I’m writing this blog post, and a few more over the course of this week, to raise awareness for Anorexia Nervosa and how each sufferer is different.
I’m also writing it to share my experience. It has span almost 10 years, starting briefly when I was 15. I had a short lived, irrational desire to lose weight before I went on my first holiday. This is where my first anxieties around food developed – what would I eat there? Would I gain everything I’d lost already?
During this short phase, a comment was made to me, it was powerful, impactful and has resounded forever – ‘‘No daughter of mine will be Anorexic.’’
Around this time Anorexia was slowly starting to build its way up to taking over my life, and love for it, away from me. It just wasn’t quite ready yet.
I’d like to point out that when I was 15 and 17, there was still a massive stigma around Anorexia, and even up until 6 or 7 months ago I wouldn’t even have contemplated that’s what I was dealing with. I don’t resent the people in my life for anything they said previously regarding the illness, as none of us really knew what it was or what mental health was. However, times have changed.
My break out phase of anorexia reared its head in 2009, when I was 17. Before then, I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, as I wanted. I exercised as little as I wanted, got up when I wanted, and I went out with friends.
In 2009, I got braces. My teeth were just less than perfect and that needed fixing. I was no heavier than 8 and a half stone (although I’m not 100% sure; I didn’t weigh myself in those days) and as soon as I got the braces, everyone commented on how much weight I’d lose and how good braces were for weight loss and health.
I already ate healthy. Naturally my diet didn’t change, fizzy drinks weren’t replaced with water and chocolate bars weren’t replaced with fruit. I had a good and balanced diet.
When the weight didn’t drop off, I was disappointed. But why would it, nothing had changed.
When I returned to college after the summer my timetable had gone from being social and able to interact with my peers to the complete opposite. I saw no one. It was around this time in my life that I began to attract a lot of flaky friends, they’d let me down last minute and promise me things they couldn’t pull through with. Both of these things play on the chords of myself self-worth, esteem and thoughts that no-one cares about me.
From a young age, I’ve conditioned my mind to naturally think those I love don’t care about me. It comes from living in a shop and assuming that the shop came first in everyone’s lives. I was always second best.
Prior to the summer I’d already started eating more ‘healthy’, swapping sugary cereal for plain and eating more fruit and less carbs. But once I’d gone back to college, I began walking to and from college, a good two hours walk a day, and jogging inside my house, or in my bedroom – hidden. I started to throw away food and pretend Id eaten it. I’d make a huge bowl of porridge for breakfast and throw it all away. I quickly became obsessed with a self-competition. The more I could throw away, the more hidden exercise, the better. It felt good.
And then it happened. Quickly. I lost weight.
I became pale, gaunt, permanently cold and my lips always blue, as well as my nails. I weighed myself as often as I could – avoiding night times and clothing.
I had no idea what I was doing was ‘wrong’. It felt good, it was mine and it was my control. Oh, the control.
In the November of 2009, I went to Rome. I spent the days leading up to it researching ‘how to get away with not eating’ and ‘low calorie Italian food’. I had a list of ‘what to do to not gain weight’ on my phone. The list included telling everyone I couldn’t eat past 5pm due to stomach issues and that repeating ‘I was full’ or ‘already ate’. I even managed to manipulate my friend to eat at a different time to the whole group with me so I could say we’d already eaten and avoid confrontation. Even then, I was throwing most of it away and surviving simply on fruit, vegetables and yogurt (half of, if that).
This trip to Rome was the turning point, and perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve asserted my self-awareness.
My teacher, who I’d coerced into going for a morning jog with me, had noticed how bony my collar bones had become and much they protruded – something which I’m very conscious about to this day; they gave the game away. She said I looked gaunt and awful and that she’d cornered my friend in the lift and asked if she’d noticed if I’d actually eaten anything that week. As far as I’m aware my friend hadn’t a clue of my intake.
My teacher’s daughter had recently been hospitalized due to Anorexia and she saw the same signs and behaviours in me.
I couldn’t believe what she was saying, I was fuming, LIVID.
Why would she think that? I couldn’t be Anorexic, I wasn’t skinny enough. Yeah, I lost about a stone and half within a few weeks but that meant nothing. My mother would be furious that a teacher, someone we are meant to trust, would suggest such a thing.
Fortunately for me, and probably my saving grace through my life, my self-awareness kicked in.
What was I doing? This behaviour wasn’t rational, where had my love for life gone? My love for food?
Food wasn’t a pleasure anymore, it wasn’t an excitement nor a means for survival. It was a difficulty a frustration and an anxiety.
As we boarded the train in England toward home, I reflected back on the week. I’d spent it freezing, exhausted and in pain. I’d began to develop bruising where my bones protruded and hadn’t lay comfortably on an unknown hotel bed. I’d exercised in secret, I’d thrown away food. I’d also fallen asleep during and audience with The Pope.
Something was wrong. I wasn’t well. But I didn’t know what to do.
As I arrived home, I’m not sure if I spoke to my mother about it straight away. But the most heart-breaking moment of this phase happened. My mam made a ‘welcome home’ dinner for me. We didn’t all eat together as we lived in a Newsagents and that wasn’t easy to do. She’d made Pasta with sugo and had bought steak specially for the sugo.
I was absolutely fuming. PASTA?! I couldn’t eat that. Not only was it pasta, for god sake, but it was after 5. And I didn’t eat after 5.
I can’t imagine how awful that moment must’ve been for my mother, she tried to do something so nice for me, and I threw it back in her face. I’d become terrified of food. The thought of it sent me into straight, cold, hard frozen fear. I went to bed in anger and on an empty stomach.
The next day my routine of waking up, jogging, preparing breakfast and then throwing it away resumed. But this day I felt different, I had an awful anxiety that wouldn’t go away, an awful worry and concern that I needed to get off my chest. But no, it was my friends 18th birthday party tonight and I was going.
I’d already arranged with my other friends that I wasn’t going to go for the birthday meal they’d planned for her, and I’d already planned to turn up late and go home early. I was home before my shop shut – 9pm. I was knackered. Completely and thoroughly exhausted. It was this night I remember talking to my mother about it all.
She didn’t know anything about mental health, nor did I. I just felt lost, confused and helpless. Something I still feel very regularly to this day.
My mother tried to threaten me with empty threats like –if my weight goes any lower than 7st I’d be taken to the doctors.
But it did.
And then it got lower, and lower.
I was never taken to the doctors, nor did I ever send myself there.
I remember having a conversation with my mother about what we could do, and I can’t remember the details of it, but I know that this again is where my self-awareness kicked in. I couldn’t be hospitalized or be labelled Anorexic. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. From the next day I started to try to eat more, on my own, through my own initiative. And I did. But then this is where I started to calorie count, exercise more, and cut myself off from friends.
In reflection, it wasn’t a recovery method, it was just another way of maintaining Anorexia. This way I could do it and no-one would know because I was still eating.
At first, I set my target at 1700 calories a day. I don’t think I’ve hit that, on a daily basis, since I was 18. Asides from a 6 months exception when I was 20; more on that later.
With every year of my life, that number of calories I’ve consumed on a daily basis has gotten lower and lower. Whilst the exercise burn amount has gotten higher.
Furthermore, in a bid to hide my Anorexia, I wore lipstick every day, all day and painted my nails. And. The best trick in the book, I started using the sunbeds. I’m half Italian, so naturally tanned, but Anorexia strips me of that; low blood sugars give you an awful and unnatural paleness. But my sunbeds helped stop that.
From that moment on, I started to maintain my Anorexia. She’s been in my life ever since. I’ve hidden her well, I think. I rarely spent full days with anyone and when I did, I’d either avoid food altogether or incorporate exercise into our routine and plans.
For me, in my life, Anorexia is like a hairline crack in the ceiling of a living room. It starts out small, it’s there, always has potential to be dangerous. As time goes on, the crack gets bigger, and bigger and gets out of hand. Without looking closely, it never gets noticed and especially not fixed. Eventually it gets so bad that the ceiling begins to collapse, break and can’t put up with the pressure anymore.
Suddenly its gone from bad to worse.