The hot television lights burst on us one at a time.
"Number One, what is your name please?" The question thundered through the cavernous studio.
"My name is Caroline Miller."
Number two introduced herself the same way. Then it was my turn.
"Number Three, what is your name please?"
“My name is Caroline Miller.”
It was the summer of 1990 and my life had now become fodder for a popular game show. In facing my darkest demons, and writing about my recovery from bulimia in the first major autobiography by a survivor, “My Name is Caroline” (Doubleday 1988), I had gone from nearly dying to becoming an international role model. I'd had to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to become - essentially a “real” version of myself to live – which made it especially ironic to be standing here playing this game with millions of television viewers.
When I was 15, I had the world by the tail. I was class president in my private girl's school, a much-decorated competitive swimmer, and accomplished pianist with grades and scores that made me the envy of others. Like many other teen girls, though, my external accolades didn't make me happy - at least for long. I wanted to be perfect, and if I was going to be perfect, I had to be thin. Enter bulimia.
Two of my peers showed me how to vomit my food after lunch one day, and it wasn't long before I was hooked on this addictive behavior. My life quietly began to spiral out of control emotionally and behind bathroom doors, but I kept up a front that fooled everyone for seven years. Getting into Harvard and excelling there was more of the front I kept up while I silently died. Nothing mattered except my body, and although the bulimia backfired and I got bigger, it wasn't enough for me to find the willpower to stop what I was doing.
Three people got married on June 18, 1983. Me, my college sweetheart, Haywood, and my bulimic shadow side. Within seven months I had bottomed out and I tearfully confided to my husband that I was sick, needed help, but didn't know what to do. Without a role model, I felt hopeless.
My turning point came one cold night in early 1984, when I was sitting in a self-help group for compulsive overeaters and a tall, blonde woman named Betsy uttered a phrase that changed the course of my life. "My name is Betsy and I'm recovering from bulimia one day at a time."
I'd never heard anyone utter all of those words in one sentence, let alone say anything about bulimia that would give me the hope that I could recover, but this woman looked like she was telling the truth, and she looked healthy.
My entire world turned upside-down and what had felt impossible for years suddenly became possible. “If she can get better, so can I,” I told myself. Betsy became my life-altering role model, and she gave me the hope that ultimately saved my life. That hope kept me going through slips, relapses, depression and many bad days as I lurched into adulthood, eventually cementing a life of long-term recovery.
I’d been raised to be a winner - tough and independent – who didn’t need anyone else and who never asked for help. But one of my major takeaways from this and subsequent episodes was that it was only when I humbled myself and asked for help from someone who could be a role model that I achieved whatever I was hoping to accomplish. And maintaining that gain was most likely when I turned around and helped someone else, or as my support group said, “You can’t keep what you don’t give away.”
As “To Tell the Truth” was being filmed, my professional life was in shambles. My husband and I had invested every penny we owned in building the 114-acre Evergreen Renewal Center in Middletown, Maryland, but on the day my son was born the previous year, the major backer pulled out, leaving us liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.
It didn’t matter that we’d won dozens of zoning battles, renovated a mansion to hospital specifications, hired a staff, and had people sending $5000 deposits to hold their spots. It didn’t matter that my book had created a buzz about the center and stories had run all over the country about its opening. All that mattered was that the real estate market was starting to fall apart and people were pulling out of investments. My dream of opening one of the first freestanding residential treatment centers in the world died, leaving my husband and I broke, homeless and in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
We slowly got back on our feet, repaid our creditors, and eventually moved back to my hometown of Bethesda, Maryland. I became increasingly drawn to the coaching profession because so many people were still contacting me for advice about how to accomplish their goals, and not just about eating disorders. After becoming trained and credentialed, I accelerated my learning by attending the cutting-edge Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. While there I was exposed to goal-setting theory, which I paired with the new science of happiness to write the first evidence-based book on goal accomplishment, “Creating Your Best Life”(Sterling 2009. It is now used in universities, training programs, and average people as a guide to setting and accomplishing goals and has been called “the best book of its kind” by the prestigious Library Journal.
Losing everything I had in a very public way was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It taught me how to become more resilient, how to reinvent myself, and how to redefine my purpose in life. It also led me to a field where I now have the privilege of helping others learn to dream big, set the right goals, and create an environment of success. My biggest setback turned into my greatest blessing, and I have profound gratitude for all of the lessons I learned along the way.
A recent Wall Street Journal article on female workplace bullies talked about the “Queen Bee” syndrome and how women managers are often threatened by younger women coming up behind them. Instead of supporting them and mentoring them, they derail and crush them. It’s bad enough in the office, but what if it’s in your own family? And what if the Queen Bee is your own mother?
I reluctantly came to the conclusion as an adult that I wasn’t thin-skinned, overreactive or ungrateful where my mother was concerned. I was simply a child my mother had actively disliked and tried to undermine at countless turns throughout my entire life, and who even tried to drop me off at an orphanage when I was just seven.
I kept this story as quiet as possible, omitting it from “My Name is Caroline” because I hadn’t yet come to terms with how to address it. I was also embarrassed. I just wanted what most of my friends seemed to have – a mom who celebrated her daughter’s accomplishments, built her up when she was low, always had her back when the winds blew against her. Instead I had someone who belittled me, sided against me whenever she could, and even criticized me to my children. My situation became untenable when she insisted to a psychologist that I was brain-damaged because my car seat had fallen to the floor when I was an infant.
I was led to helpful diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Being the child of a borderline mother who is so damaged that she cannot meet the child’s needs is a special form of hell. Borderline parents usually select one child for special abuse but the damage is done behind closed doors so that outsiders never see this side of the person. Eating disorders often occur as a result of this dynamic.
Dealing with this issue and creating extraordinary boundaries has been the biggest challenge of my adult life. The more I share this story with other accomplished women, the more I hear about similar situations that they, too, have kept hidden. I often wonder if part of our collective success is because we are always trying to be “seen” by the borderline parent, and I believe that a panel about how successful women had their biggest battles with their mother in order to survive and thrive might be a sell-out hit.
The “real Caroline Miller” has decided to finally stand up and tell the story of how I have remained in recovery for decades, warts and all, in my upcoming book, “Positively Caroline.” I hope it lights the way for others who are suffering alone and who need a new kind of role model.