Anorexia, bulimia, virgins and whores

On 6th June I will be marking a six-month anniversary. Although actually, can one have such a thing? A half-anniversary, I suppose, only that doesn’t sound as good. Anyhow, whatever, on 6th June this year it will be six months since I last stuck my fingers down my throat to make myself sick.

I’ve been doing this on and off since I was eleven and got freaked out after eating a Cadbury’s Chocolate Button Easter egg. I’d broken my diet, a diet that mainly consisted of One-cal, Slim-a-Soup and Crunch ‘n’ Slim (not just anorexia, but retro anorexia!). Over the coming months I experimented with throwing these up, too. And I carried on throwing things up for 25 years, in between bouts of starvation. In the end I started to think it was normal. To some degree, perhaps it is.

Bulimia is far more common than anorexia, and many anorexics go through bulimic phrases. It’s harder to talk about, though. No one can necessarily see you’re suffering, if not by the bite marks on your hand. And it’s a disease that lacks status. Throughout my treatment for anorexia I lied about the bulimic bits. Even here, on this blog, the anorexia tag is far larger than the bulimia one.

Recently I attended a self-help group for people with eating disorders. I could feel the status issue there, in the air. It’s unspoken, but the hierarchy is obvious. I know because I used to be at the top. Young, desperately underweight, I’d patronize women twice my age, the women still struggling with bulimia, looking “normal” but not knowing how to cope. This time I’d become one of them. I looked at the anorexics, so full of enthusiasm about recovery – as you can be when you’re not yet a different size – and felt sad. Sad in case in actual fact they ended up like me. But also sad in case they didn’t, because what would that then say about my own failure?

Whenever I read literature on eating disorders, the difference in descriptions of anorexics and bulimics reminds me of the way our society divides and judges women as a whole:

Anorexics – thin, intelligent, hardworking, lacking in sexual experience

Bulimics – normal weight, disorganized, lacking in self-control, sexually active

In essence the anorexics are our virgins, the bulimics our whores. Yet, as ever with these definitions, we usually end up talking about one and the same person, conflicted by the standards of those around her.

There’s a genuine distaste for bulimia that isn’t there for anorexia. Obviously vomit is disgusting. Shit is disgusting. But I think it’s more than that. It’s a hatred of appetites. The anorexics in our group would deny ever feeling hungry for anything. But I was. I was more hungry than you can imagine for 25 years.

Anorexic, I didn’t feel sexual desire. But I thought about food all the time. I even dreamt of giving birth to food (neapolitan ice-cream, and on once occasion, a strawberry Opal Fruit. Make of that what you will). One night I woke up an entire hospital ward crying out in my sleep about French set yoghurts (believe me, these were big in 1988). However ethereal and removed from common concerns I may have appeared to others, I wasn’t some great intellectual Hungerkünstler. I wasn’t modelling myself on St Theresa of Avila. This was the eighties; I wanted to be as thin as Nancy Reagan and/or Kylie Minogue. Possibly also Bill Wyman’s teen bride, Mandy Smith, when she went through the alleged “allergy” phase. I mean, was it just me? Does everyone else get cool, ascetic anorexia and I just happened upon a terminally naff variation?

So anyhow, I stopped with the self-induced vomiting last December. I don’t know why I managed now and not before. And I wouldn’t say it’s changed my life. I still twat about with food. But I don’t binge because I don’t allow myself that way out. I’m not anorexia-thin, so I’ve not gone back to being one of the “good” people either. I suppose I’m getting closer to not-ill, but it’s a strange place to be. A better place, though. And now I’ll just shut up and have another biscuit.

PS If anyone reading this is struggling on their own, I’d highly recommend Christopher Fairburn’s books. He’s led the way with CBT methods, and as well as offering in-person treatment, he writes for people who aren’t able to access direct care and need to progress alone. I met him once at a treatment centre. But I was living off gin at the time, so I haven’t the faintest idea what we actually discussed. Still, I’m sure he’ll have been a very nice man.

PPS That same day, quite randomly, I met June Brown who plays Dot Cotton in Eastenders. Completely wasted, I poured out all my troubles to her and she was lovely. I even got a signed photo. That walk-on part in the Queen Vic never did materialise, mind.

10 thoughts on “Anorexia, bulimia, virgins and whores

  1. Would it be inappropriate to congratulate you on this half-versary? I know nothing about the experience of having an eating disorder but I do know that I admire your honesty and courage enormously.

  2. I have had issues with food all my adult life, still do. Most of the time, I feel like a functioning alcoholic only instead of alcohol my battle is with food. I have daughters and the thought of passing on any of my issues to them terrifies me. I just wanted to say that your post really struck a chord and I really admire your no bullshit approach to writing about it.
    Congratulations on the anniversary.

    1. I find this quite hard to write about because often I used to read accounts of eating disorders in order to fuel my own! I hope I haven’t done that, anyhow.
      I hope things are getting easier for you. It’s really hard – I once read some metaphor about learning foreign languages being like planting seeds in the wind. Your pupils leave the classroom and – boom – all that surrounds them is English again. Going to ED self-help is a bit like that. The minute you leave the room you’re surrounded by the same old diet crap, and there’s so much of that and so little to counteract it.

  3. Well clicking on the Like button would be wholly inappropriate here, but I admire your honesty and courage in writing about this stuff. As a teen I went through a bulimic phase- I told my mum to try and get her to stop calling me fat, she looked at me with disgust and said “Why do teenage girls always feel the need to make their mothers feel guilty for their own actions”. Don’t think I have ever forgiven her for that. Dunno why I just wrote that, bit teary now. Think I’ll bugger off and shhh.

    1. I think people are always trying to put eating disorders outside the entirely obvious context of a culture in which girls are told they’re too fat and/or not good enough (in particular, there seems to be a real desperation to prove such disorders are genetic, or that they’re linked to other mental disorders. There’s a lot more put into question if we accept it’s not always as complex as that). I’m really sorry your mum responded the way she did, for whatever reason. At least you know that you won’t ever say anything like that to your girls.

      1. Sorry I went a bit mememme the other night! Just struck a chord that’s all. Our book will have to have at least a chapter on this stuff.

  4. From reading more about feminism recently, I’ve been really shocked to find out how many people have struggled with eating disorders. It really makes me wonder why isn’t more being done about this when it’s clearly so widespread? Most people are vaguely in agreement that the images of fake thin women that magazines promote, and general societal pressure on women’s looks, are ‘bad’ or something, but so far, outside of feminist circles, I haven’t seen much energy or anger directed at stopping them. It’s sad.

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