Talking about bulimia
Taking a walk outside would occasionally work to calm her down a little, but usually it was already too late. She’d reached such a high level of stress that her food obsession took over.
Liset Schuitert, master student of talent development and creativity, managed to keep her struggles with bulimia a secret for years. For years, she battled her performance anxiety, fear of failure, and her emotions on her own.
‘It started out innocently enough’, says Liset. She was eighteen and felt that she could stand to lose a few pounds. She watched her food intake and workouts and watched how the number on the scales went down. All perfectly textbook.
‘But the problems started when I saw the weight go down on the scales but didn’t see that reflected in the mirror. The way I saw myself didn’t change.’
I just felt that pressure to perform, to get the best grades. Failure was not an option.
Eating less turned into eating only healthy food. ‘I wasn’t allowed to eat any bad foods’, she says. Birthday cake? She’d pass. Going to McDonald’s with her friends? No thank you. ‘Except I did want to, so I would end up eating in secret.’
She’d compensate her secret binges by throwing up or by working out a lot. ‘It helped me feel at ease and deal with my emotions.’
What these emotions were and what they were trying to tell her, Liset didn’t quite know at first. ‘I just felt that pressure to perform, to get the best grades. To be perfect in every way. Failure wasn’t an option.’ The thought alone frightened her to the point where she felt a deep sense of shame.
It also didn’t help that her parents mainly taught her about the importance of doing well academically. ‘We never really talked about our emotions.’
In the meantime, she only became more stressed and insecure. During her psychology bachelor, she would study all day, all in an effort to be perfect.
On the weekends, she’d stay with her parents. She had a job in the town where they lived, as well as a boyfriend. ‘Some of my friends were still living there as well, but I didn’t have enough time to see them. I had a hard time with social events, because I was always wondering what kind of food there’d be. I wanted to control everything.’
Food isn’t the problem, it’s that voice in the back of your head
She managed to keep up a picture perfect of herself for a long time. She was doing well in university and spent a lot of time in the gym. It’s something many students strive for. In the meantime, however, she kept getting bogged down in obsessive thinking.
‘In an eating disorder, food isn’t the problem’, says Liset. ‘The problem is that voice in the back of your head. You just get stuck and it becomes all you know. It’s easy to let go.’
She spent two years living like this, shouldering the burden of the secret all on her own. She was afraid to talk about it. ‘I was doing well, got my bachelor’s degree in three years. Suddenly admitting I had a problem would feel like failure’, she says. As though it would mean she wasn’t perfect after all.
‘Some people would point out that I wasn’t doing well, but I was too stubborn to listen to them. I wanted to stay in control. I thought I was doing fine.’
She managed to keep it up until she was twenty-one, when she realised how alone she was. She was always wearing a mask, and no one actually knew how she was really feeling.
‘I remember scouring the university website for initiatives, organisations, any place I could go. Somewhere I could take off my mask and talk about what was bothering me.’
When her search didn’t yield any results, she turned to her study adviser. ‘They sent me to a psychologist at the student service centre, but I didn’t feel that click. I felt misunderstood and like I wasn’t welcome. I remember one session where they rationalised and failed to acknowledge all my problems. That’s not what I was looking for.’
She lost courage and she gave up for a while. ‘I contacted them again later, but the waiting list was so long. I gave up trying to get anywhere through the university. It cost me so much energy that I needed for other things.’
I was so vulnerable and it took courage to try and find help. They should have listened to me
Liset felt lonely and misunderstood. Looking back, she blames the university for sending her from pillar to post. ‘I was so vulnerable and it took courage to try and find help. Someone should have listened to me, regardless of how serious the situation was or wasn’t.’
Need to achieve
A few weeks after getting nowhere with the university, she contacted her GP’s primary care assistant. ‘They referred me to a psychologist as well as a coach so I could try to get my life back on track.
This turned out to be the beginning of her healing process. ‘They gave me the tools I needed to conquer my need to achieve and my fear of failure’, she says.
She didn’t tell anyone that she’d sought out help. ‘I did it when I wasn’t studying and I didn’t want to bother anybody with it’, she says. It wasn’t until her secret started to feel like a burden to herself that she shared her story.
‘I wrote my parents a letter six months ago. That felt like the best way for me, because I know they’re not good at emotional conversations. It would give them time to think without having to react right away.’
The letter shocked her parents. ‘They felt like they’d failed, because they hadn’t realised anything was wrong. That really hurt and I wasn’t my intention, but I wanted them to know what was going on.’
Some of her friends were also shocked when she told them, Liset says, ‘but for others, all the pieces of the puzzle finally came together. Why I was always trying to be safe with my food, why I lived in my own world so much, why I was so quiet or cancelled things last minute.’
Even though she was going through a hard time, Liset was actually feeling pretty good. ‘Before I sent that letter to my parents, I was already coaching others’, she says happily. She is currently trying to set up a coaching company as she finishes her master. ‘I love talking to people, asking them what’s going on with them, what they’re struggling with and what their goals are.’
She is definitely still ambitious, but she’s learned to pace herself. ‘I make sure to consciously enjoy the things I do, which I definitely didn’t do before. I’ve also learned to recognise when I’m doing too much and put on the brakes. That’s made a big difference.
She’s much less anxious and restless, she talks to her friends, meditates, draws, and reads a lot. She still works out, but only for fun, not to lose weight. ‘I started powerlifting, and it’s been amazing’, she says happily. She still takes walks, but only for relaxation. ‘Getting rid of that obsessive voice has opened up a world of possibilities.’