National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Shame Is No Longer Invited to My Party
By Angela Barnett


When I worked in advertising we used to crack jokes about the models having eating disorders. I thought that if I laughed hard, and often, nobody would know my secret. For a long time I did not admit I was bulimic, even to myself, so I didn’t feel like a hypocrite. I was an easy going female who didn’t care about uncool subjects like her figure or food. This is how I made myself appear on the outside.
My busy career was a cool distraction. We created beautiful illusions with tricks and digital paintbrushes and I never considered my industry had affected me. I blamed my eating disorder on the boyfriend who dumped me when I was 12-years-old because I was too chubby. Or my wonderful Mum who taught me how to diet because she thought it might help, or university, where the idea started for me to engage in bulimic behaviors.
Oh no, I wasn’t a charlatan, I was a wreck, barely hanging on to the thinly veiled charade of my life.
At 30, after seeing blood in the toilet bowl, the charade crumbled. My smile—the one I used to please everyone else—could no longer mask my misery. I was a professional bulimic hiding from my fears and I had been hurting myself for over ten years. My career was storming ahead but my relationships were a mess. I was unreliable, secretive and I missed out so many things including my best friend’s 29th birthday because my behaviors kept me from being able to attend. Traveling with my partner had always been a dream but I did not want bulimia tagging along in my backpack. My life did not feel like mine, but that of an impostor and my body was screaming at me, in blood, to STOP.
I finally confessed to my closest friend. It was terrifying because we usually joked with each other; we didn’t let each other see our vulnerability. I was not prepared for the release I felt when I finally said the words I had feared for so long. I think I am bulimic. My shoulders caved with shame; I was suffering from the very thing I chastised. My best friend was amazing, listening without judgment and somehow she knew exactly what I needed—to know it was OK to ask for help. I will forever be grateful to her because she dialed the number for the New Zealand Eating Disorders Association.
Giving up was the hardest thing I have ever done because my bulimia—I called her Gertrude—did not want me to go. She was my secret best friend. I had this sense inside me, that was so small but I clung onto it, that there was a different life waiting for me. Like a seedling, I kept leaning towards that sense because it was full of light. I bought a Wallace and Gromit diary and began journaling—in code in case my partner found it—showed up for therapy and kept leaning in. Then one day I discovered one simple thing. All the love I had desperately been searching for in the wrong men, mountains of food and fast advertising, was in me. The more I let myself love me—imperfections and all—the more I felt like the woman I was meant to be.
I don’t believe I developed bulimia because I was more preoccupied with body image than other girls my age. I do know that images in the media affected me as a teen but more importantly bulimia was a means to cope with feelings I did not know how to deal with: anger, hurt, loneliness, jealousy, fear, doubt. When I finally left advertising I felt so guilty about all the food and money I had wasted I went to Africa and became obsessed with hungry people. It was just as incongruous as a bulimic who worked in gluttonous advertising however it ignited compassion in me.
It has been 13 years since I saw blood in the toilet and most days I feel like it was a life-time ago that my afternoons were consumes with battling my bulimia. Now I genuinely care about food and that particularly uncool subject – loving myself. When I feel overwhelmed sometimes the eating disordered thoughts still try to sneak up on me, but now it is like an enormous neon sign telling me to STOP, listen, breath and wait. I try and figure out what is really bothering me and I have discovered greatness. My feelings are like little kids- all they want is to be heard; the more you ignore them the crazier everything gets, and I have learned to listen to my feelings.
All my madness, self-loathing and dark times both destroyed and created me. I will never be perfect but I accept that and no longer want to be. My eating disorder forced me to be more aware of myself and others and my real best friend tell me I am a much better friend now- but I tell her she’s only got herself to blame for that.
Every life has a wonderful story and I found the only way to make the heaviness and shame of my eating disorder lighter, was to talk and try and find jokes to lighten my spirits. As Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa, once said, ‘All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story.’

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