This is the first article in a new series of personal stories about how yoga has helped, transformed or given benefit to the experience of different people who have been through adversity or otherwise tough times.
by Anne Clendening
On the night of the summer equinox this past June, Natalie Bennett and I held a workshop at Black Dog, a Yoga Mala where we led a class through 108 sun salutations. Katie was there, gracefully moving through her practice. If I could use one word to describe her, it would be “glowing.” And like she said after, “when you put the focus on the breath, you don’t get tired.” Way to keep it simple.
Katie has such a sweet, giving spirit, I’m not surprised to find her so open and honest about her experience with bulimia.
Katie: I don’t know how deep you wanna go…
Annie: I don’t know how deep you wanna go…
Katie: Have you met me? I’ve spent my life in the deep.
Where are you from?
Born in Long Beach, moved up to the Lake Tahoe, Nevada area at age 10.
How long have you been in recovery from bulimia?
Six years in September.
How old where you when it started?
I was 15.
What was going on in your life at the time?
I was bullied a lot in school, pretty badly. I started getting bullied at a really young age at my first school, and it got really bad when we moved up to Tahoe. It was a really small, kind of a clique-y school. There was a lot of name-calling, like fat f*&@ing bitch, ugly dog…
Where you overweight?
No, I wasn’t overweight. I figured something about me must have rubbed them the wrong way. And even that statement, well, you can see how a person begins to internalize these things—something must be wrong with me. People don’t like me. I’m not good enough.
And you grew up to look like a model!
I don’t really identify with that at all, but thank you! Anyway, I didn’t have a voice in my own house growing up. I have two brothers, I’m in the middle. We were pretty close. But I think it was one of those situations with my parents—not that I’m blaming them, because we all contribute to what happens in the family, whether someone’s an addict, or there are relational issues or whatever, usually each person in the family system has a role—I think what I really needed growing up I just didn’t get in a lot of ways. They did their best. But you have to think about the fact that our parents and their parents really came from a different time, where feelings weren’t valued and it was all about surviving or following a certain “way.” Nowadays we have so much more freedom to explore who we really are, if we are willing. Thank god. But yeah, there wasn’t really a way in which they could relate to me as I was; it was about fitting me into a box that I just didn’t fit into, and I wasn’t ever going to fit into it.
What did they want from you?
They definitely didn’t want me to be an actor, which is what I wanted to be from a young age. I used to do plays and stuff in school, and as a child I was always very outgoing, which is ironic because I’ve become quite an introvert, or that side of me has been more pronounced. I think when you are traumatized, it feels so unsafe to go “outside” of yourself. But my parents wanted everything to be a certain way, like “this is what you have to do to be safe and successful. You go to school, you get a job, you follow a system.” That didn’t really work for me, and there wasn’t a place for that to be OK. They thought they were keeping me on the “right” road, instead of understanding that the road they had me on was not anything I connected with. That said, my parents and my family have become my biggest supporters. They have grown unbelievable in their love and understanding of me, and hopefully, I of them. I count them as one of my biggest blessings!
Is there anything that triggered the bulimia?
Wow. This is such a loaded question. I think many things contributed to it! Feeling like I didn’t have a voice in my own family was huge. Bulimia was the only way I knew how to speak in a family where my dad was outspoken and my mother tended to defer to him. So, there was that, coupled with all the teasing at school, and I was just really, really alone inside. All the time. And I didn’t have an outlet or a way to manage my feelings.
People don’t start binging and purging when everything is hunky dory. Usually, there’s one person in the family who is the “identified patient,” and I was that person. In my experience, it tends to be the person who “holds” the family feelings; you take in so much. It’s also usually the most sensitive person, and I view sensitivity as a great strength now. But most people have heard the phrase, “Oh you’re too sensitive.” Really that is just a way of dismissing someone’s valid feelings. It’s like, “Oh you’re too emotional.” What is that?! Emotions are part of being human! I might say now, “Yes, I do have feelings. Where did yours go?” Also, if you look at bulimia symbolically, you’re taking a substance, you’re eating it, but you’re unable to digest it. You actually have to purge it out. So there’s something undigestible in what you’re doing; it’s like you’re saying, “I can’t metabolize this. There’s something so distasteful going on in my family, or in my world, I can’t hold it.”
What gave you the idea? Did you see a movie, or read something?
I don’t remember the first time I threw up. I don’t ever remember it being a conscious choice, like, “hmmm, today would be a good day to start puking up all my food.” No. But somehow that first time did happen, and it turned into something from there that I never could have imagined. That said, my aunt was bulimic and anorexic. She died at the age of 40 primarily from complications from her eating disorders and alcoholism. So there may be a genetic component, but I really look at that differently, which is another conversation altogether! I just remember feeling better afterwards. I felt so much relief! I was self-medicating with the behaviors but had no idea that’s what it was at the time.
I also remember wanting to look a certain way, because I felt like if I couldn’t be accepted in my school and if no one was going to like me, I was going to have something “over” them. I was going to have something for myself. It was kind of a self-defense mechanism. The eating disorder becomes something you get attached to because it’s like the only thing you have that’s yours. For me, it became a big “f*** you, world!” Because I didn’t actually know how to say that or work with the rage inside me.
Does it run in the family?
Like I mentioned, there’s a genetic component to eating disorders, just as with addiction in general. And I think it is an addiction. For me, anyway, that was true. Of course, it is true that anything can become an addiction because it is not the “thing” a person is doing, but the energy that drives that thing. And that is what must be addressed.
Were you the only one you knew who was bulimic?
In my school, yes. Outside of that, my aunt. And I have known many, many people since who have this destructive disorder.
When did you first get help?
My parents found out when I was about 15 and a half, and I saw a therapist about six times. it was kind of half-assed. The therapist sort of threatened me with medication.
Were you honest with them, or with yourself?
I was honest, yeah. For me, I always wanted to get better. I just didn’t know how. I was looking for how. I kind of got scared into stopping cold turkey, and I did manage to do that for a while but the underlying stuff, the reasons why I did it were never addressed. If you don’t ever get to the root, it’s going to come back.
So was it on and off?
No, it was mostly on… I think there was one time I made it a month [without purging], but in general, it was daily. If I got through one day without doing it, I would be really excited, and I would think “oh, I think I’ve got this under control. See, you can do it Katie. You’re just fooling yourself, to think you have a problem.” It’s very tricky, the mind.
Did your family know you were still sick?
They kind of knew. I don’t think I told them it was as bad as it was because I don’t think they really wanted to know. I think their approach was tough love, because my mom saw her mom and dad try to help her sister, and her sister ended up dying.
How do you die from bulimia?
Heart failure, heart attacks are common, you can have a stroke… You’re heart over time will get strained, and low electrolytes and potassium can cause the heart to give out. There’s a lot of ways you can die from it.
Almost 50% of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression.
Only 1 in 10 men and women with eating disorders receive treatment. Only 35% of people that receive treatment for eating disorders get treatment at a specialized facility for eating disorders.
Up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder) in the U.S.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.
95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.
The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
What’s the lowest you ever weighed?
I’m not sure about talking about numbers, because I feel like then it becomes about “looks” and “weight,” and that’s probably the number one misconception about eating disorders. They disguise themselves as being about that, but in reality, the issues are much, much deeper and more complex. I also think it’s dicey discussing numbers because the reality is that I was just as sick at a normal weight as I was at a more obviously-thin weight—the behaviors were the same. I can’t tell you how many times I went to doctors and dentists who gave me a clean bill of health when I was binging and purging multiple times a day, often to the point of pretty scary symptoms, like limbs going numb, dizzyness, and heart palpatations. When people found out I struggled with such a severe eating disorder, the most common reaction was, “wow, Katie, I never knew. You seemed so healthy.” All addicts get good at lying as a way to “protect” their families and friends and hide their own shame. So I think I’d like to get away from the whole sensationalizing the weight stuff.
What was the hardest part?
How much time do you have? The hardest part is wanting to stop and not knowing how to; trying again and again and again and feeling like a failure because it’s something you think you “should” be able to control; the unending, relentless shame and guilt; dealing oftentimes with a family who does not understand or know how to help; being considered the identified patient or “black sheep” of the family. You feel like the big problem and often the family is pointing the finger saying, “yup. He/she is the problem.” The hardest part is not knowing if you’ll ever get better; feeling suicidal; the pressure of society on men and women today and how advertising affects us; learning how to eat again; learning how to feed the part of me that craved more and understand what I truly craved, and on and on….
- A study recently published in the latest issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly reports that mind-body exercise, such as yoga, is associated with greater body satisfaction and fewer symptoms of eating disorders than traditional aerobic exercise like jogging or using cardio machines. Yoga practitioners reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners. Through yoga, this study suggests that women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and ‘beautiful’ body will lead to happiness and success.
- Yoga offers an unparalleled opportunity to heal negative body image. The various poses challenge people to use balance, strength, stamina, stillness, mindfulness, and flexibility. The yogic system identifies eating disorders as a problem related to the first chakra. Different poses are used to balance it: Crab, Full Wind, Pigeon, Locust, Staff and many more. Strengths and courage can be increased by using grounding postures such as Mountain, Goddess, Standing Squat and Prayer Squat. The postures re-establish the strong mind-body connections and help overcome many physical obstacles. Most back bending poses help reduce depression and forward bends usually calm the spirit and minimize the effects of anorexia.
How did yoga first help with your recovery?
Oh wow. Yoga. I really got into yoga when I went into rehab in 2007 at Milestones in Florida. I was there for two months. We had one class on Thursdays and I think I was the only one who looked forward to it. Everyone else grumbled (understandably, right, because the last thing we who have eating disorders want to do is get “in” our bodies. We’ve been trying like mad to escape them!), but something in it felt right to me. I started to understand, not even intellectually yet, on a more subtle level—that I was getting something from being there. The breath, the movement, the stillness, the idea that I could one day be whole… It was all just very powerful for me. I knew my mind and body were split. Yoga seemed like a way to bring them together once again. And, I found, it was.
So there was a level of detachment.
Oh, yeah a huge level, like a chasm, an enormous divide where you don’t know when you’re hungry, you don’t know when you’re full, you don’t know how to eat, you don’t know what the body really wants… You’re just completely dissociated from it all. At least I was.
Is there any specific yoga pose that helped you?
Savasana. I know it’s super cheesy. Certainly with Warriors you get that “I’m a badass” feeling, and that’s great… But it’s like at the end, lying there, I was really feeling my body, and having an experience of my own energy for probably one of the first times in my life. It felt so good, and it was so surprising, like I didn’t feel like it was me at first. I felt like I was experiencing God. I felt, of course, like it was outside of me, because I didn’t ever feel it before, but once it came together I knew it was inside of me, it’s outside of me, it’s that source that we can all connect to—that source energy. I just felt like I was in bliss.
Did all this come to you while you were still in rehab?
I think it was more like a slow progression. I knew I liked it while I was in rehab, but I had practiced before that. I remember when I used to take Peter’s early class, that’s when I experienced Savasana for the first time like that, when I was totally into it and I just never wanted to leave. I still don’t! That’s why you’ll find me hanging out in Savasana after everyone else leaves just soaking in the amazing energy. Of myself. (laughs)
I think it it helped the most once I got into teacher training at Black Dog, in 2011. That was when my practice just got so much better. I had been going, but I think I got it more on a cellular level, a deeper level.
What made you want to teach?
I just loved yoga so much.I had just finished grad school, and I had started doing life coaching, and I was coming to realize I wanted to get my license to practice actual therapy, not just do life coaching. I was in this weird, no-man’s land of just trying to figure out what was next and there was a space that opened up for the teacher training. I just jumped in and did it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to teach but afterward, I was like “oh yes, I love this!”
What do you love about teaching?
I feel like it’s such an honor to be in that spot. I take it really seriously, to be able to guide people into that experience with themselves, whatever it is, to know that I’m that guide, in those moments. I feel really honored and humbled. And the students leave and they thank you, but for me, it’s like I get something from them that’s equal or beyond. It’s an exchange. And as a teacher you get the same thing. That’s why you say “namaste” at the end, because you both connect, and you both experience something that you create together.
So beautiful, and so true.
So other than yoga, do you have any kind of self-helpy regimen?
I’ve kind of devoted my life to my inner work right now, and I’ve been doing that the last six years. I have to eat a certain way, and I do some form of movement if I don’t get to yoga. I read stuff that helps me. I loved Marion Woodman’s book Addicted to Perfection and Linda Schierse Leonard’s Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction. I’m forming better friendships, which has been really exciting because it’s hard for me to come out of my shell.
What kind of therapy do you practice?
I treat people with eating disorders, and other stuff, like depression and anxiety. My bias is toward Jungian psychology, which is my theoretical orientation primarily. It’s the only system I’ve found where they don’t pathologize you at all. It’s about understanding that we’re whole, and there’s a light side of us and a dark side. It’s really about integrating that dark side. With the 12 steps, I feel like it’s totally great, it’s a system that works for millions of people and I wanted to understand it on a deeper level. And I wanted to understand it on a spiritual level.
Did they work for you?
Yeah, they did. That’s a complicated question… I feel like they do work, for sure. As 12 steppers say, “They work if you work ‘em!” I went about it in kind of a unique way, through Jungian psychology and the therapy I eventually got into. I went to meetings at first, which helped immensely. Now I don’t go because I do analytic work with somebody I see pretty often. [The 12 steps are] a brilliant system, and it’s worked for a lot of people, and it’s worked for me. I don’t think it’s a “but;” I think it’s an “and.” I wanted to understand it in a way that spoke to me more, and I think that’s what I’ve found through analysis.
What advice would you give to someone who had an eating disorder if they came to you?
I wouldn’t give them advice, I would just ask them about their story. I think one of the things we need to do, and this is one thing I’m big on, is to look at the meaning beneath the darker aspects of ourselves. Our tendency is to just shame ourselves, like, “you shouldn’t be throwing up! You shouldn’t have a drink! You shouldn’t feel jealous!” Really, what’s the meaning in it? There’s a reason why you’re doing it, and it has something to tell you. Once you figure out what that is, you can learn how to integrate it and handle it differently.
The number one thing it takes to get better is wanting it more than anything else and doing the hard work it takes to get through it. It doesn’t start or end overnight.
What would be the first step to figuring that out? That seems like a long process.
It is a long process. I think the first step is asking yourself if you are willing to look at this, and are you willing to commit to making your life better. If not, there’s nothing I can say that’s going to help you. Like they say in 12 step programs, you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. You have to decide when enough is enough, and be ready to face the difficult parts. If you are, then there’s a lot that’s possible.
And you know, the media sensationalizes the stupidest sh*t. One of the ways I work in therapy is to really break away from the collective and begin to understand what is it that is your perspective. Forget society. What do you want? What do you believe? Unsure? That’s okay. You just have to want to explore. Then you can build an authentic life from there. You will always be bombarded by images and messages and what people say and your family says, but you will no longer have to be affected by all of that the same way. You have a voice.
I tell Katie about my brief period of anorexia, back when I was 22. I tell her it gave me control, and how good it felt to have something that was all mine, and how I had the exact same feeling when I started yoga, but in a positive way.
It’s interesting how that energy can go either way. It’s like the life pull, or the death pull. When you break it down, there’s two pulls; every decision you make is either going to take you closer to life, or take you farther away from it. What happens is, we hold onto something with all our might, when we don’t believe we have anything else to claim.
What about anxiety and depression?
I’ve experienced them deeply. The best way to understand depression, in my experience, is to go into it, to not try to get out of it. To talk to it as if it were a separate thing, asking what it has to tell me, what feelings are underneath? Usually depression is a cover for anger. It means there’s something you’re angry about that has been stuffed or repressed. These energies are way more powerful than us; they take us over. If we had control, we would not be such a medicated nation. It’s like when you drink—or when I was bulimic, I would be telling myself “go home! Go home!” And I would find myself in front of a drive-through ordering mass amounts of food. I didn’t even know how I got there. It felt like something else was driving the car.
There’s a certain point where you just get taken over by this thing, this depression or addiction, and it’s so much work and it’s so hard, but you really have to begin to work with it, because the more you say “I hate this, I don’t want to be depressed,” the more it will make itself known. And you can’t just decide to “be positive,” because the shadow will come bite you in the ass. Positivity alone is one-sided. We are whole. You really have to work with these hard energies if you want to transform them. That’s what I’ve discovered.
What has been the best part of the last six years?
Discovering who I really am, that I have a really amazing connection to Spirit, and that I’m sensitive, and that I view that as a really beautiful thing now. I work hard on myself. And I’m able to know those things about myself. People talk about self-esteem, but it’s hard to have it when you don’t really know who you are, but once you know who you are, like I’m a hard worker, I’m responsible, I’m all those things people said I wasn’t! I care very much, I own up to my mistakes and I always try to own up to my part in things. If I’ve done something to hurt somebody, I really do want to make it right. And I care for people just in general so much.
Sometimes I’m overcome with emotion and I want to shout out loud, “I love everyone!” I don’t, because I don’t want them locking me up. But the feeling is sure there inside. Other times I’m intense or worried and a hard person to be around. But at least I know me now. It sounds so cheesy, but when you work on yourself, you truly affect the world. People want this change. To me, if you’re in therapy, you’re one of the brave people, because we never stop having shadow, we never stop having those aspects of ourselves, so if you’re working on yourself, that’s how you make your life and the lives around you better. That’s how you create the world you want to be in.
I think the reason I am so open is because I believe the number one killer is often shame. So many of us walk around holding these painful secrets and hate ourselves for not being able to figure it out and the shame quite literally kills (some would rather die than ask for help, tragically). I would rather say, “yup. I was a raging bulimic. I did some crazy sh*t with food that you wouldn’t believe. I was very very sick, and you know what? It was not my fault and I now take responsibility for my life.” The paradox is true. I don’t have to walk around hanging my head in shame. I can stand up and say, “I’m not proud of it, but I am certainly not ashamed of it either. It has been the greatest teacher I have ever had.” Isn’t that something? That the thing that almost killed me was a great teacher in disguise?
Katie holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University. She is under supervision in private practice in Woodland Hills, and specializes in working with dreams, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and relational issues. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 818-640-6811. She is happy to offer a free consultation. Visit her web site at ariaphoenix.com
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