I know “don’t become bulimic” sounds obvious. And it is. Who would want to regularly perform one of the most unpleasant actions that the body can do? But, for ten years, I did. I’m not alone. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 1-2% of young women in the US are bulimic, too, and an estimated 10 million people are believed to have some form of an eating disorder.
At twelve, I was in a mild state of depression as a result of middle school cruelty (seriously, who didn’t fucking hate seventh grade?). I felt alone, I felt hopeless, but most of all, I felt insignificant.
I had barely stopped playing with Barbies the first time I threw up. After reading a book about a girl with an eating disorder, I decided to do it—just as an experimental a response to eating three Snickers bars in one sitting. I found that it wasn’t pleasant, but it was not terrible either, so I did it every so often for about a year. I wasn’t emotionally attached to it; I just thought it was “cool” to be like the protagonist of that book. And I knew that regardless of what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wanted to be beautiful and unfortunately—and incorrectly—assumed weight was one of the deciding factors in that.
But then I was raped at 13. I began to eat my feelings, gain weight and feel terrible about it, so I started throwing up on a regular basis. It was like a “get out of jail free” card and I intended to use it (at the time, I didn’t realize that you can’t actually vomit all of your stomach’s contents). I would eat, throw up several times, and feel happy. It made me feel freed and normalized. Thus began my love affair with bulimia.
Because I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have to be exact about most of my actions, so I insisted on throwing up 3, 5, 9, 15, or 23 times. Typically, though, 9 or 15 were the marks which I would hit anywhere between a few times a month to twice per day. I thought about it the same way some of my friends felt about yoga or meditation or face masks—it was just a part of my routine.
A few boyfriends were aware of it. They would usually try to convince me that I needed to stop, that it was disgusting, that I was sick. But after a while they would give up. I don’t blame them; their conflict with my illness was as pointless as trying to put out a house engulfed in fire using a water bottle. My bulimia had been there first, it was more a part of me than any of them could be, and they had no idea how to approach a faceless enemy that can’t be reasoned with.
Wanna know something actually sick? I would joke about it with my ex-best friend, Julia, who was also bulimic. She and I would run to bathrooms together to puke, the entire time laughing about the absurdity of the situation and bonding over strange things we’d realized. Did you know that if you throw up ice cream quickly enough, it’s still cold enough to give you a brain freeze? You do now. Twice the flavor, half the calories!” we’d exclaim, giggling at our cleverness.
Obviously, though, it was not cute nor was it clever. Self-inflicted damage is not something two people should bond over, and, for the most part, it was an incredibly lonely disorder. I would constantly flip-flop between desperately wanting to get better and being completely indifferent to what happened to me.
I came to the realization that I needed to cease my behaviors when I was having so much pain on a regular basis that I often couldn’t stand up properly. This had happened a few times, but the level of frequency increased, and even my apathy and dislike for myself couldn’t protect me from acknowledging that it was a big deal. There were these deep, intense stomach pains that felt like they were reverberating all over my stomach and chest pains that, according to my doctor, should have always been considered serious enough to immediately go to the hospital (though perhaps he was exaggerating because he knew I needed initiative to quit).
Finally, I started throwing up blood every few days. It wasn’t just happening when I threw up on purpose; it would happen without any warning whatsoever after I ate any normal sized meal. My doctor said that my esophagus, having been weakened from years of wear and tear, was now more prone to ripping—thus the blood.
I won’t go into the details of how I stopped, because that’s not the point of this story (though if you would like to know, feel free to ask). It was the general way doctors recommend you to quit—therapy, being dedicated to recovery, yadda yadda. The point of this story is the aftermath that occurred regardless of my quitting.
We all know that eating disorders are bad for your body—malnutrition weakens your bones and muscles, you can grow extra hair all over if you’re severely underweight, your teeth become damaged, etcetera. But like many of the fellow eating disorder-afflicted folks I’ve met, I simply assumed that I wouldn’t have to face any of those dangers unless I continued throwing up until I was in my thirties or forties. Between the ages 30-50, by the way, is when most adolescents and young women who presently have eating disorders will finally seek out help (nationaleatingdisorders.org, 2005). I just figured that by the time I got older, I’d have stopped before anything permanently damaged my body. “I’m young,” I thought, “I’m resillient”.
I was wrong. I’m twenty-two now, but by my late teens, I had already received several of those effects.
Having always had a sensitive stomach prone to aches and pains, I was used to discomfort in my gastrointestinal system. However, around sixteen—after about four years of bulimia—I started burping very loudly all the time. But rather than simply air, acid was coming up my throat. My doctor informed me that I had acid reflux disease and prescribed me medication, but over the years, it’s gotten so bad that their assistance is negligible. The sound I make—halfway between gagging and vomiting—has become a running joke amongst my friends, as it sometimes coincides with a gossipy statement or awkward introduction to a cute stranger, but it’s actually pretty painful and just plain gross. What date wants to kiss somebody who’s constantly tossing up acid into her mouth?
I’ve had countless cavities because of the vomiting, but I assumed dental issues were behind me. However, because of the acid reflux, no matter how many times I’ve had my cavities filled, I inevitably get more within a few months. Keep in mind, this is with thrice daily brushing, flossing, and rinsing with pro-enamel wash. Though my smile is fairly straight and normal looking, I can’t actually chew anything hard, gummy, or cold with my back or middle teeth. I actually have to cut food into tiny pieces or suck on it until it’s soft enough for me to chew; it is essentially as though I’m preparing to feed a baby, but that baby is me.
I also can’t heal from infections nearly as well as most people. Between 2007 and 2009, I had chronic Tonsillitis until finally, we had to have them removed, subsequently ending any chances of continuing my prospective opera career. And according to my doctor, I will likely have a weakened immune system for years, in addition to some reproductive side effects I’d rather not go into.
Additionally, convincing your system not to do something that you’ve trained it to do for years is extremely difficult. Though I’ve worked on telling my mind not to want to vomit any longer, my body still instinctively seems to desire it. On occasion, if I eat a normal or large meal, I’ll throw up anyway. It’s like quitting drinking, but then your body produces alcohol on its own so you have to keep boozing onward.
On the topic of alcohol: if I take a shot of liquor, I often have to take it twice—once when I first swallow it, then again when it all comes back up and I have to re-swallow it again. And remember how I mentioned throwing up blood making me want to quit vomiting? That still happens once in a while, regardless of my bulimia’s end.
I know this title sounds nonchalant, as though the idea of vomiting your food each day has the severity equivalent of drinking beer before liquor or plucking rather than waxing. But I mean it in the most serious way possible—bulimia and all eating disorders are not glamorous, effective or worth it. If you’re “seeking control,” as every professional I’ve ever seen has informed me I am, you won’t find it here. It will control you. It will get worse. If you’re seeking weight loss, you will also not find it here: I was perpetually bloated, my weight would yo-yo by 20 or more pounds every six months and many, many bulimics are overweight.
I don’t say any of this to disgust you or to sound tragic or however TV is spinning eating disorder tales these days. I say this because each of these effects has negatively affected my social life, my partying, my relationships, my family life…all fairly soon after the first time my finger touched the back of my throat. Ironically, these are all the aspects I had assumed would improve if I just lost a little bit more weight. Of course, my health has gotten significantly better since I stopped vomiting, so by no means am I saying that anybody who presently has an eating disorder shouldn’t get help right away for any and all mental health issues—it is not a futile fight, I promise. But I do wish I had never started, and I desperately hope that this deters somebody who might have recently started purging from continuing.
The worst part of all of these complications and effects is the guilt of knowing that I did this to my own body. You body is your best friend, your most prized possession; don’t ever betray it the way I did.