Battling Bulimia: A Live Chat with Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson), and Kelly Brownell, PhD

One woman's struggle with bulimia -- and how she's learning to heal

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

You may know her as the voice of cartoon character Lisa Simpson, but Yeardley Smith is now giving voice to her own lifelong struggle with bulimia. She joined us, along with eating disorder expert, Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the Yale Center for Eating Disorders, to discuss the emotional and physical effects of bulimia.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome, everyone, thank you for joining us. Yeardley, how long have you been dealing with bulimia?

Smith: 24 years.

Moderator: How did it begin?

Smith: I started dieting when I was nine and by the age of 14, I was completely weight and body obsessed. A friend of mine told me that if you eat and vomit you won't gain any weight, when I was 14. I did not take to vomiting easily or quickly. But I was determined to be as thin as I could, and I never did really get very thin.

Moderator: Dr. Brownell, is that pretty typical?

Brownell: Yes. This is quite typical. People start off with a desire to be thin and can easily fall into the trap of restricting their eating, then overeating, and then throwing up, as a way of controlling their weight. This is not generally an effective weight-control method and of course brings many psychological consequences.

Smith: It was not a very effective way to control my weight. I was always normal weight to about 20 pounds overweight. And yet the obsession continued.

Member question: You've been dealing with this for 24 years? How has it affected your health?

Smith: I have thrown up blood. I have very sensitive teeth. But I am extremely lucky that I never had any gastrointestinal ailments.

Moderator: Dr. Brownell, what other physical problems can bulimia cause?

Brownell: The problems that Yeardley mentioned are quite common, and in some people the problems can be even more severe, with the most serious being electrolyte problems, which can lead to heart difficulties. This does not include the psychological torment, which can include preoccupation with eating and body image, often to the exclusion of anything else.

Smith: I have had periods of rapid heartbeat and nothing has shown up on EKGs, but it seems pretty fishy to me.

Member question: Was it easy to hide your purging from your family? Did they ever express concern?

Smith: Yes, it was easy; no, they never knew. One of the characteristics of my eating disorder has been secrecy and what I would call lying by omission. Not telling anyone that I was doing it and when asked if I was still doing it I would say, no, if it was true that I had not done it that day. I was dedicated to acting out my disease.

Brownell: Secrecy is very common with people with bulimia, which in some cases allows the disease to go many years without detection. The good news is that there are quite effective treatments available and so if bulimics can come forward and ask for help, good help is there.

Moderator: Yeardley, why have you come forward?

Smith: I think I realized finally, after 24 years, that everything I had tried to stop was not working, and I needed to dedicate myself to my recovery. Though it was not actually my intention to come forward as a bulimic.

I wrote a show about my 20 years in show business as an actress and realized that part of that story was my being bulimic, and that that was a large coping mechanism for the throes of being an actress with some success and some disappointment and the whole animal that goes along with being in professional show business.

Member question: How about the people you work with every day on The Simpsons (my all-time favorite show)? Have they been supportive? Did any treat you differently when they found out about your bulimia?

Smith: Actually they have not seen my show because I've done it in New York, so few of my cast members know about my struggle. But I am sure that when, and if, they find out they will support me.

Moderator: How has your family reacted?

Smith: My family has been very compassionate and expressed their sadness that I have gone through this for more than half my life.

Member question: Do you feel that you've used bulimia as a way to manage stress?

Smith: Absolutely.

Moderator: Dr. Brownell, what are some of the reasons people begin throwing up?

Brownell: Yeardley hit on an important point, in that bulimia typically starts as a way to manage weight, but can transform into a means of managing mood. For some this might mean depression, for some stress, and for others it could be loneliness. The cycles of overeating and vomiting can get out of control easily, but in a funny way they become reinforced because they are a way to manage stress. Hence, treatment involves addressing not only weight issues, but also other issues central to a person's life.

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