It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to have perfectionistic tendencies. I remember being in the hospital, as an inpatient. I was 15, and surrounded by mostly anorexic teenage girls. There were a few bulimics, but for some reason, they tended to be older, in their early 20s. The girls who were there for anorexia, with the exception of my best friend, were classic overachievers. They were all involved in some sort of athletics. They often sang or played an instrument. They had perfect 4.0 GPAs. They compared notes on these things, and I sat back in awe. Remember, I was already in awe of them. In my ED twisted mind, they were heroes. They hadwillpower, the mysterious thing I lacked. They weren’t “lazy,” as I’d been repeatedly described on progress reports. I was capable of As. I just didn’tapply myself.
What I didn’t realize, what I couldn’t realize in that state of mind, was that the perfect grades and athletic accomplishments and the incessant need to add talents to their already impressive resumes was simply another symptom of their ED. Likewise, my grades and inability to concentrate was a symptom of my own problems. I won’t blame it entirely on my diagnosis of “non-purging bulimia,” because that’s not true. However, I do think when you added my insecurity, my completely unstable family situation and my constant moving to the ED, it was a cocktail for failure. I never stood much of a chance, and it’s, to be completely frank, remarkable that I was able to be strong enough for myself to get through any of itwhole.
However, what I couldn’t see in myself at that age was that I also had this tendency to want to be “perfect.” It didn’t show in the same ways. I wasn’t able to achieve, even in the short term, the “perfect” body. I wasn’t able to apply myself to my studies to achieve those perfect 4.0 GPAs I envied. I eventually recognized that this was not because of laziness, but simply because of the conditions under which I lived. While in the hospital, I noticed that though most of the girls I admired had family problems like anyone, they also had families that were much more involved in their lives than mine. Whereas, the girls who were being treated for the purging form of bulimia had families more like mine. They were the “black sheep,” the “rebels.” They were misfits. The anorexic girls were their families’ “golden children,” the ones who could do no wrong. Their disease was one to be ashamed of because it suddenly meant they weren’t “perfect,” after all. In some ways, I wondered later, if that didn’t make it harder for them. I was never “perfect,” so having an eating disorder didn’t do much to lower my status in my family. I didn’t then have to battle the demon of perfection from another angle, too.
Yet, I did have that demon. It just took on a different form. For me, “perfection” became about keeping peace. I learned how to play at the games of my family members. I learned to be skillfully manipulative. I tried desperately to help my little brother, but, to his credit, he couldn’t play at the game. Ultimately, though, that would be his downfall. While playing the game wasn’t something I was proud of, or wanted to do, I knew to survive I had no choice. Sometimes in life we have to compromise in ways we never wish to, simply because the alternative is akin to defeat. It sounds convoluted, and twisted. It seems backwards, to compromise to survive… but it’s something I had to do, and I did it. I played their game well. I became a better manipulator than most of my family members. I could twist any situation around and make it better, easier.
Perfection for me became avoiding conflict. Finding ways to go along just enough to get away with almost everything I wanted to get away with. Perfection became about taking on the role of mother… for myself, my brother and my baby sister. Perfection became about pushing myself emotionally, about fighting for what I believed in, even if I had to do so in a silent, secretly rebellious manner.
When I began college in 1994, I rapidly descended into the deepest depression of my life. I was bereft, void of all feeling except sadness. I didn’t know how to cope with not having a roommate. On my all-girl, all-freshman floor it made me something of a pariah. It was a stigma I was used to, but had hoped desperately to escape in college. I made some friends, with girls on the other side who had attended the summer program I had. Still, I felt lonely and isolated. My mother had gone missing near the end of my senior year. Her heroin addiction had finally reached rock bottom. She’d been arrested (though she was never formally charged) and an aunt I didn’t know she had surfaced to take custody of my then 2 1/2 year-old sister. I had spent almost two years begging social services to remove her from the custody of our mother. I saw her as my beautiful angel child, the blue eyed, blonde who’d saved my life by being born and giving me purpose. I had to leave her, and it devastated me. I told myself that to give her a future, I needed first to make one for myself. When her aunt surfaced, I suddenly lost motivation. She was safe. It was already, I realized on some gut level, too late for my brother. He’d have to save himself.
A couple of weeks after Hope was placed in her aunt’s care, I graduated from high school. It was a day I was unbelievably proud of, a day many had not expected to come. I’d barely attended my freshman year, but thanks to the love and support of the alternative high school I’d demanded I be sent to, I graduate on time and with honors, near the top of my class - despite the weighted GPA that hurt my rank because I had almost no grades for an entire year.
My mother missed my high school graduation, too lost in her own shame and heroin high to give a shit about me.
I lost everything I’d had to be “perfect” for, and it destroyed me. I hadn’t been living for myself, which I suspect is the case for most of us who have battled an ED. I’d been living for my family, to be the peace keeper, to be my sister’s mother, to try to save my little brother from a path I knew was going to destroy his life. I wasn’t thinking about my future for myself, but for them. For the siblings I loved so deeply and needed to protect. They were what spurned my need for perfection. With my mother missing, I found myself wondering when the call would come. I didn’t know at the time that she snorted, rather than injected, her poison. I expected them to find her in a gutter somewhere, hypo in her arm, lips blue. I expected the call to come that I had to go ID her body. I know now that I wouldn’t have been the one to receive that call anyway. It would’ve been my grandparents or aunt who went. At the time, though, I thought it would be me, and I waited, and I waited for the phone to ring.
When the call finally came, it wasn’t the one I expected. She had gone - willingly - into treatment.
My life was falling to pieces, and suddenly, my mother had decided to pick hers up. It only added to my misery, to my certainty that I was an absolute failure at everything that mattered.
I didn’t want to forgive her, or give her a chance. I don’t think I ever did forgive. How do you forgive thos e things I lived through, the things I watched my siblings live through? But I decided, nevertheless, to try to trust again. I realized that I wouldn’t be hurting her by cutting her off. I’d be hurting myself. I’d waited my whole life to have a mother… if I didn’t take the chance, I felt, it would be unfair to me.
So, I took the chance. It took time, but slowly some semblance of a relationship emerged. Try buying Mother’s Day cards for the woman who missed your high school graduation because she was high, though. It’s not easy. Eventually, I realized she cleaned up too late for me, but I hoped desperately that it wasn’t too late for Hope.
It seemed, initially, that she’d be a better parent to Hope. It seemed that she’d be more affectionate, more open, more emotionally available. Then it began to slowly unravel. The little girl inside of me who’d so desperately longed for a mommy didn’t want to see it. It was selfish, but it was instinctive. It took a long time.
It took Hope being raped and our mother leaving her home alone the next day for me to see it. Our mother is no better at parenting sober than she was high - and at least when she was high, I could make excuses. “It’s the disease,” I would say, even though I never felt that was a good enough reason to emotionally (and often physically) abandon her children, the excuse was there.
Then, when she got sober, I made more excuses. Still the peace keeper. Still the one who wanted to fix everything for everyone. I wanted my sister to have a mother, but she realized long before I did that she doesn’t. She never truly has… I’ve been like a mother, but no matter how much the two of us wish I was her mother, I am not. She may be the daughter of my heart, and I may be the mother of hers, but the birth certificate tells a very different story.
We are sisters. We are motherless daughters. We are not mother and daughter, and no amount of wishing can change that.
I am worried for my sister. I don’t know where my strength came from, and though I credit wanting to save others for some of that strength, I was not without some will for myself. My willpower was far stronger than that required of a successful dieter. It still is.
In the midst of this current crisis, I am faced with an emotional ocean. I sit on the shore, as the waves crash around me. From time to time, the seas calm, and I am at peace. Mostly, the waves rage around me, and I struggle to keep from being drowned by the saltwater left on my cheeks.
I wrote my mother a letter, and today I got her response. It tells me that she is still incapable of change. One cannot change what one refuses to even see. Which means that my sister will have to do what I did. She will have to take the reins of her life from the open hands of our mother and gain control of the careening carriage carrying her along. She will have to be strong and powerful in ways she will not even appreciate until many years from now, when she looks back at her life and asks, “how did I possibly do that?”
If Hope wants to succeed, if Hope wants to be free, she will have to save herself now. I can offer assistance, as can my husband… but there is only so much we can do to help her.
I began readingLuckyby Alice Sebold, a memoir her life after a brutal rape. I wanted to better understand what my sister might be dealing with now. I didn’t expect the book to have such a profound impact on me. I have never been raped. I haven’t even finished the book. I’m only at the end of Chapter Four. Yet, already, I am grateful for this book, if only for this line:You save yourself or you remain unsaved.
I have never given myself credit for what I overcame. Not really, not in the way that I deserve it. It is, and I don’t say this to sound arrogant or pompous, truly remarkable that I emerged from my family’s dysfunction capable and ready to love. That I came out willing to find peace, to find answers. That I’ve never once given up on myself, when everyone around me repeatedly did so.
I am a remarkable woman.
And so we get to the permission to be imperfect, finally. As a graduate student with two courses under my belt, I have a perfect 4.0 GPA. I’ve finally done it. It’s the first time ever, and it tasted so sweet, so powerful… and then this drama with my family unfolded, and suddenly I realize that I cannot be “perfect” right now. I don’t have it in me to do so. I am working as hard and as diligently as I can. Sometimes I get to something a bit later than I am supposed to. Sometimes, I just don’t have the emotional energy to concentrate the way I need to.
I’m giving myself the okay to not be perfect. It’s frightening, when I finally had a taste of it, to let it go… but as my very wise friend Michelle asked me, is there really that much of a difference if I graduate with a 3.8 instead of a 4.0?
I may be remarkable. I am not perfect… and I’m learning that this is just fine.