A life worth living

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The women — some just out of their teenage years, others who have waved goodbye to 40 — gathered at the makeshift “scale graveyard” just beyond the sandy shore of what’s known as Baton Rouge Beach.

“We’re here to free ourselves from the numbers that hold us down, whether it’s weight or calories or sizes or jobs or whatever pulls us down,” says McCall Manning Dempsey, organizer with the SoleSisters of LSU of this “Southern Smash.” “…I was a victim of the scale for 15 years. I was waiting for it to tell me I was beautiful; that I was worth something. It never did.”

Dempsey, who is battling back from an eating disorder that raged for half her life, grabs the wooden handle of a sledgehammer and hefts it high. BAM! She hits one of the bathroom scales. BAM! And again. BAM! A third time she lets the heavy hammer fall, crushing the scale’s tiny oval window and the numbers beneath.

After keeping her secret for so long, the 31-year-old Dempsey finds herself becoming a voice for many who suffer from eating disorders.

Through events like the scale smashing, where about 30 women hammered out their frustrations, and speaking to groups of young women, like the LSU sorority running group SoleSisters, Dempsey is taking small steps into a public arena — a place she never expected to be.

But then Dempsey has come a long way from the perfection-obsessive young woman who lived on diet pills and extreme exercise. Her journey, which included 18 months of outpatient therapy and almost three months of in-patient care, wasn’t easy, and it isn’t over.

But it’s light years from where she started. At age 16, Dempsey, a self-described angry teenager with a smart mouth, was prescribed Adderall, which is used to control the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The amphetamine also steals your appetite, and Dempsey, who says she was never fat, lost weight. And for that, she was praised.

“It morphed into a bulimic pattern,” she says. “In fact, it has evolved as my life evolved.”

To family and friends, Dempsey, an avid runner, was “healthy” and her diet was “quirky.”

“That was my worst enemy. I could put on my happy face and no one would know,” she says. “…There’s so many ways you can have an eating disorder, whether it’s over exercising, restricting food or taking laxatives. There’s so much gray in between the extremes.”

The disease continued through high school and her college days at Ole Miss, where she says she obsessed over the scale. “It became my crack. I was weighing myself 50 times a day.” And she discovered diet pills. “On the internet, you could order ‘psycho strong’ pills.”

The patterns became more ingrained through her move back to Baton Rouge, her marriage to husband Jordan and the start of her career.

“I always thought the next thing in my life would cure me, would fix me,” she says.

Her husband, a professional golfer, traveled a lot. “I would put on a good show when he came home,” she says. “But there were many nights that I was in sweats on the bathroom floor, and I would promise that if I could make it through the night I would quit the diet pills. And I would. I would throw them away. Then I would get them out of the garbage.”

In the summer of 2009, Dempsey was training with the triathlon group Rocketchix. The intensive workouts brought on blackouts and heart palpitations.

On the way to a training ride, Dempsey confessed her secret to a new acquaintance.

“Even while I rambled on and talked about the diet pills and the heart palpitations, I kept saying it was ‘no big deal.’ That was always my thing, ‘it’s no big deal,’” she says. “…There was no judgment from her. She was gentle and caring and made me feel very safe.”

Her recovery had started. There would be setbacks and crushing truths laid on the hearts of her family, including her husband, who she says was “devastated” not only by her lies but also by what he felt was his own failure to recognize her illness. It was six months before she could tell the rest of her family.

When outpatient therapy didn’t work, she headed to a North Carolina treatment facility. There were big breakthroughs and small moments of recovery. And finally, Dempsey says she had to choose between living or losing out to her eating disorder.

“It took me a long time to admit that this was a mental illness. That is was not my fault. That I was doing the best I could at the time,” she says. “But that it was my choice to choose recovery.”

After 81 days in treatment, she came home. Soon after she became pregnant, which some might not consider wise.

“But, for me, it was right,” she says. “That was one of the main reasons I went into treatment. I always wanted to be a mother, but I knew I couldn’t do it like this … Pregnancy gave me back my cravings for different foods. It taught me a healthy balance … I felt very in touch with my body.”

Manning Tyler Dempsey was born in February. And the new mother has started another chapter. Not only as caregiver to her cherished boy, but as an advocate for those suffering as she did. She began writing an anonymous blog in July, and, after considerable convincing by friends, has taken it public. Read her moving stories at http://lovingimperfection.wordpress.com. She says the positive response to her words has been almost overwhelming.

“It’s like all of the moments in my life have not gone in vain,” Dempsey says. “After years in silence, I’m finding my footing in life. I feel like I’m helping when I let someone know that they are not alone.”

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