UPDATE: Caroline gave a presentation at Tedx Gramercy in September 2014. Check it out here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84H1wihM_Go
My Name is Caroline
by Caroline Adams Miller
An exclusive interview with Caroline Adams Miller.
Your story suggests that your thoughts about being “slim,” “slender,” “thin,” “dieting” started well before your bulimia. What can you tell us about that?
I grew up in the 1960’s, which was characterized by the Twiggy silhouette of anorexic chic. As a result, I remember seeing images of skinny women everywhere, and hearing about dieting all the time – on television, in ads, among girls and women, and then in my sport of swimming. As a result, I just assumed that being thin equated with being successful, pretty and desirable, as well as fast in the pool, so it was easy to spend an inordinate amount of time assuming that I was defective if I wasn’t “thin” by society’s standards. Unfortunately, I hit 5’10” by the age of 13, and the words I usually heard were “big” and “healthy,” not “thin.” I was also taller and broader than my older sister, and my parents and others frequently compared me unfavorably to her and her natural thinness, which led me to always feel “less than” in my family of overachievers. I was a sitting duck for bulimia, which began at 14, because it was presented to me as the magical way to eat everything you wanted without ever paying the price. It wasn’t long after trying it for the first time that I became hooked on the behavior in many ways, and although I often wanted to stop in subsequent years, I didn’t have the knowledge or ability to know where to go or what to do to find the right help.
Bulimia, as your secret throughout your years at Harvard, was your private, continuous nightmare. Can you please help others understand your inner world and the impact of bulimia on your college life?
As soon as I realized by 14 that my eating disorder had more control over me than I had over it, I felt nothing but deep shame and fear. I knew I could never tell anyone about it or ask for help because it would be an admission of weakness, particularly in my family, and empathy and love were not emotions my parents exhibited when I was in pain. I also knew from my own scant reading about eating disorders that no one really knew how to get better, or stay better, anyway, so I withdrew deeper into my secret and spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the smart, happy, athletic winner that I was programmed to become while hiding the hours I spent eating and hiding any of the signs of binging. At Harvard, where I was supposed to feel like I was at the pinnacle of success – and therefore, happiness – I recall the despair of knowing that my eating disorder was just getting bigger and worse, which didn’t make any sense to me because I had assumed that “winning” this particular prize would bring me the joy and confidence that was surely lacking. As a result, I went through all four years there with a cloud over my head, feeling out of control and helpless, wondering every day if it would be a “good” food day or not, or whether the fog of binging and purging would descend upon me. I never understood the patterns or triggers, so I felt off-balance and scared all the time, with the only constant being that I absolutely hated the way I looked and was afraid to be seen in anything other than sweat suits or overalls. Looking back, I am amazed I made it through and graduated magna cum laude because I felt like I was sleepwalking through life, just trying to get through every day without anyone finding out who the “real” me was. The best way to describe me during those years is “absent present”: I was present in body, but absent in every other way.
What would you want a college student with an Eating Disorder to know?
College is a buffet table (to use an apt analogy) of unique opportunities to grow, be curious, discover new passions, take risks, and find purpose, but when you have an eating disorder it muffles all of the happiness and excitement you should be feeling at such a transformative age. The first thing I’d do if I was struggling with an eating disorder would be to surround myself with help, a supportive recovery community, and the right professionals to help you make better decisions about self-care if you want to try to balance recovery with school. If you can do that while remaining emotionally and joyfully engaged in college, that’s great, but if not, take time off to get your head screwed on straight so that you can return when the time is right and take advantage of everything this special period has to offer. One of my biggest regrets about my four years at Harvard is that I didn’t explore more new avenues of study, have unexpected experiences from positive risk-taking, or develop a lot of new friendships because I was too depressed and self-absorbed to see past my small world. Above all else, don’t keep your behavior a secret from the people who love and want the best for you. The saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets” is very powerful and true.
What would you want the friends and family of a college student with an Eating Disorder to know?
I would want the friends and family to know that deep-down, people with eating disorders often want help but don’t know how to ask for it or where to go. They are also afraid of not succeeding in recovery because of how difficult it can be, and they don’t want to let anyone down. So approach the person who has an eating disorder with respect and kindness, and say that you want to be helpful in any way, but that you can’t and won’t enable the illness by looking away or lying for them. Be prepared to be firm in your boundaries, and also understand if the person doesn’t feel ready to take that important step of agreeing to seek help because you never know when that person’s last bottom will be, and you might be the first person they will think of if they choose to be vulnerable and ask for help. You can also assist them by offering to accompany them to a support group or therapist so that their first attempt at reaching out doesn’t feel lonely. Additionally, you can offer to change the kinds of foods and situations that you share with the person so that they are less tempted by foods or people they associate with binging. Arm yourself with knowledge about eating disorders so that you know the signs and symptoms, and be educated about what they might say or do in response to your caring. The biggest change between 30 years ago and today is the availability of helpful information and support communities online, which can make it easier to know you aren’t alone and that there is hope for recovery, so use that to your advantage. And finally – don’t give up on the person with the eating disorder. They are more disappointed in themselves than you could ever be, and if you want to be angry, be angry at the eating disorder but not the person herself. They are two separate entities, and the suffering person needs to know you understand that distinction.
In your book, you discuss some of your experiences with a 12-Step program. How did you decide to take a 12-Step path to your recovery?
It was sheer, random luck that I ended up in a room of “recovering compulsive overeaters” in Baltimore in 1984. At that point, I was desperate because I hadn’t found a single thing that had worked to stop the binging and purging, and I had nothing to lose by showing up at a free meeting. I figured I was a compulsive overeater, regardless of what else I did with the food, and that if that designation was good enough for other people, it was good enough for me to give it a chance. It was also “anonymous,” which was a huge benefit to someone who was so invested in not letting anyone know what I was doing to myself. I stayed in the rooms of 12-step recovery, also giving up alcohol at the same time, because I saw people getting better there and doing things that helped me to have hope. They took life one day at a time and helped other people to do the same. They tried to live more honestly and with accountability, which was something I craved and respected. I loved the friendship of the fellowship, and the lack of judgment. There was laughter, too, and I needed to feel joy again, regardless of the circumstances that had gotten me there.
People often comment on the wisdom found in the anonymity “in the rooms” of 12-Step programs. Can you please share some of the ideas you heard which have helped anchor your recovery from bulimia?
There are so many things I learned in 12-step rooms that have completely altered my life and purpose that I can’t possibly do them justice in a few sentences, but I’ll try. I will say that the slogans made a huge difference for me because they were quick and dirty ways to help me pivot in a positive direction when I was vulnerable to a slip in the beginning, but they are still relevant 30 years later when it comes to being focused and committed to staying on any hard path. These slogans included, “Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired,” “Keep it simple, stupid,” “Have an attitude of gratitude,” and “One day at a time.” The simplicity and wisdom of living with shorthand phrases like these presaged my current work in the Positive Psychology field, and it’s been fascinating for me to see that so much of what I experienced to get better and stay better is reflected in the evidence-based science of happiness, and especially where it connects with the science of success. In Positive Psychology, we also see that building relationships with others is one of the keys to emotional flourishing, and that’s a huge piece of twelve step programs because I heard repeatedly that “you can’t keep what you don’t give away.” Twelve-step programs may sound almost too simple to be useful, but there is elegance and power in their simplicity, and keeping things simple when you’ve made your life too complicated is not a bad idea.
Many suffering with Eating Disorders have given up hope of recovery. My Name is Caroline and your follow up book, Positively Caroline, share your experience with long-term recovery. Would you discuss some self-discoveries you’ve made as a result of your long-term recovery?
My long-term recovery from bulimia will always be the thing I’m proudest of because it gave me the confidence and strength to move forward and tackle more and bigger goals in my life. My biggest revelations as I got into my thirties and forties was that getting into recovery was just the beginning of the journey because staying in recovery was an even bigger challenge than I ever could have thought possible. As I went through pregnancies, family of origin minefields, financial challenges, job changes, emotional shifts and hard work in therapy, there were multiple junctures where my body could have become my battleground because food was always within sight. I believe that the epidemic of middle-aged women going into treatment centers – my generation – is happening because none of us were really prepared for the rigors of staying in recovery — there were no public role models, or books, about how to actually do it past the early years, and it’s hard to relate to stories of recovery that don’t include pregnancy, childrearing or midlife body changes. That’s the main reason I returned to this subject and wrote “Positively Caroline” despite the fact that I have moved into an entirely different field and profession. I realized that my daughter’s generation doesn’t have many long-term role models of successful, long-term recovery in the same ways that exist in alcohol and drug recovery fields, and I wanted to use the platform I was given from “My Name is Caroline” to finish the story I started so long ago and tell people that not only did I stay better, life got better in multiple, unexpected ways.
About the author –
Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP is a well-known coach, author, speaker, and educator in the fields of empowerment, change, wellbeing and the science of goal accomplishment. Her first book, “My Name is Caroline” (Doubleday 1988) was the first major autobiography by a bulimia survivor, and has been followed by many other books, including the pioneering “Creating Your Best Life” (Sterling 2009), which was the first book to link the science of success with the science of happiness. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, Caroline was also one of the first 34 people in the world to attain the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. For over 25 years, Caroline’s work has been featured in hundreds of media outlets around the world, and she was the first to bring Positive Psychology to radio with her “Positive Tips of the Day” on XM Radio between 2007 and 2009. She was named the 2012 Good News Ambassador by the Good News Network, and received the International Mentoring Award from the George Washington School of Business in 2013 for her decades of inspiring and helping others to achieve their goals. Caroline will be speaking about long-term recovery at the TEDxGramercy conference on September 27, 2014.