Darcy Hale was 15 years old the first time she made herself throw up in her family washroom while home alone. At the time, Hale’s parents were going through a divorce and it negatively influenced her performance at school. In addition, Hale endured verbal abuse from her boyfriend. She then found solace in a frequent binge-purge lifestyle.
Bulimia is an emotional disorder involving distortion of self-body image and an obsessive desire to lose weight that takes over the individual both physically and mentally. It is caused by extreme overeating, followed by self-induced vomiting or fasting. Bulimia is not limited to self-induced vomiting, however, and can include extreme exercising and the abuse of laxatives.
“I felt like I was losing control of my life. I felt like everything was crumbling down around me,” Hale shared. “With my family breaking up, my teachers giving me flack for failed grades — and to top it all off, my ex-boyfriend was saying some really awful things about my appearance. I just felt like I didn’t have any control and bulimia was the only way I could get some of that back.”
There are a plethora of different factors that can contribute to an individual’s development of bulimia nervosa. Research coordinator Kristine Laboni at Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) Canada outlined a few while speaking with The Cord.
“Some theories say that it can be influenced by environmental, biological or even genetic factors,” Laboni said. “Some are childhood obesity, family overeating and poor habits; low parental contact, demanding parents, negative comments in their environment about weight. Physical or sexual abuse may be another.”
According to Statistics Canada, bulimia nervosa predominantly affects females in about 90 per cent of cases. Approximately one to three per cent of young women develop bulimia nervosa in their lifetime, commonly beginning during their adolescent years.
While the constant vomiting is seen as a “means to an end” in the hopes of losing weight while seemingly gaining control, people often overlook the dangers of bulimia. The myth that bulimia is a “safe” disorder is just that — a myth.
Luciana Rosu-Sieza, executive director of the Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA), helped highlight the true and often forgotten health effects that are caused as a direct result of bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
“Bulimia can cause an electrolyte imbalance. That can lead to an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to the possibility of heart disease and heart failure and even death,” Rosu-Sieza said. “Also, the esophagus from frequent vomiting may have inflammation or even rupture, which can lead to cancer.”
Other health effects include tooth decay from the acids of the stomach coming up when an individual throws up, constipation from the abuse of laxatives as well as a gastric rupture.
Rosu-Sieza also shared that most bulimics are typically of an average weight, which often leads people to assume that nothing is wrong with them.
But bulimia is not limited to the physical state of an individual’s body. One’s state of mind can also be ruptured as a repercussion of bulimia.
“In terms of psychological issues, there are numerous,” said Laboni. “There can be issues such as depression or anxiety, personal shame, issues of control and insomnia from potential malnutrition.”
BANA works to promote acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes through the adoption of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The association often organizes and hosts educational health promotion presentations and programs to ensure this.
“In a lot of those presentations we don’t talk about eating disorders because a lot of the research shows that talking about eating disorders actually promotes it,” Rosu-Sieza said.
“Instead, we talk about self-esteem, body image and body base harassment, which is something that everybody’s experienced at some time. We do a lot of health fairs and promotions and a lot of it has to do with not only eating disorders, but also healthy eating, exercise and physical activity.”
BANA is a great source for those suffering from an eating disorder who want to seek help effectively, but it takes some time for many to reach that point.
For three years, Hale suffered in silence. She predicts that she spent over $10,000 on binge food, only to throw it up afterwards to avoid gaining weight. Even though the vomiting only made her feel worse about herself, Hale soon became addicted.
“Bulimia was, in a sick and twisted way, my friend. It was that companion that was always there and encouraged me to go that extra mile. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t care. It was just something I had to do,” she said.
Things took a turn for the worse, however, three months after Hale’s 18th birthday. While also dealing with depression and a case of low blood pressure as a direct result from her eating disorder, she ended up collapsing in the home she shared with her mother.
Hale was taken to the hospital and when she gained consciousness, she tearfully admitted to her parents that she was suffering from bulimia.
Hale said that she had never envisioned bulimia putting her in the hospital at the time and her collapse was a wakeup call.
After being released from the hospital, Hale’s family and friends held an intervention and she went to a treatment center for three months. There, she learned alternative coping skills and how to love her body.
Now at 27, Hale has graduated from college and is working full-time as well as currently planning a wedding with her college boyfriend.
Though she admitted that she sometimes has those strong urges to purge after having a big dinner, Hale is able to fend off most of those demons with her own self-help coping mechanisms as well as the outpour of support from her family, friends and fiance. “I call them all my little support team,” Hale shared.
“I know that I wouldn’t completely get over my eating disorder without them.”
If there is suspicion that an individual may have bulimia, pay attention to their patterns. Are they secretive about eating? Do they disappear once a meal is done? Have they gotten defensive when they were questioned about their eating habits? Have you noticed that they eat lots of food but have no change in weight?
These are the common signs that an individual may be suffering from bulimia.
Hale admitted to exhibiting most of these behaviours and while people had noticed, no one confronted her. She was often passive aggressive about her eating disorder, which she believes may have prevented her family and friends from talking to her about it.
“People noticed my weight loss and they also saw me going to the bathroom at the end of every meal,” Hale explained.
“Everyone knew what I was doing, but I was never confronted about it because I became difficult to deal with. There were times when I wished they would say something. I think it’s so important to confront the issue face first.”
Do not wait for a bulimic to be comfortable talking about their disorder because it may not happen. Confront that person and seek help for them immediately.
It is much easier for a bulimic to recover from their disorder if they have support from loved ones while seeking professional help. However, loved ones should be mindful that recovering from bulimia is a lifelong process.
“It’s a lifelong process because people have relapses at times,” said Rosu-Sieza. “But going back on track is not a failure.”
Struggles are inevitable in the road to recovery, but no one should endure bulimia alone. Hale admits that she is still on the journey but hopes that her story will inspire others.
“My journey of self-love was not easy; it may have been the hardest thing that I have ever done,” Hale said.
“But this is the only body I’ll ever have; I can’t lose that. If I ever have a daughter, I will tell her about my struggles so she can be strong and learn to love herself the easy way.”