I have the great fortune to be friends with the amazingly charismatic, beautiful and ever popular Ella Kociuba – a girl that has endurance and strength like few others. Recently she shocked her followers and friends alike with the announcement that she has been fighting bulimia for a number of years.
I know her pain!
I am opening up here for a number of reasons. First and foremost is from the inspirational courage that Ella has shown. Second is that if these words can help just one person reach out to someone and become healthy again, it is worth any personal embarrassment that might arise. And that is the main reason. I am healthy now, and while I eat carefully I definitely eat well. This is not a cry for help – I’ve been free of the prison I am about to describe for around 10 years – but it is a plea to say “if you are where I was – seek help. Talk to me, talk to a therapist, talk to anyone. Its not easy but its possible”
Before elaborating lets take a few snapshots of my past. Dates are approximate
- Around 15 years ago, I was sitting on a flight from London to Boston. On exiting the aircraft, my leg had gone numb leaving me with a limp. At this moment I had no idea I would not feel sensation in my leg again for almost two months.
I told nobody why I now had a limp .
- About 10 years ago I had immense pain from a molar that had been slowly disintegrating for almost a year. I got drunk on whisky and pulled it out by hand with a pair of pliers.
- For 3-4 years I was spending around $60-100 a day on bags and bags of groceries from 4-5 different stores. By bedtime, the only evidence were empty food containers in the trash.
I was bulimic for around 8 years after being anorexic for a little over 1 year.
These days I put huge priority on honesty and integrity and in part it was because I had learned to be a liar for almost 10 years. This is because bulimia is a disorder rife with dishonesty and displeasure. The personality that develops from the pattern of behaviors makes someone very good at leading two lives, at covering up, and at planning their deceptions.
So how on earth does someone get to this dark place? Its hard to really say, but I was always a “social loner” – in that I always got along with people and enjoyed social environments but needed a significant amount of time on my own. I’m still this way, and very few people probably truly know who I am.
I had a good upbringing – no abuse, no broken home, just two working class parents that did the best they could with what they had. There were no external triggers that sent me on a road to hell. I was lucky to have great teachers in my public school and I was a rare breed – the popular geek before geek was cool. I excelled in Math, Science, etc and did okay in sport.
At University I also adapted well to being on my own, and needing to motivate myself to work hard and take care of myself. It was here that I turned vegetarian but in an unhealthy way. All my dishes revolved around pasta, white rice, and dairy. I remember weekly treating myself to a huge baked potato from Oliver’s loaded with butter, cheese and baked beans. Pasta was cheap though, and I gained weight but it didn’t matter – I had also fallen in love and eventually became engaged. That marriage lasted a short time, and by this time I was fat. No other words could describe it, and being single again made me realize I needed to do something about it so I started eating less (not better – less) and going to the gym. Cardio, cardio, cardio, eat less. More cardio, eat even less. I was getting faster and faster, and looking healthier, and it was addictive so I wanted quicker results. Within very little time I recall capping my calories at 800 calories a day and 1-2 hours of rowing and/or running. I hit my ideal weight, but could still see areas I was pudgy, places I didn’t feel in shape, so I continued,
I eventually dropped to a skinny weight (at a guess around 125lbs @ 5’7”) and was still social. I’d meet with friends from work, I’d go to house parties, and came up with excuses as to why I wasn’t eating when prompted. It was then I started the white lies. “I had a sandwich after leaving the gym” “I’m not hungry yet, I’ll eat something later” became tiring. I can actually recall the first time I purged. I was at a friends house and eventually ate something after being “hounded” to do so and the guilt just overwhelmed me. I went casually to the bathroom and agonizingly tried to make myself vomit.
These occasions became more and more common and over the course of months and years I developed a pattern. I learned that it really takes food 45-60 minutes before digestion really starts – this gave me a time window. I learned that certain foods were harder to purge than others, and that liquid made everything easier. My friends from back then might think I could easily handle a LOT of beer but at the time a lot of it was to give me the required amount of liquid to purge. It became a science. Looking back I was never present in social situations but instead was strategizing the exact timing of my bathroom visit so to avoid suspicion, and the exact timing of my liquid and food intake to make purging most efficient. I’d even eat specific foods first to use as a “marker” so when the eventual purge happened I was able to tell when I was done. The precision in which this disgusting habit was executed is, even now, disturbing to me.
More time went by and I became malnourished. My body would crave food so I’d shop, go home, eat everything, become racked with guilt, purge and be back where I started. Sometimes I’d get light headed, sometimes I’d pass out, often my eyes would be bloodshot from purging too heavily or too often.
Things continued to get worse. I fought a double life. On the outside I attempted to appear normal and in control, and on the inside I would constantly be thinking about how to get out of social situations involving eating, and how to purge if I couldn’t. I started buying more and more food, which turned into more and more cheap food. I had a daily budget – I spent exactly that amount every day. Sometimes I would try and be healthy and eat foods I think I could retain, but would eat too much and the cycle began. It was all consuming, all encompassing. I was working to eat, and eating to purge. The act of stuffing my face was a temporary high. The act of purging when the guilt hit was another temporary high. Then the low came again and the cycle repeated.
I started to ostracize myself from friends. On evenings out, I’d get to a point where my social anxiety grew and I’d just leave without saying goodbye. Being in a group of people was a surreal experience – it sometimes felt like I was watching a play rather than being with friends I love. And I did love them, I just had this demon in my head that kept me at a distance.
At my lightest I was around 105-110lbs. I remember flying to Boston for work and driving to NYC and when walking down 5th Ave hearing someone make a comment about me being an alien, I was that skinny.
Daily I was eating an obscene amount of food, and carefully planning and executing binge and purge cycles. It got to the point where I think most of the calories I utilized came from the beer I drank and the small amount of food that I couldn’t remove.
Shortly after this trip I flew to Boston and that was when I lost all sensation in one leg. I limped for weeks. At this point I knew something had to give but couldn’t quite claw back. Instead of seeking help, I rode the 6 miles into work on my bicycle pedaling most of the force with my bad leg. It got better quickly but I stayed skinny.
Not long after I met a girl and started dating her. She caught me purging one time and started to become suspicious on every outing. Again this was a change to heal but the lies took over. For example, after a lunch in London I recall being in a furniture shop and I ducked into the men’s bathroom to “take a piss”. She listened at the door, and while she didn’t hear me purge she heard a flush and accused me of purging. I was so good at planning my excuses that I was able to tell her that this particular bathroom didn’t have a urinal and dragged her in to prove it. Secretly my heart was pounding because I knew I was nearly caught.
While with her I was offered a chance to move to the USA. I jumped at the chance because I needed a fresh start. I hoped it would help me see things in a new light. Instead I was able to hide the dark side of myself even more PLUS all this food was cheaper and more plentiful. The bulimia hit its height. I had a budget of $60-80 a day and I spent it all. I’d start to go to different supermarkets across town to keep my secret. I’d eat way too much when someone brought bagels into work and then purge in the work bathroom. Instead of getting better it got worse.
I met my second wife, the mother of my son, Xander. When we dated I was able to keep the secret but she moved in and eventually it became obvious. She begged me to stop and I promised I would but instead worried that I became complacent and more determined to keep the secret. One day when I was home and she was out, I bought food, hid the evidence and purged. She came home earlier than expected and caught me. With threats to end the engagement, my turning point had come. I could see the disgust in her eyes at the lies I was continuing to perpetrate and decided to seek help.
Seeking help. This might be different for everyone but what I decided to do worked for me (maybe because I am stubborn). The first thing I did was book and appointment with a therapist. The second thing i did was add accountability and called 4 of my closest friends and explained what I had been going through. I remember having a moment of pride that none of them knew, and that I was so good with the secrets. Obviously this wouldn’t be easy.
I saw the therapist. She listened and at the end of the hour, told me that as she had little experience she would talk to her partners and get someone more experienced to work with me. On the second appointment the same woman saw me and told me “I talked with the partners, and they told me that I should work with you anyway”. WTF? No WAY I was going to trust my recovery with an amateur. I walked out early, and decided I was smart, motivated and had my own support system and could do it myself. I bought a couple of self help books (which I have since given away), read through them and basically stopped the insanity that day.
So how about since that day? I am proud to say I have not binged intentionally once, and have purged very little… maybe 5 times on purpose in 10 years.
That said it wasn’t an easy path between then and now. It took me years to be able to determine when I had eaten enough. None of the signals for “full stomach” applied to me anymore. I did, however, learn to cook, to eat and to not feel guilty. Eventually I started working out again but avoid cardio unless necessary to this day. While I still look at my body and see all the things that could be better, I have made the switch to caring more about how my body performs than how it looks and am happy that over the past 5 years I have been able to get it to perform damn well indeed.
So why did I want to tell this story? Being vulnerable is a hard thing to do, and I know that this exposure opens me up to ridicule BUT there are lots of women and men that also have unhealthy obsessions that need help to stop. If I can be there for someone or give them the courage to reach out to family and friends, then it is all worth it. If you are that someone trust me when I say that your friends and family are there for you with full support. And if they don’t understand what you are going through? Send them to me… and I will happily give them the rundown.
If you suspect someone you love or know to be going through this, be very careful with your approach. They will have to want to be healthy above anything else, but to be a support for them there has to be a level of trust they are not used to giving. This disorder breeds distrust, loneliness and segregation. Confronting a bulimic will more often signal you as a threat and their cover up tactics will get better when you are around. Therefore you need to be non-judgmental, open and honest. There are a few book resources out there. This one “Bulimia: A guide for family or friends” is particularly good.
Society is so much about sexuality, body image, that a decline similar to mine that started 20 years ago will continue to happen in boys, girls, women, men alike. There is a better alternative and a better way, and the last 10 years of my life prove tat its possible.
A thought to close. My personal trainer commented once on my intensity, and the amount of stuff I do, with the words “What are you running from?”. Before writing this post, I really didn’t think I was running from anything but realized that I am running just fast enough to stay away from the troubled person I was. Those that have been (or are going through) this will understand that the obsession and the need to control will never go away. I am only glad that I learned a way to turn that obsessive behavior that once made me a fastidious student, and later had me in the grips of a health crisis, into someone that is content with the life they have carved out by forging those struggles from another life into a source of indomitable strength.
Thanks for “listening”, be kind, and if any of this hits home you can contact me privately. All comments are moderated so if you prefix it with “PRIVATE” and include your email address I will contact you and delete the comment.