Once Upon a Time
You know the story. We were the lucky ones, the happy family: two parents crazy about each other, three great kids, a blessed life. We had just built a lovely home in a terrific neighborhood in a gorgeous Florida coastline citynothing wrong with this picture.
I often told myself that if we just did everything right, if we gave our girls the right balance of love, respect, and discipline, we might get through the tough teen years without incident. Even so, there was a part of me deep inside that was waiting for the shoe to drop; a part that knew, someday, we'd have some big obstacle to face. After all, life is never perfect. I remember worrying something might happen to my husband, Steve, or one of the girls might have a terrible accident. Every now and then, I'd think, It can't always be this great . . . something will happen . . . what will it be for us? We can't be this happy, this fortunate.
I was right.
Until the moment of truth in the bathroom, I was completely blind to the seriousness of my daughter's outlook on life, and I had no clue that our challenges were already in progress. Up until that shocking February night, life with our family was better than we could ever have expected. Sure, there were the bouts of sibling rivalry, the messy bedrooms, the homework nagging, but nothing unique to us, and nothing to indicate that anything was out of the ordinary.
When people would roll their eyes and laughingly wish me luck when they heard I had three of the fairer sex, I didn't get nervous. I grew up as the middle child in a family of three girls, so having girls was very familiar. Plus, I don't scare that easily. At least, I didn't then.
Taryn was our oldest and a golden child in every way. She always wanted to do the right thing and was never any trouble. Looking back, there are moments that might have shed light on the problems she would later develop, but at the time, everything we experienced with Taryn, the baby and the growing child, seemed perfectly normal.
Monday-morning quarterbacking just doesn't really help, because at each step along the way, there was someone telling us we were in a normal phase. Later, when we were told of studies researching a possible connection between colic, tantrums, and similar behaviors to the development of eating disorders, we remembered moments from Taryn's childhood. But at the time, her doctor and my friends would just laugh, shake their heads and tell us the colic, the tantrums . . . this, too, would pass. And there's just as good a chance that they were right, and these incidents really were just a part of growing up.
My husband and I traded our high-powered New York jobs to move to Florida so that we could spend more time with our girls. He stepped down from his position on the Wall Street trading floor, and I left my job as senior producer of the long-running talk show DONAHUE. Taryn had just turned eight, Taylor was five and a half, and Halli was eighteen months. We chose that time thinking the girls were young enough to suffer no repercussions. We'll never know if we were wrong. Just before we moved, Taryn had tested into the gifted and talented group, so after settling her in her new school, we made arrangements to test her for the Florida equivalent, the Challenge Program.
To our surprise, she didn't get the required score. I remember being disappointed, since we'd been told the Challenge curriculum was as good as any private education. But the administrator reassured us, tossing around possible explanations such as 'the move,' or 'new surroundings.' She suggested Taryn finish out second grade and retest, which she did. This time, she was accepted into the program. No big deal. No big drama.
Could this have been the start of Taryn not feeling good enough, when she decided she had to work harder, do a little better than everyone else? Maybe. Maybe not. I noticed that with each passing grade in elementary school, Taryn seemed a little more shy, but I saw no reason to panic. At home, with her sisters, she was boisterous and confident. She would put on shows, dress up, and boss the other two around. No problem.
Then came middle school, which was rough for Taryna time of uncertainty, change, fear, and pressure, when young minds and egos are influenced to act and feel a certain way, whether they are ready or not. They are screamed at, by everything they see, hear, and read, to be older, act more sophisticated, and yes, to be thin, gorgeous, and (yikes!) sexy. At age twelve.
We tried to fight those influences with family time: church every Sunday and a strong Catholic foundation; sunsets on the beach every Friday, followed by our family dinner-out ritual. We monitored the movies, the TV, and the Internet. We rocked and read stories. We explained and reasoned. We did what we were supposed to do, and we didn't give in to every whim. I chose my battles, however. On subjects like contact lenses or shaving legs, I recognized the intense desire to fit in, and while innocence was lost and peer pressure seemed to come too soon, I understood and relented.
Taryn became more focused on trying to walk the walk and be in the 'right' crowd. Her academics were perfectalways straight A'sbut she yearned for popularity, and she didn't always feel successful. I remember many late-night talks while I scratched her back. I ached for her hurt feelings, her anguish, her tears. So I did what any mom would do.
I reassured her. Again, and again, and again. 'You are so beautiful, Taryn. I know right now you hate your nose . . . can't stand your hair . . . feel fat . . . but only you see it this way. You're such a pretty girl . . . you have so much going for you . . . look at all the positive things. In a few years, you're not going to believe how gorgeous you are.'
I was half-right. She still doesn't believe it.
And though she always seemed so hard on herself and would look at the glass of her social world as half empty, her behavior didn't seem that different from my friends' daughters or any of the other preteen girls.
During her freshman year in high school, everything seemed to come together for Taryn. She learned how to deal with her wild curls. The braces came off. And most important, she made the dance line, one of only four freshmen to do so. Suddenly, she was thrust right into the middle of the fun crowd. She had a boyfriend and plenty of invitations.
Steve and I shared in the enthusiasm of high school. Taryn was so busy and traveling right along the path we'd dreamed she would. She joined clubs, volunteered, continued with her straight A's, and danced at every football game. We never had to tell Taryn to do her homework or focus on schoolwork. Never. She knew what she had to do, and she did it. She was organized, made lists, accomplished projects on time. As the ultimate procrastinator, I admired so many of her wonderful traits. The only downside was that she put so much pressure on herself, like so many kids do today. In this competitive world, they have to be outstanding in so many ways. We had no clue how far Taryn took her perfectionism.
One day I was driving Taryn to her annual physical when she told me she thought she was anorexic. Kids say a lot of things, and I looked at her, wondering if she was trying to push my buttons, or if this was something more. There were no real signs of a problem. There had been the occasional offhand comment about dieting, but what teenage girl didn't talk about dieting? What woman didn't?
So when Taryn mentioned this to me, no warning bells went off, and I automatically went into maternal caution mode, reminding her how deadly eating disorders could be, and that they were serious. Later, at dinner, when I noticed she was polishing off an unusually large amount of food, still no bells went off in my head. Because there were no overt signs of trouble, no dots to connect, I casually remarked she didn't have to overdo it.
By the time I caught her throwing up in the bathroom, Taryn was in the middle of her sophomore year. At age sixteen, she'd given us a few moments of pause . . . some acting out over the summer, a couple of suspicious evenings, nothing too out of the realm of teenage normalcy. Since we spent our summers in Colorado, we blamed her lapses in judgment and social escapades on being away from her friends and hanging with a questionable crowd. Things would straighten out when we got home. And for the most part, they did. Taryn made the basketball cheerleading squad, remained on dance line, was a Big Sister mentor, had a job, was fifth in her class, in great shape, and beautiful.
In fact, whatever she decided to pursue, she made a plan and achieved it. In some ways, she seemed on top of the world. On the other hand, we still often talked into the night, and she still struggled with normal teenage angst. She looked at things negatively and sometimes even seemed depressed. Yet once again, it didn't seem all that strange.
I remember asking a friend with an older daughter about it, describing how Taryn would feel down even though her life seemed so great. 'I know what you mean,' she told me. 'Katherine used to walk around like she lost her best friend.' Yep. Just a normal phase. This, too, shall pass. Except it didn't. Although we didn't know it at the time, Taryn saw it all very differently.
I stared at my thirteen-year-old self in the mirror, brimming with thoughts of hate and self-loathing.
I pinched my thighs . . . my stomach . . . my arms . . . every part of my body seemed to be in obscene excess. Settling down at my desk, I scribbled furiously in my brown notebook:
Fat. Awful. Gross. I hate my body. I am going on a diet.
I am going to lose 15 pounds and then I'll be perfect. Then maybe Drew will notice me. God, I wish he could understand how perfect we would be together. If only I wasn't so fat and uglyugh! I hate my body and myself.
Two years later I stared in the same mirror, pinching the same thighs . . . stomach . . . arms. Every part of my fifteen-year-old body was still disgustingly and overwhelmingly fat. But this time, I decided to do something about it.
I leaned over the toilet and jammed my first two fingers down my throat. I choked and gagged and vomited until my face and throat were both so swollen that I could hardly open my mouth. My jaw, which suffered from a bad case of TMJ, was popping in and out of place, and I was wavering from dizziness. But I still managed to smile. I absolutely loved this newfound feeling of emptiness.
I was positive, like almost every girl, that if I could lose ten pounds I would undergo this miraculous transformation and suddenly be the most popular and beautiful female on the planet. Since sixth grade I had experimented with endless crash diets and short-term weight-loss schemes. At the end of my freshman year of high school, about a month and a half before summer vacation, I started a new diet: fruits and veggies only.
It worked fabulously at firstI lost five pounds in two days and decided to continue until I went from my unacceptable 145 to 125 pounds.
Unfortunately, as most diets do, this one slowly stopped work-
ing. So I gradually had to cut more and more calories out of my diet. Meanwhile, one of my good friends, Kayleigh, also began to diet. Her diet was more of a fast, and it caught everyone's attention. People were talking about calling her parents, and everyone gossiped about how Kayleigh skipped lunch again. I secretly wished I could be her; I thought the negative attention was better than no attention at all.
I had never been popular in middle school. While I wasn't an outcast, I was a wallflower and kept to myself. When high school started I vowed to change everything and tried as hard as I could to get attention from my peers. I did my hair differently, laid out in the sun on weekends to get a tan, and got a job so I could buy cool clothes. I had friends, but I was never satisfied. I wanted to be popular. I craved attention and I finally saw a way to get it. Even if people didn't notice my fasting, they would notice the eventual weight loss.
So the next day my diet turned into a fast. I sat in my ballet studio, sipping on a Diet Pepsi and waiting for class to begin, wondering how long I would have to hold out until someone noticed the fact that I, too, was starving! After three days of consuming nothing except diet sodas and water, I decided that I had had about enough. That afternoon, as my mom drove me, coincidentally, to my doctor's office for a physical, I told her that I thought I was anorexic.
Her reaction was not what I expected. Instead of a rush of concern and immediate scheduling of therapist appointments, I got a lecture on how my body was not a toy and how anorexia was a serious disease and not something to joke around about. I remember sitting in my doctor's office holding back my tears of embarrassment as he asked me, ironically, if I was eating all my fruits and vegetables.
That night my family and I went out to dinner and I decided to go all out and abandon my diet, which hadn't exactly had the desired effect anyway. My mother, watching me scarf down piece after piece of bread, pizza, an ice cream sundae, and more Dr. Pepper than most people could drink in a month, commented, 'You know, after not eating anything for a few days, you should probably slow down a little.'
Oh, shut up, I thought, with anger pulsating through my veins. Like you even give a damn about my fasting anyway.
The whole situation left me feeling humiliated and as fat as ever, the two things I was trying to avoid. I knew that a serious eating issue could get me the attention I craved, but I needed to do it right. It was a few months later when I started throwing up in another desperate attempt to be accepted.
I wasn't perfect, but until the year I turned fifteen I never got into very much trouble. This changed my first year of high school when I started experimenting with alcohol at a few parties during the school year and smoking cigarettes with friends when I claimed to be at the library. That summer, I lost my virginity to a guy that I knew from my job at a local coffee shop. I remember silently crying as he spent the fifteen-minute drive home making me swear over and over to never tell a soul so his girlfriend, whom I had never heard of, wouldn't find out. It was incredibly painful and a horribly humiliating experience, one that I vowed I would never get myself into againbut I didn't keep that promise.
The majority of my summer was spent in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a beautiful little town surrounded by breathtaking mountains and a serious lack of things to do for any fifteen-year-old, much less one like me. I was always feeling depressed, constantly worrying about food and yo-yo dieting, and just wanted to go home. So I started making my own fun.
One night I took my thirteen-year-old sister with me to drink with some guy that I had met earlier in the day. I also tried smoking marijuana for the first time that night; my sister watched as I gasped and coughed and tried to look cool. As soon as we walked through the door of the condo, my parents clearly realized what had gone on. After a single Smirnoff Ice, my sister could barely walk. I will always remember how my parents looked at each other with recognition that night and the knot I felt forming in my stomach. I could sense their fury. I was in trouble.
I eventually got ungrounded and tried to behave until we went home to Florida. My eating disorder continued to get worse; I started making myself throw up in September. I had read about bulimia and anorexia, and since at least four of my close friends were being treated for one or both of the disorders, I knew the basics. At first it was more of a quick fix; I only puked when I accidentally ate too much. An extra cookie or pancake would send me running for the toilet. It was the perfect solution to all of my weight-loss worries. It slowly started to take a different turn, however, when I discovered that I could eat twenty cookies and get rid of them just as easy as one.
Boys were a very big part of my life as I returned to school. I dated boys from the high school for a few months, but I slowly found myself becoming less interested in them and much more interested in someone completely unacceptable: a thirty-four-year-old guy named Nathan.
I was hosting at a popular restaurant in our hometown and he worked there. Since I was only sixteen, it was more than just a bad choiceI was legally off-limits. He also had a bit of a drug problem and was on probation.
It started out as nothing serious, just a casual 'Hi' or 'How's it going?' every now and then. But soon I started visiting him at his friend's house in a nearby town, usually with a few of my friends along. One night I sneaked out of my house and we went to another friend's house where we drank and smoked. That night Nathan and I kissed for the first time; it was a beautiful night with bright stars and the moon reflecting off the ocean.
Despite this new excitement, everything in my life was starting to become secondary to my obsession with food and my body. My bingeing and purging was becoming more frequent and the disease was getting deeper into my head. I started journaling everything about my diet; I recorded the amount of calories and grams of fat in everything I ate, the estimated amount of calories I burned during my daily exercise, and calculated my total caloric intake for each day. I spent hours scrutinizing my body and pinching my 'problem areas' in front a mirror; I imagined my rumbling stomach sucking the fat from the places on my body I hated the most. I lay in bed praying I would wake up thinner.
The night my mother discovered my dirty secret was the best and worst night of my life. I was exposed. Naked. Vulnerable. And exactly where I wanted to be.
©2008.Lorri Antosz Benson , Taryn Leigh Benson. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Distorted. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.