The following post, “Living in a Grey World” is an essay I contributed to the website Stigma Fighters, a non-profit mental health organization dedicated to helping real people with mental illness, back in April. I was approached by SF because of my posts addressing my struggles with anxiety, emotional eating, and bulimia nervosa. I think it’s crucial that people struggling with mental illness speak out and let others hear their voices and stories. I wanted to share my story with my readers.
The first time I ever purged was in the bathroom of a Friendly’s restaurant at the age of 15. I had just finished eating a Colossal Burger, french fries, and chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and gummy bears. You may be thinking, “after eating that combination of food no wonder you felt sick!” — This was true. It was a lot of food, but it wasn’t the food that made me sick; it was how I felt about what I had eaten that was making me sick to my stomach.
After I had been finished regurgitating the $16.00 lunch my mother and father had bought me, I felt this immediate calm rush over me. This feeling of peace which felt like a hug or a heated blanket, it was that comforting.
I thought, “I feel better. I’m okay.”
I felt better than before I had eaten. It’s as if I had never eaten.
This “event” (as I will refer to it) started a fifteen-year battle, which I still must contend with every day.
See, back then I thought of bulimia as a skill, and for me, it was. I could eat all the time, and all I had to do was make myself “get rid of it.”
I felt powerful.
However, even way back then, I knew that this wasn’t something I should do all the time.
I said to myself, “I’ll only use it on weekends.”
“I’ll only use it at holidays.”
However, this “control” I was so pleased about — being able to “get rid of” food I would overeat — started shifting into every weekend and then, unfortunately, over time, every day.
After I had graduated from high school, I moved out to Denver from New Hampshire to live with my best friend.
It was my first time living on my own. I was 2000 miles away from my family. It was at this point in my life, where I was purging up to five times a day.
However, I wasn’t overeating every day. No. I was purging after the consumption of reasonable amounts of food. I couldn’t stand the way anything felt in my stomach. The instant I would feel food or liquid in my belly, I would immediately start to panic. I could feel myself expanding. I thought I looked fatter. My jeans were tight around my waist. This feeling couldn’t be just in my head; I could physically feel my body reacted whenever I ate.
I couldn’t rest until I could “get rid of” what I had consumed. If I didn’t evacuate my system, fast, this feeling would overwhelm me.
To the people around me, I looked healthy. I wasn’t underweight. At times I was slightly overweight. However, people started to notice that I wasn’t myself. I was much more anxious and much less happy. I made comments about my weight 24/7. I made comments about what everybody else was eating. As you can imagine, the relationship I had with my best friend became very shaky. In fact, we spent over two years not speaking to one another as a result of the person I had become.
I started therapy to work on my bulimia and emotional eating issues and got to a point for a while when I wasn’t purging at all. However, to make up for the lack of control I had with the food I was eating, I decided to take up an excessive amount of exercise.
I would run five miles to work, be on my feet all day long, and then run the five miles home and then some. Every day. I thought that it was healthy for me. I mean, I was exercising, right? Surely cardio is better than sticking your fingers down your throat multiple times a day.
However, my exercise obsession soon caught up with me. I would give myself heat stroke, flu-like symptoms from dehydration, and my hair started to get coarse and thin. My therapist told me that I was replacing one compulsive behavior for another and that we should start paying closer attention to my “triggers.”
I thought, “Lady, I don’t have any triggers other than the fact that I have to eat and I hate the way it makes me feel!”
I kept food journals. I wrote down what I had to eat. I wrote down how I felt before and after I ate. I documented the times I exercised and purged. I visited a nutritionist. I visited a psychiatrist. I tried anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, and meditation.
I still obsessed over food and felt it’s complete control over me.
After I had graduated from college, I moved to New York. I moved in with a boyfriend who was a secret alcoholic and 14 years my senior. I was a secret emotional eater and bulimic and 24 years old. You can only guess what this choice did for my eating disorder issues, I’m sure.
At first, as with any relationship, things were great. We were in love, and things were perfect (well, as perfect as they could be). I got a job, settled into life, and tried to keep a balanced diet and exercise. I kept my bulimia issues a secret. I would get up in the middle of the night to eat hidden food and then would purge in the bathroom. I would binge eat on my lunch break and purge in the bathroom in the warehouse where nobody could hear me. I guess in those days I thought, “as long as nobody knows I’m doing this and get away with it, I’m not doing anything wrong.”
What wonderful logic, huh?
If a bulimic person binges and purges when no one’s around, did it happen? If only it were that easy to ignore.
As two people living with addictive personalities will clash, my boyfriend at the time and I started to bring out the worst in each other. I drove him to drink, and he drove me to bulimia. It was an awful cycle. It was at this point that I officially switched from binging and purging and moved into emotional eating.
I didn’t care about having friends or doing anything with my life. I just cared about making myself numb by eating all the time. When I went to the doctors for a yearly pap smear, they weighed me. I weighed over 150 pounds. I had never weighed that much in my life. As a 5 foot tall girl, this was considerably overweight for my frame. I became emotional. It was as if it was the first time I had felt anything for months, but it wasn’t a good feeling.
I decided I had to do something. I knew I was unhappy. And I knew that what I was doing to myself was much bigger than what I could understand. I decided to go back to a therapist, but this time I was going to be selective. I couldn’t pick a decent boyfriend. I couldn’t control myself with food. However, I could control who I chose to help me get myself back.
My therapist’s specialties were eating disorders and anxiety; the two things from which I was suffering. I never understood how much anxiety I had until I worked with her. I also never understood that it was the root of my problem. Therapy helped me to understand the patterns of my behavior and how my underlying anxiety contributed to my disordered eating.
For once in my life, I felt like I was capable of understanding my behavior.
I learned that the cycle I was trapping myself in was something I could gain control over.
A couple of times, like during the recession when I couldn’t find a steady job and while my father was dying from cancer, I did relapse.
After I lost my father in 2011, I decided to change my life and take hold of my health.
I became a fitness instructor, certified personal trainer, and certified nutrition specialist. I educated myself about exercise and food and how to use the two in a respectful and balanced manner. I also started a blog, so I could talk about my passion for wellness and living a happy life.
In November, I married the love of my life, and in March I moved to Scotland to live with him.
My logic is no longer about all or nothing, black or white, and yes or no decisions.
I live in a grey world, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I’m linking up with Amanda at Running with Spoons for Thursdays are for Thinking Out Loud.
Do you feel that mental illness is seen as a stigma? For more information on Stigma Fighters and their mission click here.