I used to make myself throw up. There are many more layers to that story, but those are the bare bones of it. I used to make myself throw up and I’ve had a hard time finding a name for it. And it wasn’t until I began finding a name for it that I truly began to overcome it.
Bulimia is defined as a serious eating disorder marked by binging, followed by methods to avoid weight gain. I’ll admit I’ve had a complicated relationship with food and suffered many years of poor body image. And I will say that my eating has been disordered in the past, eating to satisfy emotions rather than hunger. So, it seems natural to categorize this behavior as an eating disorder. But the better acquainted I became with my purging, the more I understood it was never about eating.
Categorizing it as bulimia or an eating disorder would be a misnomer. Because it had so little to do with eating, or my body, or controlling my consumption and had everything to do with ridding myself of certain emotions. Anxiety, stress, sadness, grief. If I was overwhelmed with any one of these emotions, sometimes all at once, I just wanted to press the eject button and push them out. Erase them with the flick of a finger.
I haven’t acted on the impulse in over a year. I did this in part by understanding this was not something for me to recover from, this was something for me to overcome. Because an impulse is just an immediate reaction to something that comes to mind without thought. So I may not always be able to stop the impulse, but I can overcome it when it shows up.
There were still times I wanted to reach my finger down my throat and pull out whatever was upsetting me. I wanted to curl my finger around it and pull it up through my throat and out of my mouth. I craved the release. But the better I got at denying the impulse, the less immediate of a reaction it became. I dedicated myself to developing healthier reactions to stress and they soon took its place.
Sometimes the impulse was relentless. The pressure rising up my throat, poking at the back of my tongue daring me to release it. But I didn’t. Because I made that promise to myself. I promised myself to stop. I didn’t promise my parents, or my boyfriend, or my therapist. I made that promise to myself and only I could hold myself accountable.
I promised to never make an excuse or justify it like I had in the past. No, I wasn’t drunk. No, I didn’t overeat. No, that food wasn’t expired. My stomach wasn’t upset. I didn’t need to throw up. I wanted to. That’s the distinction, that’s honest. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to because I liked how it felt. I liked the ritual of it. I liked the feeling of release. I liked feeling empty and hollow, scraping my insides clean of any negative emotion that was clinging to the sides, hiding under my ribs. But rather than do that, I write this. I share my story and talk about it, make it a conversation. Because the sooner we talk about it, the sooner it loses it’s power.
My biggest challenge in overcoming this obstacle came when I recently got food poisoning. Already a violent experience in itself that was only made worse as I denied myself from feeling sick. I had convinced myself I would never throw up again and therefore became angry at myself for feeling like I needed to. I couldn’t distinguish whether I was actually sick or making it up. Did I need to or want to? My body and mind were disconnected.
This visceral experience taught me a valuable lesson. We must listen to our bodies. They know so much more than we do. Rather than deny the impulse in an attempt to overcome it, I now practice reflecting on the reckless feeling and recognizing it for what it really is. A defense mechanism. I used my purging as a way to not feel what I’m afraid to feel. A barrier attempting to protect my heart from negative emotions. When the truth is, we don’t need protection from negative emotions. On the contrary, we need to welcome them with open arms. Feel them, become intimate with them, know them by name. It is then that we can truly appreciate all the good we have.
Defense mechanisms come in all shapes and forms and destructive habits. But all they are are mental blocks, emotional walls. These barriers only lock the good out and keep the bad in. When we knock them down we can finally see from a more positive perspective and let the good into our lives. The longer we fight to keep them up, the longer those negative emotions will continue stirring inside of us, finding anyway they can to break out.
Like I said, I consider this a matter of overcoming, not recovering. Only because putting it into those terms for myself gave me the perspective I needed to take it seriously. Someone else’s experience is certainly going to be different. But the solution has to be the same. To stop. Purging is not sustainable. It began to ravage my immune system, mental health and slowly but surely, my teeth. I was constantly tired, getting sick so easily I was in and out of urgent care more times than I can count. All because I was ridding my body of the nutrients it needed to sustain itself. As soon as I started to call it for what it was, I began to reclaim control. The more honestly I discuss it with those around me, the weaker it becomes. The stigma disappears along with the shame and the guilt.
You see, self-destructive impulses and compulsions have a way of disguising themselves. In rituals, in superstitions, in comforts. And everyone has at least one. Some are inconveniences while others are life-threatening. I urge everyone to reflect honestly about these behaviors to determine if you should seek help. If you see that your behavior is affecting your health, your relationships, your identity, its time to start calling it for what it is and helping yourself overcome it.