The term eating disorder is often associated with having an obsession with being skinny, a fear of being fat, binge eating, making yourself sick and knowing how many calories is in everything under the sun.
I have experienced all of these associations. But I was laughed at and ridiculed because I wasn’t stereotypically skinny.
From the ages of 15 – 18 I was bulimic. I had lost three stone, I would excessively count calories and limit myself to just 600 a day – sometimes less – and I would make myself sick most days. Unless it had been a ‘good day’ where I had eaten less than my calorie-goal and I hadn’t fallen into a vicious spiral of binge eating that evening.
If you aren’t sure of what binge eating is, it’s where you lose control while eating and you don’t stop until you feel sick. I would eat so much that I actually lost the feeling of being ‘full’, and therefore I would continue to binge until I needed to vomit. And then I’d purge out of punishment, disgusted at my lack of control. Ashamed that after all my hard work that day, I’d ruined it with greed.
It was an evil cycle that never seemed to let-up.
And one that I didn’t know would make me seriously, dangerously ill.
You see, though I’d lost a lot of weight, I wasn’t stereotypically skinny. I was a size 8 – dropped from the size 12-14 I wore before. Therefore, if you’d looked at me, you wouldn’t have been aware I’d had a problem. Apparently, the fact my nails were brittle, my skin dry and spotty and my hair falling out in clumps weren’t telling enough signs.
But one day I fell really ill. It started off as fever-like symptoms, but a week later I was admitted to hospital as I was struggling to breathe.
I found out there that I had fallen ill with pneumonia of the chest. Vomit from purging had gotten stuck in my chest cavity and had caused an infection that led to pneumonia. It then collapsed my lung, and I was put in an intensive care unit while a drain was inserted into my lung to rid the infection. It drained two litres of infected fluid.
When I was finally allowed home I felt like a different person. I felt like I was alone. I didn’t want to leave my house and I didn’t feel as though I had anyone to turn to.
Because of this, I started a blog. On my blog I spoke out about what had happened. I felt like it was the only place I had to confide.
It took all my strength and I was terrified, but I recorded a video in which I described what had happened to raise awareness of the unknown danger that bulimia can cause. I hadn’t known how badly it could affect a sufferer before going through it myself, and I thought others who were struggling could benefit from knowing.
I also mentioned how destructive my behaviour had been and how selfish it had been on my family, who during my time in the hospital, had to sell their car just to be able to afford the travelling to and from the hospital every day.
The video went on to be viewed around 10,000 times – some of which were views from people I’d gone to school with or who knew me from college.
I wasn’t bothered at the time, as I was off college, house-bound to recovery.
Until I’d heard that people had been gathering around computer screens to watch the video and laugh, and until I’d later been confronted by a girl who told me that my video was ‘disgusting’ and ‘disrespectful’ to those with eating disorders because I ‘didn’t have a clue’ what one really was.
Why? Because I didn’t look dangerously underweight.
Here’s a fun fact: People with bulimia tend to be either of ‘normal’ weight or overweight. Why? Because this particular eating disorder is more control-based than losing weight-based. While many with bulimia can be dangerously underweight, it is mainly classed by the cycle of binge-eating and purging, which is therefore controlling what goes in and out.
Though I look back and know these people all just shared a lack of understanding, at the time it really hurt. I deleted the video because I felt ashamed. It didn’t matter how many messages I’d had from people telling me that I’d helped them, or that it’d been just what they needed in order for them to finally seek help – knowing people around me were laughing at my expense after my bulimia had left me in such an awful situation was just awful.
And I know that even today, these same people will have no idea as to how it made me feel, and they probably won’t care either.
But I felt it was time, after all these years, that I finally addressed it.
To this day, eating disorders are judged on how a person looks as opposed to their physical symptoms or routine. People aren’t being given enough help because they don’t fit a certain number on the scale.
And that’s why it’s important that people know you don’t have to be deathly skinny to be suffering.
There are many different eating disorders and many different symptoms, but because people often confuse them with one particular stereotype, sufferers are losing out on the help they desperately need.
My hospital admission was not the end to my eating disorder. I struggled with the cycle of binging and purging for a further year after things spiralled out of control again. I later learned to control the purging by focusing more on calories – keeping a food diary to make sure I never went over a certain calorie limit.
And it was only until I met my current partner that I was able to recover. Someone loved me for who I was and he somehow managed to help me relax my barrier and taught me to be happy in myself.
But of course, though I have ‘recovered’, I still get those niggling thoughts and I am still insecure about my body. I believe I probably always will be.
Words by Hattie Gladwell