National Eating Disorders Association

Breaking Free from the Illness that Hides – Bulimia Nervosa

June Alexander

As an adolescent and young adult, tormenting thoughts dominated my mind. This was the late 1960s and 1970s, a time of optimism, girls-can-do-anything feminism, rock ‘n’ roll and flower power. My friends laughed, danced and were carefree. I strove to be like them. But I felt on the periphery. Nobody knew I was suffering an illness yet to be named - Bulimia Nervosa (BN).

As a cub reporter, age 19, when not typing stories for the newspaper, I secretly typed endless new diets in a futile bid to control the bingeing and restricting behavior created constant chaos in my life.
I had transitioned into BN from Anorexia Nervosa (AN) which had developed at age 11. I was oh, so lonely. The doctors of this time did not yet have the knowledge or skills to treat the symptoms. I had to struggle on alone – amazingly, always with a feeling, deep down, that one day I would break free of this thing.

My mother, bless her, did her best to encourage me to eat the nutritious, home-cooked meals she placed on the family dinner table. But she had no idea how to help fight the bully inside my head. Instead she said, almost pleaded, “why can’t you be (happy and carefree) like other girls in the district?” My sister said, “you think about yourself too much.” They weren’t to know, but such comments made me feel worse. I wanted to be happy and worry free; I didn’t want to be consumed with thoughts of food, of trying to ease anxiety by stringently counting calories. Deciding I must be an awfully weak-minded person, I would punish myself some more….

I can see now that anxiety was the main player in both my AN and BN, but back then I had no insight and the greatest will in the world could not stop me from compulsively eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time. This was the scary part – the illness (that I did not yet know I had), was stronger than my will. I was totally out of touch with feelings and emotions. The frenzied act of stuffing myself with food brought momentary peace, a blissful numbness. But powerful feelings of self-loathing would quickly follow, and I would feel driven to appease the guilt and compensate for the huge amount of food consumed.

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by binge eating and purging. When I was struggling, purging was often mistakenly understood only as vomiting, but we now know that it can include taking laxatives, diuretics, or stimulants, and/or excessive exercise. My struggle was marked with occasional laxative abuse and excessive exercise.

Like many other eating disorder sufferers, I also alternated between BN and AN. Bulimia is commonly accompanied with fasting over an extended period of time, and I often engaged in this dangerous, habit-forming behavior. In trying to ease my anxiety, I became magnetized to the hopeless strategy of regimental food restriction aimed at keeping weight under a magical threshold. My sick brain felt assured that when weight was within the threshold, life would be manageable, calm, and free of torment.

Wrong. By my mid-20s, the eating disorder behavior led to potassium loss and health deterioration, with depressive symptoms that were severe and led to suicidal thoughts.

My life from the age of 15 to 30 years was a struggle – no wonder my family, husband and friends had trouble understanding me, and no wonder I had trouble understanding myself – for I was suffering this illness that did not yet have a name or diagnosis, let alone treatment.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Bulimia Nervosa, which literally means disease of hunger affecting the nervous system, was named and first described by the British psychiatrist Gerald Russell. I am very grateful to Dr. Russell, even if his pronouncement came more than 10 years after I had developed the illness. I am very grateful because at last there was literature describing how I felt. I was not weak, or mad; I had an illness.

Luckily, love for my husband and children inspired and gave me strength, at the age of 27, to tell a doctor about the tormenting thoughts that had plagued my mind since childhood. This took much courage, as I feared the doctor would assign me to a padded cell in a mental asylum. Instead, he listened, and offered encouragement. He prescribed, as a first step, antidepressants. Another six years would pass before my illness would be correctly diagnosed, but I was on my way.

I had hope that one day, I could be ‘normal’ like everyone else. And I would be.

To be continued….