Author: 'Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat'
KORVA COLEMAN, host:
I'm Korva Coleman, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we go behind closed doors. It's the part of our program where we talk about issues that are often hidden from public view. Today's segment was previously recorded by TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. We hear a perspective on eating disorders but one that challenges a stereotype.
There's a common perception that eating disorders are the exclusive domain of affluent white women and girls. Stephanie Covington Armstrong doesn't fit that mold. She's now a playwright, screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles, but she grew up one of three daughters of a struggling single mother. She also grew up binging, purging and using food as an outlet for her emotional pain.
Now, she's decided to share her story with others who may not understand they're also at risk of eating disorders. Her new book is called "Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat." She recently talked about bulimia with TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. Just a warning for sensitive listeners: Ms. Armstrong's description of what led to her illness includes an experience of sexual assault. Michel Martin asked Stephanie Covington Armstrong about when her bulimia began.
Ms. STEPHANIE COVINGTON ARMSTRONG (Author, "Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat"): I was old. I was about 21.
MARTIN: And why did it start?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I grew up, you know, I had a sister who was addicted to drugs, and I grew up in a neighborhood where I saw lots of women drinking, and I always thought it was messy, and your pain showed. You know, people immediately could pinpoint you as an alcoholic, as a drug addict. But the thing about bulimia, it was secretive. So I could still look one way, and you never know how I feel about myself or the level of pain I'm experiencing. The bulimia set in the more I shut myself off intentionally. That was just a pattern. I kept - slowly, things would happen. I would get hurt, and I would shut down, and then I just shut down so much there was nowhere to go with those feelings of vulnerability, and I just wanted to stuff them down with food.
MARTIN: Tell us about the first time that you made yourself throw up.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, the first time I made myself throw up, I was, you know, feeling fat, which is not really a feeling. I was feeling overwhelmed, anxious, bad about myself, not lovable. I was feeling a lot of different things that I no longer wanted to feel. Like, imagine having this high - almost an anxiety attack, and then I'd binge, and then I'd throw up and have this just calm, like I was untouchable.
MARTIN: What do you think made you try it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I had spent years, like - and by the way, I have never been overweight in my entire life. So it wasn't about weight. I just wanted control. And I couldn't control anything in my life, and I thought if I can control my food, my weight, there's something that will make me feel like I have some say in my life.
MARTIN: One of the things that made you feel out of control was being a victim of a sexual assault. Can you talk about that and how you think that ties into the bulimia?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, I think more than anything else in my life, that that was the defining moment for me that I believe led me down this road to become a bulimic. It was my uncle, my mother's brother. Like, we were never left with strangers. We were always left with family, and this is, like, weekends and all my cousins, and it was a lot of children around and a very, like, joyous experience. We'd go off to my grandmother's or my aunt's, and here was my uncle, who was successful. He was married. He was recently separated. He was a stockbroker on Wall Street, and he was the family success story - did not have pedophile written on him at all.
He had three girls, and his daughters adored him. And you know, one night, my sisters, my older sisters and my cousins, five girls plus his two, two of his three were there. And he had gone out, and somehow I had fallen asleep in his bed - but I believe a lot of us did. But when I woke up I was alone and, you know, he spent what felt like the entire night. I know it wasn't, but in my head at 12 years old - and I was not, at 12 years old I was like a boy. My body was not maturing at that point and he tried to rape me. And it was like on and on, and he tried and tried and tried, and it just went on forever. And I just remember talking myself through it and pretending I was asleep and saying okay, this isn't happening. And just by the time the morning came, I had emotionally separated from myself. I didn't want to be in a position where I would ever be that vulnerable again.
MARTIN: How do you think that connected to your bulimia?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Because it was a feeling of isolation and it was a feeling of such intense pain, and the bulimia was such a sense of relief and calm, and it quelled my anxieties. So, you know, first it was stuffing, stuffing, stuffing, stuffing, overeating, compulsively overeating, and to me, I thought if I'm overweight people are going to see that I'm in pain and I never wanted to appear that vulnerable. So, the bulimia came as a reaction to that. I wanted to look a certain way so that you would think that I felt a certain way about myself.
MARTIN: It's like a, it was a like a very classic cry for help.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
MARTIN: Did anybody notice?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. No. I mean, my life just got increasingly messy and I was constantly breaking up with boyfriends, leaving or losing jobs, and changing apartments. So there was this constant inability to sit through whatever I was experiencing in my life.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author Stephanie Covington Armstrong. Her new memoir, "Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat" details her struggle with bulimia.
You finally did get to a point where you realized that your pattern of behavior around food was a problem, but when you went to try to get help, there was another sort of alienating factor. And part of it, and you talk about the fact that there was nobody who looked like you at some of these support groups. Talk to me about that. What difference do you think that made?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: You know, I was raised to not share my secrets with anybody but also not with a group of white people. That was like foreign and shameful and I just have this ancestry of strong black women who were able to get through anything. So here I am, you know, walking into these rooms of white people just basically on my knees emotionally, not able to function because the level of pain I had carried from childhood has swallowed me and I don't know what to do. I don't come from an environment where we go to therapy, where it's okay to not be okay. And I walk in and everyone was white, and everyone seems to be okay. And it probably had a lot more to do with my projection, that they wouldn't be able to understand me because I was black and ultimately, that's what I discovered. But being vulnerable around a large group of white women is not where I come from. So, you know, I had a lot of shame around that, around needing this.
MARTIN: It's interesting, because you also talk about the fact that you had - one of your sisters, for example, was struggling with being battered, had married a man who was battering her. And you write that, you know, while Renee allowed a man to physically abuse her, I chose bulimia as if consciously choosing to abuse myself. I knew I would never allow another person, particularly a man, to treat me badly again. It would be years before I understood that my sister and I had simply chosen two different halves of the same whole in order to fix something broken within us.
Do you think that that's true of other women of color, for example, and why it is that we are so, we seem to be so fixed on this notion that eating disorders are not something that happen to women of color? It's almost as if there's certain forms of pain that we can tolerate and are willing to talk about but there are forms of pain that we're not.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Right. Because I think like, culturally, it's been said and there have been studies done that black women like being heavier. So I think bulimia and eating disorders are looked on as, you know, wanting to be white, wanting to have the body like a white person. But what a lot of black people don't understand is that addiction to laxative teas, that's bulimia, over exercising, that's bulimia, diuretics, that's bulimia. Like, it's not just binging and purging.
MARTIN: What finally made it stop for you? What finally helped you stop?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I suddenly got to a place where I knew it didn't matter how much money I had, it didn't matter how successful I was, it didn't matter if someone was in love with me, this disease was such a part of me that if I didn't get rid of it, I was going to die. I looked at it as similar to being a heroine addict. I mean, I bottomed out and I was depressed. If I took one bite, I'd take 500. I just, I was exhausted in every way imaginable - emotionally, physically, mentally. And it was like I felt like a rat running on a treadmill. Like, I was running from my pain, my past, my shame and it wasn't, it was right there and I started to see that. Like, the food didn't allow me to run far enough. I'd throw up, the feelings would come back. That's what started happening.
But before, in the beginning, I'd throw up and the feelings would just go away for long periods. And by the end, it was every bite. The feelings were right there, right - like they'd go away for five minutes and be right there again. And I couldn't outrun my feelings of low self-esteem and so much shame at having been sexually abused.
MARTIN: What finally made a difference, as we talked about that, when you first started going to seeking out support groups and various treatment options? Number one, first of all, insurance was an issue.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
MARTIN: You didn't have it. But then, support groups were a problem because you kind of felt like, still odd woman out. So what finally did make a difference?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: You know...
MARTIN: How were you able to stop?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I kept going in those rooms, like I was still like a hardcore bulimic but I'd go in those rooms and finally, I saw that it didn't matter what people's lifestyle were, we were the same. Like, I started hearing so many stories that were my own story. You just take out the money issues, take out the color, but we're all doing the same thing with food because we're running from the same feelings. Maybe not all for the same reasons, but a lot of people had my same reasons for throwing up. So I started to see and, you know, and then I'd leave and for like two months I'd be back in the disease and it was the only time I felt like I could be myself when I was in those rooms, like I didn't have to pretend I wasn't bulimic.
MARTIN: You know if you're addicted to alcohol you can just not drink. You can, I mean obviously it's harder than just I'm not going to drink but you don't have to have it.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: Food, you have to have to live, you can't not eat. So how do you get back on track? How do you get back to some sort of a positive relationship with food?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, it's interesting you say that. They call it - I've heard it called like taking the monster out for a walk three times a day. You know, it's a lot. I did therapy, I - it's almost like I had to purge myself first of all the reasons and start to love myself. And then, once I started to love myself, to see the correlation between anxiety, hurt - like, if someone said something and it triggered something in me, my immediate impulse was food because that was my coping mechanism. And I had to learn new coping mechanisms that had nothing to do with food.
MARTIN: Well, what are some of them?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I had support groups. I had a lot of people I could call. I would journal. I would get out of my house, go for a walk. I would be of service to someone else. Like, if I knew I had a friend moving, I'd go hey, do you want me to help you pack? Do you want, like anything I could do to get out of my extreme self-involved state. It wasn't a quick fix. I mean I really had to learn how to eat in public, you know, because if I'm sitting there with you and you're normal and I'm not, you can eat like something that might be a trigger food for me. And so, I had to learn. There were many like gatherings early on in my recovery where I had to get up from the table and go in the bathroom and get on my knees and pray. And...
MARTIN: Can I ask you, what's a trigger food?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I mean I don't have any today, but early on in my recovery, trigger foods were starches, lots of sugar, fat, you know, a donut would be a trigger food. I mean today, if I want a donut, I'll eat a donut. I don't really crave donuts, but I crave things that are sweet and tasty. But it's also because I have coping skills. But if I go to reach for something and I'm not hungry, immediately my brain goes, okay so you're not really hungry. What's going on? And then I go oh, I'm overwhelmed by this deadline and I feel like someone's going to find out I, you know, I don't know what I'm doing. Oh okay, so is that true? And I have this quick dialogue with myself and the hunger just goes away now. So food is a yardstick.
MARTIN: Do you feel like you're past it? Do you think you have the beast by the leash, as it were?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, I am so recovered it's, yeah. I'm absolutely recovered. I know this because I'm a foodie. I'm a gourmet cook. It's like now I get to enjoy it. I get to, you know, I'm a mother. I get to make food. And food's not love, but it's food. And if you're going to eat food, let it be good food.
MARTIN: Stephanie, I take your point that part of what was critical to your recovery was recognizing that your story was not so different, that you were not alone in this.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely.
MARTIN: But if there is someone who's listening to our conversation, who is perhaps of color, who does not recognize herself in the narrative -or even himself let's say - in the narrative that they typically see about eating disorders, what's your message to them, to him or her?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: You're not alone. You know, this disease is already isolating. Don't allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated. I have met hundreds of black women who are suffering. I get emails daily from people all over the country, so I know that you can get to the other side of this because I got to the other side of this. You deserve a happy life and you can, you know, learn to have your feelings and not use food.
MARTIN: Stephanie, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me.
COLEMAN: That was TELL ME MORE host, Michel Martin interviewing Stephanie Covington Armstrong, the author of "Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat." Remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. And now, we want to hear from you. Have you or someone close to you suffered from an eating disorder? What led up to the illness? When did you realize the danger of the condition and what did you do to find help? To tell us more, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522. Remember to leave us your name or you can share your story with us online. Just go to the new NPR.org, select TELL ME MORE from the program tab and blog it out.
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COLEMAN: And that's our program for today. I'm Korva Coleman and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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