I’m a bulimic like Di…it's how I feel in control, says Nicola McLean

I PRIDE myself on providing healthy food for my two sons, and this week I made a lovely pasta dish with chicken and broccoli and a smattering of blue cheese.

My boys — Rocky, 14, and Striker, ten — loved it, and so did I. But shortly afterwards I went to the loo and made myself throw it all up.

It was no big deal. While it’s not something I do every day, it’s definitely not unusual for me to make myself sick after a meal. 

In fact, I’ve done it in just about every place you can think of — from fancy hotels and restaurants to motorway service stations and friends’ houses. 

I made myself sick more times than I can count when I took part in Celebrity Big Brother in 2012 and 2017, and likewise in the Celebrity ­jungle in 2008, even though we were barely eating enough to keep us going as it was. 

As an almost lifelong bulimic (I’m 39 now) it’s part of who I am, much as I wish it wasn’t — and while I’ve had years of therapy to try to unpick the reasons behind it I’ve never truly got to the bottom of why I do it. 

Bulimia is a ­complex ­condition that most people don’t understand — ask the average person, and they think it’s all about people ­trying to be thin.

But it’s about so much more than that — a sign of low self-esteem, a need for control, a coping mechanism.

It’s all this and more — and it’s little wonder that such problems spiralled during the challenges of lockdown. 

The eating disorder charity Beat recorded a 50 per cent surge in demand for its ­services from people struggling during lockdown.

The Priory Group, one of the largest private eating- disorder clinics, reported a 71 per cent rise in admissions in September compared with the same period a year ago, and said enquiries had tripled since April.

It’s one reason I was so pleased when I learned that Princess Diana’s struggle with bulimia is being portrayed on screen in the latest series of The Crown — right down to producers showing the late royal making herself sick.

I know some people have voiced their disapproval, but I think Diana would be 100 per cent behind the decision. 

She was one of the first people to talk openly about having the condition, which started just a week after she got engaged to Prince Charles.

In her controversial Panorama interview she told ­journalist Martin Bashir it was a symptom of her low sense of self-worth. She said: “You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or ­valuable.

“You fill your stomach up four or five times a day — some do it more — and it gives you a feeling of comfort. Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and you bring it all up again.”

She, more than anyone, would have known how ­powerful it could be to have a light shone onto the reality of what it is like.

Because unlike anorexia, where people start to shrink before your eyes, bulimia isn’t always visible — Diana herself called it a “secret disease”.

You can be overweight and have bulimia or you can look like I do — a neat, healthy size 8. It’s not the kind of problem you can diagnose just by looking at someone.

As Diana knew, it affects people from all walks of life, and of all shapes and sizes. And in eye-opening numbers.

More than 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to be directly affected by eating ­disorders and recent studies suggest that eight per cent of women have bulimia at some stage in their life. 

The condition can occur at any age, but mainly affects women aged between 16 and 40. In my case I’ve struggled with eating disorders since I was young.

I always feel more loved when I’m ill, and my version of being ill is starving myself or making myself sick.

My first memory of having problematic thoughts about food goes back to being 11, although they might even have started before then.

I remember lying in the bath and saying to myself: “Let’s see how long you can go without eating”. I still don’t know why I wanted to, but I remember I liked the attention I got as I got smaller.

It’s the same today — I always feel more loved when I’m ill, and my version of being ill is starving myself or making myself sick. 

Healthy, happy Nicola doesn’t get asked if she’s OK, but thin Nicola gets asked it a lot. Even writing this I know it sounds mad, yet I can’t really unpick it despite all that ­therapy. 

Over time, controlling my food intake went hand in hand with bulimia. I can’t remember the first time I made myself sick, but I was still at school when I learned I could do it without even sticking my fingers down my throat — I can do it right from my tummy. 

Basically, bulimia just became a part of my life. Unlike anorexia, it’s a compulsion — a bit like cutting yourself, although when you do that you can see the scars.

Bulimia doesn’t have that, unless you count the way that over the years it eroded all the enamel from my teeth so that they are all now veneers.

I was definitely good at ­hiding it from people. I met my husband, professional ­footballer Tom Williams, 16 years ago and for a long time he had no idea I was regularly making myself sick after the gorgeous dinners he was taking me out for when we were dating — and even after we got married.

Over time he was more ­concerned about my anorexia, which I’d also battled with over our years together.

It had got worse after the birth of our second son Striker. By the time Striker was a year old I weighed less than 6st and was so thin that I was wearing leggings made for eight-year-olds.  If it had carried on, I wouldn’t be here. 

Tom had to sit me down and spell out to me that what I was doing was jeopardising my life and my kids. Of all ­psychiatric illnesses, eating ­disorders have the highest mortality rates.

It took a long time but with a lot of support from my family I managed to beat my anorexia, although I know how easy it would be to relapse.

I’ve not had a set of scales in my house for eight years now, and on my NHS notes it says that I am never to be weighed — if I was, I would be half my current weight within months. I don’t ever feel ­complacent. 

Bulimia is different though. Whenever I feel stressed or out of control it’s what I fall back on, which is why it got really bad at the start of lockdown earlier this year.

 I don’t deal well with change, and the pictures of people panic-buying from supermarkets really freaked me out. I organise my shopping and my diet really carefully and it sent me into a tailspin. 

Making myself sick was my way of trying to reassert ­control over something I had no control over at all. It releases something in me, makes me feel good, for a brief time at least.

On a bad day — and there were plenty of those in lockdown — eating and throwing up is all I think about.

It doesn’t help that unlike other addictions you can’t ­isolate yourself from the source of your problems. 

If I was an alcoholic or a drug addict I could take steps to avoid having them in my life, but you can’t get away from food — it’s all around you. It means I face my demons every day. 

The only thing that helps is medication, a form of Prozac I’ve been prescribed on and off over the years to help stop my compulsive urges.

It definitely works, but it comes with horrible side-effects which make me sweat and feel numb inside. I hate it, so ­prefer to manage without.

But that means my bulimia is always there, a hellish thing that I know is so hard for ­people who love me to accept, especially Tom.

But the reality is it’s part of my identity now and I don’t think it will ever go away.  I just hope that by watching The Crown, people will understand it a bit more. 

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