Bulimia is a world that is difficult to explain to the uninitiated. It is particularly difficult to explain to anorexics who have never crossed that threshold to the other side of eating disorders, the side that cannot resist, loses all ability to keep from doing the very thing anorexics fear most: Needing.
There is a strange dualism in bulimia, one that is symbolic on many levels: There is hungry/full. Then full/empty. Bad/good. Weak/strong. Chaos/control. Vulnerable/powerful. Low/high. Needing/not needing. It is a physical manifestation of all of these things, and a strangle knot of dilemmas. You need both but only want one, and it doesn’t work like that and that pisses you off. At the same time, the vacillating back and forth serves so many psychic purposes that it is very well defended. It is highly structured and highly ritualized, which makes it feel reassuring, something to anchor your day with. There are usually certain foods that are binged on, a certain time and place and pattern to it; the planning of the act is as much a part of the ritual as the execution. There is money that is set aside for it like any other drug– and, like any other drug, the need for it takes precedence over all else. That fact is one that you use to beat yourself up with, which just causes you to need it more.
Shame is perhaps the most accurate word to describe the feeling that comes with bulimia but it is far from being sufficient. There is a myriad of other feelings that come along with that. In particular, when someone stumbles upon you in the middle of your ritual. There is shock. Horror. Panic. A blizkrieg of guilt. Embarrassment and shame do not even begin to cover it. There is also a wish to die that far outstrips the desire for the massive amount of food you were just caught eating. And whether you flee from the situation or commit suicide right there, you cannot stand the thought of being any longer in the presence of this person who has seen you for what you truly are: A weak, needy, selfish, fat pig who deserves the slow and painful death that comes from starvation and repetitive vomiting. If the person that caught you is someone who you have to see on a regular basis, (e.g., a roommate) you will probably avoid them for days, if possible. You do not talk about your nightly forays into the hell they call bulimia. If you are anorexic as well, you will be extra careful. Because the judgmental voice that commands the silence will be even harsher. You’ll talk about your ability to starve at length but you will never tell anyone, least of all other anorexics (who you are positive will look down on you), that at night you lose your ability to stay in control and find yourself drowning in the food you spent all day avoiding. The only thing that redeems you is your ability to throw it back, to get it out, to flush away your sin. That ability brings you back into the place of being able to say with some authority what goes in your body– and what stays out.
There is also a physical high that comes with purging that is somewhat similar to the one that is caused by starvation, only it is fast and powerful instead of slower and more diffuse. Think of how a shot of tequila effects you as opposed to a margarita over a couple of hours. When you throw up you are standing and leaning over. And when you straighten, the postural change gives you a fairly potent head rush, as does the electrolyte imbalance and the dopamine flood that soon follows. After it is all over you will be calmer, no longer hungry but no longer full. It feels as if you have flushed away the stress of the day. You will have the reassuring feeling that comes with knowing that your stomach is absolutely empty. Your pills will work better, you will not be anxious or fidgety or obsessed with eating. You will be able to think clearly and focus on other things.
Until the urge strikes again.
© Sarah Henderson 2006