Warning: Some of the content featured in this article could be triggering.
The thing I hate the most about my bulimia is that it makes me feel so sweaty. These are the words I hear in my head when I’m binging or purging: 'You’re fat, you smell bad, you’re an ungainly, awkward, heaving mess.' It’s proof of my shame. Bulimic Me is the version who still gets spots, the one who has stains on her shirts, who becomes privately and irrationally tearful when she feels a bit left out during a WhatsApp chat, and feels so tongue tied and embarrassed so often that her cheeks are permanently hot to the touch.
I like to think that I have done a very good, thorough job of hiding Bulimic Me, and making sure no-one discovers her. Sometimes I prop her up in plain sight and disguise her. I talk about my teen eating disorders, and the way I dealt with difficult feelings by bingeing, purging and starving myself. I talk about how I learned to nourish myself, and what it took to forge a happier, healthier relationship with food and my body. I talk about trying to eat mindfully and intuitively, asking myself the right questions as I go along. And I invest a lot of energy in looking like a person at peace. See my broderie anglaise, my layers of tiny diamond pendants, my glossy hair and nice shoes! I look like a woman in her mid-thirties who has her shit together. Not a frightened teenager whose chin and soul are covered in sick.
I do not really talk about what happened a couple of years ago.
To be honest, I’d hoped that on the outside it looked like I was on dazzling form. Lots of very exciting events were going on. A Big Work Thing was happening, and I was doing plenty of posting and boasting on social media. Also, I’d been following a very restrictive diet. I’d lost weight – and felt, perhaps, like a reality star whose DVD workout sales were plummeting.
Why, I kept wondering, did I have these things I had wanted for so long, but not actually feel any different? Surely now, I should be content. Why didn’t I feel more envied? I’d invested a lot in coveting other people’s experiences. I was irrationally angry that I couldn’t feel anyone else coveting my life, and what I had worked so hard to become. So I drank. I drank in a way that might have looked like fun, if you stood ten metres away from it and crossed your eyes. I drank with friends, I dressed up, I made a conspicuous effort to be very social. But every time, I drank until I was drunk enough to get annihilated on my drug of choice – food.
It’s tragic and hilarious that I would be thinking about my midnight Domino’s at 6pm. Or that I would fight with my boyfriend about leaving parties before the kebab shop shut. It makes me sound like a Viz cartoon. All I wanted was to be drunk, in bed, guzzling, and as numb to everything as possible. The funniest part of all was that I was still on this stupid diet. When I was sober, life seemed perversely religious. I could achieve spiritual bliss by living on the No Bread of Christ. Then when I was drunk – most nights – I was on holiday from real life and pretending that my actions didn’t have any consequences. I could repent in the morning by going without breakfast.
The rules and boundaries around what I ate, and when, started to dissolve. It occurred to me that I could purge my problems away. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but I do remember being stressed about a deadline, and lining up a pouch of chocolate buttons, a family sized sack of Frazzles, and a bar of Dairy Milk, devouring them before bringing them straight back up. I remember being upset about something a friend had said or done – not the fact of the incident, but the feeling – and going to the freezer, eating two small tubs of Haagen Daas and making myself sick before hiding the tubs at the bottom of the bin. I remember eating leftover pizza for breakfast, maybe three vast, greasy slices, chewing hurriedly, not tasting – and then panicking because my magic trick wouldn’t work. I saw my tears making ripples in the toilet bowl, disturbing the pointless layer of bile. It was all I could manage to bring up.
After a couple of months, I confided in my therapist. I still love her for just listening. She didn’t say stop. She didn’t sound shocked. She simply thanked me for telling her. Very gently, she helped me to join the dots. The weird diets I’d done, over the years. The difficulty of living in a world where I could try to love my self every single day, but there are too many voices and too many feelings in the mix not to hate it sometimes, and then feel as though I have failed twice over. The numbness. The pain of always feeling judged, feeling visible. The way I’d put so much energy into trying to control my image, I’d attempted to burnish my own sarcophagus until the effort had hollowed me out. This is why I’d been trying to fill myself up beyond the point of comfort. I’d wanted to suffocate my feelings for a long time.
I got better. I started to notice when I felt panicked and out of control, which was often, and simply sit with the feeling. I talked nonsense to myself. ‘Love, let’s give it half an hour. If you still want to eat until you’re in pain and puke it all up, I shall take you to Tesco, but for now, let’s just sit. Where does it hurt?’ I stopped drinking for a while, and when I started again, I promised myself that would only toast the moments when I was already feeling genuinely joyful. I stopped constantly using food and drink to drown my pain. It still happens every so often, but I’m getting better at being kinder and more patient with myself.
Honestly, I think that bulimia will always lurk in the background of my life. I’ll never conquer it entirely, or completely lose that panicked, teenage feeling. But I do believe that recognising this means I can manage it. A bad day doesn’t have to spiral into a terrible week or month. There will always be times when my relationship with food becomes especially stressful. As funny as it sounds, I will never be able to stay relaxed while navigating a hotel breakfast buffet. It’s very difficult to maintain a healthy tolerance of a dangerous drug, when it’s the substance that is keeping you alive.
For more information or help regarding bulimia visit beatingdisorders.org.uk
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