From 'Empty' To 'Satisfied': Susan Burton On Eating Disorders : Shots - Health News For Susan Burton, decades of disordered eating was about power. "As long as I was bingeing, I didn't have to think. I didn't have to think about any loss or pain or wanting or yearning."
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From 'Empty' To 'Satisfied': Author Traces A Hunger That Food Can't Fix

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From 'Empty' To 'Satisfied': Author Traces A Hunger That Food Can't Fix

From 'Empty' To 'Satisfied': Author Traces A Hunger That Food Can't Fix

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sheltering at home and being near the refrigerator all the time can be stressful and complicated for people with eating disorders. My guest Susan Burton recently wrote about that in the New York Times. She kept her eating disorder a secret all her life - at least she tried to - until now. She's written a new memoir about her relationship to food called "Empty." She's now in her mid-40s and has struggled with eating disorders - anorexia and sometimes compulsive eating - since her adolescence. She describes herself as working toward recovery but not yet recovered.

You may recognize Susan Burton's name from the closing credits of "This American Life." She's an editor of the show and has also contributed pieces, including the famous story "Unaccompanied Minors." It was about the time after her parents divorced in 1988 when she and her sister were flying from their mother's house in Colorado to their father's house in Michigan and were stranded during a layover in Chicago, where a blizzard had shut down O'Hare. They were escorted to a room filled with dozens of other kids traveling alone, kids the airline called unaccompanied minors. That story was adapted into a film. Susan Burton has also written for The New Yorker, Slate and New York Magazine. And full disclosure - I should mention that Susan profiled me in the New York Times Magazine in 2015.

Susan, it's great to talk with you again (laughter).

SUSAN BURTON: It's so nice to talk to you, Terry. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Well let's start by talking about food and the pandemic. It's not just that everybody's close to a refrigerator now. It's also that for a lot of people who either aren't working or who are working from home, there's either, like, less structure or a totally different structure. So all the structure that food was built around might not exist anymore. So is that creating issues for you?

BURTON: At the beginning of the pandemic I did really struggle with food stuff. Everybody's eating disorders are different. For me, a lot of my fears have been about contamination. So instantly, I was scared that the way I was going to contract the virus was through food. The fear was unfounded. There's no documented cases of transmission by food, but I found myself doing stuff like not, you know, eating the baguette that came home unless it had been toasted and burnt to a crisp first and I could be sure that the virus would be killed or, you know, not wanting to eat fresh fruit because it couldn't be heated.

And, you know, at a certain point it became clear to me that - of course my anxieties about the virus would play themselves out in food because food has often been the site of my anxieties. So the anxiety was really the biggest piece of it for me.

GROSS: Your eating disorder was something you kept secret until writing the book. You thought you kept it secret, although I'm sure it was obvious to people who knew you well. But did you have a hard time admitting to yourself that you had an eating disorder?

BURTON: I did. I don't think I understood how entrenched this stuff was for me. And I went to therapy for the first time when I was 45. This is about a year and a half ago. I'm 46 now. And I told my therapist that I was really preoccupied with food and I didn't want to be. I thought about food all the time. And she said, you think about food all the time because you don't eat enough of it. And she was right.

It took me a couple months to realize that among the reasons I thought about food all the time was that I was hungry all the time. You know, there was some kind of, like, food foraging behavior happening in my brain. And, you know, I don't think about food all the time anymore. I am less hungry than I used to be. But that was a very scary feeling for a while because hunger was something that I believed protected me and gave me power.

GROSS: How did hunger protect and give you power?

BURTON: So the title of my book is "Empty," and empty was a state that just symbolized a lot for me. Being empty meant possibility. Being empty meant freedom from bingeing. Being empty meant being able to take things in, being able to take food in, take feeling in. Being empty was a somatic state. It was a sensation I loved - the feeling of my body hollow, like a straw you could blow through. I don't want to romanticize the state, but that was what it meant to me. And now, you know, I understand that emptiness didn't protect me. It limited me. It cut me off from intimacy, from experience. It was something that I thought would expand my life, but instead, it ended up restricting it.

GROSS: You write about anorexia and how it sometimes alternates for you with compulsive eating, and you say it's easier to admit to anorexia than it is to bingeing. Why is that?

BURTON: I think for me, there were a couple of things. Anorexia was something that was visible to the people around me, so there was sort of no way of keeping it a secret. And bingeing for me was - it just - it happened to be where my shame was located. I think that a lot of people don't know what binge eating is. It's eating a large amount of food at once - more than most people would typically eat - afterwards feeling deep distress and self-loathing and having a feeling of being out of control. It's a compulsive thing. You want to stop, and you can't.

And I'll give you an example of what it looked like for me. This is when I'm 17. I'm driving home from a concert with my best friend Jules. And I start the story in the car rather than in the kitchen because an eating disorder is about so much more than food. An eating disorder is a way to cope with pain or to cope with emotional needs that aren't being met. And I always wanted more from my friendship with Jules. I wanted to commune with her. I wanted kind of like this merger of souls, and I often left encounters with her feeling deflated by not getting this. And that night was no exception.

I dropped her off. I turned the corner, started driving home. And almost immediately I was chanting to myself. I'm going to go inside, hang my key, go straight upstairs; go inside, hang my key, go straight upstairs meaning that I was going to circumvent the kitchen because if I went to the kitchen, surely I would binge. I pulled into my driveway, went inside, hung my key. But instead of going straight upstairs, I went straight into the kitchen, where I started bingeing.

Bingeing - there was always a lot of ferocity and aggression in it for me, which was part of its power. I went to the freezer. I, you know, bit into a cookie, worried I chipped my tooth, but I kept going. The need to keep going was paramount because as long as I was bingeing, I didn't have to think. I didn't have to think about any loss or pain or wanting or yearning. That night I kept eating, like so many nights. You know, I ate the foods that my mother bought. I ate granola, blue corn chips, string cheese. I ate until I felt uncomfortably sick. I went upstairs, you know, didn't wash my face, brush my teeth, just got into bed and wanted to hide from what I'd done.

GROSS: You say your eating disorder started when you were around 13, which is also the age you were when your parents divorced. Do you think the two are connected?

BURTON: Absolutely. So after my parents got divorced, I moved to Colorado. My mother and my sister and my father stayed in Michigan. And he would come up to visit us. And he came out for Columbus Day weekend the year I was a junior in high school. And we went out to lunch. And I ate more than usual at the lunch. I ate sort of pass the point I was hungry. And I wasn't bingeing yet. I was at the tail end of anorexia. But I was about to tip into kind of full-throttled bingeing. And this is the weekend I really see as the prologue to it.

When my father dropped me off at home that day, I went to the kitchen. And even though I wasn't hungry, I went to the cupboard. And I took out this little bag of trail mix from our health food store. It was called royal chocolate trail mix. Although, I think the chocolate might actually have been carob. But I never liked this trail mix, but I ate it anyway and kept eating it all weekend. And by the end of the weekend, the bag was all gone.

And the reason that this weekend, this moment, stands out to me as far as my parents' divorce and eating disorders is that the feeling I had was the feeling that would characterize all the decades of my eating disorders that followed, which is want something else. Want more. Want something more. And, you know, what I wanted in that moment, maybe it was food, you know, maybe it was something more satisfying to replace the food I hadn't really liked at lunch. But I wanted something more from my father. I wanted my old life to be restored. I wanted my father to see something in me he hadn't seen. I wanted to be another person for him, you know? The pain of my parents' divorce was among the things I now understand I used food to manage.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Burton, an editor at "This American Life" and author of the new memoir, "Empty," about the eating disorder she's had since adolescence. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Susan Burton. Her new memoir, "Empty," is about her eating disorder. The book is a confession to herself, as well as to others. And it's an investigation into her own life in an attempt to better understand it.

The book that is your memoir you initially intended to be a cultural history of the teenage girl, which is a very interesting idea. And in terms of your life, like, as a teenager, Seventeen Magazine was really pivotal in two ways. And for people who aren't familiar with Seventeen - I'm not sure if it exists anymore. Does it?

BURTON: Oh, gosh. I think it does. But I don't actually know for sure.

GROSS: OK. So you know, 17, for a lot of teenage girls, it was a magazine that both showed you, like, the new fall fashions and the new spring fashions and, like, what the perfumes and the makeup were. But, you know, there were also articles related to being a teenager. So it was a big thing if you were, like, 13, 14, 15. So you won a fiction writing contest from Seventeen, which was a great affirmation.

But I'm sure you also looked at the models in Seventeen Magazine and kind of held them up to be models of what a teenage girl should look like. And they were all, like, you know, thin and very pretty with great clothes, of course. Did you feel like you were getting mixed messages from the magazine? One was like, you're really a good writer. You have a good mind, and that's really important. And we are going to reward you for your mind. But also, and here's what you should look like, an unachievable - here's what you should look like.

BURTON: Well, let's see, first of all, so I didn't win the writing contest. I came in second, which wasn't...

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. But you got a cash prize.

BURTON: I got a cash prize. And the story I wrote, tellingly, was about a college-aged girl whose divorced parents are getting back together, which was really fantasy fulfillment for me. But, I mean, I think the thing that I would say about the bodies in Seventeen - when I think about what impact that magazine had on me and how it connected to my eating disorders, the thing was it didn't make me want to remake my body so much as it made me want to remake my personality.

So I discovered Seventeen when I was in middle school. And, you know, I went to this very typical, standard middle school. Like, its name was literally Central Middle. And there were popular kids and nerds. And I was a nerd. I was on Science Olympiad. I won the spelling bee. I was student of the month the very first month of the year. And it was the first time in my life that being smart, showing enthusiasm, made you a nerd. And I was an outsider, even shunned. And I really didn't like the feeling. And I fantasized being a girl who could exist in the pages of Seventeen. But my fantasies were not about having a certain kind of body. They were about having a certain kind of bubbly personality.

And when I - my parents got divorced and I moved to Colorado, I did have the chance to do what I thought of as reinventing myself, but which I now see as creating a false self, hiding the parts of myself I didn't want anybody to see. And those are the things that I feel like played into my eating disorders, this feeling of not being OK with who I was, of losing touch with my own desires, with my own authentic self. So did the images of bodies in the magazine matter? Yes, but not as much as the way the magazine inspired me to sort of begin hiding myself in a way that would continue for years.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned in your Times piece that in quarantine, your focus isn't on the external perception of your body because nobody except your family is seeing you. Your focus is on your own experience of your body. So how is experiencing your body from your own physical living in your body different from thinking about how other people are seeing your body?

BURTON: That has been one of the surprising benefits of all of this for me. You know, this summer, I bought a bikini for the first time since I was 16 years old. I'd never felt good about my body at any size in the intervening years. And I think I've gotten to a place where it wasn't about how I looked anymore. It was just about wanting to lie in the sun and feel the sun on my body and wear a bikini. And this bikini has made me so inordinately happy.

And I realized at some point that it's the same turquoise as a bathing suit I had when I was 13 years old before my eating disorder started. This bathing suit I had when I was 13, it was this, like, 1980s, bright, turquoise tank suit with, like, a low scoop back and a big bow above the butt. Anyway, this bikini gave me - gives me the same kind of pleasure that that bathing suit did. And part of it is about the enjoyment of just being in my body and not thinking about what it looks like to others.

GROSS: Do you think that this change is going to be lasting, that you'll be thinking about how you feel in your body as opposed to thinking about how other people are perceiving your body?

BURTON: I hope so. But I struggled with eating disorders for decades. And it's not going to be easy to undo them. I think it would be too optimistic to say that the change is going to be, you know, permanent and lasting. I hope one day it will. But I'm not entirely there yet. But I am in a very different place than I was, for instance, even a year ago. You know, I go running in the mornings. And a year ago, I might have looked at my reflection in a window and been disappointed with some aspect of it. And now I look at my reflection in a window and, there it is. That's me. I'm running past a window. There's not as much judgment involved. And there's a lot more compassion.

GROSS: Your mother used to complain that she had a pot belly. My mother used to complain about that, too. I don't even know if people use that expression anymore.

BURTON: (Laughter).

GROSS: But my mother used to worry that she had a little tummy. And those were the days when women actually wore, like, girdles. So you know, she, like many women of her generation, wore a girdle. So when your mother complained that she had a pot belly, what message did you take away from that? Not necessarily her intended message, but what did you take away?

BURTON: I don't know that I took away a message. I did absorb, like, a fixation on my stomach. All of the women in my family were fixated on their stomachs. For years, the first thing I checked in the morning when I got out of my bed was my stomach, whether it was flat or out or in. I mean, you know, certainly, I internalized a message that being thin mattered.

She wasn't the only one offering this message in our family. You know, my grandmother once exalted, I'm so glad I have thin grandchildren. You know, it became a joke. But it was sort of a feeling that we all shared. My father was obsessed with this, like, 1970s best-seller called "Fit Or Fat." So there was definitely a message in my family that appearance and size mattered.

GROSS: Because you tell a story about your grandmother. She was dying and had lost weight because she was dying. And so as she's dying, she wants to get on the scale to weigh herself so she could see how thin she was, she could see it registered in numbers. It's a really disturbing story.

BURTON: It is a story that makes me sad for a couple of reasons. One is my own reaction to it. So the moment when that happened, I was sitting beside her. I was 37 or 38 years old. And I understood, you know? I understood what it was to want to get on that scale and look at the number and stand there, shrunken and triumphant, you know? I was sitting beside her bed. And I was particularly thin then. And I felt it was because of my thinness that I could be there and emotionally available and experiencing these last days that I would ever spend with her, which now strikes me, also, as sad and ridiculous. Like, my thinness wasn't making me more available. It was limiting me.

But at the same time, I was sitting at her bed. I was sitting there with a stack of her cookbooks. And my grandmother was a wonderful cook. And the cookbooks, you know, they were - all the recipes were marked up with her notes. And I was talking to her about all these things that she'd made. And it was very emotional and rich. And they were things I wanted to make for myself. And there was always this dichotomy in our family between taking real pleasure in food and being vigilant about it. And my grandmother is the one we sort of all learned that from.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Susan Burton. And her new memoir, "Empty," is about her eating disorder. She's an editor at "This American Life." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Susan Burton. Her new memoir "Empty" is about her eating disorder which she's had since adolescence. She's now in her mid-40s. She says, for the most part, for the past two decades she's lived just over the anorexia borderline. Burton is also an editor at "This American Life" and has contributed stories to the show, including the famous story "Unaccompanied Minors," which was adapted into a film.

Your mother had a hidden life as a drinker until she got sober. And you say you had a model for having a secret life. How did her secret affect your ability to keep your eating issues a secret and your desire to keep them a secret?

BURTON: I think it had a really big impact, looking back, for exactly the reason you say. Like, there was a model for hiding. You know, when I was a teenager, like you said, my mother was drinking. And I didn't, in those years, connect her addiction to alcohol with my addiction to food, although I now do see them as connected. You know, it could just as easily for me have been one substance over another.

But the thing I was acutely attuned to was that we were both living these secret lives. So for example, as a teenager, I would be upstairs in my room doing homework, and she would be downstairs in the kitchen cleaning, correcting papers. She was a teacher. And she would be drinking. And I would be upstairs in my room just seething and edgy and hating her - hating her not because she was drinking but because she was in the kitchen, and I wanted to get into the kitchen so that I could binge.

You know, I'd hear her feet on the stairs. She'd go into her bedroom. She'd shut the door. She'd turn on the sink. And I'd go downstairs, and I'd go into the same kitchen. I'd turn on the light, and I would binge. And I was very conscious that we were both hiding out in the kitchen. We were both hiding out in the same place. And I felt our secret lives very viscerally.

GROSS: So you each knew each other's secrets, but you couldn't talk about it 'cause they were officially secrets?

BURTON: I don't think she knew about my secret. I don't. She...

GROSS: But she knew that you weren't eating when you were anorexic.

BURTON: She knew I was anorexic. She didn't know about the bingeing. I gave her the manuscript of my book last August, and that's the first time we'd ever talked about it. And she didn't know.

GROSS: What was her reaction?

BURTON: It was really painful for her. It was really painful for her as a mother to think that I'd been in such pain that she hadn't been aware of. And even the thing she kept saying was she was sad about all I had missed. She was sad about all the pleasure I had missed out on. That was a big thing for her. But you know, it opened up a lot of straightforward conversations about food and other things in our family that we'd never had. The secrecy that characterized my adolescence with her, it's very different now. She's sober now, and there's a lot more openness and transparency and vulnerability in our relationship.

GROSS: In your memoir, you write a little bit about what you've learned about your early childhood. Like you're - when you were a baby, when you were very young and just learning to eat. And you write about how picky and vigilant you were then about food, and apparently you were afraid of getting sick from food. You were very fearful of tastes that you didn't like, of something getting into your body that you couldn't get out. And it turns out you had an inguinal hernia as a child, which is a bulge in the intestine. How much do you think that explains why you saw food as potentially threatening?

BURTON: Yeah, I mean, like you said, I never had a typical relationship with food. I was always very fearful of food. You know, I was the weird kid at the birthday party who wouldn't eat pizza or who asked for milk instead of Coke. Food was always the site of a lot of fear for me, but I didn't like to draw attention to it. So even though it would come out in these social settings, it was something I was ashamed of. And I think that the fact that food was an early site of fear and secrecy for me predisposed me as choosing that as my substance. It predisposed me to eating disorders. Food was always very charged for me.

GROSS: Puberty was difficult for you 'cause you started going through puberty when you were 10, ahead of the other girls who were your age. So your body was changing, and you weren't prepared for it. And that affected, like, your eating patterns. What about pregnancy? Like, you have two children. When you were pregnant and your body was kind of out of your control and it was growing because a child was growing within you, how did you feel about your body? How did your relationship to food and your body change? You know, I've heard some women say that when - like when they were pregnant, it was like the only time they felt really comfortable eating because they didn't have to worry about their stomach and how their stomach looked because it was going to be big one way or another and it was supposed to be. So it was a kind of opportunity to eat without worrying about, you know, a bulge in your tummy under your shirt.

BURTON: I mean, there were a few things that were happening for me with food and pregnancy. One is that all of my, you know, fears about contamination and toxicity kicked in. So that was - there was a lot of anxiety in that for me.

GROSS: Because you were afraid it would harm the baby?

BURTON: Because I was afraid it would harm the baby. But as you say, because my stomach in particular was the, you know, the part of my body I always had so much anxiety about, yes, it's true that growing a child in my body - you know, I no longer worried that my stomach was sticking out because my stomach was supposed to be sticking out. But I didn't - you know, I definitely was vigilant. I didn't want to gain too much weight. I was fearful of that. But I loved being pregnant.

You know, it's interesting. When I think about being pregnant, those aren't the first things I think about. When I think about being pregnant, I think about having the people who are now my children inside me. There was a closeness and a warmth and a sense of companionship. Those are the things that are really present for me about pregnancy, not so much the feeling of my body.

GROSS: What's your eating like now? You write that for the past two decades you've lived just over the anorexia borderline - on which side? (Laughter).

BURTON: On the side of getting my period, on the side of...

GROSS: Yes, 'cause you lost your period for a while because of anorexia.

BURTON: I did lose my period for a while because of anorexia. And I should say that the diagnosis of anorexia has changed and doesn't necessarily include the loss of the menstrual period. But for me, that was always a sign that I wasn't eating enough. My eating now is better than it's been in a long time. You know, it takes a long time to learn to eat intuitively, to learn to recognize the body's cues. But I eat more than I used to. I like the feeling of being satisfied. When I was hungry all the time, I had headaches. I was often exhausted. I was often organizing my life around, you know, needing to come home and eat or needing to eat a certain thing at a certain time, and I'm letting go of those rituals.

And with an eating disorder, you know, food comes to stand in for relationships with people. And as my fixation on food dissipates, I am far more interested in relatedness with others. And that is one - in addition to the health benefits of dismantling an eating disorder, the physical health benefits of dismantling an eating disorder, there are social and emotional benefits, too.

GROSS: You've worked on "This American Life" on and off for years as a producer, as an editor and as somebody who's contributed stories. When you were growing up, your father was a news director at a local radio station, and this was when your parents were still married. And he was on the air, too. Did you ever think about radio for yourself? Because you're in it now.

BURTON: I didn't ever think about radio for myself. But I know that the fact that it was my father's profession played a huge part in it for me and is still one of the things that's very moving to me that I'm doing this. I mean, I don't - you know, so the - when I was a young woman - when I was in my early 20s living in New York City was when "This American Life" first came on the air. And I remember sitting in my studio apartment with a futon and a boombox on the floor and hearing Ira Glass's voice come out of the radio, and I just wanted to be inside that radio. I wanted to be a part of what he was doing.

And I think what he was doing and is doing is, you know, inventive and masterful. But I think for me, it had a special power because of those early childhood memories of sitting in a kitchen, hearing my father's voice come out of a radio. And it means - it does mean a ton to me that I have this connection across time with my father through this medium.

GROSS: So you have two sons. One's now 12. One's 15. Are you watchful about their eating habits?

BURTON: It's definitely something that's always been on my radar because it was - food has been such a significant problem for me. They have very healthy and typical relationships with food, so it's not something that I've worried about. I have worried about the messages, both conscious and unconscious, that I send to them. But so far, they seem thankfully, like, really free of the stuff that plagued me.

GROSS: So one of the things that made you really aware of the fact that you needed to change in terms of your relationship to food was when the man who became your husband told you that you had a problem and that he was worried about you. So that's before you were married. You've been married a long time now. Has he been a helpful presence when he sees you, you know, slipping into anorexia or bingeing?

BURTON: Yeah. I mean, my husband Mike is incredibly supportive and has been the most important person to me in all of this. You know, his support is really important to me right now. You know, the other day he said to me, it is such a relief that you're not so thin anymore. And, like, I feel that relief, too. I feel that relief both for myself, and I feel that relief for our relationship.

GROSS: Susan Burton, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

BURTON: Thank you so much, Terry. I really enjoyed talking to you.

GROSS: Susan Burton is an editor at "This American Life." Her new memoir is called "Empty." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review new albums by Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen. This is FRESH AIR.


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