Beating bulimia

Bulimia is an eating disorder that makes you feel like you’re in control, when you’re anything but.

16 February 2015
by Annie Brookstone

“The first time I made myself vomit didn’t seem like a big deal,” says retail manager, Jennifer* (28). “I had been dieting strictly as I was unhappy with my weight, but one day went overboard at a birthday buffet. I immediately became depressed and terrified I was going to undo all my hard work. I told myself I’d do it once and never again – I was already in my twenties and in my mind bulimia was something schoolgirls got, not me.”

It was being able to undo her “bad” eating that Jennifer says made her do it again, binge-eating and then purging with increasing frequency. “My mom put two and two together when she noticed I was more lethargic than usual and that I’d picked up the habit of brushing my teeth immediately after every meal (well, immediately after purging) – and that it always took me 20 minutes locked in the bathroom to do.”

According to Annemarie Louw, head of eating disorders at Montrose Manor, a Cape Town acute treatment facility that specialises in eating disorders, signs that a loved one may be bulimic include:

  • Becoming more isolated, especially spending time in the bathroom directly (or up to 30 minutes) after mealtimes.
  • Ritualistic or nervous behaviour around food or mealtimes.
  • You may notice the disappearance of food, finding wrappers or containers indicating that large amounts of food have been consumed.
  • Purging behaviours: frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs/smells of vomiting, finding laxative/diuretic packages.
  • Excessive exercise regimes as a means of burning off all kilojoules consumed.
  • Unnatural focus on bodily flaws.
  • Repetitive requests for reassurance about appearance.
  • Social withdrawal.

Jennifer says she soon ticked all the boxes and although she had lost some weight, instead of feeling better, she felt worse – physically and mentally. “Most people who suffer from an eating disorder will experience feelings of depression and/or anxiety due to the negative feelings and the low self-esteem,” says Louw. “There is an ongoing debate as to whether depression and anxiety are contributing factors of eating disorders, or whether they occur as a result. There may be some truth in both arguments. The reality is that eating disorder sufferers have difficulty dealing with emotions. They have low self-worth, which creates huge anxiety on a social and interpersonal level.”

Louw explains that treatment and recovery from bulimia is no easy task and cannot be done alone. “An assessment from a professional will tell you how severe and how far advanced the bulimia is, and whether there are physical conditions that need to be addressed. There are several therapists and support groups that specialise in eating disorders, and in some cases, in-patient treatment may be called for to help interrupt the binging and purging cycle.”

Jennifer says her mom urged her to seek treatment before the problem could get worse. “I went to a psychologist who made me realise that even though bulimia made me feel as if I was in control, it was actually in control of me,” she says.

As Louw explains, there is no quick fix for bulimia – “it requires a long-term commitment to some form of therapy and support in order to recover fully.”

Bulimia can be beaten though. “It took several months of unpacking why I feared not being in control but now I’m sure I’ll keep my original promise to myself and never do it again,” says Jennifer.

*Not her real name.