By Kristine Reynaldo
What I remember most from the day I turned 21 is a toilet bowl. Matte pink porcelain, pretty and pristine, just scrubbed. Hunched over it, I gazed at the silhouette my head made against the fluorescent, reflected in the toilet bowl water, the movements of my index finger tickling the back of my throat barely noticeable inside the shadow. I retched and retched, teeth scraping skin, saliva sliding down my wrist, as my cellphone played songs by Adele, her rich, throaty voice drowning out the sound of my retching. As I heaved and watched brown-grey blobs muck up the toilet’s mouth, scattering my reflection, I thought of the color of vomit, the sound it made dripping on the ceramic rim. Spewing from my gullet and out through my lips, it still had the taste of strawberries and blueberry merlot, and smelled like rain and rat piss evaporating on concrete.
I’d made plans for my birthday: I’d wake up before dawn, practice yoga, have a bowl of oatmeal and dried fruit for breakfast, a cup of Earl Grey tea. Take a long walk in the tree-lined avenues of my alma mater before going to work. I’d expected light rain on the commute home, thought I’d muse inside the FX while gazing out the window, listening to music. I’d have dinner with my family, then snuggle with my sisters on the couch to watch a Hayao Miyazaki film before finally going to bed.
What actually happened: Late rising, hurried breakfast. Eight-hour workday, insane traffic. Sweltering night. Busted aircon, busted earphones, inane conversation by fellow riders. Dinner was late, and everyone was so tired, we spent the meal in atypical quiet.
After my parents and siblings had gone to sleep, I took a bottle of merlot from the bar, placed a bowl of strawberries and a loaf of bread on the kitchen table, and consumed everything while drinking wine straight from the bottle. Then I decided to clear our refrigerator of leftovers: a slice of sponge cake from a colleague’s despedida, French fries and a burger one of my sisters had bought for our brother, whole-wheat cereal and a quarter-full carton of skimmed milk, a stick of bananacue, a half-eaten bar of chocolate, three-day-old pan de sal, and a tin of herb cream cheese. I wolfed down everything in twenty minutes and locked myself in the bathroom, vomited until there was nothing to throw up but stomach acid, brushed my teeth, showered. In an hour, I emerged from the bath, cleansed and fragrant, went to bed, and slept a deep, dreamless sleep.
The onset of bulimia, when not blamed on extreme or chronic dieting because of vanity or poor self-esteem, is commonly charged to familiar disorders: depression, anxiety, borderline personality. It is sometimes linked to dysmorphophobia, a term that derives from the Greek dysmorphia —denoting ugliness, deformity — and phobia — horror, aversion, irrational fear; the modern term for it is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), and it is classified by the DSM-5 in the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. Bulimics tend to be perfectionists: their high expectations of themselves lead them to adopt rigid standards, rules, and routines, and when they slip or fail to uphold their idea of who they are or ought to be — an idea necessarily conditioned by the demands of the society they live in — their composure caves in from the weight of their self-disappointment. What eases this pressure, this internal turmoil is a sense of a fresh start, a palpable proof that they can regain control, if not of their world or their circumstances, then of their bodies, themselves.
In Unspeakable Things (2014), feminist activist and journalist Laurie Penny writes, “Eating disorders and other forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying — now look what you made us do.”
When people ask me how I came to stop eating meat, whether it’s for religious, ethical, or health reasons, I shrug and say, one day I just felt like not eating it anymore. The truer answer is that I stopped eating meat just to prove to myself that I could. It’s the same reason why I twice jumped off cliffs into the sea without knowing how to swim, why I took walks in dark alleys and the streets of red-light districts by myself after midnight, why, in addition to a full-time job that sometimes had me working 50 hours a week, I enrolled in grad school and joined a sports club with a rigorous four-month application process, all at the same time. To prove that I could do it, and do it well, and be okay. I ran or lifted weights or practiced yoga for at least an hour every day, often stayed in the office until past 10 PM, slept for three to four hours on weeknights, subsisted on salad and coffee, mostly.
And mostly, I was not okay. Often, I felt like crying. But because crying left noticeable traces, and I had to face people all day, I induced myself to vomit during bathroom breaks instead. When I ate something other than salad or soup or a vegetable sandwich, I felt disgusted with myself, felt like puking. When I had a migraine or couldn’t sleep or wanted to sleep but couldn’t because I had to finish some work, I threw up. When I was sad or pissed or anxious, I threw up. I felt guilty and ashamed of myself, of course, because so many people didn’t have enough to dull their hunger, and there I was, throwing up breakfast, lunch, merienda, and dinner — and because I felt guilty and ashamed, I binged to purge again. At some point I was puking five or six times a day. At some point, I was stuffing myself just so I had something to vomit. I came to seek relief from the stresses of everyday life and my dissatisfaction with myself in purging — in reenacting the body’s response to poison, in the resulting sense of temporary emptiness, in the thought that formless sorrows, with grey-brown barf and bile, can be flushed down the drain. The closest I got to the euphoria I felt after throwing up was getting a shot of Benadryl in the emergency room upon breaking out in hives after running seven kilometers one evening during a thunderstorm.
This went on for years, not always so intensely. There were times when I didn’t feel like puking for weeks. But I often fell into depressive episodes that lasted months, and vomiting was my medication. I didn’t go to see a doctor. I felt like I could handle my senseless sadness myself.
As time went on, it became clear to me that I couldn’t handle it myself, yet it was difficult for me to open up about my mental health problems with other people. Most everyone wouldn’t have suspected it anyway, because not only was I the type to keep my troubles to myself, I also made sure to seem like I had my shit together. I put on makeup, I showed up at work, I met my deadlines, I did my job well. Even if I had to spend a whole day crying, I left no dishes piled in the sink unwashed, no floors gathering mess and dust, no important emails unanswered.
Living on my own made it easy for me to conceal my condition. Even so, my family knew. They sometimes heard me hurling in the bathroom when I came to visit, even if I played music to hide the sound of my retching. I confided in some of my friends. They were sympathetic, and wanted to help. They couldn’t help me. I needed to help myself, I thought, to decide, once and for all, that I had to stop. I couldn’t.
This could have gone on for several more years. But then, after days of enduring a head-splitting toothache, I went to the dentist and lost a molar. And then another, just a few months after that. I couldn’t explain my perennial sore throat, or the teeth marks on my knuckles. I worried about getting GERD. I worried about losing my voice. One night I vomited in bed while asleep.
So I went to see a psychologist. I told her I was bulimic, and that I was also very likely depressed. I told her the probable reasons why. She told me, You’re a smart girl, you know what you have to do.
Of course I knew what I had to do. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t know, but that I couldn’t do it. I never went to counseling again.
I wish I could tell you how I was able to deal with depression, if not through a measure of good sense and willpower, then by getting help—seeing a different psychologist, undergoing therapy, sleeping more, doing less, reaching out to friends and family for emotional support. But I didn’t do these things. I thought then that I was sparing other people the burden of my being. I think now that I was too self-centered to see that I didn’t have to bear myself alone.
In the end, it was my body, not my will or my “intelligence,” that saved me. I was lucky.
I remember it well: I had just turned 25, and I was crying for hours every day for the past nine months. But I had a new job and a flexible work schedule, and made it so that I could lock myself up in my room or in the office I had to myself, and not see anyone. By then, I had a better time managing bulimia, because instead of puking, I just allowed myself to cry.
That year, during term break, I took a ten-day solo trip, thinking to myself, if I’m still depressed when I get back, then I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I returned from the trip still depressed, and suffering from a serious bout of diarrhea. For eight days, I ate only yoghurt and bananas, drank warm water with lemon juice and honey, flower tea, or Gatorade, and stayed mostly at home, or anywhere with ready access to a clean toilet. On the ninth day, I woke up and found myself neither depressed nor diarrheic.
That was three years ago. I haven’t been depressed since. Each day that I wake up not wanting to die, I offer a prayer of thanks to the universe and remember to remember what well-being feels like. I remember that I can only be well because I’ve reached a level of material comfort, that not everyone is so privileged, that that has to change, and that I need to be well so I can work towards changing what needs changing. I remember that there is an end to everything, including happiness and pain. I remember to be kind, to others and to myself, and to take care of this body that I’ve put through so much abuse, this body that has endured my various excesses.
Once in a while, I still feel like making myself retch, but when I do, I pause to consider whether I wouldn’t feel better crying instead, or talking to a friend, or taking deep breaths, a short nap, or a long walk. I almost always just take a walk.
You may reach Tine at https://metamnemosyne.wordpress.com/ or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thumbnail photo by Kristine Reynaldo
Note from Jean: Today, it is my honor to share an essay my good friend (and birthday girl) Tine Reynaldo wrote about her experience with bulimia, depression and the kinds of pressure we put ourselves under in our pursuit of excellence. Tine is one of the most thoughtful, selfless and sobering presences in my life, and continues to be an excellent friend no matter where she is in the world. I hope her story allows you to reflect on how you treat your body and mind, and how we can be kinder to ourselves.
If you want to share experiences the Growing Up MNL community can learn and grow from, please don’t hesitate to reach out via email@example.com.