Yvette, 47, an acclaimed long-distance runner, relates her eating disorder, which struck as a college senior and lasted 10 years, to her determination to run the perfect marathon. Coached to discipline herself and train hard, she achieved running times most athletes only dream of. Yet her success came at a huge cost. “I grew up in a close-knit family where I was eager to please my parents and to do everything right,” she explains. “As the oldest of six children, I helped care for the younger ones, did housework, participated in sports, and managed to pull off top grades in school. I didn’t go out much with other kids. I was shy and too caught up in everyday situations at home to devote the time and energy to dates. I defined myself based on how I perceived others were judging me. I had a lot of insecurities, often feeling like I was teetering between ‘good enough’ and ‘not good enough.’
“In college, I developed a passion for running. Nothing beat the freedom of soaring down the track, the wind at my heels.
To my surprise, I made the college track team. The joy of winning was seductive; it brought out my competitive streak. I figured that dieting would improve my running speed. Now I realize that trimming down can increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, but back then, I hadn’t a clue. To me, dieting seemed like part of womanhood. One day, in reaction to an offhanded body size comment from the coach, I promised myself I’d solve my chubbiness problem once and for all. I became hell-bent on losing weight, cutting way back on my eating and running extra miles in practice. Restricting my intake made me so hungry that I’d splurge on sweets and pastries. There were a few weeks when all I did from morning till night was binge, purge, and run.
“When the problem reached its worst, I was like an automaton. I used to run by myself at 6:30 a.m. every day, no matter what.
I’ll never forget this one morning when I woke up chilled and achy. The reasonable decision would have been to rest. But true to form, I forced myself out of bed, threw on my sweatsuit, and headed for the track, as if the run were a life-and-death necessity. It wasn’t that I wanted to run that morning; it was rainy and raw, and the very thought of getting drenched made me shiver. It was all a question of getting the exercise over and done with so that I wouldn’t feel guilty or have to run double the distance the next day. Something inside me enslaved me to my training schedule. Less than four months shy of college graduation, I functioned almost mechanically. I was a stranger to myself, out of touch with where my life was going and who I wanted to be.”
Despite her ruthless diets, bingeing, and purging, Yvette insisted for months that she did not need mental health services. “I grew up thinking I had to stay strong for everyone else,” she admits.
“Asking for help wasn’t in my nature. But when I finally entered psychotherapy, I became aware that my perfectionism contributed to the disorder, and in the earliest years of my marriage, especially during my first pregnancy, I took much better care of myself.
“With the birth of my first daughter, Felice, my joy knew no bounds. As a toddler, she showed remarkable self-sufficiency, preferring to accomplish tasks herself rather than letting me help. She pushed herself hard from an early age, never giving less than 100 percent. Given her drive to be the best, I focused on freeing her as much as possible from performance pressure and helping her to feel good about herself. At age six, when Felice asked to participate in athletics, I took care in selecting upbeat, praise-based programs; observing her reactions to the classes; and communicating with the coaches. The idea was to afford her healthy sports environments.”
The precautions Yvette took to protect her daughter from anorexia and bulimia were right on target. Genes contribute to the development of these disorders. The likelihood is that the heriditary component of eating disorders stems not from one gene, but from the combined effects of many. Although scientists have not yet pinpointed the contributing genes, they are making headway on this subject. In addition, there may be a genetic tie-in between eating disorders and perfectionism, a quality that Yvette knew she and her daughter had in common.
When Felice was 13, Yvette-still healthy and now a mother of three-faced a challenge she had done everything in her power to prevent. “At first, Felice’s weight loss was minimal,” she recalls.