I would love to come at this article from a place of strength and wisdom, a place of stability and recovery, a place of looking back over my shoulder at it. The fact of the matter is, as I start to write this, I have just finished a binge. That puts the total at two for the day. I feel sick, bloated, and on the verge of purging. I’ve just done a DBT pros and cons list around purging – have been running through it for the last few hours, trying to feel like I have a modicum of sanity in this mess, trying to hold onto anything I can to prevent me from plunging headlong into utter darkness, which is what I liken binging combined with purging to. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was purge-free for two years, my longest purge-free period since I was fifteen. That’s a pretty fucking big deal for someone like me. I’m thirty three years old and I struggle with bulimia.
I didn’t become bulimic to lose weight, as most people assume is the case with bulimics who happen to also be fat. I became bulimic because I didn’t want to gain any more weight and I couldn’t stop eating to deal with myself and with the world around me. I became bulimic because ultimately I wanted to feel like I had some kind of control over my rapidly downward-spiraling life. To me it made a certain kind of logic, a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t another kind of harm; it was the answer to the harm I was already causing. In the eighteen years that I have struggled with this disease I have learned that it’s not always about the food. Sometimes it’s just about wanting to feel like I have a sense of control, which ultimately I have never really felt.
As a child I was emotional and sensitive, and rarely fit in with other kids. I don’t know at what age food became a crutch but I was compulsively eating and overeating when I was in elementary school. By the time I was fifteen years old I had been overeating already for several years and was tired of gaining weight but didn’t know what to do about it. The crash diets all my friends went on never worked for me. I’d always gain the weight back because I couldn’t stop eating. Then my whole life changed one day when I read the ‘true story’ segment of a popular teen magazine. The feature was on a teenage girl recovering from bulimia nervosa. As I read her story, a lightbulb slowly went on inside of me. It was like a missing piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place. Never mind that she and a friend had nearly died because of the disease. My reaction to information that would horrify most folks was ‘Eureka!’ My relationship with bulimia began on that day, and has continued for eighteen years.
At first I was successful. What I mean by this is that I was able to indulge in bulimic behaviors – buying food, hiding food, binging, purging – for almost a year before anyone found out. My mother was the one to confront me, as she’d done in the past. Her response was to shame me: “I know what you’re doing. It’s not right.” It was basically the same reaction she’d had to finding out I was overeating compulsively. She didn’t offer any help, nor did she offer to help me try to access the help I needed. I was alone, and the fact that someone had caught and confronted me did little to curb my bulimia. In fact, it continued to escalate and I continued to come up with more creative ways to hide it from people.
At the age of seventeen, two years after I began, I hit a bottom. I had lost nearly a hundred pounds, most of it from malnourishment. I will say, it was a fucked up experience, and not just because of the illness. Despite the fact that I was losing hair in handfuls, despite the fact that I looked like the walking dead – rail-thin even at 160 pounds, dark circles, sunken eyes, walking around with my back hunched and arms shielding myself all the time because of how cold I was – most people gave me positive feedback about the way I looked. Because I’d been fat when I’d started, a lot of people saw the new me as an improvement. My mom and others in the family continued to hassle me. A few close friends were also concerned. But mostly a lot of my female friends turned their backs on me because I was now ‘competition’ (I had one friend use that exact word to describe me) and a lot of my male friends began sexually harrassing me. I finally had what I thought I always wanted – to be thin – and I’d never been more miserable. I cried constantly. I didn’t get new clothes to fit my body; I continued hiding in my old ones. I wanted to be invisible.
Finally I headed into my first mental health episode, a mixed episode of panic attacks, agoraphobia, psychosis, insomnia, depression, and OCD (none of which I knew until years later). Bulimia took the back burner as I once again began compulsively overeating to deal with the shit I was going through as a result of the symptoms I faced on a daily basis, ones that reduced me to a shaking, quivering heap of nerves and rendered me unable to leave my house during daylight hours for months at a time. I gained all the weight back in a matter of months, plus some. Eventually, over the course of a couple of years, I stabilized, and ended up bulimic again when I realized my problem was the same: I still couldn’t stop eating. No matter what I did, no matter what diet I tried or what combination of tools or supports or strategies I enlisted, I could not put the food down.
This has been my struggle for the last fifteen years. I have gone through periods where I’m only binging. I have gone through periods where I can’t stop purging, to the point where I fear for my life. I have nearly choked to death so many times, not to mention the permanent state of acid reflux I experience, or the fear of hemorrhaging or tearing. The list goes on and on. I run myself into financial distress constantly because I spend all of my money on food, and because I then purge I never get full. I have had binges cost me a hundred dollars or more. But I think the worst thing about all of this is that, at the end of the day, at least ninety percent of people I have disclosed this to don’t believe I’m actually bulimic, or that I’m not bulimic enough because I don’t look anorexic, and therefore (in the case of medical professionals) will not help me. I have been turned away from every eating disorder program in my area (a metropolitan region of three million people) because I am either too sick or not sick enough. In the last few years, due to recovery with other addictions, I have been able to have periods – sometimes a couple of months at a time – where I am blessedly free of symptoms, which to me means no binging and no purging, and sometimes, if I am lucky, freedom from the constant obsession of food and how to control it in my life. Right now, however, I have been engulfed once again in the downward spiral for roughly two months and am feeling pretty hopeless about the whole thing. I have an appointment to go through another referral process for a new community-based eating disorder program that sounds promising. If that doesn’t pan out, I may seek residential treatment, out of province if necessary.
It’s really hard not to hate myself on days like this. It’s really hard to feel like I have a life or any chances or choices in life when so much of my time and energy is devoted to this disease. I know that I’m smart. I just can’t figure out why, with all the intelligence I possess, I can’t figure out how to end this. I never dreamed at thirty three that I would still be dealing with this. I am still living with all of the shame that I have accumulated, trying to simultaneously unravel that as I comb through the frayed ends of a lifetime of disease and basically being lost in the dark about it all. I am grateful for the people who help me today: my friends, select professionals, my partner, various others in the different communities I belong to. As difficult as this still is to deal with, it’s still better than when I was doing it all alone.
Right now, today, I feel tired. I feel like I don’t want to leave my house. I feel like I am tired of having to go out into the world and put on a face like I’m a regular person just like all the other people. I want to give up, to throw in the towel. I want to eat, even though I’m already full from overeating all day. I want to hide from people, especially those who know me. I want everything to disappear. I am struggling with writing this article because I know that it will get published and then people will read it, and then however many people reading it will have access to the most secret part of me, the part I don’t want anyone to see. I don’t want to take responsibility for this, or for any other thing happening in my life right now. And yet I want to get better. I want things to change, because I know I can’t go on living like this – it’s been so long already – and I don’t know how much longer I can go on living this way. In less than three hours I’ve got an appointment with a counselor to fill out a referral for a community-based eating disorder program. Maybe that will offer some assistance.