Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Confession of an Anorexic

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[Trigger warning: details of self-injurious behaviour]

Sitting down to write this piece I find myself feeling like a criminal on death row, provoked into writing a final confession for a crime of which I am both the victim and the perpetrator, one for which I am as guilty as I am innocent. I consider how wronged I feel by the jury who, for the most part, were blissfully unaware or otherwise so frustrated by my irrational behaviour that they could conjure no sympathy for the severity of my sentence – condemning me to myself.

For the sake of exactness, my official diagnosis is ‘chronic anorexia nervosa binge/purge subtype’. There. It’s out there. Now let me backtrack.

I could probably go back further because anorexic thoughts don’t start overnight, but I will begin with the first time I stepped on the scales at age eleven. At eleven years old I was self-conscious at best, the tallest girl in my class, my shoe size had doubled in the last year and we had trouble finding a school skirt to fit (many thanks to the M&S philosophy that the taller you are, the wider you are).  I was also lonely, it suddenly being socially unacceptable to play stuck-in-the-mud with the boys at lunchtimes as I always had. I was not fat. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t believe I thought I was then either. It is a common misconception that anorexia always starts with the desire to be thinner, that it is nothing more serious than a diet gone out of control. For me, any desire to be thin was most certainly a symptom for than a cause of the mental state which would soon leave my sense of self-worth at the mercy of nutritional guidelines and BMI calculators.

By the time I moved up to secondary school, I was well-seasoned in the art of avoiding breakfast and disposing of my lunch in neighbouring on the way to school. I walked the long way in and never went a day without at least an hour of vigorous exercise.

My friends didn’t clock my eating habits as weird because they knew no different. I would always have fruit or raw veg on hand at lunchtimes to disguise the lack of sandwiches, crisps or pizza which constituted everyone else’s lunches.

I wasn’t found out until I reached A-levels, and even then, I wasn’t chased when I refused to turn up to counselling sessions or checkups with the school nurse. I was adamant there was nothing wrong with me and was infuriated that all of my subject teachers seemed to have been formally alerted to my fragile mental state. My grades and my eating habits were reliant on one another.  If I didn’t achieve to my own high standards, I would punish myself in the most destructive way. I wanted to be a success but I didn’t know what I wanted. The numbers on the scale became the only sure-fire way I could see of defining myself and my progress.diet-398613_1920

The binge/purge aspect of my diagnosis didn’t start until the summer before I started university. During this summer, my weight plummeted from a borderline BMI of 19 to a verging-on-dangerous 18. That summer I ruined family holidays with irrational tears and tantrums, refusing to eat while hating myself for not having the energy to enjoy myself. My solution to this was to eat and then later to make myself sick, making my family happy while satisfying my anorexic urges – or so I thought. It was torture and every time was the last time.

Going to university was an isolating experience entirely because of my condition. A sip of alcohol would have me paralytic and the student life of McDonald’s or Sprinkles for breakfast wasn’t something I was allowed to partake in. I missed home but didn’t feel like I was missed by home, having made myself so difficult to live with over summer that they were probably relieved to be rid of me.

Now, before I go on, I need you to understand something. I wanted help. I really did. I didn’t want to be resented my family and neglected by the uni scene. But by this time, it was far too late to fix myself. I hadn’t gone a day without counting calories for seven years. Anorexia was ingrained in me and my body’s attempts to fight back were only complicating my condition. I started experiencing dizzy spells and head-rushes. I had no concentration, I was cold all the time and it had been six months since my last period. I went for days without eating until my body took over and I binged on whatever was in the house before, disgusted and embarrassed, I threw it back up. It was a dark and unbreakable cycle.

I collapsed in a dance class just before the Christmas of my first year. Refusing an ambulance I went to the doctor’s and was quickly diagnosed with anaemia, gastroesophageal reflux and given an emergency referral to the adult mental health services.

This should be where my story starts to look up, but unfortunately, I only managed to attend three of the outpatient counselling sessions provided for me. This was not strictly my fault; I was not signed to a counsellor until the last month of my first year at uni and it was apparently unthinkable to transfer me to a closer unit for the summer, meaning that I would have to be referred again my by GP and join the bottom of the waiting list at the start of the next academic year.

plate-403596_960_720What saved me – don’t laugh – was Instagram. There is an incredible Instagram community for eating disorder sufferers. And I think that this is actually as tragic as it is inspirational. Just as you are instructed in counselling, Instagram users post every meal, with how they feel about eating it, triggers, thoughts and anxieties attached in writing. By helping each other through, you begin to understand how abnormal your own behaviours are.

I am not recovered. Not by a long stretch. And eating disorder services are not in the cards for me, but I’m coping and I am now maintaining a healthy BMI. My story is not inspirational but it is cautionary. An anorexic won’t draw attention to themselves, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering and that they don’t need help.

Eating disorders are not to be sneered at. They are not vain. They are not an extreme diet. They are a coping mechanism which becomes habit which becomes a condition. Eating disorders are a medical condition and they need to be treated as such.

Anorexia was not my choice, but recovery is. I am not ashamed of my condition; I have chosen to forgive my eleven-year-old self for failing to see another means of emotional support.

I am not ‘an anorexic’.  I just have anorexia and I will recover.

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