OH HEY THERE BULIMIA
For 6 years of my life I stuck my fingers down my throat, sometimes several times a day. It then took me another 6 years to feel comfortable enough to tell people, without feeling embarrassed or fearing that it would come back.
Bulimia is a horrendous condition and its nature means that its very debilitating. 16 years ago mental health awareness wasn’t anything like it is now. That’s not to say that it’s perfect these days of course, but fast forward to 2018 and most of us know someone who has suffered. After telling someone that I had bulimia I got the response ‘I thought so’ which, as you can imagine, was about as supportive as having a spare tyre made from plasticine.
Some of the reactions contributed to me not talking about it honestly for a long time. Another big factor was working as a teacher. When you apply for a teaching job, part of the application process involves filling out a health questionnaire. Having a role in the public sector is, usually, synonymous with having a squeaky clean image and therefore I felt an internal pressure to lie about this on every form I received. Yep, I thought that having an eating disorder meant that I would be unemployable because why else were they asking me about it? Maybe worse still, this meant I held back from telling students ‘I know what you’re going through’ when I could have supported them more than I did. Teacher guilt seemingly lives on after you’ve left the profession.
When I was suffering, at my worst, I would make purposeful trips to the shop to eat everything I wouldn’t usually allow myself to eat, with the sole intention of purging afterwards. I sought help when I was in my early twenties and was fortunate enough to have had phenomenal support from the moment I walked into the GP’s room. I had a detailed consultation with several experts within a month of going to see the doctor, and was then swiftly assigned to a therapist who I saw on a weekly basis and a nutritionist, who I no doubt drove up the wall.
You see, people with eating disorders basically are nutritionists; we can tell you what’s in almost every foodstuff. What I didn’t know was exactly what I was doing to my body, including the badly applied fake tan look on my hands and feet from eating too many beta carotene rich vegetables. The clincher for me was finding out that I was more likely to suffer from a heart attack. Chronic vomiting means you lose a lot of potassium, one of the minerals which is responsible for maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance. I didn’t even have to look that up, it's ingrained in my mind.
By the time I was pregnant I hadn’t been ill for years and had a balanced, healthy relationship with food. Unfortunately nausea and sickness hit me pretty bad, and holding my hair back whilst crouched over a toilet bowl brought back a lot of uncomfortable feelings. Trying to make myself gag if I know I’m going to be sick isn’t an option for me, I appreciate that it’s not an option for quite a lot of people either! Though I’m confident that it wouldn’t reopen a can of worms, there is no point taking a risk just to speed things along if I’m feeling nauseous. Somewhere around week 15 that all calmed down but the experience made me realise how low I must have been to have done that to myself, on purpose, for quite a chunk of my life.
When my son came along I put a lot of pressure on myself to breastfeed and I’m very conscious of what he eats. Obviously, you don’t have to have had bulimia to feel strongly about these things but I have often wondered if they’re related. People say that as a parent you want to ensure your kids don’t make the mistakes that you did. Bulimia wasn’t a mistake of course, it was something that happened to me, but maybe that’s why I persist at making everything from scratch even if he rejects it and eats houmous out of the tub 80% of the time.
Eating disorders are usually nothing to do with food except the very obvious symptoms that present themselves in sufferers. Knowing what I do now about baby and child psychology, I do my best to be there for my son whenever he needs me whilst trying not to get annoyed every time he’s pulling at my leg and saying ‘mama’ over and over. From my experience, having mental health issues has made me hyper aware of the pressures that children face in the world today. I really hope that we continue to see a normalising of the discussion for the good of everyone. If we don’t think twice about writing ‘ashtma’ ‘eczema’ or ‘sprained ankle’ on a job application then, equally, we should be living in a world where we feel no shame to write ‘recovering alcoholic’ ‘depression’ or ‘bulimia.’
Written by Claudette Anderson
Antenatal and postnatal classes for supporting parents by giving them realistic expectations at www.holdingthebaby.co.uk
If you need help with an eating disorder or know someone who is suffering with an eating disorder you can get fantastic help, advice and support at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
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Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit.