Category: Understanding Anorexia


Despite almost never writing these days, I am still here and I still have the DESIRE to write, just not the accompanying drive to action. However, I find myself here with minutes to spare and the determination to put something down.

Because it’s important.

To be fair, I know I’m over reacting, which, naturally, doubles my irritation, but it would seem that I’m not beyond being stung by a throwaway comment. Damn.

I’m angry and frustrated with myself. Even more so because I should be better… and bigger… and past it… and all those things that I expect of myself. Obviously, I am not as immune or as desensitised (read: ‘protected’) as I think.

I spent a lovely weekend with old friends. It’s the first time I’ve made a reunion in a long time, and I’m so glad I went. Earlier, I was showing my youngest sister some photos and happily telling her about it, until she asked if everyone had been understanding of my… condition. Well. They were, yes.

I mean, my old friends from way back. They knew me pre illness. They know me. They love me.

Just one teeny statement though, managed to blow a hole in my surface.

“It is a choice. Anorexia IS a choice”

No it’s not.

“It is”

What do you say?

Even a few minutes walking round some rock pools don’t elicit any responses. An unexpected shot. And yeah… I have to admit, I was a little wounded.

So this is my belated response.

I’ll tell you what’s really weird… and not to be written lightly… When someone suffers with Anorexia, it can be so acute, and so very life changing, that it appears odd that it remains something ‘in the abstract’. For example, despite the knowledge that Anorexia is a MENTAL illness, if a radiologist did a brain scan, a patient with an eating disorder (and maybe their loved ones) might almost expect to see large shadows obliterating whole sections of their brain. (Nowadays of course, neuroscience and improving technology seem to be making it possible to identify all sorts of quirks and trends in the structure of the brain). But for most of us who battle this dominant demon of hunger, it remains an imagined shadow, or a toxic spillage seeping into hidden cranial cavities. Of course it won’t show up on a scan. It’s too deadly for that.

I KNOW it’s different. I know it can be a temporary coping mechanism for some, and yes it can be something of a cry to be heard, or even a teenage tantrum for a minority, but for many of us, Anorexia is as impossible to CHOSE as meningitis is to contract. You just wouldn’t think to announce to someone with brain cancer that their illness is a choice. I KNOW it’s “not the same… yade dade yada…” but I’m telling you, this thing that plagues me… this THING that has destroyed a whole decade of my life, isn’t a matter of choice. It’s an illness. As present and as torturously painful as anything physical.

Eating disorders can’t just be selected and applied. They begin so small that they’re invisible; and by the time they’re making changes to your body, they’re bedded down hard.

Choice DOES come into it. But not there.

I’ll tell you where next time.

In the meantime, telling your sick friend that they chose their illness, is as helpful as a kick in the teeth.

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#difficult

Without wishing to sound all bah-humbug about it, I REALLY can’t share the sentiment of the song that blares as I push my trolley up the soft drinks aisle in my local supermarket. I realise it’s not supposed to be taken too literally but honestly, the sheer inanity of some idiot’s wish that ‘it could be Christmas every da – aaay” is, at best, teeth grittingly stupid, at worst, utterly irresponsible. (I know for a fact that occurring even once a year increases overspending and subsequent problems with debt for some of the poorest families in the UK.)

The song continues to blare across the store and I swing into the middle aisle in time to catch one woman (who apparently has some inside info about a nationwide dearth of flour that the rest of us aren’t privy to) almost mow down an older lady in her path. Glancing round for someone to share her indignation, she looked at me shaking her head and starting to mutter something. Not really wanting to buy into this her fury, I just smiled sympathetically and shrugged offhandedly. “Christmas, hey?” She grunted disconsolately. “Really does bring out the best and the worst doesn’t it?” For a second, she eyed me with uncertainty and then snorted. “Bloody right” she said.

Thing is, and I bet my stocking this is true; most of us over a certain age would hate the thought of Christmas everyday! The shops are rammed, roads gridlocked, transport more squashed than ever, people more harried and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of my most togetherest friends (poetic licenses granted for Christmas period Ts and Cs apply) struggle at this time of year. Christmas for those affected by any illness can be especially difficult, perhaps because the pain felt by sufferers and their families is brought into such stark contrast by the sense of festive merriment.

As a seasoned Anorexic, I find this time of year to be particularly torturous, so much so that almost every Christmas for the past five years, has in some way contributed to my ending up in inpatient treatment. I can only write from my personal experience, but I want to explain why Christmas with an eating disorder can be so difficult.

1. The fist reason seems obvious. Food is suddenly everywhere. It’s inescapable, and far more so than usual. Supermarkets are cram full of luxury items; not just your standard ice cream. No. The very finest ice cream made with fresh, sweet strawberries, rich chocolate or vanilla pods hand picked by velvet – furred monkeys living in luxury Madagascan tree houses. Shelves are lined with glistening golden wrappings, the finest of wines and giant tubs of cheap chocolates hang out, competitively priced, attractively arranged.

But Anorexics hate food right?

Wrong! But you could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, who in their right mind would starve themselves to within an inch of their life if they enjoyed food?

Well. This is why an eating disorder isn’t the lifestyle choice or the vain whim of a silly young girl who wants to look like a model, although the media have often billed it to be. An eating disorder is a mental illness, and a complex one at that. With the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, Anorexia needs to be taken more seriously by the media and by the fashion industry. It is still so misunderstood.

Back to the food thing… Contrary to popular understanding, Anorexics don’t dislike food. They love food. They long for food. If you are the loved one of a sufferer who swears they don’t like it, don’t be fooled. It’s the illness lying. I’ve known Anorexics who confide that they lie in bed at night, planning meals in such detail, that they feel as though they’ve actually eaten three courses by the time they fall asleep. Others cut pictures out of food magazines to stick in scrap books, watch food programmes and obsess over recipe books. I’ve even heard one clinician refer to this as ‘food porn’.

And all this time, with all this longing, the Anorexic starves.

Doesn’t make sense? That’s because it’s a MENTAL ILLNESS.

2. The second reason Christmas can feel like torture is because many sufferers spend a lot of time and a lot of energy on NOT thinking about food. Personally, I’m one of these. I do a lot to distract myself from a hunger that can sometimes be so raw that it terrifies me.

Because it’s a holiday, often mealtimes become the main source of structure in our unformed days. With all the added drinks and nibbles, the festive period can feel like one, perpetual banquet. This can be terrifying for an eating disorder sufferer because it means they may FEEL as though they have eaten far more than they normally would, and mostly, far more than they actually have (reality is generally very distorted).

I want to explain more because there is so much more to write about, but I fear this is in need of more structure as it is.

I suppose what I really want is to reach out to those unfortunate others who find themselves feeling so desperate and out of control over the next few days. I want to say, “hang in there. the days will pass. It’s not as long as it feels. You are not alone”. I want to speak to families who, through no fault, don’t understand. I want to encourage them to be gentle, not to lose heart, to seek support. A young anorexic / bulimic can’t be shouted / coaxed / bribed out of a mental illness.

And I want to say that somehow, somewhere, Christmas takes place irrespective of our state of health. Christmas takes place regardless of our state of belief even. It takes place for Him, and yet it began for us. In this, and in this alone, I find a flicker of hope.

If you’re reading, believer or not, sufferer or not, I pray you find the peace, health and touch of sparkle that the gift of the Christ child can bring at Christmas. If you’re finding it tough, please, reach out. You don’t have to be alone.

20170619_150530If you think that being in hospital for five months would have afforded me ample time to write, you’d be right. Difficult then, to explain that although hours at my desk stretched like the Cornish coastline, my mind contracted and contorted like 17:30 on the M25.

Inpatient treatment for Anorexia generally leaves my insides steeped in a fluid sense of agony. Words curdle in my throat, congeal in my head. The process of weigh restoration at once answering the urgent cries of a desperately malnourished body, yet stealing every ounce of my self – styled safety. No half sane person can comprehend the half cocked comfort an Anorexic may take from being able to feel each rib; from seeing the deepened pit where the neck meets the sternum; feeling the valleys and protrusions of the clavicle and the hollow caves of the underarm.

It sounds like lust… Perhaps I am mourning the loss of my terrifyingly tiny body. Perhaps I am merely giving voice to the Anorexic fantasy, trying to confess the dark longings that lie like dogs with one eye open, just waiting for me to pass a full length mirror, or absently rub my recently re-fed arm.

In truth, I left the hospital against medical advice and nowhere near ‘healthy’. BUT, I have come a long way. I am not the death dodging spider that crawled up the hospital steps on March 15th. My heart beats without the frightening bradycardia… My white blood cells are better, I am no longer hypoglycemic (well… not AS much).

My insides are probably pinker…

I can string sentences together more easily. I can THINK enough to tackle some of the twists of a cryptic crossword (note: I say ‘some’!!)

I am grateful to The Priory hospital for their INCREDIBLE support. Their treatment was second to none, the best I’ve had by a long way. I was spoken to with such respect, kindness and, when I needed it most, logic. My views were listened to and the fact that the patient sometimes knows what’s best for them, was actually woven into my treatment plan.

I chose the groups I could manage and left the rest. I managed my own time.

I took comfort in creating.

I stuck it out until I reached the target I had set for myself, even went a little above. Three weeks later, I weigh exactly the same.

Sentimental bit…

My gratitude goes to all those who nursed me, and to Dr Iwona Kolsut, for her wisdom; Dr Lousie Bundock for her striking kindness and ‘normality’ ; Brian G for his immense compassion and the good guy Chris for his humour and humanity. They are all figures that my Anorexia resents but that I (the I that is ME) owe my life to.  Today I received my discharge notes. They make for positive reading. My hope is that I can sustain the light of hope that took such gentle hands and so many tender breaths to fan into a flame.

And as if that wasn’t enough… (More sentimentality…)

Huge thanks also go to those I know who prayed so much for me. My family (who won’t read this), my friends (some might), my beaut of a friend Chloe who so faithfully visited me every week to paint my torn up nails and encourage me with vision,  my incredible friend Valorie (who I’ve never met but who sent me an amazing box of gifts), my church friends, who never fail to love me as I am, those brave and suffering patients who I walked some of the way with, and all the people who I know hold me in thought and love.  I have everything to live for.

I just have to do it.

At thirty, I would have things mostly sorted. I mean, I would probably be settled down somewhere, I’d have a good circle of friends and a supportive and engaging church community.  I’d meet the man who could be my best friend for life and therefore be in a stable relationship and I’d have a challenging but fulfilling career.

At forty, I would be a fully grown woman.Although being middle-aged was a very hazy notion, I suppose I had something of an idea that by this point, I’d definitely at peace with myself. I would be content with my lot, and wise in to the ways of the world. I’d have worked abroad with my other half…. perhaps doing some sort of mission work. I’d be established in a teaching career of some kind. I’d certainly have written a couple of books, and maybe have kids or fostered for a while.

I shudder now at the assured faith of my younger self; my blind faith in the power of adulthood.

I think I must have believed that at key points in my life, there would be some sort of ‘latest update’ that would magically download and install overnight. It’d equip me with new software to enhance my resilience, bug fixes, small but significant improvements to my system. Just like the skin care products which companies like L’Oreal and Garnier so thoughtfully tailor to suit the relevant decade of a woman’s life, I thought I’d somehow just be able to apply certain elements to my life. Elements which would be suited to my age and stage… and again, like the miracle face creams, le28099oreal-paris-anti-imperfections-plus-whitening-cream-for-20-review4these would hopefully just get a bit richer as I got older.

I guess I might have believed that I’d still battle depression, but in my naivety, by late thirties, I would have gained victory over it, managing the dark hours with a quiet stoicism, helping others learn to do the same. Anxiety would probably always be present, but by forty, it really wouldn’t have any significant impact on my life. I’d have learned to combat it using my faith, my wisdom, a range of relaxation techniques and possibly my ole’ friend Pregabalin.

Whatever I imagined, one thing I wouldn’t have believed, is that at the ripened age of forty, I would be sitting in a hospital bedroom, typing a blog about Anorexia.

Nor would I have believed that by the time I got to this grand old age, a whole decade of my life would have been hungrily devoured by the same illness that would starve me to the point of death and leave me with the body of a malnourished child.

I’ve been an inpatient for almost nine weeks now..

You’d think by the time I’d endured four different inpatient admissions and three rounds of day treatment, I’d have got used to the agonies of refeeding. Think again. If anything it’s tougher this time than ever. Not that I’m in a different hospital than ever before, and not that my fellow patients aren’t amazing people who I feel privileged to meet. No… more perhaps that each period of recovery seems to ask for more energy than the one previous to it. It seems to demand more bravery, more patience, a higher pain threshold, more nerve.

At risk of sounding discouraging, I think that the longer a person suffers with an eating disorder, the older they get, the more entrenched it becomes and thus the harder it is to recover from. If there is anyone reading here who is suffering with an ED and is considering getting help, I urge you, please, GET HELP.  Do it before it gets worse. Do it before next week, or next month or your next birthday… Do it now and buy back some time because honestly, it might seem unimaginable, but this illness will sink into you until you are saturated. It sinks in a little deeper with each passing minute and before you can wring yourself out, it’ll rinse you of your strength.

The less time you tolerate this illness, the less time it will need you to fight it and the more of your soul you can save.

Get help.

 

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.

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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

There can’t be many instances where your loved ones raise a glass to toast your  mental torment but then again. there probably aren’t that many cases where eating a beef sandwich is an achievement worthy of celebration.

Perhaps those in the loop will actually understand the bizarre situation I’m writing about, but if you’re a ‘normal’ person, you might struggle.

Wait..! Did I just use the term ‘normal’?

I can hear some of the cries of protest. “…But there’s NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL…” Protestations jet from all corners of the philosophical, semantic and *wince* pedantic realm. No such thing. Everyone’s weird. Everyone’s normal. There IS no normal.

But there IS. There IS in the tangled, screwed up world of we Eating Disorder folk. If you disagree, you might want to read on because I’m going to tell you about what normal is, often by arguing the case for what it’s not.  (If that goes over your head, don’t waste mental energy on it. Reading on will give you a clearer idea.)

“Normal” is our friends who happily pick a sandwich in a deli without an onslaught of mathematical conundrums running riot in their brain. “Normal” can actually have ANY kind of drink they like without even a whisper of a ‘value for calories’ haunting their thoughts.

Normal can choose food to satisfy their taste buds and not to keep them as light as possible. Normal doesn’t even think twice about adding one extra raspberry to their (carefully weighed) bowl of lowest calorie cereal.

Normal doesn’t consider black coffee a ‘snack’ or stir-fry an indulgent meal. It wouldn’t cast a suspicious eye over the size of a tangerine, or swear that an apple has the potential to be fattening. Nor would it question the amount of calories / fat / carbohydrate in a carrot. It wouldn’t distrust the carefully stated amounts of these ‘anorexic-life-threatening’ printed on each product, or regard cauliflower as an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

You see..?

Normal doesn’t experience eating as a trigger for a sort of inexplicably acute mental pain. It doesn’t really begin to understand that ‘food’ is merely an assortment of numbers. (Despite our health conscious Food Standards people’s best efforts!) It doesn’t ‘get’ that a carrot is 35, a berry, 2 and if you throw in a spoonful of yoghurt you’ve exceeded the limit. (Scrape half away, then share some with the sink…)

Normal might be conscious of the numbers, but it’s not ruled by them. It doesn’t carefully bite each Malteser in half to ensure it has exactly half the stated amount. It doesn’t have to ignore the body’s cries for rest in order to complete the requisite amount of high intensive ‘burn off’ exercises before or after a calculated amount of food.

Normal doesn’t FEEL fat growing ON them if they eat something frightening. It doesn’t feel the rush of shame and disgust if they slip up and allow too much food to enter the forbidding mouth. It won’t suffer an onslaught of blind fear, the compulsion to induce vomiting or crapping or even the wild urge to cut fat OFF any given part of themselves.

I realise there are degrees of ‘normal’; a continuum even. This illness, any Eating Disorder, defies all concept of normality and in doing so, isolates sufferers in a sadistic and divisive way.

As someone who, for almost thirty years, was pretty ‘normal’ about food, I feel somewhat justified, perhaps even qualified, to attempt to explain that there really IS such a thing as ‘normal’ in the world I, and so many others, inhabit.

The next nine years of my life have literally been stolen from me.

I find it incomprehensible that for almost three decades, I could actually EAT a meal without attaching any feelings or significance to the food at all. Nor can I recall how I might have RELISHED the chance to actually SIT DOWN and watch a whole film without the raging impulse to burn off calories, the torture of that insane edict.

It’s too hard to properly explain how Anorexia has unpicked and rewoven my ‘normality’, but I hope, in some small way, I’ve conveyed the havoc it wrecks upon its victims, some too young to ever have experienced the luxury and freedom of normality

I hope these descriptions may bring some small solace to those who don’t feel understood and information for those who want to understand.

There’s no such thing as normal, but there is ‘abnormal’, and this illness is one example of that.

Someday, I hope to eat again, with the freedom of that first part of my life.

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Doesn’t do a lot for my point, but I do love a bit of Edward Monkton…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining ‘Normal’

Here we are again. Supermarket aisles cram-full of anxious shoppers; shelves a-sparkle with opulently – packaged festive treats and the air space crowded with the blaring wish that It Could Be Christmas Everyday. I sound like  a humbug from the start but I’m not, I’m a struggling Anorexic.

Love it or hate it, Christmas is a truly mixed affair for most.

Yes the shininess and magic, the warmth of the hearth, and the gifts and the glitter and the glitz.

But oh! the bickering, the sadness, the missing and the grief filled, the stress and the gluttony abound!

The pressures of a Westernised Christmas seem to begin earlier and grow faster every single year! Those beautifully designed cards that gave you a little tummyglow when you picked them up in Marks a few weeks back, you’ve got to write them all and get them in the post, a new deadline you HAVE to meet. That adorable decoration that you chose in a magic moment, it needs hanging and then housing…

I’m not trying to depress anyone although you’d be forgiven for thinking it.  I’m just presenting the case that Christmas can really be, “the best of times AND the worst of times” for all of us.

Christmas with Anorexia then, is even more polarised.

The fevered chaos of Anorexia defies the norm on any other calender date but come Christmas…. well… it runs a temperature off the gauge.

I know because even as I type, I’m slightly delirious: my head swollen with seasonal dread, my hands shaking with unsated desire.

As for most people suffering with an eating disorder, Christmas loses most of its ‘proper’ meaning amidst the intolerable warring surge of temptation and terror. Some houses are literally, “choc full”.  It’s so much about FOOD… and not just any old food.. Oh no! Gone are the 11 months of smug self control; of Deliciously Ella and all the high protein, ‘clean eating’.  Not a sniff of the spiralised substitutions and berry laden breakfasts  In its place, adverts parade gastronomic delights,  luxury foodstuff dressed in shiny, unapologetic full fat robes; mouth wateringly glistening with seductive spice and the promise of satiety. For those living with anorexia, it’s like pouring bottled water over your head in front of a dying child in an arid land.

My Anorexic head aches all the more as the chocolates, cheese and port pass me by. I pick up a sausage and hold it near my mouth but my teeth are set like a portcullis and my mouth has turned to stone.

It’s a popular misconception that Anorexics don’t LIKE food, don’t LIKE eating. I can see why people might think this. After all, we don’t tend to tuck in to… well… anything much. Instead, we politely refuse dinners, the offer of a crisp, the chance to have a snack.

(Note: My ‘we’ is a wardrobe behind which my vulnerable ‘I’, hovers uncomfortably).

To help the uninitiated comprehend a little, I often liken Anorexia to a top secret agent who is holding a loved one to ransom. The agent is using inhumane methods to extract information. Most of us would cave in, I suspect. It would be too much to bear to see your nearest and dearest tortured. With the eating disorder as tormentor though, the one who holds the intel is utterly determined to remain silent, rendering the captive a martyr for the cause.

Picture the torture, sleep deprivation, water torture, perhaps a continuous brainbashing, Pinter style.

Starved to the point of death, fine food is plated and placed JUST out of reach, fresh bread, hot soups, Christmas pudding…

A stolid refusal to talk doesn’t mean the starved prisoner doesn’t want the food, because WANT! WANT is an understatement! His demented mind is driven crazy by it! He craves it so much that even his bones scream out for it to coat them, cover them, heal them.

But no.

No; the captor will not allow it and the agent will not talk. Locked in fatal battle.

Meanwhile the quiet captive body is a table on which the negotiations are played out.

This describes my everyday for the past decade, but at Christmas it’s worse; more enduring, more desperate; because it’s not about the baby Jesus, a gift to humanity. I know it should be and thankfully,  my heart still swells a little at the thought. But even as the spirit swells, it meets that which tightly binds it, and so hurts all the more.

My chest hurts and I am afraid. I am afraid of my illness and I know thatCandle-calendar unlike the analogy I used,  I wouldn’t die a martyr. Far from it. Rather, a weak and wasted waif who just didn’t have the courage.

If you are living with an ED this Christmas my heart goes out to you. It’s such a hard time. Please know, whoever you are, you are not alone in the struggle.

 

 

 

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.