Any less serious than Anorexia.
Female sufferers with Bulimia are 7 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. The scary thing is, that used to just be a statistic to me. Like… hummingbirds are the only bird that can fly backwards. Or… rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.
Except, I’ve felt so close to living and breathing (or not so much) that statistic lately, of being a face behind those few words that we just read on the screen whilst scrolling to the next headline, or curious fact on our news-feed.
There is a lingering sticky pain that comes with this invisible eating disorder, over the one that makes you appear an over-successful dieter that occasionally people will sympathetically envy (for about three seconds before they realise how cold you always are – and how as you eat less, but feel just as greedy as if you’d eaten more, Anorexia chomps off bigger chunks of your life). You’re fragile not only to touch but to look at. I can say that because I’ve been there too. You do feel like you’re going through the backwards morphing of life from caterpillar into larva. Your skin even turns the colour of the larva you’re morphing back into – translucent… lacking life, lacking blood.
Yet with Bulimia, often to the world you’re a fully flourishing butterfly. Even when you feel like a crinkled, murky moth that is losing it’s mind and it’s wings. Especially when you’ve previously been incredibly underweight. It makes life easier for people to process that because you take up more room on the earth, that you now have colour in your cheeks and you’re no longer cold, that you’re okay. And that’s really fucking hard sometimes. Trying to make people understand how low and tormented you are when you look healthy – equally if not more-so than when you had Anorexia, is like trying to make someone look at a red rose and see a black-and-white chequered sausage dog.
Each day becomes a dread; you begin to lose trust in yourself, you don’t feel like you have any control in your life – of food/hunger because that’s just in chaos and you begin to doubt anything that you put into your mouth, finances – because of the previous point, your weight – the one thing you’re desperately trying to control and feels like all you’ve got left but are failing miserably at, relationships – because of everything else in this paragraph causing you to feel worthless at and a burden upon… and all the shame, the buckets of it that form a huge violent twister around all of these existing mental thorns.
And I’m not trying to get the violins out here – it’s just that we’re still miles away from understanding (so people need to beat the drum) or being able to offer support and appropriate treatment through mental health services for any eating disorder other than one that naturally evokes in our human instincts – a need to comfort and protect. A malnourished one. I do think that largely comes down to our caveman days, our instincts to feed our tribe, to build a strong tribe for our own survival. But the ones that look fed enough you assume are capable to survive for themselves.
Physically, yes (although not always due to purging causing strain on the heart and so chance of a sudden heart-attack). Mentally, absolutely not. And this is the thing about mental health. We’re meant to be moving mountains with this so-called contemporary shift – listening to and treating what’s living in our heads. But eating disorder treatment, still prioritises physical health. Until it becomes physical because someone has died from all this stuff that is overlooked. And to me, throughout the UK (and probably beyond, although I know the USA is better) it doesn’t currently view an eating disorder as a fully holistic mental illness, therefore there isn’t enough treatment options. And this isn’t a dig whatsoever at my local mental health services, because 99% of what they do is fantastic, as well as 99% of the staff being genuine, compassionate human beings. It’s a national, if not global issue.
I was chatting with a consultant psychiatrist recently who I’ve crossed paths with since a previous hospital admission, who is the kindest Scotsman I’ve met – he’s open-minded too about what could have better outcomes for a wider presentation of people with eating disorders, and we were both saying that it’s so ironic how eating disorder services are Anorexic in themselves. Black-and-white…
…meet this weight category and you’re in for a solid number of months working with us to get your life back; or, meet this blood-test requirement, and you also get a free pass to intensive therapy to get to where you want to be. Tick this box and don’t have this diagnosis (because you just confuse things) and we will take your struggles seriously. Out of you bunch who struggle severely with your thoughts around body image, we’ll take the ones that need some meat putting back on. Because we can measure that progress in numbers and show that we’re hitting targets and achieving success on paper, therefore achieving results.
But you can’t measure severity of daily distressing thoughts about body image that affect functioning in most aspects of your life. Or the anxieties about food which features through a large slice of every day. Those sorts of things don’t have a number so we won’t go near that… until it does become a number we can write down and record – the date you were admitted to hospital for an overdose because you couldn’t cope with your eating disorder any longer… or the date you eventually, successfully committed suicide. The number of people that were left to grieve you.
That’s as real as it feels right now. And it makes me sad, not because this is happening to me, but because I am just one human and I know there must be hundreds, if not thousands of people that have a severely distressing relationship with food and their bodies that are not getting the help that can save them. Not to only save their lives, but to give them a life worth living. Because that’s what any kind of approach to ill mental health should be at the end of the day. (plus it’s bloody expensive in itself to keep having to admit someone to a mental health unit for other things as a result of all these struggles)
Take three people – all have cancer. One has a tumor on their arm, one has a tumour on their hip, and one has a tumour on their leg. All of equal size, all causing equal distress. The way eating disorder treatment is in the UK feels like the only ones worth saving are the ones who were lucky to get a tumour on their leg. This needs to change, and the biggest force behind me, pushing me through my darkest days – is trying to recover myself the hard way (even when it feels a whisker off impossible), so I can help encourage changes which I’d hope would make it easier for others in the long-run.
Then, I can die knowing this relentless struggle was worth something.