Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Trigger warning: Discussion of bulimia/anorexia
You may tell yourself that the urge just comes out of nowhere, but in truth you knew it was going to happen from the moment you took the first bite; perhaps even the moment you were invited to the event, where of course you’d be expected to eat. It would be rude not to. How can you justify turning down your friend’s birthday cake? Or the pie your aunt made? At best, people would roll their eyes or tell you that you don’t need to diet. More often, they’ll be offended and uncomfortable. And ask if you’re okay, if you’ve stopped eating again. Lying gets tiring.
Still, you have to figure out how to hide so many things. Red eyes; runny nose; the coughing, gagging, choking; of course the smell. You’ve got countless explanations for your lengthy disappearances, countless reasons you need to leave right after your meal. No matter how inconvenient, you have to preserve the ritual as best you can. Each step is calming in its familiarity. Each one gives you a sense, however fleeting, that you are in control. It’s stressful to find yourself in a situation where your ritual is interrupted, but not engaging is not an option. You just have to get creative.
So you eat. Maybe you eat so much you that you feel completely out of control. Or maybe you just have one slice of cake, no different than anyone else. Either way, you’re hyperaware of the fat you’ve packed into your stomach, the insane number of calories you’ve stuffed into your bloated face. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Yeah, right. But you didn’t have to eat it. There’s always a choice, and you chose wrong. With every passing second, you can almost feel yourself teetering on the brink of obesity. Never mind that you’re a completely normal, “healthy” weight. Isn’t “healthy” just the polite word for “fat”? Your lack of self-control is appalling. It’s so simple – just don’t eat, and you won’t be fat. But you’ve failed, yet again.
No matter how many times your therapist asks if you’d love any of your friends less if they gained weight, and you say, “no,” and she says, “see?”, you know the rules are different for you. You don’t have anything else to offer – You find it impossible to focus on the conversation going on around you, to happily chat with everyone else after the meal. You have no idea how long you’ve been stuck in your own head, listening to your ridiculous thoughts. Which are your thoughts, and which belong to the eating disorder? Maybe your therapist would be able to tell you, but you’re not so sure you believe her when she tells you that there’s a difference. She constantly tries to convince you that when you’re thinking clearly, you don’t truly value your appearance over the other strengths that she claims you possess. You realize you’re trapped in your thoughts again. You continue to get fatter by the second.
Unwilling to sit with the anxiety any longer, you head to the bathroom. The quicker you get there, the fewer calories you’ll keep. (Right?) You tie your hair back and purge. The anxiety begins to subside. You keep going. You remember why purging is likened to an addiction. You feel so much better. You keep going until you simply can’t. The goal is to be empty. Never mind the fact that you said your goal for today was to keep your meals down, at the very least. Obviously proper nutrition is not quite as high on your list of priorities as you thought. Anyway, now that you’ve started, you might as well keep going. You feel happier, less anxious, back in control of your weak and disgusting self. The benefits are enough to make you overlook how repulsive the whole thing is. You don’t think about the time when toilet water splashed into your eye (is that funny yet?); when you had to lock your dog out of the bathroom so she wouldn’t try to eat your vomit (ditto); when you had to change your shirt or wash your hair and hope nobody would notice when you reappeared. Your throat burns throughout the next day and you wonder whether you’ve finally begun to do some serious damage to your esophagus. You promise yourself that you’ve purged for the last time.
Unfortunately, your (likely temporary) commitment to abstinence from purging isn’t accompanied by any decrease in self-loathing. As long as you continue to cling ever-so-tightly to your desire to be skinny (read: beautiful, lovable, worthwhile, happy), your only remaining option is to return to restriction (read: starvation).
Or, you know, renew your focus on treatment. But no matter how sensible that sounds, you can’t commit to it until you truly accept that you will never look like a stick-skinny model without inflicting horrendous damage upon your body and brain. The choice may seem obvious, but when you’re living with an eating disorder, it’s a choice you struggle with every day.