The reason I’ve never used the words “eating disorder” to describe what I now understand to me my bulimic behaviors is because most of the discourse around eating disorders is about weight loss. The poster image of the Eating Disorder is the thin, white girl in baggy clothes with dark circles under her eyes.
Sure, there are young, white women who have eating disorders who do look like this. The thing is, there are also men, women of color, and fat men and women who have eating disorders, but their stories are erased in the Lifetime movies and PSA videos we’re shown in high school health classes. This is a problem because we don’t even recognize it as a problem, and I’m speaking from personal experience here.
I’ve been purging since I can remember, and I didn’t necessarily start because I thought I was fat.
Of course I had self-esteem issues. It’s a reality that plagues most pre-teens as they approach and continue through puberty. Your body is changing, and it’s weird. It feels foreign. One day you’re just like your classmates and the next day you’re the girl in class with the biggest boobs, and this is a huge source of anxiety. So much so that it gets hard to look into a mirror every day and see yourself as anything other than ugly or awkward. Middle and high school kids are relentless. The thing is, I didn’t start purging because of any of this. Maybe I did, subconsciously, but I can remember coming home from school one day and just doing it. My parents had been fighting the night before, and I think I’d gotten into an argument with some girl at school, and I felt too full, and somehow I just knew that purging would make me feel better. It did. For at least a little while afterward I felt clean. I felt clear-headed and light. So I did it again the next day. And the next.
I started thinking of it as “refocusing.” If I was upset about my parents fighting, or issues with my brother, or because some lacrosse player that I thought was in love with wasn’t in love with me, I would tell myself that I needed to go “refocus.” It would be painful and gross for a minute, and then I would feel alert and light again. I think that even as a 14-year-old I recognized the element of control inherent in purging. If I’d been doing it solely to lose weight, then I’d have given up after the first month, but it wasn’t about that. It was about finally having a way to instantly eliminate any heavy emotions I was feeling, because I knew that if I had to sit and acknowledge that I was depressed, then I wouldn’t be able to function, and for many years it seemed to work.
Back in October I started sleeping with this awful guy. He was awful for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that he was, admittedly, an emotional manipulator and a self-proclaimed “mean asshole.” Why I was sleeping with him is a whole other issue that I’ll need to tackle at a different time. Despite the fact that his sociopathic tendencies completely exacerbated what was already a very emotional time in my life, he was the first person to acknowledge that A) I have an eating disorder and B) It is a problem. To make a long story short, at the time that we were dating I was incredibly depressed. I stopped eating for awhile, which isn’t abnormal.
I always stop eating when I’m extremely depressed which is ironic because the binging and purging happen, mostly, when I’m less depressed and feeling fairly stable; I think the purging allows me to continue feeling stable and to control the depression when it’s within a controllable threshold. Anyway, he noticed this, and because he’s not one to shy away from a touchy subject, he asked me about it. I told him, “Sometimes food just has zero appeal to me. The feeling of food in my mouth physically makes me sick.” To which he responded, “The fact that food has to have appeal at all is the problem. Food is nourishment for your body.” So I told him about the purging, and he so matter-of-factly said, “Yeah, um, you have an eating disorder stemming from an anxiety disorder, and you should probably deal with that,” and then he went back to doing his Art History homework.
I can go for months without purging, and then I’ll have two or three weeks where I do it multiple times a day. This is, in part, because thanks to some therapy and a lot of self-work post my sleeping-with-the-awful-guy phase, I’ve discovered healthier methods of coping with things like anxiety and depression. Sometimes though, the only thing that refocuses me is purging. Learning to deal with things without engaging in self-harming behaviors is a work in progress. I also feel that a part of me still does it because I have a difficult time acknowledging that it is in actual disorder, and I feel like I have difficulty acknowledging it as such because I don’t fit that stereotypical image of the bulimic girl. You would have no idea that I struggle with it if I didn’t tell you, and even if I did, I don’t think most people would believe it. I don’t know that anyone that I know who reads this who knows me will believe it. Plus, it’s not something that you want to admit, which is what is most problematic; when you have a mental disorder that isn’t physically apparent, it is ignored.
Because of this, I feel that telling my story is important. I feel that exposure is important. It is easy to brush a mental disorder aside when it is something that can’t be touched, or traced, or seen by someone else. It’s easy to say that it’s nothing, when in fact, it is a defining feature of your life. So, as weird as it is to broadcast it to so many people, if it is a step in the direction of helping someone out there see these behaviors as harmful, even if they don’t fit the “eating disorder image” then I’m willing to do it.