DiversifYA: Ami Allen-Vath

AMiSometimes beautiful things happen here at DiversifYA HQ, especially when our interviews inspire others to share their stories. Especially during weeks like these, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I don’t think I say it enough, but awareness is SO important. To know we’re not alone. But also to let others know that these issues we talk about aren’t distant or other. They’re everywhere around us. So if you can, please reach out and speak up. <3

And today, it’s an honor and a pleasure to introduce Ami Allen-Vath, who, in sharing her story with us, does just that. Aside from “very awesome”, Ami is a YA contemporary writer, who hates birds, loves books, theatre, and TV, and is represented by Victoria Lowes of The Bent Agency. Ami tweets and blogs, so go follow!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Good question. Although I did have one psychiatrist in high school that called it Bulimarexia, that term never really caught on so Bulimic it is. Recovered Bulimic.

2. What did it feel like growing up with bulimia?

My bulimia began when I was fourteen years old. After being sexually abused by a family member beginning at age eleven, I’d somehow found the courage to tell someone. The years I spent being abused were the darkest, emptiest and loneliest years of my life and once that was over, I expected things would be easier.

Because of the abuse, I felt a huge disconnect with my body. I was holding onto so much shame and negativity, and although telling someone was the bravest and hardest thing I could possibly do at that time, I didn’t know where to go from there. The abuse stopped so I expected my life would just turn into some happy sitcom. But it didn’t. I wasn’t ready to talk about it with a therapist and to make matters worse, I was now living with a parent and step-parent who were alcoholics—which was a whole new secret to keep. It was too much. So, being an incest survivor, now living in an alcoholic home added with a little weight gain, and the whole puberty thing—let’s just say I super hated my body. Everything was dysfunctional, so if I couldn’t have the happy life I craved, I wanted to at least look like I had my shit together.

I was angry and still felt really alone. I felt damaged, ugly, fat, and invisible. I believed that if I could mold my body into the best me EVER, I’d look like the pretty, thin teen girl with no problems. Bulimia was the only way I felt any kind of control over everything going on in my life at that time. It was also a way to take control back of my body. So, I was constantly planning meals, restricting foods, scheduling exercises, making diet shakes, popping diet pills, and documenting my weight in losses and gains. And then there was the whole binge and purge cycle. Eating some crap food or even just dinner and then throwing it up seemed like the best of both worlds. I thought I was taking care of my body for once. It was mine and I was in charge. But that was a huge, gross lie I tried to tell myself. Anyone who has an ED or is in recovery can tell you straight up: the eating disorder gradually takes over your life until it owns you and/or kills you.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

The biggest challenge I found in living with an eating disorder as a YA, was that it became increasingly harder and harder to manage. I was actually not living. I was so caught up in counting calories, abusing diet pills, finding somewhere to throw up, good food, bad food, beating myself up, planning the new diet, that I was pretty soon consumed by it. The eating disorder was my way to cope with stress, depression, and home life, but it became as big of a problem as everything else. Pretty soon, I didn’t even know what my real problems were because I was so focused on managing everything that goes into being bulimic. Things like: How many calories should I let myself have for my new diet? Where will I puke? Can I puke here after I eat? If I don’t throw this food up, how much can I eat? How many diet pills can I take without dying? Should I tell someone if I’m blacking out a little from the diet pills? Listing and color-coding food I’d eaten, puking in gas station bathrooms, the side of the road, garbage disposals, plastic bags, constant weight checking, mirror critiquing, ugh! It was a lot of work.

Boys & girls read this section carefully. There are no perks to bulimia. Never. Ever. Today, I say I’m recovered. But, to be honest, I’m not even sure what that means. I’ve had relapses in my twenties and even in the earlier part of this decade–my thirties. And that’s an ugly truth. I’m sure there are a lot of people that try certain drugs once or twice and don’t become addicted. Just like I’m sure there are some boys or girls that might try to use some eating disordered methods to lose a pound or two. It wasn’t just a phase for me. It wasn’t just a bad habit I could shake off. Purging became an addiction and the eating disordered thoughts that came along and multiplied for the ride are things I still battle with mentally today. I have done a lot of therapy for the causes of my eating disorder and for the eating disorder itself. But the mental stuff is still there. It’s like all those years of telling myself that I wasn’t good enough or that I’d be better if I looked better, evolved into a microchip and implanted itself in my brain. I know better now and my self-esteem is actually pretty decent but it’s still there. I can’t tell you how many thoughts go through my head on a daily/hourly basis that have to do with food or my body. It’s an obnoxious amount that I’m constantly dodging or rolling my eyes at. Also, purging became a release for me, a vice. An addiction. Sometimes I will have a bad day or eat too much and my mind automatically goes to that place. The place where it was freeing to eat whatever I wanted and then get that high from throwing it all up and flushing it away. It wasn’t, by any means, an easy thing to give up.

4. What do you wish people knew about having bulimia?

First of all, a couple vanity things that people, especially YAs should know. No one told me that throwing up your food doesn’t get rid of all the calories. NEWSFLASH Teen Me: It doesn’t. Even if you throw up right after. I’m not saying that’s THE reason not to do it, but when your head is messed up and you think it’s about food/calories, knowing this could be a deterrent. Some of the side effects are ugly. Chipmunk cheeks, swelling, canker sores, etc. Also, it’s kind of messed up but knowing that and knowing the next one would have been a deterrent for me:

Ack! No one told me that bulimia will mess up your teeth. I always brushed my teeth after I threw up because, hey, who wants to smell like puke, right? Turns out, I was brushing all the acid right into my teeth. And even if you just rinse your mouth out afterwards and don’t brush, you’re still subjecting your teeth and gums to all that acid. It’s awful. As an adult, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on my fixing my teeth. Fillings, root canals, implants. I have thousands more to spend but I’m one of the lucky ones, according to my dentist. It’s usually much worse.

Some people think only anorexics die. Anorexia isn’t the only eating disorder than can kill you. Bulimics die too. I had a suicide attempt in high school that ended up with a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. (Sadly, there was no Angelina Jolie there.) Bulimia was my best friend and worst enemy during those times. Wanting to end my life and being in heavy into my bulimia wasn’t a coincidence. Another time, I overdosed on diet pills and had to go to the ER to get my stomach pumped. Whether it’s the depression that goes along with it, abusing diet pills, laxatives, caffeine, or the effects on your esophagus or heart: eating disorders can lead to death.

Another huge thing that people need to know about an eating disorder is that it’s almost always never just about weight. The resources are there. (Eating Disorders Anonymous, Local therapists or social workers that specialize in EDs, counselors at school, your favorite aunt or uncle—someone will help). So, please get help if you’re suffering or just getting started with eating disordered behavior. If you have a friend or relative that may have an eating disorder, encourage them to get help for the ED and especially the underlying issues. The more you deal with the real issues beneath, the less you’ll be prone to a relapse.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

To be honest, I haven’t read anything ED focused recently in YA. But trust me, as soon as I’m finished with my current manuscript, I’ll be binging (pun totally intended) on a big stack of ED YA novels to help me with a future story. Here’s what I do remember as a teen though and even from some things I see in the media today: that eating disorders are something that sweep you off your feet as a kid, then you get help and you’re fine. It’s just not that easy. Kids/teens with eating disorders can recover and relapse again and again until they figure it out. And sometimes it carries over or comes back well into adulthood and I promise you that we’re too quiet about that. I think it’s because sometimes eating disorders are glamorized a bit or seen as something interesting to have, because sick, skinny, and sad equals interesting? I’m not sure the allure but I do know there’s nothing glamorous about a grown woman in college puking up cake and boyfriend trouble into her sink or a new mom with a post-baby body throwing up dinner in the toilet. So people really, really need to know that it doesn’t always end there. Society tends to talk about and highlight the image of young ED people while they’re in the worst part of their sickness, or when they’re just getting out of it. If we talked to the celebrities that have been vocal in their past about where they’re at today, I guarantee you they’d talk about how they still struggle with these issues—probably on a daily basis.

One other thing: you won’t be able to identify a bulimic by her weight. I’ve been underweight a couple times but for the most part, I’ve been the same size as a lot of my peers. Not that I knew that. I look at pictures from my teen and college years and it kind of blows my mind. I looked great. Who knew!? (answer: not me)

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

I just wanted to throw this out there in case I haven’t stressed it enough. Bulimia and eating disorders are not just a physical disease. Don’t just write a character that talks about being fat and gets skinny because she stops eating, or starts throwing up. Have a back-story for your character—how did they get there? What purpose is the ED serving for the character? What other issues are they masking and what new issues are popping up because of it? And for the love of Adam Levine, don’t write a final scene with your YA MC healed after a month or so, laughing in a bikini eating cookies and potato chips with her friends like it’s no big whoop. That’s just not gonna happen.

If you are in crisis, need info, or want to know where to find treatment or a therapist in your area:

National Eating Disorder Association (Referral Helpline): 1-800-931-2237

RAINN (Rape and Incest National Network): 1-800-656-HOPE

If anyone ever has any questions on my post or experiences, you can reach me through the contact form on my blog: http://amiallenvath.wordpress.com

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