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Bulimia Triggers Can Lead to Food, Isolation, Sex and Danger

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This article is my attempt to bring understanding to this painful, desperate and all too common experience in the life of a bulimic woman. Please share your comments as we develop more understanding together. I also wrote this because articulating a burdensome secret can help the secret holder know she can be understood and accepted. She just might experience a new sense of validated hope.

Bulimia before recovery work
Trigger: Your roommate goes out of town for a week.

Action: Bulimic episode

Why? You don’t know. You don’t seem to have a choice.

Day One: You are on your own. You like the freedom. The apartment is all yours at last. You also feel the apartment is less familiar. You feel you are somewhat of an intruder and are getting away with something. You eat dinner in the living room in front of the TV. You don't clean up. You binge and throw up your roommate's ice cream.

Day Two: You continue to eat in the living room while watching TV. You leave your dishes on the coffee table and food wrappers on the floor. You drop your clothes and papers where they fall. You leave food and open food packages scattered on the kitchen counter.

Day Three: You don’t notice that you avert your eyes to the mess that is building. You do not see the turmoil you are creating.

Days Four to Six: You feel lonely, disgusted, helpless and despairing. You eat to comfort yourself, and you feel fat and ugly. You binge and throw up more often throughout the days and nights.

Day 6 p.m. or Day 7 a.m. The night before your roommate returns you clean up in a panic. Maybe you clean up the morning of the day she is returning. You scrub down the bathroom and wonder if you missed anything.

Day 7 continued: Your roommate returns. You attempt to act like a normal person. You feel like a fraud. You feel anxious that she will notice something odd, something you missed in your clean up frenzy. If she makes a comment, like, “Oh, I’m so glad I have some ice cream,” you feel sick and relieved. She doesn’t know you binged and purged her ice cream. She doesn’t know you replaced the container. She certainly doesn’t know you meticulously ate just enough of that replacement container ice cream so it would appear to be the original. You feel sick and lonely. You feel removed from her, this person you believe you can fool so easily. She becomes less real in your eyes. You become less real to yourself. You want to withdraw. You probably leave. You don’t ask her about her experiences while she was away.

Day 7 continued: You tell her you have to be someplace (anyplace) and head out the door. Once on your own you feel quick relief, then anger and then anxiety. You head for your nearest binge supplier: Chinese restaurant, fast food place, bakery, ice cream or frozen yogurt shop. All the while you are figuring where and how you can purge quickly after you binge because you are not ready to go home.

Sex and Doughnuts
Dangerous Sexual Encounters as Part of Bulimic Episode

Day 7 continued p.m. You are out the door. With firm, fast steps you head for your car. blood surging through your veins, heart pounding, stomach vibrating, electrical energy pouring out of your cells, you can almost hear your body humming. You get in the car, turn the ignition and love the engine roar.
It matches your own internal roar. You pause looking straight ahead with hands on the steering wheel. You don’t know where to go. You drive anyway. You’ve got to feel you are going in some direction, feel some motion.

Possible Scenarios
I. You call a man.
You don’t call a woman because you want intense holding. You want someone to be glad to match your energy. To your way of thinking this must be a man. An available man answers the phone – a former lover, a current lover, a barely known man who has flirted with you. If he is sympathetic and welcoming you drive to his place. You are as seductive as you can so he will hold you. You want his touch to become intense.

You surprise him by pushing the experience, without preamble, into a sexual encounter. He may go for it. If he does, you feel relieved by the holding and scared by his sexual intensity. You feel lonely and isolated as you pretend arousal you don’t feel to evoke more impersonal performance in him. You are numb to any erotic feelings. No matter who he is he seems like a stranger during and after the encounter. Not only does he seem alien to you, but you barely have a sense of who even you are.

You may leave immediately. You may try to turn him and the experience into some kind meaningful relationship. You play act. You may actually believe you are in the middle of a committed relationship that will last forever and at the same time feel like a moving mannequin.

Despite a sense of artificiality, you will yearn for him to call and days later feel heartbroken and bereft because he hasn’t. Or you will feel heartbroken, bereft and disbelieving if he does call and simply wants another unadorned sexual encounter. You may be horrified, heartbroken and bewildered if he calls and offers you a sexual encounter with his buddy or with a group of his associates.

II. You’re in the car driving. You can’t think of anyone to call.
You still are in the state where you want someone to be glad to be with you and match your energy. You want relief. Where is this man?

You stop at a bar or a restaurant that has a bar. You walk in and measure the men who might be candidates for what you want. You might have a tiny flash of eye contact. You sit at the bar and don’t look at anyone.

A man or men come forward to talk. One sends you a drink from across the room. You like that. It feels caring and glamorous. You feel that someone has seen you and wants to find you. You feel unlovable, clumsy, ugly and awkward. You hope that you can be seen as beautiful, desirable and lovable. You want to be held and cherished out of your pain.

Now what?
Depending on how lost you are in your bulimic episode – yes, this is still bulimia even though food is not in the picture right now – you will talk the candidate. Or you will make out with him in a car in the parking lot. Or you will drive with him to a secluded spot nearby and have sex in the car. Or you will go to a motel for sex. Or you could go to one of these places and get raped by him or by more than just him if he’s the kind of man who would call his friends to join in.

You could feel held while a group of others use you sexually. If so you feel hidden and lost by the fervor or grim determination of their actions, numb to any kind of eroticism and hopeful that somewhere in this experience you will find the sensation you desperately believe you want and need. You struggle to close down your mind when you feel isolated with these strangers whose voices, bodies and hands are unfamiliar. And at the same time you hope that somewhere in this chaotic, sensual, frightening and exciting mélange is the man who will know you, satisfy you, recognize you, love you and protect you forever. (You are very lucky if you don't get badly hurt.)

Day 8 early morning:

He or they get dressed and leave. He or they may or may not say good-bye. Or you get up, get dressed and leave. You might feel sad that he or they don’t ask for your phone number. Or, if he or they ask for your phone number, you feel a crawly feeling and don’t want to give it. Or, you fight against that crawly feeling hoping that your feelings are wrong and that he or they really do care about you and will give you another opportunity to find the holding love and care you desperately seek. You are stunned if he mispronounces your name or forgets your name entirely.

Maybe you got hurt, and are embarrassed that you are in pain. Maybe you are shocked if someone offers you money. Maybe you are shocked because you want them to.

Day 8 continued: You get in your car. On your drive home you stop at a bakery. You carefully select, one by one, a dozen doughnuts of different flavors. In the car, you eat every doughnut as you drive home.

Day 8 continued: You quietly let yourself in to your apartment. You run water in the bathroom to hide sound. You throw up the doughnuts. Exhausted, you collapse on the bed, fully clothed, on top of the covers and pass out.

Day 8 through 10: You are groggy, feel unreal, quick tempered, guilty, dirty, ugly and fat for days. You withdraw from people physically or emotionally or both. If you must you interact with others while telling the lie with your body and mind that everything in your life is fine.

You tell no one what happened during your bulimic episode and do your best to forget it yourself. You keep yourself consciously removed from your experience by binging and purging every day. You wait for someone to call you and make your life right. No one does.

Certainly not everyone with bulimia acts out their illness as I describe here. But many do match this scenario and many scenarios are much worse. At least in the descriptions I gave here, the woman got home. I wrote the full bulimic episode description to make clear that bulimia covers a territory far more vast than eating behaviors.

From Being Lost to Being Found: The woman I depict in this article is lost and desperately needs to be found. She is raw and vulnerable. She has no access to inner strength and no ability to recognize healthy, kind people who might support and guide her through her challenges. At some point we can hope that one day when she wakes up, she will feel her usual guilt, shame, fatigue, loneliness and, maybe, for the first time, a determination to not go any lower than this.

If she hits her bottom, she’ll look up for her way out. She'll kick off from that bottom, perhaps on hope and determination alone. But that's enough to get started for her way out. And that way does exist.

Once she is open to even the possibility of recovery, she will ask the questions and see some hints of answers that will lead her to her recovery path. Many people in my profession devote their lives to eating disorder recovery work. See Academy for Eating Disorders and International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. Overeaters Anonymous provides help and support all over the world for people who are willing and able to move on their recovery path. Empowher.com offers an array of helpful resources created by dedicated people who can help a woman begin her way to a better life. We are here, ready to take that call.

(This article may raise many questions for readers. I hope you will ask them in the comment section as well as share your responses. The underlying issues involved in bulimia are deep and complex. If I can't answer your question simply in the comment section, perhaps I might be able to devote a longer article specifically to issues you may raise.)

Add a Comment15 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Firstly there were things here that i identified with exactly. I almost cant believe someone wrote this, someone else i mean. Thank you.

I think its wrong to attribute promiscuity to an eating disorder. It may be a symptom for some women but the shaming and pathologising of such behavior is damaging. I cant help but think women aren't allowed to be reckless or autonomous with their sexuality without it being attributed to an underlying compulsion or instability.

Did anyone else find this?

Disclaimer- Ive been bulimic for over ten years and never been promiscuous.

October 1, 2014 - 8:20pm
EmpowHER Guest

Thank you for writing this. When I was bulimic, I turned into a person so different from the "good girl" I had always been. No one talks about promiscuity and that it's a typical part of bulimia. I want to share this article with friends, family, former boyfriends who all saw me as a little slut when I felt as little control over that as I did over my eating behaviors.

September 25, 2014 - 9:04am
EmpowHER Guest

Joanne, thank you for the article. I recognize my wife in your profile of the woman in the article. After 17 years of marriage, I am unspeakably hurt by things I suspect my wife is doing. Can you please tell me what I can do to help my wife. What type of feeling is she searching for with binges?

April 15, 2012 - 4:05pm

I can't thank you enough. You dont know how much this post meant to me. I feel like you wrote out my life. I'm 20yrs old and have been dealing with this since sixth grade. I didnt know these things were related at all. Thank you so much.

April 28, 2011 - 10:00pm
EmpowHER Guest

Hello Joanna,
Reading your article has made me understand Bulimia a lot more. I am 23 years old and have been bulimic for the past 4 years. You mentioned that when bulimic women take yoga classes they often cry and dont know why. Reading that almost made me cry because that happens to me every time I take a yoga class. Why does that happen? I always feel pain and sadness by the end of a yoga class when the lights are out and you shut your eyes. Its always such a strange experience.
I relate to everything you have said in your article. From binging on men, shopping, alcohol and people. My anxiety and depression paralyzes me and I feel so alone. I have always been a perfectionist and high achiever receiving straight A's and scholarships in high-school. But now I'm failing all my university classes, never go to class (social anxiety) and procrastinate homework (feeling "paralyzed") or just don't do it. I think I am hitting my rock bottom because I feel like my life is going now where and the past 4 years have been a complete waste of my life. All my friends are finishing University while I am 2 1/2 years behind. I'm so tired of being afraid of life and living in my "safe" bulimic world while ruining friendships and pushing my family away with anger and hostility.It's like everyday is living in a haunted house in a sense. I also have not had a relationship in 3 years while "serial" dating always ending with me pushing men away because I have a belief I am not worthy enough of love/ im a horrible person. I feel like such a freak and all my family and friends always ask why I dont have a boyfriend. Will I ever recover from this awful disorder? I am so sorry for venting on here but I feel I have no one to talk to and I have never opened up to anyone before about this. Do you think I may have borderline disorder or something else wrong with me?

February 15, 2011 - 10:50pm

Dear Pamela,

Thank you so much for asking. You are more supportive than you may know.

I'm writing a book right now, under contract with Conari Press. It's a self help book on eating disorder recovery with an emphasis on mature women.

warm regards,


July 7, 2009 - 3:11pm

I just wanted to thank you for the time that you have taken with your answers here. Have you written a book? And so, what is it? I would be interested in reading it.

July 7, 2009 - 2:17pm

Yes, I can see where the language is confusing. She is physically present. She knows where she is and what she is doing. She has a plan and is following it. So, in that way she is present.

Awareness and feelings about what she needs, how she feels, what she cares about are missing. She is in the midst of a binge.

During a bulimic binge on food, a person will devour massive quantities of food and purge them out. She can have the experience of looking for the bag of cookies or chips to binge on following a purge only to discover she already ate them and vomited them up. She loses track of time and may continue her episode until she is exhausted or in pain or both. The pain itself can be a relief because it floods her with sensation that distracts her or blocks her from her desperate anxiety

While she binges on food we can say that she is not present. She's in the room. She's eating. She knows who she is and she feels a desperate need to devour her binge foods until her bingeing and purging bring her the relief she craves.

She can do that with a man too.

Intense stimulation can create body sensations and raise emotions. But the circumstances I'm describing in this episode are an attempt to flood the person, body, mind and emotion so that she doesn't feel who she is or who he is, for that matter. The goal is to get relief from a kind of existential agony by flooding her system with sensation. And sometimes it works. It certainly works enough for her to seek out this remedy again and again.

So, going back to your last question, the intense stimulation is a blocker when it works. It's a sedative if she's exhausted from the effort and can maintain fantasies about her experience. If she doesn't get relief she will feel disapointed, unloved, unlovable, terribly flawed as a woman and may be disgusted and frightened about the situation she's in.

But that won't stop her from attempting this again. She believes it didn't work because of her mistakes in not behaving the way she should have or being enough of a woman. Once in a while she will think she chose the wrong man, but usually she will blame herself for being unworthy.

Thank you for your questions. I appreciate the opportunity to attempt to clarify this complex experience.

warm regards,


July 7, 2009 - 12:50am
EmpowHER Guest

How is the woman not present? If she is trying to consume him - and give to him what she thinks needs to be given - how is she behaving in a non present way? And doesn't intense stimulation create feeling? Or do you see this intense stimulation as a blocker or a sedative?

July 6, 2009 - 10:16pm
EmpowHER Guest

Thank you. I am finding this incredibly interesting. Especially the remark about women with bulimia "consuming a man" - and the reaching for intensity. I think that feeling embodiment - is incredibly important - massage therapy for example can soothe and give women a feeling of holding, sensation and calmness - and being in the body. And I wonder if it is used in therapy and your experience with that.
Thank you for your thoughtful answer.

July 6, 2009 - 10:07pm
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