So, it’s eating disorder awareness week again and I fear, yet again, I will be “preaching to the converted”… not that I preach (I hope) but I fear my blog only reaches those people who already know about mental illness, those who are already interested, those who suffer themselves or who care for someone who is or has been mentally ill. People reading this do not really need their awareness raising, so…what’s the point?!
I’ve challenged myself to go a bit deeper this year. Maybe my audience are aware of mental illness, even aware of eating disorders and anorexia. But how many of you actually know what it’s like to be stuck on the treadmill of starvation where you beat yourself up because you wonder if you’ve chosen to be ill but when you try eating an apple, a voice tells you “if you don’t cut it into 36 pieces, you’ll put on 6 stone”?
Anorexia isn’t about choosing not to eat or just liking healthy eating. It isn’t sexy or glamorous. It isn’t about losing a bit of weight, being a moody teenager, being awkward or deliberately deceitful. It’s a serious mental disorder where your every waking moment is driven by a desire to lose weight and your nightmares are dominated by fear of fat. The interlinking of thoughts, emotions and behaviours and your interpretations of these is incredibly strong, it can feel impossible to break the automatic cycle.
The voice (I later called Ana) was with me 24/7, in bed, at the supermarket, while with friends, when I was alone, she never left me alone. I thought she was my friend as she gave me hints and tips to achieve my goal. She persuaded me to make trips to a supermarket that was further away because they sold products lower in fat and sugar. She kept me going when I slowed through exhaustion while out running, she made me run faster, harder, further. She helped me say no when I was tempted by cakes and biscuits. She made me walk instead of use the car, even when the weather was cold and wet. She gave me a buzz when I lost weight but didn’t let up, she made me strive for the next target.
With anorexia I was devious and deceptive. I’m ashamed of some of the things I did. This is common. My focus became losing weight, my aim was to consume as few calories as possible and use up as many as possible. Continuing with a vaguely normal life became difficult, impossible at times. I’d pour milk into a bowl to pretend I’d eaten cereal. I’d say I wasn’t hungry when my stomach was in knots. When offered food, I’d say I’d already eaten when the truth was I’d not eaten for days. On one hand I hated wasting food, on the other, I’d throw food away. I hated lying but if I was to achieve my goal I had to. Unfortunately, the more weight I lost, the more I had to hide. I also self harmed, I had to hide this as well.
Why was I so determined? I felt out of control of my body (during puberty) and of my emotions. I’m a highly sensitive introvert who felt like I didn’t fit in the world. I thought my food intake and losing weight was the only thing I could contol. As with any other coping mechanism we use to make ourselves feel better/happier (smoking, shopping, drinking alcohol) there comes a point where they stop helping and start becaming a problem in themselves.
The more weight I lost, the better I felt about my body, I got a pleasure, I felt a a sense of achievement. But each time I achieved my goal, I had to set a lower goal weight. The lower my goal weight, the harder it was to achieve. The harder I had to work at my eating disorder (yes, it’s hard work) the more unhappy I was. Anorexia is full of contradictions.
There came a point when I realised my goals for life weren’t compatible – I did not have enough physical or emotional energy to be the person I wanted to be and to continue losing weight. I had to decide which I wanted more. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just choosing to recover.
When trying to recover the juxtaposition of desperately wanting to get better with desperately wanting to continue losing weight (because you know you feel better lighter and feel worse heavier) is an impossible battle. It didn’t make sense to enter into a recovery programme, signing up to gaining weight, knowing this would make me unhappy. I was unhappy with my life dominated by thoughts of avoiding food, avoiding social situations involving food and constantly trying to use up excess calories, I knew I would be unhappy gaining weight and feeling excess fat on my body. This is a very difficult experience to explain.
As I wrestled with recovery, there were so many reasons to fight to get better but anorexia is powerful. I needed people around me with a lot of patience. Recovery is never a smooth journey and there were many hurdles and many set backs but it is possible.
When I tried talking about the voice I heard I was asked to give it a name (a well established therapeutic technique) but I insisted on calling it Frances because I knew rationally it was me… it felt like someone else but I knew this wasn’t actually possible. In an odd way, my insight was working against me.
Once I gave in and called her Ana, it became easier. Instead of blaming myself, feeling angry at myself, beating myself up etc…I started aiming all my anger and frustration at Ana and started fighting against my illnesses instead of against myself.