"But you look fine; you can’t be ill."
Approaching the end of my psychotherapy sessions I am so grateful for finally receiving the correct help. I remember being completely convinced that I was going to be laughed out of therapy and told ‘you’re fine, you’re not ill enough yet, what are you doing here?’
I’ve been living with anorexia over half my life.
No, I haven’t always been at a dangerously low weight. It certainly began that way at the age of 14 when I first sank into its icy grasp, but then I moved into that horrible grey area of atypical anorexia. I put on the weight to become ‘physically’ healthy again but I didn’t begin to deal with the illness in my mind. Back then I don’t think I even realised how anorexia was about so much more than food, how it had crept its way into every aspect of me.
That is really what brings me to write this, to emphasise how important early intervention and the correct treatment is. Your child/partner/brother/mother is not better even if they’re eating again; that is literally only the beginning. This horrible illness needs calling out and it really needs people to not be ashamed of talking about it and asking for the right help, whatever size you may currently be.
Anorexia is first and foremost a mental illness with severe physical side effects.
So the best way I can help promote that message is to share some of my story about my relationship with my so-called friend Anorexia. I am deeply thankful for other people out there who have done the same as I found great comfort in their stories over the years.
At the age of 30, and with life’s stresses slowly getting the better of me, I once again had been convinced by Anorexia to fall to a low weight. After months of denial I finally became the driving force behind my recovery. I made the doctor’s appointments, agreed to the referrals and began to start being honest with myself and ask for help. I couldn’t bear to say the word for a long time, referring to it as ‘A’, or ‘that thing that’s wrong with me’. My husband noticed what was happening long before I did. I was convinced that there must be something physically wrong with me, I literally did not realise what I was doing. I had detached my body from my mind; I think that is the only way anyone can go through with this illness.
After being on the waiting list for about seven months a spot for therapy finally came up and I began my sessions. I resisted it and the psychiatrist so much to begin with – or rather, Anorexia resisted it. It had me convinced that the psychiatrist was out to get me and there must be something else wrong with me; after all my BMI was still just about in the acceptable range. I began to feel that I was wasting everyone’s time, and spiralled into depression, Anorexia’s well-known sidekick.
Painstaking hours were spent with my husband trying to gently say, “But if it isn’t Anorexia why can’t you eat such and such? Why are you obsessively weighing yourself? Why won’t you eat with people? Why does your body hurt so much?”
I was completely caught up in Anorexia’s net of deception: something else must be to blame, and someone out there could surely fix me.
For me something physical had to happen to wake me up to the damage I was doing to myself. When I was 14, it was fainting, though definitely not the first time it happened, or if I’m honest, the tenth. Now it was my hearing that began to fail me. For weeks I searched the internet for reasons why it felt like I constantly had water in my ears. Again, it took my husband to gently suggest ‘Could it be linked to your low weight?’ My first thought was, ‘That’s rubbish, how dare you say that, I’m fine, I am still in a normal range’.
Curiosity eventually took over and I found out that yes, I had lost too much body fat in my ears for them to work correctly.
Finally... a glitch in the storyline I completely believed in my head. Anorexia can convince you it is anything but what it really is. So I ate literally just enough to stop the constant ringing in my ears – no more.
At around the same time in therapy my psychiatrist said to me, ‘You don’t have to eat, you know; no one is making you. Feel free to go home and carry on with what you’ve been doing; it’s all your choice. Or come and actually open up to change.’
Tough love, it worked for me. Well no, first it completely broke me to the point of the emergency room and being put on suicide watch. Then I ever so slowly began to crawl back to myself. I began to open up to more people and to try the change suggested. I started to question the storyline in my head that had been telling me for years:
‘I’m not good enough.’
‘I won’t succeed.’
‘I’m not perfect enough yet.’
‘Everybody else comes first.’
‘I don’t matter.’
That had been my norm since 14; I didn’t question it. Didn’t everyone’s mind hate them like this? Every decision I made was based around these core beliefs I held. Until a scary psychiatrist told me to ask myself, why? And I began to question some of my thoughts, some of my fundamental beliefs.
I found mediation and yoga and they taught me to always have that ‘beginner’s mind’ each day, to start from scratch, never assume a thought is true and learn to listen and question them. They are just thoughts, they are not who you are. It’s okay to not be okay sometimes. And through this whole journey my weight hasn’t really changed: I’m still in that ‘normal’ BMI range, but I can finally see I do have anorexia.
So as I end I want to reiterate what I began with: eating disorders are about so much more than food and someone’s physical appearance. And yes, you can be at a ‘normal’ weight and be suffering just as much as anyone else. I felt so ashamed for a very long time of not quite being, in my opinion, ‘anorexic enough’ to ask for help. But now, standing on the other side of that help, I realise just how much I needed it, and hope the next person in my position will be able and informed enough to ask for it sooner.