Three Essential Steps In My Recovery From Bulimia
By Caroline Adams Miller
Thirty-two years ago, I was in a wasteland when it came to my secret eating disorder, bulimia. It was 1984, I was a 22-year old married college graduate who was entering her eighth year of bulimia, and in spite of the multiple warning signs – deteriorating athletic performance, gum erosion, missing food, mood changes, and so much more – I was alone in my misery.
It was a terrible time for anyone who wanted to get better. Not much was known about bulimia, there was no treatment that had been proven to work, and the only media attention that went in this direction was around its dead victims, most notably singer Karen Carpenter.
It was in this environment that I found myself, and it was only out of desperation that I slunk into a church basement for a 12-step meeting of compulsive overeaters. I had no proof it would work, but I felt like my behavior was similar to alcoholism, and if the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous was helping people to get sober, something at this particular meeting might help me stop feeling compulsive and weak when it came to food.
Fortunately, that meeting was the beginning of the rest of my life because I found friendship, hope, help, laughter, and resilience that helped me overcome bulimia, and then write about it in the first autobiography of a survivor, “My Name is Caroline” (Doubleday 1988, Cogent 2014).
The question I’m most often asked, especially because I’ve reached more than 25 years of unbroken recovery, is, “How did you recover?” So here are the three most important reasons why I believe this happened:
In February 1984, a met a woman at one of my support group meetings who said she was recovering from bulimia, one day at a time. Her story was almost identical to mine in terms of background, age of onset, and obstacles. She was the first person I’d ever encountered who said she was recovering, which was in and of itself astonishing. It’s hard for current sufferers to comprehend that there was a time when treatment centers were a curiosity, therapists were in the dark, and no one talked openly about this topic, so meeting someone in recovery was akin to putting a match to kerosene. I was on fire from that moment on, and when I went back to school to get a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology in 2005, I found out why this was such a turning point for me. Hope Theory posits that people who have hope alter their brain function in two important ways: they believe that they will find a way to accomplish their goals, and they also begin to generate more solutions to accomplish their goals. Once I had hope, I was on my way.
Being hopeful was the first step. The second reason why I got into recovery and stayed there is because I developed the character strength of “grit.” Grit is a special sauce that is essential if you want to accomplish very hard, long-term goals, and although I wasn’t a complete stranger to being successful – I was a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, after all – I’d never had to fight this hard in my life to stay on track at anything. I had to learn so many things that were foreign to me: normal portion size, how to feel too full after meals without purging, how to use exercise for pleasure and not calorie-burning, and how to remain hopeful and committed to my plan even after slipping with a binge or a purge, to name just a few. I developed an appreciation for the exquisite challenges of eating disorder recovery that are not faced by any other addiction; I had to deal with food all day in a huge variety of settings that were unavoidable, which meant that many moments of every day were fraught with triggers. And being pregnant with morning sickness three times, nauseous for the first three months and then filled with cravings for weird food combinations during the other six, meant trading in my stable recovery regimen for something completely different for years at a time. Thriving in uncharted territory was more the norm than the exception for the first 8 years of recovery, but because I had the mindset that failure was not an option, I just kept going, regardless of what happened along the way.
I stopped drinking alcohol within the first year of my recovery, and there is no question that it was a powerful force for good. I decided that if I was going to get better, I couldn’t deliberately alter my mood with any substance or I would never get to the bottom of the emotions underlying my bulimia. Although this was true, there were unanticipated ancillary benefits from taking this path. I attended a lot of 12-step meetings for recovering alcoholics when I couldn’t get to a food meeting, which put me in the company of hundreds of men and women who were trying to change their lives for the better. Their resilience, success, and energy rubbed off on me. Those meetings also reinforced the message that living one day at a time was a smart way to recover. Most importantly, though, by removing alcohol from my life, I never had to deal with having my willpower reduced when I needed it most. That meant that navigating multiple difficult food situations – which was hard enough – was never worsened because I’d had a glass of wine. When I returned to school in 2005, I learned about the science of willpower, and discovered that alcohol has been determined to be the number-one reason why people don’t achieve their goals. Given the number of people who struggle with multiple addictions, I’m surprised that giving up alcohol isn’t among the first recommendations for recovering from an eating disorder.
Recovering from bulimia remains my proudest achievement because it showed me that I was capable of doing something very hard, and also gave me an avenue to give back to others in a very satisfying way. The feedback I’ve gotten as I’ve responded to letters, emails, phone calls, and random conversations all over the world for almost thirty years is that giving people hope has been the greatest gift I’ve offered, so if I have to distill this to one piece of advice, here it is: Surround yourself with people who give you hope.
About the author –
For almost three decades Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP has been a pioneer with her ground-breaking work in the areas of goal setting/accomplishment, grit, happiness and success. She is recognized as one of the world’s leading positive psychology experts on this research and how it can be applied to one’s life for maximum transformation and growth.
Caroline is the author of five books, including Positively Caroline, My Name is Caroline, and Creating Your Best Life. She has been featured in hundreds of magazines, newspapers and other media around the world including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, US News and World Report, ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR and CNN.
Caroline’s TEDx Talk on grit, “The Moments That Make Champions” has received more than 11,000 views. Past clients have included: YPO, Edward Jones, Heartland Coaches Association, Columbia University, Envestnet, National Press Club and American Society of Journalist and Authors.