I had my first bout of anorexia at the age of 7 starting a 32 year battle with eating disorders which very nearly killed me. At that time (the late 1970s) it was incredibly unusual for children of that age to have eating disorders so everyone in my family was mystified. I had always been a very thin child. But I suddenly decided I was “fat,” would lock myself in my room for hours screaming that I was fat, weighed myself and exercised compulsively. Everyone in my family blamed my mother, who was an overeater and crash dieter. And it is true that I had a very bad relationship with her, as she was absent most of the time, and did not want to be like her. But I now think the reason behind that first bout of anorexia was that it was at that age that I was first sexually abused.
My parents had already taken me to see a child psychologist because I was dreamy and lost in a fantasy world. I had 70 imaginary friends, my teddies, all with their own voices and personalities and would create complex Elephant v Snoopy sibling rivalries. We had schools, we had hospitals, even our own Christmas Day. My mother said the psychologist said I had “behavioural problems” but that there was nothing wrong with me. I now realise that the reason I had retreated into a fantasy world was that my mother was away 6 days a week, my father was unreliable and, by the age of 8, I had had eleven nannies that I could remember.
The anorexia went away. But when I went to boarding school at the age of 10 and was homesick and under a lot of academic pressure, I started having competitions with my best friend as to who could eat less. I was the winner, of course. My parents took me back to a child psychologist who said I was in danger of developing anorexia again if I stayed at the school so they took me away.
However the eating disorder wasn’t just about being thin. So troubled was my relationship with my mother that I was also obsessed with staying a child forever and not growing into a woman at all. When I was 11 or 12 and started developing breasts I would bind my chest with belts so tightly I could hardly breathe to stop my breasts growing. By 13 I had started making myself sick on “special events” such as Christmas Day when I would eat a lot of food. I had no knowledge or understanding of bulimia, was not copying anyone I knew, it just struck me as the “natural” thing to do. The refrain that has followed me all my life started at this time: “where do you put all that food?” When someone eats a massive quantity of food, then literally runs to the toilet at the end of the meal, I think it should be pretty obvious what they are doing with the food. But I managed to conceal my bulimia from my family for 25 years. Perhaps they didn’t want to know.
Then, at the age of 13, I had the most traumatic event of my life, my parents vicious divorce in which both of them turned on me, their only child, my mother telling me I was evil and my father telling me I was ugly. My mother calmly sat opposite me in our house threatening to put a contract out on my father, and saying I was just like him and wasn’t even her daughter. My father said my academic achievements (I was a very clever child) were “boring” and that my legs were too short and my head too big. I am mixed race, as my mother is Jamaican. But he started making racist comments about black people and Jamaicans with his blonde blue eyed Swedish girlfriend. I felt totally rejected.
The bulimia was erratic. There were other girls at my boarding school who had bulimia and anorexia but I never saw myself as someone who had an eating disorder. Nonetheless, as my efforts to stop my breasts growing had failed, I took a drastic step at the age of 15 and tried to cut them off with a carving knife. I didn’t get very far just superficial scars and never told anyone or sought treatment.
Meanwhile the bulimia was progressing. In my first year at Oxford University I would vomit in the sink of my room. And in the second year, when I had to appear in a see-through body suit, as Titania in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I starved myself jogging and doing squats for 10 hours a day. Then as soon as the play was over, I started stuffing myself with jacket potatoes cheese and sour cream. I adopted a strict Atkins diet regurgitating all the carbs down the loo. My cat also became bulimic after I fed him sweet and sour squid. The fact that I’d given him a couple of blow backs from a joint probably didn’t help.
After I left university, the bulimia was sporadic. I had been severely depressed since my parents divorce at the age of 13 and was diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 22.
As I was actively suicidal and ended up with a carving knife at my throat, about to cut my throat, the bulimia was the least of my problems.
After intensive therapy, I recovered from the clinical depression at the age of 25 and it was then that the bulimia and my substance addiction problems took off. For some reason, I’m not quite sure why, all my addictive behaviours were kept under control by the depression, possibly because I was so depressed that there was no way I thought anything would improve the way I felt, suicide was the only option.
I had smoked dope at University and tried ecstasy in my early 20s but it was the beginning of my first serious relationship at the age of 25/26 that both my using and bulimia took off. My boyfriend had quite a lot of money and would regularly take me out to expensive meals which I would eat then run to the loo to purge. He also crucially introduced me to cocaine which would be my downfall 10 years later. I was diagnosed with bulimia at the age of 25/26 and was once again back in treatment with NHS mental health services. The therapist who’d helped me with the depression couldn’t help me with the bulimia at all as she wasn’t an addictions therapist. So I stopped seeing her completely and just ploughed on with the bulimia and substance abuse. I was dumped by my boyfriend triggering my drinking and bulimia to spiral out of control.
At my job as a producer reporter at BBC TV I would literally run to the loo to vomit after lunch every day. People noticed that my eyes would be red after I came out of the loo and everyone thought and would openly ask if I was on cocaine. But no one guessed about my hidden disorder bulimia. I was prescribed 60 mg of fluoxetine, an anti depressant, every day for the bulimia. But this did almost nothing to curb the symptoms of the bulimia although I did feel the fluoxetine “come up” like a medical version of ecstasy at midday every day. The staff at the BBC reacted badly when I started dancing in the office.
Then a disaster happened that almost ruined my life. My mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was 17. The doctors had recommended she have an implant in her brain to control the shaking, but as she was living in Jamaica, she would have had to move to the United States or travel to the United States every two weeks to have the implant monitored. Determined to stay in Jamaica, she decided to have a partial lobotomy instead. This led, almost certainly to a massive stroke and a series of further strokes. By October 2001, two years after the operation, she was paralysed but shaking uncontrollably, having psychotic hallucinations and screaming from 5am to midnight every day. As her condition deteriorated, she had begged me to move out to Jamaica to spend time with her and so I took a career break from the BBC. My mother’s illness made me want to slash my wrists and had a disastrous impact on my substance use and bulimia. I first started drinking on my own at home, deliberately trying to get drunk, then continued with the binge drinking in public which had started when my boyfriend dumped me.
My family said I had a drink problem. I was in total denial and thought you could not be an alcoholic unless you had been filmed on reality TV attacking the police in Newcastle. So I decided to up my cocaine intake to “control” my drinking. When I went to a Jamaican ghetto at midnight to score drugs, thinking I was very likely to be gang raped and have my throat cut, when I finally found a dealer he asked me “how much do you want one kilo or two?” I left with a massive bag of cocaine knowing I would get addicted to it. Meanwhile the eating disorder had escalated sharply – apart from making myself sick I had discovered that diet apocalypse Xenical, a fat blocker which would literally remove large quantities of the fat from food, The side effects were disgusting – constant diarrhea – but I didn’t care as it made me thin.
As the cocaine addiction escalated to using 22 hours a day so did the bulimia. I would eat healthily till 7pm but then start going out on trips to score fast food like fried chicken and ice cream then vomit and score some more. These trips became so frequent that I would literally eat the fast food over the toilet vomit and go out again. The doctors who were treating me for bulimia in London said that every time I made myself sick on the quantity of cocaine I was taking, which happened at least 3 times a day, I could easily die of a fatal heart attack. But as I was distraught and trapped by the terrible state my mother was in I thought I wanted to kill myself. I now realise that I was in denial about my mother’s abuse as a child and underneath was angry because the minute she got ill her and all her family expected me to drop everything and look after her. I wasn’t even aware of my anger let alone being able to express it so I turned the whole thing in on myself.
When I went to the psychiatrist treating me for bulimia at the Eating Disorders Unit in London at the beginning of December 2004 and said I was drinking a litre of vodka a day and taking large quantities of cocaine he said he could no longer treat me. He expressed extreme concern about me going back to Jamaica where my addiction had spiralled out of control and said I needed to sort out my drug problem. Seeing the in patient anorexics at the Eating Disorders Unit, who looked like concentration camp survivors so thin they could barely walk, I thought my problems weren’t that bad. I said I had to go back to Jamaica as I couldn’t abandon my mother. I went back to Jamaica my cocaine addiction and bulimia spiralling to a whole new level. I spent Christmas day 2004 on my own with a litre of vodka and a large bag of coke and then, desperate, told my family about my cocaine addiction and bulimia.
I said I wanted to go into treatment but that I wasn’t in a rush. This was after I’d been given 3 months to live by the psychiatrist in Jamaica. My family had other ideas, packing my bags and forcibly escorting me to the airport to get on a flight to the UK. There I decided to go to St Chillin’s, Britain’s most exclusive rehab, as I felt it would look best on my CV. I smuggled enough benzos and diet pills, Xenical, into the rehab to keep me going for the first week. I was also addicted to lorazepam as it was the only thing that could make me sleep after 22 hours of using cocaine. I went absolutely mad when the diet pills ran out begging the psychiatrists to prescribe me more. You’ve got an eating disorder they said we’re not prescribing you anything. Desperate and defiant I scored laxatives at the local chemist not attempting to hide this from the other St Chillin’s residents. I was confronted in my therapy group about the laxatives and said that the main reason I was in rehab was not to sort out my drug problem but, obviously, to lose weight. I’d also adopted a protein only diet at St Chillin’s to foster my goal of weight loss. They said I could not be treated on the general addictions programme but needed to move to the Food Disorders Factory at the main branch of St Chillins in London. In fact they packed up all my bags, including 12 pairs of Agent Provocateur lingerie, 36 handbags and 15 pot plants, and tried to forcibly move me. But when I went for an interview at the London branch of St Chillin’s they said there was no way I could go to the Food Disorders Factory if I had a drug problem as so many of the women in there were on drugs.
I returned defiant to the rural outpost determined not to be moved. And although I wasn’t in an eating disorders programme the treatment at St Chillin’s had a remarkable effect on my eating disorder. I was put on a strict diet of 3 meals a day, no puddings or snacks. I considered this a massive curb on my human right to snack but actually it worked. The enforced abstinence from alcohol and cocaine also had a massive impact on calming down my bulimia. I was only sick once at St Chillin’s, my eating disorder was on its way to recovery. I was told that I would know when my eating disorder was in recovery when I no longer cared what size I was.
With enough mental health problems and addictions that my ego had a serious problem of crowd control I was told by the psychiatrist at St Chillin’s that I had “too many issues” to be treated in the private sector as I would “bankrupt my family.” He told me I needed to move to a state rehab. As my own decisions had ended me up in rehab, totally broke, I decided I’d better start listening to other people.
At my next rehab, a tough outfit in South London bristling with ex-cons, they told me I would have to leave if I was sick as they couldn’t treat bulimia. As the puddings were delicious, I developed exercise bulimia instead spending 5 hours a night on the exercise bike in the gym. I burned as many calories as Neanderthal Man at the darkest point of the Ice Age. When somebody broke the exercise bike I threatened to put out a contract on them. But as I’d been bankrupted by my shopping addiction the would be assassins said that the packet of fake nail glue – which was all I had to offer – just wasn’t enough. I wasn’t sick once at my second rehab but I did get very thin.
At my third rehab I put on weight ate perfectly normally and was only sick once. But once I was out of the cozy cotton wool of rehab the bulimia flared up again. From the beginning of 2006 to 2009 I would be sick every couple of weeks, sometimes once a week. It was much better than before but the bulimia was still not in recovery. I would also do compulsive exercise.
My friend from “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous” introduced me to the food programmes of Overeaters Anonymous. I had attended OA at St Chillin’s where I’d been taxied to the meetings despite my reluctance. But the next rehabs I went to were mainly focused on drugs and didn’t get me to go to OA meetings.
Following my friend who was a kind of mentor for me in recovery, I adopted the OA food programme which consisted of a certain amount of protein, carbohydrate, vegetable and fat at every meal. Also crucially the OA food programme banned sugar and high fat food which had often been the trigger for me to binge and puke.
After about 6 months of doing the programme I made myself sick for the last time in July 2009. I have never been sick since then though I have done compulsive exercise.
I no longer follow the OA food programme and have re-introduced small quantities of sugar and high fat food into my diet. It is important that I only have these foods occasionally and that it does not become a habit as if it did I would be exposed to the desire to purge the high calorie food through bulimia or compulsive exercise. I control my portion size, never eating an amount that would be too large as this would make me want to purge. Also, as at St Chillin’s, I have three meals a day and do not snack. I am quite thin, I got down to 105 pounds when I had a nervous breakdown at the end of 2013. I only realised in retrospect that, as well as doing crazy OCD checking rituals 10 hours a day as I felt out of control, I was also controlling my food.
My weight is now slightly higher at 107 pounds but I am still very slim. I have not and will never reach the level of recovery from an eating disorder where I don’t care what size I am. I have no desire to reach this state as I might then be happy being fat! Being slim gives me freedom as I feel I can indulge in sugar and high fat food maybe once or twice a week. When I was a normal size when I had a high sugar or high fat meal I would feel a twinge of compulsion to purge or compulsively exercise. I have not compulsively exercised for at least six months. My recovery isn’t perfect but considering I was given 3 months to live because of my bulimia it’s has definitely changed my life.
Next week: My battle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder.