Recovering from bulimia and depression - Antonia's story


Antonia faced bulimia alongside depression for around three years. She had a complicated relationship with food and exercise, but through self-compassion and understanding her body, she has now been in recovery for five years.

I think my eating disorder developed from lots of different things happening in my life. It first started when I was at university - I attended a top sports university and was surrounded by people who exercised a lot. Initially this inspired me, however I then became someone who exercised compulsively as a way of purging.  

Leaving home and being in control of my own eating and exercise patterns was a challenge too. I didn’t make friends as easily as I had hoped, and I often compared my eating and exercise patterns to others. I think I believed eating less and exercising more would make people like me more. I feel there is a genetic element to my eating disorder too since my twin sister also struggled when we were younger. 

I think controlling my eating and exercise was a way of coping with my depression, to deal with situations where I didn’t feel in control, such as starting university and moving away from home. It allowed me to feel good at something and in control, but it of course then took control of me. 

  • If you have a bad day, that’s all it has to be – it doesn’t have to be a bad week or a bad month.

Throughout my experience of bulimia, my relationship with food and exercise was extremely self-destructive. I would deprive myself of food I had labelled as ‘bad’ and attempt to eat foods that were ‘good,’ or no food at all. I would count calories, check labels and avoid any social activities that involved food. This was completely unsustainable, and because I exercised a lot, I felt hungry all the time.

This resulted in binges where I would consume a very large amount of food in a very short amount of time. The guilt would immediately take over and I would do everything in my power to get rid of this food, including vomiting and over-exercising. I would ensure I did very intense exercise every single day for at least an hour. It was very self-punishing, and I would be extremely self-critical if I struggled or got tired. 

After I acknowledged that my relationship with exercise was unhealthy, I accepted I would need to be less critical towards myself and the amount of exercise I did. I still love exercise and even after my recovery, I took part in lots of running races. However, I fuelled my exercise appropriately and took plenty of rest days in between training days. Exercise is a very helpful way for me to wind down after a long or difficult day, so it’s important to me that I keep myself healthy and in a position to be able to do this when I want. 

I don’t count calories or avoid food anymore either. I am comfortable eating all foods, eat when I feel hungry and stop when I feel full. This is a fantastic feeling, as throughout my eating disorder it was very hard to determine when I was hungry and full. 

  • My relationship with food and exercise was extremely self-destructive.

Eating disorders are much more common than people think. We all have a relationship with food, therefore we can all be put in a vulnerable situation with food. Just like your relationships with friends and family, your relationship with food requires the same level of patience, love and enjoyment. 

I think many people will go through stages in their life where they approach food differently or worry about what they’re eating. We are exposed to lots of messages about food and what is good and bad for us. It’s very normal to think about what you’re eating and aim to be healthier, but I think people need to be more aware of their ‘tipping point’ or the point where their relationship with food becomes disordered.

To anyone who is at the start of their recovery, I know it’s not an easy fix and there will be moments where you feel like you want to go back to your old ways. Be patient and kind to yourself. If you have a bad day, that’s all it has to be – it doesn’t have to be a bad week or a bad month. Recovery is so worth it, and there are so many more important things in life. You might not see it now because your eating disorder has a clever way of hiding those things, but you can get there.

  • Your body is a very powerful engine that needs fuel to do all the things you want to do.

Tips and advice for recovery

I read a book about self-compassion and realised that to be truly compassionate to others, I would need to show myself the same compassion. For me, being in tune with when I am being overly self-critical and challenging those thoughts is a great place to start.

I first identify them - My usual negative thoughts take the form of black and white thinking, catastrophising and jumping to conclusions. I can then look at evidence supporting the thought and evidence against the thought. For example, if I think ‘I have eaten too much today,’ I might challenge this by looking at all things I have needed to do in the day that I need fuel for. This allows me to be more realistic.

Understanding I don’t have to act on my thoughts
I think we can all have quite negative and self-destructive thoughts sometimes, but we don’t have to necessarily do anything with those thoughts. Rather than ignoring it, it’s helpful for me to acknowledge it for what it is and think ‘this is how I feel right now and that’s OK, it will pass.’

Being realistic 
Ask yourself what situations will make recovery difficult for you in the future and try to plan for them as much as possible. For me, it was about making sure someone else knew the challenges I might face and letting them know how they can help.

Having a weekly menu
It might be helpful to set out a menu for yourself for the week, so you don’t have the added stress of thinking about what you’re going to eat when mealtimes come around. Having some flexible options, such as quick dinners or meals where you can add whatever is in your fridge, are great when things don’t go to plan, or your day is busier than expected.

Listening to your body 
It’s important to understand that your body is a very powerful engine that needs fuel to do all the things you want to do. Don’t ignore sensations of hunger – it's your engine asking for more fuel.

Having a distraction after meals
It can be helpful and even therapeutic to distract yourself with an activity after mealtimes to help with any negative thoughts. This can be whatever you enjoy and helps you to relax, or perhaps you want to try something new. Reading, painting, journalling, listening to music, tidying your space or giving yourself a pamper are all great ideas!

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