By Rachael Whitlock
Since the 1990s, clinical eating disorders have been on the rise, with national surveys estimating that nearly 30 million people in America will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives (National Eating Disorder Association). Although many are unaware, I am one of these people. Contrary to popular belief, these diseases are not reserved for teenage girls that wish to look like models. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Eating disorders are not a choice or a diet plan, but are serious illnesses that, if left untreated, can cause devastating physical and emotional consequences. For many, eating disorders serve as coping mechanisms, safety blankets, and identities. For me, eating was about control and simplicity. My eating disorder is called bulimia nervosa, and, although I am recovering, the consequences of my illness still afflict me every day.
My eating disorder first surfaced when I was fourteen years old. At that time, my family had just moved, I was starting at a new school, and my social anxiety soared. I had no friends, struggled in classes, and my self-esteem quickly plummeted. Soon, I began altering my eating habits to cope with my anxieties. I restricted food during the day until I was starving, and binged later on whatever food I could find. The loss of control during binges brought overwhelming feelings of guilt and self-loathing, but these feelings were alleviated by purging, or induced vomiting. My new routine quickly grew into an addiction. For the first year, I denied I had a problem, and allowed myself to believe I was healthy. For me, my eating disorder was the one thing in my life I could control. Bulimia helped me cope with negative feelings, and it became a comfortable habit I refused to acknowledge was harming me.
For the next three years, I continued my unhealthy coping mechanism. However, during my senior year, I became aware of the physical and emotional damage I was causing myself. I felt nauseous all the time, and purging could no longer alleviate the feeling. I also noticed that after particularly severe episodes, my heart beat irregularly, and my body would shake for hours. I also became aware that my eating habits were not normal or healthy, and guilt began to eat away at me. Finally, I decided it was time to quit before permanent damage was done, so I did. For the last six months of my senior year, I was bulimia-free. Stopping was surprisingly easy and, for a while, I assumed I had recovered.
However, my initial recovery didn’t last long. I had a devastating relapse the summer before starting college. I was overwhelmed with the stress of planning for college and then struggled to cope after a particularly difficult situation took place in my life. During these months, I spiraled into a depression I had never felt before. I lost all the self-control I had been working on throughout my senior year and completely gave up on attempting to recover. My days were filled with restricting food until late afternoon, binging, purging, and then crying until I couldn’t anymore.
As I continued to give in, eating became my entire focus. I could not think of anything else. I became consumed with thoughts of food, purging, and my self-image. I hated myself a little bit more with every meal, and the only way to alleviate the feeling was to purge. I was losing the illusion of control my eating habits gave me. Even then, when I realized what I was doing to myself, I didn’t want to stop. By then, my eating disorder had become such a large part of who I was that I couldn’t see anything else. In my mind, I didn’t possess any other qualities. I let my bulimia define me, and maybe this was the reason that, for so long, I couldn’t stop. I felt that if I was no longer bulimic, I would no longer know who I was. Although I hated my actions, and myself, for giving in, at least the feeling was familiar. Since the beginning, bulimia was my identity. In my mind, I justified my actions by thinking, ‘If I allow myself to heal, then who will I be? If I recover, I’ll lose the only part of me I am comfortable with.’ To me, the thought of changing my habits and abandoning my rules was terrifying.
A month before last semester ended, I began to throw up blood after a particularly severe lapse. Caused by unintentionally scratching my esophagus, the bleeding was not a medical emergency, but was a wake-up call nonetheless. That bloody night became a turning point, and helped change the way I viewed my disorder. I no longer saw my bulimia as something that was a part of me, but as something that was harming me both physically and emotionally. For me, bulimia was no longer something that I could control, but something that was controlling me. This shift in my thinking allowed me to finally tell my parents and seek professional help. Although opening up about my disorder first seemed like an impossible feat, it was the first step to recovery. Recently, I’ve begun to participate in online discussion forums and meet people in eating disorder recovery groups. Whether online or in person, talking to others who are dealing with the same issues makes me feel better about myself. Just the realization that I’m not alone takes some of the pressure off my shoulders. Every time I share my experience with someone new, it gets a bit easier to breathe.
My eating disorder was born out of the desire to feel accepted by my peers, but I assumed the only way I could have friends was by being physically attractive. Now, although these feelings still occasionally surge to the forefront of my mind, I understand that I was wrong. I’ve discovered, over the past few months, that I am the only one who criticizes myself this harshly. Other people really don’t care or notice nearly as much as I do. I was my own worst enemy, but recovery is helping me change the way I perceive myself. Even though I still have the occasional lapse, I’ve learned to deal with these setbacks too. I’ve come to realize that, although I am bulimic, I am also so much more. Being bulimic plays a part in my life, but it isn’t everything. It no longer controls me, and it is no longer my identity. My eating disorder does not define me.