Up until now, I’ve been very open and honest about living with depression and anxiety. But there’s another issue which I don’t talk about. Something which has taken me far longer to come to terms with and something which I’m still ashamed of…
It’s a horrible word. It sounds horrible. Everything it stands for is horrible. Yet for a number of years, ‘Ana’ became my closest friend.
Stage 1: OBLIVIOUS
It all began the summer after I left school. I was aware of lots of uncontrollable changes happening in my life and I felt very insecure. Over time I developed a coping mechanism for this: restrict and control food. I don’t know why this happened. It wasn’t a conscious decision; to begin with, I didn’t even realise what I was doing.
At uni, I tried to justify my restrictive eating habits by telling myself I was saving money by not buying food (stupid, I know). Students all around me were living off junk food so I started to think that what I was (or wasn’t) eating was ultra healthy. In my head, my eating habits had become the norm. If I ate more than my ‘norm’, I felt cross and scared because I’d broken my rules and lost control. So, I kept setting myself new challenges: to restrict even more.
Stage 2: IN DENIAL
I started to become aware that I was restricting, but I thought I was in control of food. I thought I’d be able to snap out of my restrictive eating habits whenever I wanted to. The problem was, I’d found so much security in restricting that I didn’t want to stop. I got scarily good at avoiding food: I’d lie about what I’d eaten; I’d hide food then throw it away; I’d skip some meals all together. Was I hungry? Yes! I was barely eating anything! But my thinking was twisted.
When my friend died, I felt my life spiral out of control even more. Meanwhile my new friend, Ana, reassured me I could always control food. She told me eating was a sign of weakness and being able to function on very little energy was a strength.
In reality, Ana was completely draining me of life and happiness. I was becoming a deceptive, irritable and paranoid person – I wasn’t my happy-go-lucky self any more. Social occasions involving food became my worst nightmare so I isolated myself from family and friends at mealtimes whenever possible to avoid comments about how little I was eating. It was foolish of me to think people didn’t notice though. The people closest to me probably worked out that I had an eating disorder. But I still denied it.
Stage 3: ADMITTING
“I’m now at a point where I can admit that I’ve got anorexia. I hate it. I’m so disappointed with myself for letting this happen. I can see how serious it is and I’ve never felt more scared. I’ve just read about all the long-term and internal physical effects of anorexia. What if I’m irreversibly broken? What have I done to myself? I don’t want to die but I’m scared I may have already gone too far. I hope I can stay alive long enough to fix myself.” (Diary entry, February 2013)
This was a huge turning point for me. I still didn’t open up about the issue to anyone else, but once I’d admitted the problem to myself, it was honestly my intention to do something to fix it. And I did try. I made several feeble attempts at starting to eat properly. But my so-called friend Ana was now completely in control of me. I just couldn’t get better. I was trapped, and things got worse.
I remember lying in bed, my weak body completely crushed by my duvet, convinced that I would shut down and die in the night. I’d tell myself that I would start eating properly if I woke up alive in the morning. But after a sleepless night, I’d wake up with no motivation. By now, depression and anxiety were starting to take hold of my life as well. Everything became such hard work, even basic things like washing and getting dressed. I felt vulnerable whenever I left the house and was tired and ready for bed by 6pm. I tried to put on a brave face and get on with my life as best as I could, but it was exhauting me.
My body got even weaker. My my bones ached. My head hurt. My heart was slow. My muscles were wasting away. My hair felt straggly. My reflection looked black and white. My periods stopped. I was constantly freezing cold. I knew I was damaging myself, killing myself even. Yet I was doing nothing to prevent it. Why? Ana kept convincing me that eating was disgusting, restricting food was good, and that it was attractive to be stick thin. She attacked my self-worth and said I didn’t deserve a full, healthy and happy life. In my weak, vulnerable and worthless mindset, I believed Ana. I hated myself.
Stage 4: SEEKING HELP
I wanted to get better but I couldn’t trust myself. People were willing me get help. But actively seeking and accepting help had to be my decision. And it was a decision I put off for a long time. Ana told me needing help made me weak so I used my studies and charity work as excuses for not having time to focus on myself. But by now, I was in the ‘danger zone’; I was on the brink of death and, although life was hard, I didn’t want to die. I was terrified. So, I started coming clean about the deception and my bad eating habits. This was liberating. Mum and Dad were incredibly loving and understanding and for the first time – after years of them wanting to help me – I was finally letting them in. I went to see my GP, started taking anti-depressants, and had a couple of counselling sessions… I thought these things would fix me. I soon realised that although I needed this help it was ultimately my mindset that needed changing – and the only person who could change this was me.
Stage 5: RECOVERING
Even though it felt like an impossible task, I eventually decided to start to properly recover. My first target was to have three normal meals a day – something which I hadn’t done for a long time. I asked Mum to make my food for me so I wouldn’t be able to control it any more. Letting go of this control was extremely scary. But I knew it needed to happen.
Recovering hurt mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I’m not sure I can do this. Eating hurts and makes me feel uncomfortable and sick because my stomach is so small and not used to proper, regular food. Every meal time is a constant battle, the eating disorder is attacking me more than ever, telling me what I’m doing is wrong. Ana gets cross with me. I get cross with myself. Then I get cross with Mum and Dad even though they are trying to help me. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” (Diary entry, May 2013)
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. Do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt
There’s no quick fix. Recovery is a very long and hard uphill struggle. Only someone who’s experienced an eating disorder can understand how scary and challenging it is to start eating three meals a day again; you feel like you’re constantly faced with food. It takes great perseverance and courage and there are lots of setbacks.
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’.” Mary Anne Radmacher
But I’m so glad to say that, in time, things slowly started improving.
Stage 6: SHAME
As I became stronger, Ana became weaker. My next big challenge was coming to terms with what had happened.
I felt defined by anorexia. I was very ashamed of the issue. I feared I’d never be able to forgive myself for the emotional pain I’d put my family through, for cutting off my friends and for neglecting myself. But most of all, I was scared people would judge me. I never ever thought someone like me would have an eating disorder. I used to naively think anorexia was something vain girls inflicted upon themselves. It’s not. Anorexia is undiscriminating. It’s not self inflicted. It’s got nothing to do with wanting to be thin and beautiful. I hate the word anorexia and I hate its connotations. Anorexia is not about food and body image. It’s about control.
Anorexia is a misunderstood serious and scary illness. Telling someone with an eating disorder to just start eating normally again is like telling someone with two broken legs to run a marathon. But it’s incredibly hard for someone on the outside to understand this. How my family and friends continued to love and accept me while helplessly watching me starve myself, I will never know. But I do know that it’s the power of that love which gave me the strength and determination to fight. It’s the power of that love which has quietened Ana’s lies.
“Where there is great love there are always miracles.” Willa Cather
Stage 7: MY FUTURE
Ana hasn’t completely gone away. She still tries to trick me back into restricting food when she can. But I’m now strong enough to catch her out and I’m brave enough to tell her to shut up, and for the most part, I am happily able to enjoy food again. I am hopeful that in time, I’ll be free of Ana completely.
“If we are ready to tear down the walls that confine us, break the cage that imprisons us, we will discover what our wings are for.” Michael Meegan
I resent that anorexia’s tainted almost five years of my life. But I know resentment’s not good and I am learning to accept what’s happened and am realising that it wasn’t my fault. And although I’m still ashamed to say that I’ve suffered with anorexia, writing this blog post has made me realise how far I’ve come and how much of the fight I’ve won. For that, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m proud of myself.
“Let your hopes, not your hurts shape your future.” Robert Schuller