Welcome to the Fun House -- My Battle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder

My mother had to carry me out of a department store dressing room many years ago when I kept picking and pulling at my stomach until I started to literally bruise and bleed.

Oct 8, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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I’ve said before that writing for xoJane is kind of like a cheaper version of therapy. I’ve written about body weight, acquaintance rape and racial issues. I might as well go all the way there and talk about something else that I struggle with that I think many women might suffer from: body dysmorphic disorder.

When you check out good old WebMD for a definition of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, this is the definition that pops up:

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) (BDD) is a type of somatoform disorder, a mental illness in which a person has symptoms of a medical illness, but the symptoms cannot be fully explained by an actual physical disorder. People with BDD are preoccupied with an imagined physical defect or a minor defect that others often cannot see. As a result, people with this disorder see themselves as "ugly" and often avoid social exposure to others or turn to plastic surgery to try to improve their appearance.

For me, the subject of my battle has always been my body, particularly my stomach and the area underneath my chin (the “turkey wattle” I think it’s called). It started years ago, with my family’s abnormal focus on my physical appearance as a child and early adolescent.

As a skinny kid, it was people commenting on the fact that I was too thin. That was, until I hit puberty and got a little chubby. Then it turned into a great uncle pinching me on the rear end when I was 13 at Christmas, chortling, “Wow! You’re not missing any meals, are you?” as he wolfed down more pie.

This and my own maternal grandmother exclaiming, “Oh, my God! You’re FAT!” about an hour later at another family function (holidays between divorced parents was SUCH a joy as a child) resulted in my going on the Ford model diet for pretty much all of high school and college, dipping down into weights dangerously little above the 100 lbs range for my 5’9 height. Let’s also add to that the fact that my date rape attacker grabbed my stomach fat as a handle repeatedly during the attack and the issue is pretty much seared into my brain like a brand from a hot iron.

At this point, people are screaming, EATING DISORDER. I dipped into that as well (laxatives, excessive dieting, crazy amount of exercise this past round), but this is different. BDD is a deformity in the mind, a disorder so insidious that you start to separate yourself from others. I went so far years ago as to destroy all the photos of me in existence in my possession. I’ve gone through bouts of covering mirrors in my apartments. I’ve avoided reflective surfaces at all costs. That’s what I’m talking ‘bout, Willis.

So, it’s not the general conversation you have with your girlfriends where someone says, “Ugh, I’m fat. I ate a cupcake yesterday,” or, “Will you just check out the planet-sized zit on my chin?” I’m talking about a preoccupation with something that in my BDD head is so grotesque I shouldn’t be seen outside a circus tent in the 19th century. I didn’t say it was REAL, but in my head I’ve grappled with it so severely I’ve caused myself physical HARM. That’s the difference between BDD and having a bad hair day.

I think the thing that’s the most painful about this disorder is the lengths it will go to in order to separate you from people who love and support you. Everyone on Earth must be prettier than you, so you just stop believing you should even try. Many who suffer from BDD go to great lengths to fix whatever the disorder says is so hideous about them.

Hence, you see a lot going to plastic surgeons, dermatologists, hair stylists, trainers and the like to “correct the problem,” but it’s never really fixed. Excessive injectables, bouts of liposuction, insane chemical peels and skincare rituals for people who always feel their skin looks horrible -– these are some of the ways the disease manifests itself.

My mother had to carry me out of a department store dressing room many years ago when I kept picking and pulling at my stomach until I started to literally bruise and bleed. It’s not pretty, people. Not at all.

The strangeness of my current situation is that I’ve found a career where there are now photos of my face and my body all over the Internet, and some of them with a very visible history of extreme weight gain in the areas that set me off. Let’s also add to that the fact that industry can be incredibly cruel. I’ve written before about an experience I had with a well-known exercise guru who grabbed the fat on my stomach at a press event and proceeded to ask if I’d ever had children. Nope, that was just fat, but the trigger that set off in my head was thrown into overdrive with her final comment, “Well, just so you know, you’ll have a hard time losing this.”

Surrounded by my peers at a professional event, I just froze. The disorder triggered, I spent almost a year pulling myself back together again.

Rather than hide in a closet for life, I’ve decided to fight BDD head-on by first admitting that I HAVE the problem (after a professional diagnosis, which I HIGHLY RECOMMEND), then gaining tools to understand it and manage my life. 

I still flinch at photos and videos when they first arrive (I HATE being tagged on Facebook -– HATE IT), but now I make myself look at them and find something I like: my eyes, toned arms and legs, the good time I had when the photo was taken. Then I move onto something else and try to stop focusing on perceived flaws. I’m not saying that I have it licked, but I am dealing with it and trying for once in my life to manage it before it manages me for all eternity. 

Again, I HIGHLY recommend seeking the help of a licensed professional who can help you deal with BDD, among many other problems. There are also resources to help you, like the Mayo Clinic.

I shared this with the class because BDD is nothing to mess with. I can’t say that I’m cured, that I go prancing through the streets looking for shiny stuff with which to admire my reflection. What I can say is that I’m aware that I have a problem and that I’ll be damned if it will take another MINUTE from my life. If you feel the same way, know that you’re not alone, you don’t need to hide, and there is a way out of the darkness and into the light.

So, enough about me. Let’s chat about this. Is this something that you’ve struggled with? Do you know someone who could use some help with disorders such as this? If this post helps one person come out of the shadows and know they’re not alone, it was worth the tears shed while writing it.