Insecure and suffering from bulimia, Greta Gleissner had her dream job as a Radio City Rockette for Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular in New York City – but that didn’t stop her from bingeing and purging up to 30 times a day.
Gleissner had been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her parents’ credit cards in order to pay for food; and at 5-feet, 7-inches tall, she constantly compared herself to the other dancers – never feeling she was good enough to belong.
“Initially, I didn't think it was an issue . . .but it became a full-fledged addiction.”
Depressed and feeling bloated toward the end of the show’s season, she called in ‘sick,’ deciding to spend the day bingeing and purging. In her mind, Gleissner rationalized this would make her feel thinner.
After eating “huge balls of mozzarella . . . a breakfast burrito, three hash browns, a cinnamon roll, two strips of bacon, and egg and cheese biscuit and a large Diet Coke,” Gleissner attempted to purge – but the cheese became lodged in her esophagus.
“You stupid idiot. What’s wrong with you?” Gleissner remembers thinking. She chronicled those thoughts in her memoir, Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle With Bulimia.
“That was a close call,” she wrote. “I easily could’ve choked to death. …Agh, I don’t want anymore. I’m finished for today, having scared myself silly.”
Gleissner, who soon entered a rehab program at Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona, said she remembers the specific day she became a bulimic as a teenager. Initially, the process was difficult – but she soon learned the ‘tricks’ of a bulimic – and became hooked.
It got to the point where she didn’t even have to stick her finger down her throat – her stomach would convulse on its own.
Jenny Taitz, a New York City-based psychologist who has not treated Gleissner, but treats patients with eating disorders, said it is estimated that 24 million Americans struggle with eating disorders; although it’s hard to know for sure, since many people struggling with one don’t always seek treatment.
“I think a lot of people initially think they are dieting, and this is kind of a unique issue that they're trying to figure out, and they have a good grapple on it,” Taitz said. “But, it’s not until years go by, and they notice that this is kind of taking a toll on their bodies.”
A talented dancer from an early age, Gleissner was faced with mounting problems: Her parents were constantly fighting, which ultimately led to a divorce; she felt the need to lose weight in order to be successful and fit in – and through it all, she was questioning her sexuality.
“While my family dynamics played a part, it was how I chose to react to the situation,” she said. “Initially, I didn’t think it was an issue . . .but it became a full-fledged addiction.”
Taitz agreed: There’s plenty of research that shows bulimics and anorexics struggle with managing their emotions – and as a result, they misuse food to cope.
“So we have to teach people how to manage their emotions in more skillful ways, rather than using food and struggling with the fact that you’re eating with secondary emotions,” she added.
Gleissner was convinced she could kick the habit once she became a Rockette, but the rigorous schedule and anxiety to compete with other women only added to her disease.
“I was never told to lose weight,” Gleissner said, but guidelines stipulate Rockettes have to maintain a certain weight and height. “But with the characteristics of eating disorders, I was comparing myself to everyone else.”
Taitz said a common theme for people with eating disorders is that they define themselves according to their weight and shape.
Despite the lows she was going through, Gleissner maintains the Rockette gig – her last professional dancing job – was still a dream come true.
“It was amazing; it was a wonderful organization that treated me very well,” she said. “I thought this would be the job that changed my life – external solutions to fix internal problems. I wish my bulimia would not have stained my experience.”
For the third and final time, Gleissner entered a rehab program at the age of 28. She had been struggling with bulimia for nearly 12 years and contemplated suicide. Her therapist told Gleissner’s parents her best bet would be to attend Sierra Tucson’s 28-day program, which cost $34,000.
At Sierra Tucson, Gleissner learned how to eat smaller meals at the proper times. She learned to change her internal dialogue – and although she had periodic relapses, it has now been years since she has binged and purged.
Long-term effects of bulimia can include osteoporosis, gastrointestinal problems, cardiac arrest, low blood pressure, infertility and dental damage. With the exception of some root canals from all the junk food she ate, Gleissner said she did not incur any harmful health problems.
After Sierra Tucson, Gleissner spent three months at another treatment center in Florida and continued with therapy and a 12-step program. Eventually, she attended college and graduate school and became a psychotherapist.
Gleissner currently works at Hazelden – Tribeca Twelve, a housing facility for young recovering addicts in New York City. She treats patients with substance abuse disorders and eating disorders, and she has her own private practice. She said she has “normalized eating, just like everyone else.”
At 39, Gleissner is in a committed relationship and said her family life has definitely improved.
“Being in recovery is possible,” she said. “It is a process, and a lot of hard work, but it’s possible.”