Category: Bulimia


animals-st-francis-2As a young girl, my conviction that I was able to communicate with animals, coupled with my parents’ point blank refusal to have anything other than a goldfish in the house, gave rise to my fantastical delusion that I was the living embodiment of a cross between Dr Doolittle and St Francis of Assisi.

Nowadays, despite still loving the idea of pets, the practicalities and the expense prevent it from becoming a reality.

So, I preface this post explaining that I’m not a real ‘animal person’. Not to be confused with someone who doesn’t care about animal cruelty. I do. Controversially though, I believe that human beings are of greater worth than animals (and find it endlessly sad that the NSPCC receives less donation money per year than the RSPCA) .

(I know. I know. There will be somebody somewhere wanting to spray paint the word ‘bullshit’ across my blog as I type this).

The reason I’m explaining my general attitude regarding animals is to provide some semblance of a context for what follows.

Yesterday  I was sitting on the sofa vaguely watching the early evening news while I threaded two tiny beads on a pair of metal findings. I rarely devote my complete concentration to the TV, and use that kind of ‘down time’  to make stuff; be it crochet, origami, knitting hats, scarves earrings, bracelets… whatever the current creative obsession affords.

Suddenly, a horrible bone splitting crash.

It had come from the large patio window at the end of the room.

Dusk falls darkly now that the October sun drops faster, and from a well lit room the opaque midnight blue outside seems blacker than it really is.  I went to the window, cupping my hands against it to erase reflection.

On her back, a female blackbird lay flapping, speckled breast skywards,  trying to right herself.  It was a heartbreaking sight, such a beautiful bird, so helpless and so shocked. It had happened so fast.

Instinctively, I scooped the bird into my hands and held her for a moment, felt her rapid heart, her tiny trembling. “Best left alone,” advised my companion. “They’ll very often pick themselves up and fly away when they’ve got past the shock”.

I set her down, right side up; draw away, the tip of my heels rolling forward to my toes.

female-red-winged-blackbirdThis evening, I am struck by my shocked response to her plight. My sudden immense pity for this little bird who, even if she could find flight, will never eat again. Her beak had clearly taken the impact of the smash, the glass sheet cruelly driving the top and bottom to twist in opposite directions. Never again will her meal be plucked from the ground with pincer precision. Never will the sharp beak meet to hold food for her young.

These twinges of sadness for my broken bird are suddenly shot through with irony. I realise that, for a decade, I have systematically denied my body the nourishment it requires in order to function in the way it is meant to.

Do I  pity for it?

Do I lament the months of deprivation? The semi starved state that results in hypoglycemia? amenorrhea? the inability to stay warm? a lower immunity? osteoporosis? reduced life expectancy? liver damage?  potential organ failure?

Why is it, that I am more upset about the broken bird than I am my breaking body?

I sound like my mother when she crosses into panic mode. And there aren’t any easy answers.

What I would say, is this.

An eating disorder pushes the sufferer to extremes that no sane minded person can conceive. It seems to contradict that which is instinctual: the drive to survive that ensures the continuation of the human species. Of course, the width of the gap between the urge to survive and the urge to starve depends on how deeply entrenched the eating disorder has become. I’d like to believe, that in its infancy, the illness may have been tempered, dare I say, hampered and arrested, by a glimpse into the future damage I would sustain. I’d like to believe that, because if that IS the case, then perhaps early warnings would make a difference to someone.

What I know is that part of the pathology of Eating Disorders, is that they can  somehow usurp the sufferer’s natural born instinct for self preservation. Anorexia hijacked mine to the point where my natural response to the idea of my body being ‘well’ is, at best, indifference and at worst, revulsion. In the topsy turvey world of Eating Disorders, many sufferers equate starvation with success.

Back in the natural world, nobody wants to fail. Failure is B A D.

This idea carries over into the world of ED. What doesn’t follow, is the notion that somehow failure is death. Anorexia screams that ‘wellness’ is weakness, health is self indulgent. Being healthy means being a ‘failed Anorexic’.

I know it sounds crazy, and it doesn’t apply to every person who has an Eating Disorder. If you have a loved one suffering, it’s worth a try to gently ask them about the contradictions between the ‘well’ part of them and the ‘ill’ part. Go easy though. They may not be aware of it or they may not experience it this way.

Personally, I’m trying hard to re-program my mashed up mind, so that I can go back to thinking about health and wellness in natural world terms, rather than the conditions set by Anorexia.

The little bird wasn’t there when I checked again. She has somehow flown away. I hope she will not starve.

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It was clear from an early age that I wasn’t ever going to make a scientist. Certainly, the most memorable things from my physics lessons involved throwing wet paper towels at each other, and the time when I fell off my stool because Leon Kavanagh pushed me too hard.

It’s really Mr Thomas that I blame for my ignorance on the topic of magnetic force. He had bad breath and liked to lean over your shoulder to illustrate his point. Awful as it is to conform to the stereotype of the bored teenager, surely it’s even more awful to conform to that of the fairly greasy, and very definitely sleazy, Physics teacher!  All this to excuse myself for what follows; a very unscientific reference to a very scientific process.

It’s possible that if you belong to a certain generation, you’ll have had one of those arched magnets lying around the garage. You know the ones… a U – shaped piece of metal coated, in part, with bright red plastic.bare magnet

I loved ours. My dad’s. As a kid, I’d be content to mess about with it, trying to get to that point where I could move the screws / nails without the magnet actually picking them up. You know THAT point? What was it that was SO satisfying about THAT point?!

Anyway. The magnet is something I often refer to when I’m attempting to explain something about the nature of Anorexia and, moreover, the PURPOSE that it serves. Because it does HAVE a purpose. And just because there may be no apparent reason why a person is dogged with this illness, doesn’t mean that it’s a completely random occurrence.

Although I am writing mainly about Anorexia Nervosa, sufferers with other eating disorders will identify with the fact that before they even had a hint of their illness, they were chronically anxious. In my own experience, I had suffered with almost crippling anxiety and panic attacks for many years before Anorexia hijacked my brain. I have heard so many other patients refer to their inability to manage everyday anxieties, stories of phobias, extreme panic, fear.

Whether it was recognised in childhood or not, I would hazard a guess that it is actually an anxiety disorder, generalised or specific, that underpins Anorexia.

And so, a sort of Anorexic blueprint, is born.

The child who is very frightened about being left alone to survive in the playground; the one who studies to be the best and so is the best and then lives in fear of not being able to keep being the best; the person at work who is held up as being exemplary, and is terrified of being ‘found out’ because he or she has no self belief and feels like a fraud. Anxiety. Anxiety. Anxiety.

You may be reading this and identifying the fact that this is something we ALL experience. Perhaps it is… but everybody manages their fears in different ways, and Anorexia, whilst still being a severe and enduring illness, often begins as a means for managing fear.

Imagine a tabletop covered in iron filings. Horrible little bits of grey, scattered all over  Try to scoop them up and they go everywhere…

Now imagine that each of the filings is a different ‘free floating’ fear.iron_filings copy

So many different things to cope with, too many. It’s all very out of control and you can’t rest because you’re in a constant state of hyper alertness; a state where heightened anxiety is natural because everything, EVERYTHING feels like a bit like a threat… a challenge… The filings don’t shift, if anything, they seem to multiply.

Anorexia is a magnet.

And it’s bigger than anyfilings drawn to magnetthing else.

And it’s really powerful.

Due to a force that I should at least have some understanding of (but don’t because I didn’t bother in my Physics lessons) the filings are immediately drawn to it as it hovers over the tabletop, sucking up every little shred of metal.

It’s what Anorexia does. All the individual anxieties stick to it…. fuse with it… until, one day, they don’t really exist any more and all that’s left is the illness. One giant entity. One focus. One fear.

That of never being able to be thin enough.

Simple?

Yeah. About as simple as physics.

The hardest thing is the terrible realisation that you’re not holding the magnet any more and that it, in itself, is far, FAR stronger than you; As if somehow, cruelly, the incorporation of all those little grey shards, has strengthened the force that then turns on the sufferer him/herself and begins to diminish them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spaghettiJust eat! It’s really that simple”

The well meaning eyes of family and friends cast along the frame of an ED sufferer; pupils travelling the ridges of the clavicle, the skeletal hands and down the birdlike legs.

Just say, I CAN do this

Just make up your mind that you’re GOING TO do it and then DO IT

Lots of ‘justs’. Lots of good suggestions. Lots of spilled frustrations.

So why isn’t it ‘that simple’?

Surely it’s not rocket science…

Well…. in actual fact, although it’s NOT about rockets, there is quite a lot of science involved; physiology to be precise.

When someone is well below a healthy weight, the list of psychological blocks to recovery may be a mile long. However, unbeknown to many, there are also many physiological reasons. Chemical and hormonal shifts in the brain that induce behaviours which can make it incredibly difficult to behave in a ‘normal’ way around food. Experts in the ED field will tell you that a full recovery isn’t possible until weight has been restored to the point where a patient’s BMI is between 20 and 25. In fact, many argue that it is ONLY when a patient reaches a safe, healthy weight (and so, BMI) that recovery can begin.

I agree.

One of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence we have for this idea comes from a ground breaking, wartime,  experiment into the effects of starvation, performed by Dr Ancel Keys.

In 1944, as war raged throughout the world, Keys recruited 36 young men (mostly conscientious objectors) all deemed to be at a peak of physical fitness and mentally / psychologically healthy.  Over a period of a year, he studied the behaviours and mind set of the men as he systematically cut their calorie intake and increased their levels of exercise . By the end of the ‘starvation phase’, the men had lost around a quarter of their body weight and their physical appearance was skeletal.

Photographs of the subjects reveal bodies not dissimilar to those who had suffered in concentration camps. Certainly, the men appeared to have been subject to a lifestyle which denied them of their most primal need; much like the self inflicted discipline exercised by those with Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa.

For someone attempting to recover from an eating disorder, the most pertinent revelations of ‘The Minnesota Experiment’ lie in the fascinating changes in behaviour displayed by Keys’ subjects. Behaviours and attitudes practised in secret, cloaked in a horrible sense of shame, perhaps feared by the sufferer to be so ‘odd’, so far from ‘normal’ that nobody should ever find out… Behaviour that actually, The Minnesota Experiment, proved to be a direct result of the human body being starved and therefore, some way beyond the sufferer’s control.

Keys documents that the more the men starved, the more overwhelming was their obsession with food. Food became an absolute priority while the rest of the world, family, politics, opinions, religion etc, all faded into obscurity.  The men were restless, their minds unconsciously forcing their bodies to forage for food, allowing little sleep as the need for nutrition overrode all other basic needs.

Interestingly, all the men developed ‘abnormal’ eating patterns, becoming ritualistic, taking up to two hours to eat a meal, cutting food into tiny pieces,  mixing food with liquid to make more of it and hoarding food so they could take it back to their bunks and graze on it. Moreover, the thinner the men became, the less able they were to judge their size as being thin or underweight. A few of them even went so far as to express thoughts that others were too fat. Spot the quandary of an Anorexic.

There were many, many physical effects, most of which an Anorexic will experience as par for the course, but in order to explain why it’s so damn hard to ‘just eat’, I wanted to draw from the physiological findings of Keys’ experiment. The state of semi starvation, of extreme self denial, is in itself, a trap. Being below a healthy BMI produces its own set of barriers to eating, making the initial ‘pre recovery / weight restoration’ phase about as difficult as it could be.

It’s really not as simple as it might seem.

Certainly, during the period of re-feeding, the men ate happily (obviously not suffering from an ED) but my point is that whilst starving, the men underwent such changes to the chemical balances in the brain, that food became an absolute obsession and habits previously unheard of, became commonplace.

When an Anorexic tries to recover, they not only battle the mental blocks that the illness creates, they also have strange, unseen physiological blocks.

(Another terrible hidden suspicion of The Anorexic, that their appetites will become insatiable once they begin to refeed, is also borne out in Keys’ evidence, producing yet another barrier).

I could go on and on about this great study in starvation, but it’s all for another post. What I want to convey is that, despite all appearances, recovery is never as straightforward as ‘just eating’. Refeeding, within itself, is fraught with unconscious physiological blocks and hurdles.

For me, personally, despite this knowledge, and armed as I am, I still stand on the wire, looking at that vast expanse that is ‘no man’s land’, weighing up the risk, trying to see where the mines are set, where the searchlight falls.

It’s been ten years raging, this war.

gripping barbed wireI still want to fight…

…but the real enemy

lies in the woodland

on the horizon

I still need to make it to.

THAT’s the pathology of an eating disorder.

THAT’S the physiology of starvation.

This week a young girl I was an inpatient with was cremated. A shockingly stark reminder of Anorexia’s power to take lives. It’s so easy to forget the facts. Eating Disorder charity BEAT are clear that “Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, from medical complications associated with the illness as well as suicide. Research has found that 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness”.

Hard to deny the seriousness of this illness. Yet, it is so often misunderstood and misjudged.

Star Fall – for S & C

Same sky, different star

Eighteen years

fly fast

Moon behind the clouds August 2015

Moon behind the clouds
August 2015

Sometimes glimpsed

on clearer nights

your incandescence

burning bright

Other times,  faded,

harder to see,

a thin ship to sail

on the widest of seas

Sometimes the darkness

covered your face

but couldn’t extinguish

the core of your blaze.

Now, I search the sky

ravage constellations

cry

eyes blind, stream like rain

calling to see

your star again

I reach out

tear black canvas

fingers finding

vacant nucleus

this dark hole,

from which your star fell.

And I howl

at the heavens

And the heavens say to me:

Cry not

for those who fall

for stars who drop

don’t land at all

At once caught up

by beams of sun

the point at which

we’re all begun.

Drawn close to heat

and now they shine

with greater brightness

all the time.

Firefly ©2015