Help comes in unexpected ways
My bulimia started in an innocent way at the age of 16 when my best friend at the time showed me ‘great way’ to be able to eat a whole cake together and not ‘get fat’! Sounded easy, and I was doing it with a friend so how bad could it be. This was my introduction to purging. My friend moved on to eat normally but the habit stuck with me.
Soon it became a way to allow me to binge on ‘bad foods’ because I was feeling emotional and something was getting me down. I didn’t tell anyone in my life and remained an ambitious and goal driven young woman. So when the opportunity came up a couple of years later, to become an exchange student in America (the land of my favourite show 90210!!) I jumped at it and made it happen. Being in a foreign country, with a host family who don’t really know you, and surrounded by a level of body image awareness that I had never encountered before exacerbated the problem.
Soon I was eating all the meals my host family were used to, and bingeing to cope with the feeling of isolation and fear – a feeling that I only recognise now, looking back on the situation with fresh, more mature eyes. My host sister, a cheer leader with a college football hero boyfriend (and very image conscious) was the first to notice my bingeing and purging. She told my host parents and the shame began. Not only did my host family know, but I started to break out all over my face – not just normal teenage pimples but something worse that was clearly coming from my constant bingeing behaviour. And the worst happened… they told my family back home in Australia.
Now I had to deal with the emotional roller coaster of my Dad on the other end of the phone crying. Saying things like “I don’t understand, are you dying, what is going on?’. My family’s confusion and fear were evident but despite assuring them I was ok and that I had it under control and saying “Please don’t come over”, I could never truly alleviate their pain. Even as I sit here now typing my story, many years later, I still feel the pain of that moment as if it were today.
Soon I became the ‘Aussie girl with the illness’. People started looking at me differently when I was out with my host family. With pity in their eyes. How dare they, don’t they know I’ve got this. I’ll be fine. Except I wasn’t. They moved me to another host family who could ‘deal with the problem’ and I spent, what felt like months, in isolation at their home while they went off to work and assumed this would cure me. They sent me to a counsellor who drew pictures on white boards and tried to lay blame in all directions, but didn’t help me at all. I made stupid and inappropriate decisions and let some people take advantage of me, and hit a low that makes me scared even now.
After a while they sent me home. Into the arms of my very supportive, yet very confused family. Life went on. I moved away to go to Uni, held my head up – in public, and carried on with the double life that was so familiar. One Summer, I moved to Melbourne to take a job during the holidays. In this time I went to a doctor, whom I’d never met before, for a standard check up. In this appointment she asked me if I’d ever had an eating disorder, among several other non standard questions.
And I said Yes.
I’m not sure why I confessed that day but it was the best thing I have ever done for myself.
At the doctor’s insistence I went on to see her a couple of times a week for counselling sessions. She was caring, understanding and compassionate and never made me feel pathetic or stupid. On my last session with her she bought me a bunch of flowers and cried. She was going to miss me!!! And she thought I was amazing! I can’t even remember her name, or what she looks like but she came into my life and chose to care about me when she didn’t have to. I was sent an angel to remind me that I was worth it after all.
After that period, I started to believe in myself a bit more. While the bulimia didn’t stop overnight, I did feel like it didn’t control me anymore and I started to pull myself out of it. After this I met a boy at Uni, we started dating… kept dating, travelled the world and went on to get married and have 2 beautiful girls. After 17 years together, our relationship fell apart but he still remains a big, and very important part of my life. And, importantly, he knew about the bulimia and he didn’t run away!
Now I have the most beautiful daughters aged 10 and 7, who are navigating the same world I did but at a much younger age. They have confidence issues and body image fears already, as do their peers. I constantly remind them how special they are and how to be strong. They are very loved and supported so I don’t fear their journey emulating mine – but that doesn’t mean I’ll take my eye off that ball. And now I am strong, and successful. I pulled myself out of an abusive relationship following my marriage and showed my girls that there’s a line and you have to respect yourself. Now I replace bingeing with healthier choices… oh, and some wine with my close girlfriends whom I am very blessed to have in my life.
At the age of 41, I now want to invest some of my time in helping others. Life is a minefield of expectations and judgement that is hard for a young person (or any person) to navigate – I’d like to help if I can. Just like someone helped me.
My 41 year old self, would tell my 18 year old self that life is a journey with blessings all along the way, open your eyes and your heart to these when they come along because they will help you get over the bumps to realise your own true worth and what you can be.
Thank you for letting me share my story.