My name is Bella Florence. And this is a piece of my story.
For Lilly, Jan, & Miranda.
I write because I have a story with food.
Not because I have a problem with food.
I have had, and in ways still do have a problem with food, but if I say that I write because I have a problem with food, and I continue to affirm that I have a problem with food, then I am becoming a victim of my relationship with food and of my writing process, when in reality, my writing process strengthens my relationship with food, and I grow stronger every day.
Food is a part of my narrative – that I can’t deny -but my journey with it has shaped me for the better. Had I not gone through my journey with food and my body, I wouldn’t be in recovery, I wouldn’t be writing this blog, and I wouldn’t be living the amazing life that I am living today.
I would be a very different Bella Florence.
A less-edgy one.
A more-boring one.
I love my life. I love living.
And I didn’t for so long.
Enter my relationship with food.
I have been a compulsive overeater, and I have been anorexic, and I have been orthorexic, and I have been an exercise bulimic/addict, and I have taken laxatives. I have been all of these things, and for a while I thought that they were separate.
I would say, “well, my overeating was this tremendous lack of control, and my anorexia and restriction were this hyper-control,” and maybe that’s true.
Maybe they served different purposes. Maybe one was to self-soothe while the other was to self-abuse. But the two are not so different.
I generally don’t like binaries. I dislike gender binaries, sexuality binaries, racial binaries, and political binaries. But I adhere to a spiritual one. I believe that a a fundamental level, I can live from one of two places: I can live from love, or I can live from fear.
I can live in harmony with myself and my world, or I can live in discord. But I can’t live in both at the same time. The two can’t coexist.
That said, it matters little whether I am over-eating or under-eating. It matters little where I am on the “spectrum.” As long as food is the center of my world, I am in discord and disorder.
In fact, my eating disorder is less of a spectrum and more of a circle, of which food is the center. No matter where I am on the circumference, I am equidistant from food. If I’m binging, I’m obsessing over how to get the food. If I’m restricting, I’m obsessing over how to hide from the food.
I might think that binging brings food into my space while restricting keeps food at arms’ length, but the level of obsession – the level of chaos – is exactly the same.
The solution is not to run from one extreme to the other. The solution is to find a different solar system. The solution is to entirely remove food from the center of my world – to make love my axis. To do that, to really do that, I must investigate my roots.
I was born with an oral fixation; the evidence lies on my birth video. I came out of the womb and instantly sucked my left pointer and middle fingers. And I would. not. stop.
I couldn’t fall asleep without those fingers in my mouth. I couldn’t be at peace without my fingers in my mouth. I had to be orally engaged at all times. It was an addiction, plain and simple, and the cause was fear. Fear of not getting my needs met; of being deprived of support and love.
Can a baby have these fears, you ask? Yes, a baby can. We can inherit these fears from our ancestors, absorb them from our parents in utero, or react to our home environments; this all takes place at a subconscious level and can be identified in psychotherapy.
We are affected by the circumstances surrounding our births more than we might be conscious of. For instance, I was a breech baby, and I was born early, via C-section. The experience of being ripped from my mother, and missing the experience of a natural birth, contributed to my need to suck. I was grasping for comfort and nourishment.
This is not to condemn C-sections or mothers who go through with them; they are entirely necessary when vaginal birth would put mother or baby at risk. This is simply to bring awareness to the fact that we are impacted by all experiences, even the early ones.
My parents tried desperately to intervene. They put smelly ointments on my fingers before bed, but to no avail. My father once told me my finger stank. I felt embarrassed, but I thought, Oh well.
I once slept at a friend’s house, and she said I could only suck my fingers if I didn’t make noises. I didn’t know till that moment that I had been making noises, and I stayed awake, paralyzed in fear, all night.
I didn’t quit this addiction until 2nd grade, when the orthodontist stepped in. 2 or 3 appliances entered my mouth. The first was a rake, keeping the fingers out. The second was a wrench – what they call a “pallet expander.” Gosh, those nights were hard. But by 3rd grade I was clean. However: while the orthodontist had eliminated the symptom, he hadn’t eliminated the cause. In fact, it wasn’t till I stopped sucking my fingers that I began to put weight on.
Pre-orthodontist, I looked emaciated. I looked like I was underfed. And I was! I probably was. I was the pickiest eater, and I had more of a restrictive relationship with food than an addictive one. But once my fingers were taken from me, I turned to food – specifically bread.
Soon enough, that addiction took off. I got high on the thrill of searching for food with friends, of running out to grocery stores and hiding “loot” under my bed. I was different from most of my friends, though. I didn’t just think about food on those special occasions, and I didn’t stop thinking about food when they were over. I thought about food all the time. I was obsessed. I told people I was “always hungry,” but I wasn’t. I was filling a hole.
In 7th grade, my binge-eating picked up, as did depression, anxiety, and strain with friends and family. At the same time, puberty kicked in. What a perfect storm! Enter, weight gain. It wasn’t drastic weight gain – though it felt like it to me. Besides, who cares how much it was? It was weight my body didn’t need. Moreover, I felt like I’d exploded.
I fell into a pit of self-hatred and desperately wanted to stop eating, but I couldn’t ask for help. I thought my family would be mad at me. I was too ashamed to admit my weakness. I had gotten the message that binge eating was wrong, and I couldn’t cop to this failure.
Instead, I turned to the internet. I found a horrible, sick blog called “skinnytips.com” and began cycles of binging and restricting. I would fast for 3 days, then “lose my strength” – all the while longing to be anorexic.
When I actually developed it later, I didn’t want it – I didn’t “try” for it – but there was a seed planted from a very early age that anorexia was this “beautiful thing.” I heard frequent talk about it, frequent musing about it, and my love for the performing arts compounded my intrigue.
I received messages such as, “You want to be in film? That’s a bunch of anorexic girls.” And messages such as, “You don’t look like your friends!” when I wanted to wear crop tops with my posse.
On a few occasions, I shared these experiences with friends and mentors, hoping they affirm the opposite. Instead, they told me, “At least you know the truth.”
To be fair, this wasn’t everyone. Some people did affirm the opposite. But my eating disorder fed on my low self-worth. It heard what it wanted to hear.
I wasn’t skinny enough.
If only, I thought.
If only I could stop eating.
If only I could be anorexic.
Finally, things changed. When I was 16, I did a two-week acting program in New York City. I was out of my home environment, away from my old group of friends, and for the first time, able to control myself. I began to make “healthier” choices, and while there were a few binges, I returned home having lost a few pounds.
Here’s the thing: the 5 or 10 pounds I lost at that program did need to come off. As I said before, I was carrying a bit of excess weight. It served my health to lose a little. But the feedback I got wasn’t, “You look so healthy.” It was, “You look so skinny.” And I got high on those words instantly.
“You look skinny, Bella! Did you lose weight?”
Were they talking to me?
I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
I once heard an alcoholic use those words when describing their first drink.
So, I was hooked. I became determined – determined – to stay on this path.
First I thought,
This is good. This is good. This is what I have dreamed of my entire life.
Then I thought,
This is too good. This is too good. If I don’t do something to make sure this stays, I am going to lose this.
And I ran, quickly, in the other direction. I cut my calories in half. I was so terrified of going back to the self-hatred and lack of control from my binge-eating, that I went off the rails. I lost 40 pounds – a third of my body weight – in 4 months. I am a petite person, so it showed. Being 5′ 2″, I don’t have that much to lose.
At first it was ecstasy, but then the shame came back. In my binge days, I’d been fat-shamed. Now, I was thin-shamed. I looked like a skeleton. I felt like a skeleton. I was embarrassed to leave the house. What would my body say about my family? Would people blame my parents and think less of them because of me?
Wherever I went, I met familiar faces who regarded me without recognition. It was horrifying. It was awful. It was not what I thought it would be.
Why in the world did I ever want this?
I would cry in the shower for hours on end, wanting to die – wanting to die as I was. Soon enough, I was intervened – by my theatre teachers. I attended an arts conservatory with a leotard dress code; the weight loss impossible to hide.
On October 27th, 2015 – my half birthday – I was in a modern dance class, when the teacher received a phone call from the front office. I was being summoned. I went down the stairs with a pit in my stomach as my classmates stared.
I later learned they suspected it had to do with my weight. Their premonitions were correct.
I sat in a conference room with two dear mentors. They told me my mother had called – that she was very concerned.
I immediately started to cry.
They told me to get help.
I told them that I would.
And I did, on paper.
I saw a therapist, and I saw a nutritionist, but I did to apply their advice. I rejected their aid, and as the months rolled on, I progressively got worse.
In January of 2016, I walked into school and was told to leave. I had become a liability. What was going to happen when the ambulance showed up on campus? I could return to the program if I could present approval in the form of a doctor’s note.
My doctor gave me no note. I thought he would give me the note! My teachers allowed me to continue my acting and music classes, but dance was half of the curriculum. I thought I would recover promptly, but I never took another dance class in my time there.
While I know everything happens for my highest good and that I needed to have this experience, I still feel like I squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. Attending this high school had been my dream, and I threw it away.
Fortunately, I had two other goals to carry me through.
One: attend a 6-week pre-college program, a summer theatre intensive, in the summer before my senior year.
Two: Attend NYU full-time for my BA.
First up, the summer program.
I was told that if I gained enough weight, I could attend.
So I did. But once I got there, I flew right back down the scale.
I let the disease take me, and I embraced every excuse I could to feed it.
The program was physically rigorous. We worked at our craft daily from 7 AM – 11 PM, conservatory style. We were encouraged to run from class to class and do workouts in our spare time.
Perfect, I thought. I can engage in my eating disorder, because it’s what I’m “being asked” to do. [It was not.]
I would get up at 6 AM, do my own workout, eat an egg, and then run with my cohort to our first class. I was dying, and they almost sent me home. My RA weighed me daily, my curriculum was cut in half, and the program director had several conference calls with my parents.
My journals from the program tell all:
July 18, 2016, 1:33 pm
Just talked to Jane (my nutritionist) on the phone. I am 91 pounds and hospitalization is back on the table. And I’m so fucking happy! Restricting makes me feel damn good. Damn strong. Damn powerful.
I still see myself as the “binge-eater.” I still see myself as the “fat girl.” I live in fear of my old relationship with food, and thus I live in total fear of food.
Apparently, Mom’s freaked out. Jane made me give her my word that I’ll take the Inositol.* I really didn’t want to. I don’t want to turn the committee off! But I just took one tablet.
*Inositol is a neurotransmitter that balances certain chemicals in the body to help with mental conditions such as panic disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I would take it to quiet the “committee” in my head – I was supposed to, anyway.
I love being the skinniest girl. I love being the tiniest girl. I can’t threaten that. This morning in class we did weight-sharing, and my partners marveled at how I “literally weigh nothing, but am “still so strong.” One said she watches me when I run, and that I look like a fairy “prancing.” How am I supposed to gain weight after hearing that?
Jane says I need carbs.
My RA wants to help me.
Right now I have a free hour. I think I’ll watch the Office and eat some pumpkin seeds and then go to Text Analysis. I won’t be mad at myself if my weight stays below 95. That takes some pressure off. I really don’t want to eat the pumpkin seeds, but if I do, I can release the pressure to eat dinner.
I just poured a double – maybe even triple – serving of pumpkin seeds for rehearsal tonight. How’s that for responsible? Now I’m going to stick to my word and take some Inositol so I don’t dump any out.
Which I desperately want to do. Just a few.
Ok, I caved and put a few back in the bag.
Nah. It’s good. I should really put them all back.
Ok, they’re just an emergency snack. In case I’m struggling to walk back to the dorm. 8 or 9 o’clock is the best time for these.
July 29th, 2016
The program director thinks I’m weak. She says we’re at a turning point, a red flag. She planned to ask my parents to come up sooner but was pleased to hear they’d be here Tuesday. She also said my confusion is a sign that my brain isn’t getting enough fuel, because I’m “such a smart girl.”
We had a conference call with Mom in a stuffy, single dorm room that no one is using. I sat on the bare mattress. It reminded me of my first intervention last October.
Before the call, Jane told me that my RA is worried about me. They’re in touch, of course, because she is sending Jane the results of my weigh-in’s. I HATE that they are watching – scrutinizing – policing what I eat.
Result of the call? I must drink twice-daily protein shakes. The head director’s assistant went to Whole Foods to get my ingredients. I’m worried they’re gonna think these shakes are additions to my meals. These shakes ARE my meals.
I have no choice but to cooperate now. If the program were longer, I would leave. But if I humor the program directors and relinquish control to them for less than two weeks, I can lose any weight that I gain.
I think it’s a bit brash of them to force weight gain upon me. And for them to be the food police. I hate the twice-daily-mandatory-protein-shake thing – not only am I forced to drink the shakes, but I can’t even watch them being made! But, if I make sure they’re all I consume, then I can still feel comfortable. I’m just scared of being full.
Do I overcorrect because of my fear of gaining weight? Is that how I got to this point? I wish I could tell you more about THE PROGRAM, but I’m too encompassed by this. Fuckers.
My friends want to talk. My grandma wants to talk. But I can’t talk to anyone. I just don’t know what to say. Dad texted me yesterday asking how I was doing. I didn’t answer.
Coming here was a big mistake. God. This is awful. One and a half more weeks of this hell and then I can go back to restricting! At least my teachers say I’m giving 100%. That’s a relief. I wonder what they know?
Truth be told, I’m having chest sensitivity. I am worried about my heart. I’m also having constant acid reflux. I don’t want to take digestive enzymes, though, because – as my brother said – they could “make me hungrier.”
Speaking of my brother: yesterday he sent me an adorable video of Kiki. She’s always been my favorite of the pups. I think that’s his way of expressing concern. Mom must have told him my weight is low.
The thing is, I WANT to struggle. I WANT to restrict. I WANT to lose more weight! I am DREADING these twice-daily protein shakes and can’t WAIT to get out of this prison cell. I just want to go home – or to upstate New York – and live a life of ease. I want to read plays, run, and restrict.
Yesterday, I felt small and weak. Today I feel massive, energized, and healthy – but an uncomfortable kind of healthy: that “normal” I always feel the first day I “get back on track.”
I don’t know why everyone’s so worried about me. Nothing’s wrong. Some people might call that denial. It’s not. Plus, I’m experiencing tremendous personal growth. For instance: you know how I take way too long in the restroom? I’ve been peeing with the stall door open to force myself to hurry up.
So you see, I am victorious. I am entering new dimensions. And most importantly, I’ve made a decision. I have decided that this is as close to in-patient treatment as I am going get. I shall relinquish no more control.
The extent of any conscious weight-gain I do this summer stays here, in this program. I will not gain weight. I will not get a belly. I will not gain more than 1-3 pounds. I can make it. Only 2 more weeks.
It has been 9 months since my intervention in October. Huh. I wonder where I’ll be this October? I wonder what’s expected of me?
End of journal entries.
I thought I could sustain this lifestyle, but I couldn’t. And to answer Past Bella’s question, rehab is where I was that October. And I’ll tell you why.
When I finished that summer program, my parents were clear that if I didn’t get clean, I would not go to college. Well, that certainly wasn’t going to happen. I’d already lost high school, I’d already lost summer, I was not going to lose NYU. I had to give myself a shot at my dream school.
So I chose to go to rehab. I made that choice myself – with the help and encouragement of another dear mentor. That was one of my first acts of surrender.
I’d come close to rehab the previous winter, the semester before I did the summer program. At the time, my mom’s parents were dying, and she was driving back and forth between their hometown and my own hometown, taking care of them and me.
While she was away, my godmother looked into treatment programs and made a few calls. We found a few in Colorado, Chicago, and Florida that we “liked.” Haha. “Liked.” But that didn’t pan out, because, as you know, I got clean enough to stay in limbo.
Senior fall, however, was the time to revisit the previous semester’s research. We landed on a program in Miami. I had to do an intake call to get into this program; their space was limited. I also had to under-go several medical tests, including a bone density scan and an EKG.
I learned I had a low heart rate and osteoporosis.
And I was admitted to the treatment program.
I spent the first semester of my senior year in-patient. Within those walls, I gained weight, submitted all of my college applications, and got into my dream school.
However: I was not in recovery. I was barely abstinent. I may have been physically stable, but I detested my new body, and I planned to relapse as soon as I got to NYU. In fact, me and a few of the girls often discussed our future plans to restrict. One time, a recovery coach accidentally left the bathroom unlocked, and my friend who was nearing discharge went inside and purged.
Essentially, I viewed my time in rehab as an insurance policy. I told myself, “Bella, if you do this, then you can do whatever you want when you get to New York.”
Between my discharge from rehab and my arrival in New York, I lost about 10 pounds. I arrived at NYU underweight but resigned to climb back up the latter.
But, this time, I wanted to heal.
When I got to school, I saw what I’d been missing. I saw what I could have. I found my passion, which is human connection, and I decided to follow it. That meant letting go of my anorexia and letting the freedom into my life. That also meant facing my fear of food, and most of all, my fear of over-eating.
I also came to better understand my anorexia. I understood why I needed it. It gave me love and attention. It gave me aid. And it gave me permission to eat. My entire life, I’d looked at food with shame. Now, I was encouraged to eat it.
Finally, anorexia kept me safe from binging. It was a band-aid for my food addiction. It spared me from food’s grip. Or so I thought.
I realize now that food still had me. It still consumed all of my thoughts. It didn’t matter where I was on the spectrum – where I was on the periphery of the circle: an eating disorder is an eating disorder. An obsession is an obsession.
My recovery is strong today, and yet, my worst fears are coming true. I have binged multiple times since letting go of restriction, and the same old feelings of failure come up every time. My last binge, in fact, was this Monday night.
Before that, I binged at a university-wide shabbat dinner, on cauliflower of all things. And I binged in March while visiting Detroit; I was sick with the flu, and I’d hoped that bread would relieve my nausea. I also thought food would aid my physical recovery. And to an extent that was true, but did I fly off the rails, and I scared myself back into restriction.
I would like to say that Monday was my last binge ever, but I don’t know that to be true. To truly recover, I must be comfortable with the unknown.
I despise my binge-eating – it is my greatest enemy – and it’s easier for me to talk about my anorexia, because A) it’s glamorized and B) it was a dream deferred.
Anorexia gets me high. It is my drug of choice. It is my heroine, my crack, my coke. I have to admit that to let it go. I have two personalities. I truly do. Anorexia is my alter-ego. It is a demon that possessed me and needed to be exorcised. If I can live from love or fear, anorexia stems from the fear.
But on the flip side, there’s recovery, which is a practice of love, acceptance, freedom, forgiveness, curiosity, and inquiry. It is a practice of living in the present moment. It is a practice of rigorous honesty.
It is not a practice of day-counts, meal-planning, or a rigid understanding of abstinence. It has little to do with food. It has more to do with how I talk to myself, and my ability to ask questions.
How do I take care of myself after a binge?
How do I forgive myself?
How quickly can I identify and let go of restrictive thoughts?
These are not just the questions I have to work with; they are the questions I get to work with. This is not to say that binging feels good – the hangover is truly a bitch – but I don’t need to add excess drama; the excess food is enough.
A full stomach is not an expression of failure; it is a temporary physical experience that reveals my body’s limits. If and when I over-eat, rather than wallow, I ask my body to use the excess fuel for healing. I ask it to heal my bones, to summon my period, and to bring me a good night’s sleep. Then, I thank my body for its resilience.
I also ask myself why I binged and what this experience can teach me. For instance, on Monday, I completed a week-long vacation with my girlfriend of 6 months in my family home. That is brand new territory! And while I fell in love, I neglected to take care of myself. Of course I would act out sideways.
There are no steps backward when it comes to progress, only steps forward. As we move through life, our circumstances change. I may have used the same behaviors Monday night that I used at age 10, but the scenery was completely different.
I “leveled up” in the video game of life; it’s okay if I die on my first try. What’s important is that I learn the game and figure out how to beat this level. No one level is my end-all-be-all. No one experience is my end-all-be-all. They are all merely stepping stones, including my journey with food.
That journey is not my identity. It is not my whole narrative. It is not something I will carry with me into my “next life.”
It is just a piece of my experience, a bullet point on my life’s syllabus.
And it is a part of my story, not a part of my problem.
In closing, I would like to sat that the opinions expressed here are my own and written from truth and love. If something resonates, write to me and share it. We can use our voice and start a dialogue.