IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Started Recovering from Bulimia After Volunteering at African Orphanages

Here were children getting excited about a few minuscule bites of chicken, and in a normal day, I was throwing up so much food.

I was supposed to be in eating disorder rehab for three weeks, but signed myself out against doctor’s orders after 13 days. Two weeks later, I started my freshman year at NYU.

I highly recommend not doing this.

While I was in rehab, the psychiatrists put me on Effexor to treat my bulimia. I had been on everything: Prozac, Lexapro, Topamax, Concerta. Effexor had awesome side-effects like not being able to take a shit, excessive facial sweating, and suicidal thoughts. So, by that October, when my roommates found me sitting on the kitchen floor with a bottle of vodka and two bottles of sleeping pills, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.

I took a ride in an ambulance to the psych ward with my RA, Tara. Tara brought me my toothbrush, some clothes, deodorant, and coloring books and crayons to pass the time while I essentially waited for three days to see what the doctors wanted to do with me. As it turns out, they thought it would be a good idea to double my meds (the ones that made me feel suicidal in the first place).

Then, a few months after that, when I was barely able to go to class and almost failed the philosophy requirement for my program, that wasn’t exactly a surprise either. By the end of the semester, it was pretty clear that I had to drop out. I moved back in with my parents with no job, no school, and no idea what the hell I was doing.

One night, sitting in the childhood bedroom I had said goodbye to only three months earlier, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to volunteer in Africa. I don’t even know why I wrote it. I could barely identify any of the countries in Africa on a map. But I’m sure some part of me figured I already went to college and blew the whole “I’ll become a new person and maybe no one will figure out how much of a fuck up I am” thing. Maybe I could get a second chance in Africa.

I’ll guiltily admit that I didn’t have any noble intentions. I was just sick and wanted to get as far away from my normal life as possible. Plus, as a 19-year-old bulimic who was so fixated on appearances, I much preferred my parents being able to say, “Oh, Dana? She’s off volunteering in Africa,” instead of “Oh, Dana? She dropped out of a prestigious university to become a townie.”

At my next therapy session, I read from my journal (this is what we did because I was usually too angry to speak in sessions; if I didn’t have a journal to read from, I’d just sit there and glare at my doctor) and mentioned the Africa thing. And I was like, “But that’s stupid, right?”

And my doctor said, “Actually, that’s not stupid at all. I think you should do it.”

Ironically, once I had the encouragement, it started feeling impossible. Then, somehow, the sensation became incredibly familiar. I challenged myself in school all the time. I challenged my body to reach a certain unattainable weight constantly. Something was sparked within me and I grew fixated (something my eating-disordered brain was really good at doing). Somehow I was going to get myself to Africa. It was real now.

I did some research online and found an organization that looked reputable. I told my mother on her birthday what I was planning on doing and she looked at me like I was crazy, thinking it was another one of my harebrained schemes created by a rare manic episode. But once I explained that I actually had a plan, she recovered from the shock and told me she’d support me.

In order to make the trip, I had to fundraise five thousand dollars. I sat outside the local grocery store in the middle of February with a flimsy card table, but it gave me a sense of purpose.

In mid-March, I was stepping off the plane in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, East Africa.

I got off the plane in my velour track suit (hey, this was 2007) and immediately felt like a wet tea bag, my clothes soaked with sweat. The driver who picked me up from the airport was named one of the handful of Swahili words I made a point of learning before I left the States: Amani, which means peace. When I told him I knew what his name meant, he smiled as we drove down miles of dirt roads with potholes so deep Amani would have to slow the car to a crawl in order to navigate around them.

On our way to the gated grounds where I would live for a few weeks to take language classes, we passed shanty towns filled with small huts with corrugated, rusted aluminum roofs. Goats, flicking their ears in annoyance at pesky flies, were tied up to carts filled with fruits and dried fish.

I made it, I thought to myself. I’m actually here.

I did well in my language classes. I also got over my fear of bugs real quick. I found the mosquito nets that surrounded my bed to be very comforting, like a baby in a basinet, until I woke up in the morning and found it covered in insects, like a very lucky spider's web. There were also lizards who hung out around my toilet that I found adorable but scared the literal shit out of my fellow volunteers.

Once Swahili classes were over, we boarded a plane to a more remote part of Tanzania, Buswelu, so we can start volunteering at the orphanages.

At Orphanage A, I taught math and English to children ages six to 18. They were known as “street kids,” children who had been abandoned on the roads of the village.

Weirdly enough, I felt right at home. I had babysat and tutored for kids this age all my life. I was taught many words in my Swahili classes to use to discipline the kids like “be quiet” and “pay attention,” but I rarely had to employ them. The children wanted to learn so badly.

At this orphanage, there was a young boy with polio. I had been warned that he wouldn’t want to do his physical therapy with me; he never wanted to do it with anyone. He’d ask all the volunteers, “What’s the point? Why do I need to do this? I’m just going to die anyway.” I had never met a child in such extreme physical condition before. All his muscles had withered away to practically nothing. He had never walked in his entire life. He was 12.

When I found out what the children were eating every day — uji (porridge made from corn) for breakfast and rice for lunch and dinner — I started buying this boy animal crackers and candy and boxed milk from one of the street vendors on the mile-long walk from the volunteers’ living quarters to the orphanage. The other volunteers did, too, and would wheel the boy away from the other kids so he could enjoy his goodies in peace (and not suffer the jealousy of the others). Eating his extra food was the only time I saw him be calm. I can’t say that he was happy in those moments, but I can say he wasn’t expressing his usual sadness. On days where it was my turn to care for him, I left the orphanage with a stomach ache.

At Orphanage B, I cared for infants and children up to age twelve, almost all of whom were orphaned because their parents had died of complications from AIDS. A lot of these children, like the children at Orphanage A, suffered from malnutrition. There was a boy I carried on my hip most of the day who I thought was two years old that I later found out was six.

One night at Orphanage B, the man who ran the orphanage and his wife invited the volunteers to dinner. They had killed a chicken for only the guests to eat. The children got their usual fare: rice with watery tomato sauce. I could feel their eyes on me as I moved the food around on my plate, my fork never touching my lips, my heartbeat quickening.

I started sneaking pieces of the chicken to the children sitting around me. They kept whispering, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” They were shocked I’d give away something so precious and also scared of me getting caught because giving away food gifted to you by your host is considered very rude.

With each tiny piece of meat I gave away (keep in mind, this was a real chicken, not one from the States pumped up with hormones — this one barely had any meat), all I kept thinking was chips. Ice cream. Cereal. Candy. Here were children getting excited about a few minuscule bites of chicken, and in a normal day, I was throwing up so much food. My stomach empty, I shook our hosts’ hands and thanked them for having us.

The next day, the little boy I always carried on my hip gestured to a barren tree and got upset when I didn’t know what he wanted. I’d walk over to it with him and he kept saying things in Swahili I didn’t understand, getting more and more frustrated with me. By the time my little friend was on the verge of tears, an older child came over and explained that the tree was an orange tree and it had been picked a few weeks before. The orphanage director let each kid have an orange. The older child was telling me that my buddy was asking where all the oranges were.

I went back to the compound that night and threw out all my meds.

A month later, when it was time for me to go home, I landed in JFK and wept. In America, I realized, I had everything: a chance at earning a secondary education most people in the world will never get the opportunity to receive, medicine, indoor plumbing. It was like I fell back in love with the life I was trying so hard to escape from. The first time I went to a supermarket after coming home, all I kept thinking was what my kids would think if they ever saw one.

The next academic year came, and I reenrolled at NYU. I went to therapy and nutritionist appointments once a week for three years. By the age of 22, I started going to treatment less and less, only for maintenance. Despite being out for an entire semester, I managed to graduate on time. I was even an RA on the same floor I lived on as a freshman. When I was a junior, I lived directly across the hall from the room I almost killed myself in. (Now that’s some cosmic shit.)

Sitting on the floor of my freshman dorm room contemplating suicide, I couldn’t even fathom the life I live now.

I remember a child asking me how I got to Africa from the United States and, using a stick, I drew a picture of an airplane in the dirt.

“Can you go anywhere on an airplane?” she had asked me. And I had said yes. I knew I could go anywhere. Anywhere.