I have decided to publish a chapter from the book that I began to write in 2011. All of these chapters are extremely personal and tell the story of some of the things I have struggled with my entire life - self esteem, men, love, womanhood, beauty, career - and by writing about them, I have been able to purge my soul of at least a few of its demons.
Funny how it is for some of us, that only by bearing our souls are we able to overcome our intense shyness. This is the paradox I have dealt with for decades as a performer. I am terrified before I go on stage, but something happens to me once I am under the spotlight; I am not comfortable until I have revealed every square inch of my vulnerability to a room full of strangers. I will never fully understand why this is so, but I do believe that it is not at all uncommon with artists.
I want to say that I hope you enjoy this chapter, but that would seem out of place, for bulimia is not a happy topic of discussion. It is still spoken of in hushed tones socially, and it is in many ways a disease of secrecy. Again, though, for me it is the revelation of these secrets that provide the path to healing and liberation.
Finding Ivan Elias as a bass player to replace John Siegler was a real score. When I first auditioned him in 1979 my band already had another bass player in mind, but I chose Ivan. He was the same age as the older players, but his style of dress was young and hip. He wore brightly colored skin tight jeans, and this quickly put pressure on my bandmates to update their wardrobes from the baggy jeans and plaid flannel shirts of the 70's post-hippie era, to the new wave look of Capezio character shoes and Bandolero jeans from Bloomindale's. They were terrified that he would steal all the available women everywhere we played. I was thrilled to have such an attractive onstage foil.
Ivan was tall, dark and extremely handsome. He was shy and of a sympathetic nature, but when he drank, he would shed the quiet persona to reveal a wild man lurking inside; hence his nickname "Mr. Party". I wondered how he kept such a slim physique for someone who drank so much beer. One afternoon during the early spring of 1980, he would reveal his secret.
We were touring through the south, and had stopped the RV at a truck to buy milkshakes and sandwiches to go. As we were finishing our lunch, Ivan told us that he was going to go into the bathroom, stick his finger down his throat, and throw everything up, chocolate shake and all. He said this as if he were telling us what he was going to wear that night, it was that casual. We should have been disgusted, but somehow, we found it completely fascinating. None of us had ever heard about anybody doing anything remotely like this before.
Ivan told us that he made himself vomit all the time so that he would not have to worry about eating too much and gaining weight. Out of curiosity, a few of us took turns making trips to the tiny plastic bathroom, shoving our fingers down our throats as Ivan had instructed. I remember Vinny, my drummer at the time, emerging from the bathroom with his arms raised above his head in triumph, like an Olympic athlete. We applauded him wildly, as if he had accomplished something skillful that had required real talent. It never occurred to any of us that what we were doing was in any way depraved or unhealthy; we were that naive. Ivan beamed with pride, so pleased to have passed down this all-important ritual. I don't know if any of my other bandmates would ever try it again, I somehow doubt it, but I was hooked - and Ivan knew it.
After that day, anytime we'd go out to dinner with the band, Ivan and I would whisper to each other after eating that it was time to visit the bathroom and do the deed. We would cover for each other's absence. If I was taking too long to make the trip, Ivan would lean over and say, "You'd better go soon, before it's too late." The key to a successful purge is to do it as soon as you can after the meal. It's faster and easier. It doesn't require as much of an effort to bring up every bit of food. Oh, the secrets of the trade...
I had wanted to lose some weight that spring, as I had put on a few pounds after I got married during the summer of 1979, most likely from drinking beer with my husband Bernie, who loved beer. I had never been much of a beer drinker before I met him, and the carbohydrates were just killing me. In an article written by Georgia Christgau that had just come out in the Village Voice, she mentioned a small roll of fat over my pants that was visible as I bent to the side while performing at the Bitter End. The article questioned whether or not I was even considered cute anymore because of this. I was utterly humiliated. My manager was extremely upset about it too, even angry; not at the journalist, but at me. Suddenly, there was incredible pressure placed upon me to be thin, to lose the weight, and do it very quickly...like yesterday. I was forced into a kind of damage control mode.
During much of my life, I had been 10 pounds overweight, and for some reason those 10 pounds were hard to lose without some kind of extreme effort. On the RV that spring day, while rolling through the south, Ivan had given me the key to the greatest gift of all; I was finally able to exert control over my weight without much effort on my part. If I threw up every meal that I put into my stomach, the weight would just pour off, and pour off it did.
It was something worthy of celebration to find a public bathroom that had a single toilet with a door that locked, and that didn't have stalls for other people. It was like throwing up in your own home. Sometimes I would even take off my clothes so that I wouldn't splatter anything on them as I spewed the contents of my stomach into the bowl. On occasion, the vomit would almost fly out of my mouth, causing the water to splash into my face and hair. I had to be careful to clean up afterwards, so that no one would be the wiser. I couldn't very well be expected to keep my secret if I returned to the table with food in my hair or stains on my shirt.
In hotel rooms, it was common for me to throw up in the shower as I got ready for the gig. I remember the intense panic I experienced on several occasions when the drain became clogged and I was forced to use my hands as a makeshift plunger. The water level in the tub would rise quickly, and I would stand helplessly with the putrid mixture lapping against my ankles. The idea of having to call maintenance was mortifying, although one day that would happen to me, and I would have to make up some phenomenal story about how I was sick and for some reason it hadn't occurred to me to use the toilet to vomit.
My rapid weight loss was noticeable to other people right away. The band told me how great I looked. I don't know if any of them besides Ivan knew the secret behind my success. It never occurred to me to feel paranoid, although I would be years later. My manager was proud of me, thinking that I had found some sort of heroic inner strength and willpower. I felt fabulous. I felt beautiful, empowered and in control. The more compliments I received, the less I thought about the reality of what I was doing, and I became a master at burying the feelings of disgust and self-loathing I had about what I was doing. I was pleasing the people I needed to please, and I was being praised for it. I wasn't sure if there was a name for what I was doing, and I didn't care. It was my own private hell as far as I was concerned.
It would be years before I would see a movie on TV about a woman who was doing the same thing, living a secret life in bathrooms, having an intimate relationship with the toilet. That woman would be Princess Diana. I wanted so much to watch this movie. I was living in Germany at the time, and I was hoping that my boyfriend would not be home during the part of the movie that dealt with Diana's binging and purging. Up to this point, he had no clue, even though he had been living with me for years. If he saw someone else doing this in a movie, I was certain that he would figure it out and that the jig would be up. There was just too much at stake.
I had managed to hide my problem from every boyfriend. Looking back at this now, I have no clue how I fooled any of them for so long, even visiting fancy restaurants and being a dinner guest in other people's homes. I was an expert at vomiting quietly, neatly and quickly, removing all traces of vomit from toilet seats, floors, and walls before emerging lipsticked and perfectly coiffed from the bathroom.
For 27 years I did this. On occasion, I even had nightmares about not being able to find places to vomit and having to keep the food in my stomach. I would wake up in a panic, before I would realize that it had all been a dream. I would gauge what I would eat in a restaurant depending on what kind of bathroom was available to me, and the degree of privacy I would have. I loved finding bathroom stalls that would go all the way down to the floor, as you find in bathrooms all over Europe, or in some of the finer hotels in America. I even threw up into plastic bags in the attic of a building where I lived, if I couldn’t find the privacy that I needed in the bathroom. I threw up outside, around the back of buildings, in the bushes behind clubs: anywhere I felt it would be possible to get away with it.
Sometimes the act of vomiting could not be accomplished so easily. I would have to drink lots of soda or water to speed things along. I began to develop a callous over the knuckle of my index finger on my right hand from jamming my hand against my teeth. I would tell everyone that I had burned myself. Whatever it took to keep my little secret hidden, I would do it, even if it meant lying through my teeth.
Speaking of my teeth, the eroded enamel of my rear molars would mystify my dentists - all except one, who instantly had my number. He asked me flat out in front of his assistant if I had some sort of eating disorder. I wish I could have seen my face at that moment. I have no clue how I kept it together, but I felt as if I had been caught stealing, trying to leave a store with merchandise stuffed in my bag. The humiliation was intense, because I knew that by this time, people were becoming aware of eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. It was going to be harder and harder to hide.
People would begin to time my bathroom visits, or realize that I always seemed to excuse myself and scurry off after I was done eating. Maybe they would listen at the bathroom door for suspicious sounds or check for traces of vomit on my breath, the way people check for the smell of alcohol. I was becoming paranoid about what I was doing.
In 2003, my son was one year old. I was caring for my aunt in Florida at this time, who had Alzheimer's. The three of us were living together while my husband remained in our home in Nashville. More and more, it occurred to me that I could not keep this up. My son was walking now, and he was bound to find me bent over the toilet with my hand jammed down my throat, or worse yet, in the process of vomiting. Suppose he fell or something, and I wouldn't be able to hear him calling for help because the bathroom door was closed?
One night, I decided that I was going to have to stop, if not for myself, for him. I began to tell everyone I knew about my bulimia, and how I was determined to stop. For some reason, I found this to be therapeutic, because it had been such a deep dark secret for so long. There was such great freedom in my confession, and I knew that by telling people, I would be forced to change. I even went to see my doctor at the time, but he knew very little about bulimia. While he found my story compelling, he really had no clue what to do in order to help me. I had read quite a bit about bulimia on the Internet, so I told him that Prozac combined with counseling was the usual treatment, so he wrote me a prescription and gave me the name of a psychiatrist whose office was nearby.
When I found that I could not achieve orgasm while on Prozac, I quickly stopped taking it. My therapy was no more successful, as the psychiatrist ascertained that the relationship I had with my mother was at the route of my problem, and when my mother refused to therapy with me, I didn't see much of a point in continuing.
It would be at least another five years before I would quit completely. I rarely purged at home anymore, pretty much for lack of privacy as my son grew older, and my husband, who now knew everything, was living with me again. When I would take a cruise with my mother and my son, it would be a regular binge-purge holiday for me. I could enjoy elegant meals and room service, because I had a private toilet in my room. My mother would be napping or sleeping, and my son could easily be distracted with cartoons, or he too would be sleeping.
The last time I threw up on the ship, I used so much toilet paper to clean the bathroom that the toilet overflowed, staining the pristine marble floors, and seeping into the bedroom carpeting through the wall. I knew that I had really done it this time, and that I had clogged up the plumbing in the wall somewhere. There was no choice but to call maintenance.
The two men who came up to my stateroom had to open the wall and change the pipes behind the toilet, which were clogged with vomit mixed with the toilet paper I had used to clean up. I bowed my head in humiliation as I made up some story about how I had become seasick. They barely spoke English, and could have cared less, but I had become so paranoid about my problem over the years, that I just could not see things normally. Everything seemed obtuse. These men knew nothing, and yet I went through all these ridiculous motions just to hide what I had done as if it were the elephant in the room. After they left, the room still smelled foul, and it would for the rest of the trip. The once beautiful marble was now permanently stained from the acid. This would be the last time I would ever make myself vomit.
I went back a year later on the same ship for the last time. The smell was long gone and the marble had been replaced. It was as if it had never happened. I had caused so much trouble, not to mention expense. It was the first time I had ever seen the consequences of my actions affect complete strangers. I had clogged the pipes in my own home before, causing a plumber to have to knock a hole in the wall to fix it (praying that he wouldn't find vomit in there), but this time I was causing damage to property that did not belong to me.
I did not have a good time of that last cruise, because I was constantly being reminded of what I had done every time I stepped into that bathroom. For some reason, I never cared about the damage I had inflicted upon myself, because I would be the one paying for it in some way, but when it began to affect other people, I had to stop - and I did. Just like that. No drugs. No therapy.
After 27 years, I was finally able to see the ugliness and the humiliation of what had once been a normal part of my everyday life. After 27 years, I was free.
Ivan Elias died on June 4, 1996 of lung cancer that had spread to his spine and then to his brain. He was not a smoker, and he had quit drinking a few years before.
The last time I saw him was in January of 1994, a couple of days after the turn of the New Year. He was walking home from his job at Matt Uminov guitars, and we met on the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia Street, not far from where I had once lived. I had just moved back to the states after having spent four years in Germany, and I was just passing through the Village, showing my husband Teddy some of the landmarks of my youth. It was a fortuitous meeting, and I was more than happy to catch up with my old friend.
I had only seen Ivan once during the mid-eighties, and before that the last time I had seen him was when we played together. I will cherish this chance meeting forever, and because of it, the picture of him that I hold in my mind is one of a strong and beautiful man, brimming with life and good health. The memories I have of the gigs we played together at such a pivotal time in my life have overshadowed any thoughts of that afternoon on the RV. Ivan had unknowingly propelled my life in a direction where I would lose myself completely, but at the same time I would discover so many meaningful lessons along the way that would lead me back to where I stand today, as a healthy, wiser woman.
There was a point in my life when I realized that I had to accept the past, no matter how painful, as being a necessary component of the present. If I am happy with where I am today, then I must also embrace the road that brought me here.
This photo was taken in the bathroom of my suite aboard the MS Veendam, the same bathroom from my story, but during an earlier trip in December of 2004.