Guest post by Olugbemi Moronfolu. Content warning: bulimia and its physical effects

The writer of this guest post was paid for her contribution thanks to sponsorship from period and leak-free underwear brand Modibodi, and donations from Hysterical Women readers. Thank you to all of them for their generosity in supporting this #BlackWomensHealthMatters series. 

Hello, my name is Gbemi. I am a Black British student exploring the struggles I have faced with the health care system regarding my physical and mental health.

November 2017

My heart lurched as I peeled the faded white paper from its envelope. Here… finally, here it was… Hands shaking, my eyes vacantly scanned the pages until I landed onto the diagnosis.

Bulimia Nervosa.

I was struck by a weird sense of relief. I had spent the past couple of months cutting calories and constantly dieting. Once a chubby child adverse to slight movement, now I exercised four hours a day. I was weighing myself four, five, six times a day. I could not, would not allow control to slip through my fingers.

My eating disorder was pervasive, seeping into my studies and contaminating my friendships. Frustrated at myself, I’d cast aside my struggle as mere attention seeking and stupid vanity. Now, it was actually a real thing.

Initially, my GP at University supported me well. I had weekly appointments and fortnightly to monthly blood tests. When I returned home for the holidays, I had to see my home GP. I was reluctant, but my University GP insisted that I had my weight and blood regularly monitored.

My first appointment was with a nurse. After mentioning my eating disorder, she told me the number of kilos that I needed to lose to be at my “optimum” weight. Maybe exercise, eat less food, she advised. I was absolutely mortified but, several weeks later, I summoned up the courage to book a doctor’s appointment.

I explained my situation. However, she wasn’t having any of my nonsense; I was a drain on the NHS’s precious resources! She asked me why I needed to be weighed by them – surely I could purchase my own scales and weigh myself. I tried to explain that getting a scale of my own would most definitely be detrimental, but I was dismissed.

January 2019

After a year on the NHS waiting list, I finally received therapy. I imagined that after the six months of treatment, I would be fixed and free from my baggage. Alas – I have since discovered that healing is not an end result, but a process. A time consuming and effortful process, strewn with relapses, darkness and desperation.

My treatment finished during the dreary winter. That year the cold seemed to have trickled down into my bones. I woke up each morning weary; a dull pain radiating throughout my body and anchoring me in bed. I grew concerned after a couple of weeks and went to see my GP at University. I saw a different doctor than usual and
she ordered a blood test. She told me she would only call me if something was wrong. Therefore, when I received a ring from a private number a week later, I was immensely anxious.

“Um… well… do you well, want to hurt yourself? I mean, are you suicidal?” The GP asked, trepidation evident.
I had been teetering on the edge for days – the mild pain becoming increasingly ominous, especially as Google was spitting out many serious illnesses that matched my symptom set. Therefore, I was surprised at her line of questioning.

“No. What about the blood test?”

She proceeded to look over the results, then concluded that I was fine. The pain was most likely the aftermath of a viral infection. Dissatisfied, I prodded her: “What about my vitamin D levels?”

“Well, it is a bit low,” she conceded conferring with her notes. “But you are essentially fine.”

Several weeks later, still in pain, I saw a different GP who revealed that “fine” was a severe Vitamin D deficiency and anaemia. My pain started to worsen after using supplements. I struggle with painful periods, but I started to reach a point where the pain was so intense that I could not walk half a mile. If I did, I would be on the verge of tears. The pain was so bad, I struggled to concentrate at University. Apparently, that was “fine”…

After yet another blood test, I discovered that “fine” was having four times the usual amount of creatine kinase (CK), an inflammatory enzyme. I was seething – especially as levels of CK can be abnormal in people with eating disorders, and thus it’s recommended that it is regularly monitored. Despite having had more than ten blood tests in the past half a year, it had never been measured.

At this point, my CK levels were so high that my kidney functioning could become compromised. However, my psychologist discharged me – after all, I was recovered.

I protested, so I was told I was too difficult. My compulsive need to burn calories was classed as “self-harming”, which was outside their scope. Therefore, I was referred to a recovery group who politely told me that I needed more intense support. As a last-ditch attempt, I was referred to a physiotherapist. He sympathised very much but
discharged me – apparently, my mobility was better than 99% of his patients.

I was lost in the system and it was frustrating.

Illustration: Olugbemi Moronfolu

April 2019

I have always had abnormal periods. As a teenager I’d been told that it was due to obesity. “If you lose weight, it will be fine,” I was told – but at a healthy weight my periods were still just as bad. Prior to University, a male GP encouraged me to use a blood thinner to alleviate my symptoms, as “leaking as an adult is embarrassing”, and
obviously if I wanted to invite anyone back to mine… well, that would be awkward.

At the age of twenty-one, I was told that it could maybe be fibroids. However, no diagnostic test was ever offered because, “at twenty, you are not planning to have children soon”. At the same time, I had a chest infection that was resistant despite two courses of antibiotics. I had a chest X-ray, which revealed I had an abnormally large heart, though my GP dismissed it as okay. After a blood pressure test and EEG, I was deemed young and probably fine, and prescribed with blood thinners to deal with my suspected fibroids.

Beta blockers, anti-depressants, ibuprofen, proton pump inhibitors – now, I had blood thinners to add to the cocktail.

August 2019

I had a severe panic attack, where I experienced chest pains for two days. I went to A&E after calling 111, and saw a doctor.

He smiled. He was aiming for sympathetic but the pity was clearly etched on his face. “Why are you worrying about your health when you were told that you were fine?” Internally, I rolled my eyes; did I drag myself out of the house this morning, and wait five hours in a waiting room, just to be told I was hysterical?

Quite frankly, it was embarrassing ending up in A&E because of a panic attack.

Was I being hysterical by not completely trusting medical professionals?

I don’t think so…

October 2020

I am doing a lot better with my health. However, my experiences have left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I recognise my doctors and psychologists as experts. But, as a psychology student, I have learned that sometimes it is important to question experts, especially if something feels amiss. After all, medical professionals are also humans; fallible, exhausted and stressed. It is important to be informed and work with medical professionals collaboratively. Therefore, I have always sought to understand my ailments introspectively (i.e. mapping symptoms), biologically and psychologically.

I hope this improves as we become more aware of mental health and health inequality.

You can find Gbemi on Instagram

#BlackWomensHealthMatters is published in partnership with period and leak-proof underwear brand Modibodi.

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Modibodi’s sponsorship of #BlackWomensHealthMatters has paid the contributor fees of three of our five guest bloggers this month, while donations from Hysterical Women readers helped to fund an additional two paid guest posts.