The Oxford Dictionary’s definition for Anorexia is ‘An emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.’ Today’s story candidly describes the struggles faced with this very misunderstood mental disorder. It was especially written in the interest of education and to help raise awareness, and it aims to motivate readers who suspect they suffer from an eating disorder to seek help, because help is always out there.
When I was around 12 years old, my family and I watched a film on TV about a young anorexic girl, and ever since I have wondered if watching this film in any way shaped my future. At the time, watching it, I remember being entirely unable to understand or relate to what was happening to the girl. I could not fathom why, seeing herself so thin, she would not just go and eat an entire chocolate cake or five hamburgers and enjoy the process of gaining weight. More than that, I could not get my head round her having got so thin intentionally in the first place - why wasn’t she just eating food? As her health deteriorated in the film, it just got me more confounded. I remember feeling perplexed and a little bit angry that this girl was quite clearly in dire need of nourishment, had her family despairing, was on the brink of death, yet would not just eat a sandwich. Part of me wanted to shout at the TV that this was nonsensical on every level and she should just eat something, how could she not see that?! It was so simple to me: eat and all this will go away, just eat something, especially as you know you are too thin. It made me angry. But I do remember another part of me feeling curious and fascinated that anyone could put their body through that and reach that level of will power over what was for me pretty much the most enjoyable thing to do.
It is this fascination that I have since wondered about. Did it in some way root itself in my subconscious and sit waiting for my own life to crumble a bit before giving me that first nudge, saying “hey, why don’t you try this?” Or it could just be a coincidence. I may just remember that film because of the impact it had on me in my inability to relate to the girl. Either way, I am glad I watched it because I can now understand and empathise with anyone who has struggled to understand what I myself went through. Of course, while going through Anorexia this was impossible because, as with any mental health condition, I became entirely entrenched in it and in myself and was unable to see anything outside it. But since recovering, I can now quite easily take myself back to that time before Anorexia and in turn relate to anyone who simply cannot relate to an anorexic. I feel like I am going round in circles, but my point is that if none of what I am about to tell you makes any sense, I understand. I remember.
I was 14 when I first developed Anorexia. It wasn’t not there one day and there the next, but rather crept up on me so slowly that I was unaware of it happening until it was already too late for me to undo it. Up until that point, I had been a very athletic child, and had a very healthy appetite. I never worried about my weight or my body shape and ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. But something changed that year. I was on the track after school and finding it hard to beat my own 100m sprint record. I was slowing down, and (innocently - I do not in any way blame him because this is what they often advise) my sports coach made a reference to my body weight having gone up and suggested I lose some and train harder if I wanted to improve. I did want to improve, and went home and spoke to my mum who actively, and also innocently, encouraged my first ever diet. I decided to cut out junk food and eat healthily, which would have been great had it ended there. I remember pulling my tracksuit bottoms away from my waist and seeing the red grooves marked on my skin and feeling repulsed by them. All of a sudden I felt fat everywhere and needed to do something about this. As with all things, there was nothing half hearted about my approach - I was going to lose the weight and increase my track times and one day be in the Olympics. And so I was meticulous and found a will power I didn’t know I had. I very quickly came to enjoy this control I had over my food intake, and felt empowered every time I said no to a bar of chocolate or packet of crisps. I swapped fizzy drinks for water, and every day that went by in which I managed to turn down junk food and eat healthily was a notch up in this epic feeling of control over my world.
I stood on the weighing scales on day 1 of my diet and saw 61kg. At five foot five inches tall, this is in the healthy range, but I wanted to get down to 55kg, this was my aim. It took probably less than two months to achieve this because of my discipline, but in that time I had become addicted to this feeling of control. Seeing those numbers on the dial go down was unbelievably exhilarating. At the time, other factors in my life felt so out of my control that I, subconsciously, placed all my focus and drive on ensuring those numbers kept going down, and, once I hit my target, giving up felt like losing, or failing, or letting go of my grip on something that I was finally 100% behind the wheel of. It was no longer remotely about what my body looked like; it was purely about weighing less and being the one who had so much power over it. I was brilliant at this and did not want to stop. When nothing else in the world was really in my hands, this was, and nobody could take it away from me. It consumed me, it became the focal point of absolutely everything, and before I was aware of it, the control had turned from me over it to it over me. Anorexia’s sly hands had quietly wrapped themselves around me without me or anyone else noticing them and once they take their grip, that’s pretty much it.
My behaviour across the board completely changed. I became obsessed with food, its calorie content and what I ate. It sounds contradictory, but my established eating times became all I could think about despite the fact that I was slowly reducing the quantity of what I ate. I lived for those moments, and when I wasn’t eating, I was inevitably thinking about what I was going to eat next. Every day my food intake was planned, I could not eat anything outside that plan because doing so would trigger immense anxiety and guilt at failing and I would end up having to make up for it by missing a meal. This was all quite easy to conceal while the quantity remained in the healthy range. But by the time I was skipping breakfast, eating an apple for lunch and nibbling at as small a portion of supper as possible, it was becoming way too clear to people around me that I was starving myself. The offer of a biscuit was exhilarating and frightening all at once; I loved my ability to turn it down (by this point I was so steeped in it all that I had convinced my brain that I didn’t like anything with a high fat or sugar content so it was very easy to turn things down even without the thrill that came with controlling it), but was terrified of the fall out of being forced to have the biscuit and not wanting it. Eating just one biscuit would create absolute chaos in my mind. It was outside my fixed intake and I would spiral into a state of panic if I felt compelled through argument or blackmail (what else were my parents supposed to do?) to eat it. I had taken to wearing looser and baggier clothes to conceal my now skinny body so that fewer people would notice and get in the way of my “mission”. And I developed a new found love for supermarkets, shopping for food and, bizarre as it sounds, baking. Not for myself - for other people. The more other people ate what I baked, and the less I ate of it, the stronger I felt.
My social life completely deteriorated. Virtually all social interactions, bar outside activities, centre around food or drink consumption, which I was avoiding. My obsession with food also meant that I found anything else an unwanted distraction, and by the same token other people found my obsession with it disconcerting and strange. There is also the fact that as my weight plummeted, I developed mood swings and lethargy and found it hard to concentrate or focus. I became agitated and easily angered by things or people and slowly withdrew myself from (and was pushed out of) my social network. I didn’t mind - as long as I weighed less every day I was on top of the world. Ironically, I was kicked off the athletics team because my muscles were disappearing along with all my body fat and I had no energy to do anything like running. It’s telling how strong this condition is when something you were so passionate about falls to the wayside so easily as long as you are still losing weight.
My family life was impacted massively. My brother became angry with me in the same way I became angry with the girl in the film. He would either shout at me to eat or avoid me altogether. My mother didn’t know how to cope with it in any way other than also shouting at me. And my parents started shouting at each other. Nobody could understand what on Earth I was doing to myself or why and it was impossible for them to stand by and watch. My mother took me to see a doctor, whose solution was to give me a medication that increases your appetite, which to this day I see as a profound misunderstanding of my condition - having an appetite had never stopped me in the first place. Feeling hungry and ignoring it was the very thing I had come to crave. I pretended to take the medication because I didn’t want to take any extra calories. Bear in mind I was now refusing to so much as lick stamps for fear of calories, so a pill or a 10mg shot of medicine was way too scary for me. It just was not happening, and when mum inevitably discovered this, she became fraught with worry and helplessness. So they whipped out a huge bargain: I now weighed around 42kg. If I got up t 50kg, they would buy me the motorbike I had been wanting for ages. You would think that when no social life, no athletic future and my family breaking down had not been an impetus for me to eat, this would not be either. For two years nothing, absolutely nothing, had moved me to eat more, and while he said this I never imagined anything would ever again be a motivating factor to choose to gain weight. And the promise of a bike would not have been either had my dad not said something to me one evening that I doubt he thought would be so impactful.
I was sat on the edge of his bed while he was lying there reading his book and without so much as looking at me he said “such a shame that while everyone else this summer is going to be running around the beach feeling healthy, looking nice, you’re going to be here at home wrapped up in those clothes looking horrific and feeling the way you do”.
Up until this point, no amount of shouting at me to eat was going to make me do it. Quite the opposite - it only pushed me further into my hole. Anorexia is a control mechanism and the chaos that followed only fed it. Looking back, my parents can now appreciate that a calm approach, one that showed me that food is OK and healthy without imposing it on me, leaving subtle hints for me to think I had come up with myself and letting my mind make these realisations on its own would have been the better approach. In hindsight we can all see that Anorexia is born out of a need for control, and gently looking at underlying issues would have helped me. But at the time nobody knew how to cope in any other way, and I don’t blame them.
Maybe I was at a point of being susceptible to recovery. Maybe for some time I had been looking at my own body and starting to wonder what I was doing to myself. My periods had stopped, my hair was falling out of my head, my body had started to grow a soft downy hair in new places for warmth, I was permanently constipated and in pain, my teeth and eyes looked huge and bulging in my gaunt face, and in the mirror I could now see anorexia where I saw control before. Perhaps the timing of it all was perfect, but I went to bed that night imagining my body in a bikini and for the first time since this all began felt envious of girls who had curves. The next day I saw my body in a totally new light and was horrified. I wish I could say that from there it was an easy recovery and I just picked up food and ate it, but like with any addiction, awareness was just the first step in a long, slow and excruciating process. Every mouthful outside my planned intake still made me feel sick with anxiety and failure. I would sit in front of a plate of food and want to cry at the thought of actually putting what I thought was a huge amount of fat inside my body. Seeing numbers on a dial go up instead of down was mental torture for me and the only thing I can liken all this to is the withdrawal process from drugs. Every cell in your body and brain is pulling in two opposite directions: on the one hand you know what you should be doing, but on the other you’ve been so indoctrinated and entrenched in this addiction and it’s allure for so long that you can’t remember living without it and not doing it is terrifying. It was a daily battle for about six months with feelings of failure and loss of control, though ironically this battle meant I was finally regaining control. I kept focusing on that envy I felt towards other girls and how revolting my body had become and slowly, very slowly, turned fat from my enemy into my friend.
I once read that you never truly overcome Anorexia. Even if you do reach a healthy weight, and even if you do return to eating high calorie foods, you will remain forever aware of your food intake and body weight in a way you weren't before. And this is true. I relapsed in my early 20s due to the stress of my degree, and have slipped a few times since. It has become an automatic reflex for me in times of strain and probably always will be. But each time I slip, I find it easier to spot and bounce back from it, even if I do live in a world where food remains a focal point. To this day I find it hard to eat a slice of cake or an ice cream without feeling guilty or slightly anxious. I doubt that will ever change. But I am healthy, and that’s ultimately what matters. I think the best state anybody who has been through Anorexia can ever achieve is this level of awareness of it and of what is actually healthy, and to recognise that while Anorexia fools you into thinking you have control, the truth is that it has control over you. Empower yourself by TRULY taking control and kicking Anorexia in the butt. That right there is power.