Newest Review: ... Finally we met up and she told me she was suffering from an eating disorder called Bulimia. I knew straight away what it was as Princess Di... more
Fight to Freedom
Member Name: 87degrees
Disadvantages: You hate yourself
A friend of mine recently made a post on her livejournal mentioning a couple of sites and groups about anorexia. I went and had a look and started thinking about eating disorders in general and about all that's happened to me. There are so many people suffering from disorders of different types. I started thinking about my experiences.
I actually wrote this for another site, but I figure it can't hurt to get it out to as many places as possible. If just one bulimic looks at this and takes comfort from my story, then that's a wonderful success. Writing this was the first time I've actually put into words what happened to me and I think it's really helped me come to terms with it and realise just how far I've come.
Most of this is about my personal experiences. One problem with an illness like bulimia is that it's so different for every person. There are some things that are similar for most sufferers, but the cause will be different for every single one of them. That means the response needed is different. People have ideas about what bulimia is. One common misconception is that bulimia is just about people throwing up because they don't want to put on weight. While weight and appearance is often a contributing factor, it's usually not the only one and often not even the most significant cause.
I hope that my story will help people understand this illness a little more.
When I was fourteen, I got really depressed. There was no single cause for this, so I can't easily say when it began. The depression hit me during my GCSE's and school was one of the major factors. I'm above average intelligence and have tended to do well in school, however my older sister works incredibly hard and always come out with brilliant exam results. I know my parents never compared us, but its hard to think like that when you're a teenager and you've got exams coming up that you know your sister passed with all A's and A*'s. So I was worried about doing well in school.
At about that time, some of my closest friends had problems of their own. One friend's parents were getting divorced and she was having to choose which of them she'd live with. Another was diagnosed with a serious illness. Another found out that her mum was dying of cancer. Each of these would have been a sad event in itself and, naturally, made me miserable. Then I started feeling guilty that I was so miserable when clearly my friends had it worse. This just made me feel selfish and that made the whole thing worse.
At some point, I started binging. I don't know how or when. I expect I probably started just having large snacks between meals and the snacks got larger. I didn't just decide one day to go and binge.
At first, I would walk to the village shop and buy a bag full of food. Generally, I would buy a three or four bags of crisps (or maybe a tube of Pringles), a packet of biscuits, some processed cheese slices, a pack of crackers, a load of chocolate and some big bags of sweets. I realised how greedy I must look, so I would generally buy some vegetables or a loaf of bread and try to imply to the shopkeeper that I was buying stuff for my entire family.
Of course, I didn't want him to tell my parents about how appallingly greedy I was. I lived in a small village with one person who ran the shop who knew just about everyone. I was horribly ashamed at how much I would eat, so after this had been going on a while, I would walk to the next village over (about a half hour walk) and buy food from the Co-op there where I didn't know anyone and where my parents didn't shop. I remember once that the woman on the till commented that I must be having quite a party. By this point, I was buying cakes and packets of party eggs as well as what I would have bought from the village shop. I remember that I made up a story about my little brother's birthday. I don't have a brother! I was just horribly embarrassed about how much I was buying.
After I'd binged, I would hide everything. I kept food wrappers hidden in the bottom of my wardrobe or in storage boxes under my bed for days, sometimes weeks, because I didn't want anyone to see. When I threw the stuff out, I would rummage in the dustbin so that I could put my rubbish at the bottom where no one would spot it. Every time I did this, I felt disgusting and I hated myself for needing to hide what I was doing in such a foul way.
At some point near the start of my binging, back when they barely counted as binges, my mum started talking about me needing to lose weight. She never meant it in a mean way, but my family has a history of diabetes and she didn't want me to run the risk of getting it too. My mum was somewhat overweight at the time and she made suggestions of us both trying to lose weight together to give each other support. We went and signed up at a local gym. She meant it completely for the best but it still came at a bad time. She didn't know how depressed I was; I was determined to hide that as well because I felt guilty and selfish due to my friends' problems.
Despite my mum telling me I needed to lose weight, I still went and bought food and pigged out. So I started really looking at myself in the mirror and seeing the rolls of fat on my stomach and the enormous thighs (I still hate my thighs). I would see myself as fat and ugly and knew that I really needed to get thinner.
So I would skip meals and go to the gym and try and eat healthily.
So I would get hungry.
So I would lose control and go and buy a huge bagful of food and stuff my face until I felt full enough that I felt physically sick.
So I would feel disgusted with myself for my lack of self-control. I would see how greedy I was and how fat and how ugly and how I really needed to lose weight.
So I would be more determined than ever to skip meals and exercise hard and eat only vegetables and healthy food.
So it would all begin again.
During my starvation periods, my metabolism would drop and some instinct in my brain would decide it was a famine so I would start craving sugary and fatty foods. And, when I did eat, everything would get stored as fat. Everything I lost while I exercised and starved, I would put on again. I'm not sure how much weight I gained, but it must have been well over a stone and it was all fat, no muscle mass at all. This meant that, as things went on, I began to feel more fat and ugly and greedy and useless.
Between binges, I became obsessed with how many calories I was burning. I would sit in my lessons at school twitching my leg, or wriggling my fingers or anything that would give me just a little bit more movement. I wanted to burn off every single possible calorie. If I could burn just one more by sitting through a lesson clenching and unclenching my left hand, then I would do it.
Since the body uses energy to keep warm, I would run large baths full of cold water and lie in them for ages. It was horribly uncomfortable, but I would lie there and feel pleased that all the body heat leaching out into the water was going to have to be replaced by my body burning calories.
But, despite all this, I didn't think I had an eating disorder. I clearly wasn't anorexic and all I knew about bulimia was that bulimics threw up after they ate. I never made myself throw up. I sometimes did throw up just because I'd eaten too much, particularly if I had a binge in the evening and then tried to go to bed with my stomach still too full. But I never deliberately threw up what I ate. So I wasn't bulimic, right?
If I'd believed I was bulimic, I might have told my parents. As it was, I just felt greedy and disgusting because my mum was telling me I should lose weight for my own good and because she was actually doing really well on her diet. I didn't want her know how weak I was, what a failure I was.
A definition of bulimia, according to wikipedia is:
"Bulimia nervosa, commonly known as bulimia, is an eating disorder in which the subject engages in recurrent binge eating followed by feelings of guilt, depression, and self-condemnation."
Binge eating? Check. Guilt? Check. Depression? Checked, checked and double checked. Self-condemnation? Absolutely!
"The sufferer will then engage in compensatory behaviors to make up for the excessive eating, which are referred to as "purging". Purging can take the form of vomiting, fasting, the use of laxatives, enemas, diuretics or other medications, or overexercising."
This was what I'd misunderstood. I'd assumed that bulimia meant vomiting and therefore I didn't have this mental illness. I starved myself and exercised like crazy, but I thought that was the good thing to do, because it was the only way to get rid of the calories I'd eaten when I'd binged. I felt I had to do something good to make up for my weakness when I'd last stuffed my face.
I hid what I was doing from my parents and my friends because I felt disgusted with myself. I did things that I was horribly ashamed of.
On one occasion, I was binging but didn't really have enough food, so I went to the larder to see what was there. Among other things, I took a bar of dark cooking chocolate and ate the whole thing. I don't like dark chocolate, but I ate the entire bar thinking about how horrible the taste was and how horrible I was to be doing this. Then my mum wanted to cook something and couldn't find the chocolate that she'd bought especially for it. I felt worse than ever because I'd ruined her plans and she was hunting through the larder and wondering if she'd somehow not put it in the bag in the supermarket. Then she and my dad found the wrapper in my room. They lectured me about the fact I'd not said anything. They talked about the importance of honesty and things like that and I just felt so completely worthless that, once they'd finished talking to me, I ended up huddled in the corner of my room crying my eyes out. At that time, there was a part of me that really wanted them to ask about why I'd taken the food. After they'd just talked to me about telling the truth, I think I might have admitted to what I was doing. But they didn't ask, so I didn't tell them. I was scared that if I told them, they'd think I was trying to get attention by pretending I had an eating disorder, which I'd already decided I didn't have.
The depression and the binging both got worse over a period of about six months. Then I decided I'd had enough. I was having a conversation with my sister, I can't remember what either of us said, but I just came to the conclusion that I was sick of it all. I was going to kill myself.
I think that was the first time in almost a year when I felt truly happy.
I decided I would die and then I wouldn't have to worry about exams. I wouldn't have to worry about losing weight. I wouldn't have to worry about my friends talking about their problems to me and dumping their worries on my shoulders as well. I'd just end everything.
I planned it all out that evening. I wrote letters, one to my parents and one each to two of my closest friends. I said goodbye to them. I worked out when I would kill myself. After all, I didn't want somebody walking in and calling the ambulance before I was done. I even worked out what I was going to wear.
It was a morning two days later (this was during the Easter holidays) when my parents were both at work and my sister had gone ice skating. I put on the outfit I'd decided on and went into the kitchen with my letters. I took a knife out of the drawer and tried to slit my wrists.
It hurt like hell and there was blood all over me and all over the kitchen floor, but after a few minutes, the cuts stopped bleeding very much. So I tried to reopen the cuts. I tried to make them bleed more. I didn't even faint.
I don't know how long I sat on the kitchen floor, trying to make myself bleed to death, but I eventually realised that it wasn't going to work. So I started crying like crazy. Clearly I was such a failure that I could even die properly. I thought that if anyone found me like this, they'd assume I was doing it for attention because it was obvious I hadn't done anything life-threatening. So I bandaged my wrists, cleaned the kitchen floor, changed my clothes, buried what I had been wearing down at the bottom of the bin and burned the letters.
My suicide attempt was, without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever done. But, in a strange way, I'm glad I tried. I admitted to my friends (the two I wrote the letters to) about what I'd tried to do. I didn't tell them about the binging, but I let them know about being depressed. They were amazing. One of them in particular reacted to my revelation in such a shocked and terrified way that I realised just how much I would have hurt her if I'd really died. I made a promise to myself right then that I would never try to kill myself again. No matter how bad I felt, no matter how much I hated myself, I wouldn't put my friends through this again.
So, I had two choices. I could live out my natural life feeling miserable and disgusting and hating myself. Or I could get better.
I was absolutely determined that I would be happy again, no matter what it took.
I never sought professional help, though I think I probably should have done. I never took anti-depressants. I didn't even tell my parents! My mum did figure it out though, about two months later, because she spotted the cuts on my wrists while we were swimming.
My friends were an enormous help to me. I think it's safe to say that I would have tried to kill myself again if they hadn't been there. When they found out I didn't want to tell my parents, one of them made me a bracelet so that I could hide the cut that wasn't covered already by my watch. It also helped because I didn't look at my wrists and see the evidence of my own stupidity; I looked at my wrist and saw the symbol of friendship. They were both there for me just being supportive. I think just knowing how much they cared for me helped me more than anything else.
There were times I thought about telling my parents, but I never did. I still felt stupid and ashamed, both about the suicide attempt and the binging. My mum found out after a while about the suicide and she told Dad, but I'd kept everything so secret that neither of them had guessed before that. My sister didn't realise until less than a year ago that I'd even tried to kill myself. And, as thoroughly as I'd hidden my depression, I was more determined to hide my binging.
Yes, there was a part of my brain that knew there was something wrong with me and that I should ask for help. The problem was, I was still too deep in the disease to ignore the self-disgust. I was so ashamed that I even lied in my diary about what I was doing. There was a part of me that said I should confide in someone, but that was the same, reasonable voice that, whenever I went to buy food, used to say, "You don't want to binge. You'll just hate yourself later. Turn around and back home and make yourself a sandwich if you're hungry. You know you don't want to do this."
I never listened then either.
I didn't try and deal with the depression and the binging separately. Each was both cause and symptom of the other. As I gradually got less depressed, I gradually binged less, so I was less depressed about my weight, so I was less guilty about the binges, and so on. As the spiral of guilt led me down to the point of suicide, the road to recovery acted in much the same way. A slight improvement in one side led to another slight improvement in the other.
Recovery was a difficult journey and a slow one. There were times when I didn't think I'd ever be normal again. Then, over year after my attempt at suicide, it happened. It was after GCSE's were over. My school organised a trip to Alton Towers and I was there with my friends. It suddenly occurred to me, "Hold on. I'm happy! How did this happen?"
That was the first sign of how much improvement I'd made and that gave me hope for one day being free completely.
Even then, it wasn't always easy. I had several relapses during sixth form, with the knowledge of my sister's four A's looming as a self-imposed target. Of course, I was still overweight. I don't think my parents ever realised about the binging so my mum would still comment about the fact I ought to lose weight. After all, I had university interviews coming up and I didn't want their first impression of me to be, "God, she's fat!"
The first term at uni was really hard. I was away from all my friends and I suddenly was in a position where I wouldn't have to hide my binges so thoroughly because my parents were miles away. The friends who'd been my strongest support through my depression were now too far away for me to just talk to about how I was feeling. A lot of people struggle settling in at uni and I guess I was no different. I didn't become friends with my housemates. I didn't hate them either, which was good, but there was no real friendship. Besides, they were all the sort to go out and get drunk and party all night, while I'm a teetotaller who hates clubs. Not exactly a match made in heaven.
Then, miracle of miracles, I got a boyfriend. I wasn't out looking to meet guys, it just sort of happened. Suddenly, my self-esteem went through the roof. I obviously wasn't fat and ugly, because there was a guy who wanted to go out with me. The dizzying high of being in love for the first time couldn't keep me so wonderfully happy forever, but it was amazing while it lasted and it's still something I can think about to lift my spirits if I get miserable.
Getting a boyfriend helped in other ways because he introduced me to a couple of societies that I wouldn't have gone to otherwise and through those I've made some great friends and really got involved with the social side of uni that doesn't involve getting drunk every night (yes, this exists).
But, despite the friends and the boyfriend, despite doing well on my course, I still get depressed sometimes. I still have the fear of academic failure if one of my modules turns out to be harder than I'd expected. And, last year, I made friends with a first year who has now been diagnosed as depressed. I'm back in the position of being the shoulder to cry on, which is where this all started. It doesn't help that she frequently forgets to eat (she's not anorexic, she just forgets she's hungry) so conversations will often turn to the subject of food, or someone else will suggest getting take-away if they know she hasn't had dinner. Talking about food and depression just makes me remember what it was like at the worst of my depression and I get terrified of ending up back there again.
My most recent big binge was last October. We were at a society welcome meeting and this friend had missed her doctor's appointment so her prescription of anti-depressants had run out a few days earlier. She was therefore fairly messed up emotionally and ended up yelling at someone and then breaking down in tears, while surrounded by people she hardly knew. I was in charge so I was the one who had to calm her down, talk to everyone else and walk her home to make sure she got back alright. All the time, I kept thinking about how I ought to be able to help her. What was the point of having gone through all I'd gone through if I couldn't tell her anything useful? So I felt guilty that I could do nothing and then I felt selfish for thinking of myself when she was the one needing help and so the whole mess started again. I got home after seeing her safe and just burst into tears. The next morning, I rushed out first thing to the supermarket, bought a huge amount of food and stuffed my face.
I've had a few minor slip-ups, before and since, but nothing on the scale of when I was fourteen and fifteen. Some of my worst moments were last summer. I took a job abroad. My boyfriend joined me for some of the time, but the last couple of weeks, after he came home, I felt really miserable. I was on my own, in a country where I didn't speak the language and where I had no friends, so I binged. I binged severely enough to throw up on one occasion.
I know that I'm now a thousand times better than I was when I was fourteen and fifteen, but I'm still not completely better. I still feel guilty every time I eat something sugary. I still look in the bathroom mirror and see the fat and the huge thighs and think about how horrible I look. You don't just get over something like this. Even though I don't binge much anymore, there are still occasions when I eat more than I should and I hide the evidence. In the bottom drawer of my desk, there's a collection of sweet wrappers and biscuit packets that I didn't want to put in the bin in my bedroom in case my housemates noticed.
I eat regular, healthy meals and I make sure I don't exercise to exhaustion, but I still suffer from a lot of the tendencies that set in while I was going through my eating disorder.
I'm trying to lose weight again. I'm about a stone over the healthy weight (this is according to a fat percentage calculation, not BMI) and am trying so hard not to slip back into bad habits while I get down to what I should be. I've talked to fitness instructors at the university gym about how much exercise I should do at a time, what my pulse rate range should be, how much I should restrict my calorie intake by not to risk the natural instinct for sugary foods to kick in.
In some ways, I've become as obsessive about keeping my meals regular as some ED sufferers get about restricting their food. I have to tell myself not to panic about the calorie content when a friend shares a packet of biscuits with a group. I still read calorie contents and will buy a different drink because the bottle shows it's two calories less per hundred ml. I fret about my boyfriend's eating and make sure he gets enough vegetables and vitamins, because it's easier to worry about his food than my own.
Even though I don't binge two or three times a week, even though I don't starve myself after I've had a bad day and eaten too much, I'm still obsessive about food. I worry about every calorie and every gram of sugar. I fret over having enough protein and fibre. And, yes, I still eat way to much sugary stuff when exam time comes and I start getting scared that my grades will drop and I won't get a first this time.
I'm happy with my life. I've got friends I can count on, an amazing boyfriend and I'm doing well on my course. I'm not depressed in the slightest... except when I look in the mirror.
I haven't gotten rid of the eating disorder completely, no matter how hard I try.
I read a comment online once, saying that the writer had no sympathy for eating disorders (although this was specifically about anorexia) because they could just stop. I wish it were that simple. I really do.
If it were as simple as just stopping then I wouldn't worry about going to the supermarket alone because I'm scared I'll lose control and end up buying a trolley full of biscuits and cakes and just scoffing my guts out. If it were that simple, I wouldn't still look in the mirror and hate what I see even though my boyfriend compliments me when we go out and my friends have commented on me looking nice when I wear a flattering top. If it were that simple, I wouldn't ever have sat and cried, surrounded by packets and crumbs and my own self-hatred.
So, what am I saying? Am I saying there's no hope for people with eating disorders? Am I saying that they're stuck with their problems forever?
Not at all.
I'm happy, mostly healthy and over the past four months I've lost almost ten pounds by completely safe methods. This is something I wouldn't have thought possible five years ago.
It's true that I'm not completely free of my problems, but still having some of the tendencies I had as a bulimic is not the same as still being bulimic. I expect that even these tendencies will diminish over time.
Getting free of an eating disorder is slow and difficult, but it's possible.
So, what advice can I give to people who suffer?
Admit you have a problem. That's the first step. My problems got worse and worse because I refused to admit to myself that I had an eating disorder. I wasn't bulimic, therefore I was just greedy, weak and useless. You can only start fixing things once you know that there's something to fix. If you think you might have an eating disorder, even if you don't behave in the way you believe anorexics or bulimics behave, try reading around online to find out if others have the same symptoms as you.
I won't advise you to tell someone, because that would be hypocritical. I've been hiding my eating disorder since it first began. No one I know in real life knows that I was once bulimic. I suppose that's one of the tendencies that's stuck with me; I still feel ashamed of how I used to act. But maybe you can talk about other problems. I told my friends about being depressed and they helped me enormously, even though they didn't know about the bulimia that was a huge contributor to my depression. Since eating disorders are usually linked with other problems, maybe you have something else bothering you that you are able to explain to someone.
If not, there's always the internet. When I started writing this, I wasn't sure if it was a good idea or if I'd finish it. Now, I'm glad I've written it. It's been almost therapeutic to be able to describe my experiences in words in a way I never would do to my friends or family.
There are loads of online support groups, forums, livejournal communities and mailing lists for people with eating disorders. If you do suffer from an eating disorder of any kind, I think you ought to consider joining one of these. It's a lot easier to talk about your problems to a load of faceless strangers than people you care about. It's also good to hear people talking about the same issues and struggles. When I was suffering, I felt disgusting and useless and as though everyone else would hate me if they found out. But there are loads of people out there feeling exactly the same way. Getting in touch with them, even as just words on a computer screen, makes it easier to accept yourself and to see that you're not such a terrible person after all.
Be careful, though, with these online groups. Some of them seem to be more about eating disorder sufferers encouraging each other. I've seen groups where the members share tips for appetite suppressants and talk about how long they've gone without food. I don't think these sort of sites are a good idea. Yes, you get to know that you're not alone and that you're not a horrible person for thinking like you do, but these sites are likely to encourage the behaviour that you really ought to be fighting.
Check out a lot of different sites and groups before joining any and only join the one that you think will best help you recover. I would strongly recommend staying away from anywhere that's likely to show thinspiration.
Thinspiration is where people show pictures of incredibly thin people to encourage themselves and others to lose weight. If you're trying to fight an eating disorder, it's best not to be anywhere that people are going to show you unrealistic ideals.
My real advice to anyone who has an eating disorder is to keep fighting. It doesn't matter if you slip up every now and again. One binge doesn't mean you've lost the battle to get free. Every day you don't binge is a victory.
The progress can be extremely slow. There were plenty of times when I didn't think I was getting any better. But I did. Try keeping records. You can mark down on a calendar or in an Excel spreadsheet or something every time you binge. But then don't go back and look at it as failures. Wait at least a month before counting up and seeing how many times you've binged. In a month's time, do this again and it will be less. I will admit that this process doesn't work for everyone. Some people look at the records as signs of failure, but maybe you could do it the other way round and mark down each day you don't binge.
Or you could set yourself a system of rewards. Every time you go ten days without binging, you can go out shopping and buy a new top. Find a reward system that works for you.
Give yourself a reason to be proud for every success, no matter how minor it might seem. This will help build up the self-esteem which is the most important part of fighting something like this.
If you do tell friends about your problems, ask them to say what they like about you. Focus on these instead of the bad things. Even if you don't tell anyone, you can still try and do the same thing for yourself. Come up with a list of qualities that you like about yourself and think about those every time you get miserable.
The best advice I can give is to never, ever give up hope. Keep trying, no matter how hard it seems or how many times you slip up. There is a way out of the misery and the cycle of binging and self-loathing.
Happiness is still out there, so go look for it.
Summary: My story and some advice to do with bulimia
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