How I overcame laxative abuse—the eating disorder we don't talk about enough
For Mental Health Awareness Month, HelloGiggles is publishing “The Support You Deserve,” an essay series exploring the different barriers, stigmas, and myths blocking our access to effective mental health care. This essay discusses disordered eating behaviors. If these subjects trigger you, please read with caution.
The first time I fucked with laxatives was during the fall of freshman year. High school. Arguably the most awkward season of a person’s life. It was definitely mine.
A rainy forecast had forced the following day’s cross country practice indoors…to the swimming pool. When I got the news that I’d need to put on a swimsuit the next day, I was mid-binge and had already consumed thousands of extra calories. I had a vague crush on a fellow runner (funny, I can’t even remember who), and there was no way I was going to let him—or any of my other lithe, lean teammates, for that matter—see my distended belly in a swimsuit. How was I going to remedy my self-sabotage with less than 24-hours notice? I thought to myself. I couldn’t make myself throw-up—I’d never been able to. Still, I needed a quick fix.
Luckily, I had an idea, cribbed from the library of eating disorder books in my grandma’s guest room. She’d accumulated them in her quest to understand anorexia nervosa, the disease that had landed her daughter (now my mom) in the hospital. I binged on their pages every time we went over which, of course, in retrospect, is problematic. Obviously. But my research into eating disorders had begun, innocently enough, at age 11.
Trying to shrink my “regular body” was already a keen interest of mine, even before middle school. I wasn’t a “beanpole” like my best friend and cousin who was born the same month and year. I gobbled up women’s magazines, especially if they had a diet on the cover. But my focus on those books at my grandma’s house wasn’t just about me—my obsession with them doubled as a macabre connection to my mom at my age. I’d only recently learned of her hospitalization for anorexia from my loose-lipped uncle, perhaps an attempt to deflect from issues of his own.
I alternated between perusing the propaganda at my grandma’s house and casually admiring my mother’s present-day discipline and restraint back at home. It wasn’t long before I became committed to the concept of thinness as a form of cleanliness or godliness. Thinness was palatability; the holy grail for womankind. My reading soon morphed into a full-scale, self-absorbed research project aimed at uncovering top-secret, field-tested tips and tricks from the most stringent among us. That’s how I learned about a woman who had abused laxatives to quickly lose weight.
What struck me about the story wasn’t that the stunt had earned her a trip to the emergency room or that she almost died, it was that she had lost weight.
The seed had been planted years ago. So the night before that swimming pool practice, I knew exactly what I was going to do. (Please, don’t ever do this.)
I drove 20 minutes to a Walmart in the next town over, snatched a little blue box of Ex-Lax off the shelf, covertly hid it under the toilettes in my cart, and swiftly rolled it to a checkout counter where I made eye contact with the cashier only long enough to ensure that she was a stranger. I spent the rest of the transaction doing the impossible: simultaneously buying laxatives and trying to act like everything was okay.
Back in my car, I forced myself to eat the whole box even though I struggled to swallow it. It didn’t taste like chocolate; it tasted like punishment.
That night’s restless sleep and gurgling stomach noises were punctuated by diarrhea so explosive that I was late for school in the morning. Instead of having fun splashing around in the pool or showing off in front of my crush, I spent most of that cross country practice in mortal fear that I could turn the pool brown with one wrong move.
I wish this were the end of the story, but my laxative abuse didn’t stop there. It would ebb and flow for the rest of my high school career. I went through some especially dangerous phases. Occasionally, I would stop bingeing for a while and wean myself off the laxatives, but despite my best intentions to stop, it remained a regular part of my life.
A few months ago, I discovered Jessie Kahnweiler’s semi-autobiographical digital series The Skinny, which touts Jill Soloway among its executive producers and premiered at Sundance in 2016. I watched all six episodes in one sitting, and while it seems incredibly trite to binge a show about bulimia, I’d never seen anything like it before. It’s so rare to see an honest depiction of bulimia—especially laxative abuse—in the media.
It was liberating to see one of my most shameful secrets portrayed with such humor and openness. It feels real, which is probably why The Skinny was incredibly well-received and has been a powerful representation for people who’ve struggled with eating disorders. I was so moved that I reached out to the show’s creator and star. Three years after the Sundance premiere, Kahnweiler tells HelloGiggles that she still gets messages every day.
In one particularly vivid episode, Jessie’s character steals laxatives from a drugstore. Later that night she has an accident, defecating on her family’s lawn in front of a group of teenagers who begin chanting “Shit the lawn! Shit the lawn!” It’s the stuff my nightmares are made of. While it might seem exaggerated for comedic effect, as someone who has lived through similarly mortifying moments of my own, I found that scene eerily accurate.
“Part of the recovery process is being able to laugh,” Kahnweiler says, “I had so many of those moments. That’s why it was so cathartic to make the show because I was able to put the most vulnerable parts of myself out there after having gone through recovery. And to be able to connect with people in this way, where you’re like—there’s nothing I could say or do now, I can’t really be ashamed of anything because every time I put shit out there, literal shit, people are like, ‘Oh my god, me too!’ Everyone’s had a shit the lawn moment.”
Lord knows I’ve had a few. There was another cross country practice where I had to bail in the middle of a fartlek exercise (no joke) and literally pooped my shorts as I was running home to relieve myself. Plus, there was an even more public (aka humiliating) incident at a house party post-prom. Thankfully, my memory of it is hazy, but I do remember clogging up the only toilet on the property. Everyone knew it was me, and I’d bet money that they were chanting.
Looking back at that dark period in my life, I’m shocked that nobody knew anything was wrong with me.
Kahnweiler shares in that sentiment, too. Her voice is incredulous as she tries to reconcile bulimia with her other seemingly antithetical identities and roles in life. She tells me, “I can be so close with my family…I can be this feminist…and nobody knew.” Not even her college roommate.
Bulimia can be hard to identify because, often, people with the disorder aren’t underweight. That goes double for laxative abuse, as those struggling with it are shielded by the privacy ascribed to bathroom duties.
It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year, when my mom cornered me and asked what was up, that my secret was out. I can’t remember if she just had an inkling or actual evidence, but by the end of our emotional conversation, I confessed to my little game of colon cleanse. That’s how I landed in therapy for the first time.
Talking about my disorder with a therapist did help. In a conversation, recovery coach and author of Rather than Rehab: Quit Bulimia & Upgrade Your Life Lori Losch stresses that defusing the shame and stigma around eating disorders always helps. However, that wasn’t the end of my laxative abuse. It was when my first serious boyfriend found a laxative box after a failed attempt to hide a purge that I finally saw how dangerous and, frankly, weird my laxative abuse was. It wasn’t even really because of him or his revolted reaction, but because of the lens it allowed me to see myself through.
My recovery soon followed. It was one of the only good things to come out of that traumatic relationship.
Fifteen years later, my relationship with food is the best it’s ever been…but it’s still tentative. ED is something that you manage. To me, recovery means not bingeing. It means continuously checking in with myself as I encounter emotional triggers and try to channel them into healthier outlets. I’ll probably always have to think about it. I’ve been in recovery now for over a decade, but I don’t think I’ll ever be “cured.”
Kahnweiler’s been in recovery for five years, though she acknowledges that she’s probably always going to be vulnerable. The thoughts still come up, especially in situations like a stressful new job. However, now she thinks of her bulimia as a canary in a coal mine. “If I’m feeling like ‘I have to work out,’ if I’m feeling guilty over something that I ate, there’s usually something else that’s really going on.”
That might be the best ED advice I’ve ever heard. When you have a disorder that makes your body feel like the enemy, it helps to reframe these feelings as a friendly reminder to fix what’s really bothering you. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with your body.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.