Food has always been a focal point in my life. When I recall my childhood, it’s not the smell of the sea, or visits to the zoo that spring to mind, but the sound of a hollow Easter egg cracking, and the taste of my mother’s lasagne.
Back then, food was a really close friend. It was great company to have around because all it asked for in return, was to be devoured. It held my hand through nerve-wrecking final exams, and glued my heart back together after a failed romance. It consoled me through many cold nights and days when I found myself away from home for the first time, and picked up the pieces when no-one else would or could.
But this passion of mine, swiftly turned into a food feud. By the age of nineteen, I was eating around the clock, wishing that I had four hands instead of two. I began to use food as a sedative so that I didn’t have to cope with what life dished out. Mine was a world of perfect black and white symmetry, but when the grey showed up, so did the empty ice-cream tubs and pizza boxes.
As a compulsive over-eater, the word ‘enough’ had no place in my vocabulary. A buffet was my ultimate outing-any opportunity to embrace the hors d’ouvres. Eating became such an addiction that if an invitation didn’t include the promise of a huge meal I would decline it. I even dated men that I didn’t like, so that I could get my drug of choice for free.
I wish I could write that I finally got to the point of being sick of eating, that it was here, on the brink of my twenties that I got wise, and moved away from my crazy grazing. But unfortunately, hell was only just beginning, with a dangerous new arrival in my life.
Bulimia Nervosa is a full-time job, with of lots of lunch breaks. If I thought that I was deceitful before, I now spent all of my time planning and executing my binges. And these sprees were not just limited to my own food. I became an avid house sitter- not because I cared about the pets, but because I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the edibles. Whole trays of croissants would magically disappear, along with the cereal, chocolates, rusks, sweets, crisps, peanut butter and biscuits. And before the holiday-makers had even hit the highway, I had already flushed the toilet.
Now that I had found a novel way to have my cake and eat it, I became really smug, flaunting my stream-lined figure for all to admire, while secretly tucking in to anything that stood still long enough- even the pot plants got nervous!
It took me seven years to personally research this illness. Along the way, I lost some of my teeth and most of my friends. I became a skilled liar, adept at covering my tracks. Even when I set the smoke alarm off at three in the morning while trying to fry some frozen Yorkshire puddings, I had some marvellous excuse as to what had gone wrong! No, there was no time to grow emotionally, or develop healthy relationships, not with a disease like this running rampant.
As a lifestyle, bulimia is incredibly damaging, not just financially, but emotionally and spiritually too. It’s like buying a season ticket for the scariest roller-coaster ride at Gold Reef City. There is no real relief- highs are short-lived and always followed by agonising lows. And then there’s the exhaustion of playing the role of “Miss Cheerful”, in case any-one gets wind of what you are really up to.
Over these years, my frantic parents had sent me to a number of psychologists in the hope of sorting out my eating disorder. And I have to say that these professionals did their best to pinpoint the reasons for my bizarre behaviour around food. Was it because I had been molested as a child by a family friend? Could I be suffering from middle child syndrome? Or perhaps it was my perfectionism with its impossibly high standards that was sending me to the fridge and the loo. Then there was the fact that I had to wear a built-up shoe at primary school- maybe that was at the root of my warped body-image. And the more they analysed, the more I practiced my bulimia. Clearly, blaming the past was not the solution.
By the time that I was twenty-six, my capacity for devouring and releasing huge amounts of food began to frighten even me. I was dancing a tango with death and purging was my silent partner
I once heard that you can’t until you can and until you can you can’t. Well, I couldn’t conceive of living another way until I vomited one day and noticed blood. Something about seeing it there, forced me to sit up and take stock. All that I had to show for my life was that I was a superb bulimic. I couldn’t hold down a proper job or relationship, I was broke, drinking heavily, and always late. I was shifty and self-centred, unable to concentrate on anything other than where my next food fix was going to come from. My life was completely out of a control; a miserable, hopeless mess.
I had heard about a support group for sufferers of bulimia, anorexia and compulsive overeating called Overeaters Anonymous, about two years into my illness, and had even attended a couple of meetings. But back then, as mentioned, I was about as open to recovery as an alcoholic is to the words ‘last round’. And here I stood five years later, on the day of the blood and vomit, realising that there was a tiny thread of me that wanted something other than this sorrow pit that I had shovelled for myself with my own teeth. I was exhausted; tired of the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I finally realised that I had had enough-I wanted to get well. And so instead of the usual routine of picking up the food, I picked up the phone
I was full of trepidation, heading off to my first meeting that October morning. I kept wondering if I would stand out with my shameful seven-year secret. I remember nervously nursing a cup of coffee (for once without the accompanying doughnut). But was I in for a surprise! Instead of judgement and sniggering, I received unconditional love, acceptance and warmth. I was told that I was not a bad person for having this disease and that I was always welcome as a member of the group. And this from a bunch of stranger’s who had all like me been to various degrees of hell. They even had a good laugh about their food adventures. What a relief to know that I was no longer alone with my bulimia. And the support did not end at that first meeting-phone calls, coffee dates, offers of lifts to meetings. I was literally carried through those first excruciating days and months, when parting with excess food and vomiting felt like losing a limb.
As I write this, I have been free of my binge and purge cycle for nine and a half years. I am happily married and we have a healthy son and daughter. I have apologised to my family and friends, for all the devastation that I caused and they have forgiven me. I have lived through the death of my best friend, the suicide of my uncle, a miscarriage, morning sickness, and a hold-up. And yet not one of these events has triggered a return to that quagmire of food obsession, and the main reason for that is the 12 step programme of recovery offered by Overeaters Anonymous. It is the only way of life that has worked for this formally chronic, formally hopeless compulsive overeater and bulimic.
If, as you read this, you too are feeling that this food thing has you beaten, rest assured that there is a solution. It is not a ‘swallow one pill with meals’ approach, because you and I both know that quick fixes are only temporary. No, this is a one day at a time, INSIDE job-no fees, no diets; in fact the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop eating compulsively. And if I can do it, any-one can!
I hope that I never forget what it was like to be ruled by an eating disorder; what it robs you of, how it strips you . I also know without a doubt that if I had turned to the food rather than the phone that October day, I would not have been around to write this. I would not have been given a second chance to really live, to love, to be of service to others, and to accept life on life’s terms. What a far cry my life is today from those lonely nights of stuffing myself with junk food, and hating myself with every mouthful. Isn’t it ironic?- I just had to give up the one thing that had been my crutch for all those years, and in return I got so much back- I got my life back.