success, I now focus on healthy, reciprocal relationships. I strive to better communicate and advocate for my needs. Frustration is replaced with empathy for those whose own lack of experience with demonstrative, unconditional love limits the way they express love for others.
As I look at the teenage girl in the picture with Mr. Rogers, I wonder whether he could see the struggle in her swollen face. Or did he see only the brave mask she showed others? If she had been alone that day, might he have pulled her aside and asked how she was really doing? I like to think he would have. And I like to think that I, now armed with more knowledge, may do the same for others, providing the type of friendship for people around me that Mr. Rogers would be proud of.