Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 18-19
You’d be amazed at the places I’ve puked. Like a junkie knowing the hit that caused rock bottom, I remember my worst purge. Something shifted. I’d been looking for help for years, but this experience shoved me. I stayed up writing about it, then copied all the gory details of my journal and walked to St. Paul’s Hospital to give the raw pages to the triage nurse at the eating disorders program. I wanted in.
But I’m skipping parts. Years. My story starts when I was 18, living in student residences at UVic. I don’t know that I was clinically anorexic, but I lost a lot of weight in my first year of university. I remember looking into the mirror in my dorm room, both fascinated and disgusted by what had happened to my body. It had crept up on me, this weight loss. That year, I had taken on a full course load, three jobs and was the coxswain—the person in charge of steering and navigating the boat—on two rowing teams. I also partied, though perhaps not as much as others. On my way to rowing practice I’d pass friends just coming home from partying. I found a land of potential at university—but I misunderstood; I thought that because I could do anything, I should do everything. I got to the point where I felt my hectic schedule was running my life. Meals became the thing I could control.
For the first time in my life, I was totally responsible for what I ate or didn’t eat. Low-calorie meals became like little victories in my day. In an environment of long-term goals and huge ambitions, meals were short, contained activities that I could get immediate satisfaction from. I didn’t intentionally restrict; I just chose what I thought were healthy meals. Then I’d run out for a class or study group, or a shift at work or a training session at the gym, or a party or whatever my 18-year-old ambitious self had on the go that hour.
The weight loss honestly surprised me. Having had an anorexic sister, it also scared me a little. But it also thrilled me, like an unexpected treat or unsolicited reward.
I felt powerful.
A fast slide down
Then I didn’t feel powerful. After my first year at school I went to England to live with family for a summer, to work and get to know the country I was born in. I thought it would be a blast. But what I found stifled me. I got a job in the café of a stuffy country club. There were almost no young people, the café manager was sleazy and the general manager took advantage of all the staff. I was eating and drinking more and was no longer keeping my hectic university schedule or working out. I gained weight. It felt like the air was fattening. I got depressed, and then I got mad—so I puked.
I remember clearly the first time I purged. I chose it, like some passive-aggressive ‘up yours’ to my bosses at the country club and to the world for making me feel like I had no choice. I ate a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, went to the washroom in the children’s area and threw it up.
It was about 10 days later when I realized I’d headed down a road that I couldn’t get off. I remember the moment I knew I was in trouble. In spite of clanging utensils and my co-worker’s chatter, all I heard was silence—except for the voice in my head compelling me to purge. One minute I was standing on the café floor and the next minute I was face down in a bathroom stall.
About two weeks after the first purging I knew I had to find a way to stop. I say bulimia was a road I went down; that’s not accurate. I wasn’t in a car and I wasn’t driving. It felt more like I was in a rickety wooden box on wheels, on a track in a mine, going down a shaft with no brakes. The slide is fast and you don’t know where you’re headed.
And it took more than two years to find someone who could help.
A paradox or two or three
I arrived back to school at the end of the summer with some extra weight and an eating disorder and I wanted to shed both. That was not the only paradox I confronted about my bulimia. I actively sought help from professionals, while hiding my struggle from my family and friends. I became a really good liar.
For a while, in second year, I looked around for support groups. There really weren’t any in Victoria. By chance or fate, I found new friends who were also struggling with eating disorders and had looked for help. They explained the next paradox of recovery: you have to be sick enough to get better. There weren’t any programs for people who were newly sick. The way into a program, I learned, was through an emergency room door.
While I accepted this as a general truth, I refused to accept it as mine. I went to Health Services, the place on campus where you can get free counselling. I had never had a counsellor, but understood that my problem was easily as much mental as it was physical.
It’s terrifying to be a highly competent, multi-tasking overachiever and to walk into the equivalent of the psych ward and ask to see a ‘shrink.’ The man behind the counter looked at me with the kind face of someone petting a lame puppy. I signed in anyway.
The first counsellor I saw there was also a man. I could have been changing my tampon in front of him while eating maggots—he seemed disgusted and disturbed in that profound way that only comes with real ignorance. He tried to smile and be supportive. It was an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
I saw several counsellors there, all of whom were just as untrained and unhelpful. The last counsellor I saw there was a woman who actually gave me dieting tips. Among her gems of wisdom: I could try eating only half the muffin and wrap the other half in a napkin for later in the day. At our last session she announced that, since I hadn’t purged in five days, I was cured. I walked out and never returned to counselling services.
The next summer I was still purging, and still hating myself for it. I battled on my own for another year or so before once again trying Health Services. This time I went the route of physical diagnosis rather than mental: the campus clinic. When you walk into the clinic you have to show your student ID and fill out a little piece of paper about why you’re there and if you need to see a doctor. I wrote down that I had the flu. I was nervous, annoyed and resigned. I expected to find an overworked nurse and an unsympathetic doctor. What I found was an off-ramp, a way to climb out of the mine shaft.
Bottom of the mine shaft (with a glimpse of light)
There was one doctor in the clinic that day. She spent an hour with me, asking intelligent, relevant and compassionate questions. She spoke with me, not down to me. She gave me homework and asked me to return with it.
I was to do or make something that expressed on paper what I was battling in my head. That night, I sat on my bedroom floor with art supplies, magazines and a glue stick and made a collage. Like a small child with her show-and-tell item, I returned to that doctor with my poster board. It had the clichéd magazine cut-outs of emaciated models, but it was the black and brown paint that leant the mood of dark apathy.
She again sat with me and told me about a residential treatment program in Vancouver at St. Paul’s Hospital: the Discovery/Vista Day Program. She had a nurse help me fill out the paperwork. She wrote a recommendation for me. She told me there was a way to climb out of the mine shaft, and started me on the path.
Around that time, I handed in my honours graduating thesis, returned home to Vancouver and told my parents that I was bulimic. I thought they would be so disappointed. My dad opened champagne to toast my courage and recovery.
Then I waited for a spot to open up in the program. One night, during that wait, I binged. Because my family now knew I was sick, I couldn’t purge at home. I snuck out of the house like a teenager, ran to a nearby park and purged beside the path to the playground. When I got home, I was so ashamed and paranoid that someone would find out that I went back with a jug of hot water and, in the dark, felt around for my vomit so I could try to wash it away.
That was my moment, my rock bottom. That was the story I took to the triage nurse, begging for a place.
A short while later I was invited into the Discovery/Vista program at St. Paul’s. I was terrified. The program asks that the women—in my group we were aged between 19 and about 50—leave their homes and jobs and move into a recovery house. For three months I lived with some of the most extraordinary women I will ever meet, both the residents and the staff. We slept at and ate some of our meals in the home. We planned and prepared group dinners. Other meals were eaten in the hospital, where we spent four days a week in different individual and group counselling sessions. In both the house and at St. Paul’s, I learned how to eat, how to talk, how to feel. I gained the muscles to continue the climb. The nurses, dietitians and doctors showed me how to save my own life.
Nearly a decade after getting sick, I now consider myself fully recovered. It’s been a long trip, but my God it was worth it. It’s clearer here, living outside the shaft.
I’m often asked what we should do to stop young girls—and, increasingly, boys—from getting eating disorders. In answer, I tell my story in all its gory detail.
We say eating disorders are ‘a slippery slope,’ but we don’t say where that slope leads. I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy. Being anorexic or bulimic is not like having an illness. It’s a way of being that is depressing, small, scary, confusing and lonely.
For a while I thought I was going mad, the eating disorder voice in my head was so loud. When you’re sick you can’t really feel anything. You can’t hold down a relationship or a conversation because you’re constantly thinking about what you did, didn’t, will or won’t eat that day and how you’ll get rid of it. It’s like walking through mud with headphones on that play static. How I managed to get an honours degree still baffles me.
I can’t get those years of my life back, but I’m really grateful for all the joyful ones that lay before me.
About the author
Suzannah is a journalist, working in television and documentary production. She recently spent a year in southern Africa as a media trainer with non-governmental organizations, teaching local staff to produce documentaries. This spring, Suzannah will be cycling from Vancouver to Tijuana, Mexico, to raise money for microfinance