WARNING: IF YOU HAVE AN EATING DISORDER THIS POST COULD BE TRIGGERING. WARRIOR ON.
I knew Amy Winehouse battled drugs and booze. We all did, no thanks to the relentless hounding she endured from the paparazzi. I did not know she had bulimia for 10 years. Along with millions of others I blamed her thin, puffy-faced state on partying too hard. The biggest bombshell that’s come out in the highly-praised Asif Kapadia film, Amy, is that she died of alcohol poisoning and a weakened state from her eating disorder.
No matter how much we try to contain it, like those bludgers in Quidditch, bulimia’s bursting out and while it is not usually life threatening, like most addictions, it is life sucking.
This terrific article in Pitchfork by Kayleigh Hughes talks about how eating disorders fall in line with our expectations of celebrity “we love thinness so much, yet we know we’re supposed to be repulsed by the means of achieving that thinness—it’s easier to scrutinize their lifestyle or their partying than ever examine the toll of staying under a certain weight.”
Being a thin rock-star is glamorous but being a rock-star who vomits up her meals to stay thin is not glamorous. It’s a problem no-one wants to discuss.
After interviewing over 20 bulimics for, Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know (FABIK), the same story keeps popping up—it usually starts as a random teenage act then grows into a deeply shameful adult habit. Amy’s parents thought it was a silly teen activity she would soon grow out of, which pushed it behind locked doors. Kayleigh says “Eating disorders, for the most part, are a highly contained and easily managed means of utterly ruining oneself.”
FABIK’s newest member, Sarah Illingworth, says, “I think eating disorders often get shrugged off as being about girls being insecure and trying to lose weight, which they are, but they’re also a way of coping with stuff like anxiety and depression, and I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with.”
Bulimia arises from a complicated mash up of potential factors: social, genetic, psychological, cultural, media influences, metabolic – but a predilection for addiction and depression can help make it stick. And when it does it can be just as dark as drugs. It turns intelligent men and women into liars, thieves and nutters. For the record, bulimia’s a total sham for weight loss, as unlike Amy, usually bulimics are not thin which is why it’s hard to detect.
Once, a skeptical boyfriend said to me, “What’s the big deal, you just sneak off to the loo and throw up some pizza, right?” Below is a little story that explains the deal and why bulimia’s a bitch to live with. It’s not glamorous. It’s not cool. It’s the truth.
It was 1994 and I was invited to my friend Pip’s house for lunch with the girls.
We started with nibbles and I had none because I was above that Blue Castello cheese. I was not superior, however, to wine and had two glasses. We all sat down to lunch outside, alfresco style. Salads and meats and potatoes were passed around and I took plenty of salad and meat and gave those potatoes a filthy look. So not having you. Nor was I having that crunchy buttery garlic bread in front of me.
Then somebody told a story about meeting Robert Smith in London, and another had seen Johnny Depp in Paris and he was holding a baguette and wearing a beret and I remembered that I hadn’t been anywhere. Or met anyone. At 24 my passport was empty because for some reason I couldn’t leave New Zealand, or Wellington, or sometimes just the house.
Then that garlic bread whispered to me. Go on. Who cares about travelling? Have the crust.
“Would I like more meat?” somebody asked. “Salad?”
DOES A BEAR SHIT IN THE WOODS?
After polishing off my plate I was preoccupied, trying to focus on conversations but all I could hear in my head—in Christopher Walken’s voice—was MORE GARLIC BREAD!
“Would I like to try some dessert?” Pip asked.
I AM A GIRL WHO IS NOT AFRAID TO EAT. Not like that miserable skinny bitch at the end of the table refusing dessert and nibbling on a salad leaf. We all knew she wanted some cheesecake and cream too. Over a very large helping, I laughed and told myself secretly it didn’t matter. It was all coming up later. But in order to do that I needed MORE.
As Pip started clearing up I jumped up to help.
“Let me carry that in, no you sit,” I said, as I carried the cheesecake into the kitchen sticking my finger in once out of sight.
It’s useful inviting one bulimic to dinner parties so they can clear up, as long as you don’t care about having any leftovers actually left over.
Diligently slogging away at the dishes I continued to slice thin pieces of cheesecake, have mouthfuls of cream, as many pieces of garlic bread as I could and some small crunchy potatoes. Spotting the cheese platter on the coffee table I helpfully cleared that away too giving myself a chance to try that Blue Castello. And in a word, fucking delicious. Although I could hardly taste anything by that stage. Savoury, sweet it was all mashed up together in a frenzy of MORE.
Finally somebody called out to “leave that mess and join them forgoodnesssake”. Reluctantly I sat down, feeling so stuffed and uncomfortable and gross and everyone else was drunk and happy. I couldn’t be bothered with any of them. My close friends had all turned into characters from a bad sit com.
Then Pip had the spontaneously brilliant idea to carry on the afternoon in a garden bar where a band were playing in the sunshine.
“I can’t,” I announced.
I had just remembered I had some seriously important work to do that afternoon on some mind-blowingly essential project. Saving lives. Or was it livers. Or wrinkles. Or watches. Something crucial.
They protested. I shrugged; ever the martyr.
On my way to work—at 3pm on a Sunday—I stopped by a gas station to get two family packets of crisps, fizzy and two big bars of chocolate just in case I needed to swallow MORE before I could succeed at vomiting.
Unfortunately all the girls—who had piled into one car—needed gas on their way to the garden bar and stopped at the same station and saw me coming out of the shop with an enormous bag of snacks. Shit.
“For the editor at work,” I lied. As if they were asking or actually interested in my bag when really the only thing they were thinking was why isn’t she joining us?
Ignoring them, and trying to forget their shocked faces as quickly as possible, I raced off to work. Nobody was there so I helped myself to some sour cream and chive crackers the PA kept in her bottom drawer—I knew what everybody kept in their drawers and spent a lot of time and money replacing everything I ate.
After some hot tea I got out the nasty old belts that I kept at the back of the filing cabinet—in the same spot alcoholics keep their whisky bottle—and put them around my swollen belly, did them up too tight, and waddled off to the paraplegic toilet that had plenty of room for bending over and good light to inspect undigested food, with a basin inside the cubicle to clean myself up in afterwards.
Five hours after arriving, I left the office. Numb. But congratulating myself for being up to date with work.
The following morning my face was puffy from bending over for so long. I got up, charged outside for a run, washed my hair, shaved my legs, covered up the puffiness and guilt with makeup, and then trotted into the office. I kicked that old filing cabinet with the nasty belts in it: I won’t be using you for a while.
Until the next day.
Bulimia didn’t just steal my time and money, it stole my joy. You can’t numb out the negative emotions without numbing out the postives ones. Plus it robbed me of my relationships because I was too ashamed to let anybody close, incase they saw how ugly I was on the inside. Addictions love to have us all to themselves, to take us back to black until there is nothing left.
Keeping bulimia buried in shame helps no-one but that bitch bulimia.
I battled from 19 to 25 and it took until 30 to kick it. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
I’m always looking for more courageous people to interview for FABIK, especially men. Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently Adios Barbie published a story I wrote about bulimia, ‘Admitting to a disorder is not an orderly thing to do.’