Editor’s note: In this two-part series, a Dallas family gives an inside look into the world of a bulimic. First, the daughter, now in her thirties, talks about the things in her life that led up to her eating disorder. Tomorrow, her father will share his perspective on how he learned about his daughter’s bulimia and how he helped her through it.
If you suspect your child is having trouble with an eating disorder or seems distressed or depressed, please talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.
There’s no way I can describe bulimia in a way that will make anyone understand. Anyone other than a fellow bulimic.
I know, intellectually, how disgusting it is to think of sticking your finger down your throat and making yourself throw up. But to me, there is something comforting in the act of doing so. It makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself. See what I mean? If you’re not bulimic, this is not going to make sense to you. But I will try to explain it.
How I became a bulimic
Something happened when my parents got divorced. I will never understand how a divorce like the one my parents went through translates into me becoming bulimic, but I believe that was the start of something screwy in my life.
Their divorce was amicable. It happened when I was 8. The moving trucks came to our house just a few days after I finished second grade. I remember sitting on the brick fence around our house, under a mimosa tree, watching moving guys loading furniture into moving vans.
I’m not saying that my bulimia is my parents’ fault. It’s no one’s fault but my own. They never made me eat entire boxes of Frosted Mini Wheats and then forced me to throw up. But somehow, I just didn’t handle their divorce and their subsequent dating and remarrying well. The bulimia didn’t even kick in until I was in college.
Maybe it was the moving around. I moved back and forth between my parents three times before I finally went off to college. I lived with Parent A and the alcoholic step-parent for a year or so. I lived with Parent B and my new wonderful other step-parent for a year. Then back with Parent A for four years. Then back with Parent B for three years.
During this time, an impossible amount of rage was building inside. I had good, close friends, but I hated everyone else. Especially myself. By my senior year, I often envisioned myself as two people. One version would lie on the ground so the other version could kick me and beat me up for being so ugly and such a horrible person.
My freshman year in college was fun and horrifying at the same time. I went to a university seven hours away from home. I went through rush and joined a sorority, where I felt so out of place. These girls were confident and beautiful and classy. I was small and ugly and had no social graces whatsoever. They formed immediate friendships with each other. I made a few friends but was petrified to show my true self to anyone. Up to this point in my life, I loathed every part of who I was, so it was hard to try to reach out and let other people get to know me.
I remember the first time I made myself throw up. Or tried to. At first, it’s really hard to do. My stomach didn’t know what to do the first time I tried it, so I just gagged a bunch but didn’t throw up. Just like anything in life, practice makes perfect.
It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college. I was living at a camp in the Hill Country of Texas. I was a camp counselor. I had 12 or so 8- to 9-year-old girls in my cabin. It was a sports camp where campers could choose from a dozen or so sports that they wanted to participate in. I was the cheerleading and gymnastics coach. Over a two-week period, I taught one simple, short cheer. I was so depressed, I wasn’t motivated to get out of bed and teach cheers.
While I was at camp, my mother was in a car accident. My grandfather, who I loved very much, died. As I was leaving the camp to go to my grandfather’s funeral, I got in a terrible car accident. During my grandfather’s funeral, when family members and friends brought all kinds of food, I gorged on everything I could get my hands on. This was the way I dealt with the stress of death and car accidents and deep self-loathing.
What it feels like to throw-up
When I returned to camp, the binging continued. On disgusting, rubbery chicken breasts and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and graham crackers and chocolates. After a week or two of doing this, I realized I was out of control and had to stop eating this way. But I couldn’t seem to make myself stop. So instead, I went into a restroom during a break in my day and I tried to make myself throw up.
I wasn’t successful at first, but after three or four episodes, I started to get good at it.
When my sophomore year started, the binging and purging continued. I would eat to ease the stress and then throw-up to relieve the pressure and swelling in my stomach from all the food. The feeling I would get after throwing up was sheer relief.
If you are a runner, you’ve probably experienced this feeling. You know when you finish a really great run where you’ve worked your body out hard and you have an endorphin rush? That’s the same feeling I’d get after eating and throwing up.
The beginning of the end
Several weeks in to my sophomore year of college, I realized that I needed help. I felt isolated and friendless at college. I hated myself more than words could say, and I was so fat, I couldn’t bear to look at myself. (Looking back, I was probably not more than 10 or so pounds past a normal weight for my height).
I called my parents and told them what was going on. I withdrew from school and moved home (with Parent B and wonderful step-parent). I got into inpatient therapy. I got a job for the rest of the semester. When the new semester started, I transferred to a different university that was much closer to home.
At my new university, I found a psychologist who ran group therapy sessions with other students who had eating disorders. I began taking an antidepressant. I began a long series of one-on-one counseling sessions with a therapist.
The therapy and medication helped, but nothing eased my self-hatred more than binging and throwing up. I continued to binge and purge throughout college and my early twenties, despite therapy and medication.
One therapist suggested that I put a sticker on a calendar for every day that I didn’t make myself throw up. I’d get through a week or two or three and rack up all these stickers. I used those little metallic star stickers that come in green, red, silver and gold. The same ones elementary school teachers use to slap on test papers when a student got a good grade. My coworkers would see the stickers in my Day Runner and ask what they were for. I’d tell them the truth about my bulimia. I felt like keeping my eating disorder a secret made it dark and made me feel isolated.
Telling other people about it ended up being helpful to me. The success made me realize that I could, possibly, break my cycle. When I didn’t earn a star sticker, I saw it as a road bump—not a complete unraveling of all the good work I had done previously.
The acts of reaching out to my parents for help, group therapy, individual therapy, putting stickers in a calendar and being open with people was the magic combination for me. I don’t know how other women (and men) make it through.
A never-ending battle
But the work’s not finished. I remember the last time I made myself throw up. I was in my early thirties and during a time when I was feeling out of control. I only did it once or twice before it hit me just how badly I didn’t want to get back in that cycle again. I stopped myself before it got too far.
I think bulimia will always be with me. I will always obsess about how many calories I’m eating each day and how much I’m working out. I despise hearing family members (especially those who know about my bulimia) talk about their low-carb diets and tummy tucks and such. I try not to make a big deal out of it, but my heart starts racing when the subject comes up.
I am blessed, though. I have a supportive husband who knows about the bulimia. I have children now, and I do everything I can to make sure they have consistency and stability in their lives. I realize that any traumatic experiences they go through as children will likely manifest itself in a way that may not come to light until they are much older. I do the best I can to make sure they know they are loved and know that they can always come to me when they are upset or depressed. I just want them to be happy with themselves.