Eating disorders (EDs) were introduced to me through a magazine article I read in high school. The article was about models suffering from anorexia and bulimia, and its obvious goal was to instruct on the dangers of these illnesses. But for some reason, it had the exact opposite effect on me. Maybe it had something to do with the other pages of the magazine, which were graced with images of beautiful, thin, stylish girls. Or maybe EDs are just part of my DNA and I was destined to end up with one anyway. Significant research has shown a strong link between anxiety and EDs, and I’ve got boatloads of anxiety. Boatloads.
What I can say for sure is that the article remained in my thoughts long after the magazine went out with the trash. It intrigued me to know that there was a shortcut in the weight loss game: vomiting after eating sounded like a pretty good way to cheat the system. So one day when I was feeling particularly fat—and I should note that I was never truly overweight, but certainly heavier than most models—I ate several pieces of cake, then vomited them. Nobody knew. It was so easy. I was hooked.
Fast forward to college, where my binging and purging spun out of control. There was so much food available, especially in the cafeteria, where you could eat as much as you wanted, three times a day. I think the only thing that kept me out of the hospital during college was living in dorms and apartments, and sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with other students. I vomited quite frequently, but logistics made it complicated, because part of being bulimic means keeping your illness a secret.
It wasn’t long, though, before I began to recognize the serious downsides of the disease. My face broke out like crazy, and my social life was strongly impacted, due to my appearance, odd eating habits, and tendency to sneak off to be alone. Also, my studies suffered because I had a hard time concentrating on schoolwork. And yet, I chose not to seek help. At one point, a close friend confronted me, saying she thought I might have a problem, but I presented her with a very eloquent argument to the contrary. And I guess it was convincing, because she never mentioned it again. Of course, I was also extra careful not to arouse her suspicions again.
In many ways, my bulimic years were like a dangerous game of intrigue, although I didn’t realize I was the only one playing. Life was going on around me. My peers were having fun, while I obsessed over food, calories, input, and output. In other words, I was mentally ill. Psychotic. Self destructive. But I wasn’t ready to accept those words. I still saw the whole thing as a phase I was going through; something I’d eventually stop on my own, when I was ready.
After college, I worked in several different jobs—some wonderful, some not so much—but none paid very well. Therefore, I continued to live in various roommate situations involving small living spaces and few bathrooms. If I’d been able to afford my own apartment, I might not be alive today. Because almost every time I was completely alone, I’d binge and purge. And eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
The damage to my body and social life got worse and worse. I slept poorly and felt weak, despite the fact that I was actually gaining weight. (One myth about bulimics is that they’re skinny, when, in fact, the human body soon begins to retain some of the food the person tries to purge.) My heart rate kept getting lower. My face was covered with acne, my lips were chapped, my mouth was dry, my stomach was permanently bloated.
And I won’t even attempt to describe the damage I did to my teeth. Instead, I’ll tell you that almost none of them are real any more. That’s right. Because shortly after I recovered from bulimia, my teeth started breaking off and falling out. My mouth is now filled with a complex assortment of dental implants, crowns, bridges, and dentures, all of which have caused me to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours in the dental chair, and you don’t even want to know how much money. Glamorous? No.
Bulimia also made me reclusive. I’d usually manage to show up at work in the morning, but I’d avoid most social events, making every imaginable excuse because I was self-conscious about my appearance, and also needed time to binge and purge. I dated a bit and had a couple of boyfriends, but no relationship ever felt right, thanks to my screwed up head. I have no idea why my true friends stuck by me, but they did. They are truly special people.
The silver lining of the disease (if you can call it that) was that every once in a while, I’d get so weak, dizzy, or ill that I’d temporarily force myself to stop puking. Because despite my frequent misery, I didn’t want to die, and sometimes, I’d feel so sick that I’d fear falling asleep and never waking up. So I’d summon all my strength, “get clean,” and stay that way for a week or two. During those respites, my skin would clear up a bit, I’d sleep better, and I’d start feeling almost normal. Of course, because I was unhealthy, I’d eventually start binging and purging again, but it was during one of those “clean periods” that I met the man I’d eventually marry.
I wish I could tell you that my ED ended right then and there, but it didn’t. It went on for several more years. My boyfriend traveled a lot for work, so even after we’d moved in together, I was able to hide my sickness from him. It wasn’t until we started talking about marriage that I broke down and told him everything.
And that was when things began to change. Once the words were out of my mouth, the next step became perfectly clear. “We need to get you help,” said my boyfriend. Truer words were never spoken.
The very next day, I called my health insurance provider and got an appointment with a therapist. The therapist listened to my story—and honestly, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to talk to her, once I got started—and she assured me that if I wanted to get better, I could make a full recovery. Even though I’d been vomiting for over fifteen years, she had no doubts. She said talk therapy alone might do the trick, or perhaps I’d need medication too. But the important thing was that she was on my side. And so was my boyfriend. I wasn’t alone any more; I had a team. The relief was palpable. After all those years of wondering in isolation if I’d ever be able to eat and live normally, suddenly I knew the answer.
I stopped vomiting cold turkey. When my official therapy sessions ended—and I still check in with my amazing therapist from time to time—I got married. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I welcomed our first, healthy child into the world. And two years after that, we had a second. I was eating well, exercising, making new friends, and living an active, healthy life. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried about the bulimia coming back.
Then a strange coincidence occurred. We’d moved to a new town, and I’d decided to find a new general practitioner. Since high school, I’d had several different doctors, and had lied to them all about my ED. Now, it felt like time to make a new, honest start.
So I started scanning the names of doctors in our health insurance directory, and found one whose credentials and general location seemed perfect. His receptionist also told me he was accepting new patients. But when she started giving me directions to the office, my stomach sank. “We’re at McLean Hospital,” she said. “In the medical clinic.”
McLean? The famous psychiatric hospital in Belmont? The place where Sylvia Plath was treated? And Susannah Kaysen, who wrote Girl, Interrupted based on her experiences there? No. No, way. I wasn’t going to McLean. Because deep inside, I was still afraid of being labeled mentally ill. Even the medical clinic at a hospital like McLean scared the crap out of me.
One thing led to another, however, and eventually, I agreed to an introductory visit with the doctor. And once I met him, I began to realize that McLean was exactly the right place for my medical care. Because the doctor clearly understood psychiatric disorders far better than your average GP. In fact, I learned that one of his specialties was treating patients with eating disorders. It was pretty amazing. For once, I had a medical doctor with whom I could honestly discuss my health concerns.
So now let’s talk about you. First and foremost, if you suspect that you or someone you care about has an ED, please seek help as soon as possible. If you don’t know of a good therapist, your insurance company may be able to help you locate one. Another option is asking your medical doctor, or someone at the health care clinic you visit. And if none of these options seems right for you, try visiting the website for NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association). This well-respected organization provides all sorts of resources to assist people with EDs, including lists of therapists who can help and links to support groups.
And once you find a good therapist, you may want to look around for a medical doctor who specializes in treating patients with psychiatric issues. Because EDs have both physical and mental components, and it makes sense to keep an eye on both.
Above all, don’t be ashamed. I promise: getting help is much easier than you think, and you’ll be amazed at how much better life gets when you’re freed of your ED. I only wish I’d spoken up fifteen years before I did.
I am sure that writing this blog was very important for you. I don’t think that it is correct to say that I “enjoyed” reading it. However, I did find it to be very informative, and I am quite certain that it will be helpful for those who have had or are currently experiencing a similar struggle. Congratulations on getting the help that you needed…You are an inspiration!
Thank you, Lauren. I didn’t enjoy writing it either, but am glad I did!
Amazing, Mary! Thank you for writing this. The mortality rate fact took me by surprise. Also, this confirms my insistence on no ‘women’s’ magazines- or VS catalogs- in the house. Except for Bust. I’m glad you are here. xoxo
Thanks Karen! I’m so glad you’re here too! Yes, those women’s mags are pretty insidious. Even when they feature good articles, the ads are so powerful. And thank you for reminding me to start getting Bust again. Haven’t read that in a while, but it’s a good one to have available when the kids say they’ve got nothing to read. xo
Good for you, Mary, on so many counts. I think it’s important for people to really understand how this thing can be ‘hidden in plain sight’ and that, unlike anorexia, the results aren’t obvious. It’s interesting that the article spurred it on–I think that happens more than we think. I’ve heard first hand about some cyber-bullying going on last night, following the assembly at school.
Thanks, Julie. And interesting about the cyber-bullying info. From what I’ve been able to gather, much of it’s pretty subtle, but still extremely hurtful. Not always easy to identify as cyber-bullying, even though it is. As for ED education, I’ve seen so many articles about anorexia and bulimia accompanied by photos of attractive models in cute outfits, etc. Too many mixed messages.
Yes, the media is a monster with this ED stuff. I have a niece who struggled for years (I would contend still does, in a different way). I think ask fm is the worst thing ever for cyber bullying–nasty anonymous questions and comments of all ilk and no way to know where they are coming from. Cowardly and shameful. Many kids getting really hurt, and the assemblies are just ramping it up.
Mary, I’m so proud of you on so many levels. Thank you for sharing. And I love the new book title!
Thank you, Jenny, and I’m glad you like the new title! It took a while to work that out, but I like it too.
@Julie So sorry to hear about your niece and hope she continues to get help. EDs take a village to get past, And yes, I’d love to have coffee someday. I don’t know too much about ask fm, but can see how it could be a vehicle for a lot of hurt. Sad, because I doubt that was the intent when it was designed.
I hope you realize that your honesty and courage to write this shows you are a brave and courageous woman. I’m sure your journey to getting well seemed, at times, daunting if not a long road to travel. As much as I am in the chorus of people to praise you for beating your eating disorder, I also want you to focus on the strength and determination you possess to overcome such a thing. I, as well as many others, know that when we feel anxious, out of control, worried,….. we forget the strengths we have at the time when we need them most. So, if you ever feel this way, remember; you have a community of friends who will be there for you, to support you, cheer you on, and remind you of the strengths you have to overcome whatever seems to be holding you back.
With Love and Friendship, Mai D
Thank you, Mai! You’re such a good friend, and I feel so lucky to be part of this community. Some strength comes from within, but other strength comes from the people who support us. Every day I feel grateful for that support.
Thank you for being so honest. I love your husband and I haven’t even met him. I’m so glad that this eating disorder is behind you. I actually had never read or heard someone’s story before. Reading your story, I now have compassion for those with eating disorders. Good luck with your new book and may you continue to inspire with your story, especially giving hope to those who have an eating disorder and haven’t yet had the courage to be honest. Blessings!
Thank you, Marianne, for reading and for your kind words. Yes, my husband is a wonderful person and I really do believe he saved my life. I truly appreciate your taking time to comment and wish me well. Blessings to you too!
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Thank you for sharing this! Breaking the silence helps you and others. Eating disorders are so pervasive in our culture and so is body shaming. In high school, my daughter confided to me about her friend who was purging — a young man. I was surprised because of his gender and because he was so thin to begin with. But that’s where ED is so complicated and often the mental component is often due to a nutritional deficiency. It can be anyone. And I’m so impressed to realize that you wrote about a bulimic woman in your novel. Good for you!
Thank you, Charli. And thanks for reminding us that ED sufferers can be male too. Yes, the majority are female, but for males, getting help can be even more difficult.
Hi, this was so comforting to read. I suffer/struggle with bulimia too. I’ve not been binging and purging for very long, around two years, but I’m realising I’ve had problems with food since I was little. I grew up in a really abusive house and found my own ways to comfort myself I guess. This year I’ve finally reached out for some help and although there’s an 8 month waiting list (I’m glad we’ve got the NHS but it takes a long time!) I already feel a little better that I’ve told someone. I’ve only just turned 21 and I hope it doesn’t follow me for too many more years to come 🙂 hope all is well with you xo
Thank you, Lilly! I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling, and am so happy to hear that you’ve sought help. Gosh, an 8-month waiting period is a long time though, and I hope that perhaps you can find someone or some other organization to help in the meantime. There’s a lot of good information on the NEDA website (http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/). Also, you may be able to get help by talking to your doctor, or at your local hospital or health clinic. In any case, I hope you are able to find the support you need. In my experience, talking about my ED was the first and probably most important step toward recovery. xo