While the grown ups got on with their crackers and cherry brandy, I shut the bedroom door, turned on the face-flattering orange light, pulled my hair down and swayed to the music in front of the mirror; a Seventies dream in turquoise tank-top and red bell-bottoms with elasticated waist. "And they called it Puppy Love," sang Donny mellifluously, curling his American way around the vowels. "Oh I guess they'll never know/How the young hearts really feel/And why I love a sow." I frowned at this last word. He pronounced it to rhyme with "ow". But that meant female pig? Repeated listenings with Nicola left me no less baffled. In the end, I shrugged it off, as one has to in love. Years later, it dawned on me that he was singing not "a sow" but "her so".
I was just 13 when I first threw up. Somehow, my childhood had vanished. The winds rushed cold on the long cycle ride to my new grammar school. Punk rock arrived and with it Johnny Rotten, who said "fuck" in a television interview. Nicola's father got a job in the Midlands - a million miles away - and her family moved. My nanny, in the house since the day I was born, left. My beloved brother dropped out of university. He became argumentative, so unlike him: we did not know that he was slowly breaking down. He and my father brandished kitchen knives and threatened to murder each other. My brother wandered about the town. He preached the gospel by the fountain there, and as fast as he lost weight - wild-eyed, unable to get it together to eat - I put it on, going from supple, skinny child to lumpy adolescent. As my brother's madness began to take hold, my parents broadcasted a message that mental illness brought shame: "Don't say that! The neighbours will hear!" That specific shame ramified through my pubescent self, rippling into all the tributaries of my psyche. I crept around in it.
Most of all, I was horrified by the weight I had put on. Unequipped to cope, I blanked out everything else. Alone in my bedroom, I cried over my new body and hated my weird, battling family. If only I could go back, be a child again. If only my brother would go away. To comfort myself I ate more. The weight piled on. Then one day, a girl at school let me in on a secret: a bottle of water would help me bring up the few biscuits too many. The knowledge was followed by an evening attempt at it in the woods. I kicked the brown leaves over my sick, amazed at how easy it had been. Of course, I did not know it, but that night a personality-damaging, life-diminishing notion was born: in eating what I wanted and getting away with it, I learned there was a world in which there were no consequences to actions.
After a shaky start, I made myself sick, on average, seven times a day for the next five years. Silently, easily, the food came up. No sticking of fingers down the throat for me: my body quickly absorbed the lesson of what to do with food. My illness rapidly moved from part-time recreation to full-time addiction. Food became the only outlet for passion and despair. I graduated to stealing from the local supermarket and, alone in the country lanes, gobbled down whole treacle tarts, lumps of cheese, butter and bread, washing it down with cans of coca cola. Then, up it would all come again - I liked tasting it for a second time - stinging into my teeth, burning away the enamel, so that tiny holes appeared and my once perfect smile became dirty and stained. "Do you suck at a lot of lollipops?" the dentist asked helplessly on each visit.
People who make themselves sick do not necessarily grow thin: in fact, they often remain slightly overweight. Some food always sticks in the stomach as the body learns that it must digest fats and sugars promptly to survive. What begins as a slimming solution soon emerges as addictive and displaced - a violence against the self. It is the act of throwing up that itself becomes the necessity. What is it, really, that is being got rid of? Anger, distress, approaching adulthood? Mistresses of secrecy and deceit, we knew how to disguise it. Only my sickly pallor and my teeth gave me away. But my brother, seriously ill, was in and out of hospital, and my younger sister was making her own protest, turning into a small- town skinhead and on-off runaway. My problem got hidden in the midst of them, camouflaged by the circumstances of a family falling apart.
I had begun grammar school in the top sets for many subjects; before long I was in the bottom. At home we had become virtual strangers, my parents' time taken up with trying to hold down jobs while coping with my brother. At school I was thought of as idle and naughty - which I was - but no-one tried to investigate why. In my diary I wrote a number at the top of each page; it was how many times a day I had been sick. On good days it could be as low as two or three, but on bad days, when I was particularly unhappy - after a visit to my brother, say - it went up to 12 or 13.
At 16, having failed to achieve the O-levels required to stay on for the sixth form, I went to the college in the next town. Although I was fearful of the change, the prospect of a new place of study awakened old dreams. I would work hard, do well, make up for lost time and get to university. It was not to be. Food still dominated, distress was still inside. I tried to conquer it, but my metabolism was now so slow my body could barely digest anything. My stomach billowed out and I gave up, preferring to carry the secret of my illness than to be fat. Every day, I threw up my feelings, but each morning they returned. I didn't know what to do, how to save myself. My oesophagus, instead of pushing down, pushed upwards, so that when I tried to keep down my food it involuntarily brought it up. If I held onto even a small amount of supper, the next morning my stomach would be swollen. It was as if my digestive system was shutting down.
I got by at college. Towards the end, my illness showed signs of waning. Perhaps the few sexual relationships I had helped - there was nothing like a lover to bring a bit of temporary self-confidence. For a term or so, I even allowed myself to put on some weight. Then, gradually, as I pulled away from home relationships, I viewed food a little more dispassionately. On the course, I was not disciplined enough to succeed: I left with two low-grade A-levels and no entrance to university. A few months before the end, my family moved, which meant I had to get up very early to catch the bus to college. My mother got up with me and together we breakfasted in the warm kitchen: outside it was still dark. There, for the first time since late childhood, I ate with no desire to throw up. I had my mother to myself and she was looking after me: that was probably what I had always craved. Also, miraculously, my brother was beginning to come through. His presence and the subsequent calming down of my parents re-ignited a life-force in me that I thought had died.
I left home soon afterwards, moving to London to live with a lover. I felt for him so passionately that, quite honestly, there was not much room for anything else. My illness put up a fight for supremacy, but Clive cherished me. He encouraged me to cherish myself. I desperately did not want to be sick in his flat, I thought it would stain the sweetness of us. And, painstakingly, over the years, came a recovery of sorts. When we went out to dinner, I warmed to the idea of food followed by love and sex; old associations were starting to die.
But, through all this, I never forgot university and how I had wanted to go. In my early twenties, I at last took A-levels at evening classes, determined this time to make it. The following year I started my degree. It was the beginning and the end of everything. The gateway was opened to freedom. The relationship with Clive came to an end but I learned to stand on my own two feet. I formed healthy friendships for the first time in years. I put on weight and did not mind. Soon, I was eating "three square meals" a day. I lost the weight again naturally, without thinking. My body started to settle, to digest, to fill out into what it had been. I walked a lot, ran about a lot, was happy a lot. Weakness and flabbiness were replaced by strength, curves, and a new leanness. I accepted myself. I discovered there was something even better than a boundaries-merging lover - friends.
And now it is 1997 - more than 20 years on from the start of my illness. These days it is thought bulimia nervosa may simply be straightforward anger turned back on itself. Recent studies of young female bulimics have shown that the one over-riding factor they have in common is a severe breakdown of the mother-daughter relationship. But most also have had experience of violence. When I watched, as a terrified 12 year old, my once gentle brother and father chase each other round the garden with knives, something must have got into my soul. I still cannot wholly make sense of how I came through. Perhaps a lot of it was luck. Perhaps I just grew out of it. I have had my teeth seen to and am physically quite robust: the girl of my adolescence is now long gone, rarely thought about.
Coincidental to writing this piece came a picture of Donny in a magazine. I stumbled over it in the summer. I gazed at him. He was unchanged, merely a bigger version of the 14-year-old boy I had loved. Lost for a moment in reveries of the innocent days, I got a friend of mine to tape all the old Osmond songs for me. After an initial, excited playing, they bored me. Half sadly, I put them away; not wanting to go back, not yearning for the past, no longer wishing for things that might have been.Reuse content