(November 12, 2017)
Trigger warning: blunt discussion of eating disorder behaviors.
My history with hotel rooms is complicated. They’re great when I’m on vacation with others. I have other hotel stories in my past, however.
I don’t like revisiting my past, but I’m learning that if I don’t own it, forgive myself for it, and let it go, I’ll get pulled back into the pit. You have to be careful and diligent in recovery – eating disorders are determined opponents, and they want to stay.
I was always sure the hotel reception staff knew something was up when I walked into a lobby. I think we call that projecting? It felt like people were staring at me. It seemed to me that everyone knew why I was there and thought me disgusting. The likely truth is they neither knew nor cared. I’m pretty sure no one would’ve guessed “bingeing and purging while undisturbed” if they’d been asked.
My preferred hotel was about 45 minutes from home. A medium-sized chain offering, it was an anchor tenant for a large mall. Lucky for me, a grocery store was also on hand. It’s good when supplies are easily accessible. The mall location also meant fast food. It’s an essential part of most of my binges: tasty, forbidden in the regular course of events, and easy to purge.
It’s true what they say – location is everything in real estate.
I had a cover story ready if anyone asked me why I was visiting an uninspiring commuter-town hotel so close to home. I regularly wondered if they thought I was a cheating spouse. I wish I had been. I wish I’d been there for any other purpose at all. Bulimia vacations aren’t going to be winning awards for destination travel any time soon.
I’d check in with a backpack over my shoulder and a mostly empty suitcase at my feet. It held my non-food necessaries – emetics, laxatives, a spare shirt (just in case), a toiletries bag, and some cutlery. It’s good to be prepared: my first hotel-foray ended up being fork-free. It was a problem.
My anxiety would climb as I waited for keys, though I wouldn’t have labelled my feelings as such at the time. I’d refused to accept the anxiety component of my eating disorder diagnosis. I was very resistant though I’m not sure why: I took the diagnosis of major depressive disorder without much fuss. Something to do with control, perhaps? Chalking up my behaviours to anything other than a failure of will was admitting to a lack of control, which didn’t make me happy. I wasn’t ready to admit my eating disorder had been driving the bus for some time.
As I waited for check-in to complete, the uncomfortable feelings would grow. The need to escape from the perceived scrutiny would become aggressive. It added to the agitation I was already feeling.
My life was complicated when I decided to take my eating disorder on the road. My space was full of people, and my life was full of plans. There was busy everywhere. It made purging a challenge. It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t as easy as it had been when I’d lived alone. The smaller post-meal purges I “indulged” in didn’t satisfy the need growing inside me. I knew nothing could happen at home without the risk of discovery, and I wasn’t ready to start confessing all. I needed to think outside the box. Hotel visits were the result.
Once the hotel paperwork was done, I’d park my suitcase and, with my backpack slung over one shoulder, head out to the grocery store. I always used the same bag. I’d had it for years. It held nothing but horrible memories, so I kept it close. It wasn’t the first twisted memento I clutched close desperately. I’m a glutton when it comes to behaviours that cause me harm.
It was purple with black straps, and it was my eating disorder sidekick for quite some time. It carted food on my snack runs and groceries once I moved out of student residences that came with meal plans. It ferried bags of vomit from purges in non-plumbed locations. It helped me successfully shoplift food and supplies when money got tight. It was the worst friend ever. It was shockingly hard to let it go.
At the grocery store, when I binge, it’s about baked goods, junk food, frozen desserts, and the deli. Ice cream is a must. It keeps things loose in the stomach. It makes it easier to bring the food easy back up. Simple, empty calories is the plan.
Small talk with cashiers is a nightmare when you’re buying food for a binge. They’d assume I was having a party, and that’s the lie I’d go with. I’d invent birthday parties or work celebrations to explain all the crap. What was I going to say? “No, the doughnuts, pasta salad, chips, and ice cream aren’t for a party. I’m going to eat them – along with a few other things – and then throw it all back up in the hope that the eating disorder voice in my head will shut the fuck up for a few minutes and give me some peace.” I’m not sure what the response would’ve been had I said something like that. I never found out. I got very good at telling the lies the eating disorder needed. It was kind of my thing.
My food choices for binges were pretty consistent. There’d be minor additions and subtractions – pizza instead of burgers; onion rings instead of fries – sideways kinds of moves. Sometimes, my ice cream choice would be more particular: I’d pick up a sundae or Blizzard. Generally, though, binges were hard to tell apart. They were heavy on the simple carbs, heavy on the junk food, and heavy on foods I wasn’t “allowed” to eat. Heavy on the things I loved.
Or used to love. Or thought I loved. It’s hard to tell anymore. Food has become complicated. Liking is somewhat irrelevant. More important is the ranking. Food is ranked by my brain as good or bad. The “good” category is high water-content vegetables. There’s nothing like a bowl of iceberg lettuce with salt and vinegar dressing to get you through the day.
“Bad” is everything else.
Take apple fritters. I loved them once. What’s not to like? They’re sugary-sweet fried dough with bits of cinnamon apple sprinkled throughout. I remember eating them in the single-digit years. Back when I just ate. When I didn’t evaluate or judge, and food was just food. But now, fritters are bad; a caloric bomb with the same calories I allow for two meals. Fritters are just one of the thousands of evil things that exist in the world solely to make my imperfections worse.
I binge on fritters, but it doesn’t make me happy. Buying them is a kick, but nothing about the binge brings happiness. I wasn’t grateful for the chance to eat them again. I didn’t savour the mouthfuls. Eating during a binge is methodical, rote. I don’t think about the food, it’s hand to mouth until the world goes away, and all that’s left is self-hatred.
If I buy ice cream at the grocery store to binge on, I choose premium labels. On the rare occasions I allowed myself to have ice cream in the house, it was of the generic variety. Pre-portioned vanilla cups were best. They were calorie-controlled and not very tempting. When I binged, I branched out. Flavours I’d never tried, with toppings fantastic and gross, I’d ingest them all. It didn’t matter. Ice cream suffered the fritters’ fate. Even ice cream is devoid of joy when it’s consumed during a binge. It can’t compete with self-hatred and rage.
I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever enjoy food again? I eat mostly to survive. I like my peanut butter and banana sandwiches well enough, but they don’t make me ecstatic. I sometimes think a balanced liquid diet might be the way to go. My nutritional needs would be met, and I could give up the food struggle entirely. It’d make eating out awkward, but I’m sure I can figure it out.
That it would be a convenient method of calorie control never entered my thoughts.
I like hotel rooms; they’re so clean and tidy. I’m a bit OCD – literally, not colloquially – so an orderly and organized environment is important to me.
The food, as I unpack it, gets arranged neatly on the bed, lined up down the sides in order of consumption, with space for me in the middle. I’m going to watch television and consume my purchases. Neatly, though. I’m tidy even at the extreme edges of my bulimic behaviour. I’m not an animal.
The full you get from bingeing is unbelievable. My stomach would distend to painful degrees. The stretch isn’t unexpected when you consider that even a smallish binge of fritters, cookies, chips, ice cream, and macaroni salad add up to close to four litres of food. I often worried about tearing or ripping something internally.
The worry wasn’t enough to make me stop.
In addition to the food, I’d drink about half a litre of liquid, either water or diet pop. Fluids help the ice cream get purging started. They help during other episodes when purging is hard. Unlike the movies, it’s not always smooth sailing.
I know, I, too, was shocked when I found out that movies sometimes lie.
Water-loading is hazardous behaviour, and I treated the risk as a minor concern. Death was always a minor concern. Avoiding fat was the only thing that felt real or vital.
Sometimes a binge is a race. Sometimes I feel like I’m being pushed forward, prodded and compelled into consuming. I’m overwhelmed by the urge to eat, to eat more, to eat faster, and to eat now.
Sometimes a binge is a slog. Sometimes it feels like an unpleasant job I have to get done. I don’t want it, but that’s just how it goes. It’s controlled chaos, the fact that I’m supremely out of control hidden away below ritual and surface-level organization.
In either case, not proceeding feels impossible, despite hating the eating disorder, despite the promise you made that very day (because you promise every day) to stop and never do this again.
When you’re so full your stomach distends, vomiting is easy. Moving is sometimes enough to do it. Bending over the toilet and pushing lightly on the stomach was also effective. The process takes a while, though. It’s not like on television, where bulimics bend over once, throw up for twenty seconds, and sigh in relief that that’s over. In the real world, it takes longer, it takes more work, and there’s more mess.
I timed my purges. An hour of bingeing meant at least twenty minutes of throwing up. As the food cascaded over my hands into the toilet, I’d look for marker foods. I wanted to make sure that the food I’d eaten first was also coming up. It’s like watching the ingredients line up for a particularly nasty layer cake.
Easy and clean is put on hold when you’re vomiting. My fingers would get covered in mucous from the digestive tract. Bits of food would lodge around and under my fingernails. Sometimes the food came out my nose, burning the tissues and getting lodged in my sinuses. I regularly got splashed with dirty water from the toilet bowl. My throat would burn, my nose and eyes would run, and my stomach would ache, inside and out. I hated stopping to blow my nose. It was harder to get going again once I paused.
Sometimes, I’d start bleeding from my throat or my gums. Sometimes, I’d blow out the blood vessels in my eyes from the pressure. The mucous and stomach acid wrecked my skin. I hated myself before, during, and after.
Sometimes, my body would rebel. It would get tired of vomiting. The food wouldn’t come back up no matter how often I’d bend over or thrust fingers. I’d feel it sitting in my stomach like a lump as my brain scolded me for being fat, pathetic, and worthless.
Sometimes I’d take emetics. Not often, because they create a severely unpleasant experience that can also cause cardiac arrest. When I did use them, I’d chug another half-litre of water and roll around on the floor until convulsions beckoned. I felt like one of those machines in the hardware store used to mix paint – mixing water and chyme instead.
No matter how hard I worked, there was always residual food. Despite my ongoing laxative abuse, the more I binged, the harder it got to maintain thin. Too many extra calories and too much water retention made me look softer and puffier than I was comfortable with. That made the eating disorder voice louder, which led to more restricting, more vomiting, and more binges and purges. Which led to even more extra calories, extra puffiness, and the nasty inside voice. It’s a vicious spiral into hell.
I wouldn’t stay the night in the hotel room. That was never the plan. Once the purge was over, I’d pack up the leftovers into my backpack and suitcase to be disposed of elsewhere. I didn’t want the hotel staff to know what I’d been doing. The first rule of eating disorders is, don’t talk about eating disorders. No one is supposed to know. I’d even clean the bathroom to make sure there was no discoverable food spatter. Finally, after remaking the bed, I’d head home, disgusted with myself and horrified by how much money I’d spent. Bulimia is an expensive disease not for the faint of pocketbook or light of credit.
I probably shouldn’t have been driving post-binge since the exhaustion and disassociation could be overpowering, but that would have meant thinking clearly or considering others. Also not part of the eating disorder mission statement. Once I was done, I needed to go. I wanted to be home with my people and my things. I wanted to be in my safe space.
It took a long time for me to realize that a safe space wasn’t possible as long as I had an active eating disorder in my life.