As exam season approaches, I can see the concern creeping onto my mum’s face as she contemplates the prospect of leaving me home alone all day when school finishes and she’s at work. She’s worried because while I’m far better than I’ve ever been since my diagnosis, to her, being alone means I’m a bulimic free to binge and purge.
However, she’s in the minority of worriers about me – bulimia is a disorder that kicks people into a figurative corner of Shame, Secrecy and Guilt. Because of this, only a fraction of people who I love and care about really know how my eating disorder, of nearly four years, affects me on a daily, hourly, and minute-to-minute basis. I have never appeared excessively thin like the stereotypical eating disorder sufferer, people may never notice that anything is wrong, and after years of learning to hide, you’d never know I wasn’t healthy.
I have always struggled with my weight and shape, growing up borderline overweight and attending a high-achieving all girl’s school projected the perfectionist attitude we took to academics onto my self-esteem and I began to focus my obsession of self-improvement onto my appearance, and despite years of dieting and exercise I couldn't lose weight. I don’t know how or why, but one day in autumn 2014 something within me just snapped. After a period of several weeks with extremely restricted calorie intake, I started purging my meals and any snacks – a devastating combination that later led to a long-term pulse and blood pressure drop and months of weekly blood tests to monitor potassium. I will never forget the look on my mum’s face when the psychiatrist told her that my heart could literally stop at any moment.
In an odd sense, it was an advantage that I already had other mental health issues. I had previously struggled with low mood, self-harm and even brief hallucinations and was in ‘the system’ before I developed a full-blown eating disorder, and CAMHS was my safety net after a winter of severe weight loss and finally a hospital admission on New Year’s Eve 2015. The experience of CAMHS crisis team was vital to breaking the cycle of secrecy and lying in protection of this other, sick side of myself. While it took several months, a few therapists and one self-readmittance, I finally had someone who had found the oldest skeleton in my mental closet.
However, just venting to my therapist will not enable a full recovery. ‘Coming out’ in this sense is terrifying to me – it goes against everything I have taught myself. Even writing it with my dog here to lick my ankles (?) in comfort, I am almost faint with fear. How will this be received? Will people treat me, see me differently? Will I even have the guts to send this into the world? In the past I told myself I am keeping this secret to protect my friends and family from having to deal with this nightmare, but that’s not true. Although it is a valid concern, I realise that they would worry about me more if I left them out; instead I was shielding bulimia again from the ‘risk’ of recovery. After all this, though, I know I have to make my secret public for my own recovery and for the sake of everyone else feeling trapped by the stigma of mental illnesses on top of their self-imposed silence. To all of those people, please, get the help you deserve.
It’s going to take a long time to be ‘normal’ again; sufferers may face the same conflict for their whole lives. I can trace my eating issues back to age 10. I don’t even know who I am without bulimia yet – but I know I am good enough, worthy of recovery and experiencing that life. I know I have my amazing friends who have put up with my volatile behaviour, both as a result of bulimia and separate from it, who will always be there for me if I need them (which everyone does). And I can see for the first time in years that I have a future beyond my rocky teenage years – I can’t wait to live it.