Dear Louise: I had my bulimia under control. But the demon has returned

I lead a very busy life — I’m a mature student in college — and I separated from my partner but the separation was my decision. I hate myself when it beckons as it ultimately makes me fatter, it has the reverse effect
Dear Louise: I had my bulimia under control. But the demon has returned

I am writing to you in utter despair. As a lifelong bulimia sufferer, I thought I had the illness controlled relatively well but in the last number of years, my demon has returned.

I lead a very busy life — I’m a mature student in college — and I separated from my partner but the separation was my decision. I hate myself when it beckons as it ultimately makes me fatter, it has the reverse effect on me. Help! I’m in a mess.

Thank you for writing to me. You say you are in despair and I understand that despair. I see you. You are not alone in this, I promise.

Many people who struggle with disordered eating are hiding in plain sight, masking their behaviours to such an extent that only those closest to them are aware of the issue, if even that.

Bulimia is particularly insidious because it can be easier to conceal than other disorders; often sufferers remain within a BMI range that is considered ‘normal’ for their height and any binging and purging is done in secret.

Many, like you, believe they have the illness controlled ‘relatively well’.

They are perhaps 80%-90% recovered and in general, they believe they are managing. They are functioning well, they are successfully holding down jobs and doing well in school, they are excellent parents, friends, colleagues, etc.

But the issue with being ‘almost’ recovered is, as I believe you have discovered, that it is frighteningly easy to relapse when faced with times of high stress. Grief, trauma, loss, mental health struggles, postnatal depression, and anxiety — these are all experiences that are devastating to go through for anyone, but for someone whose go-to coping mechanism involves self-harm (and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what an eating disorder is), such life events can shatter any semblance of a half-recovery.

You are recently separated from your partner, the father of your children. Even though it was your decision, it’s still an enormous change and change — whether we wanted it or not — can often feel destabilising.

Coupled with your choice to return to university as a mature student (an amazingly brave thing to do, by the way!), it sounds as if there have been fairly seismic shifts in your life.

Has that brought up any uncomfortable feelings for you? Fear, self-doubt, worry? And if so, are you sitting with those emotions and allowing them to pass through you? Or are you stuffing them down, using food to numb out as a way of coping?

There is no judgement here. The reason we develop these behaviours in the first place is because we are in pain and we want the pain to stop, whatever way we can.

I’m curious if you are giving yourself enough time to even acknowledge how much your life has changed over the last few years. You say you lead a very busy life.

Do you carve out any space in your schedule just for you? To do something you enjoy or find relaxing?

I’m aware that can be tricky with young children, but too often, when we don’t give ourselves permission to practise self-care, the binge/purge cycle becomes the only moment we take in the day for ourselves.

The subsequent feelings of guilt and self-loathing only compounds our sense of powerlessness, which we then try and manage with the bulimia, and on and on it goes, in a vicious, never-ending cycle.

In your letter, you talk about the ‘reverse effect’ the bulimia is having on your body. The brain is a mysterious thing — I know when I feel concerned about my finances, I have the sudden, desperate urge to spend money.

When I have negative feelings about my body, I want to over-eat. It’s counterproductive but it’s hard to be logical when we are in a state of fear.

I wish you didn’t hate yourself or your body but I understand how difficult it is to practise body positivity in a world that teaches us if we want to be happy, we need to be thin. It’s not true, of course, but the cultural conditioning runs deep. Do you think you could strive for body neutrality instead?

To express gratitude for all the things your body does for you — you can walk and dance and make love, you have eyes to see your beautiful children, you can hold their small hands in yours — rather than comparing your body to some arbitrary societal standard of beauty?

This will take time and practice; it will feel strange at the start. But if you catch yourself every time you have an eating-disorder thought, every time you think “I’m fat” or “I’m not good enough” and mentally say, “No. That’s the bulimia talking. I don’t have to listen to that voice anymore.

I can choose another way for myself,” you will find a new habit forming, slowly but surely, one that will nourish rather than harm you.

On a practical note, Google the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. When you have bulimia, you are malnourished, and the impact that has cannot be underestimated. Many of your physical yearnings to binge will be greatly reduced if you ensure your body is receiving adequate nutrition and for many of us, our understanding of adequate nutrition has been warped over time.

I also urge you to seek professional advice. I’m not sure if you are seeing a therapist, but try and find one who specialises in eating disorders. I owe the Eating Disorder Centre Cork my life, but Bodywhys will be able to help in sourcing a therapist near you.

I can also personally recommend HealED, an online coaching service which would be an excellent resource for anyone who is in self-isolation.

And lastly, please don’t give up hope. Full recovery is possible, no matter how long you’ve been struggling.

You can have a life that is free from this, one that is peaceful in a way you can’t even conceive of right now.

You deserve it.

If you have any concerns or issues you would like Louise to answer you can confidentially do so by submitting your question here.

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