Coming to Terms with My Relationship with Bulimia
*Trigger warning for disordered eating*
“Isn’t that the one where you make yourself puke?”
I faltered here. It was the first time I’d uttered the words “eating disorder” in years. We’d been seeing one another for a while at that point, and one night – after a couple of neat Jamesons and some soft post-coital conversation in the dark – I thought it was about time he knew.
It was only fair, after all. It seemed necessary to explain some of my tics: the deep aversion to dinner plans, the all-too-often antisocial tendency to drink excessively, the dithering hands that tugged at bits of skin and worried over my knees and stomach when I thought no-one was looking.
So I told him. It was a middle-ground, mid-length version: the Baby Bear’s porridge of my most unexpected secret. Telling the tale – coming clean, whatever you want to call it – was nothing short of cathartic. It was a verbal regurgitation of years of self-inflicted physical torture. Needless to say, his flat response stung.
“Yes,” I blustered. “Yes, it’s that one.” The one with the puke, indeed.
I broke things off between us shortly after. There were many reasons for this, but the po-faced reaction to my darkest personal perplexity lodged itself firmly in my then-untarnished view of him. Unfair as it might sound, lifting the lid on a self-destructive second life spent hunched over a toilet bowl is a supremely difficult thing to do; as such, a snub becomes a splinter.
It’s news to no-one that eating disorders are a thorny subject. Personally, I never liked being one to saddle my myriad abnormal behaviors with the label “eating disorder,” just as much as I still refrain from talking about bulimia as a condition that I grudgingly admit, I continue to live with. There was a time, probably a decade ago, when an admission to an eating disorder was alarmingly ordinary – but alas, the tides have turned. In the era of oversharing, we’ve moved on, grown up, and started Instagramming our boutique brunches instead of withholding them altogether and whining about it on Tumblr at 2 AM.
This is, ultimately, a positive thing. Food is cool again, and for good reason: women are not only permitted wobbly bits but are encouraged to celebrate them. We accept dietary restrictions –with gusto, in fact – but, as a culture, we do not cater to those who never developed a healthy relationship with food to begin with. It’s passé to confess that the most basic of human needs is a private source of great anxiety; furthermore, it reeks of privilege. Therein lies the conundrum that leads people like me to suppress, shroud, and ignore the sickness that prevents them from performing –let alone enjoying – a function that most first-world people take for granted.
I couldn’t pinpoint when it began. I started out in life a fussy eater. My poor parents watched me pick through meals, removing anything and everything that I deemed too “smelly” to enter my mouth. But my family at large were always big on eating everything on one’s plate, so over the years I developed a habit that would make me look particularly gauche in France: that is, I learnt to eat everything in front of me, every single time. Tastebuds became irrelevant; hunger cues went ignored. My late teenage years introduced the art of stress-eating, coupled with a sudden incongruous realization that my body needed to look a certain way to garner attention from boys. Fast forward a few years and several (often self-induced) hardships later, I locked myself into a hamster wheel of inane coping mechanisms that oscillated between laxatives and vomiting, depending on the time and occasion.
And, at its worst, no-one knew a damn thing.
After a particularly hard year or so, I made a conscious decision to stop making this a daily habit. Unsurprisingly, to ye normal folk at least, I made it through a week – which turned into a month, and then a relatively unfettered year – without returning to the toilet bowl for anything other than natural causes. This became the norm, for a long time, so to my mind I was as cured as anyone could be.
Then life took a downward turn, once again, and I found myself retching over cardboard boxes in the backyard in an attempt to get food back out again without being heard. Everyone has different versions of rock bottom, and that is mine.
The thing is, at a certain point, the compulsion to purge takes on a savage personality of its own; it becomes less about the way you look and more about the euphoria of release. It is with complete honesty that I confess to having moved past the juvenile tendency to blame unrealistic beauty standards in the modern world, or any of that gumf that people superficially associate with this seemingly-superficial mental illness. It certainly isn’t the whole story, anyway; the true allure of a binge is purely for the thrill of a very twisted form of self-control. I see it for what it is, of course, and I’ve become adept at avoiding it when it beckons – but nevertheless, it never stops crouching in an as-yet-unidentified cobwebbed corner of my mind. It is a physical manifestation of having your cake and eating it too, which becomes nigh impossible to rid oneself of after having practiced it for so long.
I was reminded recently of “Mia,” the old colloquial abbreviation for bulimia; I’m not sure where the reminder came from, but it was probably another unsuccessful finger-ramming stint that left me feeling subpar and overstuffed. For those who don’t know, “Mia” became the thwarted *friendly* term for bulimia back in the good ol’ days when eating disorders were a frighteningly prosaic topic. I believe the idea was to personify the condition, making it easier to talk about. And hey, maybe that works for some, but for me it’s always had the opposite effect. I’ve never been convinced that such an unglamorous, grossly encompassing illness should (or could) ever be talked about casually.
That said, I found it interesting that in its general usage, we also use the word “MIA” as an acronym for “missing in action,” which is something that most people who have had so much as a brush with bulimia nervosa can probably relate to. Physical symptoms aside, the mental toll that this disease takes on individuals is nothing short of monstrous. In my case, I have wasted cumulative months of my life saying “no” to what could have been wonderful experiences with friends and family because I had selfishly ensnared myself in a cycle I was too short-sighted to step out of. I have missed birthdays and goodbyes and umpteen other sorts of social events purely because I felt too heavy, too anxious, too afraid to be sat in front of a plate of food I had no means of ridding from my body at will.
That part stuck. I have been MIA from normalcy for a long time, my friends. Anyone who truly understands this disease will know precisely what I’m talking about.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a miraculous happy ending to my own story –at least, not yet. My short-lived attempt at therapy didn’t end with a sudden light-bulb moment that instilled a sudden yearning for three square, well-balanced meals a day. It helped, for a while, but it didn’t account for life’s more turbulent moments. Instead, I have created a space for myself where I am well and truly alone, for the first time in my adult life, to face the mean frenemy in my mind head-on. It will take time, but for once I’m on nobody’s schedule but my own.
If this resonates with you, I implore you to stop feeding the beast with secrecy. One thing has become glaringly obvious to me, of late, is that in order to forge a sense of order, it is necessary to be transparent with the people in your life who care. That means your real, tangible friends, as opposed to the E.D. that masquerades as one. Instead of pushing yourself to please, putting your mental health before the desire to uphold every social event is paramount. True friends will acknowledge this and grant some leeway here and there; they won’t simply gawk and ask asinine questions.
Perhaps more importantly, if you’re reading this from the other, dare-I-say privileged end of the spectrum, and you know someone who sees fit to share the burden of an eating disorder with you, there are some things you ought to know. Make socializing about anything and everything that doesn’t involve food. Don’t ask about specifics; just check in, give love, encourage therapy, and trust that your person is able enough to figure it out alone. The last thing anyone with an eating disorder needs is a helicopter parent, but we also do require a level of investment from those close to us that emanates warmth.
I’m happy to say, here, that it’s been weeks since I permitted Mia to take the reins. This has been a daily battle, but it’s one that I continue to win, and – unlike like the adage goes – I do believe that battles won do, ultimately, lead to winning the war. Moreso, much like interpersonal relationships, a series of disagreements can be as much a strengthening experience as an excuse to throw the towel in. Learning this takes time, and that’s okay. Marriage to the secrecy and shame of an eating disorder is a process that can, in fact, be undone. The first, and most crucial, step is simply to lift the veil.