A 25-year struggle with bulimia, anorexia, diet pill addiction, laxative abuse and cutting
THE MIRROR LIED
One woman's 25-year struggle with bulimia, anorexia, diet pill addiction, laxative abuse and cutting
Based on a true story
Marc A. Zimmer, Ph.D.
Published by STAY WITH US PUBLICATIONS.
Copyright 2010 Marc A. Zimmer, Ph.D. & N.R. Mitgang
All rights reserved.
Dr. Ira M. Sacker
What you are about to read is a biography as told to the authors. Additional scenes and dialogue were added to completely unfold the story. The main character, Jessica, is a real person. For many years, she has been a patient of Dr. Marc A. Zimmer, my colleague and friend for close to thirty years, who specializes in treating people with anorexia, bulimia, and other forms of eating disorders.
Where the stories took place and the names of the characters have been changed to protect the anonymity and privacy of those patients who were so graciously willing to share their narratives with the outside world.
Jessica suffered through many years of depression and social withdrawal brought about by this debilitating disorder. The Mirror Lied delves deeply into Jessica's inner thoughts and psyche. Through Jessica's own words, which were obtained through numerous in-depth interviews, you will experience the lifestyle of a person with eating disorders, and you will gain a better understanding of the acute struggle to fight for recovery.
I commend the authors for making a deliberate effort to convey the serious consequences brought about by this disorder. Anyone whose life has been touched by a person with an eating disorder can empathize with Jessica, her husband, children, family, and friends.
More must be done to prevent this disorder. Why? The answer is simple. Once an eating disorder begins, especially if it is left unchecked or improperly treated, it can kill its victim.
* * *
There are two types of people with eating disorders: those who live and those who die. My name is Jessica Gordon. My maiden name was Devoe. For half of my life, I suffered from anorexia and bulimia. I am a forty-six-year-old former medical technician, and I am at a fork in my life's journey. One path leads to life, while the other may take me on an excursion into the afterlife.
Over the past twenty years, I've seen the faces of the starving and walking dead. Their drawn faces and emaciated bodies didn't look much different from mine. That's what scares me. Those deceased women passed me in hospital corridors. They spoke of their lack of medical problems in group therapy sessions, and they denied any concern for their psychological or medical future. Some of those women thought they would live forever. Others wished for death or even attempted suicide. I pray those women who died eventually found peace in the hereafter. That's not what I seek. I pray for peace in the here and now, but it's a goal that seems unattainable for me.
Today my loyal and loving husband, Jack, is driving stoically and silently over the same route from Long Island to New Jersey that we have taken multiple times before. At the end of the journey he'll hand me over to the professionals he hopes will save my life. The truth is, they can't save me. The only person who can save me is me.
Today, as he did in the past, Jack will sign the insurance forms and ask me to sign the self-admitting inpatient consent forms. Once again, he'll carry my small suitcase to the elevator door that will take me up to my voluntary prison walls. He'll kiss me goodbye. I'll go up the elevator, sit on my bed, and cry for two hours as I've always done in the past. I'll chastise and condemn myself for having gotten myself into this situation, then I'll cry again because of the guilt and worthlessness I feel inside.
I don't want to go where I'm going. I don't believe I need to go where I'm going. I feel fine. I hate, more than anything, to be away from my sixteen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son. Maybe my kids can handle the separation from me because they will be with their father, but I can't handle being away from them. I'm their mother. I belong with them. I don't belong in a hospital sharing a room with a perfect stranger and being told what to eat, how to behave, and how to exist over the next several weeks. I can take care of myself.
We're minutes away from the hospital. Though it's freezing outside, my window is open to keep me from choking on the suffocating anxiety, anguish, and feelings of failure stuck in my throat. I know this routine all too well. I hate it. I hate myself for putting myself into this potentially deadly and self-inflicted condition. I'm a mother about to abandon my children, again.
God, please, let this be the last journey of this kind, or let me just die and finally find peace in your sanctuary.
* * *
RECOLLECTIONS OF A MESSED-UP CHILDHOOD
Unlike some other life-threatening and catastrophic health problems, to date, no one is born with a gene that predetermines them for an eating disorder. However, there are certain personality types that are predisposed to an eating disorder, and events in one's childhood or adulthood can trigger that terrible mental disorder into existence. Some get lucky and beat their fated tragedy. I didn't get lucky. At least not in that regard. From birth to age twenty-three, I was on a rocket ride heading straight into a brick wall. Perhaps if I had started therapy when I was five I could have avoided that gruesome crash, but I didn't. Instead, I crashed into that wall at full throttle.
About the only time I can remember living normally was from birth to age five. Why? That's because I have almost no memories prior to age five. I'm sure if I went through successful regressive hypnotherapy, I'd find some nonsense that hit the fan during those years, but I've been through enough garbage since that time and don't have to seek out any more painful memories. Lord knows I have experienced enough tragedy in my life.
Recalling my early years isn't easy at this point. It's not that my mind isn't sharp and full of details, it's just that pain and the effects of depression and repression have set in. Now it's difficult to recall those recollections I do not wish to relive.
I was born in 1960. My brother, Mitch, was born in 1956. Those were the Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, and Father Knows Best years. The family image that we saw on television taught us that all parents knew how to raise, love, and nurture their kids. Well, either my parents didn't watch those shows, or they just didn't get it. For whatever reason, my parents missed that course called "Parenting 101." I did not desire "super-parents." All I wanted were parents who showed me a small part of the kind of love I saw on television, or the kind of love I saw many other kids get from their parents. I wanted simple things like a hug to show me they cared. I didn't get them. I wanted to be able to tell Mom or Dad jokes my friends told me, but they didn't have the time or the desire to listen. I wanted parents who would kiss me when I fell and scraped my knee, instead of scolding me for not taking care of myself properly. No, I didn't have nurturing parents or "super-parents." Instead, I had parents who dragged me into a world I never should have experienced.
My first of what seems like an endless stream of catastrophes hit at age five. It was a typical Saturday morning. My brother and I were eating Rice Krispies and bananas in the kitchen in our home in Green Acres, Valley Stream, New York, a suburban area filled with single-family homes just minutes away from the New York City borough of Queens. We lived in a three-bedroom, split-level house, one-and-a-half bathrooms, dining room, living room, a downstairs family room, and a single-car garage. I loved my room. It was simply decorated with beige walls, a wooden floor with a small green area rug, my four-drawer dresser, a toy chest filled with all my games, and my bed, which was filled with various stuffed animals. Of course, I had a favorite. It was a small white puppy I named Queenie. She was the best puppy a little girl could have, especially since Mom and Dad would never allow me to have a real pet.
By some standards, we were living well. Providing for the family was one thing my parents knew how to do. We never lacked the material things we needed because Mom worked as a secretary and Dad was a banker. Back then, it was unusual for most women to work. Most women stayed home as housewives, a term we don't use too often today. However, the two salaries made it easier for my parents to buy the house, pay the mortgage, and have enough to pay for all of life's expenses. We were not rich by any means, but we never lacked the necessities and a few extra non-necessities.
As a kid, I thought everything about my parents was normal. With few exceptions, they looked like every other set of parents I knew. Mom was about five foot two, auburn hair, brown eyes, and maybe 5 or 10 pounds overweight. Dad was about five foot eight, also with brown eyes and hair, and clean shaven. It was frowned upon back then for a banker to have a mustache or beard. It didn't look proper. About the only unusual thing I recall about them or their marriage, as I learned later, was that Mom was about seven years older than Dad.
The morning started as most other Saturday mornings. My mom, Helen, was washing the dishes, dressed in her red housecoat and wearing one of her countless aprons. She always wore an apron because she was concerned about dirt on her clothes. "Appreciate what we have and take care of what we have," Mom told me a million times. "Jessica," she said on those rare occasions that we had a mother-daughter talk, "people who don't take care of themselves or their things are not worth knowing. They're shameless and irresponsible."
Saturday morning was my favorite time of the week. Mitch would be out of the house playing basketball in one of his friends' backyards, or he would play baseball in the school yard with the other neighborhood boys. That meant there would not be any fights about which shows to watch. I'd keep Queenie on my lap and sit on the plastic-covered couch to watch our new nineteen-inch, black-and-white television. My favorite shows were Captain Kangaroo, Atom Ant, The Flintstones, The Beatles, Casper, Bugs Bunny, and Magilla Gorilla.
It was spring and Dad usually worked in the yard on Saturday, so I was a little surprised when I saw him standing in the kitchen doorway wearing his good clothes. He paused to take a breath before he walked into the kitchen.
"Good morning, Daddy."
"Yes, Jessica," he said as he walked past me, touched Mom on her shoulder and said, "Good morning."
"Coffee's on the stove, Ed. It's still hot. I have my beauty parlor appointment at ten."
"Helen, do you mind if I get the kids out for the day?"
Mom looked at Dad with astonishment. "You? That's unusual."
"Yeah, it's going to be a beautiful day, and I thought I'd take a ride with the kids to Central Park."
"Sorry I can't join you, Ed."
"Don't worry about it, dear."
"What's that I smell, Ed?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is that a new aftershave?"
"Yeah. I thought I'd try something new for a change. I was getting bored with my Old Spice."
"What time will you be home?"
"Not too late. Kids, I took out clothes for each of you. Finish breakfast and let's get going."
"Daddy, I want Mommy to come with us. Mommy always goes places with us."
"Another time, Jessica. Be a good girl. Get dressed, and don't take an hour to do it. If you need help from Mommy, ask for it. I don't want you to do what you did last week." The week before, we were going to my aunt's house for lunch, and I argued with Mom about what to wear. Because of the argument, we were all late.
"And Mitch, well . . ." Daddy just gave Mitch one of those looks that meant, "Don't give me any trouble, kid." Mitch had seen it a million times before and knew exactly what it meant. "Both of you make sure to wash and brush up. Got it?"
Suddenly, Mitch started screaming, "I'm not going! I'm not going!"
Dad never had patience. This time was no different. "Boy, don't start with me."
Mitch's face turned red as he continued screaming. "I'm not going! I'm not going! I'm not going!"
Mom spoke softly, "Mitch, calm down. Take a deep breath and . . ."
"Shut up!" Mitch screamed at Mom.
"Don't you talk to her like . . ."
"You shut up, too! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"
"Young man, this is the wrong day for that nonsense," Dad said as he grabbed Mitch's hand and led him out of the room. "Be ready in fifteen minutes," Dad yelled before he slammed Mitch's bedroom door.
Mom came over to clear the table. "You're always a good little girl, Jessica. You know your brother doesn't mean any harm by all that yelling. It's just . . . well . . . be a good little girl and get ready."
"Yes, Mommy." I went to my room to get dressed. Dad had taken out one of my extra-nice dresses and black patent leather shoes. I remember that clearly because I was surprised he chose nice clothes to wear to a park where I'd run around and play. I thought of my brother when I washed up. His screaming always made me afraid. I loved my brother, but I didn't like being afraid of him when he screamed like that.
I got ready as quickly as I could. Mom came up and helped me get my things on. A few minutes later I saw my dad and Mitch outside waiting for me by the car.
"Hey, Dad, how about some Cracker Jacks and hot dogs at the park?" Mitch said as though nothing had happened before.
Mom came out to see us off. Dad patted her back before he got into the car. He started the engine, waved goodbye, and backed out the driveway. Dad and Mitch sat up front. I was glad I sat in the back. I felt safe back there. Mitch turned on the radio to "Musicradio 77 WABC." Dan Ingrum was the DJ. He was playing the top ten countdown. Even at that young age, I loved to listen to music and I had my favorite songs. As we drove along the Belt Parkway, I remember hearing "Help Me Rhonda," "Ticket to Ride," "Game of Love," and "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," which was very special to me because I always thought of myself as that lovely daughter.
It took about an hour to get to Central Park in the city. It was my first time there. The place was big and had lots of trees, but it was not the kind of park with slides and swings that I expected. I was disappointed, but didn't say anything.
"You both want Cracker Jacks?"
"I'll take two," Dad said to the man selling all different sorts of candies from a cart. Dad gave him a dollar, got his change, and said, "Kids, we're going to walk to that lake over there." The lake was pretty. There were large, flat rocks all along the water's edge instead of sand or dirt. Behind the trees that surrounded the lake were huge buildings high above the tall trees. There were many birds around, and some of them were just floating on the lake. I'd never seen birds do that before. Then again, this was the first time I had seen a lake. I wondered how the birds stayed afloat without sinking. "How do the birds stay on top of the water, Daddy?"
"Not now, Jessica. You two sit here. Don't move or go anywhere."
Dad walked a few feet away. Although there were big bushes between us and him, I could still see him go over to a pretty lady, hug her, and kiss her on the lips. I remember she was tall compared to my mother, extremely thin with huge breasts, long, wavy red hair, and blue eyes that sparkled like the sky. At first, the woman didn't look too happy. Dad said something to her, she said something back, and then the two approached us. "Kids, this is my, ah, friend, Rachel. Rachel, this is Mitch, and this is Jessica."
"Nice to meet you, Mitch and Jessica. Your father has told me a lot about you two."
Rachel shook my hand, then she shook Mitch's hand.
"Kids," Dad said, "we're all going to take a walk. Here, you can have some Cracker Jacks now. Go ahead, kids. You walk in front of us so we can keep an eye on you."
Mitch and I walked ahead of Dad and Rachel. Every once in a while, I turned back just to make sure they were still there. Dad held Rachel's hand. That seemed unusual to me because I could not remember him ever holding Mom's hand.
The four of us must have walked around the big lake for about two hours. I was getting tired. I was also upset because I saw many little marks on my shoes. I was afraid Mom would be angry with me for not taking care of my shoes. Along the way we stopped for Dad to get us some hot dogs and sodas. We sat down to eat. Dad and Rachel stayed several feet away so we couldn't hear what they were talking about. When we finished eating, we started walking again. After about an hour, we got back to the place where we started. Rachel came over to us and said goodbye. Dad gave her a kiss on the cheek and said something about calling her. I remember him watching her walk away until she was out of sight.
"C'mon, kids. Let's get back to the car."
I don't remember much of the drive home because I slept almost the entire time. I do remember what happened later that night. I'll never forget it because of how it frightened me.
All of a sudden, I heard Mom screaming at Dad, "How could you do this to me? How stupid could you be to have the kids with you? You can't do this to me! I won't tolerate this! What kind of stupid moron are you?"
I saw Mom go into the bathroom and slam the door, but the door swung open again. Mom was sitting on the edge of the bathtub and crying. I went inside and stood in front of her. The tears were flowing down her face like when I cried after I hurt myself. I put my hand on her knee to make nice to her and said, "Mommy, don't cry. I love you. Mommy, please don't cry."
"Jessica, please! Not now!" she said in an angry tone.
Mom gently pushed me away from her. I sat on the floor just outside the bathroom door and started to cry because Mom was so unhappy. This must have lasted for at least thirty minutes. Mitch stayed in his room the entire time. His door was closed. Finally, Mom got up, blew her nose, wiped her eyes, went to the closet, got two suitcases, packed some clothes, and headed to my room with the other suitcase. I followed her in.
"We're leaving now," Mom said abruptly.
"Mommy, where are we going? Is Daddy coming with us?"
"Jessica, be a good little girl and don't ask questions." Within minutes she had most of my clothes packed. When Mom finished in my room, she went into Mitch's room and did the same thing.
"Mitch, come here. Put these suitcases into the car. Jessica, go to the car with your brother."
My father approached Mom. "Helen, don't leave." He tried to touch her shoulder.
"Don't touch me! Don't you dare try to stop me. This is the cruelest thing anyone has ever done to me. I'm leaving. I'm taking the kids."
"Helen, don't be crazy." He tried to take her hand. I actually saw Mom slap Dad's face.
"Get out of my way, you fool." Then Mom turned to Mitch and yelled, "I told you to get those damn suitcases into the car. Kids, move."
Mitch and I were in the car when Mom walked out of the house.
Dad stood at the front door. "Helen, don't be crazy. Get back in here!"
Mom got into the car, slammed the door, locked the locks, and started the engine. Dad approached and screamed to Mom through her closed window. "Helen, turn off the damn car."
Mom backed out of the driveway and kept going.
I started to cry again. "Mommy, where are we going? Why are you and Daddy fighting?"
"Kids, I need quiet now. We're going to my sister's house. I don't know if we're ever coming back. Don't either of you dare call or speak to your father. Is that understood?"
My Aunt Anna and Uncle Dan lived in Freeport, Long Island, only a few minutes away from our home. Aunt Anna was a two-year-older, spitting image of my mother. Uncle Dan sported a crew cut. He was six foot four, a gentle giant with a bushy mustache, but he probably intimidated people with his looks. I say that only because that's how I sometimes felt about him.
I felt upset and started to shake as Mom turned the corner of our block and kept driving. I was too young to understand what had just happened. All I understood was that I might never see my father or my home again. I was afraid to say anything. I just cried silently because I was afraid of making Mom angrier.
Tears were still coming down my face when we parked at Aunt Anna and Uncle Dan's house, but I didn't say a word. After we got inside, Mom went with Aunt Anna into another room. I went into the kitchen with Uncle Dan and Mitch. Uncle Dan made us some tuna fish sandwiches with potato chips. I couldn't eat. Mitch ate his sandwich and mine. After about an hour, Mom came into the kitchen, took me upstairs, got me into my pajamas, and put me into bed.
"Mommy, I'm afraid. I don't want to live here."
"Jessica, don't act like a baby. Be a good little girl and go to sleep." Mom shut the light and closed the door behind her. I don't think she ever heard me call out, "Mommy, please leave the light on. I'm afraid."
No kid should ever feel the way I felt that night. I was alone in a dark, strange room. I had lost my home and my father. It was the first night I could remember going to sleep without Queenie to hug against my face. I felt unbearably uncomfortable and scared in this different environment. I think I was still crying when I finally fell asleep.
I remember how I woke up the next morning. Before I opened my eyes, I prayed it was all a nightmare. But when I opened my eyes, I saw the nightmare was real. I was devastated. Again, I started to cry.
* * *
Mom, Mitch, and I spent the summer at Aunt Anna's house. Mom didn't spend much time with me. She always seemed to be talking with Aunt Anna and Uncle Dan about the situation with Dad, or she was busy trying to calm Mitch down after those times he suddenly exploded with fury.
I was on my own almost all the time. I felt out of place and miserable. I missed my room, my bed, my toys, Queenie, and everything else that I left behind at my real home. Nothing seemed normal. Nothing seemed right. Even Mitch's outbursts were more unbearable because I did not have my real room to hide away in to protect myself from his craziness. Each night, in the darkness and loneliness of my foreign bedroom, I prayed my nightmares would end, that Mom and Dad would be friends again, and that we'd all be back together again.
That summer, I started learning how to be independent and to take care of myself out of necessity. That experience also set me on a path toward perfectionism. It seemed like the only time Mom paid attention to me was when I did something very bad or very good. Luckily, I found that doing the right thing came naturally. It felt good on those rare occasions when Mom took a moment to say, "Jessica, you're a good little girl."
I spent day after day playing by myself in the backyard because I didn't have any of my regular neighborhood friends to play with, and there weren't any kids my age in my aunt's neighborhood. A few times Mitch came out to play a game with me. He's my brother and I'll always love him, but he terrified me each time we'd be playing and he'd suddenly start screaming for no good reason. Whenever that happened I'd run into the house and hide in a closet to protect myself. I hated that closet. It was dark. The blackest dark I ever saw. And once, when I was already terrified because of my brother, I sat there for fifteen minutes until suddenly I felt something crawling up my leg. I opened the door and ran out screaming hysterically. Uncle Dan stopped me. "Quit that screaming. Calm down!" he shouted.
"There's a bug crawling on me. Kill it! Kill it!"
The bug suddenly dropped from my leg and onto the floor. Uncle Dan stepped on it.
"Jessica, go wash your face and calm down."
I did as I was told. God, I hated living there.
July crept by, as did August. I was beginning to believe I'd live out the rest of my life in my aunt's house. Then, just before the last day of August, Mom came into the kitchen as Mitch and I ate lunch. She sat down and took our hands. Something felt different. I thought she had more terrible news for us.
"Kids, I'm going to pack our suitcases."
"Oh, no," I thought to myself. "Where are we going now?"
Mom looked at each of us slowly. "We're going home today."
I remember smiling. Neither Mitch nor I said anything.
"Your father and I have worked things out. We'll leave as soon as everything is packed."
The night we first drove away from home, there were silent tears streaming down my face. During the short drive back home from Freeport, I must have been the happiest little girl in the world.
"Kids, when we get home, I want you to treat your father like you always did before. What happened was just between your father and me. Understood?"
Dad was waiting for us outside when we pulled up on the driveway. I went to hug and kiss Dad because I hadn't seen him for so long. Dad just got the suitcases and took them inside.
I walked into the house. I felt safe and comfortable again.
Words can't describe the magnificent feelings I had that first night when I got into my bed and was once again surrounded by my toys and stuffed animals. I remember how I kissed all of my stuffed animals goodnight before I tucked myself under my blanket. I remember how great it was to hug and kiss Queenie again. I remember thinking that it was just a few days before the start of the school year and my first day in first grade. Before I fell asleep, I remember how I promised myself that I would be the most perfect first-grader that school ever saw.
Mitch took me to school on the first day and put me on the line with the rest of the kids in my class. All the other kids had their mom and dad there. All the parents were taking pictures of their kids. My parents weren't there. They went to work that morning. It didn't bother me. Well, maybe it bothered me just a little. Suddenly I heard whistles blowing. Everyone got quiet. I turned to face the front of the line and saw a woman about my mom's age. She was my teacher, Mrs. McHugh. She looked like a nice person. She had a somewhat pretty face, stood about five foot five, thin, and she had the cutest, waviest hair I ever saw.
At that moment, I made another promise to myself. I decided to try to please my teacher as much as I tried to please my mom when we lived at Aunt Anna's house.
Within a very short time, I was my teacher's pet. It felt wonderful each time my teacher said, "Jessica, you're a good little girl."
Looking back now as an adult and married woman with two kids, I wonder if I would have made the same decision Mom made about getting back with Dad. I would always wonder if I could trust my husband after he had an affair. Thank God, after more than twenty years of marriage, I have never been in that position. Having my husband cheat on me seems like one of the few crises that I was able to avoid. I love my husband more now than when we first got married. I trust him with my life. I could not have picked a better guy to love and to have as the father of my children.
* * *