I wanted to tell you earlier, but it’s really hard to say, “I ate a bag of Cheetos, a pint of ice cream, a box of cookies, three tacos, a grilled cheese sandwich, French fries, and half a loaf of bread drenched in melted butter…and then made myself throw it all back up.”
I pressed send and held my breath. In the decade that I have struggled with eating disorders, I had never gone into such detail about what bulimia looks like—and certainly not with a man who had seen me naked.
Is that what happened tonight?
Yes, I texted back. I relapsed.
How many times has that happened?
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Infinity.
Three grey bubbles appeared on the lower left of the screen. They disappeared. They reappeared. They disappeared. Finally, he wrote back: I see.
Eating disorders encourage secrecy and isolation. When I was 16, I'd lock myself in the bathroom so that the sound of the shower I told my family I was taking drowned out my vomiting. I took a lot of showers. When I clogged the pipes, my parents installed a trap over the drain, but we never spoke about it. My mother read books in the living room adjacent to the bathroom until 1 a.m. to keep watch. My father put a lock on the freezer in the basement where we stored chocolate chip cookies, frozen pizzas, and TV dinners.
In college, no longer living under their daily supervision, I’d skip class in favor of consuming 10,000 calories at a time and then losing them violently until I lay crumpled on the floor. I was in real danger of rupturing my esophagus.
I know that spending Saturday night with friends and Sunday morning with family keeps me safe. In their company, I simply can’t binge and purge. In their company, I feel worthwhile, loved, and safe.
It starts innocently enough—a few extra handfuls of sunflower seeds, a spoonful of almond butter—but soon, every synapse in my brain is firing. It feels good. It's soothing. I want more. Because I refuse to stock my kitchen with trigger foods, the next stage typically involves granola or crackers, broken up and consumed by the fistful. Crumbs litter the floor and my lap. Now I've committed myself to a binge. Let’s go all in.
I shuffle into the nearest bodega, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, and pile bags of chips, pints of ice cream, and 12-packs of doughnuts—processed stuff that, when thinking rationally, I wouldn't even consider food—into my arms. I dump it all on the checkout counter, swipe my credit card, and tear into the cellophane before I've even gotten back home. How much money have I spent? It doesn't matter. I'll figure it out later. I'll fix it later. I'll fix myself later, and then I'll never make this mistake again.
For the next half hour or so, I eat. I eat, staring blankly ahead. I'm not listening to anything, watching anything, or even mindlessly scrolling through my phone. My lips and chin become slick with grease. I move so fast that I usually spill something, and I don’t stop until my stomach is distended and I'm in so much pain that I almost can't stand up. Once I’m at that point, I vomit until blood vessels under my eyes have burst.
How did I get here? The easy way out is to blame it on years of ballet and musical theatre. Equally lazy is pointing a finger at Society, the big, bad entity that tells women they must achieve impossible ideals. But the truth is that this behavior was borne out of a fear of loneliness. That fear was the same reason I stubbornly took a walk in the middle of a thunderstorm when I was jealous over my sister's accomplishments. Am I worthy of love? Whenever that doubt started to patter across the floor toward me, I’d run into the next room, slam the door, and eat. Bulimia functioned as a coping mechanism, albeit a truly terrible one.
Something snapped in me nine years ago, though, and I finally gathered the gumption to get better. I confessed everything to my parents and I started seeing a therapist in earnest. In an attempt to turn the obsession with eating into a positive force, I became a food writer and found a job at Bon Appétit magazine. Underneath it all, lying in waiting like a fire-breathing dragon, bulimia is still there and so is the compulsion to conceal it. You can’t recover without transparency, though, and that's what I plan to be now: honest.
This tactic has backfired. Last year, when I revealed my past to a man I was dating, he called me “heinous” and “tweaky,” and admitted he had a difficult time finding me attractive. I should have been pissed, but at the time, I was just grateful I hadn’t told him it was something I still struggled with. Because I do.
I relapsed earlier this year. I told my 18.7K Instagram followers about it. Alongside the picture I posted of myself, I wrote that “I am frequently tempted to engage in old behaviors,” among other things, and the ensuing conversation has kept me on track.
A few days after that chilly I see, another message appeared. Have you looked up someone to talk to about your bulimia? I had to read that line a few times before it sank in. Not only had he not deleted me from his phone, he wanted to know how I was doing. There was no longer any reason to lie.
I responded that yes, I was going to see someone—a professional—the next week. Who knows if they’ll be helpful but I certainly won’t recover if I don’t try.
Exactly! he said.