As a former sufferer and now a parent myself I am often asked by parents about how to best to communicate with and try to understand their children who are suffering from some an eating disorder. This has made me think a lot about how best I can help and so I am going to commit to a series of blog posts and videos over the coming 6 months focusing specifically on parents.
Thankfully I am recovered now, but I spent my teens, twenties and a goodly chunk of my thirties struggling with bulimia. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, during my formative years others missed the warning signs and I was able to slip through the net into full-blown bulimia. That is why I would like to share some of those signs with you in the hope that it will help you identify them in a loved one and take action before the disease can take grip.
Like any eating disorder, bulimia doesn't just happen over night. In fact years before I began my bulimic behaviors I had already become very insecure about my appearance. By the 4th grade I was weighing myself constantly. I would suck in my stomach whenever I felt self-conscious. I'd compare myself to the other girls in my class and assume they were much happier and more "worthy" than me because they were thinner.
By the age of 13 I no longer just fantasized about being thin, I had taken drastic action by binging and purging anywhere from 3-5 times a day. Yes, it took hold that quickly and I have talked to many other sufferers who fell into their full-blown disease just as dramatically. While it is not always the case that things spiral this quickly, my point is a simple one, you need to catch it as early as possible because dealing with a full-blow eating disorder after the fact is obviously that much harder.
So here are some things that I did as a pre-teen and young teen that you can look out for if you suspect someone is starting to struggle with bulimia:
A word of caution, if you do suspect that your child is displaying some of the warning signs of an eating disorder please, please, please take time first to educate yourself on the best way of approaching and talking to them. Don't charge straight in as this will likely result in the child withdrawing. I recommend you go to the National Eating Disorder Association site and access their parent toolkit first.
"To clear your heart is simple. Just change the question from "Why is this happening to me?" to "Why is this happening? And what's the relationship between cause and effect, choice and outcome?" Or even better, "What can I learn from this?" - Sonia Choquette
"Why is this happening to me?" I cannot tell you how often I asked that question. It always came up when things in my life weren't flowing as smoothly as they might have. I asked that after my first husband abandoned our marriage. I asked that after a so-called friend took advantage of me. I asked that after one of my bosses took advantage of my willingness to work my fingers to the bone.
I was always the victim. It was always, "Why is this happening to me?"
Instead I should have been asking, "What can I learn from this?". Easier said than done, isn't it? The victim mentality is so common with people suffering from bulimia. We seem to believe that we deserve the hardships that come our way. We seem to believe that everyone is harboring terrible thoughts about us.
In my case, it was simple. My ego was driving my thoughts and actions rather than my soul.
The more I thought of myself as a victim, the easier it became to justify my ever-increasing reliance on my disease. It was both reward and punishment. During recovery I came to understand that if I ever wanted to break out of this cycle, I had to banish this victim mentality once and for all. I also had to be realistic about a number of irrefutable points:
The bottom line was this: playing the role of the victim was one of the most harmful things I could do to myself.
As soon as I admitted this, I had to surrender another convenient justification for indulging my disease. Since I could no longer play the helpless role, I had to empower myself. No one else could do that hard work of recovery for me.
As my focus shifted, I started listening to my heart instead of my mind and ego. Suddenly, I was on a path to building a major foundation of personal growth..
Below is a list of questions I often asked myself in the course of taking ownership of my thoughts and behaviors. Try asking them of yourself next time you are trying to overcome feelings of being a victim:
To those who do not suffer from an eating disorder this seems like an obvious statement. To sufferers like you and me, not so much.
Bulimia does not provide any solutions to the twists and turns of the human experience and it never has. As sufferers we know that bulimia creates more pain and more wounds than anyone could ever imagine.
It will not erase negative feelings. It will not alleviate fear. It is not a panacea to anything.
Yet for years, I used bulimia as if it were some sort of magical answer. Isn't it amazing to look back and realize this? In a perverse, very perverse way, I believed that bulimia was an answer. I saw it as a solution. It was my one and only coping mechanism, no matter what the situation, good, bad or indifferent.
If this sounds familiar, then maybe this will too. A huge step forward in my recovery was to admit to myself that bulimia was not the answer to anything. The next step was to admit it to the people who were in my life: my loved ones, my friends, my therapists.
The moment I did so, it felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. I felt free. Oh yes, I knew it would take time and patience to fully embrace this revelation. After all I'd been a prisoner of my eating disorder for a quarter of a century. But all of a sudden I had a new mantra, a new affirmation:
"Bulimia is a problem, never a solution. And it never has been."
To support this affirmation and to embrace its words, I now had to apply logic to my thought patterns. And if you are a fellow sufferer you will know how alien logic is to us. I had to admit the damage bulimic behaviors were inflicting on my body and indeed my psyche. I had to battle that voice in my head that tried to convince me otherwise. Above all else I had to trust and embrace the intelligent, logical me. The real me.
Admitting that your eating disorder is a problem and never a solution is a huge step on the road to recovery. To this day, even in recovery, I continue to repeat this affirmation to myself. I cannot afford to allow the twisted, illogical thoughts that once convinced me otherwise to reassert themselves.
If you are a sufferer reading this, I implore you from the bottom of my heart to speak these words out loud to yourself first, then to your therapist and to your family:
"Bulimia (or whatever your disease) is a problem, never a solution."
After a 25 yr battle with Bulimia I am recovered and dedicated to helping others also win their battles with Bulimia or other Eating Disorders. I have chronicled my struggle, as well as strategies for recovering, in two books and encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out to me confidentially