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My thoughts today on how to recover from bulimia

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:38pm

Wow, I don’t know where all this came from. For some reason unknown to me, I answered an email today in FULL detail! I haven’t gone off like this for quite some time. I would like to share it with all of you. She asked:

“I hope you don't mind but I've got some questions. I should probably start with my story. Over the last 3 years I've had real problems with being sick. It started when I first started university. I started to be sick, just randomly one day. I've had issues with food since I was 15 and used to just not eat to keep myself thin.

I thought it was a stomach bug but it didn't go away. I was in and out of hospital, and I was too scared to admit to the doctors that I was finding it a relief. Finally I could eat whatever I wanted and it didn't matter. Eventually I started to be less sick, I could eat a couple of meals every few days and they let me go home. Eventually I could control when I was being sick.

Obviously, as I was able to digest more I put on weight. I started being sick every time I felt bad about myself and my Mother made it worse. I ended up in counseling after a very kind doctor saw that I was having problems but the counseling wasn't really about my weight, it was more about the issues with my family.

I'm now being sick very infrequently but it’s still when I'm feeling low about myself. I've put on a lot of weight since this all started (I suppose because I'm getting better).

Do you have any advice for someone like me? I'm a bit overweight now and trying hard to lose weight, just to get down to a healthy weight.

I think I'm on the road to recovery and I'm not even sure I had/have an eating disorder but am a little concerned as I don't want to lapse back in to my old habits.

I'm sorry if this doesn't make any sense. I suppose I just wanted someone’s opinion, someone who had been though the whole disorder thing. Thanks in advance.”

I wrote back:

I hate to say it, but you, my friend, are definitely bulimic. You may have started anorexic - I don't know enough to say for sure. Many people start that way. But, you are definitely bulimic now.

It's not your fault, though. The mechanical process of throwing up causes your brain to send out all kinds of chemicals, mostly for the purpose of calming you down, relaxing you, and even numbing you a bit. It's been scientifically proven. The problem is that, for people who are prone to anxiety or upset, those chemicals can be quite addictive.

You learned, perhaps even unconsciously, that throwing up made you feel better: you feel calmer, less anxious, less frightened, less confused. Things seem clearer, easier. Your head clears, and suddenly it becomes easier to make decisions. You feel less paralyzed by uncertainty and doubt, and you’re able to move forward again.

Many of us (me included) became bulimic in college because college is very stressful in many ways: academically, socially, financially, even spiritually. We lose our security blankets of home, best friends, and family. Even less than ideal families are at least still familiar and so are comforting in that way. We know what to expect. My home life wasn't great, but it was a place for me to hide out, and it was predictable. In college, I had to share a dorm room (with someone who intimidated me, by the way). I lost all privacy and had nowhere to hide, nowhere to just recoup by myself for awhile. Even my new “home” was uncomfortable for me.

I could go on and on about how bulimia “helped” me through college and on into real life. But, I think if you look at your own life in an honest and non-judgmental way, you’ll see how much it has helped you, too. So, give yourself a break when judging yourself for turning to it. It has helped you a lot.

Of course, using bulimia as an aide to getting through life isn’t sustainable or desirable, so you need to figure out how to stop it. The trouble is that you won’t be able to stop just by willing yourself or by trying really, really hard.

The only way you’ll ever stop is to take away the reason why turning to bulimia is so desirable: you have tolearn how to not need itto calm yourself.You have to learn how to not get so anxious and muddled in the head.

Eventually, the sense of a “need” to use bulimia to calm yourself slowly just fades away.

My coach helped me do this by learning:

1) how to actively incorporate some optimism in interpreting situations around us. Our first automatic reaction is generally worry, upset, and confusion about what to do. If, instead, we can actively (even forcibly) “spin” our interpretations to see potential opportunities, or benefits, or adventure in our lives, we don’t get so anxious. We get our own good-feeling chemicals flowing, rather than the bad fight-or-flight chemicals.

2) how to calm myself down with deep breathing and other techniques. Since our automatic reaction to freak out is so strong, we sometimes have to actively calm ourselves physically a bit before we can spin our interpretations to the optimistic.

3) How to tell myself “what if” stories to help me spin my interpretations to the more optimistic. If someone cuts me off in traffic, instead of automatically freaking out and getting in a rage, I picture the driver having a very bad day: perhaps he got laid off today, perhaps his wife left him, perhaps he got some bad news from the doctor, perhaps he is as screwed up and depressed as we’ve been ourselves, perhaps he is in need of some compassion – even while he is obviously making bad decisions that I don’t like.

4) How to TRUST MYSELF to make the best decisions possible for myself with the information available. I used to be such a pessimist, I imagined I was incapable of making good decisions for myself. But, I had no one else to do the job, so even little decisions left me horribly depressed and confused. I had to appreciate and accept that no one can make better decisions for me than me. I had to appreciate and accept that I usually make wonderful decisions for myself, although it’s not often that I’ll make PERFECT decisions. I had to appreciate and accept that sometimes I’ll make horrible decisions, but I am creative enough and courageous enough to fix whatever issues and problems that come along. I will forgive myself for making the occasional bad decision, and I will love and grateful to myself for doing the very best I can.

5) Howto FAIL. Yes, we need to learn that we will not always achieve what we want. We will fail. And, that is OK!! If we aren’t failing occasionally, we aren’t really challenging ourselves. The most successful people in the world are the ones who have failed the most – they have all failed time and time again. We need to get over our fear of failing and learn that we can and will continue to get up and try again. Learn to fail without taking it so personally and so dramatically, and you’ll lose a HUGE amount of paralyzing fear.

6) How to find a real passion in life, and find the courage to go for it. You have to somehow get your focus off your body! Your body is not YOU – it’s not your LIFE. Your body is one TOOL available to you to create the life you want – to achieve the things you want. The more you focus on your body, the more easily your real life slips from your hands and is lost. People can get hyper focused on their bodies as a way to avoid dealing with the world and life at large. Our bodies are “relatively” easy to manage and control, and if we work hard (by not eating or by throwing up, for example), we can create the effect we want. This isn’t so easy with managing our lives – there are too many moving pieces that are outside of our control. We can only control ourselves –our interpretations of the world, our reactions, our choices, and our focus. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want! And, make sure your #1 focus is something enduring and truly spiritually and intellectually fulfilling – not your body. If you don’t have a passion right now, focus for a few years on just exploring and learning about what is meaningful to you. What actions and activities make you feel good about yourself and your contribution to this world?

You may need help learning all this. You may need a push to challenge your old bad beliefs about your capabilities, creativity, and courage in the face of challenges. I did. I have worked to share everything I learned from my coach here in the blog. So, read the whole thing! Start at the bottom of this page and read up.

Retraining ourselves toward optimism and hope rather than pessimism and doubt and fear takes practice and feedback and sometimes correcting – just like how we learned anything in school. But, you can do it. Keep reading, keep challenging yourself, and perhaps think about getting someone like a coach to help you through it. Recovery is an active process in partnership with the world and what it throws at you. Just talking about it, thinking about it, even writing about it won’t get you there.

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