I’ve always thought that I was too fat, in part because my parents told me I was. My sister was also “chubby,” and my mom encouraged me to get her to diet with me. She’d say, “Let’s get our summer bodies ready!”
My dad was even more critical. Nothing was ever good enough for him. He criticized how we dressed, how we wore our hair and especially what we ate.
So the first voices saying “don’t eat” were my parents’, but I internalized them. I told myself I didn’t deserve to eat because I wasn’t thin enough. I counted calories and looked up “how to lose weight” on the internet. Though the diets never stuck, the idea that I needed to be skinnier did.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, I ended all contact with my father, who tore me down, let me down, and always made me feel bad. (He and my mom had officially divorced in 2018.) I started seeing a therapist.
I talked about my father and my depression and anxiety with her, but not about how much I hated my body. I knew if I told anyone, they’d tell me I was beautiful and worthy. But I didn’t want to hear that, as I was sure that I didn’t deserve it.
When the pandemic hit, I was in 8th grade—my last year of middle school. I lost contact with my friends and I turned to food for comfort. By the time I got to high school, I had gained 20 pounds. I was disgusted with myself.
Freshman year, I started at a prestigious high school in Brooklyn. I had trouble being social and making friends, and classes were much harder than I anticipated. Sophomore year I transferred to a school near me in Queens, hoping for a fresh start.
But I still couldn’t make friends. I tried to be nice and to fit in, but everyone was already in their own cliques.
My depression led to a loss of appetite, and I lost about 10 pounds in the 10th grade.
I felt weirdly comforted by the weight loss. Finally, thanks to new levels of unhappiness, I didn’t want to eat. It felt like I was making my younger self proud, and I quickly went from accidentally forgetting to eat to purposely “forgetting.”
I was starving. Pride in my self-control and pleasure in losing weight outweighed the hunger pains, the dizziness, and almost fainting.
But the hunger became unbearable, and I ate. Sometimes I lost all control and binged. My weight crept back up. So I found a way to cheat the system.
One Wednesday in October of 10th grade, I got out of school early and went straight home. My mom worked most afternoons, so I planned to lie in bed and not eat. I intended to fast until Friday.
But my mom was home and she ordered McDonald’s delivered to the house for my lunch before she left. I scarfed down the burger, fries, and chicken nuggets. I had only lasted a few hours fasting.
Disgust and self-loathing flooded through me. You’re so stupid, you’re weak, you’re always going to be fat! I rushed over to the scale and weighed myself for the third time that day. It was barely 1 o’clock. I had gained two pounds.
I had an option I’d been considering since the beginning of all this. I’d read about how to do it on Twitter and Tumblr. I knew I shouldn’t do it; I’d read bad stories. But instead of resisting, I ran to the toilet and put up the seat quietly, even though I knew no one could hear. I leaned over the toilet with my knees on the cold floor and put my pointer and middle fingers down my throat gently. My gag reflex was triggered. My lunch flooded out of me. I kept going until I was completely empty and only sour acid came out.
I rushed over to the scale and weighed myself again. I was three pounds lighter. Lighter than in the morning! This is going to work for me, I thought.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t. After that, I purged (threw up) after every meal. Within a month, I developed sores on my fingers from forcing them down my throat. The acid in my stomach began wearing down the enamel on my teeth and hurt my throat.
It’s funny, part of the reason I was doing all this was to be beautiful, and I became the exact opposite. I looked tired and worn out. I had acne for the first time, and my hair fell out in chunks.
Soon, I was purging up to five times a day and I hated myself more and more each time. I would do my best not to eat so I could avoid purging, but it never worked. I was mentally and physically drained from torturing my body.
Nearly a year after that first purge, my mom, my sister, and I were all home one weekend afternoon. I was waiting for my mom to leave so I could get rid of the Chinese food I’d just eaten.
“What time are you going to work?” I asked eagerly.
“I took off. I’m staying home and doing the laundry.” Sh-t.
“OK.” I went into the bathroom. I worried that she might hear me, but still I shoved my fingers down my throat. Maybe a part of me hoped she would hear, so that she could help me escape the hell I’d created.
I heard a hard knock on the door.
“Why are you throwing up?” my mom asked sternly. “Open this door right now!”
“I feel sick.” I choked out.
“I know you’ve been throwing up for months. I’m telling your therapist.”
I only heard anger, but looking back, I think my mom just didn’t know what to do.
I kept my head down over the next few weeks, praying that my mother wouldn’t tell my father. I was afraid he would say: “Why are you being stupid? What’s wrong with you?”
She never told him, but she did tell my sister. She was really concerned for me, which was nice. Sometimes it felt like my sister was the only one with any empathy.
My mother also told my aunts, who told their daughters, and soon enough everyone in our extended family knew. My aunts and cousins didn’t say anything to me. I imagined them disappointed that my impressive weight loss was due to “cheating.”
Taking Back Control
I was glad I had adult help, but as we began to deal with the reality of my eating disorder, my mother did not express much compassion. She said things like, “You better not throw up the food I give you. I don’t have money for you to waste it.”
She also watched me like a hawk. It was annoying, but it helped. I would’ve gone back to purging if she wasn’t making sure I didn’t: I needed somebody to know that I was hurting. She took over giving me my depression and anxiety medication, which worked better when I didn’t throw them up every day.
My mom sought treatment specifically for my eating disorder. The therapist I had been seeing had helped me deal with my issues with my dad, but she wasn’t the right person to help me with this, so I switched to a specialist in bulimia.
Most importantly, I wanted to recover and address the full problem. Because the self-hatred didn’t go away when I was thinner: I had to change how I treated myself. In therapy, I had to look at why I sought comfort by bingeing and then tried to take control back and punish myself by purging. I realized that I may have been seeking control because I didn’t have much: My mom pushed me to go to the Brooklyn school freshman year; the pandemic kept me from socializing; I couldn’t change who my father was.
It’s been hard to find a feeling of control without purging. I’ve had to learn to be OK with the things I can’t control, and not take it out on my body. During the early stages of recovery, I threw myself into my schoolwork. (My grades had plummeted due to my disorder.) Taking my life back felt empowering and gave me a greater sense of control than purging did.
I allowed myself to eat the foods I wanted, without purging them. I felt guilty consuming calories and like I should throw up the food at first, but for almost a year now, I’ve resisted those urges. Any time I felt as if I didn’t deserve to eat, I ignored my feelings and ate anyway. Any time I felt like I needed to purge, I stopped myself. I couldn’t let myself go back to that place.
Deleting my social media apps helped as well. I had been sucked into an online community of people who encouraged each other’s eating disorders. Deleting the app where they met made me feel like I was truly in recovery.
I still struggle every day with the voice in my head telling me not to eat, but I no longer listen to it. I try to eat a healthy amount in a healthy way. My hair is thick again, my acne is mostly gone, and I look much more lively. I look more beautiful than I ever did when struggling with bulimia.
Acceptance and Love
I also found someone who appreciates me for me, and who encourages me to remain in recovery.
I met Alex in art class in my junior year. We would play Fortnite together and after we lost (thanks to me), we talked about everything. As we got closer, I realized he’d helped me get past my eating disorder without even knowing about it. When I was with him, I didn’t think about my bulimia.
I decided it was time to tell him this summer, after we’d been dating for a few months and about six months since I’d last purged. We were sitting on his bed half-watching Spider-Man Homecoming (his pick) and eating pizza.
“Damn! You ate fast,” he teased. I grabbed the remote and paused the TV.
“Can I tell you something?” I asked, gripping the controller.
“Of course,” he said with a worried smile.
I told him everything: how depression and anxiety triggered my disorder, how I tried not to eat, compensating bingeing with purging, and how much he helped me through my recovery. Words poured out of me, even though I was so worried he wouldn’t like me anymore.
He told me I was beautiful and that he wanted me no matter how much I weighed. Then, he told me about his own struggles with binge eating. I was shocked, but honored he felt comfortable enough to confide in me too. In that moment, I realized I liked him, no, loved him, just as much, if not more. He not only supports me, but understands me.
With any eating disorder, they say you’re “in recovery,” not that you’re “cured.” I’m still dealing with the repercussions of being a former bulimic. Heart palpitations still come out of nowhere. My gag reflex is weaker than most, and I still hear thoughts from the back of my mind telling me to not eat. But I know better now. I learned how to accept and be kind to myself.
I know that the “control” that bulimia seemed to give me was phony. I was being controlled. Now, I treat my body with the respect it deserves and appreciate what it does for me. Appreciating my body is something I never thought would be possible, but I got there, and I think that’s beautiful.