Purging Away the Insecurities: One Student’s Struggle with Bulimia

By Colene Gibson

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Photo by Vicky Robles

If you see Rachael* walking through the hallways here at Niles West, you would probably assume that she was your typical teenage girl enjoying her senior year of high school. As she competes in sports, attends club meetings, works at her job, or spends time with friends, you might describe her as intelligent, beautiful, and kind, but she might be thinking of other words to describe herself. The reality she shows to her peers and her family was different from the one she knows resides within herself. She’s hiding a secret: Rachael is battling bulimia.

According to ANAD.org, “someone with bulimia may eat large amounts of food in a short period of time (binge) and then eliminate the food and calories by making themselves vomit (purge).”

Each case varies, though. To Rachael, bulimia meant feeling uncomfortable after she ate or eating too much and then throwing up afterwards to lose weight and feel better about herself.

“[I started in] seventh grade. One of my friends did it too and she told me about it and I thought it would help me lose weight because I was self-conscious,” Rachael said.

Rachael’s friend, Jennifer*, said, “It wasn’t really like we decided to do it together, it was more like one day we started talking about it and we found out we both do it and that’s just kind of like how it began, but at that point, I had already like quit sort of. I mean, it wasn’t like we ever really did it like teamed up. It was more like, ‘oh, you did this? I used to too.’”

Neither of the girls could pinpoint why they turned to bulimia, though.

“I had a low self-esteem…I just wasn’t happy with myself or my body and I stopped [participating in one of my sports] in like 5th grade and then I wasn’t like fat, but I felt like I was,” Rachael said.

“I just like started because like sometimes I felt like I ate way too much after meals and I’d just feel really full and I wanted to like purge and just get it out of my system because like I couldn’t really take it. That went on for a couple of months, I think. Like from April until like August and one day, it all just, like I was bending over the toilet and then all of a sudden I just like choked on it and it wasn’t the type of choke that like you choke on water, I was like choking and it was so scary and it was just more like a wake-up call that like to this day I have a hard time like thinking about it,” Jennifer said.

Unfortunately, Rachael didn’t have an experience like Jennifer to scare her out of purging again, and her bulimia was a brutal cycle. She went through periods where her eating disorder was more difficult to deal with others. She found that during her sports seasons or when she spent time with friends, she could forget about her eating disorder.

“But then there’s those times where you feel bad about yourself and it gets bad and I can’t control it,” said Rachael. “[Before purging, I would feel] anxiety and just depressed. [After purging, I felt] just kind of relieved.”

This year, Rachael really struggled to battle her bulimia, even during her athletic season, which was the first time that Rachael wasn’t able to put aside the disorder and focus on her competitions. Add in the stress of applying and worrying about college next year, particularly how she would deal with the eating disorder once she was away in college, made Rachael realize that maybe her eating disorder was more than she could handle. She made the difficult decision to tell her friends and family.

“My mom could kind of see it, so she wasn’t as surprised and she also knew how I felt about myself. My dad was shocked; he had no idea. And my brothers were too. They just thought everyone goes through those feelings and why would they resort to that. Only a couple of my friends know. Jennifer knows. They didn’t really treat me differently [when I told them.] They were definitely concerned. Jennifer was never like, ‘go get help or anything,’ she was just there for me, which is always nice. I think Samantha was a really big help with that. She encouraged me to talk to my mom about it more. But either way, it’s nice to have a support system there,” said Rachael.

Rachael’s friend, Samantha*, was shocked when Rachael told her. “I really had no clue at all. We were having a sleepover and she just like started crying and eventually I got it out of her. It was kind of just spur of the moment because I couldn’t tell before, I never would’ve guessed. I was just in total shock. I was just like she’s so beautiful and she’s got so many friends it’s just like why? I didn’t understand why she did it, but it’s something I’ve come to understand that it’s something she couldn’t control but she’s trying to control. I was just in total shock. I was like, ‘you’re a great person. I just don’t get why you don’t see yourself like that when everyone else sees you [like that],’” said Samantha.

Jennifer also struggled with figuring out how to help Rachael. “When it started, when she realized it was a problem, even though I kind of always knew it was a problem, I remember when it specifically hit her it was just kind of scary. I think it scared both of us, not as much for me because I already quit, but because of her. Like I didn’t want her to continue with it because I knew it was very detrimental to her health, I mean you can lose your hair and teeth and get like esophagus cancer and all that kind of stuff, so I just remember when she first told me that she couldn’t really stop anymore or control it anymore. Like she said sometimes it was like a reflex like she just wanted to run to the bathroom right after a meal,” Jennifer said.

After finding out about her eating disorder, Rachael’s parents sat down with her, her school counselor, and a school social worker to discuss how to deal with her eating disorder.

“Now, I’m going to treatment. I go every Wednesday and I meet with a therapist and they assigned me to a family-oriented treatment where my parents basically feed me. It’s like starting all over again. They have to make my lunch for me and breakfast and dinner, and then they have to stay with me for an hour after I eat,” said Rachael. “It’s gotten a lot better [since I told my parents]. Sometimes I still get sad or anxious about things like, I guess, everyone is.”

Bulimia can have a seriously impact the body, so it is crucial to seek out help as soon as possible. According to ANAD.org, only one in 10 people with eating disorders seek treatment, and up to 24 million people in the U.S. are suffering from an eating disorder.

By not eating, or by purging after eating, the body goes into starvation mode, which means that the body can potentially start to shut down and cause more health problems including problems with the metabolism.  The purging piece of can cause problems with the stomach, stomach lining, esophagus, and many other issues,” said social worker, Stephanie Hentz.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to seek out help, says Hentz.  She recommends that the first step is to acknowledge that something concerning is going on, which can be difficult because a part of eating disorders is that the disease already distorts a person’s ideas of normal eating behavior.  It is particulary important for them to hear the concerns of the people around them and seek out help.  The next step would be to contact a trusted adult, whether it be a parent, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a social worker, or a school psychologist, said Hentz.

“The key is to make sure that they talk to somebody that is trained and knows how to deal with [the] situation and how to help them take the next steps,”  Hentz said.

If you know that one of your friends is dealing with bulimia or any eating disorder, it is important to get help for them, even if they don’t think they need it.

Hentz recommends that you encourage their friend to seek help whether it be through the school or their friend’s parents.  She says they should be persistent about expressing their concerns to their friend so they seek out formal assistance.  Even if your friend is unwilling to talk to an adult, Hentz recommends that you speak up for them due to the complicated health issues.

Rachael’s friends struggled to figure out how to help her, but both Jennifer and Samantha were there for Rachael whenever she needed them and they both tried to help her in any way they could.

“I kept checking up on her and we really didn’t know what to call it, so we called it ‘the thing,’ so I’d be like, ‘how’s the thing?’ She went through like periods of time where she’d tell me she hasn’t done it in a while just so that I wouldn’t be concerned about her, but then later on she’d tell me and be like, ‘yeah, I’ve been doing it.’ But like I would just say keep talking to your mom about it because I thought her mom knew, but she’d also lie to her mom about it and say like, ‘I haven’t been doing it, don’t worry about it.’ I’d just keep recommending that she talk to her mom or like maybe a counselor or something, but she’d just keep telling me, ‘no, I can handle this on my own.’ And I believed her because I didn’t know how far in she was,” Samantha said.

Rachael is currently working in therapy to battle her struggle with bulimia. She plans on attending college next year away from home and is hopeful that her therapy will be completed by then, but she is unsure when it will actually be through. Rachael hopes that she will not be dealing with her eating disorder for the rest of her life. “I mean I’ve just been seeing how to cope better with different things, so I hope that I can use that instead. I don’t think I will [relapse],” she said.

Rachael spoke out about her eating disorder in hopes that other students will seek out treatment as well and offered advice for them as well.

“I know a lot of the time I would feel sad over boys and stuff and anyone with this problem should know they shouldn’t let a boy control what you do to your body because you’re so much more important than some stupid boy that tries to get you down,” said Rachel. “If you don’t want to tell your parents right away, at least confide in someone and have someone that you can talk to because it’s not anything you can deal with on your own because it can have serious medical consequences and you don’t think about that when you start doing it, but then as you get deeper into it you’re like, ‘oh my god, what am I doing to myself?’ and then you just get so deep into the cycle that you can’t keep it to yourself anymore. Whether it takes you like a month or a year to tell someone, it’s important that you just do.”

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, there are a lot of resources both inside and outside of Niles West that are ready and willing to help.

Within the school, you can seek help from your counselor in the Guidance Office or the social workers in room 1130. Students can seek help from their guidance counselors, but ultimately they will probably bring students to one of the school social workers.

Outside of school there are a variety of general counseling resources as well such as the following:
• Turning Point Behavioral Health
• Metropolitan Family Services
• Response Center

There are a variety of programs set up to help treat eating disorders. Two of the more prominent local programs are run through the Alexian Brother’s Health System and the NorthShore University Health System.

*The names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the subject and the sources’ desires to remain anonymous.