By Dylan Vanderson
I am face-down in a toilet bowl, a sight I have become quite familiar with over the last year. My mouth tastes like a mix of vomit and blood, my fingers are cut and bleeding, and my teeth ache. The meal I had eaten just minutes before is sitting in the bowl in front of me, and my first thought is that of anger. I had told her that I wasn’t hungry and that I didn’t feel like eating tonight. I could have avoided this if she had just let me skip this meal. But I was too skinny according to her, and she had been pressuring me to eat more when we went out. So I forced myself to eat everything on my plate and quickly excused myself to the bathroom. I blame this on my small bladder, as I did whenever someone asked me why I leave so quickly after meals. I got lucky this time, no one else was in the bathroom so I didn’t have to endure the concerned looks or questions. I wipe my mouth with toilet paper and wash the blood from my hands in the sink before rejoining her at the table. I lie and joke about drinking too much pop, and she smiles. It wasn’t her fault though, I didn’t do this because of her.
The biggest misunderstanding about eating disorders is that it’s all about weight and appearance. While this may be the case for anorexia, the most common eating disorder, bulimics usually have ulterior motives for their habits other than just weight loss. Bulimia is the act of binging and purging. This usually manifests in episodes of excessive eating, followed immediately by purging all the food from your body, usually by sticking fingers down your throat and forcing yourself to throw up. I don’t know where I got the idea of bulimia from, but I remember the first time. It was in the fall of 2015, and I had eaten so much when I was out to dinner that I felt like I was going to throw up. I went into the bathroom and stuck my fingers down my throat for the first time, and as much as I hated the feeling of puking I immediately felt a wave of relief. This was the beginning of a habit that would last for almost two years. I would eat until I felt sick, and then go purge in the bathroom. I started because I felt like I had no control over my life. I wish I knew the reason that this made me feel better, or why it made me feel like I had more control. I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t. All I knew is that there was nothing that made me feel the same way. If there was nothing else in my life that I could control, I had this.
About six months after I started my habits my girlfriend would accuse me of being bulimic, and I would get mad at her and deny it. She would tell my parents that she was worried about me, and they would begin to pester me about my weight as well. Hiding it is just part of the act. If anyone knew, I would lose the control it gave me. They would want me to stop. I was 18-years-old, 6-foot-1, and only weighed 125 pounds. I was grossly underweight and everyone in my life would constantly tell me I needed to eat more, including my girlfriend and my parents. I remember I would eat for days before doctors appointments so I would appear to be more of a normal weight, and then for days after I would purge after almost every meal. Later that year I was told by my dentist that my teeth have been permanently damaged. The acid from the vomit was eroding them away, and if I didn’t stop there wouldn’t be much he could do. But it didn’t matter to me that it was damaging my teeth or my throat, or causing stress on my heart, I wasn’t going to stop.
I didn’t even know that bulimia was something that other people suffered from until I saw an article online about eating disorders. Bulimia was briefly mentioned, but I immediately recognized the habits that I had fallen into for the past few months. The binging and purging that I had become so used to, and how it gave me a sense of control in my life. There was one thing about the article that made me feel more alone than ever, though. Men with eating disorders were not mentioned at all.
The next year would be filled with good times and bad, but through everything I continued my habits. The people closest to me would joke about how skinny I was, but they had no clue what I was going through. It was difficult to be bulimic in high school, purging after lunch or in between classes. I would always have to wait until the bathroom was unoccupied, I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me throwing up and then just returning to class and acting normal. Sometimes I would go a month without purging, and then something would happen in my life, and I would fall hard back into my habits. People didn’t think much of the weird bathroom habits or cut-up fingers, but I was in a destructive cycle, and to everyone else in my life I just seemed normal.
Hiding this habit was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. In the same way though, it was easy, all I had to do was lie. Lie about going to the bathroom; lie about how much I had been eating; lie about how little I had been eating; lie about being depressed; lie about where I had been. The rest of it was easy. Eat as fast as possible, excuse myself to the bathroom, purge, and return acting like nothing even happened. At home, it was a little more difficult hiding the sounds of vomiting was hard, but turning on the sink or the shower usually masked it. In public, it was typically just waiting until I was alone in the bathroom. It was horrible to lie when people asked me if I was bulimic. All they wanted to do was help.
In February 2017, I met someone who suffered from bulimia just like me. I told her what I had been going through, and she seemed shocked. She told me that she didn’t know that guys could be bulimic. She suffers from a heart condition relating to her bulimia, and if she relapsed into the habits she could have a heart attack. I felt horrible, so I lied. I told her that I had been clean for months, but the fresh cuts on my knuckles gave me away.
In July 2017, I needed to make a change. Bulimia had become a part of my life, binging and purging weekly or even daily. My heart hurt constantly, my teeth were permanently damaged, my fingers were always cut on the knuckles, I was underweight, and I looked sickly most of the time. My girlfriend and I had broken up, and this had just led to me falling deeper into the habits that had become so damaging. I was depressed, and I didn’t eat much. When I did I would go on binges, eating thousands of calories and immediately purging. This had been a part of my life for almost two years. I remember the day I decided that enough was enough. It was a few days after my 19th birthday, and I was alone in my house. I was staring into the toilet bowl again, my stomach emptied and my knuckles bleeding. I knew something had to give. I felt like my body was falling apart, I was damaged and broken. I knew it was either going to be me or this illness. I flushed the toilet and got up, tears running down my face. There was no revelation, no huge moment that pushed me to get over my habits. I had been waiting for something to happen, for someone to find out and get me help. In the end though, the only person who could help me was myself.
The next few months would be a horrible struggle. I would go days with not eating for fear of purging, and when I did eat I would have to force myself to eat slowly. Sometimes I would lose control and binge, and would have to fight the urges to immediately excuse myself to the bathroom. It took months to regain normal eating habits, and even longer to kick the urges that I felt every time I ate. I would have to eat smaller portions and force myself not to overeat. It was a struggle. People in my life were still telling me to eat more, but I knew I had to take this slow. I still have those urges now everytime I overeat or I crave that feeling of control, but I know I’m better off without it. I’ve gained almost 20 pounds over the last year, and while I’m still underweight, I am in a much better place physically. I no longer feel the constant chest pains or the aches in my teeth. And while the scars on my fingers have almost faded away, I will never forget.