A Beautiful, Honest op-ed Piece on Bulimia
Written by one of SMHL’s own.
Taken from The Harvard Crimson.
If I’ve learned anything from my childhood, it’s that you can achieve anything that you put your mind to. If you want it badly enough, you can find a way to achieve it. The way movies framed it, part of growing up—your coming of age—was to realize that you are capable in every sense, and to capitalize on it.
I would think about this a lot in high school, when applying for extracurricular positions or finishing papers late into the night. When I did do well, it was a justification of what I believed in—it gave me the motivation to work harder. It came to be an incredible thrill, a funny sort of recklessness, to see how far I could push myself.
I continued freshman year. I felt empowered utilizing my twenty minutes on the T to study, or going out Saturday night then waking up at 6 a.m. to do work. I can’t remember if I ever truly cared about any of this, but I felt a high seeing how efficient I could be. I was functioning at a whole new level, in which I could do everything, and do everything well.
Eating was the one part of my life that was uncontrollable. I struggled with bulimia. It was two to four hours of extreme, disgusting excess: too much food, too much emotion. Those were hours I would try to remember later—how many loaves had I finished? Did I really drink four liters of water? Had I cried? I would struggle terrifically, then wash up and go to a meeting. This physical and mental sloppiness happened at least a few times a week. But I did all I could do at the time, which was to simply contain it.
Classes were going well, and I found a great group of friends. My life increasingly diverged. I compartmentalized my school life more and more, only to spend hours alone reeling with physical pain. But still, in some ways, I was performing even better than I had before. I found more and more ways to cut back on sleep and socializing; I reset the bar of being “functional.”
But that all changed when my standing as a student became in jeopardy. Looking back, I genuinely believe I did all that I could at the time to overcome bulimia. It became another chance to excel. I tried about 15 different breathing exercises. (I was deliberately attempting to relax far more often than I actually was relaxing.) I gave myself a timetable for recovery. I felt selfish, pained, and burdensome to my friends. I had to get better, or else. I didn’t know what would come next.
Yet “next” is where I found myself just a few months later. Things didn’t get better. I couldn’t stop purging; cold water hurt my teeth. I still got unpredictably, deeply depressed. Freshman fall’s schoolwork had gone well enough, in my eyes, but I was failing so miserably at what mattered most: being functional enough to stay in school. It was especially painful watching myself fall apart while knowing how hard I had tried. I ended up having to go home for the rest of spring semester, which for me spelled out the end of normal life as I knew it.
It took all of six months to tackle the groundwork of recovery, and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. A lot of it was quiet realizations: that I wasn’t super-human, that achievements were fleeting, and that sustaining a quality of life was a responsibility. It was the opposite of the exhaustion had gotten me through high school and freshman year.
Recently I found the quote, attributed to Marilyn Monroe: “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” In retrospect, I very much believe so. I know that what I may have lost has been more than made up in what I have since found. While I can’t quite tally it all up, despite every time things didn’t go as planned—having to go on leave being only one example—, so much good has happened since. I found a wonderful group of girls to block with, who support me and genuinely care. I have found the concentration I love, and with the time formerly devoted to bulimia, I have been able to find moments of peace and quiet.
And I still believe that I anything is possible. I still believe that if I try hard enough, I can achieve whatever it is I’m looking for. But what I want is very different, and I understand that achieving my material goals has little relation to the kind of person I am. At a place like Harvard, a community that thrives on superlatives—the smartest, the best, the brightest—it is easy, if not necessary, to believe that our initiative to control the quantitative things around us makes us successful. Through bulimia, I’ve come to realize that I’m not in control of everything. And maybe it’s something I’ve known deep down all along.
But at last I can say I’m truly happy about it.
Angela Lee ‘14 is an anthropology concentrator in Dunster House. This is part of a semester-long series organized by SMHL (Student Mental Health Liaisons) to encourage conversation around mental health. You can find previous columns here and here