When I was first taken to the doctors, as a painfully shy, 8 year old, the strange eating habits and obsessive exercising my Mum had picked up on were dismissed. I’ve never forgotten the doctor’s words “she is craving your attention, ignore her and things will return to the way they were”. This, I believe, is an all too common misconception of what anorexia is, a cry for attention. In reality, it is quite the opposite. As an anorexic, I didn’t want to be seen, heard or noticed. I wanted to blend into the background and preferably, disappear. I heard those words and interpreted them to mean I needed to be more secretive, to make sure I wasn’t seen to be wanting attention. All this time, my eating disorder was becoming more powerful; I was becoming more ‘anorexia’ and less ‘me’. Anorexia takes over your life; the element of choice people often associate with the illness becomes completely lost. Anorexia controls your every waking, and sleeping, thought. You become locked in.
Through my anorexia, I became a brilliant actress, all smiles and willing to do anything nurses would request during inpatient treatment. When I was free to go, I knew I was just going to return to my old life style, the all-consuming nature of anorexia refused to allow me to do otherwise. I wasn’t ready to ditch my best friend – anorexia becomes a safety blanket despite the constant insults and hate filled messages it continually throws at you.
Anorexia resulted in me hating me, something I continue to battle on a daily basis. There is one universal truth about eating disorders, and that is, they are exhausting. I eventually realised I was tired. I was tired of starving. I was tired of being cold all the time. I was tired of putting on a happy face. I was tired of life. Hospital felt like a better option than dying. I finally wanted help, I desperately needed help, and inpatient care was the best way to receive it. I think to those nearest to you it is hard to understand how you can suddenly decide you want to get better and leave anorexia behind, but without hitting your very own rock bottom there is no way out. You may reach rock bottom several times, but only when you hit your very lowest point and make actively say I want to get better, can that begin.
The months I spent as an inpatient in the eating disorder hospital after deciding I wanted to get better were the best, and worst, of my life. The mental torture of feeling like a prisoner in both your own body, and in the hospital walls, is draining. But, the team was absolutely incredible. They taught me how to live a life where food isn’t the dictator and helped me to find me. Every single person played his or her part in helping me to become the person strong enough to stand alone, to face life, and to start living. Right from the nurse who helped me to create a wall of recovery, adding bricks whenever I overcame something – seeing that visual barrier against my eating disorder just worked at that time, to the doctor who understood how my mind worked so tailored my treatment to make it as effective as possible, I wouldn’t be here without them. I had made up my mind I needed the help when I was admitted, but it was only half way through my admission that I realised I wanted to get better. I know that many of the patients on the ward had their eyes opened to a life without an eating disorder by the team at the hospital. The staff were understanding, caring, kind and thoughtful. They were strict, and at times it seemed they were unfair, but in hindsight everything they did was for the greater good. But more than that, they were human. They talked about things outside of the eating disorder bubble we lived in at the hospital, they reminded us that life was outside those doors and we had to go out and get it.
I didn’t leave treatment completely cured. The body heals far quicker than the mind, making it all too easy for people to jump to the conclusion “you’re fine now” just by looking at your physical appearance. If only anorexia was that simple.
So what is anorexia? For me, it is an all consuming, destructive mental illness, characterised by a drive for perfection, a manifestation of self-loathing, a desire to disappear and a need to control. There is no quick fix, no easy solution, just an unexpected smile and a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.