Bulimia Sankofa Mama Healing

I’m down in Amherst with Aviva and Pearl for the weekend. Greg’s having some time with himself. Usually, our visits here are jam-packed, two or three days of cousins and activity. But this time, the cousins are out of town, and we’ve had my parents all to ourselves. It has been sweet, a girl party with Papa (my dad) balancing things out.

Today I read Frank Bruni’s article, “I Was a Baby Bulimic,” in the New York Times Magazine. I started reading over coffee this morning, while the girls baked chocolate chip cookies with my mom. Then I went for a run through the peaceful neighborhoods I still fantasize of as home, and afterwards kept reading while Aviva and Pearl splashed and swam around the little wading pool down the street from my parents’ house, which we moved into a month before I turned eleven. I folded up the magazine and shoved it in a canvas bag next to the girls’ wet towels and bathing suits. We all walked to town to get slices of pizza at Antonio’s. Then we came back here, stripped down to our skivvies, and got in bed, where I slept a little with Pearlie before reading the remainder of Bruni’s description of how he discovered (and eventually abandoned) bulimia.

Reading this piece over the course of a slow, sunny summer Sunday gave me a chance to take it in, more like savoring something and less like, well, binge eating. I’m also finding myself reflective of the fact that the hours it took me to read his story were filled with a steady series of moments, activities, connections that revolved in some way around food, eating, bodies. Enoying them, running and swimming, getting hot and cooling off, refueling, tasting yummy things, snuggling, resting. In bodies. Embodied. Food and bodies are the most basic elements of our existence. Simultaneously central and peripheral.

It has been otherwise, for me at least.

I am not a stranger to bulimia; in high school and into my pained first year of college, I became, like Bruni, “expert at it.” I nodded as I read his description of the logistics and strategizing required to be a “successful” bulimic. I remember anticipating binges, planning them even. Knew the circumstances required to accomplish my goal – sufficient privacy, time. In fact, it was getting “caught” by his two best friends that led Bruni to stop binging and purging. He didn’t want to be known as bulimic.

I too learned how to hide, how to lie. I learned how to live two lives: one where I was adept, a successful student, accomplished even – I was fluent in Spanish and Russian at sixteen – and one where I was plagued. But it was a plague I chose. An offset to who I was seen as in the world. In a distorted kind a way, a relief. When I binged at night, after everyone else had gone up – by then it was just me living at home with my parents – I got to be one with the food I denied myself the rest of the day. I would move stealthily between the kitchen and the TV room, almost in a state of denial, as if I was just having a nice little nighttime snack, finally letting go of the control that defined my day.

But then I would turn a corner, pass the point of no return, and finish it off by eating to the point of feeling awful, knowing the inevitable had to happen. I would walk quietly, almost remorsefully, to the downstairs bathroom just off the kitchen, and do just what Bruni describes: wet my index and middle fingers, then stick them down my throat. The resulting process was almost rhythmic in a way, predictable, horrible, and also relieving. Then it would be over, and I would look in the mirror, shaking a little, washing my hands, rinsing out my mouth with cold water, my watery eyes bloodshot. I’d go out of the porch and smoke a Marlboro, then go up to bed. Quiet now. The storm passed. The building, the crescendo, the quieting.

This went on for a couple of years, escalating my senior year of high school and the summer after I graduated, when I spent a month at Oxford, throwing up every night into a little sink in my dorm room. I wince just thinking about it. I knew where the department store scales were, tasted Indian food for the first time, shared my secret with one other girl, a UMass student whose name I’ve forgotten but who understood my obsession perfectly. I was seventeen. I weighed about twenty-five pounds less than I do now when I returned home, to my parents’ shock.

In August, I went off to Scripps College, a big mix-up in and of itself, another story. But life happens as it has to, and while things got worse before they got better that year, I drove to Pasadena once a week to meet with a wonderful nutritionist (to this day we exchange holiday cards). By April, I had lost my virginity, decided to major in Russian Studies, and received my acceptance packet to transfer to Barnard in the fall.

As for the bulimia, it just ended – with an almost surreal clarity. I was, quite simply, ready for my life. I woke up one morning in my little room, the single I had moved into after a few miserable months in a triple with girls who lined the closet shelves with empty Jack Daniels bottles. I went to dance class. I walked across the green, the perfectly manicured Southern California campus where I felt so out of place, and knew I was myself again, felt like me. Felt clear. Strong. Ready. Like I had woken up from a protracted and perilous dream.

I moved back to Amherst for the summer and got a job first as a telemarketer, raising money for places like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, then as a nanny in Northampton for two young children whose parents were a lawyer and a restaurant owner. I was eighteen now. I was writing poetry again. I was getting ready to go to New York City, which had been my dream pretty much forever.

One night at the Haymarket Cafe, back when it was a hole in the wall you could only enter from the parking lot behind Main Street, my friend Sean introduced me to his friend Jeff. Before not too long, Jeff and I were hanging out a lot. We went for long rides on his motorcycle, glorious, idyllic, winding summer roads. He was twenty-four, a stone-mason and romantic whose heart had been broken. He read the Tao Te Ching and listened to Mazzy Star and asked if I wanted to bring a toothbrush over to his apartment, by which point I was completely, utterly, for the first time ever, in love.

I was still tiny – maybe 100 pounds. I hadn’t menstruated since I was sixteen, when I first started in with the eating disorders in earnest. But my weight was stable, and I ate food – just in a very measured fashion. I remember it was a big deal, a treat, an aberration, to have a scone from Bart’s for breakfast. In fact, I think that summer was the first time I had a scone. I associated them with him. I would eat a yogurt in the morning, a turkey sandwich at lunch, pretty much whatever for dinner, and a frozen yogurt at night. That was it. Any deviation from this was an event.

Jeff knew of my recent recovery, and maybe it gave him a certain tenderness towards me; I don’t know and probably never will. I shared everything, wrote him a whole book of poems, and begged him to open up to me in a way that he couldn’t. I was ready to commit, be together. I so wanted that. But he was destined for Berkeley and I was committed to Morningside Heights, and we spent our last night together at his boss’s house in Leverett, a country house surrounded by spectacular gardens and stone work. We said goodbye.

I cried so much my eyes were nearly swollen shut the next morning, the morning I was to drive down with my parents to the City to go back to school. When I came down that morning, a plastic bucket of dahlias from the gardens were waiting for me on the porch. There must have been three dozen flowers in there, bursting, bursting with color and all the things he couldn’t say.

There is, of course, much more to the story, the themes of which played out in other ways for years to come. I’ve written bits and pieces of it before, always questioning, a little suspiciously even, how much to share, why now or at all. What would I be trying to accomplish? I am wary of confessional-sounding writing, maybe because it can either seem like therapy on the page, not necessarily appropriate for public consumption, or simple narcissism, an indulgence of ego. My intention here is neither.

Somehow though, reading the Bruni article today in the midst of a lovely, languid few hours of eating and playing and being physical with my daughters, reminded me of something deeper, something relevant. That what we bury is bound to rise up, what we keep hidden thrives, whereas what sees the light of day, what we share without shame can begin to lose its power.

I do not want to be a mother who battles her body. I want to tell you that I love my body now, and in most ways I even believe that. But it isn’t the whole truth. The remnants of those years, however distant I insist they are, still play across my life like little shadowdances. And I write this in the room that was once my bedroom, the room where I would write poems in high school and pine for true love, watching the moon rise as I blew cigarette smoke out the window late at night.

I am still more vigilant about my belly than I’d like to admit; worse yet, I wince a little reading those words, hearing the disconnect between them and the message I send to my girls a thousand times a day about their strong, beautiful, healthy bodies. And that’s when it comes to me, the point of this story. Why this story, why now? Sometimes going backwards is the only way to move forward.

The word sankofa, from the Akan language of Ghana, captures what I am trying to say:

We must go back and reclaim our past so that we can move forward. We must go back and reclaim our past so that we can understand why and how we came to be who we are today. We must go back and reclaim our past in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.

Only by redirecting my message to myself, only by telling myself how beautiful, healthy, strong and perfect my body is – right now, post-babies, post-creemees, as it is, as I am – can I expect my daughters to hear my words as true. Otherwise, those girls with their keen noses will smell the disconnect, like skunk spray long gone that still lingers.

And at the same time, telling Aviva and Pearl, loving them unconditionally and meaning it, is a way of talking to myself, a way of reclaiming my experience and using it benevolently, constructively, lovingly. In this way, being their mama is a healing spiral.

For that, I am grateful – and to Frank Bruni, too, for opening the door to the past so powerfully today.

12 thoughts on “Bulimia Sankofa Mama Healing

  1. Shawn says:

    This is a topic I’m so intereseted … how to show my girls how to love themselves and their bodies! I was not bulimic or anything else but I was miserable and, often, still am. I’m getting closer to feeling OK with myself. I know not to talk bad about myself or anyone else but how do I build them up without making body and beauty important????

    You are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I want a weekend like yours, by the way. I only get half days of relaxation and it’s never enough.


  2. holly says:

    backstory. there is always something so powerful in the backstory. i am ever-grateful for this open chapter you’ve given us. everytime you post i want us to meet for coffee somewhere so we can talk, because leaving a comment just doesn’t seem appropriate anymore.
    much love.


  3. Sweet Familiar says:

    Gorgeous and powerful. Like you, Jena.

    I understand the disconnect. It’s so ingrained, so a part of who I am, who we are as women. And I understand, too, the healing that can come from having daughters.

    Thank you for your eloquence.


  4. shelli - mama of letters says:

    Jena, your new website and blog are beautiful! I’m so happy for you, and I can completely understand the need for a new canvas!

    Your story is beautiful and poignant. While I never had full-blown bulimia, I think my obsession w/ food and my body during college was not healthy at all. It wasn’t until I got out of college and had some life experience that I realized none of that was important. There’s so much more to life. And I love myself so much more than I did, though I still complain a little sometimes too. :)


  5. Wro says:

    Jena, the perspective (albeit it may not quite feel like that to you) that you offer to us women/mothers with children is sacred…your experience knows a depth of compassion and understanding that, I feel, can only give me further guidance around food/our bodies…especially because I have a daughter.

    And I, like you, have a story. And, I like you, have written about it here and there…but I stopped, mostly because the next chapters are painful in their retelling and reliving…but I really believe that reclaiming that part of my past (and my daughter’s infancy) will help me heal further, jst as you do. As I witness your courage, my own flourishes again…



  6. GailNHB says:

    What a piece you have written here, Jena. Wow. Deep. Revealing. Challenging. Honest. Thank you so much.

    Much to ponder. I am struggling right now with a body-related issue these days with regard to my daughter. And I am coming to realize how vain I truly am, how much body image DOES matter to me, even though I never thought it did. What eye-opening lessons I am learning at the moment. Perhaps someday I will be able to write such an open-hearted piece on my own blog. I’d need my daughter’s permission first…

    Love the new site. Cannot wait to see the colors and themes you choose – should you decide to choose any. Of course, this is perfect. as it is. right here. right now.


  7. Andrea Owen says:

    Jena, what an eloquent post that is so revealing. I love the quote you gave. For me, I have tried to never let my past dictate who I am now, but since writing about it I have embraced it and given myself a break once in a while. My past, however painful, has made me who I am today and as a wife and mother I intend to do my best.

    Loving my body has come holding the hand of loving myself. It’s so important, more important than most women realize. Check out Dara Chadwicks book: http://www.darachadwick.com/ (her blog is great too) and the book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters” by Courtney E. Martin. I think you will enjoy them both and give great insight.


  8. Nerdy Renegade says:

    What an amazingly brave and powerful post!

    I read your story with rapt attention, heartache, and admiration.

    Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us ~ and, in the process, helping us reclaim those parts of our unhealthy past that need healing in the light.


  9. Joanna says:

    I wish I’d gotten here sooner…I’ve been missing so much!Your writing is so powerful and honest and touches so many chords in me.

    It seems like a long time ago that we could talk about these things while V. & Ben slept in their little chairs at our feet…

    lots of love, Joanna



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