Second Chance at Life and Love
by Jill Garaffa
From “Empowering Transformations for Women”
“Will You Marry Me?” Ari asked as we waited for his plane to depart. The whole thing was surreal; a scene out of a movie, or someone else’s life. I stared at the ring in disbelief.
It was the question I thought would never come. Still single and auditioning potential husbands for the past two decades, I’d resigned myself to the belief that, clearly, there must be something wrong with me. For years, I was haunted by images of my future self as a grouchy old house frau who wears a bathrobe lives in a house filled with cats.
Most amazing was the fact that this gorgeous, blue-eyed man kneeling before me, ring in hand, was my first love from high school: The one that got away; the one I never forgot.
The touch stone to which all other men were unconsciously and unfairly compared, Ari’s proposal confirmed that my dating life had finally come full circle. We’d re-connected on Facebook a year prior to this moment, only a few months after I’d celebrated my twenty-first anniversary of recovery from bulimia.
Soon after reconnecting and still reeling from the miracle of it all, I traveled up to my attic to dig out the dusty box containing my old journals from high school. It was as if I’d entered a time machine. My eyes danced across the pages and memories of the night we’d met, our first date, our first kiss, the prom, and how we’d met each other’s parents, all came back to life.
Memories of the beach, our friends, parties and concerts shined through like photographs, highlighting our great times together, particularly the moments we knew it was love. Our connection was timeless. We were best friends, “soul-mates” we declared.
While blessed with a truly amazing connection, the pictures of us nonetheless carried with them an ugly reminder of the turmoil that raged inside of me at that time. Forgotten memories, buried long ago, resurfaced, and I found it hard to believe the person I was reading about now was actually me.
The entire time we dated in high school I was held hostage by an eating disorder. It had been a source of pain for us both. I remember the look of concern and helplessness on his face at times as he watched me struggle.
It all started when I turned twelve. A year punctuated with so many “firsts”—period, bra, boyfriend, kiss— it also marked a great deal of pain and loss for me. My best friend’s mom succumbed to cancer and, a year later, her dad took his own life. My older brother wasn’t around as much anymore…he’d fallen in love with the woman he eventually married. My middle brother left to join the Navy, and I lost several friends as our changing interests caused us to grow apart.
I started over eating because eating made me feel better. I didn’t know I was eating to cope with anxiety, I just knew that I gained weight like it was my job.
I remember feeling uncomfortable because my clothes no longer fit the same way. But I didn’t feel self-conscious until my father, in his misguided but loving parental attempt to shield me from the pain of any future rejection, uttered his infamous words: “If you’re fat, you will never have a boyfriend…boys don’t like fat girls—you need to lose weight!”
His words stung like acid. I didn’t know I was fat! My dad said it, not once, but many times. He fought with my mother and blamed her because I was getting “chubby”. It was apparently a big deal. I felt like a disappointment. This led to another twelfth year “first”— my first diet.
Not long after my declaration to diet, as we sat in science class, our teacher dimmed the lights and started a movie projector. What unfolded was a story about a girl with bulimia. I sat at my desk, enthralled. I had never heard of this condition. Make yourself throw up? As I watched the movie, which was intended to scare us, my wheels began to turn. “That’s brilliant.” I thought. “What a great idea. I can eat anything I want and not gain weight!”
And, so it began. I went home that day after school, and vividly remember eating a yogurt and deliberately making myself throw up just to see if I could do it. Victorious, I declared this my new strategy. My life changed that day.
Throughout the next several years, binging and purging grew from occasional escape to regular habit. I’d steal, sneak and hide food, all the while lying to my parents and making up stories about the missing food in the house. When I got my driver’s license and a job, things got even worse. I had money and complete freedom, and my “secret life” spiraled out of control.
I’d eat entire pizzas, dozens of donuts, and gallons of ice cream in one sitting. By the time I went away to college, I binged and purged an average of five times per day. It was no longer a habit—it was a lifestyle. The act itself became addictive. I was obsessed. I spent hours every day and hundreds of dollars every month on binging and purging.
Our of the Frying Pan, into the Fire…
Despite the chaos in my mind, my outward life appeared quite normal. My grades were excellent, and I had an active social life, filled with friends and activities. Yet I spent every day addicted to this disgusting habit—I couldn’t stop. While I knew intellectually that I had a serious problem, my combined sense of apathy, guilt and humiliation allowed no willingness on my part to do anything about it.
My hair started to fall out; my skin was dry and flaky. Always exhausted, I had dark circles under my eyes, constant mouth sores, and was often uncomfortably bloated. If anyone asked, I was always “fine.” I later learned that “fine” is an acronym for “f’d up, insecure, neurotic and emotional.”
I started to throw up blood. My heartbeat became irregular and I had dizzy spells. I was only nineteen, but felt like I was ninety-nine. I developed a real fear of dying. I fantasized that my parents or college roommates would find me dead, slumped over the toilet bowl. The thought of hurting them broke my heart. That just wasn’t how I wanted to go.
Eventually, something deep inside of me shifted. I was faced with my own truth: I was an addict. Addicted to food like other people are addicted to drugs. I really wanted to get better but I couldn’t stop. I knew I would die if I didn’t make some serious changes. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone.
I sat on a bench at the beach and watched the seagulls and the sun set, and breathed in the sound of the waves. It was a moment of peace; just me and God there on the beach.
I prayed hard for help and a sense of calm came over me. I knew, with absolute certainty and clarity that I was done with this way of life. I promised God that, if he let me live and get through this, I would make something of myself.
Two days later I entered a treatment facility. I began to untangle the mess of dysfunctional and distorted thoughts that had taken over my mind. I realized I wasn’t alone. I learned how to live without using food or other substances. I learned that pain is our greatest teacher, and that to numb it only prolongs it.
After leaving the treatment center, I became very active in twelve-step recovery programs. For many years after, I not only attended meetings, I led them as well. In addition, I sponsored women, performed service, celebrated anniversaries, and attended conventions.
One day, many years later, I met a woman at a party who called herself a “life coach.” I’d never heard of such a thing at that time. She offered me a complimentary session and I became fascinated.
While my recovery program was working well, other areas of my life needed a tune up. I still struggled with clutter, finances, and time management—I was constantly busy and overcommitted. Though in constant motion, there was no movement forward, and no balance. I immediately hired her.
After six months of weekly conversations with this woman, my life took a 180 degree turn. So impressed with the outcome, I decided to get certified and become a life coach myself. Now involved in the world of coaching for more than seven years, I am humbled and grateful at how far I’ve come, and who I’ve become.
Through the experience of coaching I managed to get to the core of what was going on. I investigated my view of the world, my beliefs and my values, and confronted my fears. I uncovered what I like to call “blind spots” in how I was relating to the world, with both food and life in general. I felt calm yet powerful, and I began to take action in all the areas of my life that mattered to me. I was empowered.
Ari and I parted ways at the age of nineteen when both of us agreed that we would embrace the opportunity to go away to college and fully experience life. We each journeyed into the world, lived our separate lives and eventually lost touch with each other. Then, one day, God brought us back together again, better and stronger than when we were teenagers.
The woman I grew to be bears little resemblance to the insecure teenager I’d been when we first dated. Today I own my beauty, power and my qualities. Clear about who I am, I possess a confidence and wisdom that wasn’t present before.
After a twenty-four year separation, here was Ari, on bended knee, ring in hand, proposing marriage a year after our first date. The ending—and beginning!—of our story. With the confidence and enthusiasm of absolute certainty, I looked into his gorgeous blue eyes, smiled, and replied, “Yes, absolutely yes—I will marry you!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A certified professional coach specializing in health & wellness, Jill holds a B.S. in Occupational Therapy from Kean University, and formal training program certificates in life coaching from both Comprehensive Coaching U and The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching. Jill’s career as an occupational therapist reached a turning point in 2002 when she transformed her passion for health into a full time coaching business to help prevent the kinds of conditions she’d treated as a therapist. Jill is the owner and founder of Seeds of Change Health & Wellness Coaching, which provides lifestyle coaching services to individuals and groups, from families to corporations.