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Fall seven times, stand up eight.
-Japanese Proverb

Our Story

Why I Care

My name is Sarah Elizabeth Mason.  I started Payson Road because I suffered from Bulimia Nervosa for more than half my life. It took me over 20 years to get to the point where I could share my story. 

I believe every body that suffers from an eating disorder has a unique story. But I also believe a common factor largely overlooked is a self-imposed or pre-conditioned restrictive thought pattern impairing ones ability to take a real bite out of life--if you will.

I promised myself I would use my experiences to help others avoid suffering as I have.  What Iíve tried to do with Payson Road is to guide people back to the things that at their core inspire them.  We take the focus off their weight, yes it is an issue and society certainly plays a role in perpetuating the problem, however I feel that to truly prevent eating disorders from continuing to grow in these vast numbers we need to get beyond the band-aid of the troubled body image and institute new programs that will help support people before the cut gets too deep.

We're all affected by social pressures but first and foremost, we're individuals with very different and very personal stories.

This is mine.

In order to talk to you about who I am today, I need to speak to you about who I was. So hereís a page out of my old life.

Sarah's Journal

"Home for the day. Sick with the flu, cold, broken appendage, whatever. Get up. Straighten up the room and take a shower. Clean up the kitchen. Watch TV. Feel hungry. Look in refrigerator. Nothing. Hunger increases. Get dressed. Go to the supermarket. Buy box of brownie mix, bag of Cape Cod potato chips and jar of honey roasted peanuts, strawberries, and grapes. Answer a call on my cell. Ė long functioning conversation that involves laughter and lucid thought. Hang up. Get home. Donít even bother putting groceries away. Pull out mixing bowls. Phone rings - Once again, well-functioning conversation. Show off my multi-task skills by mixing the brownie batter while conversing. Clean up. Go watch TV. Eat everything I bought except the fruit. Wait a few minutes. Get up. Go to the kitchen. Methodically clean mixing bowl. Sprint upstairs. Get a ponytail holder for hair. Strip down to underwear while running back downstairs leaving clothing strewn across the room. Go to bathroom. Throw up several times. Completely sanitize bathroom. Go upstairs. Take shower. Walk downstairs. Go back to kitchen. Take out strawberries and grapes from refrigerator and glass of seltzer water. Sit down in living room. Sink into chair for a few hours until the craving succumbs me once again. Repeat process. ď

This ritual shrouded my life for over 20 years. I would get this feeling that would permeate me. All I could think about was getting in the car and getting that brownie mix, or whatever my food drug of choice was at the time. I was completely focused on that one goal. Nothing else mattered. It was as if I were programmed by one of those hypnotists who planted the image of food in my head and once I heard a certain word I would be compelled to stop what I was doing and rush to the supermarket.

Going to the supermarket is a simple routine for most people.  For people with eating disorders, it's similar to a drug addict walking into a crack house. When I finally got my fix, I was relieved, saved. But that feeling didn't last long.  It only took a few minutes before I starting getting the itch. The clock was ticking on my time frame in terms of how long I had to get rid of that feeling of guilt for all Iíd eaten.  In only a few minutes that clock would run out and my mind would freeze.  Then it was all about how fast I could get to the toilet.  Although it was not a frantic response, it was very systematic.

The cleaning in particular always walked hand in hand with the binging and purging. As time went on I grew increasingly more obsessive compulsive. Yet it was unbalanced. If I left a few pairs of pants hanging over my bedroom chair the bed would remain unmade. But if I felt compelled to put the pants away, Iíd have to reorganize my jewelry boxes.

This up and down all or nothing cycle trapped me and kept me from truly living my life. I functioned to such a high level that neither my friends nor family were aware of what I was doing. But the shame of it was an unbearable burden.  I wasnít able to do anything I truly wanted to do consistently.

My early experiences with therapy were a disaster. If you saw the film, GIRL INTERRUPTED, then you saw one of the similar institutions I briefly bunked in. I was girl interrupted and girl alone as I was the only one on the unit with an eating disorder. They had no idea what to do with me. They gave me a long list of statistics and facts and explanations for Bulimia and Anorexia--based on not much.  There was hardly any research at the time.  They lumped me together with other girls my age who were paranoid schizophrenics, manic depressive, suicidal, and drug dependant.  

It was frightening and isolating. Nobody wanted to get to know what was really going on with me. They just wanted to medicate and study me.  When I left Iíd gained no tools to help guide my way out of this endless cycle.  I gained no insight into why I had become bulimic. They told me I was obsessed with being thin because I wanted my father's attention.  Oh okay, thanks very much.  Can I go home now?   That wasn't it.  If I was so obsessed with being thin, how come I didn't lose weight?  You don't lose much weight when you're bulimic.  In fact, you tend to gain a little because it throws your metabolism so out of whack.  In any case, you stay about the same.  This is why its so hide to mask bulimia. 

Weight is never the only reason, even with anorexics. For me the reasons were far more complicated.  They involved deeper concepts like, restriction, guilt, and fear.  The problem with my so-called treatment was that the doctors never bothered to get to know me.  How could they possible get down to the nitty gritty of my disease if they didn't even know who I was?

I was introduced to Bulimia by a friend while attending a summer dance institute.  We were both 15.  She was so savvy and worldly.  She came from Ohio! I respected and admired her, so I followed her lead.  Truth is, I was just waiting for an addiction to come knockin on my door.  Bulimia happened to be the one I let in.  I think more than anything I was searching for something, anything to make me feel whole. 

When I was a child I was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. I had no fear, no inhibitions. But something changed as I moved into adolescence.  Soon after my 13th birthday my father left. It devastated me. Things were changing all around me. Letís face it, 13 ainít pretty as it is. Middle school was a nightmare. Everything was changing so rapidly. I had emotions Iíd never met. body parts I didn't know existed. I just wanted someone to help me figure it all out. But my father wasnít around, my older sister and brother (who I was incredibly close to and relied on for support) were away at school and I was left alone with my handicapped mother.  My mother had been stricken with polio when she was four years old which left her legs paralyzed.  She walks with the aid of crutches and braces.

My mother is an incredible woman. She's truly my hero. I've never questioned her love for me but being left alone at thirteen with a disabled parent wasn't easy.  It wasn't so much that having a disabled parent was difficult, although it does have its challenges.  The primary problem for me was that I felt that I couldn't acknowledge that life was different because I had a disabled parent. Any normal teenage activity became an affront to everyone. I couldnít rebel like a normal teenager. How could I after all that my mother had been suffered? Which I might add included the death of her father when she was 14, her brother's suicide, polio, breast cancer, and a broken marriage. How could anyone rebel against all that without going straight to hell?  That was my teenage perspective.

I felt very much alone and unable to express myself. It was easier to be a victim than deal with the guilt of surpassing my mother physically. After awhile I started to doubt my capabilities--something that I've struggled with my whole life.  I fear the simplest of challenges despite the fact that I am fully capable of tackling anything.  For example, when I was 14 I got my first job at a local ice cream shop.  I was terrified to go to work, overwhelmed at the thought of all those different combinations of ice cream sundaes I would have to make. Could I handle it?  Oh God, they want jimmies too! 

This fear came up from the ashes of my parents divorce.  Divorce has such a huge impact on people's lives although at the time I remember everyone treating it like it was no big deal--especially my father.  Movin on!  So many negative things surfaced. For one, I did not receive the kind of support I needed to reinforce the idea of believing in myself.  I desperately needed at least one of my parents to tell me that I could accomplish anything I wanted to do in life. I never heard that from either of them.  So there it was, Dad off with his new wife, in his new life.  Mum was going through incredible stress and pain herself.  My adolescence was inadvertently forgotten about.  Unfortunately it still happened.  So, there was Bulimia, knock knock knockin on Sarah's door.  You wanna give me comfort food?  Come on in!  Like any addiction--ultimately empty comfort.

My head is spinning thinking about everything that was going on at the time.  Psychologically I took on my mother's handicap as another coping method.  If I was injured, I wouldn't have to stick around to watch myself fail. My professional dance career ended this way.  Instead of picking myself back up after being injured, I used it as an excuse to quit.  Of course, I didn't have anyone in my cheering section saying, "Sarah, you can do this, get back out there! I believe in you!"   Choosing a career as a professional dancer didn't go over big in my family.  College, now that's what they're talkin about!  So, I changed my direction.  Turned out, college was the best thing for me.  Although I have never completely gotten over quitting dance. Nevertheless, college was a great experience.  I was Bulimia free!  Being at college gave me such an incredible opportunity to unearth new outlets to express myself.  I discovered new talents and rediscovered a love that I was equally as passionate about as dance, writing. My healthy appetite for life was being satisfied in every way.  I felt confident in my abilities. As all good  New Englanders will tell ya, it's bound to rain eventually. 

I graduated in1990 and couldn't find a job in my field.  It was a cruel time for Generation Xers. We'd watched our predecessor get rich in the 80s so naturally we assumed we would reap the same rewards.  Nuh uh.  The minute I put my foot on the curb the recession hit.  I can not deny that a huge contributing factor was my own anxiety.  The confidence I momentarily found in college was lost.  I think it's a common pattern for people with eating disorders, and other addictions.  There are times that your life is stress free, going well, then things change and what do you have to cling to but your old patterns of coping. 

My twenties were a blur of a thousand jobs and countless generation X clichťs. I embraced 30 like a heating pad after a dance rehearsal but it brought little comfort. Nothing changed with age. I just got carded less frequently.  These years of a thousand McJobs taught me nothing of the reasons why I beat my body up the way I did. I had been focusing on what the doctors told me-- that my problems stemmed from the lack of attention I was getting from my father and a unhealthy body image. I wasn't able to see the real cause. I found ways to escape by putting all my energy and attentions into my boyfriends. Then when I wasn't getting fulfillment or purpose out of my own life, I'd repeat the same pattern of binging and purging. It became an addiction.  It was my secret way of giving myself what I was missing. Symbolically it was as if I was not being fed and had to binge to make up for literally starving. But then I'd inevitably feel guilty and have to throw it up. Guilty not because I feared weight gain but guilty for feeding myself. Guilty for taking care of my needs.

I had so much energy and talent festering like a volcano ready to erupt. But it was mixed up with so much fear and guilt. On the one hand, when I was able to express myself through dance, or writing, I was free and invincible. It was ecstasy. But, on the other, I was constantly worried that I couldn't do anything or wasn't good enough. I think some of that fear was that I might be good enough.  Fear of success has always been an issue for me. Somehow I've always been afraid that if I was flourishing something terrible would happen. My teenage mind believed that if I was to dance, or fly or do anything considered to be "self-indulgent" (which, if you grow up in Boston means pretty much everything), I would be like my father and subsequently be hurting my mother. Conflict over taking care of ones needs is really at the heart of it all.

I'm not attributing blame to the people in my life.  I take responsibility for the paths I've chosen.  However, I think that it's crucial for one to understand where they came from and be honest about it.  Be honest yet have compassion for yourself and your mistakes.  It's the only way to heal.  

Of course the cultural issues of our society play a substantial role in eating disorders. Growing up in Boston had a lot to do with my personal issues of being afraid to take care of my needs. This concept is not too popular there. It's considered being self-indulgent or selfish. It might be the WASP credo, or the conservative Irish Catholic guilt thing. Whatever it is, it's a huge pressure to have thrust upon you as a teenager when all you really want to do is be a teenager.

When I moved to Los Angeles the pendulum swung the other way. LA is the self-indulgence capital of the world. Nobody seems to feel guilty about anything. This was liberating in many ways but I've got to believe that happiness lies in the balance between the two coasts. I don't know, Iowa?  Maybe it is heaven. 

Unfortunately I have not had a successful relationship with the medical world in regards to my eating disorder.  I've experienced a lot of discrimination.  As soon as doctors would find out I was Bulimic, they'd stop searching for the problem. In one instance, after being rushed to a hospital ER in agonizing pain from almost binging myself to death, the doctors refused to treat me.  They had found out I was Bulimic and felt that it would be better for me to ride out the pain.  They were readily prepared to pump my stomach had it been a drug overdose but felt it was my fault. I believe, "you've brought this on yourself dear", was the doctor's exact phrase. Wow, it's a good thing they don't say that to drug and alcohol addicts.  The mortality rate would be enormous.  Luckily, I survived with a bruised ego and stomach pains.  But I have heard similar stories where the ending was not so happy.

Despite all of my negative experiences with the medical and psycho-medical community, I do believe that there are many professionals today who care.  When I moved to Los Angeles I met a woman who helped changed the course of my life.  She became my mentor/therapist/guide. For the first time a professional treating me was interested in learning about who I was beyond the symptoms of my disease.  She helped me sort through the fears, the guilt and eventually, I rediscovered the little girl who had big dreams.

That was just the beginning of the process of recovery.  It's been a long long journey.  It's taken me a lifetime to regain the spirit I had as a child. It wasnít a revelation. I didnít wake up one morning and say, ďThatís it, Iím done with this bulimia thing.Ē  Doesn't happen that way.  And I ain't gonna lie, I still struggle.  Which is something I've had a really hard time coming to terms with.  When I started to understand the reasons I became Bulimic, I assumed I would magically recover.  Oh no.  It's not that easy.  I beat myself up for that.  Here I am running this organization to help people with eating disorders...I'm a fraud!  I really felt that way.  I was ashamed to disclose the fact that I hadn't crossed over to the "other side".  Truth is, there isn't two sides. It's not that black and white--which is a concept very hard for Bulimics to grasp.  We're either a mess, or perfect, nothing in between.

What has helped me tremendously in my healing process is accepting the fact that I will always be Bulimic.  I may not be actively binging and purging but I will always have to deal with the potential of that happening.  There will always be stress and if you've been coping with stress the same way for twenty years, you're gonna rely on what you know.  It's really not that difficult to understand.  I see being Bulimic as having a chronic illness or addiction and as such, you can treat chronic illnesses.  I've had to renegotiate my relationship with food.  And it's hard!  You can live without alcohol or drugs but everyone has to eat to live.  Who wants to plan out all their meals and give up their favorite trigger foods?  Not me! But I've had to make choices.  I've chosen life vs. purgatory. 

The summer before my parents divorce was my last moment of innocence.  I was twelve and spending my days and nights at a camp in Western Massachusetts. At night we sang songs around the campfire.  One in particular I remember vividly.  It was Joni Mitchellís song ďThe Circle GameĒ.  As I listened to one of the counselors sing the words I had visions of my life to come.  I thought about the future and all of my dreams.  Where would I travel, who would I love, what would I be?  I had such hope. 

As the circle moved round the seasons my life became a continuous row of hurdles.  Always a mountain to climb.  Every day the mountain would grow and the dreams that I had would seem farther away and more out of reach.  Each step I took seemed harder and I would fall and pick myself up never seeming to cover much ground.  All I wanted was to reach the top of that hill.

Looking back at these twenty some years since I first heard that song, I'm reminded of so many good things.  Where I've traveled.  Who I've loved.  What Iíve produced.  Who I've become.  As I reflect, a sweet sadness overcomes me.  Like the song says, my dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.  But I see myself, and the circle of my life and I realize Iíve finally reached the top of that self-imposed hill.  Yet the journey continues.  And that's cool.

Theyíll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
Weíre captive on the carousel of time
We canít return we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game  

(from the Circle Game by Joni Mitchell)



Website designed and administered by Sarah Mason. Website Logo and  Graphics Designed by Tahara Hasan. Payson Road was created Copyright © June 2, 2000.  All rights reserved. Copyright © 2012 [Payson Road]. 

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