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Badass Bitch: My Struggle With Bulimia

A detailed account of my six-year struggle with an eating disorder.

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My name is Casey and I have been bulimic since I was 21 years old.

How’s that for a mic drop?

Now, I would actually like to start this story off by stating another fact: I am a badass bitch. This might seem braggadocios, or maybe even a little delusional, but I try my very hardest to believe it. For as long as I can remember, my image has been that of a self-confident, humorous, tall, big-chested, in-charge, Texan redhead, and I protect my image at all costs. There’s something romantic and iconic about being the life of the party and I’ve long since realized that being the center of attention is not only my pathos, but my ethos. I’m sort of like a party succubus: I greedily gobble up everyone else’s energy to keep myself alive until I finish all of the whiskey in the building, and then I go home to worship at my altar.

And here’s where the romance falls away and the hoop earrings come off. A person’s altar should be sacred, a place where they can worship the Gods, or nature, or even their ancestors. But my altar has long since been a place of self-sacrifice, attrition, and more recently, punishment. It’s difficult to explain why I do what I do, but it’s also important, not only for my own understanding, but also for the millions of people who suffer from the same affliction. Because once I hit the door of my bathroom and stumble out of my high heels, that’s what I do.

I suffer.

Eating disorders are very complex. My therapist talks about cognitive loops, about how people can set up mental circuits that override their logic to a point where fabrications become fact. I’ve worked very hard at creating my own flawed mental circuits and I’m currently in the process of rerouting my electricity, a struggle I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Realizing the flaws in my logic puts a microscope over so many moments in my life that seemed one way, but were in fact another way. It’s like waking up to find that I’ve been living in the Matrix, and that nothing I’ve seen or done for six years has been real.

I’ve thrown up in over 100 restrooms worldwide. My pathology generally directs me to the same three or four haunts whenever I feel the need to purge, but if something triggers a spark in my fucked-up mental circuit, the need to cleanse myself is almost unavoidable. I’ve forced myself to puke in bars, restaurants, shopping malls, dance clubs, schools, hospitals, my house, your house, and, on one particularly grim day, the strip of grass next to my parents' garage. In the early days of my disorder, purging in public was almost like a macabre game of “'X' marks the spot.” But as I sunk deeper and deeper into my sickness, the rush of doing it in public lost its appeal and I found myself leaving parties early to purge at home, skipping class to stake out the bathroom back at my college dorm, pretending like I was chain-smoking on my break at work just to run to my apartment for a quick release.

For the first four years, I didn’t realize that I had a serious problem. Seems stupid, doesn’t it? I’m a college-educated, non-fiction enthusiast who enjoys a nice cabernet and a good Wes Anderson film; I’m a bourgeoise douche. People like me should know that forcibly puking up meals is terrible, right? That it leads to a full jacket of debilitating health problems and can irrevocably shorten one’s lifespan? If you’d asked me point blank in 2010, "is bulimia bad," I would have said “yes.” It’s the only logical answer. But here is where my logic failed me: I looked at the literature, at all of the cautionary tales I’d heard in high school, and decided that the danger of bulimia was becoming “too thin.” I believed that I could never be thin at all, let alone “too” thin. So this meant that I never had to stop. I could drink as much as I wanted, eat as much as I wanted, and then erase the damage with the press of an index finger on my gag reflex.

I could make it all go away! What a deal! I’d discovered the cure for hedonism!

But soon, this idea of “erasure” got tangled and twisted, poisoned by my newly forming circuits until I began to believe that I could erase more than just a high-calorie meal with my little trick.

I remember the first time I employed emotional erasure very vividly. I had transferred to Texas Tech University at the start of my junior year after a series of unfortunate events pulled me away from my first music conservatory. My fresh start in Lubbock, Texas, seemed like the perfect time to get a fresh start in my music, and I changed my principle instrument from piano to voice. I was a novice singer, a high school chorister with aspirations to be the next Bernadette Peters, but singing didn’t come as naturally to me as piano did. The idea that I might not succeed in some facet of music was difficult to understand. Music was my thing. Piano had always been effortless for me. Why was singing such a struggle?

My eating disorder began one month into my first year at Tech, initially because I wanted to drink myself stupid at football games but also look good in my brand new singing dress. Singers were supposed to be pretty and my "slutty Brunhilda" look just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to thin down a little, I thought, just enough to look pretty, and my voice would follow suit.

Eventually, I was required to sing a solo for my peers in the vocal department and my bull-stupid confidence carried me through the performance; not only had I remembered all of those bogus Italian words, but I’d even walked on stage eight pounds lighter. I was on cloud nine.

But then, as everyone eventually does, I picked the wrong bathroom. I was fixing my tights in the last stall when three girls walked in and started talking about my voice.

“Okay, I’m sorry, but that redheaded girl is so bad. She’s nice, but holy shit.”

“Right? She’s old too, she’s a transfer.”

“How did she even get in?”

“Because she’s got big boobs?”

The conversation eventually dissolved into tepid praise for the other soloists and I was forced to remain in my stall until the door closed behind them. Even after the bathroom was silent, I couldn’t bring myself to leave; the pain of hearing these strangers pass judgement on me was indescribable. My size had always protected me from bullying and in my own naivety, I had believed that no one would dare talk about me behind my back; I was too badass to threaten, even in private. But these faceless girls had debunked my big, tall persona and I stared down at the toilet, wondering if maybe my little trick could erase more than just a big meal. What if it could erase a feeling? My misconnected circuits accepted this idea and within seconds, I’d kicked up the toilet seat.

I could make it all go away. What a deal! I’d discovered the cure for suffering!

This incident was a turning point for me in many ways. Being new to the school, I didn’t know the other students well enough to identify their voices, and I would spend every rehearsal for the next three years looking around the room and wondering if the girls were there. If we were friends now. If they’d changed their minds as my voice improved. Or worse, if they hadn’t changed their minds at all.

I did well in Lubbock and met scores of amazing people who changed my life for the better, many of whom I’m still close with today, but the ghost of three girls in a bathroom haunts me in a way that no other memory ever has.

It wasn’t long before my little trick started taking over my life. Every spare minute of time was arranged around when and where I could purge after meals. It didn’t bother me because I saw the whole thing as my little secret, and I’d never had secrets before; party girls didn’t have secrets. I mistakenly felt as though purging gave me a certain mystique and I explained away the obvious for the next three years. I partied with friends, rolled around town in my bright red pickup truck, adopted a bunch of dogs, and broke a few hearts. Pretty soon, I was landing starring roles on the main stage. My big, tall confidence was back.

I moved to Dallas after graduation to study choral conducting through a fellowship at my high school, but my wanderlust was insatiable and I moved to New York City nine months later. I was accepted into a musical theater conservatory and began my studies faced with an unexpected new obstacle: the leotard. Musical theater required dancing, dancing required leotards, and leotards required a better physique than mine. I hadn’t used my little trick in Dallas so much, mostly because I was comfortable at my high school and felt no need to erase my days with vomiting. This meant that I was fatter than usual. Fatter than usual and wearing a leotard.

I refused to take off my sweatshirt in my first dance class and instead hammered away for two hours, sweat rolling down my enormous body and pooling in the soles of my tap shoes. The shame I felt was crippling. Not only was I the biggest girl in my year, but now I was being forced to strip down to my underwear and stare at myself in the mirror for hours at a time. I knew I would never make it through the program without a boost, and turning to my little trick seemed like a natural progression.

I lost thirty pounds in two months, learned how to do my makeup, and bought myself two packs of hair extensions. By the time autumn rolled around, I was actually kind of pretty; it was the first time in my life that my looks could stop a room before my big, tall persona did and I was addicted to the sensation of receiving compliments. Students and teachers alike commented on my weight loss and I started to believe that I’d actually achieved it without my little trick at all. I’d just been watching what I ate and dancing four times a week. What was wrong with that?

But just as it had in Lubbock, my inability to achieve instant musical success brought everything to a screeching halt. Even with my impressive resume, I wasn’t getting the hang of this new type of singing and my teachers didn’t seem interested in me beyond my trope as “the character role.” It seemed to me that my weight loss had done nothing to erase my big, tall persona, which I was now beginning to see as a joke; thirty pounds down and I was still the funny fat girl? I was trapped in my made-up identity and no amount of physical upkeep could change that. This was my fault. I deserved to be a fat fuck. What the hell was I doing in New York City anyway? Who the hell did I think I was?

Soon, everyone I passed in the hallway at school became three girls in a bathroom in Texas. That terrible feeling was back, but this time I deserved the pain in full. My mental circuits did their demonic calculations and the resulting anxiety led me right back to my altar. I wanted to hurt myself for making all of these grand assumptions about my self-worth, and the worst pain I had ever known had been achieved on my knees with my head in a toilet bowl. Within seconds, I’d kicked up the toilet seat.

I couldn’t make anything go away. That was the deal. I’d discovered the purest form of punishment.

Countless wonderful things happened to me over the course of the next two years, but I can barely remember a single moment. In my circuit-skewed memory, those two years are painful and long. Every single second is painted black by bulimia, the joy of my greatest personal triumphs scorched and erased by my little trick. It's difficult for me to describe the loss I feel when I see a picture of me from 2015. I'm smiling in every photo, surrounded by friends, but now my only memory of those evenings is what bathroom I puked in and whether or not I took a minute to cry before rejoining the party.

In 2016, I eventually became so sick that I confessed my problems to a close friend. I can’t say what ultimately changed my mind about my sacred secrecy: the yellow coloring of my skin perhaps, or the thinning of my hair, or maybe the loss of my singing voice. But my friend was quick to act and I was soon going to therapy and seeing doctors, beginning the unimaginably long process of destroying the mental circuits that held me captive inside my own body.

I want to make it clear that I don’t blame the three girls in the bathroom, nor do I blame myself. To place blame on any one person or factor is useless in the grand scheme of my recovery. My disorder is made up of countless factors, seen and unseen, and the more time I spend in therapy, the more I come to understand that. I understand that my “big, tall persona” is something that I made up in high school to explain away my size, a mask that effectively hides my insecurities, not from others, but from myself. I also understand that being the center of attention is my own way of desperately reassuring myself that, despite how ugly I am, people can find worth in the things I say and do. Even though I’m the fattest person in the room, I’m funny enough that they keep me around.

This logic is flawed.

I am not ugly.

I am not fat.

The mental circuit that taught me those things has been broken and redirected. It took almost four months of talking in circles, but I can finally discern the truth. Yet conquering one circuit does not a recovered addict make. I still think so many backwards things, mostly about how people perceive me visually and sexually, but also in how I perceive others. Over time, I have begun to project my own dysmorphia onto other women and now I can’t tell who’s fat and who's skinny (if either of these conditions actually exists.) It pains me to think hateful things about other women and I consider it to be the greatest tragedy of my disease. Especially in times like these, it is important to lift each other up and I try my best to do so, even when my baser instincts pull me in the other direction.

I am not telling this story so that people will feel sorry for me. If I wanted people to feel sorry for me, I would just admit that I’ve never been to Disney World. I’m telling you this story because, as histrionic as it seems, it’s symbolic of our world as a whole. If we tell ourselves the wrong thing too many times, logic begins to twist and writhe, deformed by the power of will. Truth and logic can blacken, burn, and reconnect to form a very dangerous circuit. It’s almost a commentary on the power of the human brain, a testament to evolution, but I know first hand just how destructive a faulty circuit can be.

3 out of 100 American women suffer from bulimia nervosa. This may not seem like a large number in the grand scheme of things, but to me this statistic is a wake-up call. I think of how many women I’ve met in my lifetime, how many amazing ladies I’ve hugged and spoken with, and then I realize that dozens of them were drowning with smiles on their faces, and I was unknowingly watching them suffer. I know the subject of eating disorders makes people uncomfortable, but it’s time to throw out issue avoidance and come together as a community. After six years of self-mutilation, all it took was one friend to set me free. You could be that friend to someone.

Talking to my therapist is cathartic in a way that purging never was, and I sometimes wish I could travel back in time to that bathroom at Texas Tech and hand myself her business card.

But no amount of wishing can erase six years.

I say this to you: if you are suffering from an eating disorder, even if you can’t imagine stopping, even if it’s become such an indomitable part of your life that you can’t see yourself existing without it, think about time. Think about years. Think about joy.

You deserve time, and years, and joy. You deserve love. You deserve someone who loves you so much that they’ve mapped your freckles in their mind. You deserve to see the world free of restriction, to jump naked into a lake in the middle of the night and to scream at the moon like an animal just because you're alive and you want everyone to hear. You deserve to see your reflection in a store front window and realize that you're more beautiful than the mannequins on display because you can talk and laugh and dance and sing and affect the world around you in a positive way.

I deserve these things too. And do you know why?

Because despite my bulimia, despite my insecurities, and despite my struggles, I am a badass bitch.

And I deserve time.

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