Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Yet the deviousness of this disorder means no single treatment or set of treatments have been found to be consistently successful.
Shifty and devious anorexia is a master at disguise. Slotting itself nicely into societal norms, the morning gym session or missed breakfasts go unnoticed or are glorified by others in pursuit of aesthetic perfection. But the difference between you and your lycra-clad gym buddy is the destructive and abusive relationship you are in, the one that refused to let you stay in bed this morning, instead tormenting you, until you heaved your tired body and mind out of bed.
This normalisation of excessive and self-punishing behaviour gives anorexia the upper hand. This parasitic disorder roams the corridors of your life, like an alien in search of a human host. It lurks in the shadows preying on your vulnerability, waiting for you to leave the door of your mind ajar, so it can slither in, and demand permanent residency. It is only when anorexia has set up camp in your head that it unleashes its full wrath. By this time it is too late: the disorder has manifested itself in such a way that you become a passenger in your own life. Even now as you are pushed into the backseat, to the outside world you still look, happy, healthy and in control.
Like most who leave home for university will tell you, the fresher fifteen is a real thing. Too much alcohol and late-night snacking leave more of you to love at the end of the first year compared to the start. I was left feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable in my own skin. This is when I decided to embark on a strict diet of fruit. The weight fell off and I revelled in the praise. Finally I had found something I was good at, and I didn’t want to stop.
Over the following two years, the little voice grew stronger, each day imposing more rules and restrictions, cutting social ties and shutting friends and family out. Every day revolved around food, my behaviours, my body image. I simply didn’t have the energy to think about anything else. My weight kept dropping, I constantly felt cold and exhausted, with dark circles under my eyes and thinning hair, but I couldn't stop. The voice, my illness, wouldn't let me. To explain it to those who are on the outside looking in: to me, anorexia consumed my life, my thoughts, my mannerisms, my relationships (or lack thereof), to the point where my eating disorder consumed my identity.
In recent years the work to remove stigmas surrounding mental health has been profound. However, cases of anorexia documented in the mainstream media primarily focus on recovered or recovering girls and girls between the ages of 14 – 21. As someone who developed anorexia in my early twenties and still struggles with the disorder now at 28, I am left feeling ashamed and frustrated. How have I, a twenty something, educated professional allowed anorexia to imprison me for so long? Why am I not capable or strong enough, like these young girls, to free myself from its grip? I felt to blame for developing anorexia in the first place – I had allowed this voice to shout louder than my own.
I could relate to every aspect of the stories being told by these girls, but instead of skipping school dinners and hiding food from my parents, I was skipping friends’ birthdays and refusing to eat evening meals with my partner. Whilst other people my age were out dancing around the city, sipping cocktails, meeting at coffee shops, enjoying spontaneous meals out, I was home. Mindlessly sat in front of the TV, eating bowls and bowls of popcorn one kernel at a time. It was an addiction, a ritual, content in the knowledge that despite missing out on the fun, the numbers on the scale would be less than the day before. Popcorn was like my drug, my guilty pleasure, sad and pathetic, an addict, I sat there night after night, eating it alone as my dinner. Getting my fix. Missing my youth.
Every day I would wake up promising myself today would be different, but it never was. Who is this voice telling me you can, you can’t. Why can’t I just be myself? Who am I without these restrictions? I need them. I’m in control – or am I? I can’t go on living with this madness; I’m a bore; my energy and soul are withering along with my concentration and life.
Too often we let our disorders define who we are. From my experience, the first stage of recovery is acknowledging the difference between ‘I am anorexic’ and ‘I have anorexia’. I now refer to my eating disorder as ‘Annie’. By disassociating myself from the disorder, I am able to view the illness as something I’m experiencing, rather than allowing it to become part of my identity. Despite common stereotypes, eating disorders are not discriminative: they affect people of all genders, age and race. If you are in your 20s, 30s, 40s or older and are battling with your own ‘Annie’, seek help, confront her, and ask her to pack her bags. Anorexia isn't you and it doesn't have to define you.