Louisa Rae Hobbs, 50, is obsessed with food. It's the source of a lifelong battle with eating disorders and exercise addiction. But a near-death experience -- and a trip that took her out of her routine -- put Hobbs on a path to being "clean and sober." She writes about the trip in her book "Holy Gym." She spoke with Huff/Post50 associate editor Anthonia Akitunde. Here is her story in her own words:
I’m 50 but I feel like a 13-year-old who has issues with her body. At a very young age I saw my mother and father give my older sister -- whom I idolized -- a hard time for being on the chubby side. Chubbiness is something that runs in my family -- I think I would be a good 20 pounds heavier than what I should be. I remember feeling like in order to get along with my parents, I needed to stay skinny.
It was the only way I felt I could be loved. My parents didn’t love my older sister because she was chubby. My mother would yell at her; they put her on diet pills when she was a 10-year-old. I remember seeing these bottles of pills that they would have her on to lose weight. The word “diet” was just engrained in my head at a very young age. They were always watching. I thought, “If my sister is on a diet, I have to be on a diet too.”
My eating disorder started when I was 8 or 9 years old -- I would eat, but I would only chew and then spit it out. By the time I was 11 years old, I wasn’t eating, and at 13, I was grossly underweight and anorexic. I put weight on in high school, but I always had issues with eating.
I was in college for five years; it took me a little longer to graduate mostly because my eating disorder got in the way during my junior year. I didn’t drop out, but my grades really suffered because I became obsessed with food. It overtakes you. It’s like any addiction, whether it's alcohol or pills or gambling; it becomes your best friend, it becomes everything you think about. I was in a sorority and I had sorority sisters who had eating disorders. The bulimia really started then -- instead of starving myself, I was able to eat as much as I wanted and just throw it up.
After awhile I became both anorexic and bulimic. I was doing a combination of just not eating and then the little bit that I would eat, I would throw up.
You don’t have that much money when you’re in college and even though I had a job, I started writing a lot of bad checks just to support my food habit. My checking account was through my parents; through my bad check writing they realized I had this problem. When I went home after graduating, they put me in the hospital in the psychiatric ward for a behavior-modification type program. I was in the hospital for three months. I was 82 lbs -- I was a walking skeleton.
I was scared at first. At first I thought, “Oh my God, I need to find a way to get my food and binge and purge.” Your life is not yours for the next three months; your life is under a doctor's microscope. You’re in a locked-down psych ward with people who have tried to commit suicide. They were feeding you three meals a day and you couldn’t go to the bathroom for two hours after you ate. If you had to go to the bathroom, you had a social worker with you -- the door was not closed in the bathroom, you couldn’t throw up. It was scary. By the time I left, I felt good and I felt safe.
But a couple of years after the program, I decided I want to eat. I didn’t want to be anorexic again and I didn’t want to be bulimic. The only thing I could think to do was to exercise -- that would then give me permission to eat. And that’s when the exercise addiction sort of replaced my eating addiction. In my late 20s and early 30s I became addicted to exercise. It was something I was doing three, four, sometimes five hours a day, doing it for a couple of hours before work and then spending three hours after work at the gym. I realize there are professional athletes and people who absolutely love to exercise. I am so impressed with the fact that they can do this. But I hate exercising because I take it to such an extreme. My body hurts, but I’m not listening to my body -- I keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it.
I got married in my late 20s and my husband Stan knew that I had these addictions, but I was seeing a therapist at the time and he figured that as long as I was seeing a therapist it would work its way out.
At one point I thought, “If I could just get pregnant, I will allow myself to eat” and it will break the pattern and I could get back to a clean and sober place, sort of like when I was in the hospital. We tried IVF three times and it didn’t work. I wasn’t binging and purging at the time when I was going through the IVF treatments. I was exercising a lot, but I was eating because you have to do everything to get your body prepared to conceive. They don’t know why, there wasn’t a clear-cut reason for why I couldn’t get pregnant other than an eating disorder, but my weight was fine at the time, I had no vitamin deficiencies. It just didn’t take.
I never had that time to get pregnant and to recalibrate my thinking. The exercise addiction just played in combination with the bulimia. It was hard to be both bulimic and then exercise, because you don’t have any energy, so I went back to the bulimia. That’s how I spent the bulk of my 40s, up until 2008 when I was 48 years old. I was a serious bulimic, purging morning, noon and night. I was a functional bulimic. I have a good job, I’m a director at a PR agency, which is a pretty important position, but you’re able to weave it in.
It’s a secret that you keep. When you have a food addiction, food is something that is very stressful for you. It’s just not something that comes naturally. Everything that you put into your mouth is a stressor. I was able to eat enough just so I could maintain.
I started getting really bad stomach cramps, so I thought that I needed a colonoscopy. During the clean-out process, I had so little calcium in my body that I went into a hypocalcemic state where your body freezes. Your body starts curling up. Your hands, your feet, your face -- they all start contracting. It was in the middle of the night, I knew there was something seriously wrong when my legs started going numb and then I saw my muscles start to clench and tighten.
By the time my husband got me to the hospital, I was almost in cardiac arrest. It was that life-threatening experience that really got me to a place where I thought, “I have to get a hold of my eating disorder, I have to eat like a normal human being.” I came out of that and I did start to eat normally and I got back on track with my doctors and my therapist.
It’s a life-long addiction. It’s like alcohol: You’re always an alcoholic, I’m always a bulimic. I take it day by day.
You feel so bad at the end of it. It’s not sustainable. You just have to talk yourself off that cliff. And you deal with it through a support network. I take Xanax because I do tend to have panic attacks; the medicine really helps me keep me on track. My husband talks to me when I’m obsessed about certain things. He is my very best friend and he’s my soul mate, but it’s my husband and food. It’s really hard to have friends. I have my gym friends but I only see them at the gym. They ask me to go out but I don’t. My meals are really important to me and I build my life around my meals. Putting any morsel of food in my mouth is really stressful. It’s really hard to do in front of people. I regret that. I think if I had more friends I would enjoy life more and I probably wouldn’t be so obsessed.
I am obsessed with food, but I’m not binging and purging. I’m eating three balanced meals, I’m not exercising three to four hours -- just once in the morning for an hour and once at night for an hour. I’ve been able to ratchet down the [amount] of exercise because my body is not as strong.
I’m 50 and you think that I would be wiser and I wouldn’t be quite as obsessed about it, but I don’t feel any differently than when I was in my youth. If you were to see me, I’m an average woman. I’m not this super beautiful person. I’m 110 pounds, I’m at a good weight. I consider myself to be a good-looking person, I’m feeling good about myself and I want to stay that way. I’ve been clean and sober now since March 6, 2008.
Louisa Rae Hobbs wrote "Holy Gym" (CreateSpace, 2012) about a two-week vacation out West that created great anxiety in her because it disrupted her rigorous twice-a-day exercise routine at the gym. The book documents how her personal journal -- along with the help of two doctors and a loving husband -- saved her life.