Within the pages of a new self-help book, you can read up on one woman's struggle with eating disorders. Jessica Weiner spent much of her life hungering to look like someone else — a smaller someone. But she triumphed over those feelings and has achieved self-love, and she wants you to do the same. She shares her story in a new book titled, "A Very Hungry Girl: How I Filled Up On Life and How You Can, Too!" She discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:
The chairs in our therapy room were assembled like an intimate school assembly in the round. Not all of them matched and I liked to get there early to snag the comfy faded pink chair with overstuffed cushions that I could dig my fingers into when things got particularly tense. All sessions began with such a strong silence you would think it was years we sat there when the clock only revealed minutes. No one ever knew how to start.
The group was led my Pamela, a serene definition of a new age hippie complete with Birkenstock sandals, flowy, airy pants and tops with flowered prints and a pashmina thrown delicately over her shoulders. I loved two things about Pamela — her voice and her hands. Her voice had a lilt to it that begged you to open up and tell the truth. It covered your ears in protective syrup of safety that felt both nurturing and motherly. Her catch phrase was "Who wants to start?" a gentle tug at us to let us know it was time to begin the healing. When Pamela had something to express her magnificent hands dodged and flowed and chopped and swept the air to emphasize points of empathy and strength.
Her fingernails were short and seemed to blend into her rosy fingers that held on the ring finger a gold wedding band and on the thumb, a silver and amethyst ring. She was in her late 40's so her hands told of her age through the wrinkles and folds. When I was lost for words or thoughts I would watch her hands and they seemed to coax me out of emotional hiding and lure me into painful truth.
Each semester there were 8 of us in the group. At some point one or two would inevitably drop out and a solid 6 would remain. I was the only regular all four years. When therapy began to click for me I stayed with it with such discipline, I became a therapy groupie. Even in our opening silence I knew that the hour would reveal such tremendous story that I looked forward to witnessing the growth of the women in my group. Our circles of silence could last up to ten minutes without a sound and for some in the group the silence alone was the worst part. For women who struggle with eating disorders and addiction, sitting in silence can be more painful than the act of starvation and throwing up because in the silence you hear your voices, the negative tapes running twenty four hours a day.
You hear the abuse, the twisted thoughts, the skewed visions, and the hurtful words. And you must sit in that silence and… feel. Feelings and emotions that we had been running from, hiding from, eating over and starving away. You felt uncomfortable and there was no coping behavior to cover it up. You had to sit there and feel until the first person broke the space with a word.
"Who wants to start?" Pamela asked for the third time since our opening silent stand off. The air felt particularly filled with angst and deeply buried pain. There is a stifled feeling of emotion you become accustomed to in group, just moments when you know that today is going to be a big day. No one answered Pamela's question. It felt as though we might just end up sitting there the whole sixty minutes without saying a word. "Why don't you start Jessica?" On this day I didn't know where to begin. We all knew what had happened but had not an iota or inkling where to start.
My eyes darted around the room for a sign of help. Everyone looked down at the floor except for Beth, who was picking away at the skin around her fingernails. Beth had many nervous habits that included twirling her hair until little clumps of it were yanked from her scalp, pulling the skin off around her cuticles so that you could see the bloodied traces of new skin run all the way down her fingers, and picking the scabs on her body until she had reached the core of her covered pain and made herself bleed again. She had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder amongst other things. She was bulimic and anorexic and was once on our Big Ten gymnastics team until the coach deemed her behavior too "weird" and a "threat to the other team members" and so she was kicked off the team.
The only person Beth was a danger to, was herself. I learned in one of our first sessions that Beth had been violently raped by her brother for 14 years. She broke the cycle of abuse only by going out of state to college. No one in her family knew. She binged and purged so she could control the memory of the assault. She said she stuffed her face with food to numb the pain and then she would throw up to release it.
The oddest thing about Beth was that she always walked around with a smile. She seemed to smile in group even as she was telling us the most horrendous story. She didn't ever want to cry.
She felt that if she started to cry she might never stop. She told us that she hadn't cried since the first night her brother raped her, that when she cried, he would thrust into her harder so she learned to stifle her tears. Sitting next to Beth was always Mary Ellen. First a drug addict before she transferred her addiction to anorexia, Mary Ellen's drug of choice was cocaine. She was introduced to it by her mother's boyfriend when she was sixteen years old and by the time she was nineteen she had racked up over $24,000 worth of credit card debt on shopping sprees she would go on while coked up.
She lived in the world of excess and bounced back and forth between shopping, using drugs and food. In an effort to control her drug habit, she started to restrict her food intake. One affliction fueled another and before she knew it she had whittled away to 89 pounds on 5'10" frame. Her legs were so tiny that when she crossed them in the chair, she could fold one completely under the other and wrap her leg around her calf until her foot peeked out from the other side. To my knowledge I had never seen a drug addict my age before.
Mary Ellen had freckles that dotted her nose and continued down to her lips and chin. I never thought about a drug addict having freckles. Then there was Alexis, the reason we were all supremely silent that day. Alexis was a graduate student and few years older than us. We looked to her for guidance in group because she had gone through it before as an undergrad. She not only employed therapy on campus but she had been in and out of hospitals for about three years. She often spoke first and seemed strongest. But her voice was absent today. Alexis lived in town with her Mom so she was known as a "townie". Even though she grew up in Central Pennsylvania she spoke with an effected British accent because she once spent a summer in England with her biological father. Something happened in that summer abroad that threw Alexis into a deep depression, which was only soothed by having short, deeply sexual affairs with older men.
I could tell by Pamela's questions in group that she thought Alexis was abused by her father. But Alexis never copped to that. Instead she spent times making us laugh telling us about how she and her professors would make out in the faculty lounges and men's restrooms on campus barely escaping getting caught by other students.
It was the way in which she told the story that made us laugh. Even in her pain she couldn't hide her light. She glowed like a loving big sister and you wanted to root for her even though you knew she was hurting herself. Her sexuality and her binge eating were closely linked. When she was having an affair she was highly restrictive with food and when she wasn't she ate and ate she said until "she could feel the food fill up to her eyeballs."
I sat through 10 weeks of therapy before I learned that Alexis was also a cutter. In the middle of an intense depression where she was not taking an older lover, she would slice into the skin on her thighs, her hips and her underarms. Confessing that she often cut the word "HATE" into her flesh, she showed us the scabs and scars that she hid under long sleeved shirts and sweatpants.
I think even Pamela was shocked to learn this. Alexis would be the first one to hand you a tissue when you cried in group or make sure you received a hug on your way out after an emotional release.
I knew she was also the caregiver to her mother who refused to work a steady job so Alexis was in grad school and working full time while juggling men, binge eating and mutilation. She showed us the stretches of carved rage last Thursday in group. Over the weekend word leaked that Alexis performed what she once called "the final cut" — suicide. She bled to death. She didn't leave a note.
Excerpted from "A Very Hungry Girl: How I Filled Up On Life and How You Can, Too!" Copyright 2003 by Jessica Weiner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hay House. For more information you can visit Jessica Weiner's Web site at: www.jessicaweiner.com