National Eating Disorder Week — What living with an eating disorder is actually like

This article is going to be a little more….graphic than others I’ve done in the past. I’ll be going into a lot more detail than I’ve ever gone into before. It may be a hard read for people, but since I’ve always been one for letting people know they’re not alone no matter with what they’re suffering from, I think it’s important to get to understanding what an insidious and horrific thing an eating disorder can be. All sorts of warnings from here onwards.

I used to weigh a lot. Over 400 pounds actually. Food was always a comfort to me, something that I could use to take my mind off things and not have to worry about what I was going through at the time. I knew how bad it was for me, slowly climbing up through clothes sizes for years, I could see it affecting me. It’s a thing that most people go through. Who hasn’t had a thought of “I should really lose some weight”, but like any addiction, overeating to the extent where you’re over 30 stones — there’s more to it than just having the odd slice of cake now and then. It’s a coping mechanism. I decided to get healthy and lose weight when I saw a Radiohead t-shirt I really wanted. Maybe not a typical moment of clarity, but it got me started at least. It was difficult to break that pattern, once you get into a certain mindset, once actions are carried out without you thinking about them, it’s so hard to change.

After I lost the weight, I felt fantastic. People didn’t recognise me, they kept saying how good I look, how brilliant I must feel. And I did. It was incredible. I could move, be active, play sports and not feel so self-concious. The thing that no-one tells you about extreme weight loss is what it does to your self-image. I was starting from a place where I had zero self esteem, and gaining confidence and relaxing a tiny bit about myself was like a drug. When you get to that point, you can’t stop. Sure you feel better about yourself, but the thought of that confidence going away, it’s unacceptable. So you keep going. And going. I got down to less that 120 pounds, at which point I became ill. For an unrelated medical condition, I was put on a series of treatments which made my worst nightmares come true. I was forced to put on weight. And that wouldn’t do. All my hard work, all my struggles and trials…gone. Down the plughole. Of course, that was never the case, I was actually just getting healthy, but your brain doesn’t tell you that. There’s so much emphasis put on weight and being thin = being happy that any tiny raise in the number on the scales is like a failure. You had an extra plate of spaghetti? You are a failure. You had an apple for lunch instead of starving yourself? You are a failure. You drank another diet coke so the scales read 300g higher? Fucking failure. That’s all your brain tells you.

I remember the first time it got too much to me. My housemate bought me a slice of cake with coffee. I didn’t want it, I just wanted my espresso and to have done with it. But of course, I felt obligated. I tried thinking of an excuse to avoid eating it, but nothing came to mind. It didn’t really taste of anything. I think all I could focus on were the number of calories. “Well, if I have this and nothing else today then I’ll still be under my limit.” Thoughts like that race through your mind all the time when you’re in the worst of it. Numbers, calories, grams, exercise times…it’s so strict and regulated that when something comes along to break it, you can’t handle it. And boy o boy, could I not handle it. I was in the bathroom as soon as I got home. Pacing up and down, worrying that this one event would ruin everything. And it did. Just not in the way I thought it would. I couldn’t have this in my body. It wasn’t an option. I stuck my index and middle fingers down my throat. A moments pause, and then the gag reflex kicks in. It was difficult to do, I remember that. It took a long time for anything to come up. I’d waited too long, it’d started to digest. I should say at this point, I’m a semi-intelligent person. I have a PhD in astrophysics and I tend to understand things quite easily. Knowledge and logic and rationale have nothing to do with an eating disorder. Absolutely nothing. You live or die by the number on the scales. I remember thinking “Never again. I’ll never do this again, it’s too horrible. I don’t get how people can do this.”

That’s where the insidiousness comes in. It’s the easiest thing in the world to once in a while, maybe when you’re out at a meal or on a date, to just slip to the bathroom and get some of those extra calories up. The escalation is so quick though. From once in a while it becomes a few times a week. Your gag reflex starts supressing so you have to use three fingers instead. I remember the first time I saw blood in my vomit. My fingernails had scraped the back of my throat. I swore I’d never do it again. It was a wake up call, a sign that I was getting too deep into it, that I was in danger of really hurting myself. Two days later, I was doing it again. More severe than ever to make up the ‘day off’ that I’d had. I don’t know when the tipping point came either. It was so swift that I didn’t even notice. From getting food up to make the scale number more acceptable to buying food just to throw up. I was still thinking “oh I can stop any time”. Planning binges and purges and making my capillaries rupture from the strain. I was so ashamed. I am so ashamed. The thought of wasting all this food on this fucking appalling ritual is so alien and absurd to me, even years of coping and understanding later, it gets to me a lot. No-one could ever find out what I was doing. But they did. Of course they did. No matter how much you want to hide it, you can’t. You’re not as subtle as you think. It doesn’t take much for people to notice that you’re eating so much yet never putting on any weight. That you rush to the bathroom after every meal and come back with tears in your eyes. But they’re suffering too. Your friends, your family, the people that love you, they don’t want to think you’re suffering that way. That you’d punish yourself like that, it’s too much for them to think about. So they ignore it. Until they can’t.

Admitting I had a problem came when my best friend and housemate at the time flat out asked me if I was making myself sick. It was a bizarre relief in a way, that finally someone had the courage to ask me, that I could admit it and get better. I told him everything, about how I couldn’t stop, that it was more than a pattern, it was an addiction. About how I lied to cover things up and made more lies and more to stop people from knowing the truth. The thing is, as a man with bulimia, there’s not a lot of support available. When I went to group therapy for the first time, I was surrounded by teenage girls. My GP had recommended I go, and wanting to get better at this point, I agreed. They looked at me like I couldn’t belong there. Even though I related to then about how they felt when they were doing it — the shame, the release, the self-hate — they didn’t want me. The therapists I went to just told me to get over it basically, I don’t think they were equipped to deal with it. I flew off the handle at that point. Daily. Twice daily. 4 or 5 times. Countless hours spent over the toilet. I didn’t even need to induce my gag reflex, just tense my muscles in the right way and it happened. People don’t often talk about how addicting it is. Once you’re done, lying in bed with pain shooting up your sides and a dry mouth, it’s an odd high. Such control too. You’re in charge of what you put into your body. Sometimes, when it didn’t all come up, I’d just spend an hour trying anything I could. 4 fingers down, punching the wall because nothing would happen. Still a pound left to go and nothing was coming up. I remember for a long time I wouldn’t go to bed unless I weighted less than the start of the day.

It never goes away either. It’s always there in the back of your mind. Any excuse to do it, it’s like you’re always on the edge, wanting to be pulled off. It’s appalling. Truely. But God fucking damn it, I’m not going to let it beat me. I’ve been trying to get better for the last 3 months, and whilst I’ve had slip ups, and setbacks, that’s all they are. Getting over something like that, whether it’s depression, eating disorders, self harm — it’s a process of ups and downs. Ultimately it’s a thing that just exists in your brain. In my case, probably for the rest of my life. All I can do is take it one day at a time, and if anyone can feel even the tiniest bit less alone or scared because of what I say, then I’ll keep going until the day I die.