(November 5, 2017)
Trigger warning: moderately graphic eating disorder references.
In the storage banks of my mind, where the memories of a thousand episodes of bingeing and purging live, one in particular jumps to the front of the flashback queue.
There are other episodes, worse and more deadly, but it’s this one from my second year at university that pops up with the greatest frequency. I think perhaps because it’s a turning point. It was the first time I gave up and gave in unresistingly to the demands of my bulimia, regardless of where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. It was also the first time I purged in a public place (as opposed to the secrecy of home).
I’ve done awful things I never could’ve imagined I’d do in the service of my eating disorder.
My second year of university followed on the heels of two suicide attempts. I’d spent a part of the summer break in hospital and had received some counselling. It was assumed I was getting better. I wasn’t.
I was fighting to stop vomiting, a little, but the belief that things would change for the better if I could get thinner was still paramount. I still believed thinner was the way to deal with the misery-inducing, anxiety-provoking, chaotic thoughts I struggled with. I still thought thinner would make things perfect.
Thinner was happiness.
I was throwing up three to five days a week by that point. I mostly vomited in my dorm room, into garbage bags I smuggled out later. I was also struggling with disordered eating – like choosing three-hundred calorie lunches consisting solely of Hershey’s Kisses.
I woke up every day promising I’d be good. I wouldn’t binge, and I wouldn’t purge. I failed every day. Over and over, promise and fail. I felt pathetic, dysfunctional, and disgusting. Why couldn’t I get my life right? Why was I so wrong (fat)?
I gave up on a Thursday. I know this for sure because it started with a cinnamon bun.
I lived in the dorm and ate my meals in the residence cafeteria. The food was okay, basic cafeteria fare that included the all-important salad bar. When you’re constantly restricting intake to mitigate your bingeing, access to iceberg lettuce is an important consideration.
The menus rotated from week to week, but there were staples: Thursday morning was cinnamon buns for breakfast.
UBC cinnamon buns are world-famous. Or, if they’re not, they should be. They’re fantastic. They have thin, yeasty, brown sugar and cinnamon-covered layers and are the size of a salad plate. They make for happy tummies and have enough calories to feed a family of three for a day.
On Thursday mornings, they were served hot, the brown sugar already melting, waiting to be drenched in butter, making them gooier and even more fabulous. Thursdays were also “skip lunch” days. An indulgence for breakfast had to be compensated for.
On that morning I remember so well, I was eating my bun with my habitual diet Pepsi (having yet to graduate to coffee) when it happened. A switch flipped inside my brain. That’s how it goes sometimes. In between one bite and the next, my food would go from okay to wrong. And I would go from “tolerable” to “fat, pathetic, hopeless failure of a bitch.”
The thoughts come fast, and they seem so loud. They create a sense of panicked compulsion, and it feels like the only thing that will silence my brain is food. It doesn’t work, but one must try. Binges are failed attempts to escape that add to the initial problem. It’s too bad you don’t have insight going in.
That’s how, between one bite and the next that morning, things changed. I knew, as soon as the feelings and thoughts rushed in, that breakfast wouldn’t be staying down. I also knew I wouldn’t be going to class.
I missed a lot of class.
I’d be throwing up again soon, but because my eating disorder was in charge, I didn’t care. The misery and guilt that follow purging were far away from now. The mental disturbances that seem intolerable needed to be addressed and that morning at breakfast, I didn’t even put up a token fight. I gave in and embraced what felt like destiny.
I had one focus and one drive. Consumption. It’s all I could think about. That, and hiding what I was doing. Getting more food and getting it now, getting as much as possible before the hour was up felt vital in an oddly detached way. I’m often frantic during a binge, but this time I felt oddly calm. Still, I was on a schedule. An hour was all I was allowed. “An hour for bingeing before the food has to come back up” was one of the rules.
I took a second cinnamon bun. Why not: I already knew breakfast was a write-off. Besides, I’d paid for it with my fees. Bingeing is expensive: keeping costs down was a win. My savings shrunk, and my credit card debt grew large in support of my bulimia. It wouldn’t be the last time.
I took the cinnamon bun to go, shouldered my backpack, and joined the throngs of UBC students marching to class. It was all too much. There were too many people, and the world was too loud, and everyone was in my way. I needed them gone. I wanted to be alone with my food. I wanted to be alone to acquire it more rapidly and get on with the business at hand.
My first stop was the eatery up the hill. I walked there and ate, walked and ate, isolated from the world around me. I thought about nothing but consumption. About what I was eating and what I would eat next. The second cinnamon bun was almost gone, increasing my anxiety. I needed more food. I needed to be consuming, chewing, and swallowing. Breaks in the binge aren’t allowed. The hand goes to the mouth without pause.
A scone, a sandwich, a chocolate bar, and a bottle of water, please, when I reach the front of the line. Fluids were an essential part of bingeing. I needed to be sure that my stomach contents stayed loose for easy vomiting. As easy as doing that can be.
It’s horrifying to write that, to confront the weird logic I used regarding my purging behaviour. Of course, getting things stuck in the esophagus is no thrill either: I frequently worried about rupture.
I carried on walking post-purchase, eating in time with my pace. I set a quick one. Slow contrasted too much with the racing nature of my thoughts. Restraining myself from obvious, frantic haste was the true challenge.
More food, and now.
I’d had my route planned out from the moment I left the breakfast table. The Student Union Building would be my next stop: I finished the last bites of my scone as I pushed through the doors. I could already smell the pizza.
Binges usually included foods I regularly denied myself. The pizza slice was huge, gooey with cheese, and had pieces of artichoke on it. I’d never had artichoke on pizza before. It was surprisingly tasty. I almost vetoed the pizza, however, despite my affection. It’s hard to bring back up. It’d be an easier purge if I skipped the doughy pieces of crust, but bulimia isn’t about easy. It’s about pain, anxiety, and panic.
I hit the gourmet cookie place next. I wanted some giant, hand-sized monstrosities decorated with large chunks of white chocolate. They were warm and melt-in-the-mouth. Cookies are a better binge choice than pizza – they break down in the stomach fairly easily. I wonder if it’s the sugar?
I have a knowledge set I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
The last stop was the tuck shop. More chocolate, more gummies, a litre of water, and a sign.
Time flies when you’re pursuing a binge. The hour was almost up as I near-jogged to my final destination. I’d come up with a plan for purging while racing from venue to venue and inhaling food.
Main Library is eight huge floors of stacks. It’s easy to avoid people when you’re there, even if you aren’t actively trying to do so. In the back corner of the basement is a ladies’ bathroom that’s rarely in use. I made my way there, feeling conspicuous and guilty, sure the few people I passed knew and were judging me.
I decided on the last stall, pulling from my backpack my brand new “out of order” sign. I’d lock the stall door, but I wanted to make sure no one even tried it.
Purging in a public place is terrifying. I kept imagining the shame I’d feel if I was caught. I went ahead anyhow, despite the pictured horror. The possible threat of discovery couldn’t compete with the immediate and desperate fear I was already experiencing. Get the food out or get fat!
The fear of being fat and therefore imperfect, not okay, and neither worthwhile nor valuable is a longtime companion.
I chugged my water, then affixed the sign to the door. Some bulimics find vomiting easy. It’s never been automatic for me. It’s hard work that leaves me sweating and shaky. My heart races, and there’s blood from my mouth, esophagus, or hand (the canines would sometimes scrape as I shoved fingers down my throat to trigger my gag reflex). I push hard on my stomach with the left hand to aid in the evacuation of all that I’ve consumed. My nose runs, my eyes water, and my head hurts. If I’m really unlucky, I blow out blood vessels in my eyes.
Halfway through trying to undo what’d been done, the bathroom door opened. I stopped, climbed up on the toilet seat to hide my feet, and waited there, sure the smell of vomit would give me away. It didn’t.
Beyond the risk of discovery was the problem of the aftermath. Following a purge, I’m exhausted. I’m spent and completely drained. I feel enervated and empty, and I like it. Post purge, I want to do nothing more than lie down. Unfortunately, I was in a bathroom in the basement of a university library. Lying down for a nap wasn’t a feasible option.
The trip back to the dorm had to be undertaken, and I looked like hell. I had a puffy face, puffy eyes, sore hand, and sore throat. I decided to lie if I encountered someone I knew. I’d tell them I’d experienced something upsetting. It would’ve been the truth, in a sort-of kind of way.
It’s odd. I try to be ethical. I try not to lie, cheat, or steal. Except when it comes to my eating disorder. Then, all bets and limits are off. Cognitive dissonance can be amusing.