Anorexia is a dull, drawn-out process of not-doing. Credit: Shutterstock.
I was lying on a hospital trolley, filled with shame and paracetamol. By the time the doctor arrived the nurse had a large tube down my throat and was washing out my stomach.
The first thing he said was, "Well, I can see you've had broccoli tonight". My despair gave way to relief. I was emptied out, the food gone, I could begin again. I was 17 and had been anorexic for three years. Having been unable to get rid of my dinner or my hopelessness, I had been driven to take my own life.
Without specialist help I had yo-yo'd up and down in weight with various attempts at recovery, always reaching a point at which I could no longer stand being heavier. I found that when my weight was supposedly "normal", my mind still lived in an anorexic wasteland of warped and twisted logic, dysmorphia, and despair. I felt that my skin was crawling, that I was suffocating in my own flesh and wanted to rip through it to let myself out.
This visceral assault was a daily battle. I could not imagine that there would be a time when I would live from my body as if it were a secure base, rather than as if I were locked into a body that was not mine.
Anorexia was never about vanity, it never is. I wanted to shush myself, shrink myself into a neatly packaged box, with a quiet voice: on the sidelines of life enough not to make any detectable mistakes. I did not want to be the scribble-outside-the-lines, messy, loud person I thought lay beneath the surface threatening to come out and make a fool of me. I lived in fear of being too brash, too much, too there.
It is only now, as I am more politically and culturally aware, that I can see how much of this ties in with the unattainable demands put on women and girls in our culture. We must not rage, we must not be loud, we must not ask for too much, be too visible, we must not be too successful. I never felt I could do anything well enough, so I at least wanted my demise to be spectacular.
But anorexia is anything but spectacular. It is a very dull, drawn out, long process of not-doing. Not eating, not socialising, not living. And yet it is not as passive as it may seem. There is agency in anorexia, at least in the beginning. Eventually though, the illness is so woven into the fabric of one's being, it is hard to distinguish personality from pathology.
Thirteen years after that first overdose I hit another rock bottom. I had been trying to recover but found myself eating emotionally - what I now understand to be a physiological response to under eating at other times. I was sitting on my bedroom floor in a corner leaning over a plastic bag chewing up and spitting out Jammie Dodgers. I was distraught and didn't know how I would make it through the night. I suddenly remembered seeing a notice for Overeaters Anonymous and decided to look them up online: I had convinced myself I was overeating and no longer anorexic.
I went to my first meeting in Crouch End the following day. I was met by a warm, kind group of people in a church meeting room who were speaking honestly about their struggles with food in a way I'd never heard anyone speak before. They were admitting to things I would never previously have told anyone. Like how they ate out of bins. I felt at home.
At my next meeting I asked someone to sponsor me and we came up with my 'abstinence', which was to be three meals a day, no snacks, and no sugar. A common saying in OA is that it's harder for the "foodies" because alcoholics don't drink, whereas we had to let the tiger out of the cage three times a day. So snacking was too dangerous and my penchant for sweet foods meant that that temptation had to be eradicated. In order to be abstinent I would need to do all twelve steps and eventually sponsor newcomers, which I did. I was asked to speak at conferences across the UK and revelled in the praise I got for "working my programme". I was for all intents and purposes a fully signed up lifetime member of OA.
The idea, for anyone who doesn't know, is that you're in a twelve step programme for life. Step out and you will eventually relapse and will possibly die. With a lot of accountability, and a supportive community around me was able to stick to this strict way of eating for a year.
In truth I was able to use this support to maintain a somewhat eating disordered state. I liked having this kind of prescribed way of living, having felt so at sea in life before.
My weight continued to rise despite eating an increasingly restricted food plan - diets only work for around five percent of people in the long term and though eating disorders are absolutely not a diet, what I was essentially doing to my body amounted to dieting along with a spiritual programme. I did not know this at the time.
The regain was making me desperate once again and another rock bottom was rising to meet me. I could no longer stand the feeling of being in my skin. I felt like I had been padded out with flesh that did not belong to me, it was a vicious onslaught, and not one I was sure I could withstand. Despite my despair, I knew I couldn't go backwards. I knew I couldn't restrict and relapse all over again, especially with the inevitable weight gain.
So I turned to a couple of Facebook friends and acquaintances who I knew to be therapists with specific interests in body acceptance. This was where it all changed.
My distress signal was heard and I was signposted to various blog posts and books. I began reading about a movement called Health at Every Size (HAES), which introduced me to the science behind weight and health. HAES does not say that everyone at any size is healthy, but instead that size is not a predictor of health. You can be thin and unhealthy, fat and healthy, and all shades in between. What matters is the health behaviours you adopt, and not your weight.
HAES is also about a compassionate way of being in the world, challenging size stigma and the social inequalities that affect health.
I was never anorexic for health reasons, and I was never motivated by health reasons in my pursuit of recovery. In each position I sought only to change and improve my mental state. However, realising that the weight gain wasn't my fault, that my body was doing what it needed to do, I felt more able to cope with it. I came to understand that my body is individual and cannot be accurately measured by an arbitrary method such as the Body Mass Index (BMI), which was only ever meant to map population trends and fails to differentiate between muscle mass and fat mass.
Given that my body was doing its best to heal itself and that my restriction was only making it worse, what I was left with was this: eat more, according to hunger, and work on my fat phobia and body acceptance. The idea that I could trust myself didn't feel compatible with the OA philosophy and I left.
What I realised I had been doing all this time was saying "it's okay if you're fat, but not if I am". Because fat is bad. Because fat is lazy. Because fat means I am out of control, irresponsible, a burden, ugly, and so on. Or so society says. What hit me, and hit me hard, was how these beliefs about being fat meant that I was inadvertently contributing to the demonisation of fat people. I use fat here as a descriptor. As it should be used, not as the moral term implied in my old judgments.
Something fundamental was shifting in my mind and I was beginning to see anorexia and my eating disorders beyond the personal, beyond my own story, to something with a wider context.
As I worked on challenging my beliefs around what different bodies meant to me and why, I was also on a journey to eating freely. I like the term 'attuned eating' and that's where I feel I am at now. There are no rules, I have just got to know my body, to feel what hunger is before I am ravenous, to feel what satisfied is before I feel stuffed, to trust that what I fancy eating is what my body wants, and also to eat sometimes outside of these times. During social occasions I might want to eat something someone has made, have some popcorn at the cinema, eat an ice cream when out with friends.
And my weight stabilised and has stayed the same for three years without me trying to manipulate it in any way. That is freedom for me. My body is my home, the place I live from, and it can be trusted. I can be trusted.
I think what keeps me grounded and in recovery is community. Just like the community in OA was invaluable at the time, so I have found a different community in which I feel I belong.
I am involved in HAES events held in London, and soon after became involved with an amazing organisation called AnyBody, the UK chapter of a global organisation called Endangered Bodies. At AnyBody we seek to challenge the industries who benefit from mining our bodies for profit; who create body insecurities where there were none (think vaginoplasty - who was concerned with how their vaginas looked before this new procedure was advertised?).
Here I quickly realised that I am a feminist and began to see my personal struggles within a wider socio-political context. The personal is still very much political. My fears of taking up space, of having feelings that might be loud, angry protests, can be understood as mirroring much of what women and girls grow up with from the beginning of life.
Recovery requires a positive and loving community. Eating disorders thrive in isolation. In recovery find your people, those individuals you can be you with - without apology - and stick by each other. Resist the urge to bond over body shaming and dare to speak of your true insecurities. Community, compassion and courage will get you far. Full recovery is possible.
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