Anorexia: The illness that doesn't make sense even for sufferers

Posted 25/05/2017

One thing that few people understand about this illness is the senselessness of its continued destruction – when a sufferer keeps on suffering despite the fact it seems utterly ridiculous to do so. The number of times I myself have heard phrases such as 'Why would she do this again?' 'Isn't it obvious how much she is losing?' 'Why is she sacrificing everything just to be thin?' 'What a waste of potential' 'What about your motivations, your life?' cannot be counted on one pair of hands, damn it, they probably cannot even be counted on 10 pairs of hands (although 10 pairs of hands may have been useful at the time to throw things at the givers of such silly phrases).

What people do not seem to realise is that we do not want this either. That a lot of time we can see, as sufferers, how little sense this all seems to make. After spending weeks or months in treatment, why go back to the very thing that landed you there? After weeks and months of sheer hard work why would you give it all up? I can't honestly give you an answer for it despite doing it myself. A wonderful psychologist once put it to my dad that the decline is like a 'normal' person being offered an apple instead of the piece of cake next to it. Yes, we are taught new coping mechanisms, but compared to the familiarity of anorexia they seem pretty pathetic and don't have the same attraction. From experience, you also often do not notice the decline, or you do but you cannot see the severity of it – it doesn't seem important at this stage, maybe you're at a healthy weight now, or a healthier weight than previously. You can also find yourself utterly in denial, very quickly.

Once you're on that slippery slope, it takes a hell of a lot of will to get yourself off it. It is like climbing Mt. Everest and having the option of a fun slide down to the bottom versus the continued upward climb stark naked. Not only does the fun slide seem a hell of a lot easier, but as you travel down it the denial grows, the cognitive patterns of the illness become stronger, the illness seems to become more a familiar friend and those challenging it become the new enemy. People can lecture you about the health risks, but they won't happen to you – you are different. A dietician of mine once describe it as 'delusions of grandeur', and I remember the patient group looking at her like a one-legged unicorn. But actually, on reflection, she was so right. Sufferers of anorexia see themselves as an exception from the rule, as above the laws of human survival. The effects of starvation? They won't happen to me. A heart attack is likely? Yeah, for other people, but not for me, of course. You could die? But I won't, because I am me. You need to eat food to survive? I don't need food to survive. I am different.

The further down the mountain you get on the slide, the further away the top of the mountain seems, the greater the task of the climb seems to become. Slowly your life starts to become much darker, much more lonely – the sunlight doesn't seem to reach the depths of the mountain you're existing in. You are told the top of the mountain will have the greatest views, the greater successes, but the bottom of the mountain has become familiar. Giving the top of the mountain a chance feels far too risky. You are used to being alone, used to having anorexia as your one and only companion. You hear the great things about the top of the mountain, but you think it will be different for you, like you do with the risks of the illness. The mountain will keep growing and getting taller; you'll get to the top but fall over the edge; by the time you have reached the top of the mountain the view will seem disappointing compared to the effort and pain of the climb; you will be so hurt by the process that you will fall from the mountain and you will not survive. You know the bottom of the mountain – it becomes safe. Even when all of your friends leave, when you lose your education, your job, your family etc. the loss feels so outweighed by the fear, the terrifying fear of that climb, of the top of the mountain, of leaving the safety of the known.

But you have to challenge that fear, otherwise you spend the rest of your life living at the bottom – that or you'll do lap after lap of part way up the mountain and back down again. The slide can't last forever; you'll wear it out, you will wear your body out to the point where you are lost to the darkness, another statistic to the illness with the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. And even when you reach the top, at times you will still look back longingly to the slide, remembering through rose-tinted goggles how much easier life was then, how much happier you were – false, yes, but you will forget the misery of it.

Then you will look out across the views, you will look to your right and see your friends, to the left and see your family, ahead of you to see the future, the hope, the happier memories, your dreams and ambitions in reach, the life you never dreamed you could have, but you do, because you challenged the fear and ventured into the unknown. You will feel free, unrestricted and able to truly live and you will remember why you are doing this, why you braved the climb to reach the top of the mountain.

Contributed by Nicole