Firstly, a thank you. Thank you for all the messages in response to my piece last week where I spoke about my experience of bulimia feeling like the “failure” eating disorder. Thank you to all those of you who shared in my pain, and who heeded my pleads for friendship with others who are equally as mentally fraught as I am.
There was one message on Twitter that I received, which is the reason for this post. It read: “Interesting article, but by focusing on vomiting as the only purging in bulimia you exclude about 40% sufferers (myself included).” That’s a very fair point. One that got me researching, and allowed me to discover that bulimic methods extend a lot further than what I had originally assumed, given my own story. According to B-eat, besides vomiting, people with bulimia try to compensate for overeating by taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively – these are all known as purging.
One brave sufferer of bulimia told me: “When talking about eating disorders and bulimia, the first thing people think of is vomiting. That’s what we are taught in high school health class. I didn’t vomit, so I didn’t think that I had a problem. None of my physicians asked. None of my therapists or counselors asked. They all assumed I was fine because I was at a “normal” weight.”
I believe it would be insulting to many people for me to skim over all the other types of purging in one piece, especially given my little understanding of them all individually, so I’m going to start with laxatives.
Ahh, laxatives. Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we? Laxatives make you shit. People with bulimia often take laxatives to shit out their food in an effort to lose weight. Poo, poo, poo, poo, poo. Good. Glad we’ve got that out of our system. What a relief.
People don’t tend to like talking about their toilet habits on the internet, which is why I haven’t yet spoken about my short fling with laxatives during my most difficult time with bulimia. I abused laxatives only for a few months. I say only, because that is a blip comparatively for the length of time that I had bulimia. I started overusing them during my short-lived time at university. I would buy them over the counter, in any local supermarket, and work my day around when I could take them so that I wouldn’t be caught shitting myself in public. I was also still making myself sick during this time, in an effort to combat my enormous binges. The more laxatives I took, the more I had to take in order to have the same effect, which was to empty my bowels.
Taking laxatives can be very addictive, as another person explained to me: “I must have taken a full packet over the course of 2-4 days, every single week for about a year, and I was hooked on them. It ruined my digestion, ruined my ability to uptake nutrition, and put me in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. Laxative addiction is very serious. You will experience splitting headaches, pain up to your ribs, you’ll feel like lying down all the time, and even after you’ve weaned yourself off of them for about three months (which is what I found) you won’t be able to pass a bowl movement yourself. It’s degrading, painful and embarrassing.”
I remember one particularly embarrassing laxative-related experience of mine, where I invited a boy back to my halls room for some smooching, forgetting I had taken some extra-strength tablets earlier in the day. Just as he had gotten comfy on my bed, I demanded he leave after reading the aggressive gargling in my stomach. I knew what was about to come. I gave him no explanation, and he left. One person I spoke to, correctly described laxatives as “social-life killers”. I would very much agree with that.
I didn’t stick with using laxatives as a method for losing weight for long. This was mostly because I worried that they wouldn’t rid me of all the food I had eaten during my binges, and I preferred a pre-digested method of disposal. My limited experience however, did make me understand how easy it would be to become addicted, and how “feeling empty” can be a pleasurable thing. Someone else I had spoken to agreed: “I couldn’t purge [be sick], so would over exercise and take laxatives. I was taking them regularly with diet pills to feel on top of everything. I liked feeling empty.”
Laxatives are a type of medicine, supposed to be used to treat constipation if lifestyle changes, such as increasing the amount of fibre in your diet, drinking plenty of fluid and taking regular exercise, haven’t helped. They can be taken in tablet or capsule form, sachets of powder, suppositories or in liquids or gels.
The main laxatives used in the UK are:
Bulk-forming laxatives, which work in the same way as dietary fibre; they increase the bulk of your stools by helping them retain fluid, encouraging your bowels to push the stools out.
Osmotic laxatives, which soften your stools and make them easier to pass by increasing the amount of water in your bowels.
Stimulant laxatives, which speed up the movement of your bowels by stimulating the nerves that control the muscles lining your digestive tract.
& stool softener laxatives, which increase the fluid content of hard, dry stools, making them easier to pass.
Oh…and those skinny teas you’re opting for instead? They’re nothing but glamourised laxatives, too, and can be just as consuming, as another sufferer explained: “At first I turned to what was a seemingly innocent way of combatting the binges, which was ‘weight loss teas’. You know, the ones that cost £25 from health food shops and provide you with teas for morning and night to lose weight and prevent bloating. When I took these I found that I was actually losing weight and felt a lot more emptier, but I could still enjoy a binge. Finally I had found a way to eat as much as I wanted but maintain my weight.
“However the affect of the weight loss teas began to subside and my body was taking the physical toll of binges, and I was putting on the pounds, feeling worse than ever and heavy.”
Ideally, laxatives should only be used occasionally and for short periods of time, and you should stop taking them when your constipation improves. Laxatives should not be used for weight loss, and quite simply, they doesn’t work for this purpose anyway. According to Eating Disorder Hope, laxatives actually work by targeting the large intestine. This means that once food passes through the small intestine, nutrients from the food have already been absorbed into the body. Any weight loss observed is solely from the loss of water, not calories or fat, and will only be temporary if the individual rehydrates themselves appropriately. I certainly found that I did not lose any weight by overusing laxatives, nor did I in the long run from making myself sick.
Abusing laxatives can be dangerous, and often results in a variety of health complications and sometimes causing life-threatening conditions. The most common consequences of laxative abuse are dehydration, symptoms of this range from dizziness, weakness, confusion, fainting, and prolonged dehydration can lead to death. Other side effects are bloating and fluid build-up, constipation, blood in your stools, permanent impairment of the digestive system, an increased risk of colon cancer and withdrawal after prolonged use. Laxative dependency occurs when the colon stops reacting to usual doses of laxatives so that larger and larger amounts of laxatives may be needed to produce bowel movements.
Please, if you think you have a problem with using laxatives, see your doctor, or if you’re lucky enough to have access to an eating disorders specialist, go see them. Taking too many laxatives can have serious long-term implications on your body, and they don’t even help you to lose weight anyway!