July 17, 2024

I was 19 when. I was too ashamed to ask for help

The episodes which depict such scenes are prefaced with a trigger warning, so that those of us who have also struggled with bulimia have a choice whether or not to relive it. We can either go in prepared, or not at all.

The Crown’s Lady Diana Spencer – played by Emma Corrin –is lonely and adrift. Following Charles’s proposal, she has just been moved from her Earl’s Court flat to Buckingham Palace and finds herself suddenly alone within its sprawling rooms, with just the staff and a never-ending army of flowers and letters to keep her company.

She is under pressure to transform into a paragon of royal etiquette. The media are watching her every move. Neither the Queen nor her overseas fiancé, who she barely knows, are returning her calls. She is just 19 years old.

One night, we see her heading down a spiral staircase in her pyjamas to the palace’s immense kitchen. It is dark and there’s no one around. She opens the fridge and begins gorging on trays of elaborate desserts and pastries, before heading to the bathroom and forcing her fingers down her throat to make herself sick.

For most, it feels distressing and shocking to watch. For some, it feels real.

Like Diana, I too was 19 when I first started making myself sick. I’d always struggled with the way I looked and had been fixated on my weight. When I moved to university, with my own room and bathroom, it became a breeding ground for disordered eating; a place where I could binge and purge freely or not eat at all. The independence uni afforded me also enabled me to nurture my deepest, most insidious insecurities.

As with all eating disorders, bulimia is rarely about food itself, but emotional factors affecting an individual’s mental health. This was something Corrin and The Crown’s producers were committed to portraying, as Corrin explained during her recent cover interview with GLAMOUR: “Diana’s relationship with her body is massively dictated by the emotions she’s going through. ”

For me, my first bout of bulimia stemmed from years of childhood insecurity. Then again, in 2018, after a particularly bad break-up when I found myself heartbroken and suddenly living alone; the self-worth that I’d spent the last few years building up instantly derailed.

Likewise for The Crown’s Diana, there isn’t just one emotional trigger. It is not just her loneliness and boredom which provoke her bulimia; but her anger and hurt and self-doubt, which we see during a lunch scene between Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Charles’s ex-girlfriend who – and I’m sure I don’t need to preface this with a spoiler alert –he is still in love with, and she him).

Camilla makes flippant comments about food which unsettle Diana from the get-go – “no need to feel guilty about ordering pud” – and as a result Diana barely touches her food. But as Camilla makes it clear how close she is with Charles in comparison to Diana – “darling, you really know nothing, do you? ” – Diana is reminded how much of a stranger she is in her own relationship. She begins to forcibly devour every last scrap on her plate.

In the next scene, we see Diana draped over the toilet and vomiting, before performing the post-purging rituals so familiar to bulimia sufferers: flushing the toilet, washing her hands, brushing her teeth and washing her face. In later scenes, we also see her spraying air freshener to disguise the smell.

These rituals send a pang of familiarity through my chest just as much as the actual purging. You watch The Crown’s Diana develop these habits more over time; learning to perfect the sequence of it all step by step like a novice dancer practicing her routine, slowly perfecting her skill. As someone who also learnt to perfect the art of the binge-purge cycle, it makes these rituals all the more agonising to watch.

And it is these rituals which allow sufferers to hide their illness from the world. Bulimia is a silent, stealthy thing, often undetected and undiagnosed. In fact, research suggests that less than 40% of people with bulimia nervosa receive help for it.

“Bulimia is such a hidden illness because the symptoms are very difficult to spot,” says Jessica Griffiths, clinical lead at UK eating disorder charity Beat, who personally worked with Netflix on the depiction of Diana’s bulimia in The Crown. “Unlike anorexia, people with bulimia don’t often lose weight –they actually tend to stay a ‘normal weight’ –and there is a huge amount of shame attached to it which prevents people from asking for help. ”

Shame is exactly why I never approached my doctor and kept it a secret from most of my friends and family. I felt like a fraud, and the imposter syndrome was overwhelming; because I never lost a dangerous amount of weight or needed hospitalising with bulimia, I couldn’t possibly have been that ill. Only people with ‘proper’ eating disorders deserved help, right?

“Almost everyone I’ve met with an eating disorder struggles to feel worthy of treatment, but bulimia especially so,” explains Jessica. “When someone is underweight, there is a clear criteria for support and treatment. But with atypical bulimia, not falling below a certain weight threshold often means it’s overlooked. I’ve heard lots of our service users saying: ‘I’ve been told I’m not ill enough for treatment because I’m not underweight’. But early intervention is key, and that’s why it’s so important to highlight that bulimia is just as distressing as any other eating disorder. ”

As Diana herself confessed for Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story: “The bulimia started the week after Charles and I got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome. ”

To think of Diana – or anyone –battling bulimia for an entire decade in secret is utterly heart-wrenching, but it doesn’t surprise me. Because despite being so overlooked, the mindsets that bulimia cultivates are hard to escape, even after recovery. No matter how well I’m doing,even if silent and barely noticeable,it’s always there.

It’s there whenever I look at myself in the mirror and pick my appearance apart – working out the timings of when I last ate and trying to ignore the temptation to make myself sick.

It’s there whenever I get a new dentist, like I did in September. “Why are the edges of your front teeth worn away? Do you eat a lot of sugar? ” – I couldn’t find the words to tell the man with his fingers in my mouth that, actually, it was where the acid in my vomit had gradually eaten away at the enamel.

It’s there whenever I eat a big meal or a takeaway and feel uncomfortably full or guilty –that gnawing voice saying over and over again: “You know you’d feel so much better if you just…”

But I don’t. Yes, there are occasional relapses, but over time – with the help of therapy and my support system –I’ve learnt to look after my mental and physical health. I’ve slowly stopped seeing my body as something to despise and torture, but as something to nourish and support. My body is my lifelong companion, and now I can finally say that I’m proud of everything it’s been through.

Before I watched the new season of The Crown, I’d never felt comfortable writing about my struggle with bulimia. But as we begin to finally give this silent illness the on-screen credit it deserves, so, too, I hope we normalise talking about it off-screen. Because the more we talk about bulimia, the more we break down its stigma and shame – and the more people will, finally, get the help they deserve.

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