By: Jessica Trappe
Nicola Carruthers (22) is the type of person who will not show any sign of weakness. Her eyes tell a story and the words that are unspoken mean more than those that are voiced. She is strong, ambitious and protective. She is a fighter.
When Nicola was 16 years old, living in Lusaka, Zambia, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. According to Medicine Net, bulimia is an eating disorder characterised by “episodes of secretive excessive eating (binge-eating) followed by inappropriate methods of weight control, such as self-induced vomiting (purging), abuse of laxatives and diuretics, or excessive exercise. The insatiable appetite of bulimia is often interrupted by periods of anorexia”.
Often bulimia is linked to anorexia which is defined as “An eating disorder characterized by markedly reduced appetite or total aversion to food.”
Eating disorders have become a kind of taboo topic, an issue that people don’t want to talk about or hear about, like STDs and abortion. An estimated 1 to 4 percent of females have bulimia during their lifetime. Bulimia can sneak up on a person and get a good grip on their life without notice. According to Psychology Today most cases begin in the late teens and early 20s, but can go undetected until the 30s or 40s.
Nicky had a few close friends who helped her realise that something was wrong with her eating habits.
“I started by mostly eating salads and doing unhealthy amounts of exercise,” she said. “When I did eat, like at social occasions, I would go to the bathroom within 10 minutes of finishing and make myself throw up.”
In an interview with her in a small coffee shop in High Street, Grahamstown, I asked her the reasons for why she developed Bulimia.
“I was trying to be perfect,” she said, taking a sip of her milky tea. She described Devon, her boyfriend at the time, a dashing man who she considered to be out of her league.
“Devon was a catch, everyone wanted Devon, he was absolutely gorgeous in every way. His body was perfect and he was handsome as hell. He was to die for, except for some personality issues, so I figured I wasn’t good enough for him” she said.
And that is where it started, although it was just one of the multiple causes that led Nicky to falling ill.
“I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough for him and that I had to be like a model.Bulimia is a mental illness, you could look in the mirror and you look like Giselle Bundchen in real life, but to you look like ‘Fat Amy’ (from the movie Pitch Perfect)”
After blacking out at school, Nicky’s parents finally realised how serious the situation was and took her for counselling.
“It got to the stage when I was in biology class and I started getting light-headed and dizzy. I asked to go to the nurse, I just got out of the door and was heading to the nurse who was about 20 meters from the class and there was another classroom…I don’t know what happened, I opened my eyes and I was heading straight into this wall, like falling and I passed out while walking and hit a wall. Everyone in the class was like ‘hello’ but no one did anything, it was quite funny. Got to the nurse and said ‘could I have some glucose please because I haven’t eaten in like 3 months’. She looked at me and she was like ‘oh shit’”.
Nicky starts playing with the bacon on her plate as she tells me the story. We agree how great it is that the little café serves breakfast all day.
She comments on how much she hated the first counselor she was forced to see.
“She reminded me of my dad, except with tits and a vagina” said Nicky laughing as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. Behind her glasses I can see a twinkle in her eyes.
I inquire about her current health.
“I have never really stopped trying to control what I eat or watching what I eat. Right now I am gorging myself on bacon, but that’s because I haven’t had bacon for about three weeks and its killing me”.
“I believe fruit juice and alcohol kept me alive,” she adds, reflecting back to when she had just turned 17.
However, Nicky’s case extends beyond bulimia. The bulimia worsened an already-existing condition called gastro-oesophageal reflux disorder which aggravated an oesophageal stricture. An oesophageal stricture is a condition where by “the diameter of the oesophagus is made narrow by scar tissue”.
According to Anna Giorgi who wrote an article on the matter for Healthline, oesophageal stricture can cause “serious health issues…narrowing of the esophagus can cause swallowing difficulty and also increases choking risk”.
When Nicky threw up, the acid corroded away at the scar tissue which led to the constriction of her oesophagus from an average of 2cm wide to roughly 3mm. This explains why Nicky has found it difficult to eat for the majority of her life.
She had to undergo five operations under general anaesthesia to stretch her oesophagus. After a few of the operations she realised that she had to stop making herself throw up.
Nicky eventually managed to get better when she was almost 18.
“I distinctly remember the first meal I ate and didn’t try to throw up. It was Christmas at my aunt and uncles. It was impala stew, and it was really nice. I was comfortable, I was having fun, and I was surrounded by my family.”
As she finishes up her breakfast, I ask her what other reasons led to her condition and whether media had a role in it.
“With all the social media in society and society’s standards for women these days,it doesn’t matter whether you are muscular skinny or soft skinny, it doesn’t matter as long as you are skinny. Media impacts on self-esteem, especially if you are with someone who you think is too good for you. It’s like a perverted self-bettering.”
At the time of Nicky’s struggle, she had been going through a lot. Her mother, diagnosed with depression,had attempted to commit suicide. An act that Nicky found hard to deal with and to forgive.
Although her dad does not fully believe in mental illness, her mother was convinced that Nicky’s condition was the product of the tough time that the family had been through. She believed that Nicky was attempting to gain control of her life after facing a circumstance that she could not control.
“We never really talked about it too much” said Nicky.
Five years down the line, Nicky has gained ten kilograms and is looking healthy and athletic. She says that although she is better, the urge to throw up is something she battles with after every meal. To her, it is a very real, daily struggle.
Q & A
- Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lusaka. My childhood was spent in town and for the past decade we have been living in a house that is 20 minutes from town and that borders a forestry reserve as well as the city limit.
- Were you born in Zambia?
No, I was born in Botswana where I lived for the first two years of my life.
- What do you do for fun?
I used to ride horses, but since coming to university sleep is my main recreational activity , but I like reading novels and doing photography when I have time.
- What causes do you most care about?
Poaching, deforestation, education and mental health.
- What is your favourite food?
Steak with pepper sauce and chips could keep me alive and I would be quite happy with life.
- What is your favorite song?
Take it easy by The Eagles.