Tag Archive: Mental Illness


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.

 

Dear ___________,
agony1

It’s hard to  know where to be
gin because I cant remember where or when the beginning was.  What I DO know is that you’ve no idea how hard I’ve had to work just to keep things balanced.

I want you to stop and shut up and LISTEN.  I’m going to try to tell you about what you’ve done and what you’re STILL doing. It’s a hard thing. Bear with me.

Despite your attempts to poison me and to harm me, I fought to stay healthy. I cleaned your blood, carried it round, battled illnesses, healed up your wounds.

You crossed what had become a very blurry line around ten years ago.  Then the real brutality began. You fought me with systematic, dogged determination; tried to change me, control me, reshape me with the tools of death you fast learned to use.

The irony of the fact it began with a health kick hasn’t escaped me. When you cut out the cigarettes, I was overjoyed! Clean breathing at long last. I’d been clogging up with thick tar, and in some ways, I think I’d resigned myself to the blackness, and to the knowledge that it would continue to seep and creep, until it covered all my tender healthiness.

But you cracked it! And I began to work at cleaning it up, helped greatly by your exercise and your healthier lifestyle. It was so good for a while.

Up until you stopped feeding me.

At first I wasn’t worried. I don’t even know when I first noticed. Those workouts of yours grew progressively harder to sustain. When I began to flag, instead of the little rest I was used to, you pushed me all the harder. After sprinting half a mile, you’d ramp up the speed. For a while, I thought it was normal; y’know, a good technique for burning my fat and making muscle. I trusted that you knew your stuff. I figured you’d stop when I reached my optimum, and I worked so hard for you, did what YOU wanted. Stretched to the limit, I kept going, convinced you’d be satisfied with my performance.  It’s hard to acknowledge just how far you fell from my expectations and it’s quite impossible for me to understand.

Over time, you and I underwent a transformation that nobody, NOBODY could believe. I think it’s fair to say that it simply wasn’t a you that I recognised.

You were brutal.

Whispers of encouragement became barked orders as coach turned to tyrant. I began to dread you.

Your lack of mercy started to take its toll as I struggled to balance your system.

I tried to tell you. I couldn’t help but let you feel the impact of your cruelty. You can’t flog someone half to death and expect the scars not to show. I stopped biting my lip and started to shout, but you lashed me harder, your determination a steel whip, your mission a desperate urge to keep control.

And all this talk of exercise is perhaps an avoidance of the most painful point: that of starvation.

I struggle here.

The louder I cry, the harder you starve. The more I plead, the more you withhold. If I let myself think of food, you give me less, and yet, I’m so hungry, I can’t think of anything BUT.

You’re killing me.

It’s not rocket science. If you don’t take care of something, it’s going to fall apart.  I’m SO tired of having to hold you up. You demand so much of me but give so little; a cruel rider lashing at his horse, numb to the pain of its seared flank; numb to the deep ache streaming down it’s legs, for all that matters is the win and the blinkers of victory blot out the damage.

If I was a separate being, you’d be done for abuse. The cruelty is almost intolerable. You tease me with the broken edges of foods that I crave. You tell me I can have it, then, just as fast, tell me I can’t. I’m starving and you lead me to the fridge fskeleton appleull of food that I’m not allowed to eat. Like an object of worship, you kneel in front of the full shelves, and as I cry that it’s nourishment you only see numbers.  For food has become a mass of calculations that stream through this brain, tangled wit
h the inevitable bargaining script of ifs and buts and onlys… And all the while, my mouth drools.

You’re breaking me. My bones are dry and brittle. Osteoporosis casts shadows on my hips and my spine is wearing thin. I can’t remember how many years since I bore the ache of fertility. This womb dry and cold, no longer fit to feel the moisture of tiny breath.

Every step is painful as bone grinds on stone. Every step is my protest. And yet, you carry on, rising above the screaming soles, too frightened to stop. You run away from me, barely look at me, only glancing to check that your clothes cover your skin.

I am weary, made tired by your disdain. I am weary of being underfed, ignored, tempted, denied.

I am weary of being brought to the brink of health, and then being starved to the brink of death.

I am weary of daring to trust that I no longer have to hunt to survive, then being shot at when I rest.

I am weary of empty promises, of bearing the weight of your illness.

If you continue, we will both die in this civil war and nobody will ever know who won or who lost.

All of me will rot; but, you if you remain, will rise above the webs of half rotted reasons, above the dry dust of me

And it will all

seem

so

completely

senseless.

******************

I didn’t want to seem rude when my very lovely clinician suggested writing a letter to myself. I almost squinted with the effort of holding back on the eye roll, resisted the sideways pull of my lips.

Been there. Done that. Got T-shirts to clothe an army.

But. This was a bit different. Not a ‘ years from now thing. Not a letter to myself, but a letter FROM myself. More specifically, from my body.

I put it here to remind myself why I need to keep eating. I also put it here hoping that it might be helpful in some way, to someone else.

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

In my last post I think I may have explained that I was accepting a third round of inpatient treatment, which I hope will go some way towards explaining my temporary absence from the blogsphere.

It’s been four weeks.

Four weeks of a graded increase in food.

Four weeks of setting up my small bedroom and equipping it with things that will make it look less like a hospital and more like student digs.

Four weeks of adjusting my routine; of getting used to eating six times a day,  of sitting still in a crowded communal lounge for a total of four and a half hours each day, often subjected to death by American ‘comedy’ interspersed by the even more torturous Jeremy Kyle show and Hollyoaks.

Four weeks of sussing out the eight other patients; logging their individual idiosyncrasies… getting to know who experiences distress at the mention of the weekly menus,who cant touch anything after eating for extreme fear that there exists a phenomenon whereby calories can be transferred onto any object she touches.

Four weeks learning to tread carefully around topics others find ‘triggering’, learning who responds to a hug and who shrinks from it, leaving and receiving little notes of encouragement and kindness.

Four weeks of interacting with different staff nurses and health care assistants.

Four weeks of twice weekly ‘weigh ins’; the unavoidable moment of fear, where figures flutter round, and then pierce, the early morning brain fog.

Four weeks and I feel hopeless and despairing because the pain of weight gain, albeit gradual, feels increasingly frightening and I just don’t know if my courage can hold out for the long haul.

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.

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.

It’s that time of the year again.

The first brush strokes of autumn begin to tinge the greens and yellows of late summer. The air grows a little cooler; the sun, a little whiter and dawn’s breaking, slower and quieter.

And then there are the spiders.

Scaffold-legged, they run amok in our houses, apparently mo’t measured the fear of a fully signed up member of Arachnophobes Anon against the brazen tap dance of these too-quick-for-comfort creatures.

I digress hopelessly.

The fact that I fall apart when faced with a spider contrasts markedly with the way I react in a crisis. Put me in a room with the spider and I break into a cold sweat. I experience weakness in my major limbs. Paradoxically, when faced  with a REIMAG1372_1AL shock or crisis, I become almost ultra cool… Weeping and woe-ing makes me impatient and I will veer away from any kind of hysteria.

Today though, I was shocked to the core and though nobody would have known to look at me, inside I was choking on my own words. Words that wouldn’t form to express, to heal, to challenge, to cut through layers of psychotic deception.

Sometimes, words won’t do. They don’t hold enough power.

Then, there is nothing to do but fall to your knees and cry out. Cry for help from one who is bigger than the chaos outside and more powerful than the feelings within.

Today, I cry. I cry for a friend whose mind has descended into the hell of psychosis. The first episode.

I couldn’t help.

The irony is, as we sat on her hospital bed, she told me that her Anorexia has never been so good.

Straight swap? I wish I knew more about the mind.

For whatever reason, I feel the need to preface this post with a declaration that I do not buy the Daily Mail. Finding it, all too often, a thinly veiled excuse to propound nationalistic views, I frequently have to remind readers that the world is not really that bad a place unless they believe all they read in this trussed up tabloid.

I was, however, drawn to the full page article about a long suffering mother, who, five years after her daughter’s tragic death, has made the decision to release the girl’s diaries. Diaries that record the tortured journey of Loredana Verta, a bright, talented sixteen year old, who was dead within three years. Heart attack.

Rightly or wrongly, some of  this young sufferer’s innermost thoughts and feelings are laid bare in newsprint for all to see.

The workiarticle-2713000-202CA0CA00000578-585_634x910ngs of this girl’s mind are utterly consumed by the illness. Her writing is littered with scribbled self loathing, capitalised screams of  “I HATE ME… I HATE MY BODY”.   Most teenagers feels like this at some point. Hormones, skin, peer pressure, perfection culture, fashion… It’s all there to taunt the aspiring, spot laden, hormone raging teen.

Except Loredana’s thoughts are all centred on weight loss and weight gain and wrongly perceived fat.

To my mind, what is more haunting than the poisonous self hatred, the desperation, the pleas to God and the cries for help, are the words of a grieving mother, who says,

“Lorry thought she could live with the condition – that as long as she was thin, she would be OK. She didn’t realise that anorexia is a deadly disease. It is a killer”.*

For long term sufferers, ‘old hands’, Anorexia can be so ingrained, so deeply habitual, that we forget that it is something UNnatural… an invasion. It becomes like Stockholm Syndrome… It’s is our natural fall back position.

It KILLS.

Let’s get real.

It is deadly.

We think it won’t ever happen to us, and yet, why wouldn’t it? It killed Loredana in just THREE years.

Of all psychiatric disorders, Anorexia is the biggest killer. TWENTY PERCENT of sufferers die prematurely.^

I hear my wake up call.

Can you hear yours?

 

* Emphasis is mine

^ Statistics according to B-EAT

Anorexia: A Lifestyle?

AnorexiaMonday’s Telegraph newspaper marked the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness week with an article about ED websites: More specifically, ‘Pro Ana’ sites.  (For the uninitiated, these sites are sites set up to encourage those who want to starve themselves. They share tips and tricks about hiding food, fighting hunger, effective purging, dealing with interfering parents / loved ones and often sporting photographs of skeletal bodies to give ‘thinspiration’ to followers).

I skimmed Sarah Rainey’s article , too tired of the topic to want to engage with the politics and the emotion held between the lines of the pro ana blogger, the parent of a (nother) very bright, talented ‘whole life ahead of her’ dead Anorexic and a range of ED specialists and organisations.

One thing however, leapt out at me.

This:

“Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease”.  (A quote Rainey takes from a ‘pro ana’ blog).

It’s something I’ve heard many times in various forms and generally from sources who, clearly, have no understanding of the pathological nature of Anorexia. Without wishing to state the obvious, I find the implications of the statement upsetting because it embodies the attitude that somehow, Anorexia is a choice one makes.

For me, this is an absurd idea. However, as I have previously tried to explain (here), I think there are different types of Anorexia and it is possible that, for some people, devoting their time and energy to becoming extraordinarily thin, is a lifestyle choice, in much the same way that a total devotion to anything may lead to radical lifestyle choices. All well and good (excuse the irony), and perhaps in this instance, starvation is a choice… just another way of living. But, can a disease be a lifestyle?

Unfortunately, what the article I read didn’t point out, was that if this is a choice, it can’t be Anorexia or Bulimia or EDNOS. A disease, by its very definition and nature, isn’t a choice… Nobody CHOOSES to suffer with a disease. True, it can appear that way with some mental illness’, but nobody makes a choice to become sick. People don’t choose to die from malnutrition any more than they don’t choose to develop leukaemia. And this is where it all becomes very complex… because CHOICE plays a large part in the distortions that characterise this illness so vividly.

A person suffering with Anorexia, believes that they have CONTROL of their weight and their body. They believe in the choice element. They believe that they are IN CONTROL. In fact, the extreme opposite is true. It is the disease that controls them and the disease which distorts their thinking. The disease ROBS the Anorexic of choice. It STEALS their capacity for logical thought about their weight. It DILUTES the ability to rationalise their fear of weight gain and to recognise that they are no longer in control of their mind.

I understand the Pro-Ana blogger’s statement in the light of those who wish to diet, but “choosing an Anorexic lifestyle” is an oxymoron.

One last point, and perhaps the most important: Luckily, there IS some element of choice.

It is reserved for those who are in the grip of an Eating Disorder (or addiction, I think) and it is this: The sufferer may choose to remain in the half life that it forces on them. They may CHOOSE to give up the fight for wellness. Just as somebody who is diseased with cancer may choose to stop treatment, an Anorexic or Bulimic can CHOOSE not to fight the illness.

RECOVERY or NOT is the choice. A lifestyle of recovery is agony, but a lifestyle led by the choice NOT TO recover, is to submit to the power wielded by this dreadful disease.

Politician Frank Field says of Christmas;

“It is my favourite festival because it reminds us that we can always begin again”…

…A sentiment I like because it’s rooted in hope. Now, perhaps you are one of those enviable types whose boundless optimism shines forth, making you a beacon for desperate souls like me (who experiences hope in a short rush

Sand-Hand-1309326

which passes the mind through like sand from a loosely clasped fist).

Perhaps you are a glass half full sitting on the sunny side of the table.

If so, great! You can probably look over your shoulder and give a grateful nod to those who brought you up (controversial point, I know).

If like me, you struggle to keep a faint ember glowing, this post is for you!

When I started writing this blog, I wanted it to be about HOPE. I wanted it to be a small ray of hope streaking through the darkness of cyberspace.

Candle-calendar

If ever there was a time where we see the little lights of hope, “Advent” is it.  And I want to say that Christmastide, although an incredibly tough time for people like myself and perhaps, you, is also a time where there is a sense of something new… and not just the ipad or the SatNav in your stocking, but in the way that we can live our lives and make small changes in the ways we react and respond to people or situations.

Hope is intrinsically linked with change: something I’ve never really thought about before, but seems so relevant to those of us who struggle with eating disorders or addictions. It’s so easy to give up. Sometimes it’s easier to say; “I’ll never make it”; “I can’t change”; “my ED is stronger”;”my problems run too deep”.  But the painful truth is, believing these ‘despair-mongerous’ statements (okay, so I made up a word), is putting a jamjar over a flame.

And we’ve all done it. We all give in to the nagging despair. But it doesn’t have to be like that. We can fight for the life we want, or to be the person we want to be. Where there is hope, there is light and life. Christmastime can be full of angst and grief and despair. It can be a time of immense loneliness and suffering. But, as in the real Christmas story, there can be moments where hope is born.

The hope that we can make it… that we haven’t blown it.