What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I threw up last night.
In fact, I have a hangover today, not much different from the kind I used to have when I was drinking, except I haven't had a drop of alcohol in almost 3 years. No, today I have an emotional hangover, which is what you get when you act out any ol' way that affects your mood -- getting you high before dropping you back down.
I have the feeling that I was out of control last night, except instead of getting loud and wobbly on some bar stool, I was steadily and quietly consuming 6 donuts, 8 chicken wings, most of a large bag of Doritos and half an ice cream cake over the course of the day before bending over the toilet and regurgitating as much of it as possible.
The vomiting is not new, but it is rare these days. Six months or a year might go by between incidents now, although there were periods of my life when I was making myself puke often enough that my eyes grew puffy and swollen and dotted red with busted blood vessels underneath. I looked older than I do now, although I was 19 or 20.
Then I found cocaine and no longer had anything in my stomach to throw up, unless you count copious amounts of booze, which I never seemed to include in my meticulous calorie counts.
In the first days of sobriety, when the drinking weight was falling off despite the intense sugar cravings that had me eating Oreos for breakfast, I bought a digital scale and installed it in the spare bedroom. My journal entries for the first 30 days or so of my sobriety include my day count and current weight, one moving up, one moving down.
My excitement about my effortlessly slimming figure helped me get through those tumultous days when I was swinging from manic carnival levels of giddy euphoria to hysterical crying over something like a lack of Diet Coke.
But eventually that old mean-bitch voice from adolescence roused from her intoxicated lethargy and began hurling her hyperbolic insults my way.
You’re disgusting, you’re the fattest girl in the world, people can hardly stand to look at you, she hissed ceaselessly.
Some days I truly felt that I was difficult for people to look at, that I was a monster barely passing for human through some combination of smoke, mirror, and Southern beauty queen levels of makeup. I related to some appearance-dysmorphic women I’d once seen on a daytime talk show who wept upon seeing themselves in the mirror and refused to leave the house. On the streets, I felt exposed and panicky, skirting along with my head down, keeping close to walls and avoiding eye contact with those I was subjecting to my appearance.
That's when I started vomiting, or I guess resumed it. I’d lost a lot of weight in a healthy way, but I’d also been making myself throw up on and off since I was 12 or 13 years old. Somehow, perhaps because of its sporadic nature, it had truly never registered as an issue in my brain.
Every year when I got my teeth cleaned, the dental hygienist would close the door, lower her voice and earnestly ask me if I was bulimic because of the prematurely worn-away enamel of my teeth. Every year I’d sincerely tell her I wasn’t and wonder why she didn’t write this shit down somewhere so we could stop having this awkward conversation.
It didn’t occur to me that I was bulimic -- because I didn’t make myself puke every day, or indulge in the kinds of binging I’d always thought was a prerequisite for purging. No, I’d eat normally, or just a little too much, the way anyone might at a nice dinner out. But instead of pushing myself back from the table groaning and making jokes about rolling myself home, I’d excuse myself to the bathroom, stick my finger down my throat, and quietly throw up as much of my nice dinner as possible before I’d even paid the bill.
With the absence of alcohol to melt my social anxiety, my puking problem got much worse. I threw up in the bathrooms of a lot of very nice places -- I daubed flecks of vomit off my face and out of my hair with cloth, not paper, napkins and got on-my-knees intimate with some beautiful marble floors.
Some people cry at weddings -- I almost always threw up. Since they tend to have long lines for small bathrooms, I more than once drew the attention of some well-intentioned person wanting to know if I was OK. I let them think I’d had too much to drink as they brought me glasses of water with furrowed, concerned brows.
In the past few years, researchers have started to realize the existence of people like me and have classified us as having “purging disorder.” They think there might actually be something wrong with our hunger signals – that where most people feel satisfied, we feel disgustingly full.
I can relate to that -- once I got the idea to purge, I’d become hyper-aware of the food settling in my stomach, like a churning, enzyme-y brick of self-hatred.
I'd try to resist, sure, to sit on the couch and remind myself that it was in my best interests to quietly digest my mistake and move on, but that eminently more compelling voice in my head would say Why get fat when you can so easily reverse the process?
The softer and more easily expelled the food, the more reasonable this voice sounds. Ice cream, for example, should be purged almost without exception, it comes up so easily.
Making yourself throw up sounds unpleasant, but it’s less like being ill than puking after you’ve had too much to drink . Just the pure, perfect relief of expelling something poisonous from your stomach.
On the outside I looked the same, but I felt hollowed out afterward, psychologically flat-stomached.
I don’t remember the first time I got caught doing it, but I dated one guy who became an unrivaled sleuth about it. I learned to flush the toilet twice afterward, because he would notice any floating speck of undigested food and confront me.
“Did you throw up?” he’d yell from the tiny bathroom with its half-length tub.
“No,” I’d lie instinctually.
“Then why does it look like you threw up?”
“I don’t know.”
He’d meet my eyes in a brief challenge, but I’d steel my jaw and he’d back off. I guess when your girlfriend does as much fucked up shit as I was doing at the time, you have to choose your battles.
The thing is that all my self-desctructive behaviors were and still are part of one many-headed hyrdra bent on killing me. Slowly over the years I have managed to lop off a few heads, but it's not a clean sweep -- more like sawing slowly through bone and resistant strings of cartilage with a dull, rusted blade.
Even on nights like last night, as I splash water on my face while meeting my red, bloodshot eyes in the bathroom mirror, I know I'll eventually defeat the beast. It just might take awhile.