“If I died, it would not be anorexia that tore my family apart: it would be me”

TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of eating-disordered behaviour.

 

The day I turned twenty-one years old, I very much doubted that I would live to see twenty-three. I was stuck in an exhausting and seemingly eternal cycle of eating disorders that I really thought might kill me, and I was resigned to it. If you had told me that in a brief couple of years I would be describing my experiences with anorexia and bulimia with a detachment that makes it feel almost like I’m writing about another person, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am.

 

My (for want of a better word) screwed-up relationship with food and with my body began when I was much younger. My mum was a perpetual fad-dieter and chaotic eater when my little brother and I were growing up, and while I would never blame her for the situation I found myself in later on, her attitude towards food did influence my own. Food was not necessary sustenance, but something to be controlled, something to reward or punish yourself with, a comfort or a scourge. The adult female body, meanwhile, was unpredictable, volatile, a constant disappointment that needed to be starved and pinched and restricted into submission. Entirely unaware and unquestioning, I swallowed all of this information and ran with it: as I entered my teens, I was already dieting. The way I ate became stranger and more restrictive as I got older.

 

Things took a sharp turn for the worse during my first year of Uni at Manchester. I had ‘trimmed down’ the amount I ate every day until there really wasn’t very much left to trim, I was exercising compulsively and had become a virtual recluse. It was also around then that I started binge-eating and deliberately throwing up. You see, as much as Western philosophy would like our brains and our bodies to be separate, they’re not. When you try to starve your body, your body will fight your brain, and at some point it will win. It’s hard to describe the feeling that takes over when your body does win: the best way I can explain it is that it feels like you are dreaming. Usually at night, I would go searching for food, ANY food; I would steal it from my flatmates, hoard it in my room, go out to buy it and twitch impatiently in shop queues because in that state you can never acquire the food fast enough. When I ate it I barely even tasted it. Overwhelmed with guilt and disgust, I would then expel it from my body as quickly as possible, using methods of concealment too vile to even discuss. On waking the next morning, I could barely remember what had happened.

 

This cycle continued into my second year. I became a shell; irritable at best and hysterical at worst, I alienated almost everyone that I knew. I actually remember very little from that period (just one of the exciting mental effects of starvation: it addles your memory. This can be extremely embarrassing when you come across people a year or two later who you have apparently met before, but who you simply cannot recollect). I was utterly wrapped up in my own world and oblivious to everything and everyone else. Above all, I was terribly ashamed – that I was involving my family and friends in my one-woman suicide mission, that I did not have the energy to support anyone else, that I was deliberately starving myself while there were famines taking place elsewhere. Meanwhile, my body was falling to pieces: my skin became papery and sore, my hair was brittle, my eyes dull; stomach cramps and headaches became a normal part of my day; my teeth and throat became so sensitive that hot or cold liquids were too painful to drink; I began to see blood when I threw up.

 

I did seek medical help very early on, but it took 18 months for my referral for specialist treatment to go through, by which time I was in so deep that therapy seemed a waste of my precious time (I liked to think of myself as a bit of a starving artist, or starving academic to be more accurate), so I stopped going after a few sessions. Uni was aware of the problem, but my grades were consistently good (a result of spending 12 hours a day at the library trying to take my mind off the constant hunger), so it was never really questioned. I lost the ability to tell the difference between dreams and reality and the sky started to tilt in at me. I was through the looking-glass. Thoughts that I might not last the year started to enter my mind. I was very sick and very lost.

 

In the midst of all this darkness, though, I had a number of breakthroughs which let just a little bit of light in. I began to visit an online forum for people with eating disorders and made a few friends who were in the same situation as I was; who weren’t afraid to tell me that the way I was behaving was my responsibility. In my opinion, one of the key problems with the way that both professionals and carers deal with eating disorders is to treat them as though they are involuntary illnesses. They’re not, though they are usually co-morbid with mental illnesses that are. Eating disorders are much more like addictions, in that recovery has to begin with taking responsibility for your actions. That seems to so obvious to me now that I feel quite silly typing it out, but coming to terms with this responsibility was central to starting me on the recovery process. If I died, it would not be anorexia that tore my family apart: it would be me. I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say that I owe those online friends my life for making me realise that.

 

The second breakthrough came via my university library, good old John Rylands. I began to really read about eating disorders, to research them as if for an essay. My research led me to Susie Orbach’s books – specifically Fat is a Feminist Issue, Bodies, and Hunger Strike – and then to The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. The more of these feminist texts I read, the more I began to understand the reasons behind my behaviour – the fear of sexual attention, the desperation to be taken seriously and thus not wanting to appear sexual or even female, the need to be in constant control. I also began to understand my complicity with the institutions and industries that these writers were condemning – from the diet and beauty industries to oppressive patriarchy as a whole. Very, very gradually, with a good deal of slip-ups, I began to fight back against myself.

 

I spent my third year abroad, living in Chile. Shortly after I arrived, I witnessed the 2010 earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster the country had seen in many years. I didn’t realise  it at the time, but that event would turn everything around. Thereafter, my year abroad was a difficult, turbulent, challenging, terrifying and thoroughly wonderful time which made me completely reassess everything about myself. I returned to England changed both physically and mentally. I built bridges with the friends I had alienated in my second year. And from then everything got better.

 

While I do consider myself recovered, I won’t pretend that the process has been easy, and I won’t lie and say that I am completely ‘OK’ with food and my body now. Our society forces desexualised thinness and childlike fragility upon women so aggressively – not just through the popular media but also through the white noise of misogyny that dictates day-to-day what women should be – that it can be hard to see past, no matter how socially aware you are. My recovery involved me nearly doubling my body weight, an incredibly unnatural concept in such a social climate, and one which I struggle to justify every day.

 

There is so much more to be said about this – about the role of modern patriarchy and capitalism in women’s mental illnesses, about the enduring fear of female sexuality that makes all women’s bodies shameful, about the often unexpected effects of even low-level caloric restriction on mental cognition, about the disproportionate representation of LGBTQ people in eating disorder statistics – but I have already waffled a lot, so maybe I’ll save that for another time…

 

If you are suffering, please: seek professional help, educate yourself, talk, shout, don’t stay silent. Don’t martyr yourself. You are worth more than that.

 

 


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