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What is Bulimia?

Bulimia is an eating disorder that is written about and spoken about much more now than in previous decades. It was only actually officially recognised in 1979, but is surprisingly common. The name 'Bulimia Nervosa' literally means 'ox like hunger' and refers to the episodes sufferers will have where they binge eat sometimes large quantities of food.

Bulimia has three main stages, which operate in a cycle, which becomes very hard to escape from. Sufferers have a very low self-esteem, and place a lot of importance on their weight and appearance. They generally feel convinced they are very overweight - although in fact most sufferers are at or near normal weight. They resolve therefore to go on a diet, and set themselves very strict rules over what foods they should and should not eat. Typically they will form a list of foods which are 'forbidden' - foods which they feel they should never eat. These generally include all the nice, more indulgent foods, like chocolate, ice cream, cakes, biscuits, cheese etc. The problem is that once they start to deny themselves these foods, they inevitably start to crave them. However, typically they are able to keep this control up for a while and stick to their strict diet. Some people may lose some weight, and at first they may feel wonderful and that they have gained control over their eating.

The second stage in bulimia is when the strict control finally breaks down. This is often inevitable because the sufferer has been restricting their eating too much, or eating a very bland and boring diet. A binge generally starts with them eating something off the 'forbidden' list. Then once they feel they have 'blown it', their eating becomes chaotic, and they may eat a tremendous amount of food, again mostly coming from that 'forbidden' list. Binges tend to get worse over time as bulimia develops, and at first they may be quite small - but some people find this sense of losing control overwhelming, and may even find themselves eating food they would never usually eat - such as food that is not yet cooked, food that doesn't belong to them or even things like dog or cat food. Binges can be spontaneous, but some people also plan them, and go out to buy food specifically to eat on a binge. Whatever the form of the binge, afterwards they are seized by terrible black feelings of regret, self-hatred and fear. The terror of putting on weight is very powerful, combined with a sense of shame for what they have done, and the shock of having lost control and broken the diet they had planned to stick to.

The third stage in bulimia is probably the most important one, and the one that people tend to be most ashamed of. Purging occurs after a binge, when sufferers are overwhelmed by all the feelings that follow the binge and by the fear of gaining weight. They start to use one of various methods that they think stops them from absorbing the food. Some may make themselves sick, or use laxatives or diet pills. Others may exercise excessively, or fast for a few days after each binge. Once a habit of purging starts, binges tend to become worse, or more frequent. This is because the moment when food is swallowed is no longer a 'point of no return'. Therefore purging actually makes the cycles of binging worse rather than helping to gain control.

Bulimia consists of cycles of all three of these stages. After a binge and purge has occurred most sufferers resolve never to lose control like that again - and therefore go back to setting themselves the very strict diet plan. Unfortunately once again they set themselves up for a binge, and the cycle begins again.

Bulimia is a condition that can go on for many years, often without anyone knowing what is happening - even families and friends. This is because the sufferers weight remains at or near normal and outwardly there may be no sign that anything is wrong. Most sufferers have tried several times to stop the binging, but because they tend to set themselves overly strict diets, they are simply starting the cycle again and inevitably fail. This can lead them to feel utterly helpless. Bulimia can also follow on from anorexia. Sufferers are often full of despair, and their own failure to stop by willpower alone may convince them that they cannot recover. However, it is possible to recover from bulimia and break these vicious cycles.

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