“The only person who can help you is you”.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard those words, 14 years ago. I was stopped at traffic lights near the end of my street. Someone was being interviewed on the radio and although I can’t remember the discussion, or even who was speaking, those words shot straight out of the speakers and exploded in my brain.
It was a genuine breakthrough moment in my life, succeeding where a string of therapists had failed by making me realise that, ultimately, I had to help myself. Someone could talk at me until we were both blue in the face, but only I held the power to stop the continual cycle of bingeing and vomiting.
I’d been a bulimic for eleven years, and although I really dislike using the word ‘battle’, it fits. Bulimia is a battle between competing voices in your head, a battle that you always lose when you feel helpless, powerless to fight off the enemy that’s causing your brain to binge. It’s like being on autopilot.
But those words at that traffic light, at the age of 27, hit home like nothing else had. I finally felt ready to put on that armour and stick a grenade under my eating disorder. And I did it. Though the scars from that battle remain and some of the experiences will haunt me always, I never made myself vomit again.
The day it started
It started when I was 16. I was on a cultural exchange trip to Germany, staying with a genuinely lovely family. But I was an ocean away from my own family in South Africa, who I’d never been separated from for any length of time. I was enjoying myself, but I was also feeling rather overwhelmed and a bit at sea.
One evening, I was alone in my room looking at the truffles I’d bought as gifts and it was as though something just took over my brain (hello, autopilot). I started tearing off wrappers, stuffing chocolate after chocolate into my mouth, then I stuck my fingers down my throat. It happened so quickly.
Up to that point, I was always on a diet – easy when you’re living with a mother who was always on a diet. I realised from a young age that by cutting out the crap, you stay thin. As a teenager, when you have all sorts of anxieties and insecurities and are so hyper-aware of your appearance, it’s easy to believe being thin will make you more desirable or, at least, make you good about yourself. So, I would deny myself nice things – or feel incredible guilty if I did eat them and diet or work out extra hard the next day.
So, I guess that mindset was setting me up for what happened that night in Germany. Something that became a once, twice, thrice daily activity.
Powerless to stop
Trying to describe what it’s like is really hard. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or alcohol, but I guess it’s pretty similar in that you can’t actually help yourself in the moment and feel powerless to stop – that autopilot again. For me, the trigger would often be if I felt I’d eaten too much. “You might as well carry on now,” my brain would respond. “It’s useless protesting, I’ll take over.”
After the purging, although your eyes and nose are streaming, your throat is stinging and your stomach’s aching, there is a sense of light headed relief and almost a feeling of being cleansed. Like an addict, it’s a high that you chase again and again. But equally, there is the seeping darkness of shame and self-hatred, of guilt for being a weak person causing such anguish for your family.
There are some terrible incidences – things I’ve packed away so deeply inside myself that I can’t bear to dredge up. The lying and sneakiness of getting and eating food. My younger sister banging and crying on the bathroom door ,begging me to come out. Adding laxatives to the mix and passing out outside the bathroom, injuring my head.
You know it’s insane behaviour. Why would anyone put their body through that? Knowing is not the same as being able to change though.
I remember one of the string of therapists/ dieticians/ psychologists/ psychiatrists my mum sent me to explaining why eating disorders are so difficult to overcome. With a drugs or alcohol addiction, you can cut them out – the withdrawal will be bloody hard, but you can survive without them. You can’t survive without food.
And so, the purging and vomiting ebbed and flowed through the rest of school, my university years and my move to the UK in 2000, at the age of 21. It was a relief, in a way, to leave South Africa where friends and family knew me as ‘Tanya the bulimic’ and start afresh somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear that badge anymore. I could just be Tanya without the stigma.
But, of course, bulimia came along with me for the ride – and for all the relationships I formed here, hardly anyone knew about my illness, even though it was six more years before I stopped it. Not even my now husband, who I started living with at the age of 23, knew then. And when he eventually did find out, which was inevitable really, it was with a sense of complete astonishment, confusion and disgust. I can’t blame him for that – from the outside in, it does appear utterly unfathomable. Yet from the inside out, knowing the person closest to you in the world doesn’t understand is terribly tough. The shame of it is unbearable.
And so that’s how I lived, until that day in the car and the bolt to my brain. I knew I needed to stop. I wanted to stop. And finally, I did. I helped myself do it.
That was 14 years ago, but I’m in no way cured. I may not binge and purge any more, but I don’t have a normal relationship with food at all. I’ve stayed the same weight for many years, on the skinny side, and I can’t tell you the last time I ate a whole chocolate bar or packet of crisps, or ordered french fries as a side. It’s not worth eating it for how it makes me feel afterwards. That feeling of guilt is never far away and, whatever the food, I cannot overeat. Perhaps it’s the worry of eating too much and tipping myself over the edge, knowing where that might lead…
But for now, I’m in remission and long may that last. Because it’s true – ultimately, the only person who can help you is you. As the Catherine Prutton poem goes, “I thought someone was coming to rescue me, but turns out I was wrong, the person I needed to save me, was me, and I’d been there all along.”
For more information on eating disorders, or to seek support for you or someone you know, visit Beat.