YVONNE: Just a heads up: today's episode of Mouthful contains some very emotional, honest content about eating disorders and some explicit language. If you have an eating disorder or feel like you may have one, listen only if you think it can help.
ACTOR: The bathroom became my sanctuary, the things I did in here was a secret... and neither of us would tell. I’d eat as much as I could as fast as I could then go upstairs run the water or play some music, sometimes both, get on my knees and find comfort in the porcelain throne.
YVONNE: This is Mouthful and I am Yvonne Latty. Every week I will be having a complicated conversation with a young person about the things that matter to them, things they have written about and shared on stages across the city. And then we will go out into the community and talk to teens, adults, experts anyone who can broaden the conversation.
Okay, so like I said, today’s episode is about a tough topic that doesn’t often get talked about openly: eating disorders.
But just because it isn’t talked about doesn’t mean it isn’t common:
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, over 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives in the United States alone. And because of all the stigma, most cases go unreported. It can start as early as 6 years old, and by the time the teen years come, concerns about weight or being fat loom large. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys skip meals, fast, smoke cigarettes, vomit, or take laxatives to lose weight. Eating disorders are a common killer for teen girls.
Like any illness, eating disorders don’t discriminate. They can afflict anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.
Still, there’s a widely-held misconception that eating disorders are limited to white, suburban girls. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Taytiana: My eating disorder started when I was like thirteen and ended when I was about like fifteen.
YVONNE: That’s Taytiana Velasquez Rivera. She’s a junior at Science Leadership Academy here in Philadelphia. Her family is Puerto Rican. Like many Latino families, Taytiana’s has a culture that shows love through food: moms and abuelitas that love to cook traditional calorie-packed dishes known to help you gain weight rather than lose it. But with that love also comes the “you look fat” mouthed by smug uncles and aunts and grandmothers who say, you would look sooo much better if you lost a few pounds. I know, my Tio always had something to say about my weight. Those voices can hurt and shake your confidence. That’s what Taytiana says she faced. Taytiana lost 50 pounds.
Taytiana: I think more than anything it was the people around me always commenting about my weight and my features and it just gets overwhelming at a point. And then you try so hard to live up to society’s expectations and at a point there’s nothing you can do so that was like my last resort in a way so since it was my last resort that’s what I began to do. And I kept it a secret for so long and then my mom thought I was pregnant, and that’s when she had found out I had an eating disorder. So I used a lot of my real life experiences writing the monologue.
YVONNE: Let’s listen to that monologue, Comfort, which is based on the moment Tatiyana decided to face up to her eating disorder and fight for her life.
ACTOR: Staring down into the toilet, one hand tying my hair and one playing double dutch in my mouth debating if I should put it in or not. Thinking about last week and how I emotionlessly I looked through my mom as she was wiping her tears saying:
“Why are you doing this to yourself? You need to stop doing this. You are going to get sick. Do you not love yourself? When you are in the bathroom, leave it unlocked. Is this the reason you’ve been ‘throwing up’ lately? I just thought you might be pregnant…how often do you..."
“I don't know” I quickly interrupted with a lie.
In the morning I’d brush my teeth and leave the water running. When I came home from school after my first meal of the day I warned the boys I had to use the bathroom and to not knock on the door. After dinner, before I took a shower while the water was running. When I snuck downstairs in the middle of the night and ate a snack, then visit after.
Before, I would look in the mirror pull and tug, I never was satisfied. You name it I tried it. I worked out every single fucking day twice a day, it never worked fast enough. Oh! I was on that no junk food and 2,000 calories diet, It came to a point that I’d only eat about 800 calories a day. Every day I had to go to school and they’d snicker and laugh and make jokes touching the fat on my arms and stomach. I wouldn't eat lunch, because I wasn't hungry, I didn’t have an appetite.
Nothing ever worked.
I had given up, I ordered a small pizza and ate half of the box in my room. I had regretted it as soon as I had done it.
Tears running down my face I ran downstairs to the bathroom and began to brush my teeth. I had pushed too hard and went too deep and hit my uvula I ran here got on my knees and let it out. That was the first time I discovered it, next time and every day after that I’d do it on purpose, it made me feel like everything I ate just washed away and everything they said never had been said and every wound made by every word that cut me healed,then...for a moment everything was okay, I was okay...
The bathroom became my sanctuary, the things I did in here was a secret... and neither of us would tell.
I’d eat as much as I could as fast as I could then go upstairs run the water or play some music, sometimes both, get on my knees and find comfort in the porcelain throne.
After a while I stopped using the back of my toothbrush to do it, my index finger was good enough.
This went on for a year or so, I don’t think there was a meal that I kept down. I haven’t done it since I talked to my mom, last week but I just feel really shitty.
It’s thanksgiving, and everyone was commenting on how I definitely ate too much and how I should slow down before I gain more weight. Now here I am on my knees hair tied and slung over the toilet debating on pushing my finger to the back of my throat…Should I accept vanquish at my own hands,in a war against myself?(knock on the door) I am going to get up and answer because I am going to be okay. I am going to learn to love me, love the way I look. This is going to be the last time that I visit.
I’m coming out right now!
YVONNE: Taytiana’s courage to share her personal experience through this monologue is powerful and important. Her voice rings loud and clear as proof that eating disorders can afflict anyone.
After I heard her monologue, I decided to meet up with Taytiana at Philly Young Playwrights’ office. She’s 17 now, and it had been just over a year since her monologue was produced and performed as part of Young Playwrights’ Monologue Festival.
Yvonne: So tell me about writing the monologue, like how did that what did that feel like. Like what were you trying to say?
Taytiana: So when I first wrote the monologue, it was a class assignment that was geared to submitting it to the Young Playwrights Monologue Festival and we just sat down and went through the writing process, and I was just thinking what was out of the ordinary, what could I tie into my own life, so, I had an eating disorder at one point and I kind of geared that toward my writing, because that’s something that I’ve overcome and it was about my year anniversary of being clean, so I was really excited about it, so I decided to write about my past experiences.
YVONNE: Even though it had been over a year since she got clean, Taytiana's family didn't find out about her eating disorder until she told them about the monologue.
Taytiana: Um, my family found out when I submitted it to the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Monologue Festival. That’s the first time me and my mom actually talked about it because she did like tell me that I needed to stop when she physically caught me. So that was the first time that I really talked about it at all because I never got any professional help, I like stopped on my own, so it was like a really will-powered… like I had to push myself.
Yvonne: What made you decide to stop? What happened?
Taytiana: Um more than anything it was my mom and how hurt she was and the look in her face when she caught me in the act. It was just a repeated thing and she was at a loss and I couldn’t see my mother hurt anymore.
Yvonne: What was the hardest part about stopping?
Taytiana: Not doing it again. It was the willpower to not relapse. Cause you’d go like two days and then you’re just sitting there thinking about it and contemplating it. It just takes willpower in yourself so it’s just like a control thing because you want to be in control of your body. Letting go of the control is the hardest part.
Yvonne: And when you purged, how did it feel? Did you feel like “oh I’m losing weight now?” Or how did it make you feel?
Taytiana: Right after I’d purge I’d feel a little bit better then I’d feel guilty then I’d feel like it’d be working then right after I think that it’s working I’m like no it’s not working I’m still fat I’m still ugly like that’s what was going through my mind at the time so then I’d do it again and again every meal and there were some times when I didn’t eat and I’d just throw up everything.
YVONNE: Taytiana recovered with the support of her mom.
Taytiana: The recovery process? I think it was more so like my mom watched me like a hawk. I’d eat more little by little, and I completely stopped tracking my food because it made me insane about it. Yeah.
YVONNE: When Taytiana heard she won PYP’s monologue festival there was joy mixed with fear.
Taytiana: I was so scared but then, I was actually gonna decline coming, but I was like I have to do it because this is my story and I know that there’s other people out there that have experienced the same thing.
Yvonne: What was it like to see Comfort being performed?
Taytiana: I cried every single production. Like I didn’t know what to do because it was like… then i’d like wipe my tears and be happy that it got shared.
YVONNE: But the wonderful surprise for Taytiana was she discovered a community of support for herself.
Taytiana: Yeah, my whole class went to see it and it was kind of weird explaining to my friends like about things that happened, and then some people just didn’t know what to say. I mean but a lot of people did come up to me from my school and they were like “you’re not alone, this happened to me” and it made me feel good inside more than being afraid I was more happy that other people could relate.
Yvonne: And in your monologue I know the character is based on you but she isn’t you, so what happens to her? What’s her end? Where does she go?
Taytiana: Well that’s up to interpretation, but um, the ending was more so of “I’m gonna make it” that’s what I ended the note on because I wanted it to be hopeful. That you can go from an ugly place and go to a beautiful place.
YVONNE: After talking to Taytiana we felt it was important to get some input from an expert and here in Philly that’s Dr. Samantha DeCaro of the Renfrew Center. She’s a clinical psychologist and the assistant clinical director at Renfrew. The center provides residential care for women struggling with eating disorders. It’s the first of its kind, opening more than 30 years ago in 1985. Renfrew has 18 sites nationwide, but locally they have a beautiful facility in Roxborough. So we went there to talk to Dr. DeCaro.
She said she thought Taytiana’s monologue was brave.
Dr. DeCaro: I thought she was incredibly brave to come out with that monologue because there’s so much secrecy there’s so much shame when you have an eating disorder. And I think there’s a desire to really isolate and hide it and protect it in a way. It’s really scary to come forward because it’s scary to think about giving it up.
I also thought that, what was striking to me, was that she well I think there’s a misconception out there that eating disorders are a this urban/suburban white girl disease and to have a minority speak up about it and create awareness around it is a really good thing because there’s a lot of doctors, mental health clinicians, just a lot of people out there in general I think that kind of miss eating disorders because they just don’t think that the person in front of them is at risk for it. So it’s not even on their radar. And so certain doctors aren’t even asking the right questions and I think unfortunately people aren’t getting diagnosed because there’s a bias out there about well who’s at risk for developing an eating disorder and the reality is we’re all at risk all genders all races all ethnicities. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. So it’s important that we’re always trying to create awareness that this really could happen to anyone.
YVONNE: Dr. DeCaro said there are signs for us parents, friends, and family to look out for. An obsession or a preoccupation with weight; calorie counting; if someone is weighing themselves multiple times a day; if they are constantly comparing themselves to other people; if they’re cutting out meals or cutting out entire food groups; if they have really rigid rules around eating; laxatives, diet pills, using the bathroom right after meals; Isolating, kind of moving away from family and friends, irritability, fatigue. There are certain personality characteristics: a perfectionist, for example, is often more vulnerable to an eating disorder like anorexia. And moms and dads should not minimize the problem.
Dr. DeCaro: I think that some caretakers even think that the rapid weight loss is a healthy thing because we have unfortunately we’re bombarded with these messages that thinner is healthier and that’s not the case. And you can’t really assess someone’s health by just looking at them and as a matter of fact with eating disorders sometimes I think people can look healthy by society’s standards and their lab work and their heart rate and all that stuff tells a completely different story.
There are many parents and people in general who really think that eating disorders are a choice. And if you just try hard enough and you love yourself enough and you know you have enough willpower you’ll be able to stop. And the reality is it’s really not that simple. Eating disorders don’t respond to logic. They’re irrational disorders. So I think sometimes parents try to push logical arguments and they try to take that route and unfortunately it’s just not effective. So we see that a lot with parents and we really have to help parents make a shift around how they approach this problem so that they’re not unwittingly making things worse.
YVONNE: And weight is connected to happiness or so advertising, television and social media tells us. It is the magic pill. Be thin and all your troubles will melt away. You’re prettier if you’re thinner and it WILL make YOU happy, just look at all the happy faces in magazines, look at how thin the models and celebrities are. It is everywhere. And it’s a lie. Still, for the generation of young folks growing up now, who have never lived without internet and social media, the onslaught of images is constant.
Dr. DeCaro: Yeah I meant you think about social media for instance, it’s primarily image-based and you know adolescents are able to compare themselves very quickly and rapidly by swiping and clicking and it’s really just a different culture that we live in now and I think appearance can be something that's over-valued maybe even more so now than ever before. Because you have Facebook and Instagram where it’s just picture after picture and making assessments about whether or not someone is doing well in life based on how they look. So yeah it’s really it can really be a breeding ground for this type of behavior.
YVONNE: Taytiana was able to recover on her own, but Dr. DeCaro stressed that’s a very hard road that no one should walk alone.
Dr. DeCaro: It’s just really hard road to do it on your own, and you don’t have to. You don’t have to do it all alone. You can have support and you can meet other people who have been through the same thing. I think one of the great things about Renfrew is that the patients when they come here they meet a whole community of other patients who have been through what they’ve been through.
YVONNE: On our way into Dr. DeCaro’s office, I noticed a lot of framed artwork lining the halls. At Renfrew, art is a tool to heal.
Dr. DeCaro: Our patients have groups where they’ll do art therapy all together in a group. We have one-on-one art therapy. And I think it can be especially helpful to those patients that have trouble expressing themselves verbally. Especially when you’re working with younger patients who might just not have the command of the language to really express what they’re feeling internally, art therapy can be so powerful.
YVONNE: Art helped Taytiana heal. After high school she wants to go on to college and to medical school to become an OBGYN.
Taytiana: I love life. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, so I think it would be great to a process of bringing somebody else to life… like helping the process.
Now I think I’m beautiful. In the past I wouldn’t say that I felt the same.
Yvonne: You are beautiful.
Taytiana: Thank you.
YVONNE: And that's our show.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, there is a lot of support available. The National Eating Disorder Association website is filled with information at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org and they have Toll-free Information and a Referral Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 And the Renfrew Center is also available to help at 1-800-Renfrow. Calls are anonymous. Do not be afraid to reach out for help.
You are not alone.
Thanks to Dr. Samantha DeCaro of the Renfrew Center.
And the beautiful Taytiana Velasquez Rivera of Science Leadership Academy and North Philly.
Comfort was performed by Taysha Canales, and directed by Jay Gilman.
See you next time.