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The perfect girl: even though she was super-smart, outgoing and athletic, Kathryn, 17, hated herself for not being perfect. Here's the heart-wrenching story of how bulimia almost destroyed her.

Although I grew up in an extremely nice home in Berkeley, Calif., with my parents and two little brothers, I wouldn't say I had a normal childhood. My parents are pretty high-powered--my dad is a successful international lawyer, and my mom is a systems analyst. They are the ultimate perfectionists, so they raised me to be an overachiever in everything I did. This is how bad it was: When I was 5, my aunt offered to take me to see Beauty and the Beast. I told her I couldn't go because "my schedule was too tight."

My whole life, I've tried to be No. 1 at everything. I was one of the best players on my soccer team, I always got the highest grades in school, and I was extremely popular. But even with all that, I never felt I was good enough.

NEED FOR CONTROL

I grew up believing that, to be beautiful, you have to be thin. No surprise, my mom was super-skinny. In seventh grade, I became overweight and just hated my body. Soon, I made it my goal to get thin.

By the end of seventh grade, I was dying to get away from Berkeley and from my parents because they were so overly critical of my body and everything else I did. So they agreed to let me attend boarding school in England. At first, it was really exciting--the school was so interesting, and I met some amazing people. But after a short while, the academic challenge was gone, and I was totally bored and unhappy.

One of my friends at the school was anorexic. Although I hated to watch what she was doing to herself, at the same time, I was secretly impressed with how she was mastering her body. It wasn't long before another girl at school told me how she purged so she wouldn't have to diet. I honestly thought to myself, "That is so cool!"

That November, I visited my parents, who were living in Paris temporarily. They decided that, since I was so unhappy in England, I should attend an international school in Paris. I was only 14 but, after being academically tested, I was advanced to the 11th grade. That was so difficult, because everyone in my class was between 17 and 19 years old! I became totally overwhelmed by the pressure, and I quickly gained another 10 pounds. That's when I decided to try purging as a way of getting a handle on my weight. I remember having such a sense of power the first time I put my fingers down my throat. Finally, I had control over my body.

"I CAN'T STOP"

My parents found out about my vomiting two weeks later, when they noticed some remnants in the toilet. They said, "Kathryn, we're so disappointed. You have to snap out of it!" That only made me feel more alienated. I knew my problem went much deeper--and I knew I couldn't stop myself. I was just totally stressed out trying to be older than I was and, at the same time, still shooting for perfection. I purged to feel like I had control over something in my life, since everything else seemed to be totally out of control.

Soon, I was purging about five times a day--at home, school, clubs, parties, wherever. I'd just turn on the water in the bathroom to mask the sound of my vomiting, and then I'd wash my face and chew gum to refresh my breath. But I was miserable. Binging and purging actually had control over me rather than the other way around. My teeth became discolored because of the acid from my vomit, and I developed a scar around the knuckle of my index finger from constantly sticking my finger down my throat.

My parents sent me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants. That turned out to be horrible for me. I had a reverse reaction to the drugs and ended up getting more anxious than before. Little did anyone know I was entering the scariest phase of my illness--I was having frequent thoughts of killing myself. That's how desperate I felt.

FALLING APART

In March, my mom moved with me back to England. She felt I should go back to the boarding school. One afternoon, I got a knife from the kitchen to slit my wrists when, luckily, my mom came home. I was crying uncontrollably and I told her 1 couldn't deal with my life anymore. I'd completely fallen apart. I told her I felt like a failure and that I was willing to do anything to get better.

My parents immediately sent me back to California for a weeklong eating disorders program at Stanford University. I was 15 by that time. Basically, the doctors' tactic was to scare me into quitting my purging by explaining what it was doing to my body. They told my parents I was on the verge of heart failure due to all the damage I'd caused my body. To top it off, my hair was thinning and my throat was bleeding. The treatment helped, and I stopped purging altogether.

I repeated my junior year in Berkeley, while continuing to see a therapist. Although I was really popular and kept up a straight-A average, my intense self-pressure kicked in once again and, after two months, I was vomiting again. Every time I purged, I hated myself, feeling so ashamed and alone.

One day, after a horrible binge, I was in my room crying and depressed and thought, "I can't deal with this anymore!" I was so distraught and felt like no one noticed how miserable I was. So I went into my mom's bathroom and took a bottle of pills in an attempt to kill myself. But then I freaked, thinking, "I don't want to die!" My mom was downstairs, so I screamed for her. She gave me some medicine that caused me to throw up the pills, then took me to the hospital.

THE "PERFECT" ENDING

Shortly after my attempted suicide, my parents sent me to The Center, an eating disorders clinic in Washington. By then, I had turned 16. The therapists made me feel really good about myself, because I could talk out my problems. Finally, it hit home that losing weight wasn't ever going to give me what I really needed--self-worth.

Gradually, I stopped purging. I learned to eat better, take vitamins and work out. Now, I'm much stronger, physically and mentally. Sure, there are still days I get really sad and am hard on myself, but not at all like before. I haven't purged for months now. I think what really healed me was recognizing that I can't possibly achieve everything I want to achieve if I continue to be sick with bulimia. In fact, I probably wouldn't have even survived if I had kept it up.

Over time, I figured out that my problem wasn't about being thin--it was that I wanted to be accepted and loved unconditionally. I know my parents love me, but they've always been way too critical of me. I really think that's why I was trying to control my weight--I wanted to be perfect so that maybe, just maybe, I'd be lovable to them. Now, I finally believe that I am lovable just by being me and that it never mattered how perfect--or imperfect--I was.

RELATED ARTICLE: What is Bulimia?

Bulimia involves misusing food to feel better about yourself, to feel a sense of control or to avoid feeling at all. Bulimia is characterized by a cycle of eating compulsively and then throwing up, or taking laxatives or pills to lose weight--it's a serious and deadly eating disorder. Please, turn to page 82 to learn how you can help yourself or a friend if you suspect bulimia might be a problem.

8 ways to help a friend you think might have an eating disorder and even help yourself

Experts estimate that one in seven women ages 12 to 25 suffers from bulimia. Matter of fact, the peak time to develop an eating disorder is between ages 11 and 13. Bulimics suffer heart attacks, ulcers, hair loss and permanent organ damage. If you or a friend has bulimia, please get help. It's truly a matter of life and death.

1 Learn as much as you can about eating disorders before confronting her.

2 Tell her you are concerned about her and suspect she might have an eating disorder. Offer specific observations, like, "I heard you throwing up in a bathroom stall twice last week."

3 Suggest she be evaluated by an expert. It's doubtful she'll be receptive but important that you tell her. Offer to go see someone with her.

4 Hand her a list of resource numbers. The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD) has a toll-free hotline (1-847-831-3438). The number won't appear on her phone bill, and the hotline offers counseling over the phone, a network of free support groups, and referrals to health care professionals who promote self-acceptance and healthy living. The National Eating Disorders Association also has a toll-free Information & Referral Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 (NationalEatingDisorders.org). Another excellent Web site is something-fishy.org (provides lots of info on all aspects of eating disorders and an online chat room).

5 If she gets angry and refuses to talk about the problem, don't push her. End the conversation immediately.

6 Tell a professional (nurse, guidance counselor, coach, teacher) that you suspect your friend has an eating disorder.

7 Realize you've done what you can at this point. You can't force help on someone who doesn't want it.

8 Know that simply telling your friend you're worried, and that you love and support her, definitely matters!
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Author:Ryan, Sandy Fertman
Publication:Girls' Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:1625
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