Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
As Joy Tapper drove up to the McDonald’s drive-thru window, she wasn’t feeling hunger, but deep shame. The mother of four, then in her mid-40s, was in a “semi-catatonic state” as she ordered several Big Macs, fries, and a large Coke. She ate in her car, then vomited into the empty containers before driving home.
For most of her life, food was Joy Tapper’s drug of choice, but this episode, which happened in the early ’80s, marked a particularly low point. Tapper had driven to McDonald’s straight from an eating disorder therapy session. She had been diagnosed with bulimia a few years prior, after a magazine article on the illness prompted her to seek treatment. But even before the doctor put a name to her illness, she knew she had an addictive relationship with food.
Calorie gorging and compensatory vomiting had been a way for Tapper to numb herself to the struggles in her life since adolescence. She found relief in ritualistically consuming food, capped off with quarts of Diet Coke and gallons of vanilla ice cream. Bubbly carbonation mixed with cool, molten sweetness made for a surefire, makeshift emetic. The binges themselves were varied. Cookies were a favorite, but stomach-stretching volumes of any sugary treat would do.
At the time of the McDonald’s episode, she had been married for 20 years to an alcoholic who was deteriorating while she was trying to overcome her eating disorder. “He had been threatening suicide; it was a nightmare of a time with guns in the house.” Tapper’s husband eventually did die by suicide, and in the stressful years that preceded his death, Tapper binged and purged on repeat.
Today, at age 80, Tapper is free of bulimia symptoms. In fact, she says the thought of bingeing and purging doesn’t even enter her mind. She credits one thing for her recovery: yoga.
Eating disorders aren’t just for teens
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 percent of adults will experience bulimia, characterized by bingeing followed by“compensatory behaviors to purge the food, like vomiting, excessive use of laxatives, or overexercise, over their lifetime.
Eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder, affect as many as 28.8 million Americans. They’ve long been stereotyped as illnesses that only afflict young, white, affluent women. But in reality, eating disorders can affect anyone. In 2012, Cynthia Bulik, PhD, the distinguished professor of eating disorders in the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published a paper in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that indicated that about 13 percent of women over 50 exhibit eating disorder symptoms. Some of these women developed eating disorders later in life, potentially triggered by stressors like divorce or career struggles. Others became ill earlier in life and simply never recovered.
Tapper fell into the second category. She says she was never actually overweight, but growing up, her mother freely and regularly labeled her as “fat” and encouraged her to lose weight by any means necessary. She’d grown up eating a strict diet of salmon salad lunches while her thin, athletic brother routinely indulged his appetite and called her fat. Eventually, she stopped swimming in order to avoid the requisite skimpy bathing suit she felt unfit to wear.
She remembers the exact moment that the seeds of bulimia were planted in her mind. “We lived in a little house that opened up from the dining room onto a cement patio,” Tapper recalls. “My mother was sitting there with our neighbor, sunning in the backyard.” Ten-year-old Tapper had gone out to ask for something to eat and overheard her mother tell the neighbor about an acquaintance who had discovered a surefire method for managing her weight while continuing to eat whatever she wanted: self- induced vomiting. “I remember going back into the house thinking, ‘That is a really good idea,’” Tapper says.
“I would throw up all night long and then take fistfuls of vitamins before I went to bed every night so I wouldn’t die.”
But Tapper didn’t think to try her mother’s implicitly endorsed dieting technique to remedy her own body dissatisfaction until she was 15. Once she pulled the trigger, she couldn’t stop. Every night she ate and immediately retreated to her bedroom to vomit out of the window. “No one ever said anything to me,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine that my mother didn’t know.”
The cycle continued for the next 55 years. Tapper had to replace the veneers on her teeth twice due to the enamel erosion of constant vomiting—once in her early 50s, and again almost a decade later—but for all intents and purposes, her physical health remained intact. But her psychological and emotional states deteriorated. “Nobody wants to be like this,” she says. “I would throw up all night long and then take fistfuls of vitamins before I went to bed every night so I wouldn’t die.”
Finding yoga and recovery
In 2008, the then 67-year-old Tapper fell in love with a woman she’d known for over a decade. This partner introduced her to Landmark Worldwide, a company specializing in personal development workshops. Tapper had attempted to recover from her illness many times. She’d been in therapy, sought treatment, and hoped for relief, but the bingeing and purging continued. Something about the program’s emphasis on breaking habitual thought patterns resonated with Tapper. The program itself made no mention of yoga, but it inspired Tapper to explore new interests and opportunities. In 2009 she tried a yoga class at her daughter’s suggestion.
Yoga wasn’t exactly new to Tapper—she says her Jewish grandmother had instilled ideals of service to others and the notion that “the world is a bigger and more loving place than we are taught to believe.” In her self-published book, Finding Joy, she writes, “this conviction led me to visit an ashram in upstate New York in the 1980s. The peaceful beauty I found there and the sense that all those devotees of the guru knew ‘the secret’ overwhelmed me!” The ashram wasn’t rooted in asana, but deep meditation. The sense of peace Tapper experienced there stuck with her through the years, even throughout her illness.
Tapper searched for a local South Tampa studio and at age 70, she showed up in leggings and a T-shirt for her first official yoga class. “And just like that, my life changed,” she says.
“The more I practiced yoga, the more I began to see the connection between my mind, body, and spirit. I became more mindful in every way.”
For the first time in decades, she felt as if she could breathe. “Bulimia had been my constant companion since I had been 15 years old,” she says. “Yoga allowed me to take off my mask. Simply by teaching me to breathe, to be in my body and to be present every moment. The more I practiced yoga, the more I began to see the connection between my mind, body, and spirit. I became more mindful in every way.”
Tapper began attending classes three times a week and said she could feel herself “slowing down and spreading out” in a whole new way. Then she started attending five classes a week and devoured books about the practice. Several months into her exploration and education, she had a thought—after 55 years of bingeing and purging, a whisper in her head said, “I will just stop this bulimia now.”
Just being is doing yoga
Tapper says it took many stops and starts over the next few years before she completely halted her behaviors, and now says she feels she “can truly say that I know what it feels like to have tamed the dragon” of her eating disorder. While there is no single known cure for eating disorders, and treatment often involves months, years, or a lifetime of dedicated therapies, Tapper believes yoga played an integral, indispensable role in her own recovery. “I could acknowledge the enormous grip that my addiction had on me,” she says. “The hiding was over. Light and love illuminated that dark place. Yoga had given me life.”
Tapper says that her bulimia urges began to diminish soon after starting yoga classes, but it wasn’t until she instituted a regular Yoga Nidra practice and encountered the teachings of Amrit Desai, the founder of I Am Yoga, that her behaviors totally ceased. “At my first sight of him, I knew then that I was in the presence of a master, and I wanted to be with him as often as possible in order to absorb as much as I could in this part of my life,” she says. “I could not even have imagined how my life would change.”
Today, at age 80, Tapper practices Yoga Nidra several days a week and is certified to teach classes. She is also relishing what she calls the best time of her life. “I meditate on my mala beads and know that that is doing yoga,” she says. “I don’t have to struggle to do a handstand to be ‘good.’ I feel my mind and body and spirit uniting, and I am content. At this age and stage of my life, I find myself mentoring young women. Women who seek to know who they are and desire to be seen just as they are. I have learned to cherish my body and to give thanks for my strength of body and spirit.”