Bulimia: my experience, how it affects me today, and the warning signs

I mentioned on my Instagram story the other day about how I was feeling pretty nervous/cautious about writing this post. Thus far I’ve been pretty open about my mental health – the depression and anxiety at least – but somehow opening up about the bulimia is something I’ve been putting off. I want to explore why that is, but first off I just want to say that I apologise if any of what I’m about to write is either triggering or upsetting

I remember quite distinctly the first time I made it happen – the first time I purged what I’d eaten.

I’d always had some trouble with feeling “full”. Feeling full, to me, was a reminder that I wasn’t getting myself any closer to my goal of “skinny”. And yes, “skinny” was the sexy back then – not “strong” as it is now. At the time, on  that first occasion, to simply throw up what I’d eaten seemed logical almost.

I don’t want this to make me fat, therefore I shall remove it. No harm done.

Except, therein lied the problem. There was a LOT of harm done. That first encounter with my bathroom toilet at home set the tone for the next few years for me. That was in year 11 as a 15 year old, and I didn’t recover fully from bulimia until I went to Oxford at the age of 19.

After the first experience of putting my head over a toilet, it became habitual. At my lowest, I would throw up EVERYTHING – breakfast, lunch dinner, the snacks in between. What went in, had to come out. I knew as the food entered my mouth that I would be bringing it back up 5-10 minutes later. I berated myself over my inability to stop myself eating the food in the first place. I idealised the anorexic mentality and couldn’t understand why I had such little self-control to make MYSELF do that. In hindsight, yes, I know I was wrong to view anorexia as a good thing and something to strive towards… but I wonder how many bulimics actually felt the same in that sense.

I felt guilty over my lack of self-control.

I felt guilty for wanting to be “like the anorexics”.

I felt guilty for feeling* fat.

I felt guilty for being a spoilt brat – I mean, who eats to then throw it up? It was wasteful.

*note I say feeling, not being!

Bulimia, I feel, differs from anorexia in the sense that anorexics exert a LOT of control over their food intake, whereas bulimia to me was a complete lack of control. I wouldn’t think twice before putting something into my mouth and I wouldn’t think twice about bringing it back up either.

There were, however, a few elements of control that I put into the mix. I would go through different intensities of bulimia whereby I’d set “rules”. E.g. I would only throw up if the food has carbs, or I would only throw it up if it was a snack, or I would only throw up if the food made me feel “full”. I strongly recall my 30 minute limit that I set too. Purging was ENTIRELY ineffective for me if I waited longer than 30 minutes post-eating to try and bring it back up. It created a sense of urgency for me… and by urgency, I mean anxiety. After every meal I’d be clock watching, keeping an eye on my friends to look for the closest opportunity to excuse myself to go to the bathroom.

Physically,  I was in so much pain. Aside from the emotional turmoil I was putting myself through, my throat was absolutely fucked, for want of a better word. The acidity of the habitual purging against my throat and mouth was rendering my glands to be raw and sore like pain you can’t even imagine. It was around a similar time that I start getting addicted to diet coke – having the bubbles tickle the back of my throat was soothing, and I appreciated the caffeine after a massive dip in my blood sugar levels after throwing up. Other physical side effects that only served to hinder my self-esteem further were the constant spots, and the swollen cheeks I had. Being sick several times a day brings a lot of pressure to the facial area and the “swollen” feeling I also mistook for having a “fat face”.

I remember staring into the bathroom mirror after every episode, seeing bright red cheeks and bloodshot eyes and just feeling the massive wave of shame rush over me. I didn’t recognise myself, I couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. I would stand there for so long sometimes just searching in my eyes for the girl I used to be – the girl that didn’t feel the need to do this. I really felt as though I’d lost every part of who I was. It was exhausting, yet relieving at the same time. As long as I was being sick, I told myself, the food won’t make me fat.

How I managed to stay the “same Jess” in the eyes of my friends at this time, I don’t really know. I was introverted, but silly as fuck, and was always cracking jokes. I had such a low self-esteem that self-deprecating humour became the norm for me… it was a way for me to deal with my self-loathing in a way that was actually socially acceptable.

Self-loathing, in itself, was a huge part of the bulimia. I didn’t hate myself, I despised myself. I would absorb every single piece of criticism I heard from absolutely anyone and repeat it over and over and over again until I made sure I hated myself enough for this wrong-doing. Silly things like forgetting my keys to a school locker would play on my mind all day – I would find accusation after accusation to throw at myself to make sure I really believed I was unworthy and unlovable. There was a good deal of rumination at this point in my life too. I used the “absent father” card to punish myself for not being a lovable human… despite the fact that I had two terrific step-dads who love me endlessly and a mum with whom I share a ridiculously close bond with. Yet still, I chose to focus all my attention on the one person who didn’t want me.

It didn’t take me long to become addicted to the feeling of throwing up. Where the process was so normal, sometimes I longed for the feeling of purging even when I hadn’t eaten. I am ashamed to say that, at times, I would eat purely so I could throw up. The process of throwing up felt like I was ridding myself not only of the food, but of everything that was wrong with me from the inside. It was my form of self-harm,  my form of punishing myself and feeling relief and getting rid of all the pain that I was holding against myself.

After being sick, I’d feel exhausted. The massive sugar crash I’d get just wiped me out. I’d feel physical pain, but mentally just numb – and that numb feeling was MORE than welcome after the post-eating anxiety. During these numb phases I would long for a moment to just sit with my earphones in to block out the world. Music was an outlet, and Linkin Park and Staind made me feel less alone in my turmoil. In fact, one of the best songs to have depicted what bulimia felt like to me was “Crawling” by Linkin Park.

How does this affect me now…

I am now 90% over my bulimia, though I still struggle with food anxiety at times. One of my biggest triggers is actually supermarkets. I find the task of “choosing what to eat” incredibly stressful if I’m already tired or overwhelmed with other things on my mind. It can be quite panic-inducing in fact, to the point where I’ll often leave Tesco/Sains/wherever to let George just choose for me. I don’t like that I still have so much anxiety over food, but I’m glad it doesn’t exist 24/7 as it used to.

How to look out for signs of bulimia:

One of the toughest things I had to contend with as a bulimic is the fact that I wasn’t actually losing any weight from it. (Keep in mind that weight loss and “being skinny” was the main motivator behind all of this). That being said, looking for warning signs of bulimia have to come from elsewhere.

Physical: bloodshot eyes or teary eyes, sore knuckles (yep, another thing constantly in pain), more spotty than usual.

Behavioural: are they disappearing after every meal, or are they anxious around food before/after eating?

Verbal: do they have a problem with feeling full, are they constantly talking about food or weight loss or body image (it’s an obsession), do they have a poor sense of body image, do they often refer to themselves in a negative way?

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