I was bulimic in high school. Before writing this, the only person I had ever told was my cousin Marissa. We were sharing secrets around a campfire, unhinged by one too many bottles of wine. Even under the influence of alcohol and emotions, I knew she would understand.
I have loved food ever since I can remember. As a toddler, people often described me as “solid” or “stocky.” I drank excessive amounts of milk and always finished the food on my plate. Growing up, my parents taught us not to be picky: If you don’t like it you can go to bed, they told us at dinner, which nearly always consisted of meat and potatoes.
Fortunately for my three siblings, I was the only one to inherit both the short and barrel-chested genes. No matter how much they eat, you can count every bone in my 19- and 21-year-old brothers’ ribcages. My 25-year-old sister has four kids, and is taller than me, yet she still weighs less. Though I didn’t realize it growing up, all three of my siblings are the genetic products of high metabolisms and low body fat.
It’s safe to say that I have always felt different.
In middle school, I became hyperaware of my body. I was chubbier than most of my friends and frequently worried about having a boyfriend. I entered high school still chubby and boyfriendless. My grandpa passed away at the end of my freshman year and my parents were often absent, so I immersed myself in my two favorite things: reading and eating. By the time I turned 16 years old, I was completely obsessed with the number on the scale.
Feb. 18, 2009 — I really wish there was an easy way to lose weight, but of course there’s not.
I don’t exactly remember the first time I stuck my hand in my mouth, fingers stretching toward the back of my throat to activate my gag reflex. For months, I tried not eating, and running as much as I could with little to no results. Eventually, I began to think about alternative options.
April 17, 2009 — I need to figure out how to throw up and get better self-discipline. Or I’m going to be huge.
Two months later, I apparently figured it out.
June 15, 2009 — I barely eat. When I do, I throw it up. But I’m in control, so it’s ok.
Twice I thought I was going to be caught, but no one ever figured it out. As the months passed, I became increasingly concerned with my behavior.
July 7, 2009 — I might be bulimic,but I can stop if I want. I don’t, though, because I think my body is gross. I don’t think my parents know how much I hate it when they drink.
My dad went to rehab in 2006, but started drinking again a few months later. When Grandpa died, things only worsened. My mom started work at the railroad in 2008, traveling for most of the week. My sister was living with her soon-to-be husband, and my brothers and I were often left to fend for ourselves. I knew the basics in health from school, but I was still convinced a “healthy” meal was a salad and that’s all. A combination of ignorance and instability led me to become part of the estimated 4 percent of women who will suffer from bulimia during their lifetime.
Aug. 26, 2009 — Sometimes when I throw up, it worries me. What if it ruins my body? I don’t know. It just freaks me out. But it’s hard to stop. Food just smells too good. And tastes too good. It’s just hard. And NOBODY at all has noticed.
In my senior year of high school, though my home life was still hectic, I made some incredible friends and never returned to that familiar position above the toilet. I felt selfish for what I was doing to my body and knew the people I love would be concerned if they knew.
I stopped throwing up before enrolling at the University in 2011, yet my diet remained destructive. When trying to eat healthy in the dining halls during my first two years in college, I reverted to the salad bar; it was all I had ever known. Eventually, I began to familiarize myself with different foods and how they support the human body. I watched documentaries and surrounded myself with people who had positive relationships with food.
At nearly 23 years old, I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my life. I eat food that I love — cheese, pasta, chips, bread, chocolate — but I also consider the moral, environmental and health implications before making a purchase. It took a long time, and a lot of education, but I’m finally able to understand my teenaged behavior.
While I now feel confident enough to admit that I suffer from disordered eating, there are many University students who struggle in silence.
In 2012, Ph.D. student Sarah Ketchen-Lipson initiated the University Study of Habits, Attitudes, and Perceptions Around Eating student survey. With the help of Suzanne Dooley-Hash, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, and an interdisciplinary team, U-SHAPE was published at the 2013 Student Life Research Symposium, formerly the Division of Student Affairs Research Symposium.
According to the survey, 28 percent of female and 12 percent of male undergraduate students, and 21 percent of female and 10 percent of male graduate students, screened positive for disordered eating. Additionally, 18 percent of females and 6 percent of males indicated that food and weight dominates their life. Among those with disordered eating, international students, sorority members, LGBTQ students and students who experienced abuse are disproportionately affected. Disordered eating is also correlated with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
I cringed when reading the top three reasons students decide not to seek help for disordered eating: “I prefer to deal with issues on my own,” “I’m not sure how serious my needs are” and “I don’t have time.” These exact rationalizations consumed my thoughts in high school. I decided to keep my problems to myself and, still, have never sought professional help.
I know I should.
In a conversation about why students decide not to seek help, Julie Stocks, University Health Services registered dietician nutritionist, said, “It’s important if you feel that it’s an issue in your life to seek treatment. And it’s a great opportunity when you’re here to find wonderful, highly skilled treatment.”
Stocks affirmed that there’s plenty of information available to University students about ways to maintain a balanced diet — online webinars and nutritional information, dining hall dieticians, the UHS Nutrition Clinic, support groups at Counseling and Psychological Services, etc. But people struggling with disordered eating cannot be forced to use these resources.
“Everybody kind of comes to it in their own time. It’s tricky, you know. I think the information is there when (students affected by disordered eating are) ready to come to it, and (the resources) all work really well,” Stocks continued.
To help patients recognize and understand their eating habits, Stocks often creates a wellness wheel proportionately incorporating individual’s experiences into a circle diagram. Health, diet and weight are often key components in a wellness wheel. “If your wellness looks like (half the circle is concerned with weight), and this is who you are, then we need to talk about balance of life, balance of wellness, and how do you approach that,” said Stocks.
Overall, Stocks noted that students — and people in general — need to be realistic when it comes to weight, diet and exercise. Though the media constantly bombards us with images of how we should look, comparing ourselves to a chart or another person tends to lead to more destructive behaviors. Instead, Stocks recommended we focus on being healthful and eating foods that are good for our bodies. We need to seek help when faced with irrational thoughts. We need to be vocal about our anxieties, our depression and our body image. When that happens, Stocks assured me, natural weight will go where it needs to be.
It’s not an easy road, to say the least; some people will never recover from disordered eating. But there’s always hope. In the past three years, I’ve internalized a lot of the advice Stocks gave me during our conversation in my own time. I’m at a healthy weight, I eat nutritional food and I’m constantly on the move. I recognize that I have certain anxieties, and I work proactively to combat them. Sometimes though, the past still haunts me.
I have a nutritionist appointment scheduled for next month.
Aarica Marsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.