‘Do you feel fat?’ my doctor challenged me.
It tore the rug from under me. I’d just finished explaining my history with bulimia, and my current practice of bingeing, purging and restricting food.
I was embarrassingly obsessed with how fat I felt. But it seemed like my doctor thought I was making up being ill as the conversation had focused on how my weight appeared to be in a healthy range, and the confrontational way he asked me whether I felt fat confirmed it.
I blinked incredulously and replied ‘Yes, I do feel fat’. I felt like an imposter.
I first succumbed to bulimia in my early teens; I was pretty lost back then. Puberty’s onslaught of complexities, challenges and traumas were overwhelming for me.
Bulimia was a release of the internal turmoil I was experiencing. In short; it was the only way I felt in control of my pain.
Six years ago, I was about to hit my rock bottom. I was 22 years old and, from the outside, everything appeared to be normal.
I was midway through my masters, working part-time in retail. My friends would have described me as happy, bubbly and insatiably sociable.
What people didn’t realise was that my days revolved around immaculately planning when I could eat in public and purge alone. I would make sure my schedule was bursting so that my habitual busyness prevented me from even thinking about the hunger pangs.
I knew I needed help, which is when I plucked up the courage and made a doctor’s appointment. But what little grounding and rational thinking I had left was swiped away with one careless question.
The doctor ended up offering me antidepressants and dismissing me while I was in floods of tears, feeling fraught and fraudulent.
Three weeks later, my weight had dropped by another stone and I felt depressed and inconsolably anxious. Some days I couldn’t face leaving the house, washing or even talking.
My grasp was slipping, so I decided to see a different doctor. I wanted therapy and guidance and hoped the second opinion would bring fresh perspectives and compassion.
But when this doctor told me that my BMI was healthy, I felt helpless and like I wasn’t ‘thin enough’ to be taken seriously. What did it matter if my weight was in a healthy range if I was losing control of my mind? After all, eating disorders are psychiatric conditions.
I spoke about being on antidepressants and the numbness I felt, to which I was told that going back on the contraceptive pill would help ‘even’ my low mood out.
But I was exhausted and knew the pill would do nothing for me. At this point I was purging constantly so, in my view, doctors thinking any medication would have an effect was naive – careless even.
And so, I surrendered to my bulimia. My weight deteriorated, I left my job, and I became more and more poorly as time went on.
I developed a continuous cough, painful acid reflux and, at one point, I was verging on incontinence. My skin was sallow, my hair was thinning rapidly and I was refusing to eat on top of my purging habit.
I couldn’t face going back to the surgery. With each passing pound, I felt accomplished. Frankly, I didn’t have the strength to convince them I was sick – by this point the sickness had convinced me I was doing well because I was losing weight.
If it hadn’t been for friends and family members, I know things would have turned out very differently for me. I remember one intervention with absolute clarity: two friends threatened to reveal what was happening if I didn’t tell my mum the truth. It felt cruel at the time, but that confrontation saved my life.
A week later, and thanks to my family, I was in private therapy. I told my therapist everything, and she listened. She gave me time to unravel and was compassionate when it came to putting myself back together again. She offered practical advice, small tasks and exercises to complete.
Six weeks later, I was better than I had been in years. Unlike my experience with GPs, therapy gave me a safe space to deconstruct the warped perception I had built around who I thought I was, and how I thought I looked.
It took a long time – the best part of a year – but the coping skills I learnt have kept me well. But this is a privilege. Not everybody has this kind of support or finances to get help this way.
The eating disorder charity Beat estimates that approximately 1.25million people in the UK have an eating disorder, with around 75% of those affected being female.
The effects can be devastating – anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, while less than half of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia fully recover. It begs the question: why did doctors dismiss me?
There is a history of medical experts misdiagnosing and dismissing women – studies have shown that we are more likely than men to be undertreated or inappropriately diagnosed. Male doctors need to take women’s health concerns seriously.
My relationship with bulimia has been a solitary and secretive one – it has been the dark passenger riding with me for the best part of 14 years. But these days, life is filled with so much joy and I am very proudly looking forward to my fifth anniversary bulimia free.
However, celebrating is a bittersweet moment because looking back, I often question why my calls for help weren’t answered. These illnesses are severe, with lasting complications. Recovery for many, including myself, is a lifelong process. I still struggle to accept my body.
When my urges creep in I cast my mind back to 2014, when I was convinced I was about to lose it all. From way back there, I can see how far I have come and that is what keeps me going.
I’m one of the lucky ones. So far, I’m getting out alive.
If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment.
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