Last year, I was asked to share my story about battling bulimia for a TV show in New Zealand and I said, “Sure, but do I have to tell my story? How about I help you find other people’s stories.” That felt better. I didn’t want my story put up for people to rip down, especially on national television.
Then I went to a talk by Professor Cynthia Bulik, the last person interviewed on this site, who has dedicated her life to investigating the crazy disorders that revolve around eating, or not eating. The last thing she said in her talk was, “we need advocates.” I sat there thinking, good on you for doing this work, you are amazing. But I don’t want to be an advocate. I’m happy to be a voice barking here on FABIK but not an actual person, not a bulimia poster girl.
Then Cynthia shared this fact: eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any other.
It is such a clanger it’s worth repeating.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any other psychiatric illness.
And it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.
Georgia O’Keeffe said once, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant. Making the unknown known is what is important.”
The only way to bring down that mortality rate is make the unknown known.
So I sighed at the mother of American modernism, OK I’ll tell my story too.
This was me on the left, age 9, with my best friend Hilary.
I used to tell people she was a prem baby to explain our size difference. I didn’t even know what a prem baby was but I had heard it meant you were unnaturally small. Which meant I wasn’t unnaturally big.
Research shows around 60 per cent of people with a family history of an eating disorder develop one. Yet while genes load the gun, it’s environment that pulls the trigger.
And one of those triggers is a diet.
Not long after this photo I went on my first diet because I was uncomfortable in my skin. I remember it well because I couldn’t eat the sausages and stewed apple and custard my brother was eating.
Here I am at 13.
I was a serious dieter by this stage, and I was good at it. I used to do exercises in my room when I was meant to be in bed.
Boys started paying attention to me because I wasn’t chubby any more and I liked that.
And I loved that pirate shirt.
Here’s the thing about diets. If you have a history of food struggles, binge eating, restricting or an eating disorder in your family, then putting your child on a diet might trigger the same behaviour. And that’s a hefty might. If children have the biological predisposition to develop an eating disorder but are never put on diet, it might never happen.
This is not about my parents, they were wonderful. None of us knew the dangers of restricting food back in the 80s when diets were as popular as big hair. But what we know now is that we must never ever put children on diets to manage weight.
Screw you Paleo.
I’m 18 in this photo.
I was asked to model a few times but I was told by a sleazy photographer that I didn’t have a good gap between my thighs. This was before the thigh gap even existed. It’s possible that photographer and I invented the thigh gap right then and there.
Later he rubbed up against my leg at a party and came in his trousers and I didn’t say NO as I was shocked. So it was a good thing for him I had some meat on my thighs.
Fuck you photographer.
Smoking and drinking’s way more fun than posing.
This was the university flat where I first threw up. I was 19.
The toilet seat was salmon pink and I told myself it would only be once. I’d just get rid of that second bowl of pasta because I was sick of dieting and trying to control my weight and food. I was so sick of it I made myself sick. Which might sound totally sick but it seemed like an OK idea at the time.
At least it was my idea.
My bedroom was behind that curtain and I used to stash milky bar chocolate in there.
Here I am at 20.
I can’t explain the high trousers but I can explain the high hair because I was fresh out of the 80s.
By now I had full throttle bulimia but you wouldn’t know right? Eating disorder sufferers are good at hiding.
Beneath this smile I was miserable, bingeing and purging food every day. In one flat in Wellington I used to throw up in the yellow washing basin my mother gave me to do my hand washing in. Then I’d throw it all outside. No flowers grew outside that flat but we didn’t care. We were young and wild. In another flat I blocked the drains but I blamed it on our resident vegetarian — all those lentil he ate, pffft.
Eating disorders are affecting men now, lots of men. The average age for anorexia for boys is 11. Transgender are at significantly higher risk too. Anorexia’s less common in Latino, African-American and Pacific Island communities but binge eating and bulimia is growing rapidly. Purging is heritable in twin studies.
This is me at 22, home from university.
God I loved that red jersey because it hid all my shame. I’m with my amazing brother, Shaun. He didn’t know. Not then.
I can’t explain the posy of flowers but I can explain the distracted, rosy-cheeked look on my face. That was after a spending too long upside down over a toilet bowl — it made my face puffy.
These are the bonus side-effects that come with bulimia: low self-esteem, drug and alcohol issues, shoplifting (yes that’s another story and explains A LOT), anxiety, obsessiveness, low self-worth and isolation.
Eating disorder’s mortality rate is higher than depression, and there’s a super high correlation to suicide. The average suicide rate is a bit below 2% of the population. But for bulimics it is 13%. For anorexics it shoots up to 18%.
Here I am tripping, aged 23.
I loved drugs. I got diet pills from a dodgy doctor. I got other drugs from friends because they made me not eat or not think about food for 24 hours because in my head the dialogue about food was always there.
For people with eating disorders that’s the thing that drives us nuts. The constant dialogue in our brains about how much we’ve had, what we’re going to have, what we’re not going to have, I’ve written about it before. For anorexics that’s what makes re-feeding so hard, it’s not that they don’t want the food, they don’t want the noise in their brains that comes with the food.
My weight went up and down because bulimia’s a sham, it’s not a good diet.
I had scars on my knuckles (you can see the blemish on my middle knuckle on my right hand).
I told no-one.
This was my friend Steve. He was a good guy so naturally we didn’t date.
I went for the bad guys and if they had their own dirty secret even better.
In fact I married somebody who had his own addiction, which kept him distracted from my late night antics.
I was 27.
My girlfriends told me I was too thin the day I got married (that’s my friend Julie to my left and my gorgeous Mum on the right).
They also told me I was marrying the wrong guy.
Women with low self-esteem attract what they think they deserve. I didn’t think I deserved love; I was so ugly on the inside.
And I was still throwing up. Not every day, about once a week. Every time I felt anger, hurt, frustration or sadness I binged and purged it away. It was my own trick to deal with emotions I didn’t like. It was my own bottle of whiskey.
When I was finally free from bulimia aged 30, that guy was no longer right for me. It took me two years to leave.
Now I’m here at 45.
I can’t explain the blue light or why I’m having a much wilder time than everyone else in the room.
It took me 25 years to accept the body I’ve been given.
And I’m still not 100% fixed and shiny and new. Recently I wrote a story about a super thin model and before I posted it I found myself standing at the fridge eyeing up the Tim Tams. I told those Tim Tams that if I spoke up about her weight people would point fingers at me. She had an eating disorders so of course she’s on her high horse.
The Tim Tams ignored me. So I ate some anyway and posted the story.
Remember that little fact about low self-esteem?
It’s still with me.
I worry that when I’m 75 I’ll start doing something nuts like swallowing diet pills again. I wouldn’t put it past me. More than half the people Cynthia sees in her US treatment centre are over 35. She conducted a study in women over 50 years and found 8% were purging, over half claimed weight affected them, and 41% were body checking every day. They were checking to see if they were still OK. Every day.
As Cynthia says, “Mental illness has stigma and eating disorders has stigma on top, so it is double stigma. If we have a colleague who is depressed, or doing drugs, or an alcoholic, we have a script of what to say. But with EDs we are so hesitant to say anything.”
So here I am, saying something.
Something needs to change.
Cynthia needs people who have, or had, anorexia to volunteer for the world’s largest survey into investigating eating disorder genes — it’s called ANGI. Compared to other psychiatric disorders like depression and schizophrenia we’re behind the game in terms of understanding genes linked to EDs. You can blame that on the stigma. They need 13,000 people worldwide. After anorexia, they will investigate bulimia and binge eating disorder.
Eating disorder is such a dirty term I want nothing to do with it. And everything to do with helping fix it.
Because hopefully one day it won’t be the most shameful thing to tick on a medical check list.
-Find out why I started this site here.
– Or listen to me chat to Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand about how to talk to teens about their bodies.
– Or read about FABIK on the Huffington Post or New York Mag.