You Make Me Want To Vomit

storytelling

Eating disorders are our safest, most acceptable way to commit violence.

My teenaged anorexia moved into bulimia at the end of my senior year of high school. I had won a full scholarship to Tulane University, so my family and I drove down to New Orleans to check out the school. The pressure on me had built to a breaking point:

  • getting into the right college
  • finding money for college
  • not having friends
  • not having boyfriends
  • father not loving me
  • staying skeletally thin so I would look on the outside the way I felt on the inside, so the world could see something bad happened here.

And there was more. Anorexics obsess about food — they don’t eat it, so they think about it and talk about it and cook it and encourage others to eat it. In New Orleans, the pressure met with all the food and the obsessing about food, and instead of eating as little as possible — I binged. I binged so hard and so thoroughly — on po-boys and beignets and jambalya and whatever came my way — and then I had to sit with that, all that. I had to sit with the fact of being nourished, which wasn’t who I was. So I forced myself to throw up for the first time.

It happened again probably the next day. Then maybe a week later. Then a few days after that. Then, like all addictions, it became a daily habit. Within months, it was multiple times a day. Very soon I was praying to God to help me stop.

I threw up every day for a year and a half.

I popped a blood vessel in my left eye from the pressure of constant vomiting. The white of my eye was blood red for a month. I liked it. I looked brutal. I looked brutalized. I looked on the outside the way I felt on the inside: used, worn out, beat up, violently ill. Abandoned. I was 18.

The summer between high school and my freshman year at Princeton, I babysat for this woman in my hometown whom I really looked up to. She had this energy that I admired — tough, confident, brave, bold, earnest. One day we sat in her kitchen, and she talked about how tough it is to be a woman. She said something like “I even used to have that bulimia thing, where you make yourself throw up.”

I don’t know whether she knew about me or not, but she must have seen I was struggling. With something. I felt ashamed.

My bulimia continued through my entire freshman year of college and through the following summer. It’s difficult to find places to binge and throw up multiple times a day on a college campus, but when you’re that addicted, you find ways. All addicts do.

I lost my gag reflex and resorted to more and more violent ways to purge. Sticking handles, butter knives, anything that would fit down my throat. I drank hydrogen peroxide for a few weeks, because the vet told us to give that to our dogs to make them throw up after they drank poison.

Once I had eaten a ton of spaghetti, and when I threw it up, the noodles hung out of my throat. I had to pull them out.

I started throwing up flecks of blood. I didn’t know how to stop. Virtually every session ended with me lying face down on the bathroom floor beside the toilet, eyes watery from the violence, mouth raw, wiping saliva and vomit from my chin with toilet paper or the back of my arm, praying to God to help me never to do this again. Begging God to never let me do this again.

Hours later I would do it again.

The binge/purge cycle is something no one fully understands, but here’s an attempt: you use too much of something that feels good (food or something else) to stuff down anxiety or despair or any unbearable thoughts or feelings. The harder, faster or more violent you stuff these feelings down, the harder and faster the recoil, which is when you need to purge. You’ve binged, and suddenly you’re sitting there with an unbearably stuffed gut — the very feeling you’ve spent most of your life avoiding, which is what lead to a bingeing mind-set to begin with. You think the food is the feelings, the fullness is the problem — if only you hadn’t binged, you wouldn’t be feeling this badly. If you get rid of it, it’ll all go away. So you purge, and for a little while, you do feel much better. The uncomfortable fullness is suddenly gone. You experience a sense of clearing, euphoria from purging — a release. All those feelings you tamped down with the food are gone now, as if the food was a sponge, and it all came up. But you’re still you, and the disquiet gathers again soon, depending on how quickly you’re cycling.

Here’s how it ended: my family began to realize what I was doing. Together with my boyfriend and my sister, they held a kind of intervention and said I wasn’t allowed to go back to college unless I got professional help for my eating disorder. My mom was very upset because she knew someone who died of bulimia — it has one of the highest death rates of any mental disease. They all watched me around the clock. I called the school and made arrangements to start the eating disorders recovery program the next week. I haven’t thrown up again since that day. I had problems with binge-eating and a disordered relationship with food  for years afterwards, but I didn’t throw up again. I just kept repeating the stuffing down of the cycle, without any of the joy of release. What kept me from purging again was I knew I was an addict: I knew once I started down that road again, I wouldn’t be able to stop. One drink for an alcoholic is the end, and one purge is another year in the toilet. Seeing my mom cry about how she didn’t want me to die was enough to sober me up.

Eating disorders are about wanting to be skinny, but not in the way you think. I had a father who didn’t love me and who always told me I was too fat, I was just like my mother whom he had left. My sister was wiry and tomboyish, and I was slow and feminine. He loved my sister, or felt affection for her. Because she was like him. So it is about love. But not just about love. It’s about identity, who you are. If you see yourself as fast and capable and competent and lovable, but your body looks like the opposite of all those things, you feel compelled to change that. But it’s more than that, too. If you’ve been violated, there’s no way to change what happened but to change your body. There are more reasons.

When I got back to college, I had an intake session with one of the eating disorders counselors, and I said “I haven’t thrown up in over a week, so I feel really good about that.”

She said “I feel sorry for you.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because now all that stuff you were forcing down is going to come up. Now things are going to get ugly for you.”

And they did.

Some time after that woman I admired told me about her bulimia, I ran into her at a hometown restaurant. I grabbed her kid and held her on my hip, and then I saw her.

Her eyeball was blood red.

  • david Gould

    You are a fiercely brave writer. I’m moved and inspired by your honesty and your commitment to it. Thanks Julie.

    • juliebush

      Thank you David. I try to relate most of the posts here to storytelling — find some lesson to be learned — but in this one I was just like fuck it. I felt like this post stood for everything I’ve been talking about here — presence, honesty, commitment, vitality, emotion, metaphor, urgency, boldness (more adjectives describing how great I am here) — so I just felt like I could let it stand for itself as a story and not have to reach to find a lesson.

      I mean, not that there’s not huge analogies there, with vomiting – literally expressing yourself – … but I didn’t want to deflate it by shining a spotlight on it.

      So that was my thinking on it. I thank you so much for reading this. This one feels deeply personal, so I feel conflicted, vulnerable about it — more even than the anorexia post, which I abstracted a little in the way I wrote it. This one I bold-faced more, pushed more right to the front. I think it shows how I’m changing as a writer, as a result of this blog, just in those intervening months.

      This post was the first thing I thought of when I woke today — did I really do that last night? Was that okay? Sometimes it’s not, or my feelings change, but continuing to do things that provoke questions like that let me know that I’m alive and that I continue to test my place in the world, rewrite my present and future.

      Thank you again. Your contribution here means a lot to me.

  • david Gould

    An issue I deal with sometimes as a writer is feeling that I am spending my entire day making people up and having them say shit to each other. Real make believe people may end up saying these things on some TV show one day… and that may matter, make an impact on others, or it may not…

    I do this all day while other people are saving lives, teaching kids, making concrete impact.

    Which is what this post did. Made a concrete impact on me. And it reminded me that writing does. That writing is vital, saves lives, teaches kids.

    My wife and I have four sons and we are expecting a daughter any day. I have fears about raising a daughter.

    I make bad jokes about my sons and I terrorizing suitors, I macho through other fears about pedophiles and abductors… She’ll be a black belt, I have a shotgun, etc.

    But bulimia / anorexia is a fear I don’t share with others, I don’t joke it away.

    I remember girls, friends of mine in junior high and high school, who were anorexic and bulimic. I felt that powerlessness as a young man then. Unlike drugs or some shitty boyfriend, there was no dealer to threaten, no dude to beat up. And as they would go away, physically disappear, I would too… farther away from them.

    Your post told me what they didn’t. And as raw, vulnerable, and at times disturbing as the piece was — the bravery in it, the honesty of it — spoke to and understood and confronted my fear.

    Which is what stories do. Bring the monsters out of the cave. Let us confront and battle them and see ourselves in them.

    Years from now, after hundreds of TV shows and movies come and go, I’ll have my daughter read this piece of writing, your story, so she can see herself in it, so we can talk about it.

    And as her father, I’ll feel that by doing so, I was able to help protect her from something I didn’t know how to protect her from.

    • juliebush

      David, this comment means so much to me. I literally cried reading it. You made an impact on me — because often I feel like I’m not good at connecting with people, for various reasons I’ve discussed here. But I feel like you hear me, and understand, and care. I feel connected to you.

      What we do as writers is important because we have the power to speak and spread information in ways that many others can’t — we have the tools and the know-how and the access to help our audience feel empathy. So what we choose to focus on matters very much — it really does change minds and widens hearts.

      A twitter friend just posted last night that her former assistant died yesterday of anorexia, after a prolonged struggle. These are very serious diseases, but just being female doesn’t make you vulnerable. It’s a combination of genetics and environment. You sound like a wonderful man and a wonderful father–that’s how you protect her. Model love for her, for yourself, and your family. Don’t make food mean anything other than nourishment. Seems to me like just the fact that you’re this engaged and aware and empathic now, before she’s even arrived, will make all the difference.

      I also want to make the point, for anyone who may be reading this, that 10% of eating disorder sufferers are male. It develops for a variety of reasons, but its affects are the same.

      David, thank you so much for encouraging me with this. I felt self-conscious about my response to your comment above — like it was a little too self-congratulatory, patting-my-own-back … but I think that was a response to how conflicted I felt about it just being out there to begin with. So I was trying to encourage myself. Like, I’m trying to stay in that fierce, truth-telling place, instead of dart out in front from time to time.

      Happy writing today. And thank you again.

      Julie

  • Linda

    Julie: This is truly the most powerful thing I have ever read…

    You see, I have been struggling with bulimia for 34 years….and I have NEVER, EVER read or heard someone else describe it so 100% completely accurately. The feelings leading up to the binge, the bingeing and how it feels after vomiting…..

    Thank you so much for writing this….

    I have never even read blogs….I just typed into Google tonight the words “bulimia blog”….and started reading some things..

    I was thinking that maybe I could start to write about this and maybe it would help. I have no idea how to start a blog.

    I am in so much pain….it’s such an addiction at this point in my life.

    Again, I can’t tell you what it meant to me to read this…I could have written this….that’s how much your description is like me.

    –Linda

    • juliebush

      Dear Linda,
      Thank you so much for your vulnerable response. I feel touched to hear of what you’re going through.

      I want you to know it’s possible to get over this — and it’s worth it. Your life will be richer and freer once you’re no longer chained to this cycle. Have you had professional help? Even if you have and it hasn’t helped, not all professional help is good, and even if it’s good, it’s not all cut out for the same people. It’s a matter of finding the right help for you. There are also drugs now, that address binge-eating and bulimia. Most doctors don’t know about them, but they are very effective at stopping this cycle.

      If you feel that writing about this might help you, I feel certain it probably would. Because part of what keeps this cycle going is the isolation — doing it makes you isolated, which makes you feel bad, so you do it more because you feel bad and isolated, which isolates you more. I think writing a blog about it might be the perfect way for you to cut that cycle. And you can do it anonymously, if that makes it easier. If you don’t know where to start, just go to http://www.wordpress.com and start playing around with all the options. It’s very very easy.

      If you need resources for how to find professional help, let me know. And I urge you to get professional help — this is too complex and overwhelming a disease to overcome on your own.

      Please know that you are not alone — there are many many people who empathize with you and who want to see you get free of this, including me.

      Thank you so much for sharing with me.

      Julie

  • Burningoldshadows

    I apologize for coming out of the blue like this, but I’m a high school student with way too much free time (or maybe no free time at all) and I found your site when I was just surfing around and read some of what you wrote. I don’t know if it’s true to you personally, of course, or if it’s just something you wrote, but it’s powerful and well written – at least I think so. I’ve struggled with cutting and bulemia for what feels like forever, and was struck by the truth behind your words. Not everyone out there has the elegance to express what so many of us feel. Thanks for making my day that much brighter.
    -Still Breathing

    • Hi there!
      Yeah, everything I’ve written about here is true (or to the best of my memory anyway).
      I hope you have support — and if you don’t, I hope you’ll get in touch with a school counselor, your family doctor, or some other trusted adult. What you’re going through is far more common than you may think — and it’s caused by your neurotransmitters/genetics combined with life situations you’re in.
      It’s important to get help — from people who know what they’re doing — because this can be difficult to control on your own.
      You might want to do some reading online about what causes bulimia and cutting — because you can get stuck in a cycle of feeling like this is your fault. It’s not, but that also doesn’t mean you can solve this by yourself.
      My heart goes out to you and I wish you all the courage and self-compassion and love you’re going to need (and you deserve).
      X Julie