It’s the eating disorder we don’t really want to talk about. It’s more covert than anorexia. It is carried out in secret. A very private hell. No one wants to think about fingers down throats, do they? Even I struggle, and at one time even banned the utterance of the word in my household because it made me feel so uncomfortable. This is probably because the word is synonymous with, yes, vomit. Not only that, but it conjures up other unpleasant feelings and images; shame, self-harm, dirtiness, guilt, pain, distress.. and even on some level, violence.
I wanted to write this piece, because I am know that I am not the only one who has suffered from it. I have felt reasonably able to talk confidently and openly about my past with various eating problems, but for some reason I always avoid mentioning the ‘B’ word in case I alarm or unsettle people. When it comes to bulimia, I shrink back under the weight of its stigma. This is why I encourage you not to turn away, because by sidestepping difficult truths, we allow bulimia to consume and destroy sufferers, partly through secrecy and shame.
Eating disorders work from within, by stealing away your ability to think and reason in a healthy and logical way. From my own experience, anorexia is without doubt an extremely harrowing, dangerous and frightening eating disorder. It is discussed quite frequently in the media, by support/awareness groups, educational institutions, charities, and between family and friends. However, in over ten years since my own difficulties with food began, no one has ever- not once- talked to me either directly or indirectly about bulimia. You would think that the problem doesn’t even exist.
As a society we are not afraid to confront other types of eating disorders. Perhaps it is because of the very hidden and yet brutal nature of bulimia that we shy away from addressing it in the same way. Nothing sends a visceral chill down my spine like imagining the sound of retching. Bulimia is essentially an assault on oneself. It is like undergoing repeated physical and emotional attacks. When I was in the deep, dark grip of bulimia I would feel traumatised on a daily basis, as though I was living a half-life in the shadow of a constant threat.
I frightened myself with bulimia. I felt like I was violating my body, but at the same time helpless to stop. The savage routine of punishing myself had become so ingrained, I felt like I was possessed. I would be left puffy-eyed and with red speckles covering my face from the strain of the blood vessels in my face popping. I had no energy. I didn’t trust myself. I was isolated and helpless.
No amount of purging would rid me of my self-loathing. I wanted to taste food but I was scared of what it might do to me. Of course, I was really scared of what I might do to myself, but I allowed the power shift to move out of my own hands, so that it felt like food was the enemy and I had no choice but to hurt myself.
Food took on a whole new realm of meaning and it went from being delicious and life-giving to threatening and destructive. I used it as a way to express my feelings about myself. I did not feel like I deserved to be well, because inside I felt anguish, loathing and turmoil, and abusing my body in this way became a self-defining act. I hated myself for making myself sick, but I was sick because I hated myself. I didn’t know where the cycle began or ended. I punished myself: endlessly, desperately and, in the end, uncontrollably.
This is the very scary reality of bulimia.
Without help and intervention, bulimia can carve out its channels deep into the unconscious brain. When I was in recovery, I would tremble and shake after eating like someone who was withdrawing from drugs. Over time, bulimia builds up a pernicious and destructive power that goes beyond the conscious mind and into the brain where it lays down its tracks, allowing it to thrive and dominate, eventually destroying one’s health and happiness.
In some ways it is like managing an addiction- a fact which also makes it uniquely different compared to other eating disorders. Since the age of fifteen, I have not managed to go a whole year without suffering a recurring episode of bulimia, often during times of intense stress or depression. However, I am much better than I once was. I had to learn to purge my negative emotions rather than food, and how to confront the void this left in me, which was a painful but necessary process to help me find some of the inner peace I was lacking. I hope that by writing about the experience of living with bulimia and describing it as fully- albeit briefly- as I can manage, I can help other people in a similar situation to not feel ashamed, and to know that there are others out there who care.
So this is me reaching out a hand of support, telling anyone suffering that you are strong and worthy of self-love, despite what bulimia may make you feel. Our behaviours can always change, especially if we realise how they connect with the deeper emotional issues providing them with their driving force. With time, will-power and persistence a life without fear of bulimia is always possible. I encourage anyone suffering to be forgiving and kind to themselves- for that is the first, and hardest, step to letting go.