Young women are the group most likely to suffer from bulimia; a mental illness in which binge-eating leads to vomiting. But while around eight percent of women are likely to experience the eating disorder, the majority are still unlikely to talk about it openly or seek help.
Organisations such as Beat work to provide help and support to women and men with eating disorders, but there’s still plenty that needs to be widely understood in order to help those suffering. Here's what you need to know:
What is bulimia?
Beat's Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn tells Cosmopolitan: “Bulimia (or bulimia nervosa) is a serious mental illness. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, or background.
“People with bulimia are caught in a cycle of eating large quantities of food (called bingeing), and then trying to compensate for that overeating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (called purging).”
What causes bulimia?
There’s certainly no one cause of the eating disorder, and it manifests in many different ways - but it’s important to remember that it’s a mental illness.
“Bulimia, like all eating disorders, has complex causes and cannot be attributed to any one factor,” says Tom. “It’s important to remember that eating disorders are often not about food itself, and treatment should address the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause the behaviour.”
For 23-year-old Charlie, her bulimia and anorexia developed as a teenager. “I got stuck in a cycle of restricting what I was eating, binge eating, and other self-destructive behaviours,” she tells Cosmopolitan. “I got sucked into this way of life and just couldn’t find a way out.
“It began around the time when Instagram came out, and this is where I first ended up talking about how I was feeling. There’s a nasty side to this online community which I struggled with at first, like pro-anorexia images and detailed meal plans, which are more harmful than helpful.
“But I managed to find a nice little bubble of people who, like me, knew that something was wrong but couldn't really figure out what it was.
“I didn’t go to my family and friends for a long time. I guess if you don't understand something yourself, it's hard to express how you are feeling. Bulimia also tends to come with a lot of shame and guilt. There’s a worry that nobody would understand what you were going through, or that they would find you disgusting.”
“Another element is that eating disorders are very competitive illnesses. Instead of being there as normal for your friends, in your head you're constantly comparing yourself to how much they eat, exercise, and what they look like. You lose that connection with people and life suddenly becomes very isolating.”
Charlie says the constant messaging around eating disorders made it harder for a long time see that she herself was suffering.
“For a long time I didn't know what I was struggling with. The only knowledge I had about eating disorders was from the media’s representation of anorexia, which was limited to shocking facts, and very underweight people in magazines with the caption: 'I had X amount of days to live’. Even in biology at school, the textbooks would only have a few sentences about anorexia and photos of someone very skeletal and small. I never really felt like I fitted in there.
“Looking back to that time I think, ‘Okay, well how could I understand if I wasn't seeing anybody like me talking about the same sort of experiences?’ At the end of the day, if your size, ethnicity or gender isn’t represented, then you're less likely to recognise that these behaviours are destructive or seek help.
“Thankfully representation is a lot better now thanks to charities like Beat and campaigns like Hope Virgo’s Dump The Scales."
How to help someone with bulimia
For Charlie, seeking medical help through therapy and CBT was key to recovery.
“I was really lucky that when I did eventually reach out, I got the support I needed and professionals recognised that I was ill, even though my weight hadn't really changed," she says.
“When the therapy began to start working, it was a genuine light bulb moment. I realised that there was a way to escape this.
Talking with friends also had a long-lasting impact. “I kept in regular touch with people in the eating disorder recovery community online,” she says. “These friends were the same age as me, going through the same thing. It was really comforting to know that I wasn’t alone with this.”
According to Beat, it can be extremely difficult to help someone you think may be suffering; particularly if they haven’t confided in you. However, they would advise that you:
- Acknowledge to your loved one that they are not to blame (and neither are you)
- Recognise how distressing the illness is for your loved one.
- Educate yourself about eating disorders where you can.
- Ask your loved one how they are feeling and what they are thinking, rather than making assumptions.
- Avoid discussing weight, shape, food, and diets in front of your loved one, and model a balanced relationship with your own food and exercise.
- Remind yourself that things can change and reassure your loved one that recovery is possible.
- Ask your loved one what you can do to help – for example, helping them to stick to regular eating, putting in boundaries following mealtimes, having a space to talk about how they are feeling. Your loved one may respond that you can just “leave them alone” or that you can’t do anything to help, so here it can be helpful to remind them you can hear their distress and how difficult things are, and you are there if they need you.
Although eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, recovery is possible and the sooner someone gets help, the better their chances of this.
Six years on, Charlie says now that she’s better, she wants to raise awareness of eating disorders, campaign for better funding, and help others. “When people think about eating disorders, they normally picture a diet that's gone wrong. But they are so much more than that. Often it’s not a case of wanting to look smaller – it signifies wanting to disappear altogether.
"If I look back it isn't just a case of, you know, ‘accept what you look like’ - it's much more complex than that.
“Recovery is my biggest achievement and I feel no need to hide that – the more we talk, the more that people will reach out.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
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