Part of the Real As Fuck Collection
As my tribute to Mental Health Awareness Month, I am sharing personal accounts of my recovery journey from bulimia nervosa. Please keep in mind that I am not a medical expert, and this is not a guide to recovery. Mental illness varies, as does the support required from medical practitioners. My journey may not reflect your needs, or that of someone else.
This article may have some triggering language (for example, body measurements are mentioned at some point, as are specific disordered behaviours). For those dealing with mental illnes, especially in the form of an eating disorder, please use discretion as you continue reading. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, body dysmorphia, or profound self-esteem issues, reach out to a medical professional.
Remember, beauty is not just an outside thing, and not all illnesses are visible.
- Christy Harrison, Registered Dietician/Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor & Host of Food Psych Podcast.
- National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) Canada
Toll Free: 1-866-633-4220; Toronto: 416-340-4156
- For Eating Disorder Clinics in the USA, click here and choose your State for contact information.
- Better Help: Affordable and Unlimited Professional Counseling
Note: these are not affiliate links – I do not make a commission for sharing these resources. These are trusted people and organizations I have utilized in the past.
My Descent into Madness
I remember the first time I made myself vomit.
It was my second year in university, nighttime – when my cravings are at their peak. I went on some kind of binge as I sat alone in my room. I remember the overwhelming feeling of guilt the moment the binge concluded. I had zoned out, not realizing the copious amounts of food I had been shoveling into my body. My brain was flooded with pleasure; I was on a high that numbed the fullness, the rational thought…and then I came to. My stomach was distended, I was physically uncomfortable and mentally unprepared for the shame and self-loathing.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed for several moments, contemplating the best way to rid myself of all the bad feelings, when I unconsciously made my way to the bathroom. That’s where it all began. I stayed until I felt empty, not realizing that this emptiness would spread rapidly, consuming the rest of me – my confidence, my happiness, my health.
After that first purge, I walked back to my room, grinning. I was quite pleased with myself. I even took out one of my journals, wrote across the top of a page, “Bulimia Diaries.” At the moment it sounded so tragic and hip. I didn’t take that first action too seriously. I never anticipated the spiral, the uncontrollable anxiety, the profound obsession, and self-deprecation.
How did it start? My therapist would tell me it may have been a combination of events in my life – even ones I thought were harmless at the time. My five-year relationship with a bodybuilder who, at one point told me flat out, he wanted a woman who was “120lbs with hair down to her ass.” He’d never known me at that weight. In fact, I have never been under 120lbs as an adult.
I have always been susceptible to people’s opinions. Especially those of whom I love. I see now that I had more control over my life than I realized. My tragic flaw was the deconstruction of my self-efficacy, self-love. Relationships are only a sum of what each party brings into them. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking people will change. Sometimes we make the graver mistake of putting the responsibility of our own self-worth in others’ hands.
My ex and I did not share the same libido. I desired intimacy far more than he did. I took his disinterest personally. I concluded that he wasn’t attracted to me. He wasn’t very affection, so I concluded that it was because he wasn’t attracted to me. He didn’t want me to go to parties or bars with him, and I concluded that it was because he wasn’t attracted to me. So, my response to all of this? I joined a gym. Worked out every day. Barely ate during the week, only to fill that space with copious amounts of alcohol on the weekend.
One night, already too far gone into my illness, my boyfriend admitted this to me: “I feel inferior to you.” I could have let those five words save my life, give me some perspective on his behaviour. Instead, they made me latch on tighter. I thought those words were the beginning of a greater change in him, a brighter future for us. They were not.
We all have our demons. The brief and few moments I think about that time of my life, I recognize the boy that was hiding beneath the muscle. The façade. My insecurities lead me to internal hostility (self-loathing); his insecurities lead him to external hostility (bullying).
Rock Bottom is Solid Ground
After the demise of that relationship, I realized that if I didn’t make a change, I’d surely die. Rock bottom is not the end, you see, it’s just solid ground to build from.
Let me set a quick reminder for anyone who is struggling with mental illness of any kind:
- No matter how alone you feel, you aren’t. Ever!
- Even if you don’t see it, there is a light within you that brings joy to others.
- Success is not a straight path:
When a very abrupt accident happened, I understood the universe was giving me another chance. It was time to figure out who I was and heal. How did I get there? These are the steps I took in finding myself again:
1. I confided in someone who loved me more than I loved myself – my mom
I’ll never forget our initial conversation. Mom and I were driving home one evening, and I casually mentioned that I make myself vomit “on occasion.” If this alarmed her, she didn’t show it. All she said was, “That isn’t healthy. Let’s do something about it together.”
Without my knowledge, my mom told my immediate family – my two sisters, brother and father. When I found out, I wasn’t angry. I understood why she needed to do it, especially since we all lived together at the time. It was important that they were aware of my behavior. It helped them to recognize signs and accommodate me when I was hitting lows. They also began to identify suspicious behaviour, which made it difficult for me to give in to any harmful impulses.
Having my family’s support suddenly made me realize how deeply my suffering was affecting them. This hurt more than anything. I was no longer alone in that dark place. They were there with me, and I was desperate to get them out. They were relentless in my recovery. They held me, spoke to me, cried with me, encouraged me. Coping felt less like a bolder, and more like a heavy rain. The suffering became manageable. Talking openly about the illness replaced actually giving in to it. If I felt the urge to get rid of what I had consumed, I said it, and they sat with me long enough for it to pass.
Often the deepest pain empowers you to grow into your highest self.– Karen Salmansohm
2. I got professional help
Having the support of people who love you is critical, but sometimes, and by no fault of anyone, they can only provide so much. Eating disorders, or any mental illness, can be tricky to handle because sometimes what people think is the right thing to say or do, can profoundly backfire. For example, there were several days my family had to watch me binge without telling me to stop eating because they knew that being told what I can or can’t eat was a factor in the development of my eating disorder in the first place. Instead, they would check in with me and keep close in case I began to have the impulse to purge.
After revealing my bulimia to my mother, we were almost immediately in touch with my family doctor. Now, I can’t speak for the process in other provinces or countries – as this took place in Ontario, Canada – but my family doctor had to complete a profile for me in order to get me into a local, outpatient program. For those of you who don’t know what an “outpatient program” is, it’s when a patient visits a hospital or clinic, but is not required to stay overnight or for an extended period of time without leaving.
This process took time; however, I was fortunate enough to have a doctor who committed to seeing me on a regular basis until I was accepted into the program. The program was broken into three parts:
- One-on-one therapy
- Appointments on nutrition
- Group therapy
How did this help me?
Therapy, of course, helped break down triggers, problem areas, and provided ways to cope. Some actions I was required to take (remember, this was specific to my needs at the time, and I was being monitored by professionals!):
- Keeping a food log for an assigned period of time in which the therapist/nutritionist would review with me during session. This helped me recognize two things. The first was what I considered a “binge,” wasn’t actually that. The second, I had been overestimating the amount of food I’d been consuming, which was a primary cause of my anxiety.
- Weighing myself only during my appointments, which were bi-weekly. I never did this on my own as it was a trigger.
- Confronting underlying issues I had with myself and others in order to change the story in my head. This included conversations about my family, past relationships, and body dysmorphia.
The nutritionist assisted in eliminating my guilt around specific foods, as well as educating me on my body’s needs. I learned mindfulness, and paid attention to the negative signals I was getting if I under or overate. I began to understand my body’s natural cues again.
Group, although I only attended once, provided me a deeper sense of acceptance. Seeing others at different stages in their own recovery reminded me that pain is not exclusive. I am also a people person, so being able to share stories with others – especially those who understood firsthand – was humbling. Group also assisted in reverting false perceptions of beauty I had created for myself.
Professional help is an integral part of recovery from an eating disorder. At first it seemed scary, but knowing I had a professional team behind me, encouraging me to get better – and giving me permission to take back my power – was something I will never forget!
3. I Eliminated all that Disempowered
This may be one of the most difficult tasks for anyone, at any stage in life – but I encourage it, regardless if you’re struggling with mental illness or not. Cleaning out life’s closet, so to speak, is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself.
I started by distancing myself from people who had negative influences on me, whether it included people I would drink or do drugs with, people who made me feel anxious or bad about myself, or simply people who had similar self-deprecating habits that would feed mine or vice versa (such as binging, obsession with weight loss, etc.).
Of course, I understand that removing people from your life can be difficult. Instead of thinking, “I can never be friends with them again,” be honest! Tell them that you won’t be in contact for a while because you are going through a recovery process and need this time for you. If they don’t understand, or try to pressure you, it reinforces that the distance is needed. You want people in your life that will support you and look out for your best interests, even if that means not being a part of the process.
After that, I moved on to more obvious things: substances. No more alcohol. No more weed. Clean. Sober. These substances are depressants. They literally do to your body the exact opposite of what you need while going through recovery! It’s as simple as that. Of course, if you have an addiction, get professional help for that as well. Talk to your doctor, go to AA meetings, do what you have to in order to get on your feet.
I think it’s important to note here, that for me, I never put restrictions on food. Because my illness was profoundly engrained in “eating”, I had spent years doing this, and it only created a vicious cycle of binging-purging, shame, and guilt. So, food, although I did take other measures (I’ll touch on that in a minute), was never off the table for me.
4. Mindfulness and Positive Psychology
During my recovery, I came across Coach Kiomi’s podcast program. Coach Kiomi’s catch phrase is, “Master Your Mind, Master Your World,” which is exactly what I was looking for at the time. You create your own goals in this program, and she takes you through steps on how to achieve them. This is not a program exclusively for mentally ill individuals; however, there are a lot of gold nuggets in her work. Here is Day 1: Self-Mastery & Positivity.
Please note: that it has been some time since I did this program, and therefore am unsure if there is triggering language. If you are interested in this specific program, have someone you trust listen to it before hand.
In addition to Coach Kiomi, I began meditating for just a few minutes a day, and kept a gratitude journal. Numerous studies show that meditation and gratitude not only increase mental and physical health, but also add years to your life. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude keeps you both present and focused on the now, not the regrets of the past or worries of the future.
Confidence and self-esteem don’t just come with the flick of a switch. Your brain is like a computer, and I installed a dangerous software called ANTS (automatic negative thoughts). The only way to get rid of ANTS is to be aware of them and counter them. The best way to do that? Affirmations! I had morning ritual whereby I’d stand in front of a mirror and say 2-5 positive sentences aloud to myself over and over. Within a couple of weeks, I could feel a difference. Within a year, I was a whole other person.
5. I Stopped Exercising
Now, before you start jumping for joy because you think I’m giving you permission to be less active, hear me: I stopped all forms of exercise that were geared towards making me thin. As Christy Harrison says, anything that feels like punishment or compensation should go. For example, running as fast as I can on treadmill in a corset as a response to eating loaded cheese fries (yes, I did this…do not try it!). Instead I focused on forms of exercise that allowed me to connect more with my body and nature. Some things I incorporated into my daily routine:
- Yoga! I downloaded apps so I could do this in the privacy of my home. Sometimes I’d have yoga days with friends and family.
- Dance! I never took a formal class. I danced around my apartment for the length of a self-made playlist.
- Walking and hiking! Beautiful scenery always helps.
6. I Never Lied About My Disorder
I knew that part of the process of recovery was acknowledging it, and understanding that there is no shame in what I was going through. Because of that, I made a commitment to never lie about my disorder.
The more I spoke openly about this, the more women confided in me about their own experience with disordered eating. What I thought would make people uncomfortable provided space for vulnerability. I was even able to help some of them recognize and correct dangerous patterns or unhealthy relationships with food and their bodies. I finally recognized the beauty that came from my suffering. It taught me to approach others with curiosity and love, not judgement.
Not only did speaking openly about the illness release its power over me, but it made me realize the blessings that came with it (back to the gratitude!). Since having it and going through recovery, I have learned so much about myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I grew tremendously and created friendships that wouldn’t have existed. I began to understand what I deserved when it came to friends and partners, and that my opinion of me was the most important opinion of them all.
Today and Every Day
Normality is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.– Morticia Addams
Through the practice of mindfulness, my relationship with food changed. I was able to listen to my body and pickup on cues that I had always ignored before, such as fullness. I started realizing what made my body feel good and energized, compared to bloated and lethargic, and therefore started naturally drifting away from the foods in the latter category.
When the obsession over being “skinny” subsided long enough, I realized that I actually enjoy weightlifting, and slowly incorporated that into my routine.
I began listening to people like Oprah, Glennon Doyle, Brené Brown, and other inspirational women and got clear with myself about what I want to do: write and love and help people. In short, I did the work. It was hard, grueling even, but worth it.
For me, I believe I’ll always have the shadow of this illness following me. I say that because I know I carry a darkness within me that I tread very gently at times. It’s a small voice that believes I’m not good enough. The difference now is, rather than being fearful of it, I challenge it. I have built a stronger voice over the years. She is fire, and she reminds that small voice who’s in charge now. The smaller battles may never cease, but damnit, I will always win the war. If I had to break this victory down into the most basic element – the most fundamental rule – it would be this: I forgave myself. With forgiveness comes compassion, and with that I learned to love myself again.
The wound is the place the light enters you.– Rumi
Until next time, friends,
Fuck diet culture, and take care of yourselves!
Quean Mo xx
So, tell me, how will you honour your mental health this month?