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Four doormat-size slices of plain cheese pizza with extra marinara sauce. Two fudge brownies. And a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
That was my daily go-to for comfort—only to be vomited back up immediately. Because, heaven forbid, an ounce might be gained.
It was mortifying to go down to my local New York City pizzeria and bodega. It felt like they all knew that I was a closet puker. It was hugely embarrassing to be addicted to food. Somehow, as wrong as it is to say, it seemed much cooler to be addicted to alcohol or drugs—more rock-n-roll, Keith Richards style.
Being a food purger is something done in isolation. Many addictions can end up being solitary, but I am pretty sure nobody ever became a bulimic at a group barf party.
Approximately 4.7 million women and 1.5 million men in the United States alone suffer this disorder. Mostly, bulimia nervosa is more common in adolescents, but has been discovered in children as young as six years old. Yikes. Percentage-wise, 1.5 percent of all American women will suffer bulimia-nervosa in their lifetime. Yikes again.
I had been playing this deadly routine for years while living in an Upper East Side shoebox with my roommate, Paula. She never knew. I was stealth-like in my abilities to hide my hideous relationship with food—even after it became necessary to adjust to softer foods, like pasta marinara, because it was easier to regurgitate. It was also quieter and caused less choking. Anything too heavy such as a double cheeseburger and a bucket of fries was pretty painful to pull back up. Yeah, I know. Gross.
Hiding the evidence of empty food containers and vomit spots under the toilet seat was of the utmost importance. The cost to continually feed myself as if I were a family of 10 was also straining my limited finances. My deepest relationship, if you could call it that, never made it past a one-night stand. No one, including my gray cat, Tasha, would see me in my undies, let alone naked.
I was lost. The perfect storm of growing up in an alcoholic home and overdeveloping at the age of 11, started my tailspin. Overdeveloped is an understatement. There was no “over the shoulder boulder holder” that could contain my gi-normous-size boobs that hung low like large pendulums. And I lived in Florida then. The land of the bathing suit. Egads.
It was difficult to hide and there was a lot of duct tape involved, which only created a large shelf that I could almost set a plate on. Convenient, since food became my closest friend. Some might say how lucky one is, to have such a figure. Well, I guess if you consider “porn-style ta-tas” that have deep red stretch marks and point straight down, lucky—then sure.
Sorry, no. My 11-year-old self did not know how to manage.
Instead of managing, I had my secret fetish. It went with me everywhere. It was challenging to vomit quickly and quietly in group bathrooms. Like the one with those awful florescent lights when I worked as a receptionist at MTV, or the overcrowded, smokey ones when I was bartending in the East Village. It did not matter where. Flights? One can barely stand straight up in those minuscule porta-potties, let alone bend over the bowl. And yes, holidays required extra care in going undetected while the entire extended family cajoled in the festively decorated dining room for Thanksgiving. Or Birthdays. Or anytime.
The guilt. The shame. The embarrassment. It kept me in the bulimic closet for over a decade.
But the feeling. The counterfeit comfort of consuming the food was like a love drug, satisfying some deep dark hole that seemed bottomless. It didn’t matter that it was wreaking havoc on my finances or ruining my skin, or my teeth. How does one stop an addiction that is required to survive? Food, unlike crack or booze, isn’t something one can just cut out of their lives. Kind of a conundrum, don’t you think.
The Mayo Clinic lists some risk factors caused by bulimia:
>> Negative self-esteem and problems with relationships and social functioning
>> Dehydration, which can lead to major medical problems, such as kidney failure
>> Heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat or heart failure
>> Severe tooth decay and gum disease
>> Absent or irregular periods in females
>> Digestive problems
>> Anxiety, depression, personality disorders, or bipolar disorder
>> Misuse of alcohol or drugs
>> Self-injury, suicidal thoughts, or suicide
You might think one or two of the above would get someone to stop gorging. But no. The madness carried on.
It is somewhat of a relief to know that Columbia University studies are now linking biological similarities between bulimia and drug addictions.
Unfortunately, one of the common responses to the admission of this disease is “Why can’t you just stop?” Even when I finally felt that I was bottoming out and told my roommate, she didn’t believe me. My secretive skills were that good.
Turns out there was another level of bottom. After going back undercover for another year with my vicious food cycle and self-loathing, my health started to deteriorate. I called my mother. This is the single most difficult call of my life, so far. It was the most important one—and as you can imagine, the most emotional.
That call for help came after I had breast reduction surgery—finally. It was an immeasurable sigh of relief to be able to wear a T-shirt at the age of 25, and the difference that it made was enormous. Being comfortable in my body didn’t stop the purge cycle, but, it was the beginning of the end of my disordered eating.
Although, I have been recovered for over 20 years now, the process of my individual healing was a long one. Until eating disorders are viewed as symptoms instead of the problem, recovery will remain limited in success.
Bulimia is beatable but there are no easy answers like “Just stop.”
Perhaps the questions of why we abuse our bodies are more important than the answers. Why are we afraid to reach out? How bad is it going to have to get before one makes the call for help?
Asking for help is the hardest part and it takes tremendous courage. No way around it, just gotta go through it. Putting my fears on the page also helped push me to take this critical step.
And reaching out goes both ways. My mother had a feeling something was wrong and understandably did not want to hurt me. She had her own darkness to deal with and was doing the best that she could. If you suspect someone you love is battling this problem, then be brave and say something. Yup, and it’s going to be uncomfortable but you just might help someone open the door to healing. Make the call to a loved one. It can save a life.
We must also look at how are we influencing our children. I cringe anytime I hear an adult say anything about dieting around a child or teen. How about good ole healthy eating? For me, one of the pivotal points for my recovery was to stop dieting. Food is not the enemy. Our relationship with food is the foundation of a healthy body and mind.
What are the triggers of eating disorders? The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. Many factors could play a role in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, biology, emotional health, and societal expectations. Learning to identify your triggers is an integral part of healing. It helped me a lot to deal with this in therapy. Finding a good therapist and/or group is likely to have a profound effect on recovery success.
So, why are we eating when it’s not to nourish? Keeping a journal was, and still is, a great help in catching my runaway feelings. Pouring yourself out on the page is like purging. Except that you don’t need to spend any money or risk your health. Back when we used day-planners instead of technical devices to organize our lives, I marked a smiley face (the original old-style emoji) each day I made it though without vomiting. X marked the days I didn’t. Little by little, there were more of the smiles. As silly and perhaps small as this might seem, tracking my progress was empowering and helped beat the inner critic who drove me to gorge.
It’s important to be aware of the the messages are we receiving and sending on social media and all media, too. This is the gorilla. It can be a trigger for self-doubt and wondering why we all don’t look perfect in a dental floss thong. It all looks so smooth, sparkly, and fabulous out there! We have the power here to be aware of what we put out on these platforms.
And finally: How can we make friends with ourselves? Especially the parts we don’t like so much? Maitri: one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and be of benefit to others. It means fully embracing all of our qualities. Yes, those parts of us that have mood swings, our internal struggles, and yes, our cellulite. I remind myself often that there’s strength within my sensitivity which many, including myself, sometimes perceive as weakness. We are not broken. We heal when we practice radical acceptance with ourselves.
Bulimia is not beautiful. Its power has affected celebrities like Jane Fonda, Princess Diana, Lady Gaga, Elton John—I know, Rocketman! It’s comforting to know we are not alone.
Healing from this traumatic disease is absolutely possible. Make the call.