My topic for this post is one I’ve never before offered to an audience—because it always felt too embarrassing. However, it is a topic that affects too many females (a couple whom I know and care about very much) for me to keep it buried.
I once heard a pastor say that every addiction is an attempt to numb pain. In my case, bulimia was just that. I wanted to bury the pain of depression and a life that had turned sour. It all began one night in 2004 while I was “convalescing” in my first-ever single apartment.
At age nineteen, I had just been released from a mental hospital for depression and a suicide attempt. If not trying to kill myself anymore was any indication of healing, then I guess I was. However, I still thought about killing myself plenty. When not otherwise occupied, I dwelled on death constantly, even looking up quotes about the benefits of suicide and writing them down. This obsession was so great that I had to either find something to numb the pain, or act on the obsession. I found a painkiller. Food. But then, because I also had dangerously low self-esteem that hinged on how closely I measured up to pop culture’s standard of beauty, I needed a way to undo the calories my binging sessions wracked up. I began to purge.
How could someone who is not miserable at the core of her being engage in a behavior as messed up as deliberately overeating and then throwing up? And doing this repeatedly, and with a measure of enjoyment, as if it added benefit to life?
I never planned to start binging and purging, but when life brought me to the breaking point, calling forth all my hidden insecurities, it became easy to do. I had seen some television movies on anorexia and bulimia before; I had even read some novels on the topic in high school, and I remember a lot of other girls in my class reading them, too. You see, even girls who don’t engage in one of these eating disorders are very conscious of them. Most teenage girls, at some point or other, if not throughout their entire teen years, become self-conscious of, or even obsessed with, their bodies. Without even realizing why or how they become so aware of their bodies, teen girls learn to place body in the forefront of their minds; I would dare say they award the body such importance that it becomes powerful enough to either make their lives miserable, if found wanting in some way, or to make life worth living, if they “measure up.”
And the really crappy thing about it is that a lot of teen girls—at least the kind of teen girl I was—don’t feel comfortable talking about this deep pain, so they suffer with it silently. I certainly never made a big thing out of my mammoth feelings of inferiority, but I carried them with me everywhere throughout junior high, high school, and beyond. The times when I did say something about those feelings, I remember being shrugged off or shushed with some simplistic statement like, “You’re not fat,” or, “Oh, you have nothing to worry about.” I don’t remember anyone ever slowing down or taking time to ask me why I felt that way, or what were the deeper issues behind those feelings.
I wonder: Had I mentioned that “I hate myself” or “I think I’m worthless,” would that have gotten more attention? Because these were the real, root issues.
As it was, I couldn’t see the root issues back then–and neither could anyone else. Maybe that’s why being too heavy, or being unattractive, felt like a fate worse than death. When you’ve reduced your expectations for life down to nil, but you’ve agreed to stay alive for other people (but not for yourself), it doesn’t seem such a bad thing to huddle over the toilet seat shoving the handle of your toothbrush at the back of your throat, until you feel the contraction of your throat muscles, the heaving of your stomach, the hot acid of bile as you throw up every last bit of food you enjoyed eating just minutes before.
How can I explain it but to say that since I didn’t have an inner reason to live for myself, life was reduced to outward appearances. If I could get a little joy out of a binge, and then erase the evidence with a purge–that was okay. At least, it was something to do.
Sick as it sounds, this practice was to become a routine for me for the next couple of years. Like my depression, it was to become another dirty little secret. Not until I started getting to the roots—or the underlying negative thoughts—of my behaviors did they start to resolve.
In this post, however, I do not attempt to resolve the problem. I would just ask my readers to think more deeply about what really constitutes an eating disorder. If you are suffering from one, please know that there are issues you need to deal with beyond the behavior. If you are approached by someone with an eating disorder—i.e., they confide in you about an eating disorder or related body insecurities—please don’t shrug them off; the first and greatest service you can do is to listen to her. Try to understand what is going on beneath the behavior. Validate her feelings. And then offer support for getting help.
Note: If you are curious to read why and how I stopped binging and purging, stick around for my series: “My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story.” For more on the power of thoughts, see my post, “Are Your Roots Showing?”