This week I had to explain bulimia nervosa to a colleague. Yes here was a women who had never really heard of eating disorders – she knew about anorexia – ‘people get very thin, yes?’ But bulimia was a mystery.
What had started as a joke about Princess Diana – became for me a real revelation that there are women for whom food issues are not a part of their everyday life. Someone had said that at school they had thought that Princess Diana never went to the toilet – I remarked that of course she did but it was to throw up. I assumed that everyone would understand what I was talking about – but I was greeted by quizzical faces.
People were confused about the difference between anorexia and bulimia, they did not remember the pictures of a painfully thin woman or the publicity around Andrew Morton’s book and the revelations about her suicidal despair. For people with eating disorders this was a big news story – the first time the disease had been discussed in the popular press. She was not only a patron saint of mine victims and people with AIDS, but also of anorexics and bulimics.
My own dilemma was how to explain eating disorders without revealing too much about my personal experiences. But seeing their reaction reminded me how profoundly sick this behaviour is – it is so far beyond the ‘normal’ diet conversations. It had never crossed their minds that someone who alsoseemed to have everything would binge on high calorie foods and then make themselves sick – that they could see photographs of themselves looking like a famine victim and only see fat.
And could I explain my own life – that as the thinnest person in the room I was on the 123rd day of a precarious recovery – where I still wake every morning debating whether to fast or binge or eat. Where I obsessively try on my skinny jeans just in case I have got fat overnight, even when my winter clothes make me look like a child playing dress-up.
But if I cannot explain this to myself, how can I make others understand that the way they live and eat is incomprehensible to me?