Diabulimia: The invisible illness that desperately needs to be addressed.

Type one diabetes is not a widely understood condition. It’s an enigma in the way it materialises, and it’s an enigma to society, too. In many ways, type one diabetes is an invisible illness. It presents invisible problems, of which diabulimia is one. The effects are devastating and commonly felt within the type one community, and yet, much of society is oblivious to it.

A touch of science: type one diabetes is an irreversible autoimmune condition, meaning that the body attacks needed cells in the pancreas by mistake. Pancreatic cells produce insulin and thus regulate blood sugar level. The result of a diagnosis is a lifetime of insulin pump therapy or injection therapy and a multitude of injections each day.

On the 25th September, Victoria Derbyshire ran a story on diabulimia. This is something that I personally was taken aback by: as a type one diabetic, I am acutely aware of diabulimia and I know of the severe dangers that it can pose. The surprise I felt at seeing such a news story broadcast speaks volumes. It is not a problem which is even recognised by much of society, and this presents a great danger in itself.

Diabulimia is an eating disorder in which type one diabetics deliberately stop taking insulin with the goal of losing weight. It is currently not recognised as a diagnosable disorder. This needs to change. Sixty percent of female type one diabetics will have experienced an eating disorder before the age of twenty-five.

Without insulin therapy, a type one diabetic cannot survive. This is the key to understanding the danger of diabulimia. When the body is deprived of its ability to produce insulin, rapid weight loss occurs within an incredibly short space of time. To contextualise: in the period before my diagnosis, I dropped three dress sizes in two months. The appeal of this to those suffering from poor body confidence, as is often the case with women in contemporary society, immediately surfaces.

Upon writing this article, Microsoft Word presented a red, wavy line under the word “diabulimia” to indicate that it was either spelt wrong or that it was a word that did not exist. I believe that this is a very strong metaphor for the perception of, or lack of perception of, diabulimia in wider society. The illness shouldn’t be a secret, available in hushed tones exclusively for those suffering from type one. People are dying, either through suicide or through fatal exposure to sky-high blood sugars (ketoacidosis).

The time to act is now. Elevate the voices of those who are working to amplify this cause; donate to charities such as JDRF or DWED (Diabetics With Eating Disorders), and, most importantly, speak to type one diabetics. Mental health problems and type one diabetes are intrinsically linked: they are mutually exclusive, and this is a sad reality. No one should suffer in silence. Diabulimia is the invisible illness which desperately, desperately needs to be addressed.

Eleanor Noyce

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(Image courtesy of Salon)