On living with an eating disorder, surviving sexual abuse and sitting down to tea with your demons.
“I want to start out by apologizing in advance for any butchering I may or may not do with any terminology,” I begin, “I don’t know what is or isn’t sensitive to ask, if that makes any sense.”
She laughs on the other line, stating “yeah…I don’t think you could say anything insensitive. And trust me, through all my years dealing with this, I have heard a lot of shit.”
Holly continues, “Like people who tell me to go on a diet. Or to just try THIS meal plan.”
“Wait, what?” I interrupt.
More laughter. “Yeah, like, oh no—no thank you. Nope. I don’t need ‘a diet.’ The whole problem is ‘diet.’ She pauses, “or they’ll start talking about themselves, and how they cut calories, and oh gosh, here’s what they did…oh and everyone has an eating disorder by the way. Everyone wants to tell me about their eating disorder. Like ‘oh I do too!’ and I’ll say ‘that’s not funny,’ and they’ll tell me about how they sat at home and ate a bunch, or how sometimes they don’t like eating. Holly pauses. “And I’m like ‘no dude.’ No. You don’t have an eating disorder.”
She continues, “Sure, everyone has disordered eating. Especially in America. I feel like there’s no ‘normal’ eater really. Everyone has their weird thing about food. ‘Oh I drank too much last night, so I need to workout more today,’ or portion control, or ‘hey that’s not raised locally and sustainably within 10 miles of my house so I can’t eat it.’ Holly pauses again. “Everyone has something. But it becomes an eating disorder when it starts disrupting your life. When you can’t live normally. So,” she continues, “I don’t think you could say anything I haven’t heard before.”
“I remember once, I went to an AA meeting—which obviously was for drinking, but I used it to kind of coincide with my eating disorder.” She continues, “this older guy offered me a cookie. And I was like ‘no thank you, I don’t want one’ and he was like ‘ah come on, you’re thin enough!’ And I was like, ‘no. Actually I’m a bulimic, and this will trigger me.’ And he was like ‘oh great! Then you can just throw it up!’”
“WHAT!” I shout into my phone.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of ignorance around it,” she states. “People just don’t know what they’re saying. And all of the jokes that people and the media make…” Holly pauses. “Like, anorexia is glorified, and always portrayed as this poor, skinny girl. But bulimia is like ‘oh yeah I throw up and eat too much.’ Everyone makes jokes about it, just like every other mental health disorder unfortunately.” She continues, “but yeah. The disorder isn’t a choice. They’re still looking into the research behind it I think—whether it manifests on its own or if you’re born with it.” Holly adds, “I think it manifests in my opinion.”
“How so?” I ask. “You mean it’s a product of a person’s environment?”
“Yeah…” she pauses. “Are you recording already?”
“Because this is part of my story…”
I’m curled up in the easy chair adjacent from my bed, cradling a cup of tea in my lap. My recording device sits on my nightstand—and has been rolling since Holly, who’s no longer a Seattle resident, called in from own her cozy abode. It’s laundry night for both of us. And while we tentatively planned for “an hour or so” chat, our conversation inevitably stretches over three hours, and showcases some of the rawest, bravest vulnerability I’ve experienced to date.
I sip my tea and wait for Holly to continue, perhaps sensing at that point that we’re in it for the long haul. “I just feel that my eating disorder manifested. It was a coping skill.” She elaborates, “But from what happened in my life, it just makes so much sense that I have this.”
“When I was little,” she begins, “I remember coming home from school and eating Cheetos and peanut butter M&Ms…but not in like a snacking way. Like I needed it. It was my comfort. And as I got older, around age 12, I was molested by someone very close to me. And it was kept a secret for forever. From everyone.” Holly pauses, as if unsure whether or not to continue. “It was my Dad. My brother doesn’t know. I told him it was my soccer coach, because one time it came out when I was drunk.” She pauses again before adding. “My dad was one of many of my soccer coaches, so I guess it kind of works.”
“So yeah. My Dad…Yeah.” she repeats. “That happened. When I was 12. For a month. And,” Holly continues, “I tricked myself into thinking it didn’t happen. I would second-guess myself about it constantly. Like, I rearranged my bedroom after it happened. And when I told him to stop, he did. And that was the last we spoke of it, until I was 17.”
“What happened when you were 17?” I ask.
“My parents put me into counseling,” Holly states. “They were like ‘you’re fucking angry! You’re self-centered! You’re too much for us! It was like they were saying, ‘We can’t deal with you anymore.’ And the first thing I told my therapist—and I had never said it to anyone—was that this had happened.” She pauses. “And she had to report it. I was underage. And on top of all that, my Dad was a schoolteacher at the time.” Holly inhales deeply. “I told her I didn’t want to press charges. I couldn’t believe that I had never talked about this to anyone for years and minutes after I spoke about it THIS is what was happening.”
“They had to have a detective go to his school, and confront him about it. Out of nowhere—he had no idea.” She continues, “And after that happened there was no acknowledgement of the detectives’ visit. We still acted like it never happened.”
Holly pauses again. “The house I grew up in is so full of secrets, the walls are heavy with anger.”
It got brought back up into my life again months later, when my Mom was going through my room and found the letter stating I wouldn’t be pressing charges.”
“Oh my god,” I mutter into my tea mug.
“Yeah,” Holly states. “She accused me of lying and making it up and trying to destroy their marriage.” She pauses. “Obviously she didn’t want to believe that happened. You know? It’s the WORST thing you could find out about your husband. So, then I got blamed for everything.” She continues, “When I have the guts to look back at what happened, I see how unfair it all was. That I was robbed of a father, of a home, of a chance at normalcy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I never really felt safe and I acted out as such.”
“When you’re 12 and something like that happens and no one does a thing about it, you cope the best way you can. And I coped with anger. Mix with that some puberty, and mean kids at school and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. I had all this rage, and these issues and my mom asking me ‘what’s your problem?’ or saying ‘I can’t deal with you anymore.” Holly exhales slowly. “There were just so many fights and all that.”
She continues, “So I found solace in volleyball. My junior year, I really wanted to make Varsity, so I just started running more and eating right.” Holly pauses. “I dunno. I was in shape. It wasn’t anything to do with me trying anything. But yeah. I came back to school and everyone like me. Everyone accepted me.”
“I just remember feeling like I mattered. And that I had found the answer. That I was loved and I was okay.”
She adds, “That’s when I craved boys’ attention. That’s when I craved being thin and pretty and popular. All those things. I found something to focus on. I found something to relieve me of all the thoughts. And the almost-hell that my house had become.” Holly pauses. “And it just took hold.”
“Basically I would just burst out in sheer rage,” she continues. “And I didn’t know why I was so angry! That was the worst part. Like, I didn’t know where it came from. I didn’t like being mean. I didn’t like having to take long walks before eating, or throwing up in the bathroom and hiding it from my parents.”
Her voice is one octave above a whisper at this point. “There’s just so much shame involved. And,” she continues, “just seeing what was happening to me, and who I was becoming, and I didn’t know why, and no one else knew why… and no one was trying to find out. They were just ‘you’re too much to deal with.’”
Holly pauses. “I got told that so much! When I came to my Mom and said ‘Mom I’m sad’ or I would show her poems that I’d written, and she’d be like ‘this is really dark, why are you doing this?’ Or like—and I hear this over and over and over in my head: ‘You are too much, and I can’t deal with you anymore.’ Holly continues, “ALL the time.”
She clears her throat. “So I had to deal with it myself. And that’s what I did. And I dealt with it with food. And lack thereof. And exercise. And by just becoming obsessed with being as acceptable as I can be. And obsessed with the idea of being perfect.”
We sit in a shared silence for a moment. I cradle my tea from the corner of my room.
“So yeah.” Holly whispers. “That was high school.”
After some thought, I ask. “Do you still keep in touch with your parents?”
“The strange thing is—and I didn’t know it was strange—is that no one ever told me it wasn’t normal to stay with your Dad after he does something like that. That was just my life, you know?” She explains, “All I wanted more than anything was his acceptance and his love…and at one point he wouldn’t even call me by my name. He’d call me his sister’s name.” Holly continues, “He’d take my brother out for things, and not me. We would avoid each other at all costs. And if he or my Mom ever came near me I would flinch.”
“It was so involuntary to shy away from physical touch. And my Mom would be like ‘God I’m not going to hurt you, what’s wrong with you!?!’ And just…” Holly trails off again. “Just all of these things. It made me feel like there was something so wrong with me. And no one knew why. It was fucked up. I had no idea. That’s just what became my reality.”
She continues, “All I wanted was my parent’s love. So I would try! With school, or I’d ask my Dad how his day was, and he’d literally not even look at me. But we lived in the same house, you know? We saw each other across from the dinner table. But it was like I wasn’t even there.” Holly pauses. “Then, when I went to college, I was free of that. And the distance helped our relationship a lot. And I kept trying to have a relationship with my Dad, because I wanted nothing more than to be loved. And I felt robbed that I didn’t get a Dad! And when girls had their parents come visit them at school, and their Dads called them pretty—and they weren’t questioning what their Dad was really thinking?” Holly’s voice rises this time. “Like, I wouldn’t want my Dad to look at me. I would just keep my head down a lot. And not want to be looked at.” She pauses. “It’s actually not until very recently that I have stopped talking to my Dad. And it breaks my heart.”
“What caused you to land on that decision?”
Holly inhales. “I think just enough time has passed and enough people have told me how messed up it all is. That it’s not normal. And it fucks with my head, trying to navigate my relationship with them. There are days where I’m full of hatred towards both of them, but then there’s this longing for love, acceptance, and belonging.” She continues,
“It’s like the people that caused the problems are the only ones that can fix them—only they can’t. They are never going to be able to give me what I need, and that’s incredibly hard to come to terms with.”
“It makes me sad when I look at my relationship with my dad. I never know what to say to him, what he wants for Christmas. Our phone conversations are pretty empty— just him making some jokes or flat statements. I usually call or text with a bit of hope and confidence, but then by the end it feels empty. Or, I’ll want control, so I’ll be the one to make him feel unloved and give him short answers.”
“This entire dynamic ruled our house,” Holly pauses, “control and manipulation.”
“In all those years, did you ever talk about it again?”
“It came up the night—and this actually gets really fuzzy for me—but it came up the night my Mom found that letter. She was yelling at me. My Dad had to go up to her and say “Holly told you.’ And he admitted it, in the kitchen in front of her. I think she blacked it out, because she didn’t want to believe what I was saying.” Holly pauses. “So there was acknowledgement of it. And we didn’t want to talk about it again. No no,“ she corrects herself, “they didn’t want to.”
“I am very impulsive,” Holly continues. “And I got to the point where, let’s say my Dad and I were walking around the city together, and I was wearing shorts…And like I said—he never did anything again, it’s just in my head,” she stammers, “but I just felt so uncomfortable in my body and around him. I would wear something longer or not that pretty, and I wouldn’t let him walk behind me. And I one time I ended up yelling at him, screaming ‘I don’t know what the FUCK you’re looking at—get in front of me.’ But yeah,” Holly continues, “this rage would come out in these weird bursts like that. The only other time I said anything was at my Grandma’s funeral, when my Dad said I looked pretty. We were just walking by ourselves, and I said ‘you don’t even know what you did to me. Like, I don’t even know what you mean when you say that.’”
Holly inhales deeply, “it’s been awhile since I talked about this…” She continues, “and he said ‘how do you think I felt? I know what I did. How do you think I felt?’ And…” Holly pauses again. “That’s just such a fucked up thing to say to someone! Like, I don’t CARE how you felt. You did this to ME. But I think at the time I was like ‘oh god I hadn’t thought about that.’ And, I don’t like to…”
“I don’t know what happened to him to make him this way,” her voice waivers. “That’s what really breaks my heart.”
She pauses. “And that’s what makes me so proud of myself—for looking at all of my demons. And trying to get help, because I am not going to continue this—this ignoring and this hate and this silence and this self-pitying.” Holly clears her throat. “I am not going to live the same numb life of my parents.”
“But,” she continues, “I dealt with it in the way I knew how. And that was through not eating. And then when I couldn’t not eat anymore, I would eat everything. I just got caught up in a whirlwind of binging and purging and over-exercising… all these behaviors and self-avoidance and self-harm.”
“It’s interesting,” I begin, “you said eating disorders are characterized as a mental disorder. And, with other mental disorders, there are stigmas and misinformation around each… but none seem to have such a set of physical, tangible symptoms attached?” I pause, sipping my tea. “Like, it seems that with eating disorders, people skip past all the actual trauma involved. They jump over the root of it, and then just land on the ‘just eat a piece of pizza already.’”
Holly laughs. “Yeah or ‘well why don’t you just not do it?’ And the thing is, everyone’s looks so different. Like, I had weird stigmas around cheese, and rice and carbs, things like that. But some girls have issues around protein. They won’t eat it. Or some girls, their anorexia looks like eating a burger and that’s all they eat all day.” She pauses. “You would think if someone’s anorexic they’d eat healthy, but there are so many weird loopholes that people have—and ways that they will eat. Some will cut their food up really, really small, even though they’ll eat all of it. Or others will eat super fast.” Holly continues, “So it’s not like you can just be like ‘she doesn’t eat’ and ‘she throws up.’ There are so many different things around it—and almost all the girls that I met in treatment had some kind of trauma. Mostly sexual abuse, if not verbal abuse as well, or rape.” She adds, “And obviously this is a huge blanket statement to make, but it is usually some kind of coping skill for some kind of trauma that happened in the past.
And usually along with it comes problems with alcohol or drug use or sometimes being promiscuous, you know? There are a lot of things that come with it.”
I sit with this for a moment, before asking, “What is treatment like?”
“I’ve been twice,” Holly begins. “The first time I went, I went to a place that really didn’t’ help. There aren’t that many eating disorder treatment centers in Washington State—it has a lot to do with laws.”
“Yeah. A lot of girls go to Arizona or Utah to do it. Because it’s just harder to get into them here, and the demand is so high.”
“Yeah. Insurance. And there’s definitely people who want to help and everything. I feel like it’s budgeting, and all these laws—I just know there are a lot of rules around it. And a lot of times too, people’s insurance will cut them. That makes me madder than anything.”
“What do you mean, ‘cut them’?” I ask.
Holly continues, “Let’s say their weight increases because they’re actually eating, or their labs are stabilizing because they’re not purging as much…” she pauses. “So the insurance companies are fucking terrible. They’ll just be like ‘oh look! So and so gained a few pounds. They’re better!’ And that sucks, because as soon as you stop with the behaviors, that’s when you can really start to work on everything else. Like when you’re in a good place of nutrition, you’re not all over the map anymore. You’re finally establishing yourself. And they they’re just like ‘you’re fine! You can go to outpatient!’” Holly sighs. “Sometimes people will try to keep their insurance by keeping up their behaviors.”
She continues, “But I was in treatment for a long time. Until I just quit. I was exhausted. I just didn’t have it in me to keep going every night by bus, after work, and then coming home every night.”
“Wait so this was outpatient then? You’d go there, leave, and then go to work the next morning?”
“Yeah, the first time, you’re inpatient, or partial hospitalization,” she explains. “That’s the one step where you don’t live there. That’s one step down. And I did that. They had us finish a seven-day program, from 8 AM to 7 PM.” Holly pauses. “It was my life. And then when you step down, they have you do four days a week of intensive outpatient. So I would go right after work, until like 8 PM, then ride the bus home. It was just exhausting…to say the least.”
With me still pressed to her ear, Holly heads down to her laundry room. Our conversation lightens momentarily, while she successfully starts up a load of darks. Upon her return to her apartment, we continue.
“Human experience is really hard.” She states. “But you know, then I’ll read something about someone going vegan and think that’s the answer. Or I’ll look at something pretty on Pinterest and think, ‘yeah. That’s it right there. That’s where I’ll find happiness.’” She continues, “I’m just always looking for that overall answer to like, fix it. And lately I’ve been getting frustrated.”
She pauses, her voice breaking, “This is going to sound so lame, but life has always been so hard… And I want it to get easier, and the fact that it isn’t getting easier is just really depressing for me.” Holly’s voice drops again. “It’s like… making me lose my momentum a little bit. This is the first time I’ve felt that in forever, because in treatment I could always pick myself back up and be like YOU’RE DOING THIS… but” she waivers, “it’s just hard. I’ve been dealing with eating disorders since I was 14!”
She sighs. “Like, that’s half my life now. Come on! You know? Isn’t this supposed to get better? Isn’t this gonna go away?” she exclaims.
Holly continues, her voice once again calm and steady. “I am so sick of being this way. I am tired of being overwhelmed with life. I feel like I blackout at work, just because my mind is always running when I’m doing something and I’m not present. And I’m sick of thinking that nothing is good enough, and just being in my head all the time, and not being able to live how I think other people live.”
I hear her softly crying on the other line. “How do I not wake up with that gut-wrenching anxiety, where I’m trying to remember why it is I feel this way and what went wrong yesterday and what do I have to do later and what do I do tomorrow and NEVER being in the moment.”
After a heavy pause, I ask, “How do you think other people live?”
She sighs. “I hope that their lives are easier. It seems like they are? I see my coworkers just coming in to work and talking to each other, and laughing, and they seem confident with themselves.” Holly pauses “and while they’re not perfect—I see when they get stressed out, things like that— but I just really hope that no one else has to go through this.” She continues, “that no one else has to go through life where you feel like everyone is against you all the time and you’re always trying to defend yourself and protect yourself, and you’re never able to enjoy yourself…” Holly adds, “there’s just always something to do that you haven’t done. And you have to do everything right now, and everything you’re doing isn’t good enough. You know?”
She clears her throat. “That was what I was going through right before I called you. And I was trying to calm down from just spiraling into anxiety and self-loathing. And just try to see a way out.” Holly pauses again. “And I try every fucking morning when I wake up, to say I can DO IT today.” Crying, she continues, “I feel so much disappointment and shame when I can’t ‘do it.’ Or when I do the same things over and over again.” She sighs, “like, how many more therapy sessions am I going to have to go to? How many more times am I going to binge and purge?” Holly pauses. “When is it going to stop? How much harder do I have to try? You know? Years of treatment and hours of therapy and all of my savings going to this fucking disease…that I don’t deserve to have.”
Now I’m crying from my end of the line. We hold off for a minute. Each of us staring in silence through our separate apartment windows.
“So that is where all of my frustration comes from,” she continues. “And I just feel trapped in myself most of the time. Like, I feel like there is a better, easier, nicer life somewhere, and I am just constantly looking for it, and I feel like I’m never going to get there. That everything I am trying isn’t enough. That it’s not the right thing.”
“Which,” Holly adds, “isn’t the truth. The truth is I’m just not getting instant results. If I’m honest with myself, I am getting better. It’s just a lot fucking slower and more painful than I want it to be.”
“Therapy is quite the process,” I attempt to offer a sliver of comic relief. “Too bad there’s not an app yet for sussing through trauma…”
Holly laughs. “Right? It’s so hard! How do you feel the fucking feelings?!?!”
“Wait, are you actually asking me that?” I laugh. “Because I’m a couple years in, and fuck if I know.”
She cracks up, continuing, “I’m getting a lot better at it.”
I sit up straighter in my armchair. “So what’s the secret!?”
“I think it just comes down to realizing ‘oh that’s what I do.’ Because I’ll tell myself to go on a walk to distract myself. Well that doesn’t work. Or I’ll tell myself ‘eat something!’ And that doesn’t work.” She pauses. “And just every time sometime comes up, I’ll tell myself I’m wrong for feeling that way!” Holly laughs, “like why aren’t you happy?? Go read a Pinterest quote and feel better already. Come on! When really,” she continues, “like tonight, before I called, and I was thinking I was going to implode with all these feelings.” Holly pauses.
“It comes down to literally giving yourself the time. To feel sad. Or feel scared. Or feel helpless or alone or whatever it is that’s coming through.”
She pauses again. “One thing I’ve learned from my therapist is to lay on my back, on my bed or on a yoga mat or something. And I put one hand over my heart and one over my belly and I just breathe for a while.” Holly continues, “I JUST BREATHE. I try to just come down first.” She laughs, “usually I try to ‘fix it’ when I’m still in it? But you can’t. I can’t until I’ve calmed down. But she taught me to ask questions to whatever it is that keeps coming up for me.”
At this, I set my now-empty tea mug onto my nightstand.
“Today it was ‘shut up stop talking—you’re fine. You’re fine.’” She explains. “And then nothing was good enough for this voice in my head. Like the fact that I was running late to our interview! This voice was like ‘you idiot, you told you’d call her in five minutes, it’s probably been like 10…you’re ruining everything.’” Holly pauses. “So I’ll ask that voice to come forward. And I’ll try to picture it. See if it has a color or something.” Holly laughs suddenly. “I don’t know if this is too woo woo, for you?”
“NO!” I yell, a little too eagerly. “I was actually just thinking, holy shit that’s a really good idea. I’ve never thought to assign color to emotions or sensations.”
Holly laughs again. “Ok cool. Well, yeah for whatever reason my ‘Judge’ is blue.” She continues cracking up, stating, “he actually looks like the Monopoly guy.”
“Oh my god. That is amazing.” I whisper into the phone.
She continues, “and often times, when I’m in that quiet space, I’ll try to get something to come up. And usually he’s the voice that will come up. Like ‘this isn’t going to work’ or ‘this is fucking stupid’ or whatever.” Holly pauses. “And then I’ll really try to give it characteristics, and assign it something visual. I’ll ask it what is it trying to do for me. What does it think it’s doing? Why is it here?” She states, “and half the time it’s protecting me—or trying to protect me—from not being perfect. Or like, if I’m not happy, it’s trying to fix me from not being so hard on me.”
“He’ll be like ‘I’m trying to fix you, so you’ll be accepted by everyone else. Because you want to be accepted by everyone. So you can be loved by everyone.’”
Holly adds, “I’m so afraid everyone is going to leave me, you know? That’s my big monster. Everyone always leaves me. So my ‘Judge’ wants me to be perfect, so I don’t ever get hurt.”
I’m holding my head in my hands at this point. Completely blown away.
“And that’s where the eating disorder comes from,” she continues. “Like, if I can physically look okay and be accepted? That’s something I can have control over. So it feels like that’s when everyone loves me. When I’m in that environment. When I’m pretty and thin. And knowing that gives me something to talk about with the Judge.” Holly pauses for a moment. “So usually I’ll ask him things like that, and I’ll thank him for trying to ‘help’ or protect me, but then I’ll tell him he’s not helping me—and that I need to try something new.” She laughs. “It’s taking a lot of practice. But most of the time it works.”
Holly adds, “I show most of my emotions with anger. So with anything other than happiness, I get really mad at myself.” She continues, “but if I show myself compassion and love, and look at it like this is just something I do, because this is just something you’ve been taught to do. You’re just trying to protect yourself.” She pauses. “Well, that helps.”
“You’re blowing my mind,” I mutter into the phone.
“Yeah,” I laugh. “I was actually just talking to my meditation teacher about this…” I pause… “I’ve had this weight of anxiety, and it’s always in this one specific place in my body. I’ve been trying to kind of ‘figure it out’ on my own, right? Like, work my way into it or around it or under it. Just feel for some kind of energetic trailhead in…But I asked her about it the other day, because it wasn’t changing or lessening or anything.” I continue, “and she told me to ask it questions. Well, first she asked if it felt scary… and I said, no…it’s just really uncomfortable. So she advised me to ask it questions. See if it would respond back. And try to take it from there. Have a dialogue with this energy.” I laugh to myself. “You call yours ‘the Judge’ and I call mine ‘the Critic’—but it’s just that never-satisfied asshole that’s always screaming ‘GET IT TOGETHER! GEEET IT TOGETHER! FUCKING FUCK! WHAT IS YOUR FUCKING PROBLEM!?!”
“Totally!” Holly cracks up. “And it’s always like ‘you should get this by now. You should already know this. You’re fucking up again. Nothing is ever good enough.”
“But yeah, I’ve never thought to assign visual elements to it,” I add in all seriousness. “That’s a really good idea.”
“Yeah,” Holly states. “It’s helpful. My happy, authentic self is actually orange. It’s very prevalent. I’ll ask it for help. And I’ve gotten to this place mentally where I don’t just shut down. I actually believe I can pull something out.” She continues, “at first it feels so weird, and you’re like oh I can’t do this. I can’t tap into that place anymore. But yeah. Whatever color or visual anything you can assign to each is helpful.” She laughs again. “You know Randal? From Monster’s Inc.? The evil purple one that disappears? He’s like a gecko.”
“Yeah….” I nod into the phone.
“Once he showed up as that! And I’m like, why am I picturing Randall! So fascinating. But that’s cool that you can feel it in your body. Once my therapist can walk me through it, it’s really interesting to see how much I shut myself down. Like, my body won’t even allow for that.”
She continues. “But the Judge? He’s present all of the time. I will even start to calm myself down and be like let’s go on a walk and he’ll be like ‘no that’s not going to fucking work.’ Or I’ll be like let’s not think about it and he’ll go ‘ohhh distraction. Wow, great job.’” Holly pauses. “He won’t let me move in life. You know? I get so scared that I’m going to make the wrong move and ruin everything. I just don’t have this trust that everything is going to be ok. And I think it’s because I lived in an environment for so long where everything wasn’t ok. And it wasn’t going to be ok and I had to protect myself.”
Holly continues, “Like I’ve been surviving for so long, that I don’t know how to just LIVE. That’s what I’m really working on. And it seems that when you really think about it, there’s no immediate danger around me. And yet I act as though there is always a threat somewhere.”
“Are there other personalities?” I ask. “I mean, at least for me, I sometimes split these voices or emotions into full-on personalities. And we all sit around having fucking tea together. Like oh you’re the cheerleader. And oh you’re the dickhead of dickheads.”
Holly bursts into laughter. “I will NOT pass the sugar to you!”
“Exactly,” I crack up. “But are there any voices that counteract the Judge? If you can get the Judge to shut the fuck up…?”
“Usually I can get the Judge to quiet down just by showing it love. And,” she adds, “I learned this from my eating disorder. Like my eating disorder? I have hated it for SO long. I have been like WHY do I have this. I am disgusted by it. I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t ever want to stick my finger down my throat again. I don’t ever want to go buy pizza and doughnuts and mac and cheese and cereal and eat until I can’t fucking eat anymore and then throw it all up.” She sighs. “I am fucking over it. But the idea that this eating disorder has saved my life?” Holly pauses. “In a weird way, that has helped me have compassion for it.”
“Wait.” I interject. “What do you mean, it saved your life?”
“It saved my life.” Holly repeats. “Because I didn’t know how else to cope, and no one was going to teach me. So this was how I survived all of those nights where I shut myself in my room, or I didn’t want to hear my parents fight anymore, or when I was so angry and we had just gotten in a fight.”
She pauses again. “When I was told to ‘go deal with myself’…I did.”
Suddenly, Holly bursts into laughter. It appears her cat made an understated jump for the adjacent windowsill. And missed.
She snuggles him into her lap and continues, “My eating disorder saved my life. Because it’s just been my coping skill. And while it’s not the best one, it was the only way I knew how to get through being in the environment I was in, and to handle all of the situations I have been through.” Holly pauses. “It’s not a coincidence that I lose a bunch of weight after something like that happens. And I don’t even mean to anymore. It’s just the anxiety is so overwhelming that I feel sick, and it just feels better to be in control of something when I had no control over my situation, or what was happening to me.”
“The same thing goes for me when I was raped,” she explains. “It happened when I was dating someone, and he assumed that I had cheated on him. And he left. My rock left me. And I was once again to blame for everything being wrong in my life. And it was all my fault. And the only way I could cope with that pain was by not eating. Or by eating everything.”
“Hold on…” I slowly state. “You were raped… And your partner you were with blamed you for it..?”
Her voice drops. “Yeah…” She pauses. “The confusing thing is… like, it feels weird to say out loud. I haven’t talked about this that much. But when it happened, I wanted it so badly to not have happened, that I tried to pretend that everything was fine. I was like there is NO WAY that this is real life. I got in a cab the next morning—the guy paid for my cab and sent me on my way. And I got back to my house and I saw that we had actually been there, and my house was trashed, and I had notes from my neighbors saying I was incredibly loud the night before…and…” she trails off for a moment.
“It just seemed so surreal to me, and I didn’t remember what had happened and I was hoping it hadn’t. So when I finally did talk to my boyfriend, I told him that I met these guys at a bar—I showed him where the bar was—and told him they bought me a couple of drinks…and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him anything else.”
We hold off again, soaking in a shared silence. I sit listening, my face in my hands.
“So of course it looked like I was hiding something and that I had cheated. And I think I even told him that,” Holly continues. “Because there’s no way that I could have deserved something like that happening. You know?”
At this, I realize there are tears streaming down my face.
She continues quietly. “Like…it had to be my fault. It’s so surreal that someone would do that to someone. And you know, all his friends despised me. I was called a slut and a whore. All of these things… when I had been given too much to drink, taken from my house, in not much clothing, to a hotel room with three guys?”
I’m draped over the arm of my chair, sobbing softly.
“I don’t really know what happened. But,” she continues, “I had an STD afterwards. And I hurt the next day. So something happened. And, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about that one. I didn’t have professional help then. I just had me. So, that’s why I say that my eating disorder has saved me.” Holly pauses. “Because I don’t know what I would have done to handle everything. You know? I didn’t know where else to turn. And friends don’t know what to say, and it’s not something you tell people…especially when you can’t even believe it yourself.”
Another heavy pause.
Holly continues. “And I think this is something that girls go through all of the time. They feel like it’s their fault. I don’t talk about these things, because they still seem so surreal.” She exhales slowly. “Like… it has to be my fault… because why would someone do that to another person?”
“I am so sorry,” I whisper into the phone, wiping my tears with my sleeve. “I am so sorry that all I have is an ‘I am so sorry.’ I just… I can’t…” I opt to stop talking.
“Thank you.” She whispers back. “And yeah I don’t know what to say either.”
Holly continues, “most of the time I am told to stop. Or that I’m too much. So it’s nice to have a space where I am allowed to say these things, and I’m not upsetting anyone, and I don’t have to have a filter, and I don’t have to act like they didn’t happen.” She pauses. “Or sugarcoat them.”
“I have to change my laundry.” She states suddenly. As she sets down the phone to shovel wet clothes into her dryer, I stare bleakly at my own mountain of clean whites, refusing to fold them.
Once she’s returned back upstairs, we switch gears a bit.
“You know,” Holly begins ‘the rave scene is another thing that saved my life. Before that, I didn’t know that people were nice. That you could have any kind of body type. And celebrate it. I went to Ultra Music Festival in Miami in 2013, and I was pretty sick at that point—I was really thin. I was sober too, because I thought that that would “fix me.” And for the first time I saw coke, and drugs and someone on an acid trip. And I didn’t understand what was happening, and I wanted to go home. But at the same time, I never wanted to leave. Just seeing girls in skimpy outfits and jewels and different colored hair, and bodies of all shapes and sizes…” she pauses. “And all of them wanted to talk to me. And none of them had an ulterior motive. They weren’t making fun of me when they were looking at me. They were complimenting me.”
Holly laughs. “And it was genuine. It really was this world of people spreading peace, love, unity and respect, for one another. Then,” she continues, “the music on top of that? I had never heard anything like Skrillex, or Bloody Beatroots, or Above and Beyond. And I heard it all in one weekend.” She laughs again, “and I got to dance and be myself! And I was so present, and immersed in this world that I…”she pauses, “I didn’t know the world could be this way.”
“It’s taught me to love my body. Not always,” she laughs, “like sometimes booty shorts are just a little too small. But that’s when I learned you don’t buy clothes to fit into them, you buy clothes that fit you. That’s a huge thing for me to remember.”
I have a thought. “You know…maybe dancing is your way to be completely in your body. Maybe that’s a more effective means of embodiment than say, Downward Dog or whatever.”
“Totally,” she adds. “Actually, I started doing these dance videos. Like I’ve always had people tell me I’m a really good dancer, but just not shutting down compliments has been a huge thing for me. Holly continues, “so I started this dance channel, and every time I get emotional, or something is happening in my body where I’m feeling it, I turn on music and put on my favorite outfit that makes me feel good about myself, and I just go for it.” She laughs, “I’m not a professional by any means, and I write that on there too. Like, if you don’t want to watch, that’s fine. But I don’t care either way.” Holly pauses, “I just want to inspire people who won’t do something they genuinely enjoy because they don’t think they’re good enough at it.”
She continues, “Like people who take pictures or write or whatever… if you enjoy it then just do it. You don’t have to be the best of the best. You know? So that’s what I’m trying to help other people do.”
She continues, “the cool part too is since then I’ve been watching other people’s dance videos, and then learning what they’re doing. Trying something new.” Holly laughs. “It’s another cool way where I’m finding out who I am. Finding out what makes me happy and what brings me joy.” Holly pauses. “Because for so long, I identified with my eating disorder, and that was me.”
“Like I was the girl with the eating disorder. I was the girl who worked out all the time. I was the girl who portioned my food. I was the girl everyone was jealous of, with her perfect self-control. No one knew what I was going through.” She continues, “or I submerged myself in a guy, and then I was like oh! What does he want to do? Where does he want to go? And my relationships became my life.” Holly clears her throat. “So finding those things that I actually enjoy that make me feel whole? That’s what I’m working on right now.”
“Are there other things that have surfaced?” I ask.
She pauses. “Definitely writing. I’m not sure what form…but just being able to express myself. I stopped writing for a while, because I had all this shame around not knowing—of not having the answer.
I would always followup my blog posts with ‘and here’s the moral of that story’ or ‘don’t worry everything is fine’…” Holly laughs, “rather than just the truth: I STILL DON’T FUCKING KNOW.”
“It was so cool when I started writing a blog, just how many people would reach out and thank me for being so honest. They would say ‘you’ve helped me in so many ways.’ Like, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ Or, ‘my boyfriend abuses me.’ People open up.” She pauses, “as soon as you offer that honesty and that connection. Even people at a rave will be like I love your blog. I forget that people actually read it.” She laughs, “to get these words out and have people read and listen and hear me? And share common ground? It’s really rewarding. “
She continues, “when I broke up with my last boyfriend, I was like, ok what now? What do I do? I literally looked it up on eHow or something.”
We both burst into laughter.
“Like what are the steps here?! And it was like find your priorities. Find your goals. And I wrote it down! I was like okay. WHAT makes me happy?” She pauses before exclaiming. “And I found out that for the most part, I don’t really know. I felt like I was that guy from Office Space. Like I woke up and was like, is this my life?! How did I become him at 27??”
She continues, “I had been so submerged in something that overtook my life for so long, I didn’t even want to think about what it was that makes me happy, let alone that something could be enough to make me happy. Staying in one night. Reading A Wrinkle in Time. Painting my nails. Little things, you know? It’s just strange.” Holly continues, “I don’t allow myself to do those things. Or believe that I can do the things I want to do.”
She laughs to herself. “There’s just something so thrilling when you actually go after what you want. And yes, I am still learning—I just get so black and white. It’s very hard for me to give myself any kind of credit, because I’m afraid that it’s either not enough or it’s not that impressive to people.”
Holly continues, “I just let everyone’s outside perspectives tell me my reality. So I’m slowly learning to give myself more credit. Appreciate all the little ways that I am changing.”
“I respond better to positive reinforcement, so instead of ‘well you fucked up again!’ or ‘don’t do this, stop doing that’, really seeing where I did make progress and where I did try and where it actually worked and then building on that.” She pauses. “And just being present. Instead of being on my phone when I’m with my friends, or making a to do list when I’m on the treadmill. You know?”
“Dude that’s my favorite thing to do EVARRR,” I chime in.
Holly laughs. “Right? I know. But,” she continues, “I’ve had to write these things down – and I literally look at it all when I come in to work. To be present. To breathe. To go talk to someone. To be social. To not just hide in my corner. And I do all of those things…and if I’m honest, I’ve had a really rough go of it for a while. From the eating disorder, from this recent move, from finding a new job…” she pauses. “I haven’t quite gotten a break from it all, you know? But, this is when I can start. Now I have a job. I have a place to live. I am single. This is when I can start looking at those things that will get to where I want to go to. All these other things have finally calmed down.”
Holly continues, “all I ever want to hear is ‘you’re doing good.’ Or ‘you’re doing okay.'” She pauses. “Look at you do all this. Look at you making these changes. You’re in therapy right now. You’re confronting your demons. You’re healing through your trauma. You’re dancing. You’re writing. You’re feeling. You’re trying so hard.’”
She adds. “I’m learning to just give myself the credit that I look for in other things. To allow myself that love and self-acceptance.” Holly pauses again. “You know? However that looks.”