"I felt insecure, I didn’t feel pretty enough, I didn’t know what was going on."
You probably remember Britt Nilsson as one of the front-runners on Chris Soules’ season of The Bachelor in 2015, or from her weird face-off with Kaitlyn Bristowe to see who would become The Bachelorette (she lost).
Now, the reality star is getting incredibly candid in a new YouTube video about her history of disordered eating and addiction.
“I’m going to talk about addiction,” she said. “It’s a big part of my life, and it’s good to share.”
“My makeup is basically that I just want it all, all the time,” she continued. “That’s what makes me a really joyful person … I really like experiencing life, I really, truly enjoy life so much—but I also don’t know when to stop.”
Nilsson says that she’s struggled with binge-eating disorder (BED), an eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binging and purging, since she was young, and later developed bulimia, which is an obsessive desire to lose weight with bouts of binge-eating, followed by vomiting, purging, or fasting, in college.
“I had a lot of shame, and that just kicked it up,” she said. “All addictions are pretty related to shame and pain avoidance, in my experience. The years after college were really dark years. I was binging all day, throwing up. I was hiding it because I was so ashamed—I was just mortified with myself. I would spend my days eating food in secret, throwing up in garbage bags in my car, throwing up in dumpsters, throwing up behind bushes, in the shower.” Britt says this went on for years, but she didn’t tell anyone because she was too ashamed.
When she started filming The Bachelor, she relapsed. “For me, having tons of food everywhere … it just became too much,” she said. “I had pain and anxiety, I felt insecure, I didn’t feel pretty enough, I didn’t know what was going on, I missed my family.”
Britt says she was “totally terrified” that she would be caught on a mic and that “millions of people were going to know that I just couldn’t control myself. It was really, really hard for me, and it just kept going and going.”
“You’re mic-ed 24/7,” she continued. “I would take my mic off and try to hide it under towels so they wouldn’t hear me throw up, because then that was going to be on the show and that was going to be a plot line. How horrible would that be, to be the girl who has an eating disorder, who can’t stop eating and throwing up? I mean, I had broken blood vessels. I would throw up until I was bleeding out of my nose. I just couldn’t stop, and that’s kind of been a theme in my life.”
Britt says she’s also struggled with drugs and alcohol.
“I’m an alcoholic,” she said. “Meaning not that I was drinking a bottle of wine by myself in the bathtub, or waking up and taking shots, but my personality, for better or worse, is a personality where little is good, all is best, and more, more, more. … That’s just something that I’ve had to navigate throughout my entire life. Alcohol has been part of my life off and on, but whenever it is a part of my life I try to control it and I can’t.”
Britt said she was also addicted to drugs in college, including cocoaine and marijuana. “I used to smoke weed every single day in college,” she said. “I would be high giving presentations. I basically didn’t know how to live without drugs.”
Now, Britt says she hasn’t had alcohol for a year. “It’s really changed my life,” she said. “I’ve reconciled with my dad, I’ve gone back and made amends with most people in my life. I called all my roommates that I’ve ever lived with. That was hard and embarrassing, but it was a really beautiful process.”
Britt says her fiancé Jeremy Byrne has helped her recover. “The first person that I ever told [about my bulimia] was Jeremy,” she said. “It actually was a huge release. He just stuck by me with it, he would ask me about it, he would keep me accountable, and it actually got much, much better. I started talking to people about it, I started going to groups about it. … I learned a lot. It wasn’t completely eradicated, but it wasn’t this shameful, horrible secret.”
“Right now, I feel healthier,” she said, adding that she made a vow to never purposefully throw up after The Bachelor and has stuck to that promise. But, her recovery is still ongoing. “I’m not perfect, at all,” she said. “I still struggle. It’s still hard for me to know when I’m hungry, when I’m full, when to stop … I used to be embarrassed about this, but it is what it is.”
Britt’s story is intense and emotional. However, it’s not uncommon for someone struggling with eating disorders to experience symptoms of more than one, says Hannah Beaver, L.C.S.W., team leader at The Renfrew Center of Radnor. “That is referred to as ‘symptom swapping,’ which means replacing one disordered behavior with another over the course of time that they are struggling,” she explains. “Because binge-eating disorder and bulimia both involve bingeing episodes, there is overlap between the two eating disorders quite often.”
People don’t typically suffer from two eating disorders at once though, says Julie Friedman, Ph.D., executive director of binge eating treatment and recovery at Eating Recovery Center. “It’s very common to have patients who are suffering from bulimia for a bit to migrate into binge-eating,” she says. “We see that a lot.”
Bulimia is a complex disorder that’s often caused by several factors including biological, psychological, and environmental influences, genetic factors, low self-esteem, negative body image, other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, relationship issues, the need to feel in control, and other stressors, Beaver says, adding that the causes of binge-eating disorder are largely similar. “Often times, an eating disorder is functioning to help an individual cope with difficult emotions and life events,” she adds.
Friedman also says it’s common for people struggling with an eating disorder to have a substance abuse issue and vice versa. “The biology is so similar,” she says. Patients with bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and substance-abuse disorders have an underactive reward center in their brain, so they’re motivated to seek out rewards and seek more of them than most people in order to get a feel-good response, Friedman explains. And they’ll seek out anything that boosts that reward—including drugs, alcohol, and food.
If you’re suffering from an eating disorder and substance abuse problem, it may seem like you can’t be helped, but Chelsea Reeves, director of alumni services at Newport Academy, a mental health and addiction treatment center for adolescents, says it’s possible to tackle both issues at once—and the same skills you learn in treatment for an eating disorder can be applied to an addiction (and vice versa).
"Clients who come in with bulimia more often than not have problems and difficulty with alcohol," she says. "Once they confront the underlying problems that cause their eating disorder, they no longer need to seek out alcohol to fill that void."
Beaver says it’s crucial to seek professional help as soon as possible—the sooner you get help, the sooner you can recover. It’s also good to talk to a family member or friend who can support you in the recover process. “It can be scary to do it on your own,” Beaver says.
Britt agrees. “Tell someone that you know, because just letting the secret out is the biggest part of it,” she said. “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”