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What It’s Like to Be a Guy With Bulimia

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

What does bulimia nervosa look like?

It’s worn nails and calloused skin on the knuckles of your right hand. There used to be broken skin there, but here’s a fine example of how if you do something long enough, you get used to it. Skin is like that. So, your hands don’t bleed now – not after over two years of abrasion. Side note – I wish hearts and feelings worked the same, but they don’t scab up to the same extent.

It’s wearing a jacket to work almost every day of the year. That’s because a) you get cold more easily and it never really feels too hot to get away with it, but also b) you can take it off and kneel on it when you’re in the bathrooms at work with their dusty floors that would leave telltale marks on dark jeans. And yes, that is terribly unhygienic, but who has time to worry about that? So the inside of your jackets are always a little dusty and probably crawling with bacteria and wow, that’s just the most charming image but no one ever said this thing was rational.

It’s bloodshot eyes, and a running nose, but those things fade quickly so it’s just a matter of waiting a few minutes after everything is out of the system and the hands are cleaned up and you can lean against the wall and convince yourself what you’re doing is fine, you’re in control and that there’s no problem. Or maybe it’ll be one of the days you give yourself a pep talk about how this will be the last time (which is always such a winning strategy – look how far it’s gotten you after two and a half years).

It’s lining a toilet bowl with paper before crouching over it – because that limits the chances of splash-back into your face… which doesn’t really bother you that much because you’re so intimately acquainted with your body fluids now that, well, what the heck, they can’t hurt you. No, it’s more that you might miss a spot which might throw open your secret to the rest of the world – because you try finding a logical explanation for the fact you have a lump of partly chewed chicken on your forehead. Side note – thank goodness for mirrors in bathrooms to help avoid any splashes that made it past the paper layer.

It’s going out with friends to restaurants and checking the bathrooms before you order so you know if the stalls are conducive to getting rid of the food after you’ve eaten. If they’re individual rooms with doors that go all the way to the floor, that’s good. If they’re clean, that’s good. If they’re stalls separated by thin dividers with gaps under them and the piss of untold other humans swilling around the floor – that’s not so good because others might come in and hear the extracurricular activities, plus you’re not that ignorant of germs etc so you just go back to the table and resign yourself to the fact you’ll be eating the bare minimum. And when you get home, you’ll go try empty your stomach of what little there is in there anyway because why risk those calories if you can possibly help it.

It’s always being aware of how much fluid you’re having with each meal so that downloading later will be a bit easier. Alcohol comes up easier, but water tastes less nasty the second time around. Don’t get me started on dairy products.

It’s knowing what foods to avoid at all cost because they clump up in your stomach and make it far harder to get rid of. I may be “insane” but there’s no point in making this harder than it has to be.

It’s being halfway through another appointment with the toilet and being overcome with a suffocating, frantic urge to get it out get it all out get rid of it get it out get it out of me and scraping at your throat until there’s blood mixed in with the mess in the bowl and your eyes are leaking and it’s almost like you’re crying because what a damn sorry mess you are huddled here, but you stopped crying over what you’re doing a long time ago, so it’s a nice gesture from your body, but it really doesn’t mean anything after all.

It’s always having chewing gum or some kind of lollies to hand to help mask the smell of sick on your breath, and having hand sanitizer easily accessible to cover the smell on your hands. My favorite is cough lozenges because they smell good but also make your throat a bit numb, which will make it easier come the next round of downloading. The downside is they’re relatively high in calories, which seems like a waste, but they’re a means to an end, so it’s a bit easier to stomach.

It’s bleeding noses and aching cheeks from the force needed to heave every last bit of food possible out of your body. The funny thing about the human body – it doesn’t like to give things up once they’re inside. Of course, there are always ways to bully it into cooperating, but that lunch doesn’t just slide out easily. Oh no, that shit takes work.

It’s not being able to sing as high as you used to be able to, probably because your voice box is being damaged and burned out a little more every time you douse it in stomach acid again.

It’s getting to the point where you track every last calorie in (down to the cough lozenges) and panic if you eat over 1000 calories in a day, even though the daily recommended intake for an adult male is around 2000 or more.

It’s covering mirrors in your bedroom so you don’t see the lack of abs or other attributes that society says make a man beautiful whenever you come out of a shower or get changed.

It’s being torn between “just eat it and you can be sick later” and “don’t eat it, it’ll make you fat” and going days listening to the latter voice but then one day you might give in to the former, and then the disgust sets in about halfway through that meat pie or lunch of fish and chips and then everything tastes like crap but you plough through it anyway because you’ve already failed so you may as well embrace it and then all too soon you’re back talking to the toilet again, and round and round we go, round about the mulberry bush with no end in sight to the game.

It’s trying to explain why you’re going to the bathroom so many times a day for extended periods of time (up to three on a “bad food day”) because let’s face it, no one has bowels that regular.

I could go on and on and on with these examples. Do you see how this works? It affects every single area of your life in some way or other. It makes you an expert liar. It ruins relationships. It makes you incredibly good at deflecting questions and turning things around to talk about the other person because talking about yourself is dangerous in case you give something away. It makes you wary of making friends, and makes you hold existing friends at a distance in case you do something silly like actually open up to someone in a moment when your defenses are down or you’re drunk, and then they pity you and want you to get help and that’s all too hard, too difficult to deal with so it’s easier to just not get close to people. It sours happy memories of times with friends because you had to run off and vomit into yet another toilet and that was all that mattered, rather than enjoying the times and the people and the experiences and the places. I know this firsthand having now added five bathrooms in London to my ever-expanding list of “places I have purged.” And that was just the first two days of a two-week trip.

Living with bulimia is like the ultimate case of Stockholm syndrome. You’re caught, trapped by this most relentless, cruel and demanding captor, and yet there’s a sick kind of attraction where you know it’s wrong and you should escape but also part of you loves the relationship and wouldn’t be without it. Maybe it’s a kind of survival tactic the brain adopts to stop from self-destructing, from tearing itself apart over wanting two completely opposing things — to stop this “madness” (and it is madness) and to give yourself over to it completely because the end result will all be worth it. Some people say it’s all about control. That may be true for others – I can only speak for myself. And for me it’s not control. I am fully aware I am not in control. I don’t do this to feel like I control this one area of my life. I do this because I want to be smaller. I want to be “beautiful.” I want to be liked. And by the time I realized this was not ever going to be the way I got there, it was too late. Now this… thing… is just a strange sort of comfort, one area of consistency I have come to depend on. I love my eating disorder at the same time as I hate myself for falling victim to it. I don’t want to tell anyone about it, not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I don’t want to get help for it.

It’s been a long time since I told myself I could stop this whenever I wanted. That ship has sailed, that horse has bolted… I’ll let you choose your favorite analogy for something being out of one’s control. This is a runaway horse I am clinging onto and I have no desire to jump because that way you’re sure to get hurt, whereas if I hang on long enough, either I’ll learn to ride or the horse will stop or we’ll both go sailing off a cliff into the huge wide dark unknown and it’ll all be done and over and finished with.

I guess that’s why it’s called a mental disorder. Rationality and sanity be damned.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via vchal

Originally published: September 15, 2017
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