By Scott Hewitt
The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.
Alexis Colson hid in her mother’s closet with a bowl of cereal in her lap and beautiful little dresses dangling all around her head.
Colson hated dealing with people’s judgments. She loved being alone. She loved the cereal, which tasted too good to resist — especially because her body was literally starved for fuel.
She also loved the dresses, which fit her mother’s enviably “perfect” body, she said. “I always wanted to look like Mom,” she said. So Colson, a teen at the time, sat there in solitude, continuing what she’d been doing for years: swallowing the cereal and then vomiting it up. As revolting as it sounds, she’d developed expertise at hiding and disposing of the vomit so no one would know.
It took years of what Colson now considers genuine addiction to this behavior before anybody put a label on it: bulimia nervosa.
It’s under control now, she said, but she’s relapsed before; as with any genuine addiction, she figures it’s hers for life.
Now in her 20s and volunteering for Vancouver mental health clinic Children’s Center, Colson approached The Columbian to share her story.
The highly caloric, highly ritualized holiday season is bursting with eating disorder triggers, she said.
“Such a big part of the holidays is food, food, food,” she said. “My goal is for parents and relatives and teachers and everybody to learn about this and notice it and maybe ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ”
Over the years, a handful of people spoke up about Colson’s shrinking body and failing strength. She always managed to outsmart them with clever lies — she was trying a new diet, she was vegetarian, whatever sounded plausible. “Every girl with an eating disorder makes up excuses,” she said.
“They’re the most beautiful liars, these girls,” said Colson’s mother, Mary Thompson — who’s now in nursing school at Clark College because of her daughter, she said. “They think of it as the ‘glamorous disease,’ but there’s nothing glamorous about dying of a heart attack before you’re 20.”
Colson said she owes her life to the friends and family members who finally outsmarted the lies and hustled her into treatment.
Family, not food
Eating disorders aren’t really about eating.
“To some people it just seems like there are girls who don’t want to eat, they just want to be skinny,” Colson said. “But there is always a background reason why.”
To hear her tell it, the origin of Colson’s eating disorder began in a complex mash-up of family difficulties and messages about female perfection. Her beloved grandfather, the “center of the family,” died of cancer, and her parents divorced; her hard-working and mostly absent father began a relationship with a “perfect little blonde” whom Colson idolized, she said.
“I always felt I wasn’t good enough. She had my dad’s attention much more than I did,” Colson said. “The way to be perfect was to be like her.”
Her petite mother, meanwhile, was “always drinking Slim Fast and meal replacement bars” while keeping her daughter on “a pretty tight leash,” Colson said. Her mother also remarried and started a new family.
The result: an overwhelming feeling that “I wanted to control something in my life,” Colson said. One day in eighth grade she ate a huge meal, went to the bathroom and “let it all go. It felt so good, all this pressure was released. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so great.'” It was exactly like a hit of a powerful drug, she said.
Like her older siblings, Colson started high school at Milo Adventist Academy boarding school near Roseburg, Ore. There, she got good at chewing and tasting without swallowing. She took her meals to her room to “eat alone” — that is, not really eat at all. She was always famished, she said, but also convinced that consuming anything would make her fat.
“I don’t know how I finished that year,” she said. That’s a statement of fact: Colson doesn’t remember much of it and figures her brain was starving. “My grades were bad. I couldn’t focus,” she said. She took NyQuil to knock herself into sleep despite hunger pangs. One time she passed out and cut her face. Friends started noticing how unwell she seemed and asking if she was OK; so friendships became a nuisance. The idea of going out for fun raised a single concern: “If I go there, can I throw up?”
But men complimented her slenderness, she said, and that’s all that mattered for a girl who missed Daddy and worshipped Mommy. “I liked the way I looked,” she said. She subsisted on water and trail mix, she said, and learned to vomit in the shower so the sound was masked by whooshing water.
Telling the truth
Eventually Mary Thompson, Colson’s mother, caught on after hovering suspiciously outside a bathroom door. “All of a sudden I could hear her puking,” Thompson said. “Everything finally started to make sense.”
Her parents’ shocked response was understandable but wrong: control Colson’s life even more. Her father removed the door from her bathroom. Her mother watched her eat like a hawk.
“They used food as punishment. Parents should never do that. It never works. It’s 100 percent worse,” Colson said.
They checked her into an outpatient clinic in Portland where the approach was the same: controlling her will and forcing her to eat, she said.
Eventually, Colson went to live for several months at a residential clinic in Arizona. That’s where treatment went beyond fattening her up and deep into her confused, painful upbringing. That’s where she dug into herself, got in touch with feelings that were always too hot to handle — and bared it all to her stunned parents.
“Outing that part of my life really helped me. Being able to be honest is the most important thing,” she said. “In our therapy sessions, the key points had nothing to do with food.”
Colson is still in therapy. She isn’t sure she’ll never relapse again. “I think this is something I’ll always be dealing with,” she said.
Thompson said family therapy and her nursing studies at Clark College have brought her face to face with her own parallel past.
She didn’t used to make herself vomit, she said, but she did severely restrict her diet and has an uneasy relationship with food to this day. “My husband knows I struggle. He sends me out the door with food,” she said.
Better than perfect
Over a recent lunch with her daughter, Thompson said the main reason she’s now in nursing school is to demonstrate that even a “perfect” mother can change for the better, and to replace superficial values with substantial ones, such as hard work toward a serious life goal.
“I’m doing this because of Alexis,” she said. “I finally feel like I have something healthy to offer. I’m doing something positive, and I’m less concerned with being perfect.”
“It’s chilling to see so much of myself in this,” she said of Alexis’ journey. “I was a horrible model for my daughter. Women need to know they are always modeling for their children. Those little eyes are always looking at everything you do.”
There’s no doubt in Colson’s mind that hyper-sexualized, blatantly faked examples of female beauty in our culture are doing serious damage to young girls’ self-image and self-esteem. During a Columbian interview at a local coffee shop, she noticed a slick woman’s magazine on a table and critiqued the air-brushed sexpot on the cover.
“Don’t believe it. It’s disgusting,” she said. She said she recently spoke in an elementary school and asked how many girls were “uncomfortable” with their bodies. More than half raised their hands. “That really hurts me,” she said.