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We Need to Talk About the Danger of Laxative Abuse and Eating Disorders

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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 741741.

The first time that I discovered laxatives, I was only 12 years old. Laxatives were all too accessible to me. I was coping with the aftermath of sexual trauma and battling undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I found safety and comfort in keeping myself small, and I quickly began restricting food. When I felt like I had gone “too far” and ate more than I felt I needed to, I thought the answer to curing my guilt lay in taking laxatives.

By the time I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder at 13 years old, I was using laxatives regularly. I remember believing that the laxatives would help me to lose weight. I thought that taking them made me “clean” and canceled out what I had previously eaten. When I first received eating disorder-specific treatment at the age of 14, I quickly learned the true science behind laxative use. Laxatives do not actually cause weight loss, but actually cause you to lose electrolytes that are imperative to your physical health.

Despite this knowledge, I couldn’t stop taking laxatives. By 15, I was addicted. I did everything I could to hide this behavior, but I was drowning underneath the shame of my disease which only led me to take more laxatives.

When I was hospitalized for the third time at 15 years old, I came clean to a doctor on the eating disorder unit about my laxative abuse. At this point, I was dealing with intense withdrawal symptoms from not being able to take laxatives. I felt intense abdominal pain, nausea, fullness upon eating just a few bites of food, and intense, recurrent constipation that made it hard to walk at times.

One night, my potassium dropped to a dangerously low level and my doctor informed me that due to this, my heart rate had dropped so low the previous night that I needed 24-7 telemetry. Later, a nasogastric feeding tube was placed to help administer medicine to clean out my bowels.

Even despite all of these experiences, I still found myself abusing laxatives following my discharge. I simply couldn’t stop. I felt helpless, and throughout my late teen years, I stayed silent about my struggles because of how much shame and embarrassment I felt. Laxatives made me feel empty and clean, and even though I logically knew that they didn’t cause real weight loss, I couldn’t stop without feeling extreme depression and developing such severe constipation that I didn’t want to leave bed.

I developed a condition called “cathartic colon,” in which I could not use the bathroom without the help of laxatives. I would go weeks without going to the bathroom. I was in chronic pain.

We don’t talk about laxative abuse enough.

We need to talk about how much shame surrounds this behavior.

We need to talk about the lasting side effects of long-term laxative abusers.

This is a part of my story that I don’t talk about very often. It is almost more “socially acceptable” to talk about restricting behaviors than it is to talk about laxative abuse. The more that I talk about it, though, I learn that more and more people who struggle with eating disorders also struggle with laxative abuse. It is all too common and all too deadly.

If you are struggling with laxative abuse in silence and secrecy, you are not alone. You deserve professional help and to talk about what you’re dealing with. There are more people struggling with laxative abuse than we may realize. Please speak out and share your experiences so that other people feel safe enough to talk about their own. Recovery from laxative abuse is possible. I am still in the process of recovering from long-term laxative abuse, but today, I am less ashamed to talk about it.

Getty Images photo via nensuria

Originally published: July 14, 2021
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