In 2002, I joined a support group for bulimics.
I had been what I considered "sorta bulimic" since 1997. I used this phrase because I binged and purged randomly, and in my mind true bulimics threw up after every meal, like Meredith Baxter in the made-for-TV-movie "Kate’s Secret."
For the uninitiated: "Kate’s Secret" is only the most hilarious eating disorder movie ever. Kate is bulimic to the max! She steals and eats milk and cookies in the middle of a grocery store then pukes while horror movie-like music plays.
I didn’t steal food or hear music when I puked, so I figured I was cool. Until 5 years of intermittent vomiting began to make my throat burn, my teeth yellow and my period stop. That's when I decided that maybe I did have an "issue," and looked up the group.
Members were asked to make the commitment to attend sessions every Tuesday at 5 pm, for 12 weeks. The meetings were made up of a group leader (a therapist who was a recovered bulimic), a nurse (not bulimic), and five bulimic women, including myself.
One of the messed-up things you may find yourself doing in an eating disorder support group is comparing your weight against the other members'. Other than the nurse, I noted that I was the least thin person there. Half-assed bulimics like me often don’t lose much weight, unlike anorexics and anorexic-bulimics. To the casual bulimic, anorexics are paragons of self-control. Anorexics can resist food -- sweet, sweet food. Bulimics, those type B's of the eating disorder world, want to have their cake and eat it too and then sometimes manage to barf it up.
The nurse usually, inexplicably had a bag of M&Ms visibly peeking out her pocket. This only served as reminder that I was hungry and caused me to ask myself -- would it be wrong to bring junk food to an eating disorder group therapy meeting?
I would spend whole meetings fantasizing about inhaling a large bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in front of the group. This led to other, screwy "deal-with-it-through-humor" reveries: like a charity pie-eating contest and bake sale to raise bulimia awareness, and for the anorexics, a walk-a-thon. These thoughts, while hilarious, were immediately followed by huge bouts of guilt. Even more so than food, people with eating disorders binge on guilt.
I was also the only one in the group who was not regularly practicing binge and purge behavior. I was what is called a "resilient bulimic," which is slightly more professional sounding than my "sorta."
I was still binging and would have seven purge relapses over the next five years. But at the time, I only felt "less bulimic" than the other four women. I felt like an intruder. These women were hardcore -- I was simply a dabbler who thought horrible, funny things about pie-eating contests. Like a lot of bulimics in recovery, I believed I didn't deserve treatment, because for me, bulimia was a hobby, and these women were pros.
As the sessions continued and I listened to the stories and struggles of these four women, I began to play down my own story and struggle as much as I possibly could. I actually felt guilty that I wasn’t going home after group and vomiting like some of these women admitted they had. When I spoke, I sounded more like our therapist than someone in therapy, giving advice on how I "cured" myself. I avoiding being too honest, self-conscious that my issues weren't as severe as those of the other women.
It didn't help that the nurse would try to chime in with her own "struggles." Once, after one woman had admitted to vomiting three times and doing two hours of aerobics as punishment for polishing off two chicken pot pies before her husband got home from work, the nurse "sympathized" by admitting, "I know how you feel, sometimes I buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and try just to eat just one, but I always eat both. It’s so hard when they are so yummy." Uh. Thanks for sharing?
Group therapy should have been where I let down my armor but I couldn’t. I felt like I was a fake who was there to get sympathy. I felt like we were actually comparing who was more messed up, and I was outclassed. I felt that being completely honest would just expose the fact that as a bulimic, I "wasn't that bad."
By session three, the group leader called me out on my issue minimization. "Giulia," she said, "you keep giving everyone else advice, and we still don’t know much about why you're here."
Then I noticed the faces that surrounded me. Curious faces, compassionate faces, faces that wanted to hear about my struggle. These weren't women who wanted to compete with me -- they were ones who looked ready to listen. They looked relieved that I was one of them.
And so I shared.
I told them exactly what a crap bulimic I was.
When I finished, I felt hugely relieved. The therapist thanked me, and moved on to some official business. Due to some scheduling conflicts with the building, staring next week, group would be moved to Wednesday nights.
Everyone calmly nodded but me.
"Wait!" I said. "I have a class on Wednesdays."
"Oh, well can you switch it?" she asked.
I was halfway through the second session of a sketch comedy class. I had chosen the Wednesday night class so that I could have my Tuesday nights free for this group therapy shit.
Using the same "How dare you" tone I use for telemarketers when they call at 8 AM on Saturday, I growled, "No, I made a commitment to the class the same way I made a commitment to this group."
The therapist tried to calm me down, saying, "I understand your frustration, but there is nothing we can do."
By then I was crying. I had finally opened up to them, and now they were dumping me? It felt like group therapy was kicking me out of bed after sex.
"I just opened up, and now you are closing me out?" I wailed.
Then the nurse asked, "Giulia, why are you really upset?"
I wanted to scream. I wanted to grab my folding chair and beat her until all those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups she had ever so naughtily eaten came flying out of her like a pinata. But instead my retort went something more like, "I don’t know? Maybe I’m upset because I finally made some progress and now you're all just moving on without me?"
My therapist passed the tissue box to me and in her soothing, sympathetic tone, said, "OK, well we’re all really sorry Giulia," then cheerfully announced to the rest of the group, "The rest of you, next Wednesday, same time, same place!"
Before I could absorb what had just happened, everyone got up to leave.
The following week I had to present a character monologue that I wrote to my comedy class. My teacher hated my character and performance. I wished I were back in my room full of sad, food-obsessed women and not in this room of sad, attention-obsessed comedians.
That night on my way home from class I stopped by Ralph’s supermarket and bought a pint of Phish Food frozen yogurt. I ate the entire pint in the car on the ride home. I could almost hear the "Kate’s Secret" music in the background.
As I parked my car at my apartment, I licked the pint cover clean, and looked in my rearview mirror to wipe the chocolate from the sides of my mouth. I shoved the empty carton in the plastic shopping bag and buried the evidence deep into the trash can in my garage. I went inside and breezed past my roommates, heading straight for my room. I got into bed and cried myself to sleep thinking, "Well, at least I didn’t throw it up."
This is what some people call a moment of clarity. This may have been when I realized that no eating disorder is just a lame little one, and not all therapy groups are created equal.
I did need help, and I had to find the right kind. I got into individual therapy, and thankfully, out of the habit of eating and vomiting my feelings. And those comedy classes did eventually play their role: now, I tell my personal stories at stand-up performances and storytelling events. I’ve gotten over minimizing my issues and I've learned instead how to share them, learn from them, and laugh at them.
I wonder sometimes how my long-lost group therapy friends are doing, and I hope that things worked out for them as well as they have for me.
Not that I'm being competitive.