04 April 2010

Excuse me while I vomit


People with eating disorders make dreadful dining companions. 

'Well that's stating the obvious', you're thinking.
But have you actually done it, and done it regularly? I have.

There's a strong vein of Bulimia that runs through my maternal bloodline so you can take it from me that it's awful to sit across a table from someone afflicted with this kind of mental disorder, and the torment that they suffer. They love food but their distorted self image means they torture themselves as a result of it.

I do think people with eating disorders truly love food. Yes, I do. But their need for control is greater and that is often manifested by purging and denial. It breaks my heart to see it.

I myself, push back on Bulimia every day. I know that genetically I have it within me to succumb to Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but I resist the nasty urge. Sometimes I catch myself looking at others and seeing a distorted image of them, then slap myself mentally and step back from my thoughts. But it's when I see myself that I most often feel revulsion. I then remind myself that I have a hormonal dysfunction that unless I go back on a course of synthetic hormones, will continue to keep me larger than average.

Of course there was a time when I let Body Dysmorphic Syndrome get the better of me. When instead of purging, I hit the extreme exercise trail. I exercised eighteen hours a week, existing on commercial 'diet meals' - about a third of the average meal. I said to people that I exercised a lot because I love to eat. But when I dined out on normal food, my gut reacted by having diahorrea. I thought at the time that I must have had IBS. But I was abusing my body and it was simply showing signs of the stress I was inflicting on it.

For me, the dysfunctional feelings well up from never ever having felt attractive, of always finding my image hideous in photos or reflected in a mirror. I have always felt overweight, even when I have been slim, even as a child of normal weight. 

But now, I refuse to collect my legacy of starving or purging. In stablising myself, I referred to a childhood weighted with Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist values. I asserted that as an intelligent person I did have the power to overcome this compulsion. Now my repugnance for food wastage has far greater emphasis than my potential for self abuse.

I've watched bone thin Bulimics at mealtimes scrutinize their dining companions with a critical eye while they eat, and that their need for control sees them order the biggest, fattiest meals, to then eat only a tablespoon of it. Being of normal appetite, I've been called a fat, lazy pig by the Bulimics in my family. I've watched their mood swings and the crankiness caused by a body that's physically stressed and felt the knife edge of their vicious taunts.

When you starve yourself, the body craves sugar. The Bulimic's overwhelming instinctive desire to eat sugary foods is caused by the body trying to find a way to survive when starved of proper sustenance. In my family it turned the Bulimics into sugar pushers. Thankfully I don't have a sweet tooth and couldn't be tempted in order to allay their guilt.

After many years of observation, my skin crawls when I see the tell-tale signs as they dart off to the toilet to purge between courses and after the meal. But because I really hate wasting decent food, most of all I despise their ploy of mashing their meal on the plate, not eating it, while others are actually chewing and swallowing. 

The wheezing and coughing that bulimics blame on asthma now rings hollow to me. I know that in fact they have puked so much that the hydrochloric acid has risen out of their gastrointestinal tract, causing reflux that burns their oesophagus and makes them cough. With that is the tell tale halitosis. I liken it to the smell of death on someone's breath.  

Osteoporosis and stress fractures aren't uncommon too. Frequent viral infections come from a weakened immune system that may be contributed to by their obsessive need to exercise, and just another part of the syndrome. In the Chinese culture it is common for women to abuse laxative based herbal teas. 

I've known Body Dysmorphics who have turned to alcohol in lieu of food too. Naturally that comes with yet another set of problems. My Nana smoked a cigarette whenever she wanted to eat. Now in my middle age, having survived so many, when I look in the eyes of a Bulimic I see a heart attack or total organ failure waiting to happen, because in some ways, to punish yourself and to inflict this severe form of self control is to have a death wish.

I've also witnessed bulimic men and women starve their families and keep them exercising at a clipping pace, sending out spiteful barbs that damage their kids' self image. I've seen middle class Australian families with access to good food, diagnosed as being malnourished and have felt overwrought for them. I've seen children terrified of enjoying food in case their Body Dysmorphic parent puts them down for being fat.

And now thanks to reality TV in the USA, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is now also widely recognised. I have no doubt that the roots of BED are the same as Bulimia, it just comes without the purging. Sufferers need help to heal psychologically in order to move past the disorder. While I feel that there is a genetic predisposition to Body Dysmorphic Syndrome, it is circumstance, role models and potentially the media that contribute to the psychological influences that unleash the behaviour in a person.

As society becomes increasingly sophisticated in terms of technology, science is moving forwards towards the creation of a super race, where thanks to DNA testing and stem cell technology, people of wealth may well live into eternity. 

However, whilst science concentrates on bio mechanics, the science of the mind is considered less worthy of funding and research. Meanwhile cases of mental illness and depression are rising significantly. Will it be that natural selection in the future will evolve out of a class of people considered the most financially disadvantaged, coupled with a predisposition to mental illness?

It is a common assumption that many creative people have been raised in significantly dysfunctional families, that their urge to escape childhood distress drives the imagination, even as adults. In my observation of food bloggers, a number of us have emerged from these situations to vent and assert ourselves through food and through writing. 

When the question of 'Why we blog?' was raised as a topic recently at the Australian Food Bloggers Conference - EatDrinkBlog - passion was cited liberally as the driving force. We did not delve deeper however, for example, where does this passion for food come from?

My passion came from a childhood where solace from my bizarre life was sought in kitchens, whether in my own home or in those of the family friends who fostered me. The other source of this passion was via the observation of the theatre played out in restaurants. I'm aware that the need to nurture and feed others is strong in me because this, as a child, is where I claimed love by proxy.

My ability to write came from immersing myself in books, by fleeing the darkest corners of my life via my imagination. Fantasy worlds were a great escape, especially as a teenager in the lonely time after discovering the attempted suicide of one of my parents. The craft of wielding evocative words was spellbinding to me and held me close in a moment where I could not publicly breathe my sorrow. 

Food and words flow easily into blogging. Recipes surface in my mind to console and reward. I fight the urge to purge and to instead share and enjoy the bounty that we in Australia are fortunate to take for granted.

If you suffer Body Dysmorphic Syndrome, please don't be afraid to talk to a Psychologist about it. There are numerous resources from forums to groups run by former sufferers to help you to turn it around. It's better to move on than to damage yourself further and hurt others around you. My wish is that we break the cycle in order to avoid spreading this painful legacy.


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