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Most people have no idea what it is really like to suffer with an eating disorder. They think it is the need to be skinny. They think the person with bulimia nervosa could quit if they really wanted to. "Just don't do that" is a phrase repeated by family members, friends and some therapists. There is so much misunderstanding of this complex disorder that I am going to bring you into the mind of a person in the depths of the disorder. You will never view the disorder in the same way after reading this. If you relate to this story know it is common to many more people than you realize. But most important I want you to know that with help even this person recovered... fully.
The way I learned to deal with my feelings was not to feel. One of the ways I learned to do this was to think of something different. For instance, I looked forward to getting some candy from the little store on my way home from school. I would get a cola soft drink and a frosted pastry or candy. I always felt better when I ate that. Little did I know that I was opening a floodgate of addiction with this newly learned coping behavior.
I gained weight and decided to go on a diet. I would go for days eating nothing or very little. I lost a lot of weight, but no one said anything about it. Then there were days when I had to eat. Once I did, I could not quit. Eventually I progressed from anorexia to binge eating to bulimia and finally to anything that would make me numb. I never realized that someday my life as a bulimic would overshadow everything.
The first thought that comes to me upon awakening is what I did last night. I check my stomach to make sure my pelvic bones are the highest point and my stomach is concave. They aren't. I use the bathroom and then weigh myself. This is the first of several times I will be stepping on the scale today. But the morning brings the most important weigh-in. This will be the lowest weight of the day and it determines the course of events to follow. Some people read their horoscope. I read my scale. The number on the scale is in direct proportion to how I will feel today.
I clean up the mess from last night. There are scrambled eggs spilled on the stove top, an empty cereal box sitting on the counter, and on the kitchen table I see an empty carton of pecan ice cream, an empty potato chip bag and empty cans of diet cola. As I am cleaning the stove top, I promise myself that today will be different. I am sick and tired of living life like this.
I look at the clock and see that the cleaning took longer than I thought. My anxiety mounts with every moment, along with beating myself up. "I'm always late... I can't do anything right...
I'll probably get fired... I'm not good at my job... I'll never amount to anything." The last phrase is from childhood but it is Me telling myself this now.
Before I get into the shower, I weigh myself and check my body in the full-length mirror. I feel disgusted. My thighs are touching and my stomach is sticking out. I try to rationalize that it is that time of month and that's what is wrong with my stomach, although I rarely have a monthly cycle. The doctor said my lack of periods is because of my hormones being out of balance, but I have so many more symptoms. My hair is getting so thin, my nails are brittle, and my skin is so dry. I'm tired all the time and there are times when I faint, especially after throwing up. I get so shaky that it's hard to put my mascara on.
I put on my makeup carefully, avoiding looking into my eyes. When I do look into my eyes, I feel such loathing and disgust. I hate myself. I dress impeccably. I have always tried to look pretty. People tell me I am beautiful, but I don't believe them. In fact, many people compliment me on the shape of my green eyes. If they only knew.
I feel anxious about getting to work on time and doing a good job today. I look at the clock in the car and see that I am already late. On the way to work, I make up a story to tell my boss about why I am late again.
When I get to work, I try to get to my desk unnoticed. Someone brought donuts today. I decide to have one. It tastes so good. This is the best part of my day so far. I savor the sweetness. I try to make it last but the donut disappears too fast. I'll have another one, I think, trying to recapture that sensation I feel with the first bite. But it doesn't taste like that. I keep thinking the next bite will do the trick. The second donut disappears faster than the first. What have I done? I will gain a lot of weight from eating two donuts. I must get rid of it.
I go to the bathroom but someone is in there too. I wait for them to leave, but as they leave someone else enters. I can't wait much longer. The calories are already dispersing into my fat cells and I have been away from my desk too long. I vomit as I flush the toilet hoping the sound will cover up my purging. I clean up and look into my blurry red eyes. It looks like I have been crying and I have broken a blood vessel in my eye. I check my stomach in the mirror and it looks bigger.
I go back to my desk and start looking for the eye drops in my purse. I keep looking and realize I forgot what I was looking for. I remember, find it and then get back to my work. I am making modifications to a software program. I write some code, then get stuck. My self-talk takes over. "Who are you trying to fool? You don't know what you're doing. You will never get this done in time." I think about the donuts. That will make me feel better. I go into the break room and eat one, then another and another. I make sure no one sees me. I feel like I am in a different place, zoned out and calm at last. Someone comes in and asks where the donuts are. I answer that everyone must have liked them because I was finishing the last one. I can't get to the bathroom soon enough. I feel like a trapped rat and I must get away to my safe place of empting my stomach.
I go home for lunch. I don't want anyone to see how much I eat. When I do go to lunch with my co-workers, I can usually manage eating very little (and then binge afterwards). However, sometimes I can't control my eating when I'm out to lunch with them. I hear comments like "How do you stay so skinny eating so much?" I feel like I want to hide under the table and become invisible. I promise myself that I will not eat with them again. It is much safer going to the take-out window and ordering as if it's for the whole office, but I eat it all. I even buy extra drinks to make it look like the order is for more than one person. I eat in my car on the way home and continue the feast in my kitchen. I wash it all down with diet cola and end with ice cream. Ice cream makes the food easier to come up.
I clean up the mess again, weigh myself, apply some more makeup and eyedrops, and then hurry back to work. I'm late again. I am working on my software program when my boss comes and tells me that if I am late again there will be consequences. I think of stopping at the bakery and ordering six chocolate chip cookies and six more with nuts. I work through the afternoon feeling anxious and fearful, but know that I can get some relief when I get to the bakery.
I drive in a daze after work to the bakery. I get my cookies and I decide I will eat one in the car. After eating it, I see that it was just what I was looking for. My mind clears of all negative self-talk, my anxiety is abiding, and my fear is gone. Right now is all there is and nothing else matters at this moment. I have another cookie and another. I suddenly realize that I have eaten the last one. If I had noticed that it was the last one, I would have savored it more. I am still in the parking lot. I can't go in again and get more cookies.
I decide I will go to the grocery store and get some food to take home. I get chips, an apple pie, more cookies, ice cream and paper towels to camouflage the contents of my cart. I throw in a loaf of bread just to make it look like a normal shopper's cart. Besides, I can make toast and sandwiches with the bread. As I am checking out, I see the clerk looking at my items. I try not to notice. I wonder if anyone else knows what I'm doing? I will shop at a different store tomorrow.
I eat the chips on the way home. I take my groceries into my place filled with anticipation about feeling numb again. I vomit away the cookies and potato chips after drinking a diet cola and then weigh myself. I am gaining weight.
I take off my suit and change into my large food-stained T-shirt. I am happy to see that I have not stained my suit. I turn on the TV. It doesn't really matter what's on. I just need the noise to divert my attention from feeling anything. I half-listen as I fix a piece of apple pie with ice cream on top. It is so good. I start mentally beating myself up about all the bad things I think I have done and for who I am.
I can't believe this has been my day again. Am I possessed or something? I eat enough for three people. Maybe I have multiple personality disorder. Maybe it is a demon possession. I can't stop this even though I want to stop.
The phone rings and I ignore it. The answering machine picks it up. I hope they do not leave a message because then I will feel bad if I don't call them back. I just want to be left alone. The voice on the machine is asking me where I am. Oh no, I was supposed to go to therapy this evening. She will be so mad. I can't make appointments with anyone because I never know when I will be available and not busy with my eating disorder.
I start thinking of a story to tell my therapist. "My sister got sick and I had to take her to the hospital." That will probably suffice for missing my appointment. I could never tell her what I was really doing.
Someone knocks at my door. I wonder who it could be. I tiptoe to the door to look through the peephole and see a man I dated a few times. I hope he doesn't smell the food or hear the TV and think I'm home. He is a nice guy but he questioned me about being sick at the restaurant again. I told him it must be the flu, but when it happened again he looked at me funny. He might know. I can never see him again. He leaves after a while and then I vomit. It takes a lot of trying to get all the food out. I weigh myself and see the scale still is heavier. I try again but nothing comes up. When I finish, I am lightheaded. I hope I don't faint again. People will be asking me about the bruises. I feel shaky. I fight off the urge to get more food and lie down on the bed.
I guess I fell asleep because I awoke at 2:00 a.m. in a sweat. I was craving my favorite brand of donuts. The one store that would be open is on the other side of town. It is in a rough area. But the more I think of the donuts, the less I care about my safety. I throw on some sweat pants and a jacket over my stained T-shirt. I drive to the donut shop and it is open. What a relief! I get a dozen glazed donuts and a large diet cola. There are two drunken guys walking by and they start yelling at me to come over and talk to them. I get in the car and drive off as fast as I can. When I am a safe distance away, I open the carton of donuts. They are still warm. I put one into my mouth and everything is OK again.
I get home and finish the rest of the donuts, get rid of them by vomiting, weigh myself and go to bed. I have to get up in an hour to get ready for work. I fall asleep fast and the next thing I know it is 10:00 a.m. I was supposed to be at work at nine o'clock. Anxiety washes over me. What now?
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Follow Rebecca Cooper, MA, MFT, CCH, CEDS on Twitter: www.twitter.com/QuitDieting