Singer, actress and filmmaker Marianne Dissard reveals how yoga helped her overcome bulimia in her new book Not Me – a memoir of trauma and life on the road
I was 17 when I moved to America. The year was 1985 and in the small provincial town where I grew up in Southwestern France, ‘eating disorder’ – the words that later came to define my new immigrant-self – were not in anybody’s vocabulary.
On her farm in the Pyrénées, my grandmother raised and force fed ducks for foie gras. We crammed the five of us into my father’s Peugeot on weekend trips to the Auvergne region and brought back wheels of dusty St Nectaire and hairy blue-streaked Roquefort cheese. Dinner was served at eight o’clock with the nightly news and I relished making sweet Tarte Tatins on Sundays.
Anorexia in pre-internet America
Then things got confusing. My first day at school in Phoenix, Arizona, the frigid suburbia where my father’s new post got us quartered, taught me that a litre of Diet Pepsi is a perfectly acceptable breakfast and iceberg salad with dressing on the side was the only lunch item ‘we girls’ should bother picking from the cafeteria buffet.
I soon learned that you could perfectly skip dinner at eight o’clock , (living in Arizona Standard Time, I’d watch the revered PBS Nightly News Hour at 6pm alone with an apple), by claiming you were going out; ‘Johnny’s dad got him a brand new red Mustang for his sixteenth birthday! Let’s go grab some McDonalds!’, and off we went, tiny rebels set loose from family strictures to extract sustenance from the ubiquitous empty calories of this consumer paradise.
Soon I was so thin that my anorexia was attracting too much attention. My parents were worried but didn’t know what to do. To get them off my back, I started eating again. A lot. I’d raid the pantry for breakfast and my mother, ineffectual in her care and unwilling to comprehend how lost I was, only commented once about my new habit, saying it cost us a lot of money.
In one month, I gained back 20 pounds, ditching school cafeteria for one of the fast food joints circling campus like vultures. Whataburger, Burger King, Taco Bell, Bosa Donuts, Wendy’s… we kids socialized in these 24/7 air-con magnets, spending pocket dollars earned from weekend jobs waitressing at the golf clubs or managing hyperactive brats on sugar diets through the abundant aisles of Toys’r’Us in the mall.
Crazed in Los Angeles
After my ‘binge eater at home’ stage, I became bulimic, compensating for the food I ate by exercising. Los Angeles (LA), where I’d moved for a university film degree, was rife with aerobic studios, years before the yoga craze gripped it.
in the film industry where I worked, you stayed skinny
I still don’t understand why it took me five years of an increasingly fraught and complicated relationship to food to discover I could simply make myself puke. Maybe I hadn’t read about it in the news.
In the days before the internet, there were no ana-mia forums to join for tips and, in the film industry where I worked, you were and stayed skinny, your DNA seemingly blessed by agenting gods intent on having you make it in Hollywood.
But I did find out – over the following two decades of shoving my fingers down my throat through careers as a film director, lyricist, wife, and finally singer.
Burnt-out on the fast lanes of the film industry and the traffic buildups of the Los Angeles freeways, I moved to Tucson, Arizona. A pit-stop desert town on the interstate highway that links New Orleans to California, Tucson had been attracting offbeats and renegades since the 1930s.
Artist’s holdouts, socialist mirages on the outskirts of town, crystal-hugging drug dealers, Chicago mafia bosses cooling it down in secret ranches. You could come and stay as you were and no one cared.
By the turn of the millennium, the first generations of New Age denizens, ageing Earth-Firsters and veterans of the Nicaragua freedom fights of the 80s had built backyard sweat lodges where second generation spiritual warriors hatched, some of whom looked to the native tribes for spiritual juices, and others to the eastern practices of meditation and yoga.
Taking yoga on the road
In 2004 I was 36, when I decided to become a singer and I started practicing yoga. Why? With yoga, I would learn to breathe, a round-the-bend way of avoiding singing lessons. What I didn’t admit to myself at the time was that I was stressed, and why? My marriage was not going well.
After my husband’s serial cheating finally wore me out, I responded, not so wisely, by falling in love elsewhere. I didn’t know I was suffocating in Tucson, a smallish town that I had only really meant, ten years prior, as a three-month stopover on my way to New York City.
My eating-disordered self loved that the practice kept me fit
But that’s how it goes, doesn’t it? You wake up one day and a decade has slipped through your fingers, and you want to do something to stop time. I found yoga.
My eating-disordered self loved that the practice kept me fit, with shapely muscles bulging through my fat-free skin. I did relax some, which helped my focus on stage.
Yoga became my haven
I began touring, weeks at a time, keeping up my daily yoga routines in the morning before our drives to the next town and the next gig. The less time I spent at home, the more my yoga practice became home. I had bought a light foldable mat, worn through where my hands and feet touched down over these years on the road.
My bandmates would drink themselves silly every night but I would keep pretending to them and myself that I was in charge, a model of professionalism on the road, a far-cry from the rock’n’roll clichés.
But with any drug addiction, there comes a time for reckoning. I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t using and wasn’t having much sex at all, my groupies were never more appealing than time alone in my hotel room.
Bulimia’s vicious circle of isolation and shame was in full swing while I traveled and sang in America, Europe, Australia, China
The more exposed I got on stage, the less willing I became to entertain off-stage. Bulimia’s vicious circle of isolation and shame was in full swing while I traveled and sang in America, Europe, Australia, China.
Still, yoga was my lifeline. I managed pre-dawn salutations in the narrow corridors of the Trans-Siberian train bringing me to a music festival in Beijing. In Berlin, Zürich, Paris, Cologne and cities where I’d regularly perform, I had favorite studios and would sneak out for an hour to a favorite teacher’s Vinyasa class.
Life on the road took a toll. I was divorced. My albums grew increasingly darker, my songs dealing in such upbeat themes as abortion, physical exhaustion, suicide, electoral politics and heartbreaks.
Something had to change. And I turned to yoga once again, forcing myself to take a sabbatical from the stage
Bandmates came along, got schooled in tour life and by European girls, and went. Yet, I was able to do a split without warming up and got my blood pumping before a show with a quick backstage, unassisted handstand. But I was living on borrowed time.
My life forces, severely tapped from short nights and the stress of touring, were further sapped by the eating and purging binges I was not admitting to. Something had to change. And I turned to yoga once again, forcing myself to take a sabbatical from the stage.
What would I do during that time? I would go through yoga certification, not intending in the least to become a teacher but knowing well that I would only progress in my practice by undergoing the rigorous training.
In the autumn of 2013, I began teaching where I had trained, at the Paris studio of Gérard Arnaud, a notable Vinyasa teacher who had been transmitting his deep knowledge of all-things yoga since the 1970s.
In his classes, students were not treated to chants and incense. Absent were external physical nods to an exotic spirituality prevalent in the American studios I had frequented. I felt at home in this studio. And at peace.
Do I feel yoga can help you recover from an eating disorder? Yes and no. A wise man once said that no thing is inherently good or bad in itself. What you do with it determines that. I overused yoga, abused its power by taking it as a form of escape, an exercise routine, the means to fend off the external world and questions I should have faced within myself.
I grew through my yoga practice, feeling maybe for the first time what peace could be, a deep internal standstill in body and mind, the union of my self with the world, and, teaching, have known the gift of transmission, that it is better to give than to receive if happiness is what you’re after.
Take that first step. Get yourself on the mat. Don’t overthink the next step.
Yoga is no magic bullet. There is no such thing in recovery. What there is a painstakingly slow route through your own particular set of conditions, family, upbringing, social conditions, where you live and whether your health insurance covers mental diagnosis and treatment, something I never was able to access as I stumbled my way through recovery over three decades. and two continents.
But if there is one thing I got from yoga, it is that nothing happens if you don’t show up on the mat. Take that first step. Get yourself on the mat. Don’t overthink the next step.
Once you’ve been on the mat enough times, your body will know by itself what to do to make you feel better. Not every day will make sense. Keep showing up.
Marianne Dissard is a French-born singer, performer, lyricist and filmmaker from Tucson, Arizona now based in Ramsgate, England.
She has recorded and toured with members of alt-Americana bands Calexico and Giant Sand, releasing a string of critically-acclaimed albums. Her first book, ‘Not Me’, is an impish and poetic exploration of trauma and the life of a disordered touring musician praised by some of Dissard’s favorite authors including Mitch Cullin, Andrew Smith and Chris Rush.
Not Me can be ordered signed through the author’s website. The paperback is available at The London Review Bookshop, Words on the Water Bookbarge and Pages Cheschire Street.