Birth—and Rebirth—after Bulimia

In pregnancy, writer Judy Tsuei found herself confronting the eating disorder she’d recovered from and her Chinese-American upbringing—and in the process, rebirthing herself as the kind of mother her daughter would need her to be.

Judy Tsuei | Longreads | September 2016 | 14 minutes (3571 words)

 

“140 pounds,” my midwife announces with a smile. “That’s a healthy starting point for your height.”

Even in recovery after fifteen years battling bulimia and compulsive overeating, the word “healthy” still feels like a euphemism for “fat.”

“You’re at nine weeks today,” she continues, talking to me while typing notes into her laptop. “How’s the morning sickness? Are you experiencing any nausea?”

Before I can answer, I make a rapid gesture and then run to the bathroom. I barely have time to lock the door behind me before dropping to my knees in front of the toilet. My stomach retches. I start gagging. Sweat seeps from every pore of my body.

Please, I plead with myself. I don’t want to do this. Please. Please. Please.

I lean over the toilet, gasping. I can’t stop it from happening. My breath comes in rapid gallops between moments of vomiting saliva, mucus, and water. I haven’t been able to eat all day, so there’s no food to purge.

More gasps. More heaving.

After a few minutes, I sink onto the familiar coolness of tiles beneath my shins. Kneeling. Praying.

Five years ago, I made a vow never to purge again. But, in preparing for a new life to form, I have to meet my old one head-on.

* * *

“Wo xi wan ni you yi tian shen yi ge niu er,” my mother would regularly say to me in Mandarin throughout my early teens. I hope that one day, you will have a daughter.

She said this to me not as a blessing, but as a vengeful curse. Full translation: “I hope you will have a daughter one day and I hope she will treat you the way you’ve treated me, so that you will know how much I suffer.”

My mother was bitter toward me since my father loved me in a way he didn’t seem to love her. I became an outlet for the unexpressed rage she had towards his philandering, because in traditional Chinese culture, a wife is expected to be deferential to her husband, and everyone in the family is expected to save face, hiding all traces of anger, blame, and shame.

My mother and father grew up in China as it was becoming a Communist country. Their respective parents were affiliated with the Nationalist military, so their families fled on boats, headed for Taiwan, to save their lives. After they met in their new home country as young adults, they became immigrants once again, moving to America before I was born.

My mother hoped my father would be the caring, benevolent masculine figure she yearned for, but instead found a man who despite his best intentions, reflected the effects of his upbringing. Though he was severely abused by my grandmother, he also grew up in a culture where men were expected to be worshipped as the gods of the house. My mother felt trapped, raising four children in a culture she didn’t understand. I became a bridge built out of necessity to link past and present, China and America.

As the eldest child and first-born daughter, I became Daddy’s Little Girl, a distinctively Western phenomenon compared to the one that only valued boys. I felt his love, even if the word itself was never spoken in our family, and I was loyal to him. I turned my head away from the fact that he was mostly only around after we went to bed, then gone before we woke.

“Busy working,” my aunts and uncles would often say. “To support you children.”

That was only partly true.

* * *

When I was a senior at Beverly Hills High School, I stopped eating. It happened gradually, so I didn’t actually know that I was doing it. My teenage brain was trying to figure out how to feel less out of place in a school where appearance was valued as highly as academics. Social status streamed through the halls in Prada bags and out in the parking lots in Range Rovers and BMWs.

My immigrant family couldn’t financially compete. The only reason I was even attending this public school out of my home district was because a white high school counselor had come to our middle-class junior high, with the specific intent of recruiting a few Chinese-American students in order to increase their minority quota. My parents believed in absolute deference to their authority and the importance of excelling in school, so there would be no challenging their decision for me to go Beverly, away from the good friends I had already assimilated with throughout elementary and junior high schools.

In ways both spoken and implied, my role in our family was made clear. I was to get straight A’s in school to go to med school, keep the fabric of our family from shredding, mitigate my parents’ increasing fears about mounting debt, help to care for my three younger siblings, and navigate new American norms in our Chinese-speaking home.

But the most important role of all was that I be the target for the panic that we would not make it in this Western world.

I could not be an older sister to my siblings as much as a substitute mother — especially when our mother temporarily lost her sense of self.

On one particular day when I was fifteen or sixteen, I had just finished bathing my younger brothers and putting them to bed. When I came out of their room, I found our mother slumped against the piano bench. Never able to handle a lick of liquor, she’d downed more than half a handle of Jack Daniels.

After complaining about my father, through her sobbing she slurred, “Ni shi zhen hao de niu er. Wo ai ni.” You are such a good daughter. I love you.

It is, to this day, the only time she has ever said “I love you” to me.

I called my aunt. She lived a few miles away. “What should I do,” I asked. I had no idea where my father was. It was late.

“Ni zhi dao ni mama wei sheme shi zhiang zi, dui bu dui?” she replied. You know why your mother is being like this, right?

“Why?” I asked, thinking she genuinely knew an answer that would help me.

“Because you kids are so bad.”

Just then, my father walked through the door. Aggravated, I tossed the phone at him, no longer caring that he was supposed to be the boss of our home and our family.

“Here, talk to your sister,” I said, as he looked past me at the curved shape of my wailing mother.

I left the room.

How could I handle things like this, when my parents perpetually told me I had no authority in our home, then kept turning to me for guidance on their relationship, their businesses, their pain, as if I was the boss? I started by packing my siblings’ paper bag lunches so full, the tops could no longer fold over. My bag had a slice of bread and an apple for the entire day. One weightless bag in contrast to their anchors.

Nobody noticed.

Later, I would try to remember when my eating disorder began. Did my first binge and purge episode happen when my mother brought home strawberry cream cheese? I grabbed it out of the shopping bag, relishing this completely American food so rare in our house, since traditional Chinese meals were all she and my grandmother made.

Or, was it because it was customary in our household to finish every fleck of rice, lest we hear again about how the Lightning God would come strike us down if we didn’t clean our porcelain bowls?

Maybe it was the constant asking, “Have you eaten?” as a substitute for saying, “I care about you.” Traditional Chinese people don’t show overt affection.

But, it began earlier than that.

At twenty-six, I found journals my mother forced me to keep, starting from the age of eight. To improve your English, my mother said. I flipped through them, one by one, and read year upon year of self-loathing. I crawled under the kitchen table in my Santa Monica studio apartment and wept as I realized that the voices in my head came from outside of me.

I was not bad at my core. I was simply raised badly.

The bullies in my life — the worst offenders being my own family — became inner demons, loud voices in my head when the external voices began to subside. Our diet was as much fear, anger, and punishment as it was rice.

I couldn’t handle eating their loathing anymore. I needed a way to control the chaos around me, so somehow, my teenage brain figured out that no matter how helpless I felt, the one thing I could have total control over was how much and what I ate.

* * *

By the time I first entered the intensive outpatient Susan B. Krevoy Eating Disorder Program (SBKEDP) in Los Angeles at the age of 25, I had been engaging in bulimic behaviors multiple times a day for almost a decade.

I tried to avoid confronting my memories by running away until I found myself on the opposite end of the earth, working as an editor in Shanghai, China.

My body had started to fall apart. I stopped getting my period. My esophagus felt ragged. My heart was developing irregular rhythms. I could not focus on anything real.

I thought to myself, I can either go back to L.A. and get help, or I could stay here and die. It wasn’t an easy decision. My finances had been depleted by my global fleeing, so in order to heal, I would have to go back and live in the house where it all had begun.

Eventually, I got on the plane back to California. I was exhausted. And desperate.

* * *

“We’re not here to take your eating disorder away,” the counselors at SBKEDP told me when I started. “You developed your eating disorder for a reason. No matter how bad it feels, it’s become your security blanket. Instead, we’ll give you better tools to manage your life.”

Things got worse. Things got better. They got worse again. Then, they started getting better for longer stretches of time. I moved away from starving, bingeing, purging, and compulsively exercising to make kinder promises to myself I could finally keep. Like, going for a run because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to. Going for Indian food with a friend and focusing on our conversation, rather than the calories. Keeping the food in and not feeling guilty about it.

I also moved out of the house I grew up in, to a studio apartment with walls my father painted for me.

The hardest times were in the first years of recovery, when I regularly found myself in a fetal position on my faded olive green couch, repeatedly kicking one arm of it with full-force after dinner to try to stop myself from racing to the bathroom a few feet away.

I needed to grieve the mother I would never have. I felt like a fragmented girl who not only grew up too fast, but also missed out on an entire childhood. I never, ever thought of becoming a mother, because I was still trying to break from the family I’d grown up with.

A few years after I stopped purging, I became a yoga teacher and a Reiki practitioner. Six years past my last “episode,” I moved to the place of my dreams — Kauai, Hawaii. Then, six months after arriving, I met my husband and within a few weeks of knowing each other, we decided to have a baby.

Unbeknownst to me, my pregnancy would prove the greatest test to my recovery. All of my issues around food, body image, and family began to churn, as morning sickness became hyperemesis gravidarum. I became so ill that I could no longer stomach anything at all.

With a baby in my belly and all-day-sickness, I was becoming anorexic once more. Starving was now the worst thing I could imagine.

* * *

Past conversations become a part of my present dialogue with an entirely different meaning.

“Are you getting enough calories?” my midwife asks at our next appointment, motioning for me to get on the scale again.

In my eating disorder heyday, I would ask the nurse to avoid telling me my weight and I’d look away from the scale. I’d sometimes get on backwards. It was a useful tip I picked up in an Eating Disorders Anonymous group as a way not to have the three-digit pronouncement ruin my day.

Now, I look down. The number below my feet is dropping. I’ve lost five pounds since the last time I saw her.

“I don’t know. All I want is junk food,” I confess. I expect her to admonish me, to punish me the way that I used to do to myself.

“That’s okay,” she reassures me. “A lot of women feel like that in the beginning. Get whatever calories you can right now. I don’t care if it’s a Coke or chips. When you’re not throwing up anymore, we can adjust your diet to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you and your baby need.”

I nod, the slight gesture making me woozy.

“Eventually though,” my midwife adds, “You’ll have to stay away from sugars to avoid gestational diabetes.”

The power of my old trigger foods pales in comparison to the animalistic imperatives of survival and protecting a fetus. I used to obsess about what I thought I couldn’t eat and now I pray for anything I can.

The “If-I-consume-this, then-I’ll-need-to-work-out-this-much” caloric math becomes such an outdated curriculum. I feel as though I’ve received permission to be fully free of the rules I’ve created around eating.

After our appointment, I ask my husband to pull into the McDonald’s drive-through. The salt on fries seems like something I can stomach. We approach the speaker. I’m too nauseous to tell him about the many late night fast food binges I used to engage in, solo. But he already knows so much about my past, having been in writing groups with me, where I divulged eating disorder experiences in numerous personal essays.

“Can I get the cheeseburger meal,” I whisper to my husband, my head against the window of the passenger door. “And, can you supersize that?”

* * *

By three-and-a-half months, my husband has created a makeshift bed in our bathroom given how frequently I am sick. There’s also a surprising new mantra playing in my head as we visit our midwife: I want the numbers to go up. I want the numbers to go up.

“130 pounds,” she says. I sit back on the couch, disheartened.

I’ve finally lost those last ten pounds I’d been preoccupied with since senior year of high school, but it’s not such a triumph anymore.

“It’s okay,” my midwife reassures me. “Your baby has a healthy heartbeat.”

On our way home, we stop at a nearby café and bump into a friend who hasn’t seen me for a while. “You look amazing!” she exclaims. “You look like you’ve lost weight!”

Her words make up what I used to consider the pinnacle of compliments, the one that would cause both elation and later, a plummeting deeper into my disease as I worried how I would maintain the noticeable weight loss.

“I’m throwing up all the time,” I tell her. “It’s my first trimester.” I do not want her compliment. I want to look big, healthy, pregnant.

Later that night, as my husband gets a cold washcloth for my forehead, I lie miserably on the couch.

“I’m worried we’re going to have a girl,” I confess. “I don’t want her to go through what I went through. I don’t want her to suffer from an eating disorder or obsess over her body image throughout her life.”

He sits by my feet, thinking for a moment. “We can raise her differently from the way you grew up,” he reassures me before getting up to put on a DVD for us to watch. He’s chosen a comedy with the hope that laughter will prove a remedy for my discomfort.

“We will raise her differently,” he says, as he sits beside me again. He has no problem with his body. He loves being naked. I allow myself to believe him.

* * *

At six months, I step in the shower, hoping this will alleviate the unrelenting waves of nausea. It doesn’t help and instead, I start to vomit as the water is running over my head.

A piece of sliced peach lodges in my throat.

My husband is in the kitchen. I can’t call him for help. I stumble out of the shower and lean over the sink, unsure of what to do. I can’t ram my stomach onto the edge of it, because of the baby. Panic sets in. I cough and cough and cough until finally, the piece of peach comes up and out. I grab my towel and stumble to my husband.

“What’s wrong?” he asks when he sees my face.

My throat is sore and hoarse when I try to respond, voice cracking. “I almost choked from throwing up.” I start to cry and he holds me in his arms.

“I can’t believe I ever used to throw up on purpose,” I sob. “What the hell was I thinking? How could I have ever done this to myself on purpose?”

* * *

My doctors aren’t concerned about my nausea and vomiting lingering into my second trimester, so long as I can keep taking in calories. Each time they check, the baby seems alright, and that’s all that matters.

When the nausea finally starts to ease, I’m seven arduous months along. My palms have started to tingle when I place them on my stomach.

This part of me I once loathed is housing new life.

Rather than sucking in my belly to give the illusion of flatness or hiding it beneath baggy clothes, I walk around proudly with my protrusion and wear cropped tops. I smile when people look.

My husband and I have chosen to do a homebirth. We’ve tried to maintain a holistic approach to my entire pregnancy, so we’ve also chosen not to know what our baby’s gender is.

Labor comes two weeks early. Ten hours of contractions go by and my eyes are continually shut from the intensity. I move into active hard labor and towards the end, I start to shout, “I can’t do this anymore!”

My husband, midwives, and doula immediately respond in unison, “Yes, you can! You are doing it!”

And I was. Like I had been doing in my life all along, showing up even when it was incredibly wrenching and hard.

The team moves together to transfer me from our bed to a birthing stool. “You’ll want to move to the front of her,” our midwife tells my husband, “if you’d like to catch the baby.”

By the time my husband catches our baby, I am literally in shock over the power of my body.

It’s a girl.

The weight of her on my chest is the only number that matters: 6 pounds 9 ounces. She moves to nurse and, in the weeks to come, openly demonstrates how much she loves my mounds of soft flesh. I’m too busy with new motherhood to notice that my body is quickly finding it’s way back to center. On it’s own. Naturally and without stress. It’s as though my body is telling me I didn’t ever have to punish it to get it to find center.

We take our baby to the pediatrician a week after she’s born, and the nurse asks me when I delivered. “A week ago,” I tell her, holding our daughter in my arms.

“What?” she says, startled. “Girl! You look damn good!”

The next time I step on the scale, it’s been six weeks since our daughter was born. I am at our midwife’s office. She weighs the baby first, then me.

“You’re 145 pounds,” she says. Five pounds more than when I first came to her office. It’s more than when I started, but I have better things to think about.

My mother plans a visit to meet her first grandchild. When she sees our daughter, Wilder Love, she remarks at what a good nature she has. “Not like you,” she says. “You cried all the time.”

It turns out that my mother is happy I’ve had a baby girl for the pure reason that Wilder exists in the world. She has nothing more to say about it than that.

My body knew what it needed to do to create life and to give birth naturally to our daughter. It’s always known how to be miraculous, and it took an incredibly challenging pregnancy to learn that all I needed to do was learn to get out of the way and appreciate it.

In order for me to become a good mother, I had to first become a more nurturing force for myself. And, for my daughter to grow up in a different reality than mine, I had to make peace with my past so I can show her a better present.

I did not know that by bringing new life into this world, I would be rebirthing me.

* * *

Judy Tsuei is a freelance writer and motherhood coach. She is the author of Meditations for Mamas: You Deserve to Feel Good.

Editor: Sari Botton