Eating disorders affect people differently, but bulimia is one of the most devastating conditions for your relationship with food in the long-term. This disorder has affected at least 1% of the population for the last 30 years  with rates continuing to rise as our culture of self-consciousness develops.
Today I’m going to share my experiences with this condition, how it affected my life and the lessons I learned during my teenage years.
Disclaimer: As mentioned above, eating disorders affect each individual in a different way and it would be both crass and insensitive to generalize the symptoms. The symptoms listed here are based on the experiences of a small group of people and scientific literature, but exceptions exist and there are no hard and fast rules for loving yourself. If you suffer from a serious eating disorder, a trained counsellor is the best choice.
Table of Contents
- Who I Am
- My Story
- Physical and Psychological Effects of Bulimia
- So What? Lessons Learned
- The Key: Your Relationship with Food
- Dealing with Bulimia
- Understanding Yourself
- Managing Symptoms
- Putting Yourself Back Together: Beginning to Combat the Cause
- What I Learned During Recovery: Practical Techniques
- Keys for Parents and Role Models
- Closing Remarks: How am I Doing Now?
- Signing Off
- Takeaway Written by a Parenting Pod Psychologist
Who I Am
I’m a 20-something male with a history of eating disorders. However, I’m not the “poster child” for this condition. In fact, some studies suggest that women suffer from bulimia 20-times more than men (2). Or at least they report it 20 times as often.
I experienced a prolonged period of bulimia, characterized by ‘binging and purging’ – alternating periods of eating huge amounts of food, followed by excessive guilt and elective vomiting. This is perhaps the most common approach witnessed in bulimics, although other ‘purging’ behaviors include the use of laxatives and anorexic/orthorexic periods following a binge.
I’m writing this piece to share my story, experiences and lessons that might be useful to help a sufferer or a close friend/relative understand what this process entails. I would also like to shed some light on the science behind the subject and how it relates to my personal experiences.
Furthermore, I’d like to touch on the inaccurate way this condition is perceived by the public, as well as the way that it manifests over a lifetime.
There was a very distinct time during my childhood when I realized that I was seriously overweight. It was the first time anyone ever called me fat. The problem is they were absolutely correct. As a child, I was more concerned with video games and junk food than sports, exercise, socializing or anything else.
In many ways, this was the start of my small crisis of identity and self-esteem. As a child, I struggled with socializing and integrating with others. As a result, food became my way of comforting myself against some obvious social and psychological problems. Among adults this is a risk, among adolescents it’s a serious problem.
By the time I’d reached my mid-to-late teens I’d established a relationship with food that was more akin to an addiction than a healthy diet. My food intake was secretive and based on taking whole days off, followed by days of binging and self-loathing.
I proceeded to develop what I now understand to be bulimia, but at the time I was more consumed with the overwhelming guilt of my binging habits than with my health or labeling my condition. All I knew at the time was that I was a social outcast with awful body-image and a habit of heavily guilting myself for eating anything.
I eventually noticed that the fat kid from my early teens had become clinically underweight with protruding ribs and serious postural/structural health problems.
In many ways, I traded this compulsive, negative relationship with food to progressively less-awful habits. Through this process I found my way back to something that can be called functionally-normal: I’m not totally better, but the food choices I make are superficially normal and healthy.
I recovered in a way that many people are not fortunate enough to experience. One day I came to the realization that what I was doing was disastrous to my health. I was no longer the fat kid. Now I was clinically underweight. I began to question everything I’d done and whether I’d swung too far the other way, finding my now-prominent ribcage as a stunning failure rather than something I’d been chasing for months.
Realizing that I’d become a different kind of unhealthy – and more mentally than physically – I realized I needed to totally overhaul my relationship with food and my own body. I decided that the problem wasn’t going to change – my body image was awful, ineffective, and unhealthy. Fortunately, I was able to channel my feelings into constructive habits: exercising, clean eating, and improving myself.
In many ways, it would be easy and half-correct to say that I swapped my bulimia for orthorexia and phased it out slowly. In many ways this was limiting myself from engaging in different techniques; however I still found it effective and far less self-destructive. This was a superior alternative for me, and all things considered, a pro-confidence alternative that solved my body image (and objective health) problem, which is exactly what I needed.
This is still the approach I mostly subscribe to today – a gradual addressing of the problem itself with the hopes of providing a sustainable, long-term recovery. It’s easy to be derisory about addressing your own mental health problems, but at the same time it’s difficult to go from unhealthy to healthy without intermediaries: for many, the prospect of avoiding coping mechanisms simply makes recovery an insurmountable process.
Physical and Psychological Effects of Bulimia
Physically-speaking, my turn from overweight to clinically underweight was a horrible process. I don’t remember all the details, but I found myself far more sickly during this process than ever before. However, after recovery, my immune system was infinitely stronger.
During my binge-purging episodes, my metabolism and digestive health were awful. I was tired constantly, unable to focus, unable to study, and found myself slipping in many areas of life, where I was otherwise excellent. The things that mattered to me became nearly impossible. Things like seeing friends were impossibly difficult and I found myself becoming alienated from the people around me.
The psychological effects were clearly worse: they were pronounced then and they stuck with me for the better part of a decade. As an individual with a love for sport, I developed a body that was conventionally-excellent but that I never had any love for. Body image and dysmorphia stay with you long after you’re done with the symptoms.
I found that my overall confidence was closely associated with this poor self-image, and as a result, I struggled with physical intimacy. The concept of being attractive to another human was entrenched in my poor body image, and therefore impossible in my mind. It took more than a half-of-a-decade to feel comfortable with human contact and in romantic relationships. In fact, it still takes a huge amount of conscious effort to interact with others.
The problem I had with the psychological effects of Bulimia is that the condition is rooted in poor self-concept, but also makes this worse. Guilt and shame exaggerate the existing problems and increase the amount of stress you’re under. They contribute to poor relationships in future, which only serve to make these problems worse.
For me, getting out of the cycle of poor self-concept required an intervention at the psychological level. Stopping the behaviors is a good start, but bulimia is an insidious condition that undermines your long-term mental health. Self-doubt and low self-esteem extend beyond the pure act of binging and purging.
So What? Lessons Learned
There are 2 major things to keep in mind from this story:
1. The relation of food-to-life, as a child is fragile and education/values play a key role
2. The relationship with food and eating is a central theme that can’t be overlooked
The Key: Your Relationship with Food
Eating in the modern era is so much more than simply fueling the body for important tasks: food has taken on a cultural and psychological shape that has nothing to do with staying alive. Food as a luxury and the focus on mouth-sensation has come to characterize our relation to the nutrition we need. This is where the problems begin for many of us, myself included.
Eating has been associated with endorphins release and can easily become a part of your reward system. If you’re struggling with other life stresses, the chemical release associated with eating can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, which makes it an easy way to overcompensate for other problems.
We’ve all had long days that ended with food or drink as therapy: whether it’s a piece of chocolate cake or alcohol, your diet is a key component of managing your stress. The problem is that it should not be chronic: if you continue with these habits, you’ll ruin your long-term relationship with food.
Binging is an inherently emotional action, and I defy anyone to see purging as anything but an emotional release. The accumulation and expulsion of guilt characterize bulimia, but these rely on food being an emotional support. Simply put, having a poor relationship with food (characterized by emotion) is a huge contributing factor to eating disorders.
Dealing with Bulimia
The real question, once you’ve figured out the main problems, is how to deal with them. It’s easy to identify the problem but the hard part is remedying it. Listed below are personal experiences and strategies that may be helpful to others also suffering from bulimia.
Note: These coping strategies are based on my own personal opinions and my own road to recovery, and thus, should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a medical professional such as a therapist or counsellor, if you are dealing with bulimia.
First, it is important to acknowledging that the “real” problem is rooted in your personality, and because of this there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. My problems may not be the same as another person’s problems, therefore, some of these suggestions may not work for you. Remember, many factors (i.e. psychological and emotional triggers) are associated with bulimia, so the most important thing to do is be introspective.
Your relationship with food may be rooted in trauma, poor self-esteem, a genetic predisposition, and/or neuroticism. It may also be closely connected to other psychological disorders like anxiety, avoidance personality disorder, and OCD. Therefore, if you suffer from any of these conditions, it’s probably worth thinking about how it could be affecting your relationship with food.
Identifying and “figuring out” an eating disorder can be difficult, however reflecting on your emotional and psychological states can help you better understand how to proceed. In any case, it is important to be gentle with yourself and understand that you’re doing the best you can. Because, honestly, feelings of guilt can negatively affect recovery times. Remember, managing and/or curing bulimia doesn’t happen overnight.
Symptoms are the main concern, at least in the short-term. Why? Because symptoms can manifest in your daily life. Binging, guilt, purging, and/or any other uncomfortable or unhealthy experiences can negatively affect your quality of life.
The first step is reducing the severity of your symptoms, so you have time to reflect on larger problems – the cause of your poor relationship to food – and spend time working on them. If you can reduce or suspend your symptoms in the short-term, you can start to chip away at the foundations of the problem. Like I mentioned above, this is a gradual approach to “fixing” your habits. The most important thing, however, is to not blame yourself.
Therefore adjusting your behaviors, while imperfect, is an amazing way of placating yourself. Aim at progression, rather than perfection. And establish a strict diet for yourself that involves “guilt-free” foods.
Additionally, if purging behaviors can be reduced in terms of their severity (i.e. compulsively drinking water, as opposed to throwing up) that is progress. Moving towards less self-destructive approaches is worthwhile and should be the focus of managing symptoms. As a result, your quality of life will improve and your feelings of guilt and penance will decrease.
Engage in activities that will distract you from feeling guilty and allow for the release of your stress and the development or strengthening of your confidence and self-worth. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to skip over things like sports or art: things that could work as a replacement for less healthy guilt-reduction strategies.
Putting Yourself Back Together: Beginning to Combat the Cause
Combating eating disorders is not quick and it isn’t fun. In fact, it can take a long time and a lot of self-awareness. Therefore, spending time getting to know yourself – your insecurities, strengths, and values – can make this process easier and more effective. Truth-be-told, I spent months spiraling because I didn’t realize that my personality was the source of my eating disorder.
Although self-awareness is a key aspect of psychological health, getting in touch with yourself and the root/nature of your emotional link to food is the best way to combat this problem. This is one of many ways a counsellor can be useful, but it’s still important to practice these techniques as much as possible.
Once you understand the areas where your insecurity, trauma, or negative relation to food emerge, you can work on them. In other words, you can factor these emotional shortcomings into your goals and values. You can also set goals that require you to improve aspects of yourself that you’re simply not happy with.
Setting goals in any field (especially the ones that are measurable and incremental) is a great way to combat self-esteem issues.
A lack of competence and confidence can trigger eating disorders. More so, your self-esteem and self-concept are based on the things you identify with. Therefore, identifying with something you’re good at is a great way to improve your attitude and identify root causes for your eating disorder.
I used exercise to help me combat the physical aspects of bulimia (i.e. body image and weight). It also provided me with a solid framework for progress, achievement, and self-confidence.
Remember to be gentle with yourself in this area too: goals should start small. By achieving small things, you will develop the confidence to keep trying and achieve bigger things. If you set yourself a huge goal with a high difficulty curve, you’re going to feel defeated. Break goals down into the smallest parts you can: each step should be a victory worth celebrating. Start small and you’ll be seeing improvements in no time.
What I Learned During Recovery: Practical Techniques
Everything we’ve discussed so far has been very theoretical and all about the psychology of bulimia. In many ways its rooted in my own experience, but also in the scientific research on the epidemiology and psychology of eating disorders. But how can you use this?
• Habitual Change
The key to change here is habit. Habit defines your long-term relationship with food and determines the frequency and severity of your symptoms. The good news is food anxiety can be reduced and your self-esteem and confidence can improve.
Emotional eating is, effectively, a form of psychological dependence. It is characterized by an emotional trigger and an irrational reaction that harms the individual. This process can entrench itself as “habit” and lead to a cycle of escalation or ascendancy.
Breaking and keeping this condition at bay are the aspects we’re going to focus on in this article. Thus, the focus will be on not “guilting” oneself. The emotional cue will remain, but the routine and reward-system will only stay the same if steps in the right direction are involved. The steps must move you towards a healthier relationship with food.
As mentioned above, to be successful you must replace your self-destructive behaviours with healthier, more constructive ones.
• Sleep and Mindfulness
You might not consider these to be essential aspects of improving your mental health, but things like sleep quality and quantity are intimately linked to hormones, and thus, your mood. Your baseline emotional situation can reduce your likelihood of triggering guilt and binge-purge cycles.
Sleep and mindfulness are also excellent alternatives to purging behaviors if you can manage them properly. These are two excellent tactics for rewarding yourself and moving towards a positive mindset. Obviously, this is far easier said than done while experiencing a “low.”
• Food Logging
Simply keep a log of all the foods you eat during the day. This will provide you with a better picture of healthy eating. In addition, it will help you understand patterns in your mood and behaviour. For example, if you over-consume a lot of fat-laden foods like pizza, your overconsumption may trigger your guilt and purging urges.
Once you’ve established a food log and identified common trigger foods, keep them out of the house to minimize your risk of binging, or at the very least reduce the impact. This is a simple way of contributing to your overall success and reducing the number of potential triggers in your environment.
• Reward Yourself: Emotional-Eating Alternatives
Placate yourself when the binging urge presents itself. Reducing the overall binge-urge and providing a reward for not falling into self-destructive habits. If you can establish a healthy reward system for control and self-care, you’ll have much better experiences and gentler symptoms.
Taking time to reduce stress before it happens is key. This can also include active stress reduction techniques like yoga and meditation. Stress and anxiety are key factors in the way that your symptoms appear – cutting them off before they become overwhelming may be a huge positive in the way that you feel.
Something as simple as playing your favorite sport or game is a great way to avoid emotional eating in cases where boredom, comfort or loneliness are the motivating factors. Distracting yourself through alternative, non-damaging comforting activities is healthier: these are optional, whereas food is an essential part of your life. If you have to pathologize one of these, it should be the less-important!
• Non-Punishing Guilt-Free Methods
If you’ve already binged, it’s not too late to start again. Pick yourself up and try again. Next, establish a series of things you can do to remove your guilt without purging. This can help you heal emotionally, physically, and psychologically. But truthfully, it isn’t going to be easy. But if you can pull it off then you’ll be on your way to a happier and healthier life.
Listed below are common alternatives I’ve found to be very effective:
• Eating Healthy Foods
There are certain foods that just make you feel healthy: cucumber, lettuce, peppers, broccoli, and a bunch of other super healthy foods. Try eating them until you’re sated and feel refreshed.
The fiber, water and nutrients are guaranteed to make you feel a little better without the purging. You can be safe in the knowledge that you’re counter-acting some of the negative food choices you’ve made.
• Sip on Green Tea
Green tea is an excellent source of nutrients and also aids in the reduction of stress and anxiety. It can contribute to healthy fat loss, too, and will generally help you to feel better while combatting any negative food choices you might have made.
• Take a Nature Stroll (to get some sunlight)
The amount of time you spend in the sun, ideally surrounded by nature, is a big factor in your overall mood. It’s easier said than done, but replacing your purge habits with this kind of pleasant experience can make a huge change to your long-term wellbeing.
Sunlight is an essential contributor to vitamin D, reduces stress and contributes to a healthy circadian rhythm. Being among nature is also very relaxing and contributes to anti-ruminative time – an essential for preventing depression and other mental health conditions.
These aren’t significant by themselves, but when they’re used to replace negative behaviours they can be a powerful protective for mental health in general.
• Work, Art, and Other Forms of Expression and Actualization
In many ways, you can offset the serious guilt associated with binging by spending your time doing positive, productive tasks that don’t involve purging in a physical sense. Counter-acting your guilt by doing things that you’ve been avoiding or simply haven’t had time for is a great option.
I have a lot of personal experience with this option and found that two negatives can be positive: playing guitar, writing, studying or working on important projects can reduce work-stress and food-guilt if combined. This isn’t certain, but it is another simple way of substituting something less-essential for classical forms of binging.
• Things to Remember
Across all of these theoretical and practical tips, your personal needs are crucial. If you’re experiencing something that isn’t attenuated by exercise or healthy foods, even slightly, then you need to find something that works.
Sadly, none of these options are guaranteed to be absolutely effective and it may take a while to figure out what you need. Remember to practice self-awareness and try to figure out the root problems with your own triggers, and what things in life can help alleviate these feelings.
Keys for Parents and Role Models
During childhood, experiences regarding self-concept are formative: they construct the kind of person that you will become and the way that you feel about things.
Negative self-concept and body image experiences have had far-reaching effects in my life. The way that you think about yourself and your relationship to food are malleable at this point in a way that they may never be again: mistakes here can take a lifetime to fix.
This is one of the many reasons children need to be carefully nurtured with an open and educational approach to food and nutrition. Truth-be-told, providing a restrictive diet to a child can be excessive. However, a “too lax diet” can pose the same risks. In fact, a laissez-faire attitude towards nutrition can invoke long-term problems that manifest as eating disorders and/or obesity with the associated health risks.
That is why I strongly advocate for public health information reform with a focus on educating children on the benefits of a healthy diet, nutrition, and exercise. My parents were good people, but they didn’t know enough to educate me on food choices and nutrition. As a result, food became a purely emotional for me. For instance, my mother often cooked my favorite meals, when I was sad, and after a while I started to equate food with comfort. It became my “comfort ritual” despite my mother’s purest intentions.
This is a common trait often found in bulimics. And it is the cornerstone of my own experiences. Emotional eating is a learned behavior. I know that seeing your child be sad is awful, however establishing negative eating habits by appeasing them with food is a poor long-term strategy. The way it impacts a child is played out through a lifelong relationship with food.
Closing Remarks: How am I Doing Now?
If I told you I was fine, it’d be a lie. These things stain your mind for a long time: they’re notoriously difficult to shake.
With that said, I’m exceptionally grateful for my recovery – I’ve spent a long time working on the emotions I attach to food and it’s starting to get a little easier.
Developing healthy coping mechanisms and better cognitive approaches to food and purging have become second nature to me. Over time, these tools have become habitual for me. They have also opened up the possibility of long-term progress. I feel like I’m doing better and can now help others through sports and fitness.
Coming full-circle, this condition has fuelled some of the most amazing changes in my life. I worked on my body image by participating in sports, and these sports helped me find meaning in my life. I was given an opportunity to help others overcome body image issues and develop confidence. I was able to give back. And this article is the start of a long process of helping thos, who have suffered from bulimia or another mental health condition recover.
Bulimia is an issue close to my heart. Truthfully, it’s never an easy condition to deal with. This article provides an outline of bulimia, so the condition can be better understood and more effectively managed.
There may be clinical steps that take priority, but there are no negative effects to better managing and structuring your life. So take the necessary steps to improve your long-term health and well-being—because they are incredibly important. In fact, they are the very reason I am sharing my story with you.
Takeaway Written by a Parenting Pod Psychologist
This article was written by a young man, who not only experienced bulimia, but is now recovering from it. He decided to share his story with others in the hopes it could make a difference in someone else’s life.
If you’re desperately trying to “deal” with the effects of bulimia, I encourage you to seek help. Don’t wait. Do it today. Don’t allow yourself to live another day, week, month, or year binging and purging. Remember, bulimia does not stem from a desire to lose weight. There are many possible causes for this condition, and the symptoms vary from person-to-person. So it’s important to not to overlook the signs simply because you do not have the common symptoms associated with bulimia.
In addition, bulimia may involve negative thoughts and/or control issues such poor self-confidence and body image. Therefore, it is crucial that you not only seek professional help, but also learn healthy coping mechanisms. With treatment and coping techniques, you can properly manage your bulimia symptoms, thus reducing the effects they have on your life.
So the first step is to admit to yourself that you have a problem and that you want to break the cycle. After you acknowledge that you have a problem, the next step is to admit it to a close friend, and then a medical professional who can help you get on the right path for healing and health. As the young man stated above, recovery will not be easy. And you may experience feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. You may even be convinced that you can do it all on your own. But you are wrong.
The keys to recovery involve developing a strong support system of people who can walk beside you as you work through these issues. Lastly, don’t make the mistake of looking backwards; rather, focus on the truly important moments in your life.
-Dr. R.Y. Langham