In the fourth instalment of our mental health series, Leanne Waters writes about her own personal battle with Bulimia Nervosa
Marking the beginning of an eating disorder is a tricky endeavour. Some could argue it begins with the first skipped meal, or when the body starts to deteriorate, or perhaps not even until one has been clinically diagnosed under those now terribly familiar terms; ‘anorexic’, ‘bulimic’, ‘binger eater’ or whatever the given condition.
The usually weighty prevalence of time becomes unravelled under the influence of such a disease. No longer a mere journey from A to B in your life, time becomes an ambiguous matter and can be warped through the distortions of both memory and thought-process.
To say when I began on my path of Bulimia Nervosa would take me back years and through far too many a personal experience to share. But, as every story must have a beginning, permit me to set my beginning in the latter part of 2008. It was around this time that one could have witnessed the transition from what was once just a health-conscious individual, into the beginning of the most dangerous threat in my life to date.
It began with a diet. Teetering around the unnerving figure of about 175 pounds, I resolved to lose weight. In our image-obsessed culture, where flawlessness and popular ‘ideals’ dominate every media outlet, it was an all-too-natural aspiration to shed some pounds. And there was no disgrace in what I saw, simply, as the pursuit of perfection.
Daily gym attendance before schooldays became the norm for a number of months and eventually escalated to frequenting the gym twice a day and, at weekends, up to three times. The transition from this time to the point of emergency that was to follow is a blurry one.
It entails merely snapshot memories of friends commenting, “Is that all you’re eating?” and nights spent crying about my apparent failure to lose a sufficient amount of weight. To pinpoint what exactly caused this rather rapid transition is a matter that still remains unresolved in my own head.
The real turning point came in the form of a new diet. Your stereotypical yo-yo dieter, I had not been reaching my desired goals and so embarked on what I saw as the fastest means possible. Said diet involved drinking three prescribed milkshakes every day and nothing else. For two weeks, not so much as a morsel passed my lips. The milkshakes provided me with adequate energy levels, while drinking litres of water eased the growing lethargy. In those two weeks of June 2009, I lost a little under a stone in body weight. And yet, it was not enough.
When one reaches a certain weight – one that is natural to your anatomical structure – they may notice that further weight loss is a great deal more difficult. To continue in this pursuit, it requires more restriction and utter dedication. Such dedication is not to be read in a positive light, as more often than not, it demands unhealthy sacrifice.
I cannot remember the first time I purged (self-induced vomiting), but it was a moment that would lead to the most destructive and repulsive of habits. It worked in cycles: fast, binge, purge. During that period, I could manage weeks at a time with no food. Wary of any hidden calories, I avoided food, all drinks and even chewing gum and mouthwash. Brushing my teeth was a necessity, but I cowered over the sink every time for what I was putting in my mouth.
Fasting was – in one way – very easy. My mind was split in two between the real me and the bulimic me. My bulimic self convinced the both of us of how horrid food was, of how watching someone actively put this horrible stuff into their mouth was the most grotesque of sights. And we didn’t want to be that person. Instead, she and I existed on water and black coffee. And we felt pure.
What the average person recognises as hunger pains became excruciating after weeks of not eating. Despite this, such pains were welcomed, as they marked and documented my ongoing success. Along with this, success was seen in my incredibly low body temperature. I was cold all the time, wrapped up in several layers and slept for hours on end, day and night.
The binge – though others may not understand – was arguably the worst part. This was the point of failure every time. This was the point when you gave into all your horrid temptations, when everything you thought you were working for fell to pieces and you lost all control of yourself. But more than this, binging remains one of the most revolting things a person can do.
To think back and try to envision myself in these moments is upsetting and disturbing to say the least. The goal was simple: get as much in as fast as possible. And I did just that. I’ve heard of other bulimics who consider eating so much as an apple as a binge. This was not the case with me. Though I wouldn’t dare break a fast for something like an apple, when I broke it, I really broke it.
Weeks without food leave an individual, quite simply, ravenous. I have one image imprinted in my mind of a 2am binge in which I sat in front of an open fridge for 20-odd minutes devouring everything my fingers touched. For me, a binge would last anything from 15 minutes up to an hour and a half.
Sometimes I would begin a binge with no intention of purging. Indeed, quite often I could barely see past the next slice of cake going down my throat. However, after a time, I would become so violently ill and would be in such agony from what I had done to my stomach, that I would have no other choice; several times I began vomiting before I’d even finished eating.
On other occasions, I would enter into a binge reassured by the fact that I knew I would purge soon after. Purging was, on these occasions, a premeditated act. To ensure its perfect execution, I would be sure to drink as much water as possible to lubricate my throat and make the ordeal a little less horrific.
The purge was almost always inevitable. It would be carried out when nobody was in earshot or when it could be drowned out under the noise of a running electric shower. And it would be noted and concluded, most meticulously, through texture and colouration. Aware of what I had eaten, it was easy to note what had come up and what was left to come up.
Marking when to finish became logical; the substance had, by this point, turned almost to pure liquid and my stomach would start to pull as if someone was trying to yank it out through my throat. It would also make a very distinct noise with every wretch. In this way, I knew I had finished.
After every purge, I would sleep. Incredibly weak, my knees buckling and my whole body shaking, I would retire to the nearest bed or couch and simply collapse into what felt like a coma. Guilt, shame and utter self-repulsion would then ensue and in these moments, I was happy to escape into a forgetful sleep.
This cycle of fasting, binging and purging lasted months. I had been excessively taking laxatives and had lost in the region of about four stone. In reflection, I had reached a point of emaciation. I became very lethargic and weak, with little energy or motivation. Physically, holes began to form at the back of my teeth and I fainted several times during this period, as well as enduring a number of months without menstruating.
Moreover, I suffered from headaches and dizziness and also found that the emotional effects of my situation led me to feel very depressed and extremely isolated. Despite this, I remember lying in bed at night on more occasions that my pride would care to admit, with a feeling of overwhelming satisfaction. I relished in my protruding ribcage and hips and enjoyed holding up my arms to glory in their daintiness. I had reached rock bottom.
Such dramatic changes both in my physique and my character, of course, did not go unnoticed by family and friends. My parents’ constant concern was forever growing and, in hindsight, I allowed their many comments and tears to fall on deaf ears. Similarly, friends could no longer bear what they were witnessing and attempted intervening as best they could. I discarded their concerns and near-abandoned their friendships, replacing them instead with like-minded victims on pro-Ana (anorexic) and pro-Mia (bulimic) websites. The hurt I caused these people is irrevocable.
Ultimately, psychological therapy became necessary. It usually always is. A common misunderstanding as regards bulimia and other eating disorders is the role of the victim and whether said individual has simply chosen this path. To clarify, an eating disorder is never a choice but rather one is consumed by thoughts and behaviours dictated by someone else.
This second party is of course, the condition itself; it is the bulimic self briefly commented upon earlier. Moreover, an eating disorder is rarely about weight loss. More often than not, it is rooted in the very ambiguous concept of control. Months of therapy brought me to understand just that. Having felt as if control over my life and the many facets within it was slipping away, I had resorted to grasping and maintaining the only thing I could. As a result, I sacrificed my health, my psychological well-being, my academia and the well-being of many loved ones.
Though it seems altogether curious as to why one would parade their personal and, quite simply, horrid experiences, I write this piece in an attempt to undermine the shame attached to such an illness. With mental ill health becoming more widely understood in contemporary society, the unveiling of personal realities is, I believe, a necessity.
As stated at the beginning, in marking the beginning of an eating disorder, one may find tremendous difficulty. Its origins lie too far back to account for every reason or justification. Furthermore, the end of an eating disorder comes only when one can live without thinking of it. When it becomes natural to live a bulimic life, any other existence seems grossly unnatural.
As such, it is only when living – as one is encouraged to live – becomes natural that I believe an eating disorder has truly ceased. Until that point, it is a constant battle to shield oneself from the temptations of regression. Such is the state in which I write this article post-therapy, living healthily and fighting an ongoing daily battle.