Does Dirt Have Calories? My Story

“The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” — Audrey Hepburn

Today I’m taking a brief detour from my Monday series to share a story I posted last year about an important turning point in my life. It’s one of the inspirations behind the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest, which will reoccur on February 22nd. If you’d like to participate, pop back here Thursday for details. I can’t wait to sing, dance, laugh, shout and think about beauty again with all of you.

*****

I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris—woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should have been a pinnacle in the modeling career I’d held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder. Where logic would’ve told me to get some rest, nourish my body and tend to the day’s work responsibilities, E.D. commanded I wake up and run! Breakfast, castings, agency meetings and photo shoots would have to wait; my sole priority was the upkeep of my disease.

My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots, sugarless ice tea and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn far more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness—i.e., happiness, success, perfection. I had to run.

I slipped my feet into my worn out, blood-stained sneakers, stepped out of my tiny Parisian flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel haze of the sunrise—a living, breathing Monet. It’s beauty could’ve taken a blind man’s breath away, I wrote in my journal. I didn’t deserve it.

The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting. Forty-five plus six plus ten…plus five plus ten plus three… I estimated the previous day’s “damage” then plotted an itinerary of exercise and occasional food bits to compensate. So accustomed to ignoring the dizziness and fatigue accompanying me, anything else would’ve felt foreign. But this time was different.

Pushing aside the added sense of off-ness in my gut, I observed the dip in the ground ahead: It looks like an adult-size cradle... Perhaps I knew what was coming.

I ran with increasing dizziness and pain, as though a metal clamp squeezed my brain. RUN. Don’t stop! You can’t. Tears stung at my eyes as I tried to outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. For a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.

I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than contemplate how long I’d been there or if I’d been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories?

I don’t recall who found me or how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: “You have anorexia. Do you understand what that means? You could’ve died. You…could die.”

Her words blurred together like fog on a windshield as my thoughts went wild. She’s crazy! I can’t have anorexia. Please don’t make me eat… I felt neither thin nor “skilled” enough to have a disorder characterized by starvation. Sure, I had problems—the “cancer in my soul” I’d journaled about. I felt physically and emotionally rotted and weak, but couldn’t make sense of anything. I only knew I had to go home.

The week after I arrived in Minneapolis, I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. Once I accepted my diagnosis, anorexia seemed the one special thing about me. If I let it go, what was left? The word ‘recovery’ seemed synonymous with ‘fatness,’ ‘failure’ and ‘mediocrity.’

As my starving measures increased, my emotional and physical self tolerated them less and less. My therapist repeatedly threatened in-patient treatment. I lied, promising I would eat more and gain necessary weight.

Finally, one of my worst nightmares came true. In a moment of despair, I gave in to my longing for a single bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the dollop of creamy cold sweetness into my mouth, my entire body trembled. I felt intoxicated, a sense of danger, head-to-toe orgasm and temporary relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, then all that remained of the half gallon. The fatty cream sat like a putrid rock in my shrunken stomach. I’d never felt so ashamed.

The bingeing/starving roller coaster that followed was the most excruciating and important occurrences in my recovery. At its worst, I entered what my therapist called a “bulimic trance.” The bingeing took over and I had little awareness of all I’d consumed until I found myself sobbing amidst wrappers and crumbs.

As weight returned to my body, friends and family told me how healthy I looked: “You’re filling out so nicely!” The well-intended comment haunted me for months.

Desperate to stop bingeing, I decided to take my treatment more seriously.

“I will do anything to stop this,” I told my therapist.

“Good,” she said. “It starts with eating. After you binge, don’t skip your next meal.”

Anything but that. I resisted her instructions, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were just strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired and stop bingeing at once. It sounded Utopian. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.

One night, after a fast ended in a gargantuan binge, I hit a new bottom. I considered gulping the poison I’d used on occasion to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear life as I knew it. In a fury, I scavenged the house for the tiny bottle. When I couldn’t find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.

Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. That calmness, paired with tired frustration and an inability to foresee life continuing as Hell, brought clarity. Try something new. You have to.

I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror, as though nearing a fatal cliff. For the first time in too long, I looked not at my hips, belly or thighs, but into my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.

“You can’t live like this anymore!” I told my reflection. “I won’t let you hate yourself so much. This is not who you are.” I didn’t know what I was fighting for, but my instincts said, Don’t give up.

My anger at ED and proclamations in the mirror were the first signs of self-love I’d displayed in years, the light switch in the dark cave I lived in. If I managed to turn it on, I knew my life would change. But the decision was only part of it… Rather than plot restriction strategies for the coming days, I had to plot a future free of ED.

The night became a Good Riddance Ed rampage. I threw my “skinny clothes” and scale in a dumpster and removed the size tags from clothes that fit. I trashed every fashion mag, food journal and diet book, sang my feelings into made-up songs. I vowed to myself that for one year, I would not diet, starve or make any other attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning, with trembling hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I ate breakfast, forcing thoughts of I love you, You deserve this, You’re going to be okay, with every bite.

Though I wanted to forego my commitments frequently over the subsequent weeks, I held fast. The bingeing continued at first, as did my weight gain, until I nearly doubled my lowest weight. If I have to start over every day, I will, I wrote. And start over again and again I did. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.

Gradually, I fought less with myself and slip-ups drew further between. Months later, I was no longer dieting, starving or bingeing and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends, writing songs and even, on occasion, laughing. But my recovery had reached a plateau. I felt awkward eating around others, anxious about eating too much or too little. The slightest pangs of hunger or fullness put me on edge. I saw plates of calories and felt guilty when I indulged. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn’t left. He’d merely grown quieter.

One day over steaming cups of Indian tea, my mom handed me a CD with a song she and my dad wanted me to hear: Lee Ann Womack’s, “I Hope You Dance.”

“It’s time to find joy,” she said. (And here I’d thought I had everyone fooled…)

The song’s message about “dancing,” which I took to mean many joyful things, hit me with profound force.

That evening I sat at a park watching a group of friends picnicking, captivated by a woman around my age. After a bite of her hearty sandwich, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back, exclaiming, “This is so good!” I longed for an ounce of her joy.

I’d been eating because I was “supposed” to, promised others I would and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep end again. In order to fully recover, I had to manifest joy around eating.

I knew it was possible because I’d experienced it. My childhood love affair with food seemed insatiable. Family photographs portray a bubbly, smiling girl holding an ice cream cone, sitting before a luminous birthday cake or about to take a chomp out of a fresh red apple from our backyard tree. Before bed, I often asked my parents what the next day’s breakfast would entail, “so I could dream about it.”

Food for my family meant togetherness, birthday celebrations, picnics by the lake, nightly home cooked meals—a special bond and clay with which we built memories. Until fear and ED had creeped in. No more, I decided.

I began studying food with a velocity I’d only previously applied to treadmills. I wanted to discover its goodness and stop dreaming of ways to avoid it. What did particular foods do for me? If not for managing weight, why did people eat them? How could I eat healthfully, and not by diet book standards of what that was?

I began addressing a self-compiled “I’m afraid of” list: Eat in public. Eat at a restaurant, alone. Eat a meal prepared by others without demanding particulars. Eat the ice cream that triggered my first binge, one serving at a time.

I traded my diet books for medical and dietetic texts that defined food as fuel, a necessary means of nutrients, and obtained my first certification in nutrition. I cooked, experimented with foods I’d never tried and volunteered at soup kitchens. I stopped aiming for dietary perfection. Multiple studies had convinced me that such increased my risk for bingeing, obesity, anxiety, depression and sleep problems—pretty much everything on my “No, thank you” list.

It took numerous attempts of arriving at an upscale restaurant alone before I dined there and several more before I enjoyed the food sans heavy sweating or heart palpitations. I wept over a homemade candlelit dinner for one, served on my grandmother’s china. I stocked my kitchen with food until it felt warm, loved and lived-in. Rather than cold and frightening, it felt like home. I took a Buddhist philosophy course and applied its principles to my meals. Eating slowly and without distraction soon went from mortifying to pacifying. On difficult days, I asked myself what I’d feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that—until gradually, finally I became her.

*****

On a cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table with a bowl of spicy chili and fresh-baked corn bread. An unexpected breeze blew through my apartment window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannelloni beans, I laughed. Struck my own amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table. All anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy had dissipated, leaving me with a palpable sense of peace.

I returned to Paris that summer to celebrate my recovery. Near the grassy patch where I’d fallen, I buried a capsule filled with cards from loved ones, photographs, under-sized clothes and copies of my songs and journal entries. ED’s funeral, I called it—a memorial service for my self. I ran along the Seine, this time grateful for the strong legs that carried me, the absence of pain and my second chance at a happy, healthy life.

*****

What events or decisions have helped you turn your life around? If you have thoughts or questions to share, I’d love to hear them.
Leave a comment

64 Comments

  1. Without a doubt, one of the most moving posts on the blogosphere. This one cannot be re-read enough. Thanks for posting, August.

    Karen

    Reply
  2. I’m working on my something now. But I can’t say because what if I can’t? This is my journey, and it’s really fucking hard. I’m journaling about it as I go, but it is slow-going.

    I’m glad you have found, what sounds like, a healthier relationship with food. Glad you made it to the other side. Right now, I can’t imagine it.

    Reply
    • Whatever it is, I’m cheering for you. And I’m confident that you can. If you ever want to talk about it, leaving details in or out, consider me a willing friend.

      Reply
    • Hang in there, Renee. You’ll make it…I know you will! 😀

      Reply
    • Renee – I hope you find your peace – and know that you have more power within you that you could ever believe or imagine – it’s there. I hope you take back your power, and your peace. You can do this.

      Reply
    • Raani York

       /  January 21, 2013

      Good Luck Renee! May strength be with you!!

      Reply
    • What August said…

      Whatever it is, I’m cheering for you, Renee. Damn straight it’s hard. I traveled a recovery path with alcoholism. And there’s a saying in “the rooms.” For so many years, I swallowed my emotions with wine. SOBER is an acronym: Son-of-a-Bitch, Everything’s Real!

      I sense your strength in the posts and comments you put out on the blog-o-sphere. Unleash that bad-a$$ girl and let her kick the butt of whatever challenge you face.

      This concludes my rant-a-thon. You’re welcome. 🙂

      Reply
  3. What a powerful narrative! Bless you for this amazing story of recovery and hope.

    Reply
  4. A story I know well. Kudos for sharing it.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for sharing your struggle and triumphs with us. It is close to my heart, I struggled with self-harm for many years,

    Reply
    • I’m often blown away by the remarkableness of people affected by self harm and addiction, Asrai. You’re certainly no exception. So happy to note the past tense!

      Reply
  6. I missed this the first time around, and I cried for you when I read it. You’re always so positive, and I hate that you had to spend years dealing with horrible ED (I like naming him). I’m so glad you’ve come out to be the strong, healthy woman you are.

    I’ve had my demons, depression being the biggest one, but nothing so intense and life-threatening as yours. With some outside help, I’ve learned to step back from trying to do everything myself, from feeling responsible for everything, and to feed my own spirit. And to acknowledge the grief that comes from unexpected places, not shove it aside. I still struggle sometimes – right now I’m working on recognizing the joy in my life. Not that it’s not there, but I get too focused on my have-to-do list to savor it (which is why I’m minimizing the goal setting right now). I am daily reminding myself out loud that I am lucky to be spending my days the way I choose, and to be grateful and joyful for that.

    Reply
    • Thank so much, Jennifer. My heart goes out to you regarding your depression, a condition which I’m certain preempted my ED. It sounds as though you’re taking invaluable steps. They add up, even when we feel our efforts (or sadly, we) are trivial. Don’t you dare give up, my friend. I’ve never stopped believing that the “prize is worth the rocky ride,” and that dark days make happy ones brighter. With you in spirit!

      Reply
  7. Wow! You are an incredible person, August! Thank you for sharing this. It is the most eloquent description of the struggle with eating disorders I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard quite a few).

    I definitely want to be part of the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest on the 22nd. Tell us more, please.

    Reply
  8. Life-changing events or decisions? Hmmmm…I’ll give that some thought. There have been many. Great post, August!

    Reply
  9. August, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to share a story of this magnitude. I’ve read it before and it’s even more compelling the second time around. By sharing your struggled with ED, you are helping other people going through the same thing. You should really consider penning a memoir someday. I’m starting to get more courage when it comes to sharing my own story too, which I allude to for the first time in my latest post. http://wp.me/p1UDsm-18h

    Blessings to you, my friend!

    Reply
    • I’ve sensed that your stories and artistry stem from some amount of hardship too, Stephanie. Thanks for the beautiful support. I can’t wait to read your post. Blessings back to you!

      Reply
  10. August, I’m so glad the E.D. didn’t win. We’d be all the poorer without you! Thank you for sharing your wonderfully-told story with us.

    Reply
  11. Over the last year, I’d ironically kept losing weight without knowing quite why. Believe me, I know the “Games” and I was not playing them, not this time.

    And as the weight kept lowering, I’d have this feeling of terror and perplexed angst – but underneath, this thrill rose up – this awful terrible familiar scary THRILL.

    The ultimate irony of past self-indulgent behaviors?

    By the way – I ate dirt as a child. I was so hungry. I couldn’t get enough. There wasn’t enough food at that time in our lives, and the dirt filled and filled and filled. I’d never eaten with such abandon. Fingers full, little-child-fists-full, cramming gritty Texas dirt into my mouth, trying to fill the empty spaces.

    Though I didn’t go as far as you back in my anorexic-behaviors days, I saw myself here. And how sad it is that we do these terrible awful things to ourselves.

    You are worthy, and beautiful, and talented. And taking back your power – that’s what it’s all about: taking back our power and not giving it away to those who scratch against our brain the messages that we are not worthy and thus must disappear.

    Reply
    • My heart about broke, reading about your starving childhood belly. 😦 Anorexia definitely takes away perspective and gratitude.

      I remember that thrill, and more so the horror. It takes a great deal of honesty and maturity to observe such feelings when they crop up post recovery… May “the voices” never wreak havoc on your life again. Those messages are tough to beat down, even after we stop fearing/presuming “fatness”—which isn’t really what any of it’s about.

      I’m grateful that I haven’t had major ED reflux (ha) in a long time, and don’t for see any coming. That said, I’ll never forget or take for granted the wreckage or healing. I believe in full, past-tense recovery, but not in stripping away that which helped make us who we are.

      Thanks for the precious insight, Kat. Taking the power back, YES!

      Reply
  12. Reblogged this on Miracle Mile Girls and commented:
    “Does Dirt Have Calories?” Something Jessica would worry about…

    Reply
  13. I love this. I’ve struggled with ED and this hits home.

    Reply
  14. Kourtney Heintz

     /  January 21, 2013

    August this post is so poignant and personal. Thank you for sharing this. I was at a store this weekend and it broke my heart to hear this teenager repeatedly call herself fat and ugly and say nothing looked right on her body because it was fat. The viciousness with which she attacked herself really shocked me. I forgot how cruel adolescence is and how cruel we can be to ourselves.

    Reply
  15. August, it pained me to read this – so sad and yet so uplifting. And to know all the horrible things you went through. I hope your sense of peace and well being stays lifelong. I can relate to food issues as I had them as a young child into adulthood, due to a trauma. I would gorge on food until I was sick trying to fill some empty hole. I didnt get help for this until my 20s, but it still lingers as I continue to battle with food and binging. I try not to be too hard on myself as I always get back on track to a healthy lifestyle after a day or two – and I know I need it now to feel good, physically and mentally. I worry at times that my son has an obsession with food as he loves eating and plans his meals and treats days in advance – then I laugh, as I look at how healthy he is and that he is just a big, growing boy at 10 and not becoming overweight. Bravo to you for conquering the dark inside! You continue to inspire us.

    Reply
  16. This is such a stunning story. And so important. Thank you.

    Reply
  17. Raani York

     /  January 21, 2013

    Dearest August,
    I was reading this blog post with great interest and sympathy. You had to go through so much and I had tears in my eyes through reading.
    A friend of mine fought this kind of battle as well – but didn’t do as well as you did! And there was nothing I could do to help her.
    I admire you for your inner strength and for your hope and not giving up!!
    You’re such a beautiful, strong and great woman!
    I’m proud to be able to call you my friend!

    Reply
    • Aw. Thank you for the lovely words, Raani! I’m so sorry your friend’s battle didn’t end well. That’s the case for far to many, and it’s incredibly tough on everyone affected. Lots of love! Some of recovery’s greatest gifts are friends like you. 🙂

      Reply
  18. Thank you.

    Reply
  19. Reblogged this on little box of books and commented:
    Interesting!

    Reply
  20. I admire your courage!

    Reply
  21. Your story is so inspiring!

    Reply
  22. You’re a strong woman. 😀 Thanks for sharing. I don’t think people realize how hard an eating disorder is or just what it does to a person.
    I’m glad you had the will power to become healthy; because you wanted to.

    Reply
    • Right you are, Daphne. Eating disorders are incredibly complex, and difficult to comprehend if you’ve (fortunately) not had one. That’s one reason I channeled my story into fiction. Little is as terrifying as ED.

      Reply
  23. This post was the first I read from The Beautiful, Passionate, August McLaughlin.

    It moved me then. It moves me now.

    I think you know my story. I struggled with alcoholism for years; filling a hole in soul. I did not think I would ever live a day, let alone nearly 1,700 days without my best buddy, Pinot Grigio.

    I don’t how or why or when I crossed the line. Much like you probably don’t recall when your disease took control of you. But, it doesn’t really matter, does it? It doesn’t matter how our metaphorical cars ended up in the ditch. They did. But you, through your own strength, journaling, and determination got back on path.

    I did the same. And guess what? I can speak in public, be fun, have fun, attend parties where alcohol is served, dance alone in public, do silly things, and enjoy life more on this side of that hell.

    It does not surprise me you pulled on those memories and experiences for the character arcs in your stellar debut novel. KUDOS!

    Reply
    • Indeed, Gloria—the whys and when exactlys matter not in the grande scheme of things. Hitting bottom can thrust us up toward recovery and beyond, if we let it.

      I know exactly what you mean about the greater joy on the other side. There’s a whole lot of thriving to be savored once we survive. 🙂 Thank you for being the bright light you are, Gloria! Everyone who knows you or reads your work is blessed by your recovery.

      Reply
  24. Before I forget, I have tagged you for a game in my current post.
    Now,…
    I had sought for many years to work through my depression, my OCD, my fears, my high blood pressure, my insomnia, and so many other things that stemmed from my lack of self-esteem and my guilt. To say I was a mess was such an understatement. I hid a lot, but some of it showed through … if you were looking. Some were; many weren’t.
    I read hundreds of self-help books, studied, went to some seminars, talked to dozens of people … all the things that helped me to help others when I counseled and taught. Finally, God helped me directly – he allowed me to have my stroke. Don’t get me wrong. The stroke was not a good thing; I should have died (did die) should have stayed dead, but it also reset all my filters, and I chose to leave a lot of them off. I am a new person. I am much happier and more fulfilled. I can’t work, but do so many other things like write, blog, make comments, talk to people, and share what I have gone through. It is all good; God does take everything and work it to the good…just believe in yourself and have some faith…God does the rest. Listen; it’s in everything!
    Scott
    PS- I am adding this post to my “Intriguing Posts I have Found”. I hope that’s all right. This is a fabulous post; it almost had me in tears.

    Reply
    • I so connect with much of what you said. Self-esteem? Nope. Self-nurturing? Nope. Self-help books? Not unless they could cure me in 10 minutes or less.

      The person who lived inside me wasn’t the person I shared with the world until God conked me on the noggin with that last bottle of wine.

      He is the one who took away my desire and need to drink. He is the one who connected my inner and outer selves.

      I am so glad you also found your path to the whole you.

      I’d apologize for the blog-jack, August, but I know you don’t mind those. 😉

      Reply
      • Wonderful, Gloria. It’s wonderful in how many ways God can do what He does. I had an awful lot of really bad days that I can now look back on and see how God worked them all to get me where I am now.
        Scott

  25. Great story, very inspiring. I particularly loved the post title. As I ponder about it, I ask, What is calorie? It is energy. And of course, dirt,. either in our minds or in the environment, can become a shifter of energy. So yes, dirt can have calories.

    Cheers

    Shakti

    Reply
  26. August, I don’t know how I missed this beautiful post. You have such an amazing strength! Thank you for sharing it again!

    Reply
  27. August–I was sick for years and i too found solace in writing. I will be following your blog for sure! If you ever get a chance can you give me writing feedback? I’d love a mentor like Mike was for you!

    Reply
    • Lovely to meet you! I’m happy to hear that you’ve too found healing. Creativity is powerful medicine, right? Please do consider me a resource. 🙂

      Reply
  28. I love that you thought about what you’d feed a dear friend, then made that for yourself. Now that I’m on my own, I have a hard time cooking for one — just no fun in it. But, I’m going to try your idea. Thanks so much for sharing your triumph with us!

    Reply
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