[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
When people think of eating disorders, they usually think of Anorexia Nervosa (extreme restriction) or Bulimia Nervosa (binging and purging). More than likely, someone with a long history of disordered eating may experience both. My eating disorder started as restriction and grew into purging via vomiting and excessive exercise. Purging is a behavior to induce weight loss or manipulate body shape. Purging can mean a number of things, including: self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or medications, or excessive exercise.
I've been beating the dead horse of eating disorders for years now. I'm passionate about raising awareness not only because I suffered but because eating disorders are among the deadliest mental health conditions, with someone in the U.S. dying every 52 minutes due to an eating disorder. In a world that is focused on food, body size, diet, and pleasure, it is no wonder that eating disorders are not uncommon. We are both a nation obsessed with and fearful of food. Wild, right?
I remember the first time I purged so clearly that every detail is engraved in my brain. The heavy porcelain toilet in my parent's farmhouse. The pink tile on the walls, the small stain on the white, patterned tile. The cheerios and bananas that came up. The water running in the bathtub behind me to cover up the sound. The way I discovered, then, for the first time, the quickest way to make myself vomit. The hot shame that engulfed me as I sat on the floor mat and cried. I'm not reliving this for fun, but to show you how dangerous and shameful purging is. After that first instance, I purged countless times. I abused diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, and appetite suppressants. A healthy person does not do these things, and the fact that these products exist speaks to a wider issue about our cultural preoccupation with thinness and beauty.
Purging is not a lovely behavior. It is easy to say, "I used to make myself throw up," but harder to convey the darkness that goes along with that. The shame and disgust and fear. The loneliness and pain that comes with forcing oneself to dispel dinner. I was at my lowest when I purged, both physically and mentally. Some of the side effects of purging include:
Mental and Emotional Health: Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, moodiness, irritability, and substance abuse. Compulsive exercising or preoccupation with appearance are also common symptoms. Keeping the behavior a secret can cause stress, shame, and anxiety. Sometimes, suicidal tendencies form as a culmination of stress and unhealthy body image (CITE).
Digestive Health: A sore throat and/or stomach pain is the first obvious physical side effects of bulimia. Chronic self-induced vomiting can cause a variety of symptoms in the digestive tract, beginning at the mouth with damaged teeth, enamel erosion, and tooth sensitivity. Those who binge and purge may also experience an irritated esophagus, heartburn, acid reflux, or damaged intestines that cause bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. If someone is purging using diuretics, diet pills, or laxatives, they may experience diarrhea, hemorrhoids, or damaged kidneys.
Circulatory Health: Dehydration, arrhythmia, heart failure, low blood pressure, a weak pulse, and anemia. Vomiting can be aggressive, and sometimes blood vessels in the eyes will rupture. Dehydration can also make hair, nails, and skin weak, dry, and brittle.
Reproductive Health: Hormone imbalance, lack of sex drive, absent menstrual cycle, and infertility. Women who are pregnant and engaging in bingeing and purging behaviors will likely face further complications.
Check out this neat & tidy illustration highlighting all the ways purging can fuck you up:
Eating disorders can't be seen. Someone you know and love could be purging and you probably wouldn't even know. According to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD), less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight.”
You can be any shape or size and have an eating disorder and/or purge. People who grow very emaciated often restrict heavily and starve themselves, and very few people who suffer from eating disorders reach that point. Purging does not aid weight loss, in fact, it often has the opposite effect. Those who binge and purge often gain weight over time because vomiting expels less than 50% of the calories consumed.
There is a widespread misconception that eating disorders only affect teenage girls, but nothing could be further from the truth. Men and women of any age, race, or background can suffer. A recent review concluded that at least 25 percent of people with eating disorders are male and eating disorders are actually increasing at a faster rate among males than females. Eating disorders, just like any mental disorder, do not discriminate. Check in on your loved ones, and check in on yourself.
P.S. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it is extremely important to seek professional help. Contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE or find a treatment center near you HERE.