Obsession: the state of being obsessed with someone or something; an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind
Perfection: the condition, state, or quality of being free from all flaws or defects
Until recently, when I heard the word bulimia, I visualized a teenage girl or a young woman in her 20’s. I thought bulimia was overeating then throwing up the food. After chatting with Stevie, I realized how little I knew about this devastating disease and how similar it is to drug and alcohol addiction.
Stevie is not your stereotypical “girl” with an eating disorder: she’s a 54 year woman and she’s not alone. Eating disorders among middle-aged women are more common than we realize. When a woman goes through menopause, her body goes through dramatic changes similar to puberty. Perhaps if our society didn’t see menopause as taboo, we could hear what these women are actually going through. A 2012 study shows that 13% of American women over 50 show symptoms of an eating disorder, 60% of them state that they allow their size to negatively impact their lives, and 70% are actively trying to lose weight.
SobrieTea Party: What is bulimia?
Stevie: People think that bulimia is simply binging and purging then going on about your day. It’s much more than that. For me, it’s constantly obsessing about food. From the minute I wake up until the time I go to bed, I’m thinking about what I want to eat, what I can’t eat, how many calories something has in it, wondering if I take a bite if it will lead to a binge.
What foods tend to induce a binge more than others?
Bread. Cookies. Candies. Foods that I try to avoid and categorize as “bad”, are what I typically binge on.
Does addictive behavior run in your family?
My dad was an alcoholic and my mom had unhealthy eating habits. She often complained about her size and went on crash diets. One time, she went on a 30 day fast and got bone thin; her hair started falling out.
Have you ever had a healthy relationship with food?
I did until my early 30’s, when I moved my family to a new state. I didn’t know many people, so I found comfort in food. The more weight I gained, the more I hid. The more I hid, the more I gained. I began to eat in secret. For example, sometimes while preparing dinner for my family, I would secretly cook myself waffles and inhale them before calling people down for dinner. At work, I hid snacks in my desk and ate them privately. I got up to 300 pounds, wearing a size 20.
What made you decide to lose weight?
I tried all of the fad diets and of course, none of them worked. Something finally clicked and I started working out, eating healthier meals, and changing my lifestyle. Over the course of a year and a half, I had lost 100 pounds. I was comfortable with my weight and maintained it for nearly five years. When my work schedule changed, I had to change my fitness regimen. I started waking up at 4am to run before work just in case I couldn’t make it to my regular evening work outs, but I always made it. Looking back, I realize that was the beginning of my exercise bulimia, working out 2-3 hours per day to compensate for overeating. I developed Runner’s Knee, so I needed another way to “undo the damage” of binge eating. I decided to make myself throw up.
How did you feel after the first time you made yourself throw up?
I was on top of the world, like the first time I tried a drug. I didn’t know I could feel like that. I felt like I discovered a secret, a loophole in the system. I can eat whatever I want and just get rid of it. I knew all about the dangers to my esophagus and to my teeth, but I found ways to rationalize it. Eventually, I began purging everything I ate. I would even leave work to go home and purge on my lunch break.
What do you do to keep yourself from binging and purging?
I don’t eat after 3 because I feel like that keeps me thin enough and I won’t need to purge. I chew on ice. I’ll over-tweeze my eyebrows. I’ll play on my phone. Lay out and tan. I just try to keep my hands busy.
(After saying this, she got emotional and began to cry.)
How are you feeling right now?
I wish it didn’t have to be like this. I wish people understood that it’s not a choice. It’s a monster that overtakes me and before I know it, I can’t stop. It’s like a drug addiction. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. I’ve missed phone calls and dates and movies because when I’m in the zone, nothing else matters. The planning, the preparation, the binge, the purge, then the feelings of shame and regret afterwards. The whole process can last 3-5 hours.
SobrieTea Party: This sounds a lot like my behavior when I was binge drinking. I would spend hours planning (pre-gaming), drinking (binging on shots of whiskey), sometimes purging, and preparing for my hangover by taking aspirin and drinking water before bed. I did all of this just to feel numb.
I felt numb during those hours I was spending on my binging and purging. I didn’t have to think about work, my boyfriend, family, laundry, finances, nothing. I was totally distracted from my reality.
That’s why I liked binge drinking so much. It sounds like my hangovers were similar to your post-purging feelings of shame and regret.
They do sound similar, just like the damage done to our bodies and minds from these types of abuse. The next morning, the first thing I would say to myself was “I’m going to restrict (not eat) today”. Then I would feel deprived and that would lead to another binge. I can’t control it. It just hits me. Is that how you were with your drinking?
Somewhat. Certain things would trigger me to think I needed a drink. A bad day at work, a good day at work, a guy wouldn’t text me back, someone’s birthday…I was always looking for a reason to party.
Imagine all those behaviors having to be done in secrecy. There’s no way to be social and be bulimic. Friends don’t call me and say “Hey let’s binge and purge!”. The secrecy creates even more shame.
What’s recovery like for you?
I’ve been stuck in the beginning stages of recovery since December. I’ve gone three months without purging. I’ve relapsed a few times. I’m seeing a therapist. I’m eating several small meals per day and snacking.
I was invisible for so long when I was overweight. It was so hurtful. Even if a man showed interest, I shied away because I was embarrassed by my weight. My coworkers have seen me lose weight and they continue to tell me how good I look and I bathe in the attention. I feel like people expect me to look a certain way. If I put on weight, my confidence stops. I feel like everyone is talking about me and how much weight I’ve put on. After I eat at work, I’ll feel like my stomach is bulging so I put on a sweater because I feel fat.
What is fat?
This (she angrily points to her body and cries). It’s just horrible and disgusting and disfigured. Not at all what I want to look like. I achieved way farther than my goal and that was my first problem. My initial weight loss goal was to be a size 12. I could have easily maintained that. I got greedy and got down to a 6. The smaller I got, the harder it got. Now I wear an 8 or 10 and I hate it. I have size 6 clothes that I can’t wear and it makes me feel disgusting.
What do you want to look like?
(She shows me a photo of herself from October 2015 where she was a size 6, at the height of her purging. She smiles, commenting on how perfect she “was”. To me, she looked unnaturally thin).
It’s absolutely devastating that I used to look this way very recently and I don’t look like that now. I look at that picture of me and I see perfection. As perfect as I can be while having this loose skin from my major weight loss. My stomach was so flat. I was perfect. I feel about fifty pounds heavier than I was in that photo. Until I get there again, I’m not going to feel good about myself. I would trade anything to be that thin.
What would you trade?
I don’t know. I’ve even thought about damaging my taste buds so I can no longer enjoy food. I just want to be thin. I don’t want to take the journey, I just want to be there. But when I get there, I’ll have to maintain it and that’s a whole separate set of stress.
How did you feel when you were a size 6 back in October?
I felt great. I couldn’t wait to get up un the morning and get dressed. I couldn’t wait for people to see how good I look. I guess it all comes down to approval.
Did anyone express concern when you were that size?
No. There was no reason to. I was complimented and I got a lot of attention from men. That’s the size that men like.
Was it the size that got the attention or the confidence?
The confidence came with the size.
If you could have that confidence at the size you are now, could you still attract these men?
Not to that level.
What’s one message you want to get across for someone who reads this?
If you’re struggling with this disorder, you’re not alone. This sickness has different stages and it progresses and regresses. Maybe therapy is keeping me from regressing. For someone who doesn’t have the means to see a therapist, know that a friend can also be therapy. A journal can be therapy. Recovery doesn’t happen over night, just take one step in the recovery direction. Whatever you’re going through whether it’s drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, coming out as gay or trans to your family….if you stay hidden, the world will never understand what you’re going through.
I understand that each case of addiction is unique, but the common threads are too similar to ignore. My goal in sharing Stevie’s story is to point out that we are all in this together, fighting the same fight. Our conversation made me realize how judgmental and ignorant I’ve been to the subject of eating disorders. Bulimia is not similar to addiction…bulimia is addiction.
*****Disclaimer – Stevie is just now scratching the surface of her recovery. As she continues down the path of self discovery, she hopes to get to the root issue that makes her turn to bulimia as the numbing agent. Her testimony reflects her story and hers alone; it is not intended to represent all individuals with a bulimia. Stevie mentions her preferred methods of free therapy, but I want to make it clear that there are other free options out there like Overeaters Anonymous and church support groups. Mercy Ministries even offers free in-patient treatment.