Contributor: Dani Volk MA, LPC, CADC-II
Those of us in the behavioral health field specializing in the treatment of eating disorders are very aware that eating disorders are lethal. We know that engaging in the behaviors of restricting; binging and or purging along with other compensatory behaviors wreak havoc on one’s body.
The emotional anguish that accompanies these pervasive disorders I believe is the worst part. How many of you reading this right now can relate to never being able to see yourself the way your friends and family see you?
Yes, I know that we can never truly view ourselves in the manner that others do, eating disordered or not, but people suffering from ED and Body Dysmorphic Disorder really do have an altered perception of themselves.
When I say “themselves” I am referring to how one perceives their bodies (size, weight & shape) and also who they are as a person in their world. The beliefs we have about ourselves, our own thoughts, feelings and ultimately our reality becomes extremely distorted.
Recovery for me personally, is an ongoing process that I believe, will be a lifetime journey. I have lost people in my life due to my inability at the time, to accept my own true reality and to allow others to have theirs. Now, I can say that I have a much better understanding of my ED and codependency and I work each day to challenge it and grow that beautiful inner authentic voice that had been stifled since my childhood.
“Ready Set….Wait” is a title I chose because it symbolizes how my recovery looks to me as I reflect on my journey thus far. My eating disorder succeeded in hiding many times, allowing me to really believe that I had “gotten over it” and as I attempted to stretch my wings, I found myself spiraling down out of control shortly after.
It also symbolizes my perfectionism and my repeated attempts to literally hurl myself into some endeavor with the expectation (of my own of course) that whatever it was had to be perfect. These unrealistic expectations could not be met, and the result would be me bailing and running away towards yet another project with unrealistic expectations. This repeated behavior undoubtedly burned some bridges and I continue to attempt to make amends where I can.
Many times, I have had the notion to sit down and write my story. Why I haven’t until now, I believe, is quite telling. I am a survivor of ED, and my story much like other women’s stories, is filled with loss, grief, trauma, baby steps, mistakes, false starts, successes and ultimately happiness.
I don’t believe my story is unique, and as you read it, if you are struggling with an eating disorder or striving for recovery I am venturing to guess you will find yourself nodding at times because we all have a common denominator. I do however hope that my story will lend insight and be helpful to you in your journey.
~ White Walls
I can smell the hospital about one hundred yards away. It smells of gauze, iodine, rubber gloves and hospital food. A common meal would be green beans, mashed potatoes that never had quite the right consistency and some sort of protein. Dried out chicken maybe. And for dessert…rice pudding or the occasional rainbow jello.
We park far away because the parking lot is always so full. As we unbuckle our seatbelts and get out of the little blue Honda hatchback, Jessie and I ask if we can go to McDonald’s after to get ice cream and chicken nuggets. Mom says “sure,” as she blows long grey tendrils of smoke out of her lungs. Both mom and dad smoke a lot. Mom enjoys the cool bite of Newport’s and dad is a Winston fan.
I hate being in the car when they smoke and would always hold my shirt up over my nose and have a tantrum. As we near the sliding glass doors, I look up and take in the front view of Children’s Hospital. To anyone, but especially a four year old, the building looked massive. I know what to expect as mom, Jessie and I climb the short stair case to the long hall way that would lead us to the elevator.
That elevator would take us to the children’s cancer floor. My mom would be greeted by the nurses as we entered the unit and I would watch as they bantered about the weather and about how expensive gas was getting. My four year old senses were keen already however my young brain had already become quite adept at taking me away from here while I appeared to be present to the grown-ups.
Jessie always seemed to be calm and collected during these hospital trips but I could never understand why. I had watched her get stuck with so many needles over the short course of my life and personally, had a very different reaction when I had to face the terror of getting a simple shot or blood drawn. Typically it included being held down and promised ice cream if I was a good girl.
Before too long, a nurse clad in a colorful set of scrubs, maybe with zoo animals on it, and squeaky clean white tennis shoes would come and collect my mother and my sister and I would be taken to the play room where other siblings of sick kids would play video games. I would sit down on the cool white tile and begin playing Mario Brothers on the Nintendo.
Other siblings were there, I know that, but I don’t believe I ever made an attempt to integrate into the group. After a few hours, it would be time to go home. Jessie would emerge from behind the double doors looking exhausted and usually had several colorful band aids to cover the injection sites. We would walk back down that long hallway, down the steps and out of the hospital.
This whole scenario happened often. So often in fact that one would think I would have very specific memories of the nurses and other families, however all I can recall with any true clarity are the distinct aromas of hospital, hospital food and the white walls of that hallway.
I knew my sister was sick. We were really close and I had become very protective over her as I came to realize that she was cognitively delayed. The tumor had been located in her brain at the age of 4 and I had been conceived right around the time of diagnoses. I wasn’t planned. My father’s mother I have been told, had encouraged my mother to have an abortion when it was found that she was pregnant with me.
I mean, I guess I can see how overwhelming things must have been…Jessie had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and my mom had finally secured a decent job, so I was putting a bit of a wrench in things. There had been times, during my own illness, that I had been resentful towards my mother that she didn’t go through with aborting the pregnancy.
Sitting here now, I am so very grateful that she chose to bring me into this world. I do believe that a higher power was involved in my conception. My mother had been told, after having several miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, that she would never conceive again. And then there was me, right when Jess was diagnosed. Coincidence? I think not.
I have a picture of Jess from before she got sick and I look at it often. My sister had long thick dark brown hair, flawless milky white skin that showed off her intense dark brown eyes. Eyes that were framed by long dark black eyelashes. The chemo and radiation had taken all of her hair and I can remember going wig shopping with mom, grandma and Jess. She hated it, said it was itchy and would rather go bald.
I remember asking my mom to cut my hair as short as she could so I could be like Jessie. I have a few pictures of that haircut and I smile when I see it. It resembles a bowl cut that boys in the early nineties would sport.
One thing about having a terminally ill sibling…your parents are a bit preoccupied.
As I mentioned earlier, my brain was a master at removing me from my true reality and into a fantastic world where unicorns were real and I was saved numerous times a day by a prince riding on a glorious horned creature with massive wings. My childhood room between the ages of 3 and 6 was filled with everything imaginable that was unicorn. When I realized Unicorns didn’t exist, I was devastated.
The closest thing to them was horses, and luckily I quickly became enamored with the large gentle beasts. I spent a great deal of time at my Grandma’s home while my father worked two jobs and my mom and Jessie visited the hospital for various procedures and treatments. There I would read for hours on end, anything horse related. My Dad recognized my passion for horses and scraped up enough money to purchase riding lessons at a nearby stable. He had ridden as an adolescent and seemed thrilled that I had developed a passion for the hobby.
I loved being near horses! The smell of the barn as I walked in filled my nostrils and immediately removed any memory of the day’s pain of watching my sister die. The sharp smell of sawdust and comforting aroma of fresh cut hay energized yet calmed me. Sitting atop a horse allowed me to move in ways that two legs just couldn’t afford. Riding was my life and I yearned to have a horse of my own.
At the age of 8, my Dad took me to see an appendix quarter horse named Nicky. I fell in love with his deep mahogany bay coloring, tall black socks and long black mane and tail. He was mine and I loved him so. Many evenings, I could be found at the boarding stable where he was kept, sitting in the corner of his stall whispering my deepest fears to him. His soft liquid brown eyes would stare patiently at me while I recited all that I was frightened of and he would nuzzle my face as I cried.
I have large gaps in my memory from the ages of 6-10. What I do recall, is that I was acutely aware that my sister was very ill, that horses were my saving grace, that nobody in my family ever discussed Jessie’s illness and that my mother was not emotionally available.
~The Loss of my Sister
It was raining hard. I was lying in Jessie’s bed that night, thinking about my 9th birthday party and how much fun it had been. My Dad had actually brought our horses to the house! Nicky, my beautiful bay gelding and Tommy, a stunning red sorrel quarter horse my Dad had purchased for himself were standing in the backyard along with all of my childhood friends.
This was a miracle as far as I was concerned. Horses just didn’t visit the suburbs of Milwaukee often and these were our horses! I smiled and laughed all afternoon with my friends while I led Nicky around in circles giving them each a ride. Jessie was there too, and I was having a difficult time coping with that because I was aware that she was going to be leaving to go to the hospital and staying there for some kind of procedure.
I remember gazing at my sister during that party. She was wearing her normal get up; a pair of pink sweatpants and a sweatshirt with some kind of stitched animal on the front, white sneakers and a hat to protect her head. Whisps of black hair were barely visible underneath the cap and the long scar from the last brain surgery was shaped like a crowbar, starting at the top of her ear and curving upward and then down to the base of her neck.
Because of the chemo, radiation and cocktail of drugs she was prescribed for the cancer, Jess had ballooned in weight. She was five years older than me, however I was so far ahead of her with regards to cognitive functioning. I recall how painful that had been for me, that moment I realized that I was capable of things that my older sister was not.
Older sisters are supposed to teach their younger sisters things like how to do your hair and makeup and how to get away with stuff. I had a lot of resentment about not being able to experience these things with Jessie and at times, would take out my frustrations on her. Even at my young age, that was not something I was proud of.
The rain came down harder. I wrapped myself in the comforter and wished that Jessie was in the bed beside me. Mom had left earlier to go to the hospital, but I didn’t know why, and I could vaguely hear the hum of the television in the living room where Dad was sitting in his recliner. It was late, I knew that much. I don’t know how much time had passed, but I had drifted off to sleep and was awoken by my father lifting me, blanket and all into his arms and telling me we had to go to the hospital.
He carried me outside of our little brown house and towards the blue Ford F150. I can’t remember too much about that car ride, but I do remember a Billy Joel cassette was playing and I somehow found comfort in the music amidst the spattering of rain drops and the occasional thunderclap.
When we arrived at the hospital, I remember turning the corner into the children’s cancer unit and having the nurses sweep me up and away from my father.
I didn’t want to go to the play room…I was nine years old and was very aware that something was drastically wrong. Here I was, standing in my pajamas late at night in a hospital. My Dad looking like he had just fought a battle and lost, came back and walked me to a window where I could see Jessie. I remember staring through that window and recognizing my sister, but realizing that she somehow looked different…whiter maybe?
My mother was hysterical. I can’t tell you how long we were there. I know that I was walked into the room to say goodbye to my sister, and I thought that was pretty much asinine. What do you mean say goodbye to Jessie?! I touched her hand and recoiled immediately as I registered the clammy coolness of her skin. Her eyes would not open again.
The last memory I have of that day is my Dad holding me on his hip, much like a toddler is held, and my mother standing alongside us, unable to speak. We were in an elevator taking us down, away from the children’s cancer unit, away from my very best friend and the only sister I had. I decided to ask if I could have a puppy, and my father said yes.
I then proceeded to disengage from my world even more and refused to talk for weeks. I visited child psychologists, therapists, my parents begged me to talk. I don’t remember much of this at all, but I am told that I spent a great deal of time in Nicky’s stall and I read more books in that time than most people do in a decade. Then one day, I looked up from my book to address my parents and said, “You two have each other, I lost my sister, my best friend.”
All my life, up to the age of ten, my family had lived in a suburb of Milwaukee Wisconsin. My paternal grandparents were there, as well as my maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides. I had a large family! About a year after Jessie had passed away, my Dad found a five acre hobby farm about an hour away from our neighborhood.
The plan was to get us out of the little brown house that had been our family’s home and move to the country, bring our horses’ home and live a life of serenity. The only problem with this grand plan was that none of us; Mom, Dad nor I, had processed or grieved Jessie’s death.
Those first few years on the farm were difficult. My mother missed having her family close and accessible and I did too. My Grandma had practically raised me along with my aunt Sandy. In the mornings, my mother would call Grandma (her mother) and talk for hours, chain smoking in the kitchen. My mom and I began to fight.
I didn’t know what I wanted, but I certainly was upset with her and she and I were trying to cope with not having an integral member of the family with us any longer. My Dad kept his job in Milwaukee and would leave early in the morning and return for dinner at night. We continued to bond over the horses. School was tough for me.
I had had several close childhood friends before we moved and was shy and felt like an outsider in my new town. Anxiety and perfectionism entered my life and grades began to be my obsession. My mom and I continued to fight endlessly, however we also had a very codependent relationship which left me feeling confused and angry. I believe I had the beginnings of depression during those pre-adolescent years and became more and more isolative and engaged with the horses.
My freshman year in high school was painful. It took me three full days to pick out the perfect outfit, which was literally a pair of Abercrombie low rise flare leg jeans and a grey t-shirt with flip flops. I was painfully ashamed of my appearance, but didn’t have a ton of awareness about it yet. I body checked constantly, feeling my sides, trying to stand so my thighs wouldn’t touch, and sucking in my stomach. All of this was automatic and went on without me being super conscious about it. In the evenings, I would look into the mirror at home and wish that my body size and shape was different.
I also started to compare myself to the popular girls at school who all seemed beautiful, thin and happy. I was confused because this was new…this body dissatisfaction and ultimately hatred. My eating habits did not change though. As I attempted to integrate myself into the popular, pretty, thin crown and failed, my depressive symptoms evolved, however I had no idea what it was and neither of my parents had much to say about it.
Then I started to binge. Sophomore year I can recall eating the lunch that was provided at school, then going to Culver’s and buying a large Oreo blizzard, would consume that, only to turn back around and buy an ice cream sandwich. I would return home and have a heaping dinner and retreat to the barn where I would snack on cookies, pretzels or whatever else I could sneak out in sandwich bags.
I wasn’t doing anything to compensate for the additional calorie influx, so naturally, I gained weight. This lead to deeper feelings of despair, but I was comforted by the food and very confused. I had friends and we were close, but I was still not part of the popular crowd and believed that because of this, I was less than and not good enough.
When I was sixteen and near the end of my sophomore year, my mother decided to go on Weight Watchers. I followed suit. In no time flat, I had the value of every food in the house labeled and eating out or at school was forbidden. I took the time to count out each portion, packed each lunch for school and would only allow myself the lowest point value that the program had.
Then I decided that the true challenge was to eat as few points as possible. I could practice being perfect at this and it took up a lot of brain space…perfect! I lost weight rapidly. I began to get compliments at school and more attention from boys. This did not bode well for my high school sweetheart and our two year relationship came to an abrupt end.
This was the first of many relationships to literally get mowed over by my ED. My mom and I finally had something to bond over…maintaining a restrictive diet. The restricting part of the pendulum had me in its grips and for the next twelve years I was caught in the throes of a life threatening eating disorder that almost cost me my life.
Abiding by the constant laws and rules that an ED formulates and dictates is a full time job. I experienced my most acute symptoms during my freshman year in college. I didn’t want to go to college, but my Dad had said I had to go, so I pulled out a University of Wisconsin map, closed my eyes and dropped a finger onto it. The University of Platteville. Awesome.
Shortly after arriving to campus and getting settled, a typical day would be to get up, run ten miles, eat a portioned breakfast consisting of about a 1/6 of the calories that a typical person would consume much less a person that ran ten miles a day and went to the gym in the evening. I would study relentlessly and expected straight A’s be produced, and they were. Lunch and dinner were sparse and only safe foods were allowed, right down to counting out grapes and slices of lunch meat.
When the cafeteria served any kind of pasta, my ED gave me permission to binge, however for days after, I would pay the price. I had no social life and in the evening, I would sit on my computer in the dorm room and surf the internet looking at horses for sale. I missed the farm terribly and would drive the two and a half hours every single Friday afternoon to get home.
Each week I would come home having dropped more weight and I can recall my Dad yelling at me saying, “Dani you have to eat, you are killing yourself.” I would sit at the kitchen table and monitor my mom while she made pancakes to my specifications, rigidly waiting for her to try and put some fattening agent into the “healthy” recipe that I had brought home.
Once served, I would sit listlessly and slowly consume the food, unable to make conversation at all. By the time the first year of college came around, I was at my lowest weight but made straight A’s! I came home at eighty three pounds and was a complete and total zombie.
My parents told me that I had to transfer schools so I could live at home again due to my compromised physical state. I was happy to come home where I could manage my ED and continue to work towards perfection. Or so I thought.
My Dad had had enough and after attempting several times to get me to see a therapist and go into an inpatient eating disorder treatment center with no success, kicked me out of my home. I will never forget that day for as long as I live.
My clothes and other personal belongings were packed carelessly into black garbage bags, my truck was put up for sale at the end of our driveway and the credit card I had been given specifically for purchasing fuel for that truck had been cut in half. I left on foot, sobbing but determined to continue this pursuit of perfection and this holy grail of thinness.
Somehow during this time, I managed to have a boyfriend who was thirteen years my senior. He seemed to like the fact that I was so thin and fragile and my ED thrived on that. We had started dating when I was seventeen, shortly after my first relationship ended and my low self-esteem propelled me to want to have the “perfect figure” to please this man who had obviously much more dating experience than I did.
I moved in with him, he bought me a vehicle and I worked part time at a nearby gas station while attending the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. This lasted for about six months. Then the first light bulb came on.
My passion for horses never waned during my illness and I had purchased a two year old buckskin stallion while I was still in Platteville. Ben had been trailered back to my boyfriend’s home and I had worked like the dickens at the gas station to save up money for him to be trained. As I waited on that mounting block for my first ride on Ben, I was as excited as my poor body could allow me to be.
It was about 60 degrees in Pewaukee Wisconsin that day, but I was dressed and looked like I was in Alaska. My body had grown a layer of peach fuzz all over it and I had long ago ceased menstruating. The leg cramps had started a year ago, and each night, I would wake up in excruciating pain, as my muscles cramped and twisted from lack of nutrition. I had also begun to notice that I had no control over my feet.
I walked like a duck. I went to a chiropractor and of course, that didn’t help. I remember being taken to a hospital and being poked with really long needles to assess for nerve damage…I think. The turning point, and it may sound crazy, was that I realized I couldn’t ride my horse. Those of us who ride, know the mantra. Heels down toes up!
Well, when you can’t feel the lower part of your leg and have no control over your feet, it’s pretty hard to balance on a horse. So I called my parents and told them I was coming home and that I knew I needed to see a therapist. I broke it off with my boyfriend and he and I drove his truck and trailer with Ben in it, back to my family farm.
My parents were horrified at my appearance, however they had hope that I would start outpatient treatment at least and start to get better. Looking back on it now, my idea of what recovery was then is almost comical. “I just need to regain some weight and get my act together” I thought. Little did I know that recovery meant…for me….heartache, anxiety, relapse, false starts, developing awareness, developing a sense of self and healing trauma that I hadn’t begun to even lift the lid on.
The last time I had been in a mental health provider’s office, I was nine years old and I refused to talk. Now, here I was…a nineteen year old with a raging ED that had me completely buying into its deluded promises. I was so malnourished I couldn’t even be emotive if I had wanted to. My therapist was a kind woman in her mid-thirties who claimed to have a very similar history with ED but I couldn’t give a rip.
I wanted to tell this woman what she wanted to hear, regain a little weight and carry on with my life. I had managed to continue achieving straight A’s in college and was starting my sophomore year at UW-Milwaukee. I had switched my major to Psychology and aspired to be a therapist…(I am actually smiling as I write this…how naïve I was at that time!). So, I told her what she wanted to hear.
She had weekly phone updates with my father, who saw that I was eating and attending my therapy sessions. My mother and I continued to be enmeshed and codependent on one another. I was also painfully and secretly resentful towards my father for abandoning me and throwing me out of my home when I needed my parents the most. I hated my mother for allowing him to do this!
These topics were certainly something I could have brought into therapy, however because I was feverishly attempting to get in and get out unscathed, it was never processed. Jessie’s death was also never discussed. When asked to come in for family work, my Dad said, “this is her problem.”
The re-feeding process was brutal. Obviously, everyone around me had recommended I go into residential treatment, but I of course had other ideas. Outpatient would suffice; I needed to finish college not only in a timely manner, but early!
It took me about six months to actually start to put on and maintain some weight. Somewhere during that time I had also dated and broke up with a man that was ten years my senior. That was another abusive relationship that fueled my illness and exacerbated my anxiety. I had gone to see a dietician early on in my illness, for one session. This time I refused to see a dietician, so I was attempting to eat like a “normal” person.
My digestive system was pissed, my anxiety was through the roof. This created the perfect storm for some serious IBS and that is when I started turning to alcohol to alleviate the anxiety.
~Pretending to be Better
At this time, I was entering my junior year in college. I was living at the farm with my folks, attending therapy, eating, and I started to work at a local fish fry place on Fridays for spending money. I had sold Ben, after realizing that I didn’t really have time for a young green broke horse. After work, my friends and I would drive down to one of the popular little dive bars and get pitchers of beer, play the juke box and get a little rowdy.
I loved it! How amazingly liberating it was to feel myself calm down, stop anticipating other’s thoughts about me and just exist! I met my next boyfriend at that bar.
Within four months of us dating, he invited me to move in with him and off we went, piling my clothes in the back of his truck and driving the four short miles to his cute little home. Beer drinking there was a nightly routine and he, myself and the other male roommate would sit in the gazebo in the back yard and serve ourselves cans of Coors Light from the mini fridge.
I of course, had absolutely no comprehension at the time about how alcohol and eating disorders have a propensity to skip down the street together whistling little tunes of craziness in ones ear, but I would find that out shortly.
Life seemed to be moving along quite nicely. I continued to struggle with horrendously low self-esteem despite my boyfriend reassuring me that I was beautiful. Around this time, my mom and dad decided to try the Atkins diet and I just had to see what that was all about. Hey, I was eating! I was just omitting any kind of carbohydrate that could potentially give my body the energy it needed to function and have healthy brain activity.
I lost weight of course, which alarmed my parents, but I was living with my boyfriend and had been offered a job bartending at a busy bar in a nearby town, so I didn’t have to interface with them often.
I seriously thought I was cured of ED and as long as I had a few drinks in social settings, the shame of being me would disappear and I would be just fine. I just had to get in shape for this new job…so I started increasing my physical activity once again and could be found running the country roads every morning and every evening. The increased compulsive exercise coupled with the lack of consistent nutrition left me lying on the side of the road after having passed out during a run.
I woke up scared, remembering all of the times I had woken up in the shower after fainting in Platteville, and walked home to tell my boyfriend I needed help. Looking back, I can honestly say that I really wanted help at that time. Like…right at that time. I desperately wanted to be freed from this evil prison that had me chained, bound and gagged for so many years already.
~Ready Set…..Wait #1
So here I was, in the ER being worked up to go into treatment. My father had successfully gotten my therapist on the phone and handed it to me. “Dani…its time. You really need to go in and get the help.” I honestly thought that this was the day I was finally going to surrender, but it wasn’t.
I refused and agreed to start a partial hospitalization program the very next day. I just knew that I wasn’t like all of those other women that had to go inpatient to get better! I made it three days at partial, learned how to purge from a peer and vowed that I would not allow my ED to get out of control again.
The first night of work at the bar, I walked into a dark, smoke filled place roaring with music. The place was packed and people were shaking dice, dancing and appearing to be having the time of their lives. The owner gave me a quick tour of the back bar and then I was serving drinks. The night was a blur of people shouting at me, learning quickly how to read drunken slurred lips, and getting completely drenched in booze.
The other young women that were employed there gave me lessons on how to make money and being scantily clad in mini-skirts and crop tops was a part of that formula. Also, staying after and having a few drinks with the customers never hurt either. I would get to work at 8pm and get home at 2:30 or 3:00am and I was bringing in good tips.
My relationship with my boyfriend began to suffer, and I was getting more and more frustrated with the amount of beer consumption that was taking place at the house. Night after night, I would see people get inebriated and the last thing I wanted to see when I came home early in the morning was a bunch of men passed out on my living room floor after a baseball game and BBQ that I didn’t attend.
My own drinking had not reached its problematic point yet, so I was on my soapbox often. As the conflict grew at home, the relationship between me and the owner of the bar I worked at evolved. Looking back now, I think I was attracted to the lifestyle because I was never anxious when I was in it. A few drinks made it go away, and I was young, the job made it imperative (to me at least) to be thin so ED was happy and I was making a lot of money doing it.
So I left my boyfriend to be a full time bartender, was invited to move into this other man’s home and accepted the invite. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in psychology and chose to take a short break before deciding on the next step.
If I had thought my last boyfriend consumed a lot of alcohol, boy was I in for a treat with this next one. Of course! How could I have not realized that he was drinking all night every night while I was working?! So I decided, if I can’t beat em’, join em’ and for the next two years, I drank. Of course, while I was consuming alcohol during this time, I never allowed myself to neglect my workout regimen and now I was vacillating between the Atkins diet and Weight Watchers depending on what I thought I could maintain at the time.
I met another woman who was clearly eating disordered and we would work out together, take diet pills and discuss the latest greatest way to tone up and lose fat. My poor mind and body, such abuse!
Another light bulb moment happened during these two years. I realized that the other women around me in this bar lifestyle, who had been living it for decades, didn’t look so great. Sure they got drunk often and laughed their raspy smoker’s laughs at one another, but they looked aged beyond their years and they really didn’t seem fulfilled.
I was sick of being hung-over and knew that waking up on the bathroom floor after vomiting from too much alcohol was not correlating well with the person that I wanted to be. Plus, the additional consumption actually had made my anxiety even worse and I would wake up to the feeling of my heart racing and an entire day of nauseating worry. I needed to continue on with my academic career, so I applied and was accepted to an accelerated master’s program in Clinical Psychology.
As I found myself in the company of likeminded individuals who had clear goals for themselves, it dawned on me that my bar lifestyle wasn’t going to cut it. I left my boyfriend, who actually was my fiancé (he had proposed to me after a year), packed all of my belongings into my Jeep along with a little terrier named Winston that I had rescued and we went home to mom and dad….again.
~Ready Set…Wait #2
I settled into my old bedroom and found what I was seeking back at the farm. Each window I looked out of while in the farm house was of rolling green fields, three board white fencing and horses grazing. I would walk out the back door with Winston, duck under a fence and within seconds, be pressed up against a gorgeous creature who seemed to understand all of what I was feeling, even though I couldn’t.
I was working towards finishing my master’s degree and had slowly started to see my boyfriend whom I had met while working at the fish fry place again. He loved me, that I can see clearly now. In the two years since we had been apart, he had grown up quite a bit, stopped partying so hard and was much more responsible. He was everything that was comforting to me and I welcomed him back into my life.
I moved back in with him and we tried again. I really felt like I had been through enough, and that I had to leave my ED behind me now, but of course, it had a very different agenda for me. My boyfriend proposed to me while we were on a weekend trip to Chicago and I said yes. To this day, I truly wish I would have broken it off that day and went to treatment to discover more about myself and why I was so dysfunctional.
I was in no shape to be in a relationship, much less be with a man who truly loved me and just wanted me to be happy and see myself the way he did. Even as I write this, I am filled with such powerful emotion about this part of my story. He didn’t deserve what happened to him, but I can say with certainty, that we are both very happy today and with people who make us so incredibly happy words can’t describe it.
My anxiety about planning the wedding was excruciating. I didn’t want to do it, and that made me feel inadequate and abnormal. Shortly after our engagement, my father took us to dinner one night at a local pizza/burger bar and asked us to buy the farm from him and mom.
I was shocked! He said he and mom were ready to move on from the farm and purchase a condo closer to the city. So many thoughts crossed my mind that night, and for some reason, I thought it was up to me to keep the farm in the family and that that had to happen.
I adored that farm. I had grown up there as an only child, lying in the fields, smelling those smells that only a horse farm can produce. So, we drew up a land contract, my fiancé sold his home for the down payment and we moved in. Shortly after that, I started to drink heavily again in an attempt to alleviate the ever present anxiety that was always gnawing at my gut and spiraling my thoughts so fast I didn’t know which end was up.
Along with the alcohol came the body image disturbance that propelled me into compulsive exercise yet again. And here we go…
~Calling it Off
I was twenty five years old, engaged, living on a gorgeous horse farm with a man that adored me and all my craziness. I had obtained a master’s degree and I was working at a really great place. My anxiety was almost unbearable and the only way I knew how to remotely cope with it was to move my body, be thin and drink. I always felt like I was lacking in some way and that others could see this.
I started spending time with a colleague who happened to really enjoy drinking and this relationship led me to meet her older brother who enjoyed working out compulsively and drinking even more than his sister did. He was a great distraction to all of what I was scared of, and the wreckage that ensued is the hardest part for me to reflect on. I left my fiancé and the farm and went on a crazy, wreckless spree with this man who fueled my ED in every aspect one can imagine.
I had owned a cute little sorrel quarter horse at the time named Charlie and my fiancé had just purchased a beautiful black Tennesee Walker named Daisy. I sold Charlie, helped the man load him onto the trailer and watched him hauled down the long driveway. Daisy was also sold. The perfect life on the farm was over.
My parents were horrified. My friends couldn’t understand what the hell happened.
I didn’t seem to give a rip at the time, but I realize now I cared so deeply that to lift the lid on any of it would have probably landed me in a psych ward. I called off the wedding six weeks before I was to be married. I moved in with this man and we worked out, drank and fought. I was miserable, very thin and lost.
My relationship with my parents took more of a turn for the worse after this, but I honestly didn’t feel very bonded to my mom and dad anyway. I hadn’t truly felt close to my dad since Jessie had died and my mom and I had only ever truly bonded over diets. At times we had tried to come together and have a healthy mother daughter relationship, but her ED and my ED wouldn’t allow that to take place for any long period of time.
~Ready Set….Wait #3
After an entire year of living in hell, I left and went back home…again. I had taken a job that paid very well and I only stayed at my parents’ home for about two weeks while I hunted for a nice apartment to rent. Now more than ever, I felt the pressure of not messing up again. I had to prove to everyone that I messed up but was not going to continue to mess up. I moved in to a beautiful apartment, started seeing a new therapist to work on my anxiety and ED and everything seemed to be ok.
I was much more aware of how my ED and anxiety had wreaked havoc on my life. I started dating online and was having fun meeting new people. I felt like I had finally arrived. I was eating well, (still quite thin after my time spent with my last boyfriend) trying really hard to work through my anxiety, not compulsively exercising and I was also trying to build a relationship with my parents. Reflecting back now, I still had no clue who I was and struggled with negative self-talk on a daily basis.
I met a man who initially seemed to be everything I was looking for. Now I realize I was attempting to create a beautiful, put together scene to somehow wipe out the wreckage of my past, and neglected to see the giant red flags that were undeniably visible to everyone but me. That relationship ended and I of course, blamed myself and my body for not being adequate and desirable.
My anxiety of course, took on a life of its own again and I started to experience panic attacks at work. The panic attacks then began to morph into performance anxiety because of my fear that everyone would find out that I was bad, wrecked, and not as good on the inside as I appeared on the outside. Not being able to control my anxiety led me to quit that job and I took a job working as an eating disorder therapist at a local psychiatric hospital.
Yep…I convinced myself that I was in recovery and capable of helping other anorexics and bulimics. And that is exactly what I did. While working there I tried going on an SSRI and that specific medication made me very flat and lethargic. Although the side effects were awful, it did allow me to experience some relief from panic and performance anxiety for a period of time and I gained confidence as a therapist.
I loved it! I was able to understand exactly where these ladies were at and I could assist them in challenging ED and learning to love themselves. I do believe that I helped a lot of people while I was there, but realistically I realize that I had not done the work myself and really needed to in order to be the most effective therapist and healed woman that I could be.
I was not engaging in any behaviors while working with my clients and I had finally developed a little bit of a sense of self. I continued to see my therapist and we were making great progress with my anxiety. That was the longest period of living in recovery I had had since I first became noticeably ill at age 16!
I started seeing a man that I had known since I was twenty. He was handsome, owned a business and was well liked by all of the people I had grown up with.
I was smitten. He thought I was beautiful and I sort of believed him. We spent the holidays together and I fell in love with his family. His family would all gather together on weekends and cook, watch movies and communicate on a level that I had never had in my own family. Sure they were heavy drinkers, but I had come to a place where I didn’t need to self-medicate and was comfortable in most social settings.
Shortly after New Year’s, he came to me and told me that he had slept with a woman that summer, and she was claiming she was pregnant. He told me he didn’t want to be with this woman, however if the child was his, he was going to be the father and a good one at that. I told him I would support him no matter what and would help him with the child if it was indeed his.
We went on this way for a while, however he ultimately ended the relationship claiming that he didn’t want to drag me through his mess. I was broken hearted and decided that I just wanted to get out of this place that I had experienced so much hurt in. I was able to maintain my recovery without falling back on old coping skills and I started to apply to jobs in warmer climates.
During this time, I went to Madison for my best friend’s birthday party. I had not been drunk in months and we were partying hard. The plan was a safe one, and there was a van that picked us all up and dropped us off at my girlfriend’s house. Everyone there knew each other and was close friends of the birthday girl. I ended up putting my PJ’s on and falling asleep on the blow up mattress that had been prepared before the nights festivities.
I woke up realizing that a human was laying close behind me. Not only was this human lying close behind me, his hand was up my shirt and I could feel that he had pulled my pants down and was penetrating me. I instantly went into defense mode and flew off the mattress, wildly looking around to see who else had possibly witnessed this. Everyone was passed out cold on the couch or on the floor.
I asked him “why!?, why did you do this?!” He stated, “I thought you were my wife.” He ended up leaving to go back home to his pregnant wife and his one year old son. I was devastated and told my girlfriend what had happened. Somehow, our friendship ended shortly after that day and I will never understand why that happened. I think about her often.
I didn’t fully spiral this time due to what I did for a living. How could I be a sick therapist? I wasn’t ok though…not by a long shot.
I got a call back from an eating disorder treatment facility in California that had recently opened. I was invited to fly out and interview and I did. It seemed like a dream come true and I was elated when they offered me the job. My dad told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life and my mom was in tears at the thought of me moving 2300 miles away.
I was able to solidify a place to live, packed up my Honda Civic with everything that would fit in it and set out for my new life. I aspired to become one of the best eating disorder therapists out there, live in the sunshine, make new friends and maybe meet the man of my dreams. This was my new start and I was going to succeed.
I arrived to my cute little white cottage and slept on the wood floor that first night. The furniture that I had ordered would arrive the next day. I made it my own that first week I arrived, would sleep every night with the windows wide open and I could smell the ocean air. When I arrived to work that first day, it was very apparent something was wrong.
Eventually I came to find out that the clinical leadership had left and the new organization was struggling to find structure. After moving across the country, having high expectations as usual, and not finding the solid structure that I knew I needed in a new job, I crumbled. I began to binge in the evenings and this elicited horrible anxiety. I hadn’t engaged in behaviors in so long!
I knew I was headed down a very ugly path and I started to seek other employment that would offer me safety and structure. I also knew I needed to be away from eating disorders for a period of time while I got myself back on track fully. I was lucky and was able to solidify employment at a local drug and alcohol treatment facility where I thrived and enjoyed each day helping people learn about their addiction and manage it.
I also feel the need to mention that during this time, I rescued a cute little Chihuahua and named her Hope. She has been an integral part of my healing process and is my little angel.
About a month after I started my second new California job, I met Chris at a BBQ that mutual friends had put on. It was just after my 30th birthday. I remember looking at him and thinking, “hmmm, there is something about this guy.” He was cute, kind, sociable, and it was very apparent that he was extremely intelligent. I hadn’t been in a relationship for about nine months and I still had not processed the recent rape that I had experienced, so I was a bit hesitant to actually get to know someone on any meaningful level.
Something about Chris made me comfortable despite my fears and I said yes when he invited me to dinner a week after.
It has been almost a year since that BBQ. Chris and I have a relationship unlike any I have ever been in before. It hasn’t all been peachy, I have had bad days and have challenged his experience and perception of me, but my awareness of these old patterns is growing more and more and he is a very patient man.
We communicate on a level that allows us to be authentic and to practice respect for each other. He is without a doubt, the man I will marry and the man I deserve. I am in recovery and live each day knowing full well what I need to do to stay in recovery. Our family consists of Chris, myself and Hope and we aspire to grow that family eventually.
~Ready, Set….scratch that… These days I prefer: One Day at a Time
As I am writing this last paragraph, I am feeling relieved but also nervous. Those old thoughts of, “what are people going to think of me if they read this,” are popping in. My response? “Let them think their thoughts, I have my own.” I undoubtedly have experienced a lot of ups and downs in my life and in my recovery from anxiety, codependence and ED. I see a wonderful therapist who has helped me lift the lid on a lot of my grief and trauma and this has propelled me further into knowing who I am than I ever thought possible.
I really do practice what I preach. I eat mindfully and have developed a healthy relationship with food. I hike and run along the Pacific Ocean and no longer own a gym membership and I try to celebrate what my body is capable of each day. I still have bad body image days, but now I can challenge them and work through it without becoming emotionally dysregulated, anxious or depressed about it. My parents and I continue to work on our relationships and I am hopeful that they will continue to improve.
I also recently left my job as a drug and alcohol counselor and am transitioning back into my field of passion as an outreach specialist for a women’s eating disorder treatment facility. Slowly but surely, I am reaching my goals and taking the appropriate steps to get there. Baby steps.
I am the sister of Jessica Bara Volk. I am the daughter of Joseph and Debra Volk.
I am a survivor of rape. I am a survivor of ED. I am a girlfriend to the most amazing man I have ever met and a mom to a Chihuahua. I am Dani Volk and I can honestly say that I am happy, capable, and ready to share my truth.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction. “ ~anonymous