When I was trying to keep my bulimia a secret, I would have hated it if my friends, roommates, or family read a post like this. It would have totally exposed me. So, a part of me didn’t want to write this post. But sometimes, the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do.
This post wasn’t easy for me to write for another reason. It was a confession of sorts, because I’ve done every last one of these things. It required me to face stuff that I’m really quite ashamed about…things I would like to block out from my memory.
But with more and more young people suffering from eating disorders, I can’t keep quiet. I want parents, teachers, and friends to know some of the warning signs, as told by someone who battled bulimia. Maybe you can help someone before it’s too late.
18 Warning Signs that Someone You Care About Might be Bulimic
1) Swollen cheeks – My face never looked thin, even when I was at my thinnest, because my cheeks were always swollen from purging.
2) Red, scraped knuckles, or calloused knuckles – My scars are fading, but my knuckles were almost always red, swollen and calloused from sticking my fingers down my throat. It’s a tell-tale sign of purging.
3) Food goes missing – A lot of binging is done in secrecy and isn’t planned. Shamefully, I used to take my roommates’ food (I’m sorry, I really am). I didn’t mean to. I didn’t do it to spite them. I didn’t do it because I was a bad person. I had no control over myself during these episodes. If you live with someone and notice that your food is going missing, this could be a warning sign.
4) Disappearing after meals – Lots of people go to the bathroom after a meal, but they do for a normal amount of time. If someone you know leaves the table for long periods of time, take note. Here’s a confession: I used to take long showers right after I ate to try to cover the sound of purging.
5) Clogged drains – Not all purging is done into the toilet. If sinks are clogging, or shower drains are clogging, this could be from purging.
6) Bathroom smells like puke – Even with the fan on, and after multiple flushes, it’s hard to get rid of the smell. The bathroom might also smell strongly of air freshener, hand soap, shampoo, or even toothpaste – trust me, I’ve tried it all to cover up the smell. The person might also try to dissuade you from using the washroom for a while.
7) Hands smell like puke – Pretty self-explanatory. It’s hard to wash the smell away.
8) Everything smells like puke – If you’re doing laundry, for example, and you notice the smell, it might be exactly what you think it is.
9) Multiple toilet flushes in a row – Most people don’t flush the toilet 2, 3, 4 times in one trip to the bathroom. Sometimes I would flush many times during a purge to try to keep the smell at bay.
10) Calorie counting – I used to count calories in my daily planner, on my blog, and in the margins of my notebooks at school. There would always be a simple equation accompanying the numbers: calories in – calories out. Look out for this.
11) Dangerous/Safe food lists – The person might be very vocal about this, or they may not be. You can pick up on patterns by observing what they eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner could all be the same thing – if the person wasn’t always a really picky eater, it could be because those foods are “safe”, meaning they don’t trigger a binge/purge. Some people will get visibly upset if they’re being forced (or feel like they’re being forced) to eat something that is not on their safe list.
12) Large quantities of the same food are eaten all at once – After a while, I discovered what foods were easier to purge. Ice cream, for example, doesn’t cut your throat like cereal or nuts do, so I would buy it when I was planning a binge/purge session. I would eat 4-6 litres of it in one go. Sometimes I would eat half a jar (or more) of peanut butter, or 2-3 pounds of grapes. Eating this much of those things is not normal behaviour.
13) A healthy eater buys a load of junk food – It could be because they’re gearing up for a planned binge/purge. You likely won’t be around when this happens, but you might find a lot of packages in the garbage or recycling.
14) Obsessive exercising – I did this as well. It’s purging through exercise. The person will count the calories they eat, and then burn that amount (or more) through running, the elliptical, or something else. You might notice them exercising at weird times of the day or night. They will probably get upset if they miss a day.
15) They become withdrawn, isolated – When you’re bulimic, you stop wanting to go out with friends. You don’t want to go to restaurants, or to someone’s house for dinner. You don’t want to do anything really and you become withdrawn and isolated. I would sit in my room day after day and only come out when necessary, or when nobody was home.
16) Eye contact diminishes – I was full of guilt and shame and found it hard to make eye contact with people. I stopped looking people in the eye because of it, and also because I lied a lot. The biggest lie, perhaps, was, “I’m fine.”
17) Body contact diminishes – If you’re in a relationship and your partner used to be affectionate but won’t let you touch them anymore, this could be a warning sign. Basically, I felt like a disgusting, repulsive thing when I was bulimic and I didn’t want anyone to touch me. Ever. For any reason.
18) Eyes are bloodshot or swollen – When I would purge, I would sometimes break blood vessels in my eyes. They would go all red and sometimes swell.
Like most diseases, some of these warning signs could be completely normal. But if you suspect that someone you know or love might be bulimic, it’s best to talk to experts about the best ways to help the person. Please know that there is help available – and that they can get better with the right support.
About Cynthia Alana
Cynthia has battled bulimia (and won), faced depression, and lived with anxiety throughout it all. After realizing she wanted to be a force of good in the world, she tried recovery for 6 months. It’s been years. Travel is her passion, and so is her job: writing for charities. You can follow Cynthia’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, and additionally, you can connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.