Christine C. Quinn but the speaker of the New York City Council and Democratic candidate for mayor revealed her surprising life-long struggle with both diseases on Tuesday in The New York Times.
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Quinn touches on these experiences in her upcoming memoir “With Patience and Fortitude” and says she contacted the newspaper because she believes that hiding her past isn’t healthy. “I just want people to know you can get through stuff,” she said. “I hope people can see that in what my life has been and where it is going.”
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The 46-year-old described how coping with her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis contributed to her bulimia as a child. Her family kept her mother’s breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy a secret for almost six years, until Quinn discovered the truth in eighth grade, by way of a mouthy classmate. Soon she embarked on a journey to become the “thinnest and prettiest” daughter, believing that it would somehow save her mother. By her sophomore year of high school, Quinn's quest for perfection turned dangerous. She found out about binging and purging from girls in the locker room, and it soon became her secret outlet for relief. “For a brief moment, you’ve kind of expelled from your being the things that are making you feel bad,” said Quinn, who did not return Yahoo! Shine’s request for comment.
According to Lynne Grefe, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, Quinn’s experience is not unusual. “Although we can’t pinpoint eating disorders on one particular cause, we do know two things,” she says. “One, they often occur in people who feel a loss of control and try to gain it back by strictly monitoring their food intake. Second, that anxiety and stress play a role in triggering them; the food is just a vehicle for how a person expresses those feelings."
Anxiety fueled Quinn’s teenage years. She described high school as having an unusually large sense of responsibility. When she was 16-years-old, she became her mother’s caretaker, bathing and feeding her, monitoring her medicine, and was even tasked with the devastating duty of informing her mother of her worsening diagnosis. According to the Times, “Her mother had gone deaf, and said that Christine, her younger daughter, was the only one whose lips she could read. So it was up to her daughter to deliver the worsening medical news the family received in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms, which her mother met with disbelief and sometimes anger.”
While Quinn continued to binge and purge on ice cream and corn muffins, she hit another roadblock: Alcoholism ran through her family and had afflicted her mother who drank to contend with the cancer diagnosis. Quinn followed suit, drinking often until 4 a.m.; during the day, she cared for her grandmother, father and aunt. Quinn was even tasked with delivering a message from her mother’s doctor: The cancer was incurable. Eventually, her mother passed away during Quinn’s junior year of high school.
During college, Quinn was outgoing and friendly; in private she struggled with her coursework, loneliness, and the inklings of sexual attraction toward women, which she suppressed. All the while, she continued to binge and purge. “What you’re doing is not something you do with other people,” she said. “So you have to kind of find moments or structure moments when you’re by yourself. And the bad thing about isolation is I think it fuels more isolation.”
And although it’s unclear whether shame prevented Quinn from seeking help, Grefe says bulimia and other types of eating disorders carry a social stigma. “Patients often feel embarrassed about getting treatment,” she says. “There’s an assumption that vanity and a desire to be thin drives bulimia but that’s not always true. Then, throwing up isn’t the most appealing image so people can feel turned off and unsympathetic. But bulimia isn’t a choice; it’s a disease of the mind.”
It was only when Quinn graduated college that she was able to open up. While working as a campaign manager for friend Thomas K. Duane who was running for the Council as one of the first openly gay candidates, she came out as a lesbian and began dating a woman. Soon after, in 1992, she confessed to being bulimic and went to treatment for 28 days. After learning to eat properly, exercise, and attending therapy, Quinn said it “put me on a path to letting go of the blame and the responsibility for the fact that my mother’s life didn’t work out how she had wanted it to — that she had gotten sick.”
In 2001, she was introduced to her future wife, Kim M. Catullo, a lawyer from New Jersey. “Asking for help, going to the rehab, dealing with bulimia, cutting back on drinking, getting drinking out of my life altogether—all of that helped me put the pieces back together,” she said. “And then when I met Kim, she was the final piece that really put me in a place where I was to some degree whole and could be happy.”
Today, Quinn is alcohol-free. “I want to be affirmatively proud of what I have made my way through,” she said. “And to do that, in the same way I had to tell my father and my family and my friends that I was gay, I need to not hide this anymore.”
According to a tweet from Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Howard Saul, who is covering Quinn’s speech on Tuesday afternoon at Barnard College in New York City, “Quinn said she is terrified about reaction to her disclosure. Will people judge it?” If people judge it, they may also learn from it. “If more people step forward," says Grefe, "more people can be helped."
For common signs of eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
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