I’d like to write about mental health. Well, to be specific, I want to write about mental illness and my experience with the for-some-reason-taboo subject of Bulimia.
Don’t panic ;-) I promise I’m not going to launch into hours of complaining about how unfair life is (but if anyone else feels inclined to do that, they should go for it! I’ve had enough rants, vents and ugly crying sessions to know that it makes you feel so much better than if you just keep it all in). I also want to reassure you that I have not given up and this is not a cry for help. It’s just part of my process. I never give up. I say I want to give up all the time, but I must be too stubborn. Or optimistic. Or stupid. Whatever the reason, I know I will never give up.
I must admit, I don’t especially know why I’m writing about this today. I could have written openly about bulimia a long time ago, but I think there might be a reason or two why I’ve waited.
This week, for the first time in my life, I have been truly left with my own thoughts and nothing else. I am immersed in a silent meditation retreat. I’m not participating in the retreat just yet (I will write about that when it happens) but being surrounded by the sound of silence definitely brings up thoughts and patterns you sometimes drown out with everyday noise. It also gives you time to order your usual chaotic musings and turn them into almost coherent reflections.
I may have had a little break through that I’d like to share; a chat with a wise soul has helped put some things into perspective, a great book recommendation has made me pretty excited about the possibility of change and, for the first time, I managed to get myself out of a slump with very little help, and relatively few crying sessions. Maybe I’m ready to let it go.
Mostly though, I think I’d like to share my thoughts because I don’t feel ashamed to do so. I don’t feel like I’m being particularly brave talking about it. I write about heartache, grief, feeling lost or being a complete mess without a second thought, so why not talk about the mental illness I’ve lived with for the past two decades?
That brings me to the ‘taboo’ bit. Thanks to the growing awareness and media cover of mental health issues, I’m seeing lots of people talk openly about depression and other mental illnesses (which is really fantastic) but, to put it bluntly, nobody wants to talk about the puke! It’s gross, it’s nasty, it’s not normal, it’s comical, it’s secretive, it’s shameful, it’s stupid, it’s shallow… it’s not. Bulimia is a mental health condition. It is extremely difficult to deal with, and a lot of people have it. I don’t have numbers or statistics, but I believe the technical term is a ‘shit-load of people’. These people should be able to talk about it without feeling embarrassed. People should be able to talk about anything.
For me, bulimia is a form of depression, addiction, and lack of self-love. It’s not about food (but, dear Lordy, it feels like it is!). It is a channel that enables me to release the emotional energy I don’t know what to do with. It’s one thing I can control in a world that is otherwise uncontrollable. It is self-destructive; a way of punishing myself for not being good enough. It’s a form of rebellion; having one thing that belongs to me, and me alone. It’s a comfort. It's a way of filling an overwhelming emptiness, an emptiness I can't really describe in words. I guess the closest way of explaining it is that this emptiness is always inside and is never satisfied; a longing for something more. Bulimia is also not only there when I’m down. I can be as happy as anything and it is still there. After so many years of living with it, it’s now second nature. It is exhausting. Sometimes I fight it, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I can’t.
Although I don’t let bulimia rule my life as much as it used to, it still comes and goes in waves. These last couple of days, for example, the isolation that the silent retreat brought, acted as a trigger for me. The lack of distractions meant that I obsessed over food the whole time, and by yesterday it was all too much. I cried for the entire day. I felt so isolated, and even though I have been getting help and support from different therapists, friends and family for the past twenty years, I still did not feel equipped to deal with being alone in such an intense way. All the tools and strategies in the world did not stop me from going back to my unhealthy ways, ‘giving up’, and hating myself for it.
Enter my angel, disguised as a beautiful, smiling hippy… a friend (we’ll call her Wise Soul) sat with me and talked about her experience with the same thing and gave me gentle advice that, through some miracle, seems to have gotten through. Whilst crying until the amount of snot accumulating in my nose was stopping me from being able to breath, I angrily told her that I shouldn’t be in this position. If I'm not even able to be by myself for one day without falling back into old patterns, maybe I'm not ready to be in this kind of community, exploring any kind of spiritual path, this is not the place for me. I don’t have the right tools to deal with this sort of isolation, and I can’t meditate my way out of it because I can’t meditate for more than 15 minutes without having an anxiety attack. I am ill and all the spiritual shit in the world isn’t going to fix me. I don’t want enlightenment; I just want it all to stop.
Wise Soul was calm and comforting. To be fair, she made me feel better just by being the first person who had looked me in the eyes for 4 days, and the hugs were a bonus. She was not having any of my nonsense though and she was very clear with how she believed I could approach everything I was going through. She wasn’t trying to be a counsellor; she isn’t a teacher; she isn’t a Realised Being with all the answers. She just shared some thoughts with me that happened to make a difference.
You’re eating uncontrollably – then eat uncontrollably. You’re not getting out of bed – then be in bed. You’re crying – then cry. But as you do all of these things be aware you are doing them. Be aware. Be mindful. Detach a little and watch them happen. Eat mindfully, give it your full attention.
It is what it is. Accept it. Don’t fight it so much that you feel like you have failed when it is happening. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for doing what you need to do. When you are physically sick or injured, you don’t kick yourself or feel like you have failed. So, why would you feel guilty or bad when you are emotionally sick?
Self-love. Self-care. Give love and attention to the part of you that is acting in this way. If your inner child is looking for attention and acting up and asking you to look after it, look after it like a mother would. Love it unconditionally.
Wise Soul’s thoughts are just that. They are thoughts. They are opinions. They are things she has learned from others with thoughts and opinions. To some people these thoughts are more like truths, as they have tried them out and they work. I don’t know if they are truths to me yet, but I think the ideas are beautiful and they do make sense. They feel right. I’m gonna be giving it a go.
I started reading The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz. It talks about love in all its forms. Love in relationships and loving yourself. Self-Love is a term that is used everywhere. Loving yourself is so obviously important. I guess the difference with what I have been thinking about in the last few days is that it is not just important, it is everything. If you truly love yourself you wouldn’t punish yourself, you wouldn’t abuse yourself, and you wouldn’t search for someone else to love you. If you love yourself, you can forgive yourself for anything. If you love yourself, you can fill the emptiness with love. If you love yourself, you can see how connected you are to you, Universe. You can see that you are the Universe.
This is all just theory to me at this point. I haven’t had the sort of epiphany that means I suddenly feel this love. It will be a practice. I will need to practise this to make it real. At the moment, how to actually do this is a little bit of a mystery to me. I get that I need to do it, I just don’t know how yet. I will find out. For now, I’m going to start by treating myself like I treat the people I love. I may not believe my own actions right now, but I will constantly remind myself to care and be kind to myself. When I am sad, I will be there to listen to myself as I would for my closest friends. When I am scared, I will comfort myself like I would the wonderful children in my life who I would do anything for. When I choose to do something that is harmful for me, I will think about how hard it is to watch someone I am in love with doing the same thing, and give myself the same support I would give them.
It won't be something that happens over night, but it’s a start.
With all my love,
PS. I looked up the stats*
How many people in the UK have an eating disorder?
Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Around 25% of those affected by an eating disorder are male.
Which eating disorder is the most common?
Exact prevalence rates of eating disorders are difficult to gauge. A 2015 study found that anorexia accounted for 8% of cases, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) 5%, binge eating disorder 22%, bulimia 19%, and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) 47%.
At what age do people develop eating disorders?
Although many eating disorders develop during adolescence, it is not at all unusual for people to develop eating disorders earlier or later in life. In fact, we are aware of cases of anorexia in children as young as 6 and some research reports cases developing in women in their 70s.
How long do eating disorders last?
Research suggests that the average duration of anorexia is eight years and five years for bulimia. However, these illnesses can also become severe and enduring, lasting for many years and having a hugely debilitating effect on the sufferers and their families. The sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery.
Is it possible to recover from an eating disorder?
If you are one of these people, please talk to someone or everyone about it. Don’t be ashamed. I hope you find your way to love yourself too xxx