What Bulimia Taught Me About the Real Me
Perfection and I have been duking it out for a while.
I grew up trying to be perfect; trying to meet the expectation that I was “supposed” to be perfect.
At the same time, I didn’t want to be perfect. I didn’t want all the compliments, the accolades. I just wanted to be like every other kid who got in trouble, played in the dirt and got messy.
Yet I was also fearful of what getting messy might mean. Would I get in trouble? Would I be rejected? What would people say or think?
And so my fear of the judgment that I thought would come with imperfection kept me on the straight and narrow.
For a time.
Then life did get messy.
For 5 years, I hid my bulimia from everyone. Hiding and trying was my M.O.
Hiding who I was, out of fear of rejection.
Trying to be perfect, and therefore be accepted.
I became really good at covering my tracks and playing it safe. I’d raid the cupboards and then rearrange what was left, so it looked like nothing had been touched. I’d buy food for others, eat it before I had a chance to give it to them, and then re-buy the same food so I didn’t show up empty handed. I cleaned toilet bowls at 2am to make sure all traces of my purging episodes were erased.
My hiding wasn’t just about food. If anything, my behaviour with food was a reflection of the real hiding that was going on.
I’d call in sick to work, when really I was so disgusted with myself I couldn’t bear to be seen by others. I’d go for runs in the dark, so that no one could judge my body while I was moving it. I stayed in a job I was performing well in, so that I didn’t have to face potential failure pursuing what I really wanted to do. I hid my true feelings in a relationship, so I didn’t have to face the vulnerability of singlehood.
I hid my fears and I hid my shame.
To make up for it, I tried to be perfect. I tried to have the perfect body, spending hours running and working out at the gym. I tried to have the perfect Manhattan lifestyle, living on the Upper East Side, attempting a “trendy” social life. I tried to translate a perfect academic career, ending with a B.A. from an Ivy League university, into a perfect professional career, by working for a prestigious company.
I tried to validate who I was, by keeping all the “perfect” balls in the air. It was exhausting and I lost myself in all the effort.
I finally snapped. It was after a weekend with my boyfriend-at-the-time and his family. They kept going on about how “good” I was. Even after they left, my boyfriend kept telling me, “You are so good!”
I broke down, and through hysterical sobs and tears, I begged him to stop saying that. I told him why. “I’m bulimic! See?! I’m not good! I’m not perfect!…. I’m bulimic!”
Right there, in that statement, was a release as great as the release I’d get from purging. All the pressure… gone.
Truth is contagious, and so I started telling more people. It was a very select few though—only those that I deemed “safe” to tell, because I didn’t think they would judge me. It’s not like I was shouting from the roof tops: “Hey world… I’m bulimic! I’m not perfect and that’s ok!”
Oh no. It was still all a secret, something not to be spoken about in public circles, and definitely not around the dinner table (no pun intended).
I still tried to keep up the facade that life was great, everything was fine. Yes I’m bulimic, but I’m working on it, it’s under control, I’m ok.
I stopped purging in 2005. And because the behaviours stopped, I thought I was better, back to “perfect.” I could say with pride, “That’s not me anymore,” but what I was really saying was, “That was never me. I’m still perfect, because I got over an eating disorder.”
I wasn’t free yet.
In August 2006, I had a “freak” binge/purge episode. It seemingly came out of nowhere, and all my grand illusions of perfection came crashing down. I did the only thing I knew how to do was resolve not to do this again and get back to “perfect.”
This time was different. Instead of just attempting to fix the behaviours with food, I started to take a deeper look at what was going on in my life. I realized that the way I was living life was, for the most part, out of alignment with who I really am. I slowly started to course-correct. This is where the real journey began.
In September 2008, I met my now-husband. As we started dating, we’d go out to eat in pubs, and my diet of mainly low-fat vegetables and grains was replaced with burgers and beer.
It dawned on me that for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t care. I wasn’t counting calories. I wasn’t afraid of the fat I was eating. I wasn’t choosing the salad option from the menu. I wasn’t planning how I was going to burn this all off with a run the next day.
Instead, I was savouring the moment. Tasting the food and enjoying it. Relishing the company of this amazing person that I was getting to know, and who was accepting me for who I was. I didn’t have to try with him, and I didn’t have to hide.
That was sign #1 that I knew I was free.
At the time, he was still in an entangled relationship with his ex. It wasn’t easy for me. I had to trust him. And I had to trust myself that I could handle this and wouldn’t turn to food for comfort or an escape.
And I didn’t! I journaled, prayed a lot, and accepted that this wasn’t about me. I realized that I couldn’t control the situation, and accepted that even though the situation wasn’t perfect, I was still ok. I let go.
Sign #2 that I was free.
That freedom felt amazing. It was a lightness I had never known before. All those years I had been trying to make myself physically light, yet this lightness of not carrying my shame was what I had been looking for the whole time.
I felt confident and sure of myself for the first time. I smiled, laughed and was silly! Like skipping down the street and singing made-up songs silly! It felt good.
I thought I was “free” from my bulimia, and that my journey was over. I thought I’d arrived, and everything would be fine. I’d have no more emotional crises, no other areas of my life to work on. The eating disorder was the problem, and now that I was free, I was back to whole, back to “perfect.”
How little did I know, because healing from an eating disorder isn’t over once the behaviours with food stop. It’s not even over once you feel free. My freedom from bulimia was just the beginning of my healing journey.
And now my healing journey is about embracing my imperfections. Not only am I not perfect, but I don’t have to be.
I can say this now, without feeling shame and embarrassment, hiding, or selectively choosing a handful of people to tell. I’m willing to shout it from the rooftops!
And here’s the thing, I wasn’t able to even think about embracing my imperfections until the eating disorder was out of the way.
I thought my bulimia was like a mountain that stood in isolation. As soon as I got to the top, the journey would be over.
But what mountain stands on its own? A mountain is always a part of a range. I couldn’t see that though until I got to the top of my first mountain. From the bottom, it was so huge, it took up my whole view.
But from the top, I saw the peaks of the other mountains destined to be in my journey. Peaks like money, relationships with men, boundary setting, career, sex, family dynamics.
I’ve been working my way to the top of these peaks for the past 6 years. A lot of times, the journey has felt familiar. I’ve encountered shame, hiding, a lack of self-love, and trying to be perfect along the way.
From now on though, I’m surrendering. I’m not perfect and I’m ok with that.
And that makes it a whole new adventure.