Read My Secret Life Online

Authors: Leanne Waters

Tags: #non-fiction, #eating disorder, #food, #bulimia, #health, #teenager

My Secret Life

My Secret Life
A Memoir of bulimia

 

Leanne Waters

Dedication

To Mum and Dad, who remain the underlying bedrock of everything I am or ever will be. I love you both.

To my friends Anna, Kate, Ami, Emily and Roisin; without you, I never would have survived it.

To Nicholas, who kept me sane while writing this memoir. We got there in the end.

Foundations

I have never liked the term bulimia. As human beings, we seem to feel the need to categorize everything and everyone. In doing so, we innocently attempt to better understand that which has undergone our necessary classifications. I, unfortunately, understand this more than most. But I dislike the term nonetheless. You see, once labelled, said thing or person must from that point onwards operate under that register almost exclusively. Like everyone else, I never wanted to be pigeonholed in any particular way, let alone by something like bulimia nervosa. Since accepting the reality of my condition, however, I find myself greatly altered and living what now feels like an accidental existence. I do not think, feel or behave as others do anymore. Instead, I think, feel and behave as a bulimic would. The distinction is all too evident both to myself and to others. Once the term itself has been applied, you are forever condemned to it. It shapes you, changes you and worst of all, it victimizes you. And for this, I hate it with a feverous passion. The problem is, in being bulimic I cannot fully be me; but without bulimia, there is no me.

And so, I have been seduced into not only accepting the term, but embracing it wholeheartedly to the very core of my being. I am bulimic. And everything about me is defined under that term; that often invisible umbrella which looms over all I do and everything I am.

Someone I used to love very much once told me that bulimia was merely an idea and that its existence was dependent wholly on the strength of mind of the given individual. It’s not impossible that my pride is what prevents me from believing this argument. As if being bulimic isn’t ego-wounding enough, am I now to accept that it’s my own fault and simply a result of my own weak mind? I rather contend that it is my experience and now educated feelings that cause me to disagree on the matter.

But I suppose I do bear some of the responsibility, despite others having tried so tirelessly to convince me otherwise. It’s natural for most loved ones to entertain the idea that none of this was my fault, particularly when blame and guilt have been such viciously active factors of the illness itself. But alleviating myself of all the responsibility is something I can’t do. Because to a large extent, I secretly wanted this. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t exactly wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I’m going to be bulimic from now on.’ But once in the grip of it, you learn to embrace it like a friend, like your closest comrade and you would do anything to keep it safe. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.

Naturally, I just can’t bring myself to agree that bulimia is merely a notion or idea. An idea is something you conceive yourself. I didn’t conceive this, or at least not consciously. Nor did I create it. Sometimes it feels like I was born with it, as if it were an organ in my biological make-up, inactive until recent years when it decided to make itself known. Yes, she had always been there; waiting, growing, learning. I have had no singular trauma in my life to cause her debut. People seem to think that that’s exclusively why an eating disorder comes about, but not mine. I once received an upper-cut to the face for not giving a girl a cigarette that landed me in St. Colmcille’s Hospital, but that’s about it. If anything, I even relish in the fact that I can now say very truthfully that I can take a mean punch.

But I won’t insult my bulimia by claiming that this or any other isolated incident gave birth to her being. You’ll have to excuse my use of the term ‘her’. I’m not simply addressing my bulimia as a man would a car, but am referencing it as I have come to know it. She is the person that lies deep within me; alive, almost fully formed and with feelings and beliefs as any other person would possess. And without her, I dare not think what would be left of me. This is part of the reason I find difficulty warming to the expression ‘bulimia nervosa’. It’s too clinical and does not give full credit to the weighty person she has become. She is more than bulimia. She is my other half and the darkness inside me that gives way to all my light. And for this, I will endeavour to never insult her. Even still, I sometimes wish I could protect her.

In order to find her foundations, we must go back to my own. Though it’s difficult now to think of a time when she didn’t exist, I am convinced that at some point in my life I must have been a person without bulimia. Or else, I must have been a person under some other, more appeasing, title. Perfectionist, high-achiever, anal-retentive; take your pick. I was once ranked among all of the above. I no longer consider myself any of these things but that question remains open to debate. I suppose, to a certain extent, I never did consider myself any of these things. If I did, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so hell-bent in my pursuit of perfection in the first place. Indeed, it was this very pursuit that often justified my unhealthy habits and even the disease itself. Let me explain.

I am a person who thoroughly enjoys profiling. Though I don’t claim to have any academic or psychological understanding to do so, more often than not, I will take an individual and mentally weigh up all I know of them to come to a conclusive decision on their character. The conclusion is subject to the current time and is variable; it can change with my growing understandings of the person, different experiences and of course, shifts in the traits of the individuals themselves. Now, I know what you’re thinking; living with this girl must be hell. And you’d be right. It is rather excruciating living with me. Unfortunately, however, I can’t get away from me. That established, you can now appreciate the agonising scrutiny I put myself under. But don’t give me too much of your sympathy because as I’ve said, this is something I enjoy doing; or at the very least, it’s something I’ve always done and have now just persuaded myself into believing is enjoyable. Upon personal reflection, I am no longer just one unit. I break myself into boxes and when separated, the contents of each may be better analysed and more closely examined. We’ll take it one box at a time.

I am a very spiritual person. My faith is unyielding and ingrained so deeply into my very being that it has evolved into an invisible limb that works with and similarly to all others. Spirituality, therefore, is a very notable box. To perfect it and all it stands for, I am a practising Catholic. Despite its apparent unpopularity among my own generation, I attend weekly mass, say bedtime prayers and every now and again will even bother to read a particular scripture that my mother has come across and suggested. Furthermore, I’m proud of this. Though I make no attempts to boast about something so private, I relish in this ideal. I am Catholic by chance of upbringing but by contrast, my faith is something entirely internal and honest, untouchable even. As such, I am proud of the perfection with which I have tried to facilitate that faith. This box, consequently, is full. And if such an occasion arises that calls this perfection into question, the entire box will be upended, re-evaluated and altered if necessary.

The same rules would apply to my ‘intellectual’ box, if you will. Being successful professionally, academically and even intellectually was something I had valued very highly from a young age. It is true to say, that how we measure the above is dependent on each of us as individuals. I measured such things through high grades in school, extensive reading and striving towards what I believed would be a financially rewarding job. And I was often triumphant. Your typical pompous know-it-all, I was the perfect student my entire life. I worked, over-worked and took independent study as seriously as anything taught in the classroom. I read everything I could and especially titles that were known for their notoriety if nothing else. I told myself that I was bound for renowned glory in my chosen field of work and that it would, surely, pay me substantially. My parents, who had never enjoyed the luxury of furthering their own education and whose pockets were as empty as our fridge at home, nurtured my ambitions. While they struggled, I dreamed. Pumped with determination, I never again wanted to feel the heavy guilt of knowing that for the little they had, my parents gave me everything in their power. As long as they could provide me with the means, I would work until I could change our lives. And I did; even if for the worst. For almost the entirety of my academic life, this box was stellar.

You’re starting to get a picture now, of how I operate mentally. Apologies for what will appear like a sense of self-importance; I assure you, it is mere neuroticism and nothing more. But what we are currently discussing forms the bedrock of the mentality that brought me so effortlessly and comfortably to the state of dysfunction that was to dominate such an imperative time in my life.

To further prove this, I will address just one more box, one more facet of grave significance. This is my appearance. It is here we find one of the many justifications I invented both to fuel and conceal my bulimia and everything she wished of me. It was this box that contributed to bringing about the extremist methods undertaken in my obstinate pursuit of perfection. If I could control and champion all other aspects of my life, this would be of no exception. So you see, though my aesthetical make-up was always relevant, it remained a mere factor of a much bigger equation. Therefore, to say one develops an eating disorder because they are unhappy with how they look or what they weigh, is utterly invalid and insufficient. Indeed, while in the heavy fog of my bulimia, a friend said to me, ‘But Leanne, you’re a really attractive girl. You know you are.’ Perhaps this was intended to dissuade me from what she believed was a chosen lifestyle. It would have never worked because this was not the problem in the first place and my friend could never have understood this. She had never experienced a friendship like that of mine with my bulimia. All that said, my appearance does play a huge role in all of this and the issue of my weight became the target that bulimia would unleash all her furious wrath upon.

It was an easy target, in hindsight. It had been something I had always struggled with and was one of my personal failures on my path to perfection. If anything could damage my flawless mental profile, it would be my weight. Like almost every teenage girl, I contended with a negative body-image. I knew all girls of my age harboured negative thoughts on their own appearances, usually invalid, but I was certain that their temporary worries could not match mine. Mine bore authenticity and a reason for concern. I had somewhat of a misunderstood-complex whereby no one could have possibly understood the pain of having to live in my own skin. They didn’t have the memories I had and surely could not have been carrying the load that I strung over my shoulders daily. It’s amazing what people can convince themselves of. To put it all quite simply, I can recall my dear friend Anna asking me a difficult question. We were mid-argument about the issue of my weight when she finally yelled, ‘How can you possibly think you’re fat? Are you gone in the head?’ Disregarding the latter of her statement, to which I’d say yes, sometimes I wonder if I am truly ‘gone in the head’, I thought only of one incident from a very long time ago.

***

I am six years old. Patrick is the cutest boy in our year; all the girls like to play kiss-chasing with him. He was very bold to a teacher not so long ago and left school. But he’s back now and I can see him in the yard. He is talking to Sarah. She is my best friend in the whole world and made me a friendship bracelet last week. When she tied the bracelet around my wrist, she told me to tell her my biggest secret and that because we know each other’s biggest secrets, we were best friends. I don’t know what her secret is, maybe I forgot to ask her. I told her that I liked Patrick and wanted to play kiss-chasing with him in the yard. And now Sarah is talking to Patrick; she’s asking him to play kiss-chasing with us. I’m nervous because I can’t run very fast.

I’m standing at the yard gate by myself and looking at my new runners. Mum gave them to me on my birthday. She knows I still can’t tie my shoe-laces so bought me ones with straps instead. Sarah and Patrick are laughing now, so maybe that means he wants to play. I am not allowed go over to them until they tell me to so I wait by the yard gate. The yard is the biggest I have ever seen. Everyone loves this yard. The boys are playing football and the girls are skipping. I tried to skip with them once but got caught on the rope and they don’t let me play anymore. When the teacher found out, all the girls were in big trouble and were told that they had to let me play. I told them I didn’t like skipping all that much anyway.

‘Hello there, Leanne.’ Ms Dunphy is standing over me now with her yard bell. She isn’t as old as the other teachers and always smiles. ‘Why are you over here by yourself?’

‘I’m not by myself, miss’, I tell her. ‘I’m playing with Sarah.’

‘Where is Sarah?’ she asks.

I point across the yard at Sarah and Patrick. They look angry with me now and I don’t want to talk to Ms Dunphy anymore. I wish she would go away.

‘We’re playing a game.’ I tell her. But she isn’t smiling as much now.

‘What kind of game?’

‘I can’t tell you, Miss. It’s a secret.’ I smile as wide as I can but cannot look her in the face. I’m angry at myself for lying to Ms Dunphy but don’t want Sarah or Patrick to get mad with me. Ms Dunphy murmurs something to me about how she is my friend. I nod frantically and eventually she walks away. I’m glad she’s gone but am scared now because Sarah and Patrick have been watching me. I wave to Sarah and the two start laughing again before finally Sarah waves at me to go over. I’m so glad that I don’t have to stand by myself anymore and tug at my skirt because I know my cheeks are red.

‘Tell Patrick what you told me,’ Sarah orders with a gleeful smile. Patrick is laughing and I suddenly wish Ms Dunphy would ring the yard bell.

‘Well, go on!’ she says again.

‘I don’t want to,’ I mumble. I have a lump in my throat.

‘You’re so mean,’ Sarah exclaims. ‘Patrick is our friend and you’re excluding him. I’m telling Ms Dunphy on you if you don’t.’

‘I....I...I like you.’ The words fumble their way out of my mouth and I keep looking at my new runners.

‘I TOLD you!’ Sarah screams and the two begin to laugh beyond all control. I don’t know what to do so I pretend to laugh too. When I do this, Sarah and Patrick both stop sharply. They exchange looks and then glare at me.

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