February 8, 2016 – Parent Insider
By Judy Holland
When Caroline Miller was a teen, she appeared to have it all: top grades, amazing SAT scores, swimming trophies and she was editor of the newspaper.
All this achievement culminated in a coveted prize — acceptance to Harvard.
But she had a dark secret, an eating disorder that was slowly destroying her.
“I was participating in life, but I wasn’t really alive,” recalls Miller. “I was going through the motions… but my real connections to others were starting to evaporate. I became a shell of myself.”
Bulimia: Bingeing, Purging, Laxatives, Extreme Exercise
Bulimia, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder involving episodes of bingeing and purging, sometimes laxatives and extreme exercise, was rarely discussed three decades ago. Getting into recovery was considered a rarity, if not impossible.
Miller Hid her Struggle with Bulimia
Miller wishes someone had noticed she was struggling with Bulimia as a ninth-grader at the National Cathedral School, in Washington, DC. While in the dining room one day, she noticed two girls — a “fast” competitive swimmer and a slender actress — eating large amounts of food. Miller followed them to the bathroom where she heard them encouraging each other to keep vomiting. The girls told her that bulimia was their secret, and one of them said she had learned it from her mother, who was a model.
It looked to Miller like there was nothing to lose. But she had no idea of the battle ahead. “Like any addictive behavior, I thought I could control it and I tried it for a while, and it worked for a while,” she says. “After a while, it began to control me. I couldn’t get enough food to binge and purge.” She would babysit, eating everything in the house, or grab food off the shelves in a grocery store. “It became very progressive, very much like alcoholism,” she says.
“I was just sucked right under for about eight years. It just was so insidious and so diabolical the way it took me under.”
Miller hid food, bingeing and purging. “I’d literally be kind of comatose from the bingeing and purging… I remember a therapist said to me once I was like a billboard, I looked fine on the front, but there was nothing behind it and that was me.” Her friendships and hobbies dropped away. “Life wasn’t fun, I just remember feeling it was all kind of grim and pointless,” she recalls. “The things I thought made me happy, never made me happy… I was just in hell.”
Bulimics: Often Type A, Female, from Families with Mood Disorders, Alcoholism
Miller says bulimics often come from families with a history of mood disorders, depression or alcoholism. Many women who suffer from the eating disorder participated in sports that tend to create a body obsession, like swimming, figure skating, gymnastics and crew, while many men were wrestlers, boxers and jockeys. About 90 percent of people who struggle with eating disorders are women, but increasingly more men are reporting issues with “man-orexia.” Bulimia tends to afflict “a type A person, a perfectionist, someone who feels out of control in their lives,” Miller says.
Miller’s Eating Disorder Followed her to Harvard
Miller suffered from several side effects, including tooth and gum erosion, stomach distention, swollen salivary glands, and her vision declined. Her hands turned orange from eating too many carrots. In addition, she didn’t get her menstrual period until she was 21 and fell into a deep depression when she got to Harvard. She suffered from bone-density issues, suicidal thoughts and faced the prospect of becoming infertile. “My bulimia took everything from me, ” she says.
Miller’s Young Husband Tried to Help Her Beat the Eating Disorder
At Harvard, Miller “spiraled into complete despair” because food was available 24/7 and there were “no boundaries and no breaks.” She stopped swimming because she was too weak to practice. She accepted a date sophomore year from the lacrosse team captain Haywood Miller and on the third date suggested they get married. He agreed. They married in the National Cathedral a week after she graduated from Harvard in 1983, but “at that point it was still my secret, he didn’t know.” One day after he got home from work, she confided in him about her eating disorder. He was determined to help, but this was something she had to do herself.
She eventually recovered and and wrote the first autobiography of anyone who has come back from the eating disorder: “My Name is Caroline,” published in 1988. In 2013, she published the sequel, “Positively Caroline,” the first book by anyone who has gotten into recovery and stayed there three decades. Today, Miller is a best-selling author and professional coach in Bethesda, Md., who has spent decades writing and speaking about eating disorders, goal-setting and Positive Psychology, which is the science of well-being.
She is swimming again competitively and placed in the top ten in a number of events at the long course summer Masters Nationals in 2014, including missing being the national champion in a butterfly event by one-tenth of a second.
“Everything I lost from my eating disorder, I’ve gotten back and I’ve restored it times ten,” Miller says. “And it’s been some of the greatest joy I ever could have predicted. I am happy and I am fully recovered.”