Why i'm thankful to bulimia
I was 13 years old the day I first stuck my fingers down my throat and made myself sick.
That day is etched in my memory like some still from an old black and white movie. I had been watching my favourite TV program and one of the characters had bulimia. Through the screen I watched her make herself sick and I was immediately filled with intrigue and curiosity.
Something about it appealed to me. Which I know sounds like a weird thing to day - but it's true. Looking back I was searching for a kind of emotional release, a sense of control. I wondered if it was as easy as the girl on the TV made it look. (Of course it was. And of course it really wasn’t.)
When the program ended an announcement came on from a woman who sounded serious, concerned. She said “If you or anyone you know is struggling with bulimia, please get in touch with the following help lines and seek professional help.” A list of numbers to call appeared on the screen.
Then, with a belly full of my mum’s homemade spaghetti Bolognese, I went upstairs to make myself sick.
And so began my seven-year struggle with addiction - with bulimia. What this entailed was some serious binges followed by my best attempts to completely evacuate the contents of my stomach, the abuse of laxatives, periods of starvation (as a way to punish myself for my disgustingly excessive binges), and an obsession with exercise.
As I sit here now, I’m happy to say that I’ve been free from bulimia and the self-sabotage it entailed for a long time. It has taken me years to accept this experience as part of my story, because for so long the shame I felt kept me on total lock-down. Because I was a perfectionist and my perfection-oriented ego couldn’t hack the much-less-than-perfect reality of my true inner life, I repressed it. But now that it’s distant enough in my past, I am able to turn around and really look at my experience. I am far enough away that I can choose to walk towards it. To try to unravel and understand it. To use it as a door to understanding more about myself.
And the thing I have learned is the one thing I absolutely never expected to say: I am thankful for bulimia.
Does that mean I am glad I had it? Well no, not exactly. I’m not glad in the way that you’re glad when an old friend invites you to dinner and remembers that you don’t eat gluten or dairy so she makes her own pudding with raw chocolate. No, not in that way!
My thankfulness is of a different variety. It’s the thankfulness you feel after losing something then having it returned to you. The kind you feel after someone steals your wallet from the back pocket of your jeans but the police call you later to tell you someone handed it in and while the cash is gone, that little photo of you and your best friend is still in it. Somehow you feel better than you did before you ever lost the darned thing and so grateful that you have it back.
It’s a relative kind of thankfulness. But sometimes that’s the only kind we have. And relativity tastes sweet when it’s on the upswing.
So in this kind of way, yes, I am thankful for bulimia. This truth stands right next to the truth that I am also not thankful for it. I’m not thankful for the damage it did to my body. I’m not thankful for how much it sabotaged a large part of my adolescence. I’m not thankful for how it messed up my hormones and made my periods stop. I’m not thankful about how it made me feel ashamed and dirty and unworthy. I’m not thankful for the toll it took on my first love, who I’d make buy me loads of sugar-laden treats then put his earphones on and listen to dance music whilst I made myself sick in the bathroom.
No, I am not thankful for these things. I can categorically say I would rather have never experienced any of the above. But still. I am thankful for bulimia.
I am thankful because in doing something so messed up to myself, I was forced to see an uncomfortable truth that I had spent so long denying. Something was wrong. This was not the kind of thing that happens to a well-adjusted, happy and self-loving young girl. And no amount of mental squirming on my part could help me wriggle my way out of that hopelessly unalterable fact.
Acknowledging what was wrong was where the work began. The tough, hard, I’d-rather-just-do-some-yoga-and-forget-about-it kind of work. The work that only feels good when it’s done.
I am thankful because, aside from what bulimia taught me, the tragic and beautiful fact is that it made me a better person. Sometimes (often…always?) the best way to grow in gratitude and love is to have the emotional sh*t kicked out of us, by us. To be empty and naked and lying in the cold. Sometimes the kindest people are those who know what it feels like to be the meanest b*tch in the schoolyard. Sometimes the most grateful people are those who know what it feels like to lose everything.
Sometimes we have to have something taken away from us to have it truly given to us; we have to lose something before we can ever truly own it. And sometimes, the best way to learn about our best qualities is to live deep within their opposite. When we live in a way that makes us feel as whole as a tonne of Emmental cheese (that’s the one with all the holes in it), it makes us want to be better. It makes us want to become the solid embodiment of the beautiful things within us. It is that desire to be good and whole that can ruin us when we piteously long for it. But it is also the thing that saves us, that gives us mercy.
Sometimes being split open is the only way to heal.
Anyone who has ever had difficult things happen to them, anyone who has ever had to suffer (which is to say, everyone) knows this struggle. The struggle to move through the pain. The struggle to get to a place where it is behind you, not in front. The struggle to say “f*ck you,” whilst at the same time bowing your head to say “thank you.”
Because there is beauty in struggle. It’s where we reach our flailing arms toward the only pinhole of light we can see. It’s where we learn to pull ourselves out of the deepest pit, even though we thought we had no strength left. It is where we find meaning. We have to struggle, just like we have to feel pain and have our hearts smashed into a thousand tiny pieces. If we don’t know struggle, we don’t know life.
It teaches a truth we wouldn’t have otherwise known: that the medicine we seek is in the wound.
So yes, I am thankful for bulimia.
The struggle has taught me a helluva’ lot.