So before I begin, I’m going to throw a trigger warning out there, because honestly this is a touchy subject and it can’t hurt to make sure. I’m going to try not to be too graphic or specific with any of the details, but there will inevitably be mentions of bingeing and gagging, as I can’t really discuss bulimia without it.
Now, most people will understand what bulimia is as a general concept, which is fantastic; the more people know, the more likely they are to spot the signs and be able to help their loved ones who need it. Awareness is a brilliant thing. However, having an awareness of a subject does not mean you understand it – at least, not always. There are some aspects of all mental illness that just can’t be captured in words or statistics, because they’re just things you feel or believe. Those are the bits that make recovery so difficult, because unless the person you’re talking to has experienced it (which you hope they haven’t, since it’s awful), they just won’t get it.
It is of course even worse when you try to explain these feelings under pressure. Your words go, your throat chokes up, you feel like nobody’s going to take you seriously – you can’t articulate like that. And I suppose that’s why I’m writing this, to try to lend you some words until you can find your own.
The first thing people don’t always realise with bulimia is that there’s more than one way to suffer, and therefore more than one way to recover. What people typically think of with bulimia is bingeing and purging – be that with vomiting or laxatives – which is perfectly correct. Nevertheless, bulimia can also manifest in excessive exercise, as opposed to actively removing the food (I actually had both forms at the same time, which made an awful cocktail of soreness and chest pains). With exercise bulimia, your recovery has to focus on getting rid of the voice that’s hissing “you ate lunch today you need to work out”, and turning working out into a positive part of your life again. Unfortunately, that usually means you have to either stop completely or dramatically tone down your exercise for a while, which can be really difficult for some people. Not only do you miss something you used to enjoy, but you also start to get paranoid.
“How much muscle mass have I lost?”
“Am I still good at cardio?”
“What if I’m terrible when I go back?”
A huge risk here is that you simply don’t go back, because hey, you’re going to suck and it’ll be embarrasing. It won’t, you’ll build yourself up again and you know that, but it’s just too overwhelming. Honestly, it can become an easily-pushable button if you’re not careful. If you know someone who’s suffering from this then please, let them choose in their own time, okay? Advising they get back to the gym won’t necessarily make them healthier – at least, not mentally.
The second thing to bear in mind is that no matter how long they’ve been suffering, this person has grown accustomed to binge-eating. Their bodies have been trained to take in large quantities of food at once, and don’t expect to have to deal with it, meaning they take longer to feel nauseated – especially since that feeling is familiar, too. In fact, they may not feel “full” until they reach that point. They may lose the ability to feel “full” at all, for a while.
Please do not comment on it.
If someone is eating more than you would expect, don’t bring it up; I don’t understand why this is a thing that happens at all, but please don’t do it to someone with an eating disorder history. Not even just an ex-bulimic – that’s a trigger for pretty much anyone, whether they’ve had anorexia, binge eating disorder, EDNOS, any of it. It’s just not nice. Also, it’s a cruel reminder. Trust me, we know how much we can eat, and we probably hate it.
And the third thing is that we. Are. Trying. We promise. It’s incredibly difficult to break free of a mindset that tears you down from the inside, even moreso when you’ve instilled it in yourself. When it’s your brain against your own brain, the battle is permanently uphill. But we are still trying. So I’ll apologise in advance if when presented with food, I react weirdly; I might panic and have nothing, I may eat too much, I may freeze up if asked what I want. Please understand that we do this because we are still recovering. And that means we aren’t quite there yet.
Truth is, we may never be able to look at things they way you do. Maybe picking from a menu will always be a challenge. Maybe scales will still unusuable. Maybe gyms will always carry that vague sense of I’m-not-trying-hard-enough. But if nothing else, those feelings will eventually lessen. We’ll re-train ourselves, and we’ll emerge from our ashes like beautiful phoenixes of whatever shape or size.
It’s just going to take a while. Please bear with us; we’re working on it.