WARNING: This is a very brave, honest, personal but fairly graphic story by someone with an eating disorder. If you are suffering or have suffered from an eating disorder, it may trigger some intense feelings for you so you may want to skip it.
An eating disorder is a terrible soul and body destroying illness. Rebecca Reynolds is now a nutritionist but she was not always so careful about the nutrition her body was receiving. She shares her journey with us today……
I used to have bulimia. It was a horrible time in my life. Actually, the word horrible doesn’t cut it. It was soul-destroying. That’s more like it.
I think the ball started rolling towards the eating disorder hole when I was about 11 and living in England. How young is that? I remember looking at my (muscular, beautiful) thighs thinking in astonished disgust, “I already have woman’s-sized thighs, I better watch what I eat!”. This would undoubtedly been due to media and family-value infiltration. Very slim was the name of the game. And is now even more so (now it’s very, very slim).
During my teens I started counting calories. I would get angst-y if I ate more than 1,200 calories (about 5,000 kilojoules) – far too little for a growing, sporty body. My friend and I tried Weight Watchers once and ate vegetables for dinner so we could binge drink alcohol afterwards and remain within our “points” (energy) limit. I was slim. Sporty. I thought I was fat. I’d always had a bit of a “tummy”, i.e. you could grab a handful of fat/skin on my belly. I despised this.
I went to India and Vietnam as a 17-year old and lost about one stone (over six kilograms) due to dysentery and various other forms of diarrhoea, which was a lot for an already slim teenager. My friends were in awe of how “skinny and good” I looked. I bathed in their adoration.
At that time my life was at a crossroads – I was starting medicine, my parents were emigrating to Australia, I had doubts about my boyfriend… I was losing control. Plus I was hungry. My body’s “set-point” wasn’t skinny. It was (and is) sporty, slim, slightly stocky, but very healthy and gorgeous. A size 12. A handful of fat on the belly. Squishy bra fat. But muscular legs and arms. And boobs – 12-14D?
I didn’t like being hungry. I wanted to remain un-naturally skinny. It was hard work. So, I put constraints on myself. One sandwich wasn’t enough one day. So I ate two. This was not allowed! No! So, I panicked. WhatcanIdoWhatcanIdoWhatcanIdo…. “I know what I can do! I can vomit it up”. God knows where I got this idea. Magazines? Friends? So, I proceeded to the toilet of the hotel I was temporarily working at in “the office” and stuck my fingers down my throat. I gagged. I brought up a few mouthfuls of sandwich and felt better. Mentally. Or so I thought.
The ball started to gather speed. I was sick every few days/weeks/months. Not often. I dieted. Exercised. Remained pretty skinny.
The ball went faster and faster. I left medicine. I followed my parents to Australia. I did undergraduate science. I missed my boyfriend. I went back to England. I did undergraduate science. I was still unhappy. The ball was going really fast. I was vomiting every week – at least. I would put myself on ridiculous diets and eat only lean protein, fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy. As soon as I ate anything else, it was “too late” and I binged and purged. I vomited into plastic bags in my university dorm room. I took laxatives and nearly didn’t make it to department store toilets.
Then I tumbled headfirst into the hole, escaping the path I’d followed in England straight into the blackness of the hole in Sydney. I kept a diary of when I was sick. I would get a star if I wasn’t sick one day. I didn’t get that star very often. I was sick three times a day, usually. Often in the shower (I thought this was quite a clever ploy). I would have to use my hands to push the vomit chunks down the plug. I was still too-much-into exercise. I went to a spin/rpm/indoor cycle class once, where someone smelt the vomit on me. On my hands? My breath? The hole was deep.
Then it got better. Slowly but surely. I don’t remember the details of this time. I know that I was sick less and less. I stopped restricting my food intake so much. Putting constraints on what was “allowed” in my mouth. I had grabbed hold of the sides of the hole and started to pull myself out. I put on some weight. I moved back to England. I wanted to do medicine again. I ended up doing a Masters of Nutrition instead – because it was most like medicine. NOT I always say because I wanted to “feed” my eating disorder – like many nutritionists. I hated that I was still “recovering” somewhat and studying nutrition. I wanted to escape nutrition and never think about it again. But, I had to eat every day. And so I did. I got better and better. I wasn’t sick anymore. I still had “disordered eating” thoughts, though.
I saw a psychiatrist. I went on antidepressants. My family and friends were heartbroken. Hospitalisation was an option. I wasted years in the hole. And I can never get them back.
I moved back to Sydney and started a PhD in human nutrition. I felt under the spotlight. Nutritionists were so skinny, so obsessively “healthy”. I had a few extra handfuls of fat on my stomach from my cumbersome climbing out of the bulimia hole. I didn’t feel I could lose this fat by “dieting”, as I feared it would bring back my bulimia. So I got liposuction. 1kg of fat they took from my belly. I wish I’d never done this! $3,500 down the drain! Plus a mottled, lumpy stomach forevermore! Unless I get more surgery – which I don’t think I’d inflict on my beautiful body now. And a few small handfuls of fat. It’s my trademark.
So, where am I now? I’m way, WAY out of that hole. That hole is far, far behind me. I’m off the path, on another path. A path called balance, health and realism. But I can still see that other dark, dark path in the distance. I’ll never forget it and it will never forget me. But it’s made me who I am as a nutritionist. In some ways perhaps I am obsessed with not being obsessed now! I NEVER DIET. I NEVER restrict my eating. Instead, I just “choose” healthy foods most times, but not all times. I let myself eat what I feel like. I listen to my body. I exercise for enjoyment, when I feel like it, not when I should feel like it. I talk about my bulimia. I aim for calm in my life over happy. I aim for balance over obsession. I cry inside when I see other people (mainly girls – but maybe boys just don’t talk about eating disorders or it’s harder to notice symptoms in this sex?) struggling with eating issues. Ranging from some of my old nutrition students taking twenty supplements per day to friends only being able to eat dinner at a certain time. From women who incessantly idolise the appearance of others to the banning of anything “bad” passing your lips. Life is so precious, so short, so beautiful.
Our bodies are beautiful pieces of evolutionary art. They are more often than not very good at telling us when to eat, what to eat, when to stop. When to sleep. When to move. When to drink. My body will NEVER be like Kate Moss’, or any other celebrity/skinny Bondi girl. I am not skinny. N.O.T. S.K.I.N.N.Y. And never will be. I am slim and healthy. I can run for an hour. I can eat what I like (because I don’t restrain myself and listen to my body). I have been a size 12 for years. I’ve not made myself sick for… Um… Seven years? I’ve been “clean” for so long now. I got myself out of the hole – with help – and I will never go back. My mind wouldn’t allow it. But so many young girls (and others…?) spend too much time obsessing about food. There are so many reasons why. But more reasons not to. We have to encourage the Jamie Oliver and Masterchef revolutions – the enjoyment of mostly healthy foods, the cooking of meals, where food comes from, the sustainable aspects of food. Balance. Not dieting. Listening to your body. Accepting your body’s healthy shape and size. Obviously there’s another side to the coin – obesity – which has its own fair share of disordered eating habits, e.g. binge-eating disorder. I’ll talk about this another day. And disorders like anorexia and orthorexia nervosas. For now, let’s start the conversation – what do you think about bulimia? Nutritionists? Eating disorders? Does anyone really just have “one” defined eating disorder? Is obsessing about food as a woman an eating disorder?…
Until next time… Love the proudly no longer bulimic and-now very balanced and realistic but still sometimes worrying nutritionist!