Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – Kathleen

As a special two-part series, I am extremely humbled and proud to share the words of Kathleen MacDonald – someone I consider to be such an inspiration to myself and so many others.

I first met Kathleen during my sophomore year at JMU. As many readers know, I was part of a sorority in college. Every year, during February, my sorority would put together a “Speak Out” for Eating Disorder Awareness Month. The “Speak Out” functioned as a safe space, where students were encouraged to come listen and share stories related to struggles with body image and eating disorders. The event was in honor of a sorority member, Leslie George, who passed away after losing her battle with bulimia. Kathleen (for reasons you will later read), hosted this event every year. 

When I heard her story for the first time, I was blown away. She seemed like the happiest, most loving, kind-hearted, vibrant person in the room. I couldn’t fathom that she had gone through the experiences she was explaining to all of us.

Kathleen’s words changed my life. She changed my views on beauty and self-love. And more so than that, she taught me that inner demons are often so easily hidden from the outside world.

These two parts will be lengthy, but they are without a doubt worth the read. Check it out:

By most accounts, I should not be alive today.  To this day, I am not sure why I survived what so many others have not.

No one ever sets out to have the deadliest of all mental illnesses: an eating disorder, and all its accompanying symptoms of depression, moodiness, etc.

No one ever sets out on a diet, hoping that one day they will be suicidal.

And even though I am guilty of having once said, “I wish I could have anorexia for just a little while,” it still wasn’t a “choice” for me to suffer from that mean and terrible disease.

When the eating disorder took root, it changed my brain chemistry and rid me of the ability to have good sense.  Ironically, despite being trapped in its prison, and despite all of the hell the eating disorder brought to my life, for the majority of the years I suffered, I never felt like I had a serious problem. I never felt I was ‘sick enough’ compared to people who were thinner than me. Most people didn’t know that I lived daily with humiliating inner-embarrassment, pain, and shame because of what I saw in the mirror.  To boot, at my worst, when I was severely suicidal because of the eating disorder, the day I reached out for help after using laxatives for 18 years, my doctor patted me on the knee and told me, “I wish I had more patients as thin as you” (a comment that he and I eventually discussed, in depth, with good results).

I want to start my saying: To all those who suffer with eating and/or body image issues, depression, and suicidal thoughts, and to all those who love someone suffering, I hope with all my heart that the words in this blog might meet you with compassion and kindness, encouraging you to realize that you are not alone, and that you deserve to believe in a day where you live free from whatever is making you endure thoughts of suicide.  I hope that, no matter if you’re a sufferer, or a loved one or friend of someone suffering, after reading this, you begin to realize what I began to realize back on June 13, 2002: that no one was created to die by suicide, that you are beautiful and wonderfully made…and that YOU deserve to love yourself, and treat yourself with loving-kindness, every single day.

My story is a long and complex one, but like many people, what pushed me to develop an eating disorder was nothing out of the ordinary.  When I was about 10 years old, I began to feel pressures to look thin and pretty.  Coincidentally, around the same time, I broke my nose.  Because I never had my nose ‘set’ by a doctor, my nose changed shape and it became the subject of discussions and teasing; I was called “mogul nose”, among other things. Up until then, I never gave a thought to whether what I looked like was pretty/not pretty, good/bad, attractive/unattractive. When I broke my nose, I became acutely aware of what I looked like to other people, and acutely aware that people did not like my face.  This caused me to feel intense confusion and sadness because, at just 10 years old, I realized that all the things I thought people liked about me – my kind-hearted, loving nature, and strong relationships with friends and family- didn’t matter, because I wasn’t “pretty.”

When puberty hit, I grew even more uncomfortable with my appearance, not because I noticed the changes so much, but because other people started commenting on my body and its (natural) weight gain.  Our society sends a very loud message to (especially) young women that “thin is pretty.” I didn’t handle the teasing about my body very well. The utter confusion that wreaked havoc on my mind and spirit was horrendously painful.

Fast forward ahead two years – two years of me feeling heartbreakingly ugly. I’m 12 years old.  It was the first time I watched an after-school-special about a young woman who falls victim to anorexia. The movie made eating disorders look easy and attractive. The movie made it seem like anorexia fixed that girl’s life. It made her pretty and made everyone value her more.  That movie, coupled with my lack of self-worth and the pressure I felt to be thin and pretty, compelled me to take a simple step the next day that would change my life forever.  The day after watching the movie, I skipped lunch for the first time.

I was 12 years old.

Like most people who suffer from an eating disorder, I never intended to have one, let alone to have it take up over half of my life.  I thought my ‘diet’ of skipping lunch would make my happy, pretty, and well-liked.  I thought that I would only be on a ‘diet’ until I lost a few pounds. Surely then I would receive approval from my friends and family. Surely then they would think that my body looked good.  I had no idea that this ‘diet’ would actually drive all of my friends away.

The next time I ate lunch was 18 years later.

It may seem odd that I can remember the exact day, but it’s because, on that day, I actually called my mother to say, “I ate lunch.”  Most adults don’t call their parents to report that they ate something –they call to tell them about a job promotion, an engagement, or a completed graduate program. I called because I had eaten some food.

But for me, it was a big deal.  It was the first time I had eaten during the day (outside of a hospital setting) and kept it down, in 18 years.  I was scared to not purge, but I was also so proud of myself.

My mother, however, wasn’t able to be excited with me –and looking back, I don’t blame her.  She had suffered 18 years of hell because of the way the eating disorder made me feel (moody, depressed, angry, etc.).  In response to my phone call, she said, “Great. Now, what are you finally going to do with your life?”  I faked a response that wouldn’t let her know how deeply her words hurt, and we hung up the phone.

When we hung up, any feeling of hope and accomplishment I had immediately turned to visceral and deep sadness, intense self-hatred, hopelessness and suicidal planning.  I sat there realizing that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life beyond that moment of eating lunch. I felt ridiculous knowing that I actually thought eating was an accomplishment.

Just when I thought I had finally made a breakthrough, my heart sank and I cried because I felt like such a failure.

So I called in sick to work, and I stayed home and I wept.

I wept about what a waste my life had become.

I wept thinking about what a waste I had been for 18 years –focusing so much on whether or not I was fat and basing my happiness on whether or not my pants fit the differently than the day before.

I wept because I had disappointed my family, disappointed myself, and lost all of my friends.

I wept because I, a former 4.0 student, had been kicked out of college twice because of the eating disorder and my resultant inability to handle going to class.  (Oh, and after re-entering college at age 28, they told me not to come back second semester because I was still too sick to feel attractive enough to attend class. Yes, that’s how warped my brain was.)

I wept because I had depleted IRA’s and at least $60,000 in mutual funds to pay for food, laxatives, food, laxatives, alcohol, and more food and more laxatives.

I wept because I had wrecked my credit after failing to pay doctor bills, student loans, rent, etc.

And most of all, I wept because I realized that I might never be able to get rid of the thoughts that had been controlling my life, making me miserable every single moment that I was alive.

The thought of having to live this way for the rest of my life felt unbearable.

I finally decided that if I couldn’t overcome my body image issues, bulimia, and anorexia, I did not want to live.

Unlike what I saw in the movie when I was 12 years old, what I was going through was not simple or pretty. It was not about being thin, it was not about getting attention or winning friends.  Up until the day that I ate lunch, I honestly believed that the thinness I had sustained for those 18 years would someday, somehow reward me –it didn’t.

Being thin never ever resulted in anything positive.

So, I purged my lunch.  Disgusted with myself, I ate more, and purged that, until I eventually felt numb.  I remember crawling into bed and begging God not to let me wake up.

But I did wake up.

The next morning, after weighing myself and glaring in disgust at my puffy post-bingeing/purging face in the mirror, I broke down crying over my bathroom sink. I was alone and tired and felt so ugly. I just wanted the vicious cycle of my pain to end.  I stared into the mirror, looking for any sign of hope in my eyes.  I saw none.

What I saw was someone looking back at me who was so very tired of just barely “getting by.”  I saw someone who was so very tired of depriving their body and mind, but someone who couldn’t seem to stop the deprivation.  I saw someone so very very tired of life being so empty.

Exhausted of the cycle, I pulled out my laptop and decided to search one last time online for help.  Of course, in all of my Google searching, I didn’t find a single free treatment option. All I found that day was one single nebulous sounding group called The Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action (EDC).  There was a “Get Involved” button, so I clicked on it, typed in my name and email address, and shut off my laptop. Then I started officially making my plan.

About a month later, I received an email from the EDC.  They needed a speaker to present to Members of Congress and their staff as to why people with eating disorders deserved insurance coverage for treatment.  I called the then Policy Director of the EDC, Dr. Jeanine Cogan, and told her why I thought I could help them out as a speaker at their Congressional Briefing.

On June 13, 2002, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak.  Little did the EDC, or my only remaining friend, Jim (who accompanied me to DC), know, I had a plan.

At the Congressional Briefing, first, a doctor spoke. He gave definitions and talked about what a “typical” eating disordered patient is like. The whole time he spoke, I tried to act as if nothing he said resembled me at all, trying to convince myself that if I didn’t fit his mold, I couldn’t possibly be someone who was sick and slowly dying.

Then, a woman named Kitty Westin got up to talk about her daughter who suffered from anorexia.  Her daughter’s name was Anna. When Kitty got up to speak, she brought along a picture of Anna –a big 18×20 poster-sized picture.  In the picture, Anna was smiling, sitting somewhere in the mountains, looking into the camera with a peaceful contentment in her blue eyes.  Anna looked healthy and alive.  But as Kitty continued to speak, I realized that the reason she was telling Anna’s story was because Anna was not alive to tell it on her own.

Anna had committed suicide because of her torturous battle with anorexia.

Anna was the first person I knew of who did exactly what I had wanted to do so many times over the course of my 18 years suffering.  And, Anna was the first person who made me realize how scared I was of my plan.

But after Kitty finished, I got up and calmly read my speech as if I was ‘fine.’ To give you an idea of just how fine I was that day, here is how I ended my speech:

“I wake up knowing that if I continue being sick, I will die. I wake up, therefore, wanting to go to therapy so I don’t die and become a statistic… I do not want to live my life as a result of these disorders. I want to live my life beyond anorexia and bulimia and all the years of torment and mistakes made… I never dreamed that throwing my lunch away one day would, 18 years later, result in me seriously considering suicide– for two years, every day, all day.”

I wasn’t fine.

And I was doing more than “seriously considering” suicide like my speech suggested. My plan was that June 13, 2002 would be the end of my life.  I had planned my suicide, and no one knew.  

I had planned to give my speech and then follow-through on my plan –in hopes that it would make people take note of the seriousness of eating disorders.

The Congressional Briefing concluded and there was a line of people waiting to talk to me.  I thought they wanted to congratulate me on how good my speech was.  But every person said something along the lines of, “You have to get help.  You’re going to die.”  I just kept telling everyone, “No, don’t worry. I used to have an eating disorder.  I’m fine now.”

I do not remember any of the 20 or so people who hugged me after my speech, except for two.  The very last people I spoke with that day were Mr. and Mrs. Ron George.  I will never ever forget how Mr. George, trying to refrain from gently sobbing, his face red and wet with tears, took hold of me and said, “I lost my daughter to bulimia, you need help or you’re going to die.”  And as I hugged him, I wanted so very much to collapse in his arms and beg for help…  But I couldn’t.  I had a plan.  So, I’m pretty sure I probably looked at him and said, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

Yet something happened at that Congressional Briefing –a miracle.  Between witnessing Kitty’s agonizing pain, and hearing Mr. George pour out his heart about losing his daughter Leslie (all the while holding me, a complete stranger), something clicked inside my soul.  It was in those moments that an undeniable surge of some unearthly spirit of hope took over, and I somehow mustered up the wherewithal to vow to myself that I would do everything in my power to finally stop. I would finally stop maintaining my thin-as-possible frame. I would finally stop exercising to maintain my weight and self-worth. I would finally stop using laxatives. I would stop purging and starving. I would stop believing that I had been sick for “too long” to get help. I would stop believing I was ugly.  And perhaps most importantly, I would stop believing that suicide was an option.

I am very humbled to tell you that instead of June 13, 2002 being the day I took my own life, it became the day that I began my final recovery process…and I never looked back.

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