Hannah Patterson talks about how she has struggled and strived against bulimia while at university
Imagine you’re an alcoholic, and you’ve been sober for a few months, you go to your therapist, and are reasonably very proud about your achievement. Your therapist smiles, congratulates you, and then tells you what happens next. Now, you have to start drinking again. You have to have a few drinks a day, without letting it become a problem again. You have to go out drinking with your friends without drinking too much and hurting yourself. That’s how I describe bulimia, to someone who asks.
I’ve always had an addictive personality. I tried my first cigarette at 14 and the rush was enthralling. The first time I drank, I loved the heady rush of trying something new and exciting. When I start seeing someone new, I want to spend every available second with them, because nothing is ever enough. I am not good at taking it slow, pacing myself, or holding back. But no addiction has ever been as all-consuming for me as my addiction to food. I’ve always loved food, everything about it – I love cooking it, I love eating it, and I love going out for meals with friends and family. But enough is never enough. I always want more, I always need more. I love everything about food, expect one crucial detail: I detest feeling full, I feel disgusting, dirty almost. This hatred mixes with my addiction, which mixes with a chronically low self-esteem to create a poison that infected my mind at the age of 13 and has been present ever since – bulimia nervosa.
Bulimia is a lesser-known eating disorder, and from my experience, the main reason is simple; bulimics generally look completely healthy. We are not skeletal, we don’t look frail – I was so unwell I had to take a year out of university to receive treatment for bulimia, and I never dropped below a size 12 – the UK average size for females. Hiding bulimia is far easier than hiding a more restrictive type of eating disorder as well. When I came to university, I told my flatmates that I had a very weak stomach – and after a Fresher’s week full of hungover vomiting, they tended to believe me. Any time I finished a meal and felt too full, or they caught me throwing up after a binge, I would simply say, in a weak voice, that I had eaten something that my stomach didn’t agree with, and I was met with sympathetic smiles. I became a very good actress, and no one ever questioned me. I looked well, my weight never dropped massively, I was always okay after, and I wasn’t a cause for concern. Most of my friends in university didn’t realise I was sick at all, until I tried to kill myself at the start of my second year.
Things have been better since then, in a way. Since my eating disorder became general knowledge, I have looked at it completely differently. I look at my eating disorder like a chronic illness, like diabetes or asthma. I am aware of what causes a flare up of bulimia, and so are my friends- they let me know when I miss a trigger. They help me when I am unable to help myself, and they support me when I ask for help. But there is still that underlying confusion, when people look at me. They see a healthy young woman. When I tell someone that I suffer from an eating disorder, I see them look at me and the same expression crosses their face every time. For a split second, they think “are you sure?”
Being a university student with an eating disorder is undoubtedly a struggle. There are triggers everywhere, and a new level of freedom that I’d never known before, making it so much easier to indulge my bulimia in all the ways that I hadn’t been able to when I lived under my parent’s roof. If I went to the shop and spent £50 on food to consume in one night, no one questioned me or even noticed. If I always ate in my room, so that no one could watch the way I ate, no one noticed. I had my own set of scales in my room, and no one cared or noticed. Even now, as I sit here eating a bag of popcorn that I fully intend to digest, as a generally healthy and recovered woman, I am painfully aware that the freedom is there. That I could go to the shop, go to my room and spend the rest of the night binging and throwing up. That awareness is always there, and I have learned to live with it. It doesn’t get any easier, but I can live with it.
Bulimia has shaped a lot of my life, and most of my university experience. It has made me the person I am today, and sometimes I wonder, as much as I hate my eating disorder, if I would know myself without it, and I suppose I’ll never know. I’ll never know what it’s like to be able to go for dinner on a first date and eat in front of someone I don’t know. I’ll never know what it’s like to not worry about my weight, or walk into a room and not work out the amount of people who seem skinnier than me; and I’ll never know what it’s like to be one of those girls who is effortlessly slim. For the most part, I’ve made my peace with that, and for the most part I’m okay. I’m not always happy but I’ve never lost myself to my eating disorder again, and I take pride in that. We’ve all heard the phrase before that just because you can’t see a mental illness doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but I am urging you to remember that this phrase applies to more than depression and anxiety. A person can be underweight, healthy or overweight and have an eating disorder that threatens their life and who they are, and if we ever really wish to tackle eating disorders, this is a lesson we all need to learn.