Last night, I was watching one of my favourite programmes when, out of the blue, a male character made a joke about bulimia. When attempting to flirt with a lady at a bar, he joked that to get a figure 'as great as hers' she must've repeatedly made herself sick.
It was meant to evoke a chuckle from the audience, but it was one joke that I simply couldn't laugh at. Bulimia is many things, but the one thing it isn't? Funny.
For me, bulimia is about spending days in constant pain because you've thrown up so many times you've damaged the lining of your stomach. It's the sound of your partner's voice worriedly calling your name after she's found you passed out on the bathroom floor. It's the constant need to make excuses, to fake sickness bugs, and to avoid social gatherings that involve food, because you can't think of anything worse than actually keeping food in your stomach.
It's also part of my life I really struggle to talk about.
If I have a cold, I'll happily complain to my friends about my sore throat and runny nose. When I recently had a chest infection, I took to social media to vent about my constant need to cough. Yet, when it comes to bulimia - an illness I've had for over 7 years - I've always felt too ashamed to talk about it. I've always worried that opening up about it will lead to me being ridiculed.
The trouble is, there seems to be this idea that it's okay to joke about bulimia. Just over the last few months, I've heard people laugh about how 'lucky' bulimic people have it as 'they get to eat what they want and never put on weight'. I've seen 'hilarious' discussions between people about 'why bulimia is a better eating disorder to have than anorexia'.
Most commonly though, I've heard people giggle that they 'couldn't ever be bulimic' because 'they hate being sick'. It's such a ridiculous statement to make. Can you imagine somebody saying that 'couldn't ever have tonsillitis' because they hate 'having a sore throat?' Or a person saying they're 'never having a heart attack' because 'they hate chest pain'?
Being ill - whether physically or mentally - is not a choice. We never claim that a person chooses to have cancer, or picks to have kidney failure. It would be wrong to do so. Implying someone has a choice over an illness gives the impression that they have the ability to start and stop it as they wish. It implies they're in control which, in the case of most bulimics, is far from the truth.
I know that before I reached out for help, I certainly wasn't in control. The reason people get the illness varies from person to person. However, for me, it was about hearing voices: voices that wouldn't stop yelling at me until I'd thrown up every ounce of my lunch; voices that told me they'd hurt my friends and family if I didn't oblige; voices so threatening that I daren't ignore them. The more I tried to ignore these voices - the more I tried to silence them - the louder and angrier they got.
These voices were absolutely terrifying, but I refused to tell anyone about them. I believed societal ideas around mental illness being a choice. Therefore, when I started hearing these voices, when I developed this eating disorder, I refused to seek help. I wouldn't go to the doctors because I genuinely thought they'd tell me off for 'not being strong enough to quit'.
Thing is though, looking back, it really wasn't a case of me being too weak to stop. It was a case of me being ill. If I'd understood that at the time, I'd have been straight to the doctor. But alas, I did not - and so I suffered in silence.
I know everyone's story is different, but you only have to look at the damage and deaths related to bulimia to see that it's not some hobby a person adopts when they're bored one day. Instead, it's a serious illness: a serious illness, which if untreated, can be fatal.
So, I beg with you, please be careful when talking about it. Please don't joke about it. Even if you think laughing about it is harmless, or you're 'sure' none of your friends are affected by it, remember that many people suffer from bulimia in silence and one joke can be the difference between them getting help or not.
If you find out a friend or acquaintance has it, please offer them the same support you would if you found out they had another life-threatening illness. Show them compassion: listen to them and offer to go to the doctors with them.
Finally, if like me, you're someone who struggles from bulimia, please don't blame yourself. Don't think it's all your fault. Don't be scared to confide in people. Ever since opening up about it to my closest friends and family, as well as a series of health professionals, I've had nothing but support. People do care; people do take it seriously. If you can learn one thing from me, please go get help.
Please know you're not alone.
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