I spent a quarter of my life trying to conceal my bulimia through such great lengths that I’m surprised I haven’t yet murdered someone and gotten away with it. During my illness, days would be spent smuggling in family sized packets of sugar laden, fat dripping foods to consume in my bedroom within an allotted space of time – usually 20 minutes, else it would become more difficult to throw up for scientific reasons I don’t need to know – then quietly vomiting it up into our shared family bathroom – or indeed whatever was available to me at the time – I think I threw up into a bag in my bedroom once – then cleaning up the splattered toilet seat and concealing the smell of half digested food, so that the next occupier of the bog didn’t become suspicious. To do this once and get away with it is difficult, but to do this multiple times a day for many years and not get caught is pretty impressive – if that’s the word to use.
When I finally overcame my greatest fear and allowed myself to become vulnerable enough to share my struggles with an eating disorder with those who read Not Plant Based, my family, friends and the whole internet, I felt very proud, but also, in some ways a little disappointed. There was not one negative response to my “coming out”, and many came forward too to admit that they too had an eating disorder and that they too worried everyday about what they put into their mouths. But a trend was forming. Most of these people willing to open up to me had anorexia. Within the first month, no one had directly approached me to say they had, or had had, bulimia or binge eating disorder like me, and I was left feeling like a child that no one wanted to play with at school. Sitting, sulking on a bench, waiting for a familiar, tooth-scarred hand to grip my wilting shoulder and tell me that I wasn’t alone. But this didn’t happen.
A year down the line, and a few have since come to me to share in my experiences of bulimia, but not nearly as many as I had hoped for or anticipated. Surely not everyone who followed us only struggled with restriction? Surely some of our followers must have battled with eating too much and regretting it too? There had to be an explanation.
When I was young(er), I transitioned from developing what I thought to be anorexic tendancies with a 600 calorie a day rule and over a stone in weight loss within a month, to discovering I could make myself sick as a delightful escape from the pain of being hungry 24 hours of the day. Initially, I had thought that bulimia carried no consequences except but to be both skinny and able to eat whatever I wanted when I wanted. I had no idea that you could be any size and bulimic, or more specifically, I didn’t realise you could be fat. Had I known that I could have possibly put on weight with this new “diet plan”, I certainly wouldn’t have started it. Putting on weight is exactly what happened to me as my urges to binge became so strong that the calories going in exceeded what I was able to purge. I felt like a failure. Why was I putting my body through all this stress and not even achieving the results that I wanted? To be skinny. Furthermore, I began to feel like I had surpassed the point where I could tell people about my eating disorder in case they thought, “but you’re not really skinny?!” How could they believe that I couldn’t control what I ate when I looked so “normal”?
Remembering my own fears of opening up when I had bulimia made me realise why our readers might be reluctant to tell me about their own problems too. They probably felt the same as I had: Ashamed. Beat, the eating disorder charity, say that “people with bulimia often maintain a “normal” weight and they often hide their illness from others. It can be very difficult to spot from the outside. Moreover, people with bulimia are often reluctant to seek help.” This is no surprise given the stigma that people who are a “normal” weight, or who are fat, and with an eating disorder face. About a month ago, an image of a hoody being sold on Amazon surfaced on Twitter met by outrage at the slogan “Anorexia. Like Bulimia, except with self control” that was stuck on its front. How are people meant to feel able to talk about struggling with bulimia if it is considered to be just a lack of self control? I know that’s how I felt people would react, and this hoody is a confirmation of that. I had felt like I was rubbish at having an eating disorder.
It’s not just the general fat-phobic public or the fucking idiots at Amazon who tend not to take those who are bigger and with an eating disorder seriously. To be admitted into an eating disorder treatment facility within the UK on the NHS, you generally have to have reached a certain low BMI number. An article published by the BBC last year shared the story of Eliza Small who started seriously restricting her eating and was referred for specialist help. Her family had a history of eating disorders, but she was refused specialist outpatient mental health treatment because her BMI was too high. She said: “It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough at my eating disorder. It made me feel like I would have to get better at it.” I hear that, Eliza.
The article also estimated that around 40% of people with an eating disorder have bulimia, 10% anorexia, and the rest other conditions, such as binge-eating disorder. If just 10% have anorexia and these are the eating disorder sufferers who qualify for treatment (and rightly so!), think of all the other people out there who are struggling, but are simply “too big” to be considered to be needing help. Bulimia is dangerous. It can destroy your teeth, cause fits and muscle spasms, as well as heart, kidney, bowel and bone problems. Bulimia can even kill you. Some of Amy Winehouse‘s family members attribute her death to bulimia.
I haven’t been totally alone since launching Not Plant Based, despite my moaning. I did find an incredible young woman named Georgia who also had bulimia. Like me, Georgia never asked for help. In fact, me and Georgia were similar in lots of ways. When we met finally, we even discovered that we had the same goal weight, despite being very different in both height and shape. She never reached that weight, and felt like a failure because of that. “You feel like you’re being a bad bulimic, it’s so twisted.”
I’m not suggesting that every other person with bulimia out there steps onto an online podium and declares their illness in order to get better. That won’t work for everyone, and it certainly wasn’t the reason I was able to recover. But I do want to open up the conversation surrounding our reluctance to talk about bulimia, or admit that we’ve been there. It’s far easier to admit that you have a problem with food when people can see your bones, as there’s no avoiding that. It’s there, it’s visible. Bulimia leaves a lot of room for secrecy, which sometimes makes it harder to address.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that if I could get some mates who would be willing to tell me that they once vomited in their ex boyfriend’s parents en-suite sink too, that would be nice. (Sorry if they happen to be reading this, lol.)