I suppose you could say that my eating disorder started at 14 but, as many people with disordered eating will tell you, the foundations were probably laid years before that. Like many families in these times weight and dieting were discussed frequently and terms such as weight, weighing scales, fat, slimming and dieting were part of our daily general discourse.
My best friend had asked me to record a movie on the television about a girl with an eating disorder. I had little interest in watching this but I sat down and watched it with her the next day. To this day I don’t know what the attraction of this movie was but I was absolutely fascinated by it. At this stage I was a little overweight and probably needed to lose a stone or so. Being in an all girls school I was surrounded by talk of ‘puking after eating’ as a way of losing weight. Many girls were known to have tried this practice and some had had successful results. I was slowly becoming seduced by the whole idea of this method of weight loss, it seemed so easy and quick with little in the way of deprivation or hardship.
The first time I forced myself to be sick was unpleasant and upsetting but I remember the absolutely wonderful feeling of purity and emptiness following it. I had eaten an entirely normal meal and yet had eaten nothing at all! I resolved to keep up this regime until I reached the golden weight of nine and a half stone. And I did. Nine and a half stone came and went but this was too easy. Within 4 months the daily routine of no breakfast, no lunch and an evening meal which was promptly vomited was about to take a sinister and terrifying turn which was my first real ‘binge’. The irony of bulimia is that it starts out as a situation which is completely in the control of the person. However, it quickly snowballs and becomes a situation which is totally uncontrollable. My first binge terrified me because I had no control over it, the hunger was from deep within and was insatiable.
Although my parents were quick to act on this situation by getting me psychological help the behaviour continued regardless. My weight was slowly spiraling downward which to me was a validation of what I was doing. As long as I was getting thinner I could cope with the fact that my world was closing in on me, pushing everything out except my weight and preoccupation with everything to do with eating/slimming. Anorexia is a lonely and ritualistic existence. My morning weigh-in was sacred and nothing was allowed to interfere with the ritual. Friends fell away as I felt unable to socialise. School was a struggle as my ability to concentrate was all but gone. When the vomiting stopped being effective as a weight loss method I began to starve myself. At the age of 17 I was living on approximately 60 calories a day. I was so hungry I thought about food 24 hours a day. Every night I dreamt that I was eating uncontrollably until I was stuffed but then couldn’t find a toilet to get rid of the food. I still have that dream sometimes. The feeling of all that food in my body with nowhere for it to go was utterly terrifying and I would wake with my heart racing.
When I weighed little under 7 stone I was admitted to an inpatient programme for eating disorders in a Dublin hospital. In the 9 weeks I spent there I gained roughly a stone and a half but this process did little in terms of recovery as I didn’t feel that I needed/wanted to recover at that stage. I felt I wasn’t thin enough yet and felt embarrassed and ashamed of myself when I compared myself to the other girls on the programme who weighed as little as 5 stone. This is one difficulty with programmes such as these is patients can’t help but compare themselves to each other. Where my figure was comparable to any Hollywood actress these days, the truth was I was starving and unable to keep any perspective on what was happening to me but all I could see was that the other girls were similar to famine victims and this prevented me from being able to make any kind of a recovery. The truth is I felt like a fake. When it eventually became apparent that I wasn’t making any kind of recovery, but that I’d gained enough weight to satisfy the criteria, I was allowed home.
I never lost the weight again after that. My weight hovered at the 8 stone mark much to my distress and the bulimia was utterly out of control. Despite this, I managed to secure a place in university and I set off with the hope that I could lose the weight once I got there away from the watchful eye of my parents. By the Christmas break I’d gained a stone and despite what family and friends believed to be an improvement and possible recovery , this couldn’t be further from the truth. I was utterly devastated by this weight gain and felt completely out of control of my bingeing. Two days after Christmas, in desperation and hopelessness, I took an overdose. This seems such a dramatic thing to do under the circumstances. On the face of it I had so much to live for. I was bright, had a good family and could have had a successful future and yet I felt driven to this. This is the problem with bulimia where the sufferer may appear to the outside world to be able handle anything but inside they feel completely desolate and disgusting and just completely out of control. When I visited the campus nurse to discuss my condition she commented that I looked ‘so sorted’. I took great care with what I wore and how I looked to the outside world but internally I was in turmoil.
By the end of the college year it was obvious that I was going nowhere with my course and so I deferred my place in college and returned home. For the next couple of years I worked, did short courses, wandered. I felt locked into my bulimia but as I had gained even more weight I felt unable to admit that I still had a problem. I dreamed of a return to the perfect state of anorexia. Bulimics often feel that they suffer from ‘failed anorexia’ where they don’t get the daily boost of weight loss. Many bulimics strive for starvation but fail constantly. This is a very demeaning way to live your life and can lead to very low self esteem due to a constant state of failure. Starvation and losing weight can become the Holy Grail and the normal goals of passing the leaving cert, getting a degree or having a career fall by the wayside.
Those years were very dark. During this time I let my family down, my friends down and myself down. I had become alienated from everyone I loved and could see no way of ever redeeming myself in anyone’s eyes. Family and friends, no matter how much they love you, can lose patience after a while. My family could see I had gained the weight back so why was I still unhappy? Why was I still vomiting? It obviously didn’t work anymore so why continue with it? The unhappy truth about bulimia is that your body does eventually adjust to the constant influx/outflow of food and becomes extremely clever at holding on to what it needs.
At 21 I met the man who was to become my husband. This isn’t a fairy story. He didn’t come along on a white horse and rescue me from misery. However, he is a good man and being loved by him gave me back some self worth, helped me to realise that I could have a future. A year later I returned to my degree and began to hope that things might get better. And for a while they did. I lost the extra weight, started ballet classes, made friends and had a riotous social life. But old destructive habits die hard and the bulimia was far from gone. There were days, weeks, when I didn’t make it into college, where I sat in my little flat all day, bingeing and vomiting, only wandering outside to buy more food before returning to start the whole sorry process over again. When I did make it into college I pasted a smile on my face, did my hair, wore impossible mini skirts with high boots and paraded like a peacock, desperately needing approval from my male peers. And I got the attention I needed but ended up losing my boyfriend. A couple of messy years ensued and I eventually, miraculously, got my degree.
I started my first proper job at 25 and re-united with my boyfriend. Having a responsible job did wonders for my self esteem. I was good at something! My boss had so much confidence in my abilities and although I still went home each evening and binged for a couple of hours, during the day I was eating like a normal person and very rarely vomiting. I can’t emphasize enough how important this time was to my eventual recovery. The sense of normalcy around food during the working day gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to be fully recovered, and it wasn’t as terrifying as I’d imagined. I was beginning to wonder why I ever binged at all. I think so much of my behaviour was just habit. It was so engrained, so much part of my life that it seemed incongruous that there would ever be a time when I wouldn’t spend at least some of the day locked in the practice of bingeing and vomiting.
When I discovered I was pregnant I was happy but cautious. How could I care for a baby while I still behaved like this? The bulimia became even worse during the pregnancy as I felt so out of control of my weight gain. Trying to vomit while you feel your baby kick is an exercise in guilt that is beyond expression. I fretted daily about my unborn child and what untold damage I was doing to it. As I went into labour I insisted on returning my lunch before setting off for the hospital. As my baby struggled to be born I emptied myself of 300 calories. Thankfully she was perfect, plump and healthy. From that day to this all my bulimic feelings, tendencies and behaviours have all but disappeared. I can’t explain what changed in those few hours following my daughter’s birth but the joy she brought filled whatever gaps I had been trying to fill with food for years. Most amazingly of all is my impossibly normal attitude to food now. I could never have believed how unmoved I’d be by a cream cake, tub of ice-cream or chocolate bar. I spend so little time thinking about what I’ll eat but I eat whenever I feel like it. Most importantly, I don’t weigh myself. Ever. It is so easy to become a slave to the scales, it robs you of perspective and can ruin a perfectly good day.