Life Beyond Bulimia: A Q&A With The Author Of My Name Is Caroline

She was young and poised, a Harvard grad, an overachiever, a competitive swimmer with Olympic medalists in her family tree. She was also the survivor of a desperate seven-year struggle with bulimia, a story detailed in her groundbreaking autobiography, My Name Is Caroline, published in 1988.

It was a time when bulimia was little-known and less understood, and the reaction to what seemed an unlikely poster child for the disorder was enormous. “It was like a bomb had gone off in my living room,” Caroline Adams Miller, now 53, remembers. “I was that first shot across the bow when it comes to bulimia.” My Name Is Caroline sparked a national conversation about eating disorders, became a best-seller and has never stopped selling.

Caroline now works as a credentialed coach, keynote speaker, educator and author; she has a master’s in applied positive psychology and is a pioneer in the positive psychology field. In her book Creating Your Best Life, published in 2009, she became the first to link the science of happiness with the science of goal-setting. She’s also 30 solid years into her recovery from bulimia, an accomplishment she chronicles in the sequel Positively Caroline, published in 2013. “I thought, I have to finish this story. I have to tell people not only can you get in recovery, you can stay in recovery.” My Name Is Caroline was recently re-released to mark the 25th anniversary of its initial publication. took the opportunity to talk with the author, who shared some of what she’s learned and experienced since the landmark book first opened a nation’s eyes. What’s it been like over the years to be the Caroline behind My Name Is Caroline?

Caroline Adams Miller: I’ve just had so many remarkable experiences. I was giving birth to my third child and the nurse leaned over and said, “Are you the one who wrote that book? That book saved my life.” Or I’ll have a therapist call me and say, “I’m in this field because I read your book in college.” That has happened to me every day for almost 30 years. What’s changed in the field of eating disorders over the last 30 years?

CAM: I think the only real change is that there is more treatment available and more awareness. But from what I’ve seen, the pressure on women to have a certain body type has only gotten worse because now you have to be thin, smart and have muscles, too!

But I do think there is more help available, and I think one of the key things is that people can go on the Internet in privacy and learn a lot and go to 12 step meetings on the phone. There are so many things you can do to give you some hope.

One of my biggest concerns about the current state of the eating disorder field are the people who have 10 minutes of recovery. They come out of treatment centers and then they’re on television or on the cover of People magazine. They unwittingly become someone else’s icon. If they are very high profile and they’ve gone public too soon, woe to the people who then decide, “Well, it’s not worth trying because she didn’t make it.” What do you think of recent studies that suggest food can be addictive in much the same way alcohol and drugs can be?

CAM: The research that is coming out now is supporting what those of us who have 30 years of recovery know. Yeah, there’s science [supporting] food addiction, because that is what I believe I lived. What do we still not understand about eating disorders?

CAM: I don’t think people really and truly believe that long-term recovery is a reality because the only thing they hear about in the media is about the surge in middle-aged women who have relapsed or developed eating disorders for the first time. I really wish someone would line up people with 25 to 30 years of recovery on a panel and have people say what they did. I think if you could find a critical mass of people who have weathered those storms then I think there are going to be ingredients that are going to be really helpful for people to look at. And no one’s done it. You’re currently working on a book about grit. Why can we expect?

CAM: When I hit my bottom, there was no grit inside of me. Nothing there. But I cultivated it. We have this self-esteem movement now, which has created the biggest quitters of all time. I fear for the treatment world that the ones who’ve had all the easy wins and their parents have fixed everything for them will not be able to cultivate what it takes to get into long-term recovery — because it’s hard. So the book will look at the qualities of grit in people, how to cultivate it and why it matters. When you look back at your lowest point, how does it compare to where you are now?

CAM: I think my lowest bottom was 21, on my honeymoon, purging in some dirty bathroom in Jamaica. I looked in the mirror, I had vomit in my hair, and I just realized it was just one more “change thing” that I thought would cure me. I thought college would cure me, I thought getting married would cure me, and here I was on my honeymoon vomiting in a bathroom. I just remember this sinking feeling that this thing was going to follow me for the rest of my life.

Where I am 30 years later is, not only am I in recovery, but I’m happy. I‘m back in my sport [she’s ranked in the top 15 nationally in competitive swimming], and I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’ve got three children, so I went from never having had my period at the age of 21 and then having brushes with infertility to three children. And I’m pursuing a field I love, and I’m good at it. And I get to do it every day.

The best thing that ever happened to me was my eating disorder because it turned me into somebody who discovered that she was made of stronger stuff than she thought. And every good thing that has happened in my life has happened as a result of overcoming this, one day at a time.

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