november 5, 2017
in the storage banks of my mind, where the memories of thousands of episodes of bingeing and purging live, one always jumps to the front of the flashback queue.
there are other episodes, worse episodes, more deadly episodes but it is this one, from my second year at university, when i was just twenty years old, that pops up with the greatest frequency. i think perhaps because it was a turning point. it was the first time i really gave up, that i just gave in to the demands of my bulimia, regardless of where or how i was. it was also the first time i purged in a public place.
i’ve done amazingly awful things, things i never could’ve imagined i’d do, in the service of my eating disorder.
my second year of university was post my first suicide attempts. i’d spent a large part of the summer break in hospital and counselling and was supposed to be getting better. i really wasn’t.
i was fighting, sure, a little, but the belief that things would change for the better if only i could get thinner was paramount. i still believed thinner was the way through the misery-inducing, anxiety-provoking, chaotic thoughts i was struggling with. i still believed thinner would make things perfect.
i was throwing up three to five times a week on average by that point. mostly in my dorm room. i was also struggling with massively disordered eating – like my three-hundred calorie lunches consisting solely of hershey’s kisses. an eating plan not found in any weight-loss article, unless it’s in the “how not to” section. i woke up every day promising myself i wouldn’t binge and i wouldn’t purge. my failure to stop was incredibly difficult to deal with but i still started each day with the promise to try. my repeated failures ensured i felt pathetic, dysfunctional, and disgusting.
i gave up on a thursday morning. i know this for certain because it started with a cinnamon bun.
i lived in the dorm and was a participant in the meal plan. the food was okay, your basic cafeteria fare, including the all-important salad bar. when you’re constantly restricting to mitigate your bingeing, access to iceberg lettuce is an important consideration.
the menus rotated but there were some staples: every thursday morning there were cinnamon buns for breakfast. they were fantastic. they had thin, yeasty, dark brown, cinnamon-y layers, and were the size of a salad plate. they were served hot, brown sugar melting, ready to be drenched in butter, thus making them even more gooey and fabulous. thursdays were also “skip lunch” days. an indulgence for breakfast had to be compensated for.
on that morning that i remember so well, i was eating my bun in between sips of diet pepsi (having yet to graduate to morning coffee) when it happened. it’s how it goes sometimes. between one bite and the next my food went from being “okay” to being “wrong, wrong, wrong.” i went from being okay to being wrong. “useless, fat, pathetic bitch, hopeless, fat, disgusting, failure”. the thoughts come fast, and they seem so loud. they create in me this driving, panicked compulsion. it feels like the only thing that will help me silence my brain are vast quantities of food. binges are like failed attempt to escape from myself.
and so between one bite and the next that morning, things changed. i knew as soon as the feelings popped up that breakfast would not be staying down. i knew i wouldn’t be going to my classes. i knew i would be throwing up again, and soon, but in that moment, in those moments, i don’t care. the misery and guilt that follows purging is still far away in those moments. the mental disturbances and feelings of anxiety seem impossible to bear. that morning at breakfast i stopped doing what i had been and simply embraced what felt like destiny.
sometimes, making a decision in life can leaves us calm. bingeing for me has never been like that, though the moments leading up to planned binges often seem oddly calm and resolute. i had one focus, one drive. consumption. it’s all i could focus on. getting more food and getting it now. getting as much as i could before the hour was up. an hour was all i was allowed. an hour for bingeing before the food had to come back up.
i took a second cinnamon bun. why not; i already knew breakfast was a write-off. besides, it was paid for with the meal plan. bingeing is expensive and keeping costs down was something that was always in my mind. my savings shrunk and my credit card debt grew in support of my bulimia.
i took it to go, shouldered my backpack and headed out to join the throngs marching through the pathways as they headed to class. it was all too much at that moment. there were too many people, and the world was too loud, and everyone was in my way. i needed them to be gone. i wanted to be alone with my food.
my eating disorder makes me feel like i’m the focus of negatively judgmental attention. i feel conspicuous. it seems to me that everyone is watching me, that everyone knows what i’m doing, and that everyone is judging me as i judged myself – a complete failure on every level. it’s a very self-centered disorder.
my first stop was the little eatery up the hill from the dorm cafeteria. i walked and ate, walked and ate, isolated from the world around me. i thought of nothing but the food, of nothing but eating. the second cinnamon bun was almost gone, increasing my anxiety. i needed more food. breaks in the binge are not allowed. the requirement is that hand goes to mouth without pause.
a scone, a sandwich, a chocolate bar, and a bottle of water. fluids were an important part of every binge. i needed to be sure that my stomach contents stayed loose enough for easy vomiting. or as easy as doing that can be.
it horrifies me to write that, to recognize the weird logic i employed to make my bulimia more efficient.
i carried on, still eating as i walked. i was quick and purposeful in my movements. slow contrasted too much with the racing nature of my thoughts. they pushed me forward. restraining myself from running was the true challenge. next stop, more food, now.
i’d had my route pretty much planned out from the moment i left the breakfast table. the student union building was my next stop and i finished up the last of my first purchases as i pushed through the doors. i could smell the pizza. binges always included foods i regularly denied myself. the pizza was huge, and gooey with cheese, and had a slice of artichoke on it. i’d never had that on pizza before. it was surprisingly tasty. i almost vetoed the pizza, however. it’s shockingly hard to bring back up. it’d have been an easier purge if i had skipped eating the doughy pieces of crust, but bulimia isn’t about easy. it’s about satisfying on odd sense of need, anxiety, and panic.
gourmet cookies were next. big, hand-sized chocolate monstrosities with large chunks of white chocolate. light-coloured cookies filled with smarties. cookies are a better choice than pizza – they break down in the stomach quickly and easily. i wonder if it’s all the sugar?
i have a knowledge set i wouldn’t wish on anyone.
last stop on the way out of the building as i headed toward my final destination was the tuck shop. more chocolate, gummies, water, and a sign.
time flies when you’re pursuing the requirements of the binge. an hour was almost up so i headed to the library. i had come up with a plan for purging while i was racing from venue to venue and inhaling the food.
main library was eight huge floors of stacks. it was easy to avoid people entirely while there, even when you weren’t actively trying to do so. in the back corner of the basement was a ladies’ bathroom that was almost never in use. i made my way there, still feeling conspicuous and guilty, sure the few people i passed were judging me, somehow. i made my way to the last stall and pulled from my backpack my brand new “out of order” sign. i planned to lock the door, but wanted to make sure no one even tried to get in.
bingeing in public is hell. purging in a public place is terrifying. my imagination conjured up repeated images of the shame i would feel, if i was caught. i went ahead anyhow. the threat of future discovery could not compete with the immediate and desperate fear i was experiencing, the voice that kept reminding me that if i didn’t get the food out, then i’d get fat.
fear of being fat, and therefore being not perfect, and not okay, and not acceptable, and not worthwhile or valuable is a long-time companion.
i used the stall farthest from the door. i chugged my water then affixed the sign to the door. some bulimics that i have met over the years have found vomiting easy. it’s never been automatic for me. it’s hard work that leaves you sweating, and shaking. your heart races, and often there’s blood from the mouth or esophagus, or from wounds that i’d end up causing on my hands. blisters on the back of my right hand from where the canines would sometimes scrape as i shoved my three middle fingers down my throat far enough to trigger my gag reflex. sticky fluid would come up first, until at last i’d start to gag. i’d push hard on my stomach with the left hand, to aid in the evacuation of all that i had consumed. my nose runs, my eyes water, my head hurts. if i was really unlucky, i’d blow some blood vessels in my eye.
halfway through the door opened and so i stopped, climbed up on the toilet seat and waited there, feet hidden from view, sure the smell would give me away. it didn’t.
beyond the risk is discovery is the problem with the aftermath. following a binge, before the recriminations set in, i am exhausted. spent. completely drained of everything. i like the quiet. it’s part of what i’m chasing. post binge, i wanted to do nothing more than lie down. unfortunately, i was in the basement of a university library. the trip back to the dorm had to be undertaken and i looked like hell. puffy face, puffy eyes, sore hand, sore throat. never mind. if i encountered someone i knew i would simply lie. say i’d experienced something bad, something upsetting. something that made me cry. it would’ve been the truth, anyhow, in a way.
it’s odd. i’ve always tried not to lie. i don’t lie, cheat, or steal, except if it relates to my eating disorder. if it was related to that, i had fewer limits. just another one of the weird cognitive distortions that show up with an eating disorder.