[Disclaimer: this post is pretty heavy, as they say, so I decided to illustrate it with cute pictures from my hard drives rather than pictures of ana me. If anyone thinks this is a bad call, or worse, that it detracts from the undoubtedly heartfelt message, please comment!]
As is probably obvious if you’ve ever met me or you read this blog, I am almost unilaterally pretty open about my ED experiences. For many reasons. I am almost pathologically honest by nature. I’m a bad liar. I’m not afraid of the consequences of disclosure – which is a privilege, I know, but it’s one I have, and I think being open about the scary shit makes the world better in some small way. I don’t see any point in not being. Partly because I am old now, and by this age most of the interesting people – all of the people I love – have some sort of history of trauma; but mostly because my being open about it helps other people be open about it and thus the load is infinitesimally lightened.
Anyway, an infinitely valuable consequence of this is that people talk to me about the bad shit. Sometimes people get other people to talk to me – my mother and my friends operate some kind of referral system – and very occasionally it all gets a bit much and I have to hide under a rock for a while.
And sometimes, people ask me for advice.
Which is tricky. In some sense, it seems misplaced. My decision to live rather than die was to some extent made subconsciously, although the ebbing from barely-there-but-surviving discharge state up to a healthy weight was…something different. After I dropped to an insanely, ridiculously low weight and ended up in hospital, somehow not dying, I spent two months (ish) in starvation psychosis, being fed by NG tube. When I came out of that (in between trying to relearn things like speech and co-ordination and how to walk that had been completely zoinked by the psychosis thing) I found that the decision had to a certain extent been made for me. I was alive, I’d pushed the not-eating thing as far as it could go and I was still alive, so I might as well…live. So I ate. Not what you’d call normally – I didn’t know how, and ate to a timetable for 9 months to reset my body’s signals and stuff, I was still really unhappy about eating carbs, and had essentially no idea what ‘normal people’ DID about food – but I ate.
I was lucky – my family are all pretty slender, so they let me out of hospital at a bmi of roughly 16 or 17, as that had been my last ‘normal’ bmi before anorexia kicked in. (They also let me out because there’s nothing that causes more havoc on an anorexia unit that a still-somewhat-psychotic person wandering around and eating, but again, I digress.)
So the bit where you have to slowly and painfully force yourself back from actually-close-to-death to just-about-functioning didn’t happen consciously – my body sort of decided while I was mental (and starvation psychosis is hell, hands down the most traumatic single experience of my life, and I’ve been raped and attempted suicide) and my mind just…ran with it. I’ve always been pretty good at learning from my mistakes, and after the last terrifying few months pre-hospital – everything breaking, no muscles, unable to walk or ultimately stand, losing my hearing and my voice and my eyesight and my memory, the constant horror that everything was slipping beyond my grasp and the thing I’d always used to keep myself safe wasn’t working any more – I think I’d figured that wasn’t going to work, and so living was my only other option.
Please forgive the narrative – this is going to come to a point eventually, I promise.
I stayed at my discharge weight for…four or five years, I think. With a big dip in the middle when I went to Oxford and it almost broke me. I wasn’t what you’d call anorexic anymore, but I was still…weird around food. I still didn’t eat too much in case…well, in case. Then in mid-2009, I broke up with someone whom I’d genuinely thought I’d spend my life with – he was mad (bipolar/OCD) and monumentally fucked up, and everything just fell apart, including my relationship with food. Initially, in the way you’d expect – as the relationship faltered and fell apart, I stopped eating. But when we broke up, and stayed broken up, and he started being actively cruel, that stopped working. Not eating had always in one way or another been what kept me safe – but here I was and the worst had happened and stayed happening and there was nothing to be safe from, just this grey blanket of grief that leeched all meaning and pleasure out of my life and the blank bleak bewilderment of having nothing anymore.
I had what in retrospect was sort of a nervous breakdown – I started cutting, I took six months off from my PhD because I couldn’t work, I staggered around in a haze of dull agony. I have only a few, sharp image-memories of this time, snapshots of overwhelming, unlivable despair at how I was supposed to live, now. Anyway, somewhere in the middle of that, I stopped restricting my food. I started eating a lot of things I’d previously been frightened of, because why bother, even the momentary pleasure of tasting something new and interesting might distract me for a second, and it wasn’t like I had anything left to lose. More than that, I didn’t have the emotional energy to deny myself anything anymore – it took everything I had just to keep breathing. And so, at that point, I sort of roughly got to a healthyish weight? I don’t weigh myself anymore – haven’t, since around this time, then because I couldn’t bear to and now because I genuinely don’t care – and I know there’ve been fluctuations and a certain amount of shapeshifting, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve hovered around the low end of the healthy bmi scale since then – which given that my osteoporotic skeleton weighs almost nothing, is about as good as it’s going to get with my midget genes.
Again, there was no struggle, per se. There was a whole bunch of self-loathing when I started eating more, and it was halting, rather staggering progress as I’d feel fractionally better/worse and eat more/less, but again, it felt like the decision had already been made, somewhere deep inside. Anorexia doesn’t work for me anymore, it stopped working then, because there are some things not eating can’t fix and only living through can save you from. (I still have a very powerful eating = coping mechanism in my head. I guess something in there learnt the hard way.) There was no lightbulb moment, there was just carrying on, and looking at the empty world around me, and dragging myself through the days, all the endless meaningless horrible days, until eventually (and we’re talking months and sometimes years) I started to have moments when I felt something again – a song I liked, or a person I kissed and actually felt connected to, and those things had meaning whatever I had or hadn’t eaten, and I clung to that, and gradually, gradually the colour leeched back into the world, and I had this body that I actually didn’t hate any worse than when I was two stone lighter and felt fat, and it still moved and danced and did things, and…here I am.
So, when I’m asked for advice, I find it very hard to know what to say. It’s different for us all. The trick is to keep breathing. But actually, that’s a fucking copout. There are things that I did or had or found that helped. This is an imperfect list, and I may well add to it in future posts, but insofar as I have advice, here it is:
- Get therapy.
I was very lucky. My mother had met, some decade before my eventual collapse, an infinitely kind man who was a therapist specialising in eating disorders. As I neared breaking point (this was August, and by October I was in hospital) I went to see him, and between us we started the long and infinitely painful process of sorting out the mess that was my head. He was – and remains – amazing. I instinctively and instantly trusted him, and he came through a thousandfold, not only by doing his job (whatever sanity I have is substantially his influence) but also by dealing with hospital, advocating for me, sticking around, treating me for free when I couldn’t or forgot to pay him. Good therapists (and god knows there are a LOT of bad ones out there, especially around ED) if you can in any way afford to access one, are a godsend. There are affordable therapy schemes in a lot of big cities – I’ll dig out the London link when I’ve finished writing this, please comment if I forget – and if you don’t connect with and trust your therapist in a couple of sessions, try another one.
- You’re going to need crutches, and that’s okay.
When I left hospital, I started swimming. Three times a week at first, then every day. I still do, most days, although I’m less fanatical about distance than I was (I also swim front crawl now rather than breaststroke, so it takes less time). This was the thing I needed to make eating okay. It still is to some extent the thing I need to make eating okay, although going to the gym or for a run or even a long walk will do at a pinch. Swimming was my crutch, the thing I lent on to get out. Yours may be something different – dancing, or sex, or days when you watch Netflix and don’t get out of bed, or long showers, or social eating/drinking – whatever it is, find it, let yourself have it, let yourself lean. If you are getting through the days AND eating enough, at least at first, that’s more than enough. It’s about more than calorie compensation, though. The point wasn’t I ate x calories and then burned them off, the point was that if I swam I stopped worrying about the calories, because I figured I was being active and (here my skinny privilege comes into play) I’d never been really big and everyone in my family was small so if I was getting exercise and not eating tooooo much (see previous for how my perceptions of ‘tooooo much’ shifted) then I’d be okay. And it worked. I was, in the end, okay. A lot of the time I still am. You can always tell now when I’m really falling apart though, because I can’t swim – I can’t bear to be alone in my own head under the water. If I’m really anxious or depressed, I’ll go to the gym, because reading.
- Interrogate everything.
I’m an academic as well as a writer by trade and inclination, and my background’s in English lit. Which as a discipline, was a godsend in recovering from anorexia, because it’s all about pulling apart texts that make you feels things and analysing why, deconstructing their cultural and ideological assumptions, figuring out what gives them their power and (consequently) whether they have any power over you and whether they get to keep it. And really, to survive in this fucked-up, ideologically problematic, horrendous mess of a fatphobic agist racist rape-cultured diet-obsessed body-as-identity-as-product world, you need (or I needed) to do that a LOT. Who says thinner is better? Why should that be? Who’s saying it and why? What’s their agenda? What’s this trying to sell me? Why should women be this way or men that way? Why can’t we all just be people? What assumptions is this making? What assumptions am I making? What is with all this bullshit?
If this sounds exhausting, forget about it. Or rather, don’t forget about it, just don’t buy into the bullshit. Or question yourself when you do. The culturally determined rituals around food, like festive overindulgence followed by self-denial. The assumption that losing weight is a good thing and some kind of endgame. The idea that not eating much is somehow feminine. The idea that if you’re a girl you have some kind of responsibility to be pretty or nice or small or quiet or not angry or not needy or not taking up space. The idea that smaller is better. Fuck that shit, or at least take it apart, and figure out what it means to you and whether its influence over you is healthy. Let it go.
- Let people love you.
Not where ‘love’ is controlling or abusive – love does not food police you, or at least ought to be apologetic and non-pushy about doing it and let you raise an eyebrow – but where love is people being there, listening to you, letting you be yourself even when that self is fucked up. The people who give you moments of relief, of forgetting yourself, of feeling valuable, fleeting moments of fun and joy and feeling human. The people who don’t go away when you break. The people who don’t run away however thin or bleeding or weeping you are. The people who let you exist and be in pain even as they’re sorry you’re hurting.
I was, and am, immensely lucky to have a number of people who fit into this category. My boyfriend, when I collapsed, was there in hospital when I came round, and we stayed together for another year. Several friends came and visited me, bearing fruit and eyeliner and books and not minding when I dropped things all over the floor because I was slipping into psychosis and my brain couldn’t tell my body what to do anymore. My parents, who came and visited me twice a day and cooked me food and told me stories and fended off the gorier and more horrible suggested medical procedures and complained when they saw nurses hurting me and uncomplainingly took care of me when I was discharged until I was well enough to move in with my boyfriend. (I’ll admit that there was a whole bunch of other psychological crap going on with my parents at this point, and certainly there were and remain bits of me-being-in-pain they were profoundly uncomfortable with, but they were staunchly loyal and loving in this sense.)
I say ‘let people love you’ because a lot of us – by which I mean not only ED people but also the other variously mentally interesting gentlefolk who make up my loved ones – have huge and profound difficulty with letting themselves be loved. We don’t believe it, don’t feel we’re worth it, feel the need to prove to people we’re not worth it, believe we never will be loved, try to punish people for loving us, try to punish ourselves for wanting to be loved. And it’s bloody hard work learning to undo that, learning to untangle the mess of self-loathing that strangles us, learning to let people in, learning to look out rather than in, learning to let ourselves be, even just for moments.
Susie Orbach’s brilliant 2009 Bodies ends ‘We need bodies sufficiently stable to allow us moments of bliss and adventure when, sure that they exist, we can then take leave of them,’ and for me, it’s always been the moments, fragmentary as they often are, that become the points of light by which I can see my way out of the dark. And sometimes you can only see them in retrospect – sometimes it’s the very brief oblivion that’s the gift. I don’t know if that’s any help to anyone, anywhere – I spend enough time talking to people in pain and feeling helpless and useless that I doubt it very much. But it’s what I got.
 As if there’s even such a concept as ‘normal’ around women and food these days. Again, I am immensely lucky that my mother is naturally tiny and eats a lot, so a) I had a vaguely functional and healthy way of instinctive eating modelled for me and b) I could eat without being terrified I would entirely lose the smallness that correlated so fundamentally with my sense of self.
 We got back together at the end of 2012, and we’re now engaged. He’s made a monumental effort at dealing with his shit, and is much better in many ways now – so fingers crossed.
 This time is pretty horrendous for both of us to remember, but we do, and discuss it sometimes, because what else can you do.
 I hate Frozen, not least because it’s a nonsensical plotless two-hour music video for this admittedly brilliant song.