‘My Friends Thought I Just Drank Too Much, But I Was Bulimic’

22 year-old student Charlotte Swahn used to love going out and getting drunk - because it meant she could be sick without her friends calling her on it


by Clare Considine |
Published on

‘When I drank a lot and was sick, I liked it. It was fine with me - in fact, most of the time I went out with the intention to be sick. People thought it was just because I was drunk, so I didn't have to explain anything. I could say I needed to get rid of the alcohol, but in fact, it was me getting rid of the calories. I'd counted every single one. Even if I was so drunk that I could hardly see, I’d still manage to log the calories of each drink into my phone. I knew that all of my friends would go to the kebab shop after a night out and that would terrify me, so I’d leave just before they did.’

This disturbing account of a compulsive, planned gorge and purge cycle dubbed 'booze bulimia' by sufferers, was a reality for 22-year-old student Charlotte Swahn. ‘On one night, I left my house having not eaten all day. I did shots at the house before we headed into town, and wouldn't remember getting to the club. Later, my friends would tell me I'd collapsed on the stairs on my way in. When they brought me round I was throwing up outside the club and I had to be sent home at ten o clock.’

Many 20-somethings will have similar tales of drinking-gone-wrong, but for Charlotte, thowing up the evenings cocktails was regular, and premeditated - she would consciously starve herself before a night out, count every calorie consumed in drinks, and make sure she was drunk enough to throw it all up again.

Today, Charlotte is in recovery from a condition that doctors haven't been able to specifically diagnose, calling it EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). ‘I was severely restricting my calories, purging by either making myself throw up or using laxatives and constantly overdosing on diet pills as well as exercising excessively to control my calories, ’ says Charlotte. ‘When I started to go out, aged around 19, I realised that alcohol makes you gain weight too. That scared me, so I decided that if I was going to go on a night out, I wouldn’t eat that day at all. Literally nothing. I wouldn’t drink anything unless it was water so that I could save all of my calories for the drinking – and then, if I was sick when I was out, that was a bonus.’

I would save all of my calories for drinking – and then, if I was sick when I was out, that was a bonus

There are currently 1.6 million people in the UK who are affected by eating disorders. Of these, 40% suffer from bulimia, and most patients are girls aged between 12 and 20. There are no current statistics on binge drinking and purging, but Communications Officer Rebecca Field at eating disorder charity Beat says that they have noticed an increase in stories resembling Charlotte’s. ‘Some people said that they found that they lost themselves while drunk - while they were binging on the alcohol it took them away from their eating disorder and numbed the pain that they were feeling,' says Field. 'Others said that drinking alcohol took peoples’ focus away from the fact that they weren’t eating or purging - people were more concerned about their excessive alcohol consumption.’

For Charlotte, going out boozing with her friends had begun to feel like a necessity. ‘I never really craved being drunk. I just felt a social pressure - and my obsession with calories made other social experiences difficult. I’d cut my friends out of so much of my life. I never went out for meals with them, I never went out shopping because I knew that they’d have lunch. So going out drinking was an excuse to see them and do normal things whilst also controlling my calories.’

Charlotte realises now that she may not have been fooling her friends quite as successfully as she thought she was. They questioned her about her rapidly decreasing weight, but she wasn’t ready to hear it. ‘If someone told me I was too thin that would egg me on more because I knew that what I was doing was working. All of the times I would look at a girl and think “wow, she’s really thin”, now people were looking at me and thinking the same. And I liked it.’ And so it took her own personal moment of clarity for things to change. And it came in the form of an iceberg lettuce. ‘I realised that something was wrong about this time last year. I carried scales around with me all the time so that I could weigh food before I ate it to calculate the calories. I went shopping one day and weighed an iceberg lettuce – which was all that I was planning to eat for dinner. I finally thought “hang on a minute, something isn’t right”.’

When Charlotte finally plucked up the courage to seek help, her doctor said her condition was difficult to diagnose. Shockingly, she was told to go away and come back in a couple of months if the 'symptoms got worse'. Um, this was a girl who was weighing herself five times a day and would check the calories in every item on the menu – including drinks – ahead of a meal out. But, as Field explains, ‘It’s difficult for GPs because they have to be experts on everything. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough training and information given to them about eating disorders in many circumstances.’ Beat is constantly compaigning for more niche training that will help doctors to diagnose eating disorders in all its many forms, so they can refer patients to specialist services more effectively.

Fortunately, Charlotte decided to seek help online and started chatting to people on forums. ‘They helped me a lot. We used to talk every day and now we check in with each other every week and give each other advice. We meet up as much as we can and go for coffee.’ The recovery process was a slow one, beginning with simply learning how to eat again. ‘Mindfulness with food was important. I didn’t know whether I was hungry or full anymore. I’d lost the signals to tell me. I didn’t feel hunger and I definitely didn’t feel fullness. So the first step was to re-feed my body every couple of hours to get those feelings back.’

Charlotte has been in recovery for almost a year now. She started university last September and is studying to become a mental health nurse, specialising in eating disorders. She is well aware of the fact that her life would be very different if she hadn’t taken control of her condition – ‘I would never have been willing to go to university before, because of all of the alcohol, partying and take-aways that you hear about students living on.’ She spent her first term living alone in her own studio flat to ensure that she could take herself out of stressful situations as and when they arose. A few months ago she moved into a shared flat with a friend and things are going well so far. Plus, these days, nights out aren’t just for show. ‘I actually feel genuinely excited now if somebody suggests a random night out. I don’t dread it and check all the calories of drinks first. I feel more relaxed and if we go for a kebab at the end of the night, then so be it.’

Follow Clare on Facebook @ClareBConsidine

Picture: Rory DCS

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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