I don’t remember why I started making myself sick or even when, but I will always remember why and when I took the decision to stop.
My cousin took her own life in April last year and for the first time in 16 years, the urge to be sick stopped immediately. I was convinced this would be it and it wouldn’t come back, so of course when it did come back, the sense of shame and guilt was even more overwhelming than it had ever been.
In the course of seeking therapy following my cousin’s death, I was persuaded to focus on treatment for the eating disorder, rather than the panic attacks and anxiety I had developed. When I had my assessment, I was convinced that I didn’t need help and that there were people worse off than me because I didn’t binge, I had a good job, a loving husband, a wonderful family and my eating disorder didn’t prevent me from doing anything. It was a hard reality after the assessment to see my own words reflected back at me and the speed at which I started my treatment showed the physiatrists were sure I needed intervention.
Before I began the CBT formally, I used the book that they recommended and tentatively started to treat myself. Again, I read a lot of the book and was sure the body image parts didn’t apply to me or the self-hatred. I wasn’t one of ‘those bulimics’ – I just didn’t like to feel full. It was the second dose of hard reality when I started the CBT and realised it all did apply to me, and that I was having hundreds and hundreds of negative thoughts about myself every day. They were so a part of my consciousness that I wasn’t even aware of them and becoming aware of them was really difficult. I also learnt about subjective and objective binges, and that while I didn’t eat a whole packet of biscuits and make myself sick, I did feel like I binged if I ate food at the ‘wrong’ time. So crisps at 4pm in the afternoon were not okay, but crisps at 1pm with my lunch were fine.
I became very frustrated with myself as I started to realise more and more about the behaviours I was displaying. I am an intelligent person and I know these thoughts and behaviours are totally irrational, and yet I hadn’t been able to stop them for 16 years. It was a relief to realise that I wasn’t the only one who thought like this because I genuinely thought I was – which again sounds so stupid and illogical!
This was not the first time I had help, but it was the first time I sought help while wanting to give up. When I was a teenager and my parents found out, the doctor sent me to therapy, but it was ‘talking’ therapy not practical ways to break the cycle. I started the habits again as soon as I was able to. At various points when I started to get frightened by the physical impact of the bulimia, I would ease up and convince myself I could quit without help. But a few weeks without stomach pains and I’d be back at it, telling myself it was ‘just the once’.
CBT might not be for everyone, but it was a literal life-saver for me. I didn’t want to spend a long time talking; I wanted solutions. But God, was the treatment hard and emotional and draining. Feeling like a failure is a classic emotion for people with eating disorders and there are so many opportunities to fail and hate yourself when you are trying to recover. I also put myself through treatment at a time when I was at my lowest – a time when comforting rituals and stress relievers were much needed.
I have been ‘free’ (anyone have a better word?) for seven months, and I managed to get through the treatment quicker than expected. The difference is amazing – my temperature is better, my digestion is right for the first time in more than a decade, my stomach doesn’t hurt, my skin looks better and my emotions are more in check.
But I still got a third dose of reality and that has been that I don’t just stop these behaviours and get to put it all behind me. I was hoping I could parcel it in a nice box and park it in ‘dealt with’, but the struggle is continual. Some days it torments me every waking hour and I want to claw my way out of my own body and thoughts. I meditate, I do yoga and I run just to try and offset the panic I still get following my cousin’s death and that throwing up used to relieve. I have to accept that it is still early days – seven months versus an entire adult lifetime. I still hate myself, I still have thoughts of doing stupid things – but this is the best I have ever been and given how awful the last 18 months has been, that is a good achievement.
There is hope for everyone, but the desire to change has to come from you, and be prepared for a bloody hard battle. Remember, you are giving up something that for the longest time you wanted more than anything – but it will be worth it in the end.