The urge to purge – Bulimia and addiction

Ilona Burton

It is disgusting. It is desperate. It is dangerous.

You may understand the logic behind Bulimia. A person wishes to eat and not have to deal with the weight gain that comes with that, so they puke. It makes sense. It may even be possible to comprehend why this may become habit, or you may have heard of the “high” that comes with self-induced vomiting. But surely, nobody could ever want to eat until they can barely walk and return from the bathroom with an empty stomach, wiping mascara from their cheeks as they go back to do it all over again. And again. And again.

It is not a habit. It is an addiction stronger than any other I have known. Not that I know how it feels to try to come off Heroin or Crystal Meth, but I cannot imagine feeling within a tighter grip than I have been with Bulimia.

I am writing this now, very selfishly, to distract myself, as even now, after years of treatment, therapy, meal plans, dieticians and hospitalisations, I still have the urge to purge pretty much every day.

Some of the time, despite knowing every trick in the book, all the distraction techniques in the world and knowing the damage I could be doing to my body better than most doctors, that urge can still be completely uncontrollable. On those days, I will speedwalk to Tesco, grabbing crisps from the newsagents on the way because I can’t start shoving stuff down my mouth quick enough, whizz around the supermarket in a daze, piling my basket with whatever the hell takes my fancy and rushing back, racing, racing. Then I relax. Eat. Indulge. Gorge. Breath. And the panic melts away…

There is a physical side to this. Like a bloody shampoo advert, here’s the science bit – I’ll keep it short. In between binges, a bulimic or anorexic binge/purge subtype will starve themselves, often restricting to a very limited list of “safe” foods. The human body refuses to accept being treated in such a way, and so the fight begins. The binge is an inevitable reaction to starvation. It is the body’s way of saying “Feed me”. It is the brain telling you that you cannot control it, you WILL eat whether you like it or not. This is why many bulimics envy anorexics, because they somehow find enough power to resist that temptation. What talent, what skill!

If you skip breakfast, you’re likely to grab a few extra biscuits mid-morning and perhaps a bigger lunch than you would have had otherwise. Add days of restriction to that one breakfast, plus guilt squared and multiply the urge to make up for that restriction by a thousand. You’re still nowhere close to imagining the desperation a bulimic has to binge and purge. But you get the gist.

Aside from the body subconciously screaming at you to give it what it needs, there is the sense of one-upmanship that spurs you on. I am careful not to use the word ‘control’. It is too often used to describe why people have Eating Disorders, when all I have witnessed it the complete and utter lack of control which ends up in devasation. It is a sick smugness, a reassurance that it is ok to eat a whole pack of cream cakes, a tub of ice cream, a pizza, a lasagne, pasta, cheese, chocolate, biscuits, boxes of cereal and pastries… because you have the last laugh. Just five, maybe ten minutes and you can reverse all that damage.

It becomes normal, this cycle. As disgusting, shocking and unbelievable as it sounds, it becomes impossible to get through a day without going through that anxiety and relief, anxiety and relief. At first it is exciting. You try new foods, all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter, that it can’t hurt you. But after months, years, you do it all automatically. Little thought goes into what you buy or how much you pack away. You’re a zombie. An insatiable zombie.

It is too easy to feel apathetic about this situation you seem to have fallen into. Yes, you look a mess and your skin is getting bad and you feel like you have a thousand needles stuck in your throat and you’re bloated and tired and dizzy and your teeth crumble and yes, you are aware that you could go into cardiac arrest – but that won’t happen to me – you tell yourself.

I am not going to allow myself to be apathetic today. It is too easy, to pretend to fight, to tell your family and your boyfriend that you’re really trying this time and then go and carry on with your secretive binging.

The hardest part is, the more you try to resist the urge, the more it grows and snowballs in your mind. You visualise the food in your shopping basket, then in the oven, then on your plate as you watch Murray win in straight sets, shove ice cream down your neck whilst Kate Middleton glows in the sun at Wimbledon. You can almost smell it, feel it, taste it. You wrestle with your own thoughts and you are lost. You try to distract yourself but the more you do so, the more space it takes up in your mind. No matter how desperate you are, it is more so.

But today, I refuse to let it win.

This was entirely selfish, so thank you if you read and as always I hope that through my honesty, more people can learn and understand more about the reality of what it is like to live with an Eating Disorder.

As I write this, my Twitterfeed is filling up with the hashtag #whatstigma. Today, Stephen Fry was announced as the president for Mind Charity. This can be my little contribution to opening up and reducing that bloody stigma.

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  • Rachel Jane Lloyd

    Why don’t you wake up and see your lack of empathy and understanding.
    And actually find some self control yourself in criticising this beautifully articulate post.
    Don’t like. Don’t read.

  • Claire Kearns

    So proud of you for writing this and talking about something that seems much more of a stigma, much more shameful than anorexia even. I understand a hell of a lot. Contemplating day patient lately as just can’t get out of the cycle. Really proud of you for trying, and am here if you ever need to talk to someone who gets it. xxx

  • Heisenburp_Uncertainty

    Are you really the author of the piece?

  • ilona burton


  • Claire

    Brilliant post as always Ilona! You’ve really captured and written well about the pull to the supermarket and I can empathise so much with your writing! :) xx

  • Claire

    You’ve clearly never experienced the hell of bulimia! I think until get an injection of empathy you should take your negative attitude away from here and away from someone who is clearly brave enough to write about something with so much shame and stigma attached to it! People like you make my blood boil!

  • Heisenburp_Uncertainty

    Sorry I thought I replied to this earlier. I would like to apologize for my comment. It was wrong and unforgivable. I was bored at work at thought & it would be fun to do a bit of trolling. I clearly didn’t bother to think about the hurt it would cause you and others. I am especially mortified because I would never say something like this in real life – I am just a coward hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

    Please forgive me and my hateful comment.

  • Lisa Adams-May

    Thank you for posting this. I moderate on a recovery forum, and you highlight perfectly the frustration and back and forth thinking that people go through with these ghastly disorders. As a journalism student, I hope to break through the cover on mental health as you do. :)

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