Category: with an Eating Disorder


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.

 

 

 

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.

I’m not going to write about all the reasons why I was the least likely host site for Anorexia to burrow into. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that nobody could believe it, me included.

However, just ONE of the reasons why I am an unlikely candidate, is the fact that I have always been regarded as being “a block of sense”.

It’s true, I have suffered with lifelong anxiety, something which has only really been acknowledged in more recent years, but as a general rule, certain phobias aside, I really am an incredibly pragmatic, diplomatic, rational thinker.

I don’t mean that I can do all the lateral thinking puzzles that MENSA books torment people with. I don’t have an endless chain of resolved Rubik’s Cubes.  And I don’t sit down everyday to complete the Times Cryptic Crossword, just for kicks.2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg

No.

However, I DO have a high proportion of common sense and very level head.

I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, and again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that arrogance isn’t something that has been a strong feature of mine, but at the end of a long chat last week, a struggling friend looked at me quizzically and asked, “how did you get to be so wise?”.

At the time I shrugged it off, but later I heard it echo and I wondered… How come I have all this wisdom, and yet, can’t apply it to myself. How is it that I can see lights in other people’s tunnels, yet my own is the darkest shade of black? How can I have such insight into the pain carried by others, while I stumble in blind circles? Why can I feel what they feel, but not what I feel? How is it that people are consistently impressed with my intellect, my ‘wisdom’, when all the while,  my Anorexia is behind the scenes calling the shots.

It was my friend’s question that spurred me to write this post, because I want to illustrate something of the devious nature of an Eating Disorder. I’ve heard it suggested that sufferers of this illness choose to be thin in a ‘supermodel wannabe’ sense; that it’s vanity. I’m here to set the record straight. On the contrary, my illness makes me uglier, far less attractive.

I’m writing to explain that I CAN’T EXPLAIN how it is that my rational mind understands that I can’t be fat. It sees the figures on the scales at weekly weigh-ins at the unit. It hears the calculation of my (stupidly low) Body Mass Index, and yet, the Anorexia wraps itself round it all, and perverts it, twists it and denies it.

Lots of people ask the question, ‘do Anorexic’s see themselves as ‘fat’? It’s a massive (no pun intended) concern for those seeking understanding.

I know I’m not fat. Many seasoned Anorexics KNOW this on some level. I do however, feel that I look ‘normal’. I don’t see ‘underweight’. I don’t EXPERIENCE ‘thinness’.

So, I’m shocked beyond belief at a picture my dad takes of me.Picture altered to make background less recognisable.

I can’t recognise the scrawny person in it. She can’t be me. surely?

This is what I want to purvey. This is what I want to educate people about, because I think it’s the hardest aspect for those who watch, to understand. A person may have an IQ higher than the year they were born, but their perception of themselves can be as skewed as the government data on employment. Even with this photo, and the fact that I’ve lost weight since. I still cannot compute that I really look like that.

Such is the complete distortion of an otherwise rational mind. It’s one thing to know something in your rational mind, it’s another to experience it as ‘being real’. In this sense, I make the (somewhat controversial) assertion that Anorexia has an element which is akin to psychosis. This is where the illness becomes a mental health problem, rather than a ‘state of mind’.

 

 

It’s as simple as that really.

Whether it’s an individual or an organisation, if they have a responsibility, they need to be sensible. That’s why responsibility, the notion of it, is an adult thing. Many adults find themselves saddled with jobs, mortgages, children, pets… You hear people harking back to the halcyon years of our youth; waxing lyrical about the days of freedom; days where their minds, clear of clutter, could imagine and dream and create.

Why do they seem so alluring, these days of growing pains, curfews and restriction?

Obvious right? Because childhood is a time of careLESSness; a time without responsibility.

Children aren’t too great at responsibility. They lack the breadth of experience which provide us with the gift of foresight and hindsight. They forget things because they drift more easily through the mists of their creative minds. They have different priorities and values.

So it’s an adult thing then. And as adults, we find ourselves responsible for rather a lot of things, and (more terrifyingly) for rather a lot of people too. *Note, some find this more frightening than others

And really, responsibility, is just about being sensible. Taking a common sense approach. Using logic and sensitivity.

Why is it then, that in the twenty first century, in what is generally understood to be a ‘civilised society’, do we have media who behave in the most IRRESPONSIBLE fashion?

Can anyone explain it to me?

If it was ONE person, then maybe I’d get it. I mean, everyone is irresponsible sometimes. But a whole group? A whole team of, God knows how many, people? Photographers, an editor in chief, the creative director, features editors…

A whole menagerie of magazine employees, and NOBODY figured that featuring the Yves Saint Laurent advert which clearly depicts a horribly underweight model, would be grossly irresponsible?ysl model

Honestly.

I’ll write more on this, but my initial reaction is this.

They’re just

so

very

silly.