The Silent Shame of Bulimia
TRIGGER WARNING: the following material may be triggering for some individuals - please read with caution.
Unlike anorexia, which is characterized by discipline, restraint, self-sacrifice—traits that society upholds as virtuous—bulimia traffics in a consuming, corrosive sense of shame. After all, there is nothing respectable about gorging yourself past the point of physical discomfort. There is nothing dignified about jamming your fist in your mouth to induce vomiting. Habitually wrapping lies around your self-destructive behavior is far from honorable.
As degrading as I found these acts in my own struggle with bulimia, I considered nothing more shameful than shoplifting food. While the physical and psychological costs of bulimia nervosa have been closely scrutinized and widely discussed, the financial burden of the disease has received only cursory attention. Given the frequency and magnitude of my binge-eating episodes and the substantial price of food, laxatives, and diuretics, shoplifting became a compelling solution. It was the solution I chose after my first year of college, when I returned home with a depleted bank account that reflected the cost of my eating disorder.
I was a terrible thief by any standard, my technique equal parts comedy and tragedy. Whereas a successful thief is calculated, subtle, and exudes grace under pressure, I was reckless, brazen, and conspicuous in both appearance and demeanor.
Nothing was out of the question as I transformed my body into a moveable feast: glutting my purse with pints of ice cream, cramming croissants into my coat pockets, tucking frozen pizzas beneath my shirt, smuggling blocks of cheese in the hollows of my armpits, stuffing my bra with tubes of cookie dough until a suspiciously cylindrical bust emerged, lining my boots with candy bars. (And no, I wasn’t above stowing a package of hot dogs in my underwear.)
Therefore, it was with the dulled shock of inevitability when I was caught, fined, and banned from my neighborhood grocery store. My guilt was strong, but my shame was stronger. And unlike guilt, an admission of remorse that can be absolved through action, shame is grounded in the perception of inherent unworthiness that inhibits positive change. So instead of seeking treatment, I turned inward, too ashamed to reach out for help. A few years later, my eating disorder unabated, I was again caught, fined, and banned from another grocery store.
Faced with impending legal fallout, I stopped shoplifting, though I still kept my transgressions secret. Silenced by the shame that fuels bulimia, I became convinced that I possessed some fundamental flaw that rendered me unworthy of compassion and connection. And if I couldn’t hide this flaw from myself, I reasoned, I could at least hide it from others by becoming a closed fist to the world.
It was only through therapy that this self-protective/self-destructive logic of shame gave way to a vulnerability that allowed space for honesty and healing. For as uncomfortable and ugly as it often was, I found it liberating to allow myself this discomfort and ugliness, and cathartic to reveal that I once celebrated my birthday by eating my entire cake alone in my kitchen, and empowering to recount the time that I walked miles in a blizzard to acquire binge food, sprained ankle be damned.
This blog post itself is a space for honesty and healing. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel the familiar stirrings of shame throughout my writing process. Quite the contrary, in fact. As my buried shame resurfaced, I was frustrated by false starts, roadblocks, and dead ends, leading to a divergence between the story that was convenient to tell and the story I needed to tell. It was only by confronting uncomfortable truths and unflattering details that I was able to close the distance between the two conflicting versions and write this.
And in doing so, I realized that the goal isn’t to eliminate shame, but to cultivate resilience in the face of it. Resiliency means recognizing and addressing shame in a way that allows us to learn from our experiences while maintaining our authenticity. It offers a ladder by which to climb out of secrecy and silence and show our perfectly flawed selves to the world.
The cost of not doing so is too high.
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis-born, Internet-bred writer with a penchant for probing and prodding life's absurdities. When she's not making a mess in the wordsmith’s forge, she can be found making a mess on Twitter.