Category: Hope


My Dad and I have this discussion every now and then.  It’s silly and serious at the same time, as are some of the very best kinds of chat…

It begins when I tell him what an amazing person he is and how I think he’ll go straight to heaven (without passing Go, without collecting 200!)

He responds with typical humility, firmly assuring me that he is far from being the incredible person I see him as.

True to say, I’m biased but I continue anyway…

“… but Dad! You’re the kindest, most loving person I know… How can it be that you STILL feel as though you don’t love people enough?”

“It’s easy to love your family”,  he says, “even an evil person can look out for their own. It’s loving those we DON’T know that makes us saints”.

His eighty one years, the depth of his faith and his gentle, funny nature mean that I ponder his words long after he’s spoken them. They echo through my mind as I rip open the mystery parcel. A taped up cardboard box of beautiful gifts has interrupted the bleakness of another day in the hospital; a box sent halfway across the world by someone I don’t know, but who reads this blog and has intuited enough about my character to send presents that delight me.

I don’t take any kindness for granted, but I have come to believe that kindness shown by a stranger is a very different kind of exchange, an experience that can’t be replicated or simulated in any other situation.  It’s this type of kindness, love, that is so often woven into classic tales: the mysterious being who appears at the right time; the unknown benefactor in Dickensian stories; the God like figure in folk tales.

Why the inclusion of these characters and their acts of kindness?

Because they move us, they warm us, they melt us.

More than this, the kindness of a stranger possesses  a unique power: that of transformation.  Hence age old stories of Matthew the tax collector, of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Pollyanna, Jean Valijean in Les Mis… Literature is littered with bad – characters – turned – good  by an act of kindness, because people love to have their view of human nature restored. How often do we hear someone sigh happily as they use that very phrase? How many times do people use the term ‘heart warming’ to describe these kind of scenarios?

Perhaps it’s the simplest answer to some of the world’s toughest problems. Perhaps the kindness of a stranger can combat some of the hardness and cynicism that grows in secret places; seeds of despair and cynicism sown and planted almost without us noticing. Maybe if we all vowed to impact at least one stranger’s life within our own time here on earth, the world may seem a different place to those who threaten it most.

Guilty of my very own brand of cynicism, sentimentality isn’t a trait I’m most likely to be associated with. The mysterious box of gifts though, was like a torch beam cutting the darkness.

Valorie. Thank you so so much for bringing spring to my hospital room. Thank you for such thoughtfulness and generosity. You act of kindness inspires me to pay it forward… If you’re reading, please know how touched I was by it all.

I wear the earrings even as I type, a cup of Tanzanian coffee next to me.
x

For once, I am going to exercise some discipline and force my raging, anorexic mind and (consequently) my restless, driven body to be still, while I sit here and type a post on my blog.

It’s something that I have been avoiding for a while, the reason born of a desire for this blog to be one that inspires others with eating disorders, and informs those who seek to understand more about the illness.

I can’t accurately describe my resentment towards the disparity between my healthy, passionate heart and my sad, bony frame. I hate the fact that I am desperate to encourage your suffering friend / sister / self, to offer hope and triumph,  whilst my own body becomes less and less and my own story one of failure. I long to prise the illness away from others yet I am riddled through to my marrow.

It’s disheartening. I always said I could write a comprehensive guide to Anorexia but still die of it.

It sounds as if I am giving in..

Don’t be fooled. I will never truly abandon the fight. I am certain that somewhere, albeit amazing at Hide and Seek, somewhere,  I still hold a small seed of hope.

I’m posting this because despite the horrible discrepancies I write of, my determination to avoid hypocrisy demands that I am honest about my own journey. That means admitting that I can’t find a way out; admitting that whilst I have the passion to educate the uninitiated and to offer hope to the hopeless; I can’t really do that until I have battled and won. It’s no good my standing, almost dead on my feet, whilst I preach recovery and restoration.

20170228_162610-02.jpeg

Do as I say, not as I do… The familiar face of Anorexic hypocrisy!

I am in a dangerous place, with a life threatening BMI and the illness is wrecking havoc. The shortage of beds on a national scale mean that I haven’t yet been put into hospital, but this is what my clinician is waiting for. She thinks it’s the only way ahead right now.

Determined to continue the trek, I have temporarily set up camp in the desert (not to be confused with the similarly spelled ‘dessert’ – Delight at irony still as prominent as ever). My arid landscape affords a pathetic diet, my feet are too tired to walk much further and, some of the time, I have my head in the sand. There are occasions though, where I can look around me and take stock of these hostile surroundings, and perhaps accept that I may need to be removed from here until I’m stronger again. There are also occasions where, if I squint at the burning horizon, I imagine a glimpse of water, of greenery.

I’ll let you know whether or not it’s anything more than a mirage.

For now, let’s try to hope

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I don’t really know who Lamott is, or where hope becomes important in her story, but once upon a time I copied this out and popped it in a back pocket where it remained until I fished it out some months ago.

I don’t have too much to say, except that to me, hope is one hell of a risk. It seems to require me to swim against the tide of mental reasoning and learning; perhaps in different seas altogether.

I admit, I find it exhausting. I think that I find it easier to throw my hands up in the air and quit, than to hang on to the cliff edge with torn up fingernails.  Funny that Hope is so often thought to be light, so feathery and fragile, so beautiful, so pure.  Stark contrast then, that the hope in me is a ripped, time worn, tear stained,  piece of paper pulled out of my old jeans’ pocket.

Hope is a risk. It might fail me. It might demand too much, grow too big, get too brave. It might start to grow secretly, against my own will…

… but if I don’t have any, my life will always look the same. The world will always look the same. My body will always feel the same.

Hope is a harbinger of change. Without it, we stop swimming altogether. The only alternative to swimming against the tide is to stand in stagnant pools, or to drown.

I don’t intend to do either.

Re the quotation that I carried round so long;  I’m still here in hospital (I showed up). I’m eating (trying to do the right thing).  I’m waiting and watching and working.

I’m just hoping to see the sun rise as I fight the tide.

You know “the grass is always greener…”?  It’s a common enough expression.

But when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense.

WHY green when it’s actually red?

The grass outside my window is no more green than Bob’s my uncle.

I can hear your confusion and I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering where the hell this is going…  A puzzle. You’re frowning. Figuring out the point.

My point is this: that every time you look at that park, or that garden… you’re thinking that the grass is green. You’re SEEING it with your own eyes. ACTUALLY SEEING it.

So you believe it, right? You can see the grass is green so you believe it. Perhaps you’d even swear to it.

But you are, quite simply, wrong.

It’s not green.

You’re still frowning… or your lip has turned up slightly at the very edge…

What will it take to convince you that grass, as a natural product of this beautiful earth, is bright red ?

Stop and think. Just for a few seconds. What would it take?

Because that’s what everyone else sees.

Everyone else knows it’s red.

 

Have they just been agreeing with you?!

Going along with you… Not daring to challenge your view.

Nice one.

That’d be why you still believe it’s green.

 

I know and understand that you THINK this is madness. I know you SEE green… But it’s red.

FACT: Everyone else knows and sees red. You alone see it as that bright green colour.

red-grass-

Stay with me. I’m trying to make sense (despite all evidence to the contrary).

It can be argued that a certain degree of body dysmorphia is part of the human condition.

However, whilst for many of us the distortions in our perceptions are not significant enough to cause distress, it’s very difficult to gauge just how accurate our perceptions are, particularly when they involve our appearance. Hence, a person may grow up with a mole on their cheek and barely see it, whilst another with the same mark, may grow up feeling ACUTELY aware, paranoid even, that it’s all anybody notices. Certainly it may be all THEY themselves notice.

Although each case is different, Anorexia and Bulimia often incur constantly shifting distortions in the sufferers perceptions of their body. the extent of this may depend on the individual’s mood, the amount that they’ve had to drink, the whispering voice of their illness, or how full / empty they feel at any given moment. It doesn’t appear to matter whether the ill person is a  tortured artist or a brilliant scientist, the degree to which they are susceptible to absolutely absurd thoughts about food and the body’s relationship to it, remains the same.

For example, as a level headed and rational being, I know that I CAN’T be big in any way because the measurements, weights, body mass I am faced with are completely accurate. The ratio is too low for my body to be fat; too low for my body to be healthy.  The figures are scattered on the green grassy earth.

As a sufferer though, I look in the mirror and that grass is DEFINITELY RED. I can SEE it. DAMN IT! IT’S THERE IN FRONT OF MY EYES

AND YOU’RE STILLSTILL trying to tell me it’s green!

I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong with me! I look normal… healthy.

Some days, my arms look chubby… and my thighs often look massive towards the end of each day… but generally, I look perfectly normal.


Arguing with an Anorexic can be hugely upsetting, incredibly perplexing and downright frustrating. You see one thing, they see another.

Families in particular will suffer the agony of watching their loved one deny the truth; a blank refusal to hear the other side of the story. It’s painful to be stonewalled or to have your words hurled back at you. Few can identify with the desperation and helplessness experienced by screaming at a skeleton whose rock solid belief is that they are ‘fat’ or ‘fine’. Not everyone can trace the ridges of the bone along the clavicle of a loved one who refuses to eat because they think they’ve got plenty of fat still to lose.

My message is convoluted. It’s a poor attempt to somehow explain the complex illusion / delusion experienced by the victim of an Eating Disorder like Anorexia.

I know many, many women who dislike parts of their body, or at least, are dissatisfied with particular aspects of their appearance. When someone develops an ED, that dissatisfaction, becomes a rigidly held belief which apparently robs them of a realistic view of themselves. Much like joining an extremist party or cult, Anorexia transforms the mind in such a way that makes reasoning with them, impossible and unrealistic.

Hopeless as this sounds, my final message is to anyone who is having to watch a loved one starve .

Don’t give up.

It can be heartbreaking and it’s often a long, tiring path, but if there’s one thing that will help to save them, it’s a quiet, pervasive message that it’s the ILLNESS that’s lying to them and not the rest of you. If you’re met with a brick wall, don’t employ a bulldozer. You’ll flatten the person rather than the illness.

Remember the quiet echo of the drip that splashes against a stone surface. Gentle but unswerving,  the message will sink in, and though they may always see a tinge of red, at least they will accept that, mostly, grass is green

water on stone

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.

wpid-imag1676_1.jpgA poet like Dickinson has the enviable ability to load a verse with meaning so deep and so heavy you wonder how such simple words can bear the weight.. Her gatherings of commonplace words so often made to shine by their careful ordering, carry a grief so weighty you wonder the words don’t crumble beneath the despair.

This simple little verse almost sags in the middle with the enormity of her existential reflection!

I wanted to put it out there because I think it’s something that every one of needs to have asked and explored. Not in a naval gazing way, more in a back-of-the-mind type of way.

Because I think it’s sometimes good to widen my frame of reference. To briefly place my life on the time / space continuum. It’s sometimes good to feel humbled by the stars. To put my pain and suffering in the context of world history.

And sometimes, it’s good to rethink the areas of my life I can control; and the areas that I can’t. Personally I find it useful to remember that life is short, and wanting control over something doesn’t grant me the right to it. More than that, I know that there are things WITHIN my power, that I need to take control of, rather than deny or disown.

THAT is the hard thing. That’s where Dickinson’s innocent thought is a smack in the face!

If your default state of mind involves a relentless drive towards perfection.Rebel

If the eye flinching, wincing, mincing voice of piercing criticism carries through veins and synapses

If your head is bent and darkened by the brightness of those around you

If you cannot bear the bird that longs to nestle in your palm, for fear that it will turn and peck your sockets hollow

If your thoughts are spurs and feelings, whips that lash your saddened soul

and your mind set is a thirst that’s only quenched by a glass half full

then hear the call and heed it

Rebel against your own state of mind.

… As Miranda’s mother says. (For those who don’t know, this refers to an uncomfortably comedic British comedienne’s show, ‘Miranda’)

I’ve taken a bit of time away from the blogsphere. Mainly because being an inpatient isn’t particularly conducive to writing. Then again, having an illness like Anorexia seems to make it nigh on impossible so, either way, I hope it explains the rather large gap between posts.

I’m out of hospital now. Not “better” in the stand-alone sense…. but “better than”…2013-08-12 08.34.49

Recovery is hard work. When I was in hospital, I longed for freedom.

Now I’m out, I realise that I’m still imprisoned.

BUT

I still have hope perched in my soul.

I can take up arms again now my arms are strong enough to carry them.

I want to thank readers who have been kind enough to message me and mail me. I have been so touched by your concern. Many thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. They have helped me stand when I have been all but bent double.

Every so often, I come across a poem or a quotation or a song that holds such a deep, weighty resonance, that I almost feel it in the very bowels of my being. Incredibly, a string of words can have the power to somehow infiltrate me; to bypass the sentry who guards my reason, and speak directly to my soul.

I believe that every human being has had this experience, to a greater or lesser extent. And although it’s a little hard to define, and sometimes difficult to see in some people, I think that human beings have an innate desire to be understood by something outside of themselves. This need is fleetingly and powerfully met when they stumble upon something that, on some level, speaks the words of their muted soul / heart. Sometimes a poem or a song can understand you and make sense of a part of you that, by it’s spiritual nature, cannot be voiced, but is silently woven into the very essence of your being.

Phew! This is deep, perhaps TOO deep!

All this verbosity is really an introduction to a beautiful poem I read recently by American poet Mary Oliver.

Simple in language and in form, “The Journey” spoke to me in the way that I describe above. It is an apt description of where I am on my journey towards recovery.

We all have ‘voices’ / things that try to drag us back, to hold us captive as we trudge along the ‘road full of fallen branches and stone’. For me, the Anorexia screams at me to turn back. For you, perhaps it’s something else. No matter, it is a struggle that many of us experience, particularly as we attempt to shake off ‘the old tug’ at our ankles.

It is my hope that, in posting this poem here, it will somehow encourage you and speak some of your unspoken words.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.Image