Bulimia and I have been best friends since I was 13.
At the time, my parents were fighting, and rage permeated our house. At school, I was the awkward immigrant kid, hoping someone would see me.
But I had a few wonderful hours every day after school, when my parents weren’t home and I had the house to myself. That’s when my friend and I would sit together and watch our favorite shows — Three’s Company, Love Boat, Fantasy Island — and eat anything we wanted without prying eyes. Piled-high ham and cheese sandwiches on soft white bread, handfuls of freshly-released-from-the-bag potato chips and soft, chewy Toll House chocolate chip cookies.
The problem was, the high we got from food eventually vanished and we’d be left with the hangover — the shame, guilt, disappointment. By age 15, the food highs weren’t enough, I needed a way to deal with the repercussions — the bloating and self-hate.
One day, I went to the bathroom and pushed two fingers down my throat. It was scary but also a thrill. I got relief. The consequences were flushed away. The desperate need and its violent extermination now just a memory.
Bulimia comforted me, celebrated with me, entertained me. She was always there no matter how hard things got and she knew exactly how to make it better.
This secret was part of my life for the next three decades. Thirty years of desperate highs and crippling lows. Thirty years of hiding behind locked bathroom doors and running showers to muffle the sound of vomiting. Thirty years of looking in a steamed-up bathroom mirror at a person I didn’t want to be. Thirty years of being terrified of anyone finding out the grotesque ritual that was part of my life.
Until one day, when I was 44, I told.
I had been thinking of quitting for years because of the deep self-hate it produced, and had been slowly weaning myself off by stretching out the time between purges to months.
Another reason I wanted to quit was my terrible acid reflux. I had started feeling burning in my throat and worried that maybe my years of bulimia had damaged the muscle designed to keep that bile from coming up.
So when the doctor asked me at my annual checkup if I had any particular concerns, I told her about my throat pain and added that I was worried it was because of my years of bulimia.
“When were you bulimic?” she asked.
“Oh, I —” I paused, took a breath, and said, “I still am. It’s been — most of my life.”
To my surprise, she didn’t look at me with disgust or pity, or tell me all the ways I had damaged my body. She didn’t lecture me at all. She told me that millions of people had acid reflux and that it may have nothing to do with my bulimia. She then asked straightforward questions about my plans, if any, to address it.
I told her I’d been working on it and that telling her was my first big step to quitting for good. She gave me resources that I could use and organizations that I could reach out to for help. She then went on to do my check-up, like she had done many times before.
It was only a few minutes between us, but speaking the words out loud shook me. I almost felt dizzy with the confession and had to steady myself by holding the sides of the faux-leather bench. I had kept this secret for so many years that when it came out, I felt like a different person.
That night, I kept telling. This time I told my husband, the quiet, mild-mannered man I slept next to and raised my children with. We were cuddled up on the couch watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” when he asked about my doctor’s appointment. I stiffened, turned off the TV and turned to face him. Then I told him my story.
I told him about the years of locking the bathroom door and turning on the shower so he couldn’t hear the sounds of vomiting. I couldn’t risk him asking me what was wrong. I told him I was scared that if he found out who I really was he wouldn’t be able to look at me the same. Love me the same.
He put his arms around me. Shocked and heartbroken that the woman he shared his life with had this secret, this pain, he held me for a long time as I cried into his shoulder.
Telling him changed things. Without the secret, I was able to release the shame and stop one element of the disorder: the purging. I didn’t reach out to any organization or read any books. The fear that my throat pain might be because of the binging, and releasing the truth to my husband were enough to push me to stop. I never did it again.
The binging ― the high – however, was still part of my life, albeit diminished. I found ways to avoid the yearnings by keeping busy. With the purging part gone, it released me from the “easy out” I had used every time the urge came up. I went back to work at a job I loved, went on long walks with friends and kept my life filled with the plethora of mom duties. I started living my life without bulimia’s constant stranglehold.
Then the pandemic hit. And like millions of people, it threw me into a dark and difficult place.
My husband and I gave the kids their own rooms to do online school. The only other office-like area went to my husband, who needed space to Zoom with this work team. I was left with the kitchen table.
I had lost the job I loved, regular daily activities of running errands and going to appointments, and friends I could spend time with who had helped me live a healthier life. I was left sitting in the kitchen with my laptop and countless idle hours of worry and anxiety. It was like being an alcoholic who lives in a bar.
So I ate and ate. And I gained a lot of weight. But it wasn’t the weight that crushed my self-esteem and mental health. It was the act of giving into this old friend — who I didn’t trust anymore, who I understood didn’t mean me well — day after day that wore away my confidence.
After two years, as the pandemic eased, I emerged along with everyone else — but I was much heavier and scared about the steps forward.
Eating disorders are unusually complex because we can’t give up food completely like with other addictive substances. And there’s such intense shame that comes with not being able to control your eating. So, we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t make big box-office movies about it and we certainly don’t have the same sympathy for it.
I’ve found I can only move forward when I stop struggling in silence and let go of the shame.
So as I did with the purging, I started being honest with myself and others close to me. One night, over dinner, I explained to my husband and teenage boys that the difficulties they’d seen me have with losing weight was not about the food itself — that’s why the dozens of weight loss programs I’d tried had failed. Rather it was about my relationship with food, my addiction and my binge eating disorder.
Once I verbalized this truth and accepted it, I was able to put down my guard and release the pain of it. A few days later, for the first time in my life I joined a binge eating disorder group and am now learning tools from counselors that specialize in this disorder.
I don’t know how long the journey forward will be, but I do know that in order to get better, I first need to forgive myself and be honest about the fact that I can’t get better on my own. That’s the only way forward.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.