Bulimia and Me

I have had an eating disorder from a young age. When I look at all of the patterns of my past behavior I match the description for disordered eating and body dysmorphia. I would count my calories using MyFitnessPal, restrict what I ate almost everyday, and even throw up my meals when I got home from eating out with friends.

I suffered from bulimia; I shoved away the fact that my eating patterns weren’t normal and ultimately conditioned myself to think that my behavior was typical of a girl my age.

The catch? Based on what I was taught in my health classes, I chose to believe that I didn't have an eating disorder because I never looked, “sick enough” or thin enough, which led me to years of turmoil, confusion and frustration with myself. If someone were to look at me right this second, they would not know that I have an eating disorder based on how I look on the outside and that is the problem: while eating disorders often present physical symptoms, many people do not exhibit them but still suffer. The media fails to project that you can be of any size and suffer from an eating disorder. They tend to focus on people who are underweight and frail. I think because the media stigmatized that perception of eating disorders, I internalized that image and didn’t seek out help; I stayed in the shadows, I never told a soul. The worst part was that my friends, parents and peers never suspected anything. My preconceived notions of what an eating disorder is supposed to look like led me to believe that my situation was not that big of a deal. By staying quiet about what I was going through, bulimia stuck by my side until graduation and eventually made its way to college with me.

I wasn’t actually diagnosed with an eating disorder until my first quarter of college. After crying many, many tears and and clicking out of my university’s counseling website multiple times, I finally made my appointment to see someone about my current situation. I remember when I met with the mental health specialist, (let’s call her Martha), and she told me through very deliberate, sympathetic wording, that I had an eating disorder. I wasn’t surprised when she told me, but hearing those words come out of someone else’s mouth hit me like a freight train. It was an eyebrow raising, mouth gaped open, “Oh, shit. This is for real” moment for me. This moment was complemented by the weight of reality crashing down on me: the realization that I had to face this issue in my life with difficult became tangible. I knew my relationship with my body and food was tough, but I never could put “that label” on it myself; I had to wait until a professional could actually label it and to make it official in my eyes, and for me to realize that I needed help. Looking back on this experience, I realize how my mentality could be seen as problematic but I thought this way because I never wanted to actually admit that I had an issue.

I told Martha, “You know, it sucks, it really sucks feeling like this most of the time. My friends are having fun, going out to dinner and parties, but all I can think is ‘I can’t have Thai food for dinner, I’ll be so bloated’, ‘I hope this doesn’t make me fat’, and ‘that has so many calories, I can’t gain weight’. I don't understand?!” I said this with tears falling down my face onto some weird, purple frilly pillow in her cramped office. On that day, ten years worth of tears released in the span of about an hour. I don’t know where my eating disorder stems from, but I wanted to take control of it and live my life to the fullest. I refused to be torn down by its massive, looming presence. I had so much to look forward to in college, and by God, I did not want bulimia to dictate my every action. That day was fucking hard, but it led to a lot of great outcomes down the road.

The months following my meeting with Martha were not by any means easy. I had days where I didn't like what reflected back at me in the mirror, yet other days where I felt comfortable to be in my skin and ready to conquer the day. Recovery was irregular; there were days where I was positive and unstoppable. On other days my growth regressed. It was tough, but I still give myself a shit ton of credit for taking that first step into getting help and realizing that this was an active issue I had to fight with almost everyday. At first, I had trouble being around people who constantly talked about weight, numbers, diets, and calories. Whenever the focal point of a conversation became about weight, I would use excuses like, “My professor is holding makeup office hours” so I could get out of that situation and not let my eating disorder take over my thoughts. Upon reflection, this tactic wasn’t a feasible approach; I personally could not just worm my way out of triggering, difficult conversations for the rest of my life. If I did that, I would feel like a sitting duck living in fear! Eventually I had to face the more difficult moments but for that time period, this method was was the only defense mechanism that I used after my appointment with Martha.

When I came back from Christmas break, Martha suggested I join a university-sponsored group that specialized in eating disorders and for those who had challenges around their body image and relationships with food. I wasn’t opposed, really, being around people who were tackling similar issues day by day seemed like a good idea. I remember our first group meeting being quite awkward— we were gathered around in a circle, it looked like a scene you'd see at summer camp. As awkward as that first day may have been, that support group made me feel less alone in my struggle because I knew others were going through similar challenges in their life.  The students who came to the group wanted to feel better about themselves, but also empower the others, uplift each other, and spread positivity about recovery. I don’t know if the word ‘“nice” describes the group well enough, but they have shaped my relationship with myself in ways they probably do not know; their encouragement, warm smiles and willingness to share their outlook on life has led me to believe that I too can harbor a more positive mentality and live my life exactly how I wanted. Having that space to talk about my struggles was important, and for me, one-on-one therapy could only go so far.

As my second year of college approaches, I think about the ‘What ifs’. What if I never sought out help? What if my eating disorder made me drop out of school? Those scenarios and possibilities are scary to think about and it’s hard to imagine what my life would be like in those cases, but those experiences do happen to others. I believe it is possible to reach out and get the help you need, although it may be weird, scary, tough, and embarrassing.I felt all those adjectives when stepping into the building to see my counselor for the very first time, but in the end, it led me down the road to self-love, nourishment, and recovery that year. I think what I want everyone to know after reading this is that your size does not determine how sick you are. I wish I paid more attention to the behavioral signs rather than to my weight when I was younger. It’s not too late to get help and find support for yourself while away at college, too. Reaching out can feel devastatingly painful, but I promise, your wellness is so important and I wish everyone who is struggling with their body to seek out support and see someone you can confide in. While I am still in the process of recovery for my eating disorder, I realize I have to make the active choice to better myself each day and accept whatever progress I have made at the end of that day. Baby steps are better than nothing!

Mental HealthElizabeth K.